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The Rise Of The Machines

One of the hot topics of the twenty teenies that was totally expected is the examination surrounding the ways in which AI or artificial intelligence will affect our lives and most specifically how AI will affect our jobs. For decades now, celebrated authors from Asimov to Zelazny have used robotics and AI as a key thread around which to weave a story.

That it is prominent in the public consciousness is in no doubt but in recent years as science fiction has slowly begun to become science fact, it is how this technology threatens to directly affect us that has become the core of the discussion. Unsurprisingly the kernel of that discussion has been how it will affect our bank balance and it is here that the real story lies in terms of how the fragile and unweildy human psyche copes against the agile and indefatigable machine.

To properly begin to understand this subject it is important to establish a rather obvious but sometimes surprising baseline. Ever since man discovered the flint and invented the wheel, technology has been changing our lives irrevocably. Its a track we have been travelling for millennia and, as the changes have affected our societies, we've adapted accordingly. Sure there's some tech we'd probably like to have not invented such as the nuke but even that thought is surrounded by controversy as it's by no means certain that we wouldn't still be embroiled in the Second World War if it hadn't been made. Its important therefore to accept that all of the tech in our world today has made the world what it is today and very few of us would seek to go back to a subsistence agrarian and feudal societal model with all its attendant drudgery and disease. Yes we have unemployment in modern society but it is rarely helpless unemployment and by learning new skills, the individual can once again find a foothold in the employment market.

This, in my opinion, is the key fact regarding AI and robots. It's manifest human nature to believe that everything that has gone before was somehow different but the crisis yet to come will change everything because of its uniqueness. The laughable fact that the British during the reign of Queen Victoria believed that they had invented everything testifies to that sentiment.

Looking at more contemporary disruption such as the invention of the tractor and the factory robot, its clear to see that whilst jobs have obviously disappeared, others have emerged. It is probably fair to expect that this model which has been the reality for millennia will continue to apply. As our economies develop increasingly technological foundations the need for unskilled human labour will continue to diminish however will not necessarily end. The slightly disturbing concept of meatware which is used to describe humans doing menial tasks that are not able to be done more economically by robots has come into the dictionary. Notwithstanding this unfortunate niche, society will continue to develop as its technology does. 

The key in all of this is the adaptability and indeed the ability of the individual to adapt and learn new and increasingly complex skills. This, if anywhere is where the drawbridge may be pulled up on certain sections of society. AI may well have already arrived. Of that there is no doubt however autonomous AI which can continue to operate with no intervention from humans for decades or indeed indefinitely is still a long way off. This is where the future human workforce will ply its trade and it was ever thus. 

Another interesting area which opens up as a result of this discussion topic is that of human robotic augmentation. It may well be the destiny of the human race to slowly mechanise using increasingly powerful technological assistance which will gradually find social acceptance in its integration into our bodies. This may present us with enough of an edge that we can continue to compete with advancing technology or to some it may be the thin end of a terrible wedge which will find us all as barely conscious semi automata, trapped in a body that is not really ours and connected to the hive mind forever. 

The future is coming whether we like it or not and we cannot uninvent that which we have invented. Even the heavily regulated field of human embryonic manipulation is never at a standstill but rather is always creeping forward as taboos slowly dissipate over time. The ratchet of progress can go only one way and it never really stops. As a species we are masters of this planet because of our enormous ability to adapt and overcome the most difficult of environments and it is this core human skill which will be our greatest asset in the decades to come. If we cannot then the social upheaval may well become the biggest influencer regarding our future. Discrepancies of wealth and opportunity in societies are rarely allowed to exist for long and usually end explosively and it may well be therefore that the surest way for humanity to survive is to assure a certain minimum living standard for all as we pivot to a new model where ones ability to earn a living becomes less important. There are many possible futures out there and, as has always been the case, many are terrible and many are not. The future's not ours to see. Que sera sera...

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Get in the back! The robot's driving.

The much vaunted phenomenon of automated cars has returned again to the news this week, Read this here. Events like the DARPA Grand Challenge and their ilk continue however to demonstrate that robots can and probably will develop into the way forward for general purpose motoring and transportation.

The storms in Scotland yesterday saw enormous numbers of vehicles struggling to cope with the adverse conditions and either blowing over or bashing into each other and it probably wont be the last time the winter weather presents challenges to the UK motorist with snow gently falling over our Ayrshire offices again this morning.

These two events show the stark contrast between human and robotic drivers. The simple fact is, well before the end of the next decade, humans will be relegated from the drivers seat into the passenger seats. Ok perhaps not all vehicles will conform to this model. Some vehicles will still allow a human to sit behind the wheel, but only with a vigilant robot “supervisor” who will watch their every move and silently fix the human mistakes whilst simoultaneously scanning for unforeseen hazards. Driving a car as we do today will become a risky hobby which will only be possible on specially designed closed courses.

You think this sounds far fetched? Its no less far fetched however than the notion that humans could be trusted behind the wheel of a vehicle in the first place. Henry Ford would look at todays vehicles with incredulity if he did so in the context of the annual death toll on our UK roads which stood at over 2000 last year. The simple fact is we are terrible drivers and getting steadily worse as technology inside and outside vehicles demands more and more from us. The modern car is probably comparable in complexity of systems to a fighter jet of only a few decades ago.

Couple this with the fact that we are often just plain stupid, our eyesight is poor, our hearing suspect even if we choose not to be blasting the latest hits on our car stereos and we lack any appreciation at all of Newtonian physics, blindly tailgating at 80mph in rush hour traffic. Theres no escaping the fact that judgment is evident on the roads only by its absence. In stark contrast, robot drivers can be programmed with the most vulcan style logic coupled with sensory powers that put the human driver to shame.

The robots in the DARPA Grand Challenge could be easily programmed with the full highway code and could sense distances to within a millimetre in the daylight, in fog or even in the dark They could see in the dark and through the sort of fog that would blind any human driver. These robots are but the first members of a class of devices that will advance along a steep curve like that traced by computers and the Internet over the last two decades and will ultimately seem as old hat as a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in a few short years.

Its important however to bear in mind that filling the UK's roads with robot controlled vehicles is about much more than road safety. The introduction of such capable vehicle control could enable the virtual elimination of traffic congestion by safely increasing the density of vehicles per mile by an order of magnitude. They could also eliminate the need for traffic lights, by having robot controlled vehicles safely nip through the gaps in the crossflow traffic rather than waste time waiting for green lights.

Robotic vehicles could also turn commutes into productive time enabling the human passengers to sit back and catch up on work, watch TV, access the net or even sleep. Indeed it would no longer be a necessity to be able to drive in the first place to make use of the road traffic networks enabling the very young or the very old to get from A to B. Imagine no more school runs or newly qualified driver deaths due to inexperience or worse. One thing is certain though. This prediction will seem ever so quaint in a few years as the whole model of how we move around will be rewritten in ways we cannot yet imagine by the introduction of automated transport. The advent of automated transport is as profound a change as the arrival of the horseless carriage 100 or more years ago and the impact on global society today is no less unpredictable.

Think about how our town centres will look in a world where no car parks are necessary. Nowadays, car parks need to be close to the places we need to get to such as workplaces, out of town shopping areas and town centres however in a world of automated transport, car parks could be anywhere, perhaps miles outside of the areas we needed to get to in the first place and can also store vehicles with far greater density since the whole system will be controlled by the system.

The most significant difference however is probably that in a world of automated transport, fewer people will need to own cars at all, relying instead on fleets of shared vehicles.

It certainly is strange to think of our great grandchildren marvelling at the 2009 KIA C'eed in a museum and looking with wonder at the old pictures of what used to be the M25 whilst listening to the Road to Hell by Chris Rea. They will probably wonder how we ever managed to cope with being trusted with a couple of tons of fuel injected steel.
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The dawn of the networked remote control

Remote controls have been an indispensible, and frequently annoying, part of television watching since Zenith introduced the Space Commander, the first practical wireless remote, 55 years ago. But the days of the familiar clicker may finally be numbered as smartphones and tablets take over the duties of remotes.

The disadvantages of traditional remotes are many. Each device comes with its own remote, leading to couches and coffee tables littered with multiple remotes. Many of the remotes have 50 or more buttons and the lack of any real standardization makes them confusing to use. Most of them use infrared light for communications, meaning they need a clear line of sight to work. And while there have been universal remotes on the market for some years, their cost and the difficulty of programming them has relegated them to niche markets.

The fact that many new consumer electronics devices, including cable set top boxes, televisions, Blu-ray players, and game consoles, can now be connected to home networks and the internet means that they can be controlled over the network. And the latest smart phones and tablets are ideally suited for the job. Large displays present the user with more and clearer information that the usual profusion of buttons and touch screens make using the devices simple. And individual apps allow a phone or tablet to morph into a controller customized for the job at hand.

One of the first companies to take advantage of this was Sonos, maker of wireless home music systems. Sonos started out using a dedicated touchscreen controller. But once the company released apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad (an Android version is due shortly) the $349 Sonos Controller 200 became superfluous for many customers; the app provides the same functionality at no additional cost.

Cable TV operators are now jumping on the bandwagon. A modern set top box, especially one equipped with a digital video recorder, is a complex device and controlling it requires the often awkward combination of a multi-button remote and a large assortment of on-screen displays. Cable operators first made it possible to schedule recordings over the internet and now are making full control available on handheld devices. Comcast's Xfinity, Verizon FiOS, and AT&T uVerse all let you use an iPhone or iPad as a remote. Other operators have similar plans in the works and apps are being written for other platforms, especially Android. (An AT&T uVerse app comes preinstalled as part of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.) In the UK, Sky is making similar moves in this respect.

These devices, especially tablets with their big screens, are more than just replacements for standard remotes. When you use an iPad as a remote, the program guide, DVR content, or on-demand listings appear on the tablet display, leaving the TV screen free for you to go on watching programming. Searching for content is easier because it is much simpler to enter search terms on the tablet's keyboard than hunting and pecking through an onscreen keyboard with a regular remote.

The next phase will get even more interesting. Major cable operators want to make it possible for subscribers to stream video content to mobile devices. Offerings have been in the works for some time but have been slow to roll out mainly, it appears, because of the complexity of getting the necessary rights from content owners. AT&T offers a limited selection of shows for download to mobile devices and Comcast and Verizon expect to launch streaming services soon.

Another change could someday eliminate the remote altogether. Microsoft's Kinect uses a camera and infrared sensors to detect motion for no-controller gaming. But it also lets you control the functions of an Xbox simply by pointing at the screen. The use of the Kinect, or Kinect-like sensors could let you become a remote that will never disappear into the couch.
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