New Week Same Humans #44
Robots are set to transform our economy in the 2020s. New research says transhumanists are not to be trusted. Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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💡 In this week’s Sunday note I wrote about the 2021 heatwaves and what they signal. Go here to read Is This the Climate Turning Point? 💡
This week, why robots are set to dominate the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Also, a cognitive scientist says people who want to use technology to live forever tend to be more devious than the rest of us.
And powerful testimony at the US Congress serves as a reminder of the big questions we must answer on facial recognition.
A quick note before we start: I’m heading to the English seaside for a few days of weak sun accompanied by fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. NWSH will pause while I’m away, and the next instalment will come on Sunday 25th.
🤖 Robots assemble
The rise of the robot continues apace. And this week it became impossible to ignore.
Amid ongoing COVID concerns, Japan announced that there will be no spectators at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. That will leave the stage clear, says Axios, for an unexpected star of this summer’s Games: robots.
The organisers of the Tokyo games say theirs will be ‘the most innovative Olympics ever’, and they’ve long planned that teams of robots would wow fans. In particular, lifesize mascot robots Miraitowa and Someity were supposed to engage with the crowd and react to the events unfolding on track and field. With no fans present, will it be down to the silicon duo to generate an Olympic atmosphere? Miraitowa and Someity step forward; this is your time to shine.
Meanwhile, researchers from Facebook AI announced a breakthrough called Rapid Motor Adaptation, which allows robots to adapt in real-time to unfamiliar and difficult terrain.
The work brings us closer to properly free-range robots that can be trusted to stay on their feet.
Last, a widespread shift towards robots is underway is major sections of the US economy. Faced with a shortage of human labor, says Business Insider, McDonald’s is trialling automated drive-thru ordering in ten Chicago locations.
⚡ NWSH Take: In The Future that Never Came I wrote on the digital revolution’s failure to boost productivity, and on how rapid digital innovation across the last three decades has not been replicated IRL. Now, there are signs we’re turning a corner. Robots and AI are at the heart of that story. // Machine learning is making possible new kinds of IRL innovation – robots that can walk anywhere! – and the pandemic is accelerating adoption of effective automation processes. Productivity surged by 5.4% in Q1, its fastest rate of improvement for over 20 years. // Automation expert Erik Brynjolfsson says there are good reasons to believe this isn’t just a blip. Via AI and robots, he says, we’re at the outset of a long productivity boom. // The key challenge now? We need to ensure that the benefits of this shift are widely dispersed. There are around 13,000 McDonald’s Drive Thrus in the US alone. What are the people who work there going to do next?
🧠 The Prince of Clouds
A new study offers a glimpse into the minds of those who seek eternal life in the cloud.
Michael Laakasuo, an adjunct professor of cognitive science at the University of Helsinki, surveyed 1,007 people on their attitude towards mind uploading: the idea that an individual consciousness can be uploaded to a computer, allowing the bearer of that consciousness to live forever in digital form.
Laakasuo found that those who approved of the idea were more likely to demonstrate Machiavellian psychological traits associated with the manipulation of others.
The transhumanist dream of tech-fuelled immortality, says Laakasuo ‘could potentially redefine what it means to be human’, so we need more research on what motivates that dream and the ethical implications of a cloud full of minds.
⚡ NWSH Take: A study that could have been designed around the phrase new world, same humans! // The findings are interesting, though they’d need to be replicated to be secure and even then they are highly open to interpretation. In short, more research is needed before we conclude that transhumanists are a cadre of tech-fuelled Machiavellians, plotting an eternal dominion over all humanity. // It’s the underlying insight, though, that I find so sympathetic. This newsletter is built around the idea that we should view a changing world through the lens of our fundamental, shared human nature. That means that if we’re to get better at understanding the impact of emerging technologies, we need to cultivate a deeper understanding of our own minds. Work such as this point the way forward. Technologists, behavioural psychologists and evolutionary biologists unite: a whole new discipline is waiting to be founded.
👁️ Land of unrecognition
Facial recognition technologies were on trial as never before this week.
Last year, Michigan citizen Robert Williams was wrongfully arrested when the Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition system mistook him for another black man who had been shoplifting. On Tuesday, during compelling testimony to the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, Williams encouraged Congress to act against the unregulated use of facial recognition by law enforcement.
Right now that use is widespread in police departments and beyond. I’ve written before on the massive Clearview AI system, which has scraped billions of images from the web; a recent BuzzFeed report found that 7,000 individuals from nearly 2,000 public agencies across the US are using the software.
Meanwhile, a new report by the global trade union UNI says Amazon employees are guinea pigs in an unprecedented experiment in total surveillance. The Amazon Panopticon says staff are surveilled by a sophisticated, facial recognition-fuelled system that extends from warehouses, to delivery vans, to the smart Ring doorbell, with dire consequences for their mental and physical health.
⚡ NWSH Take: The testimony of Williams is a reminder of just how fast facial recognition has spread through the machinery of state in the US. As usual, the public debate is lagging way behind the technology. // We need an evolved conversation about the tradeoffs we’re prepared to make. China is successfully putting facial recognition to use to help stamp on COVID outbreaks, but it’s one of the most surveilled countries on Earth. Is that what we want? // Wherever we ultimately come down on these questions, the issue of race and facial recognition is urgent. In a landmark 2018 study, AI researcher Timnit Gebru found that AI systems showed an error rate of 34% for dark-skinned women, against 0.8% for light-skinned men. Even if facial recognition should play a role in law enforcement one day, it’s clearly nowhere near ready yet.
🗓️ Also this week
🧑💻 ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, says its employees can stop working weekends. The company previously required staff to work every other Sunday.
👽 NASA is funding a renewed hunt for alien civilisations. New programmes will search for techsignatures that indicate the presence of advanced technologies.
✈️ United Airlines will buy 100 electric planes from Heart Aerospace. The 19-seater planes will be used for regional routes, and they could enter service as soon as 2026.
🤦 Creative agency MSCHF turned iconic failed startups into toys. Remember Jibo, the revolutionary robot assistant? Or One Laptop Per Child?
🚗 The Lightyear One solar-powered car demonstrated a range of 710km. Lightyear, who make the grid-independent car, say it marks a major breakthrough for solar-powered travel.
☀️ The EU unveiled a landmark new climate change plan. If passed, the plan will see petrol and diesel cars outlawed within two decades.
💌 The Iranian government has launched an Islamic dating app. Hamdan – Farsi for companion – is intended to help young Iranians find ‘lasting and informed marriage’.
📱 The British prime minister summoned tech leaders to his office in the wake of racist social media abuse directed at black members of the England football team. Boris Johnson says social media giants must do more to deal with online abuse.
🏙️ Chinese companies swept the board at the international AI City Challenge competition. The event tests AI and other technologies intended to create and enhance smart cities; Alibaba and Baidu took first and second place in all five categories.
🌕 A wobble in the moon’s orbit will cause devastating coastal flooding across the US in the 2030s. That’s according to a new study led by the NASA Sea Level Change Science Team, which says the wobble will amplify rising sea levels caused by global warming.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,879,338,281
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7883583019
💉 Global population vaccinated: 12.4%
🗓️ 2021 progress bar: 53% complete
📖 On this day: On 14 July 1789 crowds storm the Bastille in Paris, igniting the French Revolution.
Thanks for reading this week.
The transhumanist dream of eternal life inside the cloud is a collision between the age-old quest for immortality and powerful new technologies.
In other words, exactly the kind of story New World Same Humans exists to track.
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I’ll be back on Sunday. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.