Monthly Archives: November 2019

How AI is Taking Jobs

Automation has been taking jobs since the first mechanical loom was constructed. It replaced many small workshops where women wove fabric with big factories where minors ran under weaving machines to replace spindles. You could say it improved life because it made fabric cheaper while it reduced happyness by stealing the bread from the artisans. Since then our economy has adopted automation wherever it made economic sense and this trend is not stopping, in fact it seems to be accelerating. It does lead to better products at lower prices in large volumes, it allows more people to share in the western lifestyle, more dreams and desires can come true, and this is a good thing.

AI is adding a new aspect to this trend, and this will be a challenge to the economy. The economy needs consumers, people that buy the products and services it produces, and for that to happen people need jobs. Its obvious that if the production machine cuts jobs it reduces the demand for products and services or at least pushes demand down to the level of the “basic income” (also named social security). We have written before that to see the dillema we can ask ourselves the following question:

If we had a machine that made everyting everyone needed, would that mean nobody has a job, so nobody has money to buy anything and everyone would strave, or would that mean everything the machine produces is free? 

We wrote before that in a fossil fuel powered economy humans compete with machines for the -same- fossil fuels.  Because we distribute fossil fuels to anyone with money, money is the distributing medium for fossil fuels, and so machines compete with humans for money. Machines win because they require less money themselves, while generating profit, than humans in most cases. In short, producers will replace humans with machines whenever they can.

“I profit therefore I exist” (the primary economistic directive)

In an economy based on renewables one can facilitate human consumption with renewables, as well as running the machine, so both don’t compete. A factory with solar panels on the roof may be able to run its machines so cheap its products don’t need to be expensive, and as a result the humans have more to spend and can live wealthier lives. This was also the case in parts of the west during the oil glut. Being wealthy was easy, now it is getting harder.

Now we are facing a new variant of machine vs consumer, and this is RPA or Robotic Process Automation. This is about the tedious jobs, but soon it will be about every job. If you sit behind a desk staring at a screen, or you interview people and then process the information, chances are RPA will get your job. This is because RPA uses next generation classification and detection systems of the kind produced from soo called deep learning AI. This kind of AI can do advanced recognition at the level and speed (sometimes higher) humans can, which includes reading texts, classifying items, recognizing items, dealing with variations in form input etc. etc.

Inbox Outbox life

Inbox Outbox life

RPA is like robotics but more geared to services, not products. So for example a company recieves invoices from different suppliers, these need to be scanned and entered into the accounting books. The lady that did that is replaced by a digital system that takes documents from an inbox, reads them, fills in the necessary fields in the accounting application, sends an email to request additional data etc. etc. Many many jobs are like this, just keeping things working administratively.

So small companies are being competed against by large ones more able to automate (and lose jobs), and both small and big companies will automate administrative tasks and will lose jobs. And these jobs will not be replaced! Today some AI based companies advertise drones that fly autonomously through factories to check machines, reading the gages into the digital system. This would require perhaps serveral workers before. Artificial intelligence is still developing, in terms of language processing and process modelling, so we are just at the beginning of a profound reduction in the need for skilled people.

Making people redudant

Making people redudant

The way our economy deals with this is the same it as it deals with anything : As long as profits are being made, nobody should worry. So we are told people will do other things and find other jobs, this was always the case. The flaw in this argument is that this expectation is baseless. If you make people that do basic paper shoving redundant you lose a lot of jobs while no new ones are created, except perhaps that of RPA system consultants. So it is possible that the economy will suffer because the new jobless can’t spend anymore. The incentives in the economic system are causing it to eat itself. The machine that makes everything anyone needs is growing, but the number of people that can share in this wealth is dropping.

It is quite clear the economy does not listen to public outcry. Right now politics is so pro economy that you can see it making every effort to keep polluting and destroying nature even though the public wants this to stop. Humans are not setting the limits to what is done in industry, industry still behaves as if it ist working on the moon or some dystopian wasteland. With surveillance anyone with to little credit can even be kept away from places where they can demonstrate, they certainly can be discouraged from it and manipulated based on social media behaviour. This is without the obvious attempt to divide people in harmless camps by the media and politics.

It seems that if you care about all people, you need to start handing out cash to ensure consumption. If you don’t care about all people, you can keep going the way it is, and hope the people that become poor die early. The reason this seems to be the approach is because we use fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are finite. Because the allocation of fossil fuels can only be optimized by competition (including between human and machine) humans are not protected. The way to make this all work is thus to increase renewable energy use in automated production chains, so that the product costs can drop and the machine does not compete for the same energy as the human (of course the energy allocated per human is used to grow food, provide healthcare and education etc. the cost of of which can also be reduced by using renewables). That is the way towards what we call the Roboeconomy, which is the economy in which robots make most of what we need, using renewables and are used to restore the ecology and fight climate change. In this economy the basic income is a renewable energy credit that can be allocated to the products and services of choice.


The risks of Neuralink

We wrote this post before, but it somehow disappeared. So this version will be a bit shorter.

Elon Musk is developing a system (Neuralink) to safely and rapidly implant electrodes in the human brain. A small hole is made in the skull and very thin slivers are ‘sowed’ into the brain tissue underneath. This system is a major improvement over the original method, which involved rigit needles that would cut through the neural tissue as the monkey moved around. The brain is not very stiff.

We saw the first example of this in the late 90’s, when a brazilian scientist managed to allow a monkey to control a robot arm using only its brain. It took a while for the monkey to get the hang of it, first also moving its real arm(s) but eventually it could control three arms seperatly.

This milestone taught us a lot, because it turned out that you could read out the arm position using only a few 16-64 electrodes (who would read multiple neurons each). This said a lot a about how the brain encodes stuff, because the regions that are ultimately active when you move an arm contain billions of neurons.

Thin strands of electrodes are inserted in the soft brain tissue..

Thin strands of electrodes are inserted in the soft brain tissue..

Elon Musk hopes to increase the “bandwith” between humans can computers through the neural implants. He fears that Artificially intelligent systems will overpower humans and the only way to stay on top is to somehow become a symbiot with them. We are already semi-android because we use our mobile devices continuously and depend on digital systems so much.

We have studied neuroscience for a decade and been highly focussed on understanding what the brain actually does. How it works so to say. This gives us a hopefully interesting prespective on the risks and opportunities of the neuralink technology.

Every brain is different. We all develop in our unique way, due to genetic and factors during pregancy (such as air pollution and alcohol) and early development every brain even has different sensitivities to start with. So one can not expect to plug into a brain and read out data as if it was an ethernet connection, for every neuralink connector the subject needs to teach the system the relationship between what the connector reads and what the subject thinks or says.

In fact it is highly unlikely a neuralink system can read from regions that are not sensory or motoric, so what you hear, feel, see or which action you wish to execute now. This is because where the primary senses are mapped quite predictably in specific cortex regions, more abstract concepts can really be anywhere (in the associative areas). They will certainly be in different places for people. It is likely to take a lot of time to train the neuralink to recognize them.

The difficulty to map more abstract concepts also becomes an issue when you try to connect two persons through their neuralinks. It is possible to imagine the Broca area of one person, which drives speech, to be connected to the Wernicke area of another person, at which point they could each know what the other is saying, still this would be very invasive (two neuralinks each). Airpods would be a cheaper solution..

No Homunculus and Brain plasticity

To understand how to think about the possibilities of Neuralink we need to understand a bit more about the brain. An important aspect of how it functions is that it does not know what it does, or what it is, its just a bunch of neurons who actually compete against each other to be usefull. A neuron that gets few inputs will become more sensitive and grow until it finds itself in regular use. This ‘plasticity’ is the reason why our brains survive all the small damage we do to it every day. The brain has stem cells that will repair damage for as long as you have them. A temporary change in environment can trigger significant changes in how colors are encoded. If you start driving an Uber your brain will adapt to facilitate navigation. Every time you learn something your brain basically rewires itself.

If you add neuralink input to your brain the neurons will not know where the signal comes from. If you put them in a color recognition region you will likely see colors, or rather, experience them. There are no senses for pain or touch in the brain so the activity of the neurons to the brain can have only one explanation: There’s a color out there.

If you add neuralink to the Wernicke area (which we use for interpretation of speech), you are likely to have an experience as if someone said something specific. You may also hear someone (you know or yourself) say it.

It may turn out that if you input activity in an associative region, and the subject can control it, you end up with the option of adding senses. So when the subject demands it the system inputs signals in the auditory cortex that signify the state of a server or whether there is someone behind them. This would then have an associated sound (can be anything) which the subject recognizes. For this purpose however one could use backward facing radar and input into the headset as well. The take home message is that any input will simply be integrated into the experience. The neurons in the active region will simply work with what is being put in. This leads to a possible problem.

Ignoring input may be impossible

The way our brain works is that a region that is active silences other regions. This mechanism doesn’t work well with epileptic patients, who have runaway activity in cortical regions when they have an attack. This inhibition is local and also lateral, so between the left and the right brain halves. You can interpret it as kind of a sending state of a brain region, so that it determines the activity elsewhere. The sending region is always the one with the most activity, so any region with high activity (allowed by local inhibition) will dominate al the others. It is easy to see that if you put enough power into a neuralink you will dominat the brain of the subject. There are other more interesting regions to make a neuralink to that can enable even stronger control, but the awareness of a person recieving sufficiently strong Neuralink input will be filled with the modality where the neuralink is planted. So there is a potential for abuse.

Knowing the incredible connectivity of the brain and its plasticity one can also imagine another use of Neuralink, which is simply to use the compute power of a persons brain, like a deep learning neural network of sorts. Plug in two neuralinks in one brain, send with one and read with the other. The person in question may have experiences, and for it to work its awareness will be dominated by the activity. This is not super likely to work and it will at least mean serious discomfort for the subject.

When we speak we hear outselves because the Broca brain region is connected to the Wernicke region. This is also how we hear ourselves think..

When we speak we hear outselves because the Broca brain region is connected to the Wernicke region. This is also how we hear ourselves think..

So we think that expecting Neuralink to increase the bandwith between man and machine is optimistic. Its ability to recieve control signals has been proven, and this can lead to human controlled exoskeleton cyborgs, and maybe the sensory input wil become sophistcated enough that the subject can hear and sense (also controlling the sensing devices) a lot like we imagine ourselves, pointing our ears and nose and squinting our eyes, maybe that will become scannning frequencies or peering into the infrared or checking server statusses or other flags.

Beyond our attentional capacity, our ability to comprehend a situation and place the input signals in their appropriate context, its unlikely a direct input into the brain would enhance things, unless it would become abusive, so perhaps a rougue AI using Neuralink to control humans or a lab using captives with Neuralinks to do difficult computations. The development of this technology will be a blessing for paraplegics and can enhance human ability to deal with complex environments, but it also has some potential for being abused.


Moondust Bombardments to Cool the Earth

Geoengineering is any proces by which humans physically intervene in the normal Earth biochemical processes. Its been smeared as dangerous, but if we hear Rex Tillerson of Exxon, some companies have been involved in it knowingly since the 80’s. Still usually it is associated with spraying sulfur particles in the upper atmosphere to deflect sunlight to cool the Earth. This idea although it would work, is highly impractical and would mean sulfur rain all over the planet, so it would utlimately be damaging.

There are other options, and we should not reject any option just -because- it could be called geoengineering. Driving a fossil fuel powered car is geoengineering. it should be judged on its effectiveness and sustainability, as if (big shock) we would like the Earth to be habitable for future generations!

Global dimming is a thing

Now that the reuse of rockets has been demonstrated and the cost of launching anything into space has dropped considerably the cost of manned missions to the moon, as well as the establishment of a permanent moon base has become much less. This means that in time there will be a military base there, holding the ultimate high ground over Earth. As we would then have a stabile base observing Earth with massive amounts of dust available, it becomes imaginable that we cause solar dimming by sending moondust to Earth. The energy required for that is modest. If you shoot a rifle bullet up in the sky from the moon it comes down! Basic canons could suffice to shoot material to Earth, or a railgun system driven by solar power.

Sunlight is already being dimmed, even if we don’t notice, by soot from fossil fuels. Strangely if we drop fossil fuel emissons the Earth would warm and the sun would become brighter, causing more warming! Some argue that we should therefore reduce emissions slowly because having a cooler planet is essential for food production, so a sudden drop would spell disaster.

It seems therefore that we would be wise to look for alternatives to soot as a solar dimmer. Many plants can do with 12% of full sunlight and still grow normally, so cooling the Earth by blocking sunlight would mean its plants can suck up a considerable amount of CO2. Sending the moon dust directly to Earth would mean that any effect is realtively short lived. The effect of CO2 emissions takes 20 years to fully express itself. This could be modelled and some experiments could show its effect.

Its not clear how fast the moon will be colonized, but we think it will happen in the next 10 years. It would make sense to not only speak about the military threat of a moon base but also about the opportunity to fight global warming from Earths celestial compagnion.