Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What's happened to the American dream?

On this election day I cannot help but consider whether Arianna Huffington's "Third World America" book is more than just a warning.

Graphic from AStrangeLife
James Truslow Adams coined and defined the American Dream as:
The American Dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.

Home ownership is sometimes used as a proxy for achieving the promised prosperity; ownership has been a status symbol separating the middle classes from the poor. Sometimes the Dream is identified with success in sports or how working class immigrants seek to join the American way of life.
Thus the American Dream isn't to be rich; it's to be middle class, relatively content, and with trust that the future will be equal or better for the offspring.

Not only has that trust eroded, it's being chipped away daily by greed, temptation, outright corruption, misdirection and obfuscation, and passivity.

Right now 2/3 of Americans believe that their children will be worse off than they are now.  Two-thirds! Yale's Jacob Hacker says that 40% of all household income gains over the last generation, from 1979 to 2007, went to the richest 1% of Americans. Consequently, as more and more wealth goes to the top, people in that group lose sight of the American Dream and use their wealth to buy politicians, lawyers and PR/Communication specialists to turn government into an instrument where they can have their way.

Consider this story by Kurt Kleiner in MIT's TechnologyReview:
Data-mining techniques reveal fake Twitter accounts that give the impression of a vast political movement.

Researchers have found evidence that political campaigns and special-interest groups are using scores of fake Twitter accounts to create the impression of broad grass-roots political expression. A team at Indiana University used data-mining and network-analysis techniques to detect the activity.

"We think this technique must be common," says Filippo Menczer, an associate professor at Indiana University and one of the principal investigators on the project. "Wherever there are lots of eyes looking at screens, spammers will be there; so why not with politics?"

The research effort is dubbed the Truthy project, a reference to comedian Stephen Colbert's coinage of the word "truthiness," or a belief held to be true regardless of facts or logic. The goal was to uncover organized propaganda or smear campaigns masquerading as a spontaneous outpouring of opinion on Twitter—a tactic known as fake grass roots, or "Astroturf."

Menczer says the research group uncovered a number of accounts sending out duplicate messages and also retweeting messages from the same few accounts in a closely connected network. For instance, two since-closed accounts, called @PeaceKaren_25 and @HopeMarie_25, sent out 20,000 similar tweets, most of them linking to, or promoting, the House minority leader John Boehner's website, gopleader.gov

In another case, 10 different accounts were used to send out thousands of posts, many of them duplicates slightly altered to avoid detection as spam. All of the tweets linked back to posts on a conservative website called Freedomist.com.
This is not atypical. It's just more sophisticated. Whatever it is, it's deceitful and corrupt, not public-spirited... and very likely to get worse.

James Gilligan, psychiatrist and author, said in his book "Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic:"
The main social and economic causes of violence are those that divide the population into the superior and the inferior, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor.  The more highly unequal a society is, the higher its rates of violence.  A greater level of equality is essential in order to curb both interpersonal violence and collective political violence. 
Thus the ever-increasing prison population, the unintended but predictable consequence of income disparity, lack of trust and growing poverty. And the ever-increasing use of professional manipulators like Karl Rowe, Fred Malek, Carl Forti and other operatives and communicators Roger Ailes, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh all of whom are now armed with unlimited and unidentified corporate contributions in almost unlimited amounts.  Very scary!

Awareness is the first condition of change, hence this message. Maybe we all should read Arianna Huffington's book.

And civility in incremental actions might be the next step.  President Obama said today that it was incumbent on all of us, when we feel it's appropriate, to "disagree without being disagreeable."

And John Stewart ran a whole rally last Saturday on the Washington, DC Mall predicated on that single point.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Do robots take away jobs or just change the mix of workers?

All of us are thinking about jobs and the economy, and those of us that are techno-centric are also concerned about the discussion as to whether robots take away jobs -- or not. It's an argument that's been going on since the invention of robots. Hollywood has vilified robots while Asians think of them reverently. Nevertheless, the question is valid and disruptive. Disruptive in the sense that jobs are lost when a superior technology emerges - think workhorses when cars started to be mass-marketed. Our present digital era is a disruptive one.

Distributing the workload increases skill levels - think Microsoft Word versus stand-alone word processors, or travel agents when e-tickets and online airline websites surfaced.

Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of MobileRobots, said in her blog earlier this year:
Did people lose jobs to computers? Yes, a number of secretaries had to upgrade their skills, and executives who refused to learn to type had a tough time of it, just to cite two examples. But these jobs were replaced by tens of thousands of high-paying software engineering positions, plus computer installers, computer operators, data storage firms and more.
A very thoughtful and well researched paper about jobs and automation appeared in Good Magazine's "Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs:
MIT economist David Autor
MIT economist David Autor published a report that looked at the shifting employment landscape in America. He came to this scary conclusion: Our workforce is splitting in two. The number of high-skill, high-income jobs (think lawyers or research scientists or managers) is growing. So is the number of low-skill, low-income jobs (think food preparation or security guards). Those jobs in the middle? They’re disappearing. Autor calls it “the polarization of job opportunities.” 
Princeton economist Paul Krugman is out there telling Congress to spend more money to create jobs. The former secretary of labor Robert Reich is arguing for tax breaks for the bottom brackets so people can buy stuff again. Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant. 
In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete. 
People say America doesn’t make anything anymore, but that’s not true. With the exception of a few short lapses, manufacturing output has been on the rise since the 1980s. What is true is that industrial robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders since they appeared in the 1950s. Today, a Japanese company called Fanuc, Ltd., has industrial robots making other industrial robots in a “lights out” factory. (That’s the somewhat unsettling term for a fully automated production facility where you don’t need lights because you don’t need humans.)
Research findings like this are just part of the current dialogue about whether robots are truly taking away jobs or just redistributing the workforce and increasing productivity.

Omitted from Autor's report, however, was that part of the dialogue which deals with investments in education and research and development. Because of intense focus (some might say greedy) on quarterly profits and production efficiencies to meet those quarterly quotas, we've had a decade where R & D has either been reduced or off-shored. Further, because of wars and other reasons, there's been less investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education - budget cuts - although the Obama Administration has been showing signs of renewed interest in this area in the last few months.

John Dulchinos, CEO, Adept
Earlier this year John Dulchinos, the CEO of Adept, during an interview with GetRobo's Noriko Kageki, made a dramatic observation:
Did you know that there are a billion cell phones per year being made globally of which 200-300 million are sold in the U.S. but not a single one is built in the US? Ten years ago that was not the case. 
If the industry can’t remain competitive, then there are no jobs. And robots are automating tasks no longer done by hand.  But in almost all cases those people are redeployed into other applications in the plant and allow the plant to grow and get even more efficient.
Foxconn workers
Sad but true. Even iPhones (and iPads, Macs and iPods) are manufactured in China. As many as 400,000 of the workers at Foxconn produce Apple products. (Foxconn has been in the news because that's the place where there were so many suicides and suicide attempts.) Thus the question is whether companies can compete from nearby manufacturing facilities or must they, in order to produce a low-cost product, resort to off-shoring. Many think that robotics and government investments in STEM education and vocational retraining can help the economy rather than enlarge the disparity described by Autor.

British pottery manufacturer Wade Ceramics is one such proponent of stay-at-home automation, and says Wade can now make some of its products for the same costs as firms in China – thanks to a £3 million investment in robotic equipment. Managing Director Paul Farmer, in a recent article in The Sentinel, said:
We haven't lost permanent staff because we have been busy in other parts of the business... We have lost some agency workers, but we have kept the permanent workforce stable. We are growing and in fact we are starting to recruit again... At the moment we're looking for engineers and machine operators.

Wage levels in China are going up and I believe the minimum-order quantities there are huge. This [robotic] technology and our flexibility means we can really exploit that.
Mr Farmer believes automation is becoming more important as traditional skills become harder to find.
There isn't any young blood coming through and we are all having to fight each other for the skills out there.
Wade Ceramics is representative of a very real situation: a shifting, reduced or diminishing workforce due to a variety of causes.  The effect is that Wade is having difficulty finding skilled labor to man its factories.  The same situation is appearing in certain areas around the world, Japan in particular. And robotics is playing a role in remedying the situation.  It seems to me that robotics and automation are inevitable and it's incumbent on governments to upwardly retrain and educate the workforce accordingly.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

EmTech@MIT 2010: More than just 35 young innovators giving their "elevator pitch"

Afternoon sail on the Charles River; downtown Boston background.
Boston, the Charles River, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided a beautiful setting for the iPad-toting crowd of VCs, inventors, technology gurus, students, business execs, and curious individuals and investors searching for inroads to our technological future. This year’s Emerging Technologies Conference, which took place September 21-23 on the MIT Campus in Cambridge, focused on important innovations (identified by MIT's Technology Review magazine) in the key sectors of communications, energy, biotech, IT and materials.

Len Polizzoto
There was discussion about the innovation process including defining the difference between a business plan and model (eg: the iPod started as a music business model; not just technology) and a presentation by Len Polizzoto of Draper Labs that included his 10 guiding principles of innovation: (1) A patent does not an innovation make; (2) 90% of new products fail each year; (3) Innovation does not have to be based on new technology; (4) It takes a diverse team; (5) It requires the generation of real value; (6) Value is determined by the end user; (7) The competition is always better than you think; (8) Organizations become less innovative as they grow; (9) VCs don't take risks; and (10) Innovation takes discipline, commitment and dedication.

EmTech@MIT 2010: 35 Innovators Under 35
An awards ceremony honored the 35 outstanding men and women under the age of 35 chosen for 2010 by Technology Review who exemplify the spirit of innovation in business and technology. This year’s winners included Philip Low, Founder and CEO of NeuroVigil, for advances in patient self monitoring of neurological disorders, Wesley Chan, Investment Partner for Google Ventures for developing the Google Toolbar, Google Analytics and Google Voice, and David Kobia from Ushahidi, who received the Humanitarian of the Year Award for his work creating web programs for communities around the world faced with natural disasters or social upheaval.

Each of the 35 gave their "elevator pitch" about their product or service and, more importantly, were available for in-depth conversations during the receptions and networking sessions. Nevertheless, their presence was somewhat anti-climatic because the magazine had already come out fully detailing each innovator and innovation.

Communications and Information Technology:
Although the actual number of cellphone subscriptions worldwide is an estimate ranging upward from 3.3 billion (Informa), the bottom line is the same: it's a mammoth marketplace, larger than the combined worldwide total of PCs, autos and TVs!

Fewer and fewer people have land-lines. Cellphones are more convenient and are providing the necessities plus fun and games and, in some cases, personal identity, eg: in rural or storm damaged places where there are no home addressing systems (or no homes).  

Taking advantage of the movement from simple to smart phones and pads was at the core of many of the Tech 35 Innovations. Some of the more altruistic pursuits include using cell and smart phones to place grocery orders for small stores in India, or to report incidents, requests for help and provide tracking in places faced with natural disasters or social unrest, or providing low-cost self-contained solar-powered satellite communicating VoIP base stations (Vanu) for extreme rural areas.

Matt Grob, Qualcom's head of Corporate R&D and other R&D presenters from Bell Labs and Alcatel/Lucent showed some of the anticipated capabilities including augmented reality projects like road sign translation (imagine how that would help you navigate in Japan, China and Egypt where few signs use English characters), product identification, and gaming, and also short-distance communication, so that appliances can communicate with base stations and become part of a smart grid or network.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse
Progress in providing faster networks is complex and includes the necessity by the provider companies to recoup their investment (a 3-year process at the least) before they expend the billions it takes for next generation speeds.

Sprint's 4G network release in the Boston area was displayed in many forms at the conference (outside, multiple booths, etc.) - including in a talk from Sprint CEO Dan Hesse where he said that, although Sprint's 4G data plans offered unlimited service, it is reserving the right to rescind that for very heavy users.

With faster networks, many healthcare apps become more realizable as therapeutic need mixes with technology to quickly move color medical images and files around the community, campus and world.  Educators look forward to being able to similarly push content and interactive tutoring in ever faster ways to improve the online learning experience. And gamers and consumers, with their streaming and shopping needs, drive system use and create demand for ever more speedy networks.

Energy and Batteries:
Processing power versus battery life and cost; net-based processing versus local; games and high-bandwidth streaming entertainment versus a limited or differently-priced plan; the costs of scaling up to demand - these were some of the complexities discussed in the IT and communications sphere.

A very similar discussion was hashed about by senior technology scientists and planning advisors from Shell, Exxon and MIT regarding changing how we get and use power. In the energy/power sphere, intermittent power sources such as wind and solar add to the complex decision making process by their desirability versus their inability to store power thus requiring the grid to be smart enough to reduce other sources flexibly... a not-in-the-immediate-future situation.

Energy complexity, with no real solution (or even a national strategy and policy) in sight, is causing uncertainty, speculation and even fear, with a result that hesitation and indecision is slowing down incremental progress.  By this inaction we end up waiting for a miracle solution to come from the labs. This will surely happen, but the questions are when and whether we can we afford to wait.

Consumers choose Kindles over iPads because of battery life. Payment plans, another element of the business model, also plays a role. Amazon eliminates the need to choose a data plan and is a consumer favorite as a result.  Eliminating irrelevant or bothersome choices (eg: which data plan) is going to be important in forthcoming products and their business models.

Much of the energy discussion was removed from technology - except for a nifty display of MIT's urban car project and the EmTech 35 innovations involved in new battery materials and methodology - and bordering on the political - very confusing from the point of view of expectations about the conference.

Robotics, Biomedical and Materials:
Polymer-based SDM Hand
Aaron Dollar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Yale, has developed a plastic hand able to grasp a wide variety of objects without damaging them, which replicates the flexibility and gentleness of a human hand. As a result he is exploring whether it can be used as a prosthetic.

New battery technology and materials was a hot topic - in fact, batteries were at the core of many topics -  and included Hany Eitouni and his solid polymers SEEO company, acoustic printing of solar cells from SunPrint/Alion, cost-reducing methods for OLED displays, the previously mentioned neural monitoring device for sleep apnea, and a novel armband interface from Microsoft Research to detect gestures.

Conspicuously missing from the conference were representatives from major hubs of emerging technologies, eg: Apple, Amazon and Google.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New-Tech Fight Against Cocaine Cartel Detailed in The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth

In a meticulously researched book as current as today's headlines, Frederick Forsyth's new book The Cobra offers a high tech thriller about the problem of cocaine. His thesis is to change the terminology from "war on drugs" and reinterpret "drugs," and in particular cocaine, as a form of terrorism, and then use all the worldwide resources and technology that is already being used to fight terrorism.

A few reviewers have panned the ending of the book, saying:
You'd be better off reading until about three quarters of the way through, throwing the book away, and enjoying all the different endings you could come up with on your own.
Another spin on the ending, which I won't reveal, is that it is closest to a painful reality and that's what Forsyth is attempting to present.

The book uses Global Hawk UAVs, their pilots in Nevada, and their capabilities in critical information gathering, to harness the drug trade. That alone is worth the price of the book but there's lots more high-tech software utilized in the plot that we only read about from the research labs.  It's a great summer read.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Forsyth about The Cobra - the last sentence is the clincher for why I'm so enthused about the book:
Readers nowadays have been around, seen a lot, traveled a lot. And there is the Internet. If they want to check you out, they can. So if it is uncheckable, you can make it up, but if it can be checked, it had better be right. That is why I go all over, looking, probing, inquiring, conversing in low places, until I am damn certain that even the smallest detail really is the way it is.
For The Cobra, a deep delve into the murky world of cocaine, smugglers, Coast Guards, cops, and gangsters, there were certain “must-go” targets. The HQ of the DEA in Washington, the backstreets of Bogot√°, the dockside dives of Cartagena. But the more I researched, the more I came across a recurring name: Guinea-Bissau.
Once a Portuguese West African colony, G-B went through eighteen years of independence war and about the same of civil war. The two left it a shattered, burned-out hellhole. The ultimate failed state. It still is. And the cocaine cartels spotted a perfect shipment point for coke going from South America to Europe. They moved in, put almost every major official and politico on the payroll, and began to shift scores of tons of puro through from Colombia to Europe. This I had to see, so I went, posing as a bird-watcher (the swamps and marshes are a wintering ground for European wading birds).
It was not my fault I landed in the middle of yet another coup d’√©tat. It started while I was airborne from Lisbon to Bissau city. When I arrived, my contact was in a hell of a state. Flashing his diplomatic pass, he whisked us both through the formalities. It was two a.m.: sweaty hot.
“What’s the hurry?” I asked, as he raced his SUV down the pitted track to the city. “Look behind you,” he said.
The horizon in the rearview mirror was aglow with headlights. A vengeful Army was also heading for the city. At eight-thirty the previous evening, someone had put a bucket of Semtex under the Army chief of staff. He was all over the ceiling. The Army reckoned it was the President—different tribes and eternal enemies. They were coming to settle accounts.
I was in my hotel by three a.m. but unable to sleep, so I put on the light. It was the only modern hotel and had a generator. There is no public lighting in Bissau. At four-thirty, trying to read, I heard the boom, about five hundred yards down the street. Not thunder, not a head-on crash. Ammo, big ammo. One remembers the sound. Actually, it was the Army putting an RPG through the President’s bedroom window.
It seems the explosion did not kill the old boy, even at seventy-one. He crawled out of bed. Then the building collapsed on him. Still alive, he crawled from the rubble to the lawn, where the soldiers were waiting. They shot him three times in the chest. When he still wouldn’t die, they realized he had a juju that made him immune to bullets.
But that juju cannot prevail against machetes. Everyone knows that. So they chopped him up. He died.
The next day was kind of quiet, apart from the patrolling Army jeeps bristling with the usual Kalashnikovs, looking for the murderers of their boss. My contact waved his diplomatic pass; I beamed and distributed signed photos of a smiling Queen Elizabeth, with assurances that she wished them well (the Third World reveres the queen, even with a facsimile signature). We were waved through.
The airport was closed; ditto the borders. I was trapped inside, but no one could get in either. In the trade, it’s called an exclusive. So I borrowed my host’s mobile and filed a thousand-word summing-up to London’s Daily Express, for whom I do a weekly column. I had the Express call me back and dictated the story to a lady with earphones in London. No one has filed news like that since Dan Rather was in college. Old-fashioned, but secure from intercept, I thought.
But of course the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland, heard it all and told the CIA. In the matter of coups in West Africa, I have what London’s Cockneys call “a bit of previous.” I wrote The Dogs of War long ago about that very subject.
After the story, half the West’s media was trying to get me, but I was out in the creeks checking out the sumptuous mansion of the Colombians, notable for their ponytails, chains of gold bling, and black-windowed SUVs. When I got back to Bissau, a very voluble wife, Sandy, was on the phone.
It seems she was fixing a lunch date with a girlfriend and explained in her e-mail: “I’m free for lunch ’cos Freddie is away in Guinea-Bissau.” Mistake. The e-mail vanished off the screen unfinished. Her mailbox vaporized. Database wiped. Instructions appeared on her screen: “Do not open this file. Cease all sending or we will respond.”
I had a zany mental image of the morning conference at Langley. Corner suite, seventh floor, Old Building.
“What’s this going on in Africa, Chuck?”
“A coup in Guinea-Bissau, Director. Several assassinations. It could be that damn limey again.”
“Can we take him out of there?”
“It seems not. He is somewhere in the jungle.”
“Well, zap his wife’s lunch dates. That’ll teach him.”
The same night, I dined with new friends, and my neighbor at the table was an elderly Dutchman. “You work here?” I asked.
“Ja. Three-year secondment. I am a forensic pathologist. I run the mortuary.”
The only things that work in Bissau are the gift-aid projects donated by the developed world. The Dutch built the modern mortuary. Shrewdly, they put it next to the locally run general hospital. Smart, because no one leaves the hospital save feetfirst on a gurney heading for the morgue.
“Been busy?” I asked. He nodded solemnly.
“Ja, very busy all day. Stitching the President back together.”
It seemed the government wanted the old boy in his coffin more or less in the right order. I tucked into my stewed goat.
It took three days for things to calm down and the airport to reopen. I was on the next flight to Lisbon and London. At Heathrow, a passport officer checked the stamps, raised an eyebrow, and passed the document to a colleague. He contemplated both the passport and its owner for a while, then gave it back.
“How was Guinea-Bissau, Mr. Forsyth?” he asked mildly.
“Cancel the vacation,” I advised. “You won’t like it.” Both smiled thinly. Officials don’t do that. Never jest with officialdom. I stepped out into the crisp morning air of March 1, 2009. Beautifully cool. Good to be home.
So if you are interested, dear reader, it’s all in The Cobra. The dives of Cartagena, the U.S. Navy SEALs, their British equivalents the SBS, the Global Predator UAVs, oh, and dear old Guinea-Bissau. And it’s all true. Well, okay, it’s not all true, it’s a novel. But it’s accurate.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Eisenhower's Words 49 Years Later

In late 1961, as President Dwight Eisenhower was preparing to leave office, he carefully warned of a process which I believe parallels our situation today:
Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.

We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Reading these words is a sad experience for me.  Eisenhower really had people and the world of people in mind when he developed and delivered this speech. And he had the perspective of having been a General in war needing and using equipment and a President during a peaceful time, keeping that peace while encouraging and growing the civilian economy.

Bringing this message home to the robotics industry involves a discussion on research in America versus the rest of the world, and the politics of representation to get funding for the industry.  The former has been incorporated into most of my blog entries, particularly the article on financing the strawberry project.

Getting government funding for defense and civilian research and development is what I want to talk about here. There are two Congressional Caucuses today representing the robotics industry. One is educational; the other little more than a platform for lobbying to expedite funding. One addresses industrial and service robotics (which includes UAVs of all types) with a goal of providing a roadmap (including a funding roadmap) to help tackle America's fledgling robotics industry (or watch it be lost to off-shore companies); the other is focused on unmanned aerial devices for the DoD and Homeland Security with little, if any, attention to civilian uses.

Which one do you think will have the biggest impact on America and our long-term strategic goals for continued American life as we know it? The Robotics Caucus. Which one is getting all the attention and money? The UAV Caucus, of course. And that is because of their focus to provide access to Congress for lobbyists from the defense sector.

CBS Sunday Morning did a piece entitled: "Our Future Is Already in the Hands of Robots" and included the following quote:
Enthusiasm for robots on the battlefield, it seems, is only outpaced by the speed with which the military is acquiring them, says the author of "Wired for War," P.W. Singer

"We went into Iraq with a handful of drones; we now have 7,000 in the inventory," Singer said. "We went into Iraq with zero unmanned ground vehicles that are robotic; we now have 12,000.
UGVs and UAVs are a big business right now as are all companies providing products and services to support our war effort. But war spending isn't good for the public, particularly when most of the spending is being spent off-shore. The public may be listening to the Tea Baggers but they know and are experiencing the loss to the economic well-being of our country - and their households - by the trillion dollars we've spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars. We are bankrupting ourselves while the military-industrial complex is thriving. Voters know this. That's why James Carville's maxim "It's the economy, stupid" is as applicable today as it was then. Except that I would add President Eisenhower's warning to the maxim:
"... [and] guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Problem Today Is Inadequate Spending

Rhetoric is winning over substance these days with the resultant effect that people are suffering. Worse, there are "tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again" said NY Times columnist Paul Krugman in a recent op-ed piece entitled "The Third Depression."
It’s almost as if the financial markets understand what policy makers seemingly don’t: that while long-term fiscal responsibility is important, slashing spending in the midst of a depression, which deepens that depression and paves the way for deflation, is actually self-defeating.

So I don’t think this is really about Greece, or indeed about any realistic appreciation of the tradeoffs between deficits and jobs. It is, instead, the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times.
This is part of the hypocrisy of current-day politics that I find so terribly offensive and counter-productive, or as Krugman said, "self-defeating." People are being manipulated to do things against their own best interests by political consultants that stir unnecessary flames and heighten righteousness. Furthermore, because of the increasing polarity, nothing is able to get accomplished and people end up dissolute and cynical which makes them even more passive and persuadable. Congressional party-line votes illustrate how the partisan acrimony gripping Congress is preventing cooperation, even for universally shared goals like healthcare, financial regulation and campaign finance.

In an in-depth piece in the International Herald Tribune entitled: "Betting That Cutting Spending Won't Derail Recovery," David Leonhardt wrote:
Policy makers are betting that the private sector can make up for the withdrawal of stimulus over the next couple of years. If they’re right, they will have made a head start on closing their enormous budget deficits. If they’re wrong, they may set off a vicious new cycle, in which public spending cuts weaken the world economy and beget new private spending cuts.
All the while stocks are tumbling and the daily economic and business news is abysmal. Repeating what Krugman wrote: "It's almost as if the financial markets understand what policy makers seemingly don't."

I agree with Krugman that it's too soon to stop stimulating the economy. Stimulation is necessary to get people working and also to enable new technologies to flourish over longer periods of time. By being short-sighted and focused on quarterly profits many American companies have pulled back their research and development budgets thereby thwarting new technologies. And by the government pulling back on it's economic stimulus, it's like a one-two punch backwards.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Lesson from Arkansas and a Call for Transparency

UPDATE May 18: Rhetoric lessons for Democrats by Drew Westen - see below.

In 2008, Arkansas voted for John McCain for President.  In fact, the state voted more Republican than all other states.  It swung 11% to the Right from the Bush vote in 2004.  That's what the figures show.

A lot happened in Arkansas in 2007 and 2008 leading to that misleading statistic.  Arkansas was already favored to be a solid Red state - just not one that changed so dramatically to the Right.

Hillary ran and lost a savage and divisive campaign against Obama.  Her home-state voters were particularly vocal and aggressive and really wanted her to win.  They were crushed when she lost and sour and embittered.  They lost their fervor to change America for the better and became resentful and lethargic and stayed away from the final days of the election.  Many of them didn't vote.  Arkansas Democratic votes in the 2008 election were down in numbers that didn't go to the Republicans... they just didn't vote.

Republicans had the devil Hillary to rail against and Mike Huckabee to root for.  The well-liked Arkansas Governor spoke to what they wanted to hear.  When he lost to McCain, Arkansian Republicans were also crestfallen.  But they acted differently than the Democrats.  They turned out to vote against the Democratic choice more than to vote for McCain.  Actually they voted for Sarah Palin.  They were bitter and hurt and angry, and Palin spoke to their needs, so they voted her way.

As a result, rather than Arkansas swinging 11% more Republican, what really happened is a large quantity of embittered Democrats didn't vote and an even larger angry group of Republicans voted against their own best interests by turning out for Palin.

In both cases, Republicans and Democrats voted against their own best interests.  Literally, their wrong-headed votes (or lack of votes) were self-punishment and self-destructive to themselves.  Voting for Palin when really they just didn't want to vote for a Democrat; not voting for Obama when he was clearly the only choice.

I see the lesson to be a psychological one that Drew Westen wrote about in his book "The Political Brain." People tend to vote against their own best interests when anger and/or fear provoke them out of their point of view.  Further, that anger/fear can be sustained - by manipulation - to achieve that state of doing the unthinkable.  That's why so many people who see that manipulation were/are angry at Karl Rowe because he was a master at provoking and sustaining that type of contentiousness and cynicism that would lead a person to withdraw - to get away - to not vote - literally to vote against their own best interests.

That manipulation through fear and anger is happening right now.  Republicans and others are translating their frustration with the lack of progress in getting jobs, solving problems, regulating the banking industry, and putting the guilty in jail and they are making Obama and his administration the scapegoat.

In a Washington Post article today by Perry Bacon Jr., Drew Westen said that Democrats should not talk about "the environment," "the unemployed" or "the uninsured." Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as "the air we breathe and the water we drink," "people who've lost their jobs" and "people who used to have insurance."
"There are a few things if you know about the brain, they change the way you think about politics," he said in an e-mail. "If you understand we evolved the capacity to feel long before we evolved the capacity to think, instead of barraging people with facts (the standard Democratic way of talking to voters) you speak to people's core values and concerns."
Westen also said in the e-mail that "the White House has sharpened its message substantially since the president's first year in office," although he thinks it could still be more blunt in illustrating differences between the two parties.

Transparency is one of the answers to this problem.  Clarity, honesty, feeling and transparency.

Let's hope that President Obama can speak about this problem.  There's no reason that clarity and transparency be limited to John Stewart and Bill Maher.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Importance of Making vs Selling Stuff - sidebar on Goldman Sachs

Much discussion is being focused in Congress, recent books, articles, and in the media, on the financial crisis and the contributing factors to that crisis.  Omitting until the end the role of Goldman Sachs, one important factor about the crisis must not be overlooked said James Kwak of The Baseline Scenario:
Remember that financial services are an intermediate product -- that is, we don't eat them, or live in them, or put them on in the morning.  They are supposed to enable a more efficient allocation of capital, so that the non-financial economy is more productive. But what we saw since the 1980s was the unmooring of the financial sector from the rest of the economy.  
Financial services are supposed to serve our economy; not be the economy.  Yet the trend is otherwise... over 40% of the profits of the entire US corporate sector went to the financial industry.  As a reference, in 1970 it was 4%!

Paul Krugman wrote:
A growing body of analysis suggests that an oversized financial industry is hurting the broader economy.  Shrinking the oversized industry won't make Wall Street happy, but what's bad for Wall Street would be good for America.
Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, wrote:
...the financial sector seems to be a machine to transfer income and wealth from outsiders to insiders, while increasing the fragility of the economy as a whole."
Even the ethic has changed.  Doing things with ones hands - the pride in the skill and craft of so doing - used to be our ethic; now it's who can earn the most money.

The real issue is that America has changed from a hands-on country to one that sells the products of others. As more and more production and service jobs go off-shore, only financial services are staying behind.  And as Andrew Sorkin said on the Charlie Rose show last week:
...so many of these instruments on Wall Street, it's really just a casino, there is no underlying assets, they don't actually own these devices; people aren't getting mortgages because of this... What is the social utility of that?
All of this can be seen in the difference between the growth of the robotics industries in America and everywhere else.  America used to develop, design and manufacture their robots.  Then they only developed and designed them - the products were built off-shore.  Now much of the non-defense design is being done elsewhere and manufactured off shore without America having a piece of the pie.  Most of the iRobot products sold to the DoD are manufactured offshore!

Sidebar about Goldman Sachs

From a blog entry in The Huffington Post by Senator Carl Levin:
Most investors make the assumption that people selling them securities want those securities to succeed. That's how our markets ought to work, but they don't always. The Senators who in the 1930s investigated the causes of the Great Depression stated the principle clearly:
[Investors] must believe that their investment banker would not offer them the bonds unless the banker believed them to be safe. This throws a heavy responsibility upon the banker. He may and does make mistakes. There is no way that he can avoid making mistakes because he is human and because in this world, things are only relatively secure. There is no such thing as absolute security. But while the banker may make mistakes, he must never make the mistake of offering investments to his clients which he does not believe to be good.
Goldman documents make clear that in 2007 it was betting heavily against the housing market while it was selling investments in that market to its clients. It sold those clients high-risk mortgage-backed securities and CDOs that it wanted to get off its books in transactions that created a conflict of interest between Goldman's bottom line and its clients' interests.
These findings are deeply troubling. They show a Wall Street culture that, while it may once have focused on serving clients and promoting commerce, is now all too often simply self-serving. The ultimate harm here is not just to clients poorly served by their investment bank. It's to all of us. The toxic mortgages and related instruments that these firms injected into our financial system have done incalculable harm to people who had never heard of a mortgage-backed security or a CDO, and who have no defenses against the harm such exotic Wall Street creations can cause.
Levin went on to say that: 
Running through our findings and these hearings is a thread that connects the reckless actions of mortgage brokers at WaMu with market-driven credit rating agencies and the Wall Street executives designing the next synthetic. That thread is unbridled greed, and the absence of a cop on the beat to control it.
I couldn't agree more.  I'm pained to see this happening during my lifetime.  

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Rethinking Singularity

I have concerns about Ray Kurzweil's Singularity.  The following three stories will show you where I'm coming from and give some background to what I want to say:

(1) In the '80s, Tom Axworthy, then Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (and now with the Center for the Study of Democracy at Queens U in Kingston, Canada and the Gordon Foundation), spoke before my group, the American Association of Political Consultants, and told why Canadians and other countries distinguished themselves from Americans and American political campaign technology.  He said that Americans pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a national credo whereas most other societies have as their goals peace, order, liberty and fraternity.  Fraternity being the sharing in the well-being of all of society.  Big difference between the individual pursuit of happiness to the altruistic sharing of the well-being of everyone.  And that difference translates into political orientation, campaign practices and social ethic.  In America elected officials have star status whereas most members of parliaments worldwide are part of the party and not well known.  They are often elected as the x-party member for the y area.  Hence there's less personality and more issue orientation.  Not Barney Frank versus Earl Sholley but instead Liberal versus Tory.  Axworthy's talk has stuck with me to this day because I strongly believe in his version of Fraternity and what it means for society and the future.  Also it was one of the many reasons I chose to sell off and quit my activities in politics.

(2) Ray Kurzweil's projections of logarithmic (exponentially accelerating) technological progress - particularly in the fields of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology - leading to a "singularity" or merging of these super-intelligent sciences sometime between 2040 and 2045, a merging where differentiating between a human with consciousness and a robot-like device acting as if it had consciousness, has been fascinating to me because I'm a technology enthusiast, particularly in the areas of computers, AI and robotics. I see it happening just as he says. In robots, genetics, longevity, artificial intelligence, aging, stem cells, and many more sciences, my vision of the future is similar to Kurtzweil's. And this is disturbing because his projections are leading to a conclusion that I don't want for society.

(3) While driving to and from Lake Tahoe last weekend, some friends and I listened to an audiobook entitled Death Match. Although it was a mystery, it was really about artificial intelligence. It involved a computer dating service that went beyond simple questionnaires and instead merged psychological, medical and financial data along with social data such as travel, movie and book preferences, phone call records, traffic tickets, etc. into a massive database which was then sliced and diced to provide information about the candidates well-beyond what they entered on their initial survey forms. Armed with all that data, the computer did it's match and was quite successful. A discussion occurred about individual boundaries, and computer capabilities. Coincidentally, I had recently listened to a podcast of an AI expert discussing how things were presently done (constructivist) and how they will be done shortly (software developing software). This shed light on what was fictional in the story. The discussion continued to include the fact that the story's software and manipulation of massive databases was available today but that it wasn't going to get too much better until more capable and extensive software could be developed and that was precluded because the present state of the art was constructivist (done by human programmers and limited by their time and capacity). Although software is used to create new computer chips, humans are still cranking out AI software. When AI software becomes self-generating, that's when robotics and other embedded sciences will grow - and the dangers I foresee begin.
    This brings me to a long and old (2000) Wired Magazine article written by Bill Joy, co-founder and network computer scientist of Sun Microsystems, a VC at Kleiner Perkins Greentech and FOO (Friend of Obama).  In the article, Joy worked his way through his own history of thoughts about technology to an evening when he spent some time with Ray Kurzweil and learned, first-hand, what Kurzweil foresaw.
    Ray was saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something like that and John [Searle, also at the meeting] countering that this couldn't happen because the robots couldn't be conscious.
    I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm of science fiction.  But now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility.  I was taken aback, especially given Ray's proven ability to imagine and create the future.  I already knew that new technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power to remake the world, but a realistic and imminent scenario for intelligent robots surprised me.
    Joy wrote pages of his history in thought from then until he met scholar and author Jacques Attali who described his interpretation of Fraternity.
    Jacques helped me understand... Fraternity, whose foundation is altruism. Fraternity alone associates individual happiness with the happiness of others, affording the promise of self-sustainment.
    This crystallized for me my problem with Kurzweil's dream. A technological approach to Eternity - near immortality through robotics - may not be the most desirable utopia, and its pursuit brings clear dangers. Maybe we should rethink our utopian choices.
    I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.
    We are getting a belated start on seriously addressing the issues around 21st-century technologies - the prevention of knowledge-enabled mass destruction - and further delay seems unacceptable. 
    It seems to me that Joy's seriousness and concern is well-deserved and appropriate.  I share his concerns fully.  What do you think?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    Just One Sentence for Robotics in the Presidents Stimulus Message

    In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, Google's Eric Schmidt described why America has an innovation deficit and suggested ways that stimulus might change that situation.
    We see it reflected in our search trends at Google: Too many people are out of work, and the fear of unemployment is changing the behavior of millions more. 
    We have been world leaders in innovation for generations. It has driven our economy, employment growth and our rising prosperity. 
    But much of the cutting-edge research and development in key and critical areas now takes place outside the United States. 
    We can no longer rely on the top-down approach of the 20th century, when big investments in the military and NASA spun off to the wider economy.
    Schmidt is saying is what I have found to be true in robotics funding.  Other than DARPA, DOD and NASA, funding for robotics is not directed or strategic.  In other countries, however, strategic funding is reaping benefits that are placing America farther behind in robotics development, deployment and manufacturing. Here is Schmidt's five-point prescription to invigorate American technology innovation:
    1. Start-ups and smaller businesses must be able to compete on equal terms with their larger rivals. They don't need favors, just a level playing field. Congress should ensure that every bill it passes promotes competition over protecting the interests of incumbents.
    2. Encouraging risk-taking means tolerating failure -- provided we learn from it. If we want to be a leader in new industries such as green energy [and robotics], we have to accept that some of our investments won't pan out.
    3. We need to invest more in our knowledge base. The decision by Congress to double science funding last year was a big step in the right direction. Now we need to extend the R&D tax credit so businesses can confidently invest in their future.
    4. Information must become even more open and accessible. Government-funded research should be made public through "a Wikipedia of ideas," so entrepreneurs can harness ideas commercially. Broadband is a major driver of new jobs and businesses, yet America ranks only 15th in the world for access. More government support for broadband remains critical.
    5. We need to hang on to talented people. The best and brightest from around the world come to study at U.S. universities. After graduation, they are forced to leave because they can't get visas. It's ridiculous to export such talent to our competition.
    Yes, all these points are fine. But there are more important issues going on. There is a perception that robotics takes away jobs which is not being factually countered. National Robotics Week - an awareness program initiated by a few companies and America's major tech universities - is a good first step. However, the government's consistent omission of robotics in their stimulus proposals is, to me, a sad surrender to the cry from unions and others that robots take away jobs. Instead of arguing that retraining and innovation and strategic funding create jobs, we are steadily giving in to these ill-founded claims and eroding our possibilities to lead again in technological innovation.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    2010 Robotics Predications; Reality Check for 2009

    Trick math question: If you have $100 and lose 50% and then gain back 50% of that, how much do you have?
    1. $100
    2. $50
    3. $75
    4. None of the above.
    Stock markets around the world rose dramatically in 2009. Robotic stocks did as well or better than the major tracking indexes, particularly service robotic stocks. But the real story isn't the gains of 2009 but the lack of recovery from 2007.

    An example: U.S. publicly-traded industrial robotic companies saw their stocks rise 40% in 2009. But those same stocks lost 53% in 2008. Thus their year-to-date rise in 2009 of 40% really only recovered 16 points of the 53 lost the year before. U.S. industrial robotic stocks are still down 37% from their close at the end of 2007 as are almost all robotic stocks worldwide. That is what these Robo-Stox™ charts - one for industrial robotic companies and another for service companies - attempt to show. Click to enlarge.

    Most countries' robotics stocks didn't fare as well as the American NASDAQ Index with the exception of Canada, India, Israel, Taiwan and a very few individual stocks. Thus although 2009 was a significant up year for stocks, and robotic stocks in particular, robotic stocks have yet to recover their highs of 2007 and have a long way to go to do so.

    The seriousness of the recent worldwide stock market and economy crash - of the drop in market value of the companies - of the loss of jobs and orders, and revenue and profits - is a long way from recovery. Although jobs in the robotics sector are available for qualified takers, particularly in the service sector, unemployment in general is dramatically high and most economists are predicting that it will be well into 2012 before any real gains occur.

    That is not to say that all is pessimistic, particularly for robotic businesses. 2010 looks to be a good year with definite "drivers" effecting selected marketplaces.

    Worldwide military, police and security agencies are continuing to purchase and invest in R&D for all types of unmanned, remote-operated aerial, underwater and ground robotic devices. More jobs - with the likelihood of continued growth over the next few years.

    Medical robotics (included in the services sector) are poised for many years of rapid growth propelled by:
    1. Growing patient demand for non-invasive surgery,
    2. The current effort to reduce hospital costs by increasing productivity through a variety of robotic activities (non-invasive surgery, pill dispensing, materials transfer, lab assistance, etc.),
    3. Hospitals, which have held back capital purchases (such as Intuitive Surgical's million dollar da Vinci devices) for the past two years, are beginning to reinvest in these types of equipment.

    With the return of small amounts of discretionary income back into the economy, consumers are once again interested in robotic toys and kits as can be seen by 2009's Christmas rush to buy millions of robotic hamsters (Zhu Zhu) and thousands robotic penguins.  And the hit of CES was an indoor-flying iPhone controlled quad copter by Parrot that will sell for $129.

    For industrial robot manufacturers, orders will stay down for quite a while. For those vendors that have switched or are making inroads into the services sector, the horrendous spate of bankruptcies and buy-outs has stopped and the future is looking brighter especially in new markets including the SME market.

    Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) are now being offered affordable robotic products that haven't been available to them before, first in Europe and Asia, and later in the U.S. Lightweight and easily trainable, these flexible robots are enabling these smaller manufacturers to increase productivity and not have to go off-shore to produce their products.