We must not eliminate the most important variable in today’s systems — the humans who design, maintain and manage them.
Straight out of defense labs, autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons are already in use, but there’s no overarching agreement among key stakeholders on how to control their implementation and diffusion. Unlike nuclear or biological weapons whose proliferation have been largely controlled, autonomous weapons pose some tricky problems.
The first is the absence of an international treaty. The second is the comparative ease by which autonomous weapons can be developed. Nuclear weapons are hard. The nine countries with nuclear weapons have achieved this with multi-decade projects backed substantially by state resources and administrative capacity.
What’s at stake in the automation-prediction game. “Intelligent agents” is what we called them, once upon a time, these programs that would perform tasks for us without our telling them. And that sounded great! An agent works for you, right? But now those software bots have joined up with hardware robots, drones, and autonomous vehicles. And if a new report from the Forrester research outfit is right, they might be putting us out of work (The Guardian). Forrester says that, “by 2021, a disruptive tidal wave will begin”: Robots will already have eliminated 6 percent of U.S. jobs — starting with customer service reps and taxi and truck drivers — and more will quickly follow. If true, it’s a grim prognosis: We don’t have nearly enough public resources in place to retrain that volume of unemployed workers or to give them a safety net. But wait! Here’s another report, this one from Goldman Sachs (Bloomberg), that says not to worry: We’ve survived similar industrial transitions before, and they will open all kinds of new opportunities for those who know where to look. We just need the government and other public institutions to manage the transition in a smart way. That’s when you might take a look at our deadlocked Congress and trivialized presidential election — and wince.
Big Ag keeps getting bigger. Bayer’s $56 billion buyout of Monsanto, if approved by regulators, will further consolidate the hold of a handful of agro-chemical industrial giants on the world’s food supply, writes Brad Plumer in Vox. Monsanto holds a big slice of the global seed market, but its trademark Roundup-Ready GMO crops are already losing ground, as bugs gain resistance to the pesticide. The BigCos engaged in this frantic mating dance — not just Bayer/Monsanto but Dow/Dupont, Syngenta/ChemChina and others — are all betting that the bigger they are, the better they’ll be able to influence governments and regulators in their favor. They might be right. But global consolidation only deepens the industry’s commitment to the path of mammoth monoculture, even if that hasn’t worked so well for Monsanto’s pesticide-resistant crops. If we hope for sustainable diversity in our food supply, we may need a little more of it in the companies that support our farmers, too.
Today’s Top Stories — A Shift to Robots in Manufacturing Accelerates: A Foxconn factory gives up more than half of its 110,000 workers. — Not Everywhere Yet, Though: AI is growing spectacularly, but it’s not ready to challenge humans. — Greentown Labs Incubates Next-Generation Clean Technologies: Watch the latest NewCo Spotlight. — Coke’s Sweet Future With Less Sugar: Market and political forces are helping the company make tough changes. — Big Bird Is a Venture Capitalist: Sesame Street’s parent company is investing in a way that doubles down on its mission. — Microsoft Did a Bad Thing. Now It’s Doing an Annoying Thing: The company resorts to malware tactics and then backs off. — This Week on NewCo Shift
A Shift to Robots in Manufacturing Accelerates In China, robots are replacing human workers in a big way. A Foxconn factory in Kunshan, the manufacturing hub in Jiangsu province, is cutting 60,000 factory workers from its 110,000 (South China Morning Post). Part of this is due to a reduction in factory output, but the company says the primary reason for the cut is that most of the former employees’ work will now be done by automated devices. Key quote from a Kunshan official Xu Yulian: “More companies are likely to follow suit.”
Artificial Ethics The Trolley Problem is an ethical thought experiment in which sending one innocent person to his or her death saves many lives. If you’re curious about such things, a query on Google Trends shows that interest in the Trolley Problem, until recently relegated to academics, has shot up in recent years. Turns out the Trolley Problem’s underlying issue — pitting human agency against decisions involving life and death — serves as a fruitful way to examine our forthcoming relationships to intelligent and actualized machines such as self-driving cars. In a survey (re/code), Kris Hammond, chief scientist at natural language startup Narrative Science, concludes we’ve nothing to fear. In fact, he argues, the AI-animated machines will likely make better decisions than we might in such situations. Hammond uses the ending of the film I, Robot as an example. In the final scene, a robot has to decide between saving the heroine and saving all of humanity — and chooses the former. Hammond points out that machines coded with our best and most thoughtful logic will of course save humanity. Only in Hollywood are machines experiencing moral lapses.
Crowdfunding What the Rest of the World Recognizes As a Right Crowdfunding can lead to breakthroughs that propel entire industries. The need for it can also show us parts of ourselves we might not want to see, like women having to crowdfund their maternity leaves (Vice). As with legal aid in New Orleans, paid maternity leave is squarely in the category of things that shouldn’t have to be crowdfunded. The U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world where paid maternity leave isn’t law. That’s shortsighted and it costs businesses money. A lot of money: Women who lack maternity leave are more likely to leave their jobs and turnover of this sort costs American companies $19 billion a year.