Advanced Automation in the Future

Over the last several decades in the U.S., productivity gains have been concentrated in the upper echelon of the income distribution. The general population hasn’t really received them.

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Productivity means the average output per hour in the economy. This has increased due to technological advances such as faster computer processing power and workers becoming more efficient at their jobs.

The story of robots taking all the jobs is today printed in the mass media with some regularity. However, if the robots were actually taking all the jobs today, it would show up in the data. Massive automation implies massive increases in productivity, but as it is now, productivity gains rates have been quite low. Yearly productivity growth was higher in 2003 than it is today, and since about 2005 there’s been a slowdown in it. So based on the trend of the last dozen years, it is unlikely enough that we will see significant advances in productivity (automation) over the next several years.

Society should be structured so that in the next decades, productivity gains will be distributed to the general population instead of primarily to upper-middle class and wealthy people. In a significant way, this will depend on who owns the technology.

It’s crucial that there be real care taken on the rights awarded to people owning the most valuable technology. This may frankly determine whether that technology is a curse or a blessing for humanity.

In one example, say that the groundbreaking designs for the most highly advanced robotics are developed by a major corporation, which then patents the designs. The patent is valuable since the robotics would be far more efficient than anything else on the market, and it would allow the corporation to charge much higher prices than would otherwise be possible. This would be good for the minority of people who own the company and are invested in it, but it would almost certainly be harmful to the general public.

The case of prescription drugs shows us what happens when legal enforcement via patents goes wrong. The United States spent $450 billion on prescription drugs in 2017, an amount that would have been about a fifth as much (representing thousands of dollars per U.S. household in savings) were there no drug patents and a different system of drug research incentives. The consequence of this disparity is obviously that there are many people who suffer with health ailments due to unnecessarily expensive medications.

The major corporation with the valuable robotics patents may be able to make the distribution of the valuable robotics (which could very efficiently perform a wide range of tasks) much more expensive than necessary, similar to the prescription drugs example. The robotics being too expensive would mean that there’d be less of them to do efficient labor such as assembling various household appliances, and this would manifest itself as a cost to a lot of people.

So instead of the advanced robotics (probably otherwise cheap due to the software and materials needed for them being low cost) being widely distributed inexpensively and allowed to most efficiently automate labor, there could be a case where their use is expensively restricted. The robotics may even be used by the potentially unaccountable corporation for mostly nefarious ends, and this is another problem that arises with the control granted by the patents. Clearly, there need to be public interest solutions to this sort of problem, such as avoiding the use of regressive governmental interventions, considering the use of shared public ownership to allow many people to receive dividends on the value the technology generates, and implementing sensible regulatory measures.

There are also standards that can be set into law and enforced. A basic story is that if (after automation advances lead to less labor requirements among workers generally) the length of the average work year decreases by 20 percent, about 25 percent more people will be employed. The arithmetic may not always be this straightforward, but it’s a basic estimate for consideration.

Less time spent working while employing more people is clearly a good standard for many reasons, particularly in the U.S. where leisure rates among most are low compared to other wealthy countries. More people being employed may also mean tighter labor markets that allow for workers to receive higher real wage gains.

If there is higher output due to technology, that value will go somewhere in the form of more money. Over the last decades we have seen this concentrated at the top, but it is possible to have workers both work shorter hours and have similar or even higher pay levels.

Lacking Net Neutrality Presents Public Safety Risks

It’s horrible that ISPs slowed speeds to emergency respondents in the wake of massive wildfires. The issue of net neutrality is really quite simple at its core — it’s about whether ISPs will have too much control over user access to the Internet or not. The large ISPs would prefer as much control as possible to increase their profits, even if that’s at the expense of public safety.

An ongoing study first reported by Bloomberg reveals the extent to which major American telecom companies are throttling video content on apps such as YouTube and Netflix on mobile phones in the wake of the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealing national net neutrality protections last December.

Researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst used a smartphone app called Wehe, which has been downloaded by about 100,000 users, to track when wireless carriers engage in data “differentiation,” or when companies alter download speeds depending on the type of content, which violates a key tenet of the repealed rules.

Between January and May of this year, Wehe detected differentiation by Verizon 11,100 times; AT&T 8,398 times; T-Mobile 3,900 times; and Sprint 339 times. David Choffnes, one of the study’s authors and the app’s developer, told Bloomberg that YouTube was the top target, but carriers also slowed down speeds for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and the NBC Sports app.

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Jeremy Gillula, tech policy director at Electronic Frontier Foundation, pointed to Verizon slowing down data speeds as Santa Clara County emergency responders battled the largest fire in California’s history. Verizon claimed it was a “customer-support mistake,” but county counsel James Williams said it proves that ISPs “will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety,” and “that is exactly what the Trump administration’s repeal of net neutrality allows and encourages.”

That example, Gillula told Bloomberg, demonstrates “that ISPs are happy to use words like ‘unlimited’ and ‘no throttling’ in their public statements, but then give themselves the right to throttle certain traffic by burying some esoteric language in the fine print” of service contracts. “As a result, it’s especially important that consumers have tools like this to measure whether or not their ISP is throttling certain services.”

Using Virtual Reality in Beneficial Ways

Virtual reality is technology that’s advancing from being fringe to something that’s gradually becoming implemented more in the 21st century. This trend will only continue with lower costs of materials for virtualization and improved software.

The way virtual reality works is obvious enough — some sort of apparatus that covers the eyes and is able to transmit visual of a virtual world is required. Virtual worlds of course will have sounds to make them more immersive, and perhaps in the future there will be an option to stimulate other senses as well. It isn’t unreasonable to expect the possibility of VR technology that somehow provides the replication of smell, taste, and feel. Eventually there is likely to be VR technology with direct brain stimulation too.

Virtual reality is often presented these days as a fun way to spend time through gaming, and while it can be beneficial to provide people with an escape that doesn’t involve hard drugs in a world that’s often crazy and fucked up, virtual reality has other uses that deserve to be known about more.

One of the most notable recent findings is a study finding that people recall information better through virtual reality. Since knowledge is power, the enhanced ability of people to recall knowledge would be helpful in a variety of scenarios, such as training people for meaningful work, keeping fond memories more effectively, and assisting in educational endeavors. This could be combined with other research finding that drawing pictures is a strong way to remember information.

Most people are not especially good multi-taskers — the research tells us that only a few percent of people are “super taskers,” or those with the ability to focus on multiple tasks well. For whatever reason this is, it’s a general principle that human beings tend to perform better when their primary focus is on one task at a given time. Virtual reality thus provides an immersive environment that should allow people to focus more on one task than a traditional 2D learning environment.

VR has been shown to reduce the fear children have for needles in one study. This makes sense due to the distraction from VR’s intense immersion. Since the fear of needles is a suffocating one for some children, something as simple as a VR experience of going to an amusement park or a beach would be immensely helpful.

There’s a problem of too many people avoiding vital vaccinations in the United States, leading to diseases that should have been extinguished in the 20th century suddenly making recurrences in certain parts of the country. This is another example of how technology can be used to solve a real problem and protect society.

VR’s distraction could be extended to surgeries where local anathesia is used, thus protecting people from pain. It has already been found that virtual reality therapy is effective at reducing pain in hospitalized patients. It isn’t entirely clear why, but it may be because the VR experience is so immersive that the brain is unable to concurrently process the pain stimuli along with the VR.

It has been theorized that people have a fixed capacity for attention, and it has also been thought that when people are expecting physical pain in the immediate future, they tend to feel it more intensely. This may be because instead of the pain being a surprise, the increased focus on it before the pain hits may cause it to be felt more strongly.

Virtual reality will also have an important role in the journalism of the future. Studies have found that VR makes journalism more immersive, such as the VR story about factory farming being successful at raising more awareness of the horrific treatment often endured by animals.

VR can thus be an effective tool at fighting corruption and injustice in an era where young people generally — for whatever reason — are reading less than past generations. It has been found that too much use of fantasy-like elements in VR distract from the realism of the story and can make them less credible, however.

VR has also been referred to as an “empathy machine.” It’s conceivable that VR could be used for rehabilitation — use of the technology has already shown promise at increasing empathy levels, and VR shows promising mental health treatment results. The immersive virtual experience of owning a body in VR space has at times shown to really have an impact at altering perceptions and making important impressions.

In sum, while interactions in real life will always have importance that’s often most meaningful, there are many ways that virtual reality may improve the livelihoods of others.

Considerations for Securing and Optimizing the Internet of Things

Devices from smartphones to wifi-connected refrigerators represents what’s called the “Internet of Things,” billions of devices that are connected to the Internet. As the number of devices with Internet connectivity is set to expand significantly in the near future, it is worth examining how to best use the IoT for the future.

It is first of all worth noting that there will be numerous security vulnerabilities opened for consumers because of the expansion of the Internet of Things. Of the tens of billions of devices that will be added over the next several years, few of them will likely have regular security updates.

Security updates are important in computer security because they allow for vulnerabilities in software to be patched. While vulnerabilities in devices are known and persist as unpatched, it creates opportunities for adversaries to exploit them.

Billions of new vulnerabilities create problems because the way computer security tends to work, it may only one vulnerability on a network to compromise much else. That’s part of why defense in computer security has been so difficult — the attacker may only need one opening, while the defender may have to defend everything.

For example, say an adversary manages to compromise someone’s phone. The phone may then later connect to the refrigerator to prepare refreshments, further allowing the spread of malicious software from one infected device to another. This process may repeat itself again if the refrigerator were able to compromise the Internet-connected router, and once the router is compromised, the thermostat could be compromised too, making a home too hot or cold while driving up electricity costs.

There are a variety of realistic enough scenarios like this, which are more concerning when more sensitive items such as computers accessing bank accounts and home cameras are included. There are of course solutions to these concerns though.

It is probably better that some devices (such as pacemakers) are simply never designed to have Internet connectivity to begin with. Thermostats and refrigerators are the type of devices which clearly don’t require Internet connectivity to fulfill their intended purpose. Letting them be connected to the Internet may be convenient, but it may very well not be worth the increased potential of compromising other devices and being compromised themselves, leading to substantial costs in unintended heating or spoiled food.

For the devices that are for whatever reason connected to the Internet, it’s better if there could be multiple networks with strong security in a home or building if possible. That way, if an IoT device is compromised on one network, devices on another network have another barrier of protection against being compromised.

This relates to a concept in security known as security by compartmentalization. Since all of today’s software contains flaws — vulnerabilities that can be exploited — the approach of compartmentalization seeks to limit damage before it can spread too far.

In terms of optimization, some things are worthwhile to have connected. Different machines or robots should be communicating with each other on a task such as how many raw materials are needed. This will save humans the need to say this, allowing them to focus on more productive tasks than those that merely report details.

As cooperation can be powerful among humans, so too can it be among machines and other devices. It’s going to require strong security practices such as implementing compartmentalization, having standards on security updates, and using better encryption schemes for software, but it can be done, and it should be done. Since technology has no moral imperative, what humans do with technology will likely either create dystopias or utopias. It’s a question of whether the Internet of Things will lead primarily to chaos or to widespread benefits.

Using Spectral Cloaking for Object Invisibility

An example of when science fiction becomes science fact. This advance could be used in many different ways, including in digital security, with out of sight possibly meaning out of mind.

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Researchers and engineers have long sought ways to conceal objects by manipulating how light interacts with them. A new study offers the first demonstration of invisibility cloaking based on the manipulation of the frequency (color) of light waves as they pass through an object, a fundamentally new approach that overcomes critical shortcomings of existing cloaking technologies.

The approach could be applicable to securing data transmitted over fiber optic lines and also help improve technologies for sensing, telecommunications and information processing, researchers say. The concept, theoretically, could be extended to make 3D objects invisible from all directions; a significant step in the development of practical invisibility cloaking technologies.

Most current cloaking devices can fully conceal the object of interest only when the object is illuminated with just one color of light. However, sunlight and most other light sources are broadband, meaning that they contain many colors. The new device, called a spectral invisibility cloak, is designed to completely hide arbitrary objects under broadband illumination.

The spectral cloak operates by selectively transferring energy from certain colors of the light wave to other colors. After the wave has passed through the object, the device restores the light to its original state. Researchers demonstrate the new approach in Optica, The Optical Society’s journal for high impact research.

“Our work represents a breakthrough in the quest for invisibility cloaking,” said José Azaña, National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS), Montréal, Canada. “We have made a target object fully invisible to observation under realistic broadband illumination by propagating the illumination wave through the object with no detectable distortion, exactly as if the object and cloak were not present.”

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While the new design would need further development before it could be translated into a Harry Potter-style, wearable invisibility cloak, the demonstrated spectral cloaking device could be useful for a range of security goals. For example, current telecommunication systems use broadband waves as data signals to transfer and process information. Spectral cloaking could be used to selectively determine which operations are applied to a light wave and which are “made invisible” to it over certain periods of time. This could prevent an eavesdropper from gathering information by probing a fiber optic network with broadband light.

The overall concept of reversible, user-defined spectral energy redistribution could also find applications beyond invisibility cloaking. For example, selectively removing and subsequently reinstating colors in the broadband waves that are used as telecommunication data signals could allow more data to be transmitted over a given link, helping to alleviate logjams as data demands continue to grow. Or, the technique could be used to minimize some key problems in today’s broadband telecommunication links, for example by reorganizing the signal energy spectrum to make it less vulnerable to dispersion, nonlinear phenomena and other undesired effects that impair data signals.

Victory for Privacy as Supreme Court Rules Warrantless Phone Location Tracking Unconstitutional

This is a very important ruling that should serve as a good precedent for technologically-based privacy rights in the future.

The Supreme Court handed down a landmark opinion today in Carpenter v. United States, ruling 5-4 that the Fourth Amendment protects cell phone location information. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court recognized that location information, collected by cell providers like Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon, creates a “detailed chronicle of a person’s physical presence compiled every day, every moment over years.” As a result, police must now get a warrant before obtaining this data.

This is a major victory. Cell phones are essential to modern life, but the way that cell phones operate—by constantly connecting to cell towers to exchange data—makes it possible for cell providers to collect information on everywhere that each phone—and by extension, each phone’s owner—has been for years in the past. As the Court noted, not only does access to this kind of information allow the government to achieve “near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user,” but, because phone companies collect it for every device, the “police need not even know in advance whether they want to follow a particular individual, or when.”

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Perhaps the most significant part of today’s ruling for the future is its explicit recognition that individuals can maintain an expectation of privacy in information that they provide to third parties. The Court termed that a “rare” case, but it’s clear that other invasive surveillance technologies, particularly those than can track individuals through physical space, are now ripe for challenge in light of Carpenter. Expect to see much more litigation on this subject from EFF and our friends.

Noninvasive Technique to Correct Vision Shows Promise in Early Trials

A potentially safer and more effective solution to a widespread problem.

But, while vision correction surgery has a relatively high success rate, it is an invasive procedure, subject to post-surgical complications, and in rare cases permanent vision loss. In addition, laser-assisted vision correction surgeries such as laser in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) and photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) still use ablative technology, which can thin and in some cases weaken the cornea.

Columbia Engineering researcher Sinisa Vukelic has developed a new non-invasive approach to permanently correct vision that shows great promise in preclinical models. His method uses a femtosecond oscillator, an ultrafast laser that delivers pulses of very low energy at high repetition rate, for selective and localized alteration of the biochemical and biomechanical properties of corneal tissue. The technique, which changes the tissue’s macroscopic geometry, is non-surgical and has fewer side effects and limitations than those seen in refractive surgeries. For instance, patients with thin corneas, dry eyes, and other abnormalities cannot undergo refractive surgery. The study, which could lead to treatment for myopia, hyperopia, astigmatism, and irregular astigmatism, was published May 14 in Nature Photonics.

“We think our study is the first to use this laser output regimen for noninvasive change of corneal curvature or treatment of other clinical problems,” says Vukelic, who is a lecturer in discipline in the department of mechanical engineering. His method uses a femtosecond oscillator to alter biochemical and biomechanical properties of collagenous tissue without causing cellular damage and tissue disruption. The technique allows for enough power to induce a low-density plasma within the set focal volume but does not convey enough energy to cause damage to the tissue within the treatment region.

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“Refractive surgery has been around for many years, and although it is a mature technology, the field has been searching for a viable, less invasive alternative for a long time,” says Leejee H. Suh, Miranda Wong Tang Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the Columbia University Medical Center, who was not involved with the study. “Vukelic’s next-generation modality shows great promise. This could be a major advance in treating a much larger global population and address the myopia pandemic.”

Vukelic’s group is currently building a clinical prototype and plans to start clinical trials by the end of the year. He is also looking to develop a way to predict corneal behavior as a function of laser irradiation, how the cornea might deform if a small circle or an ellipse, for example, were treated. If researchers know how the cornea will behave, they will be able to personalize the treatment — they could scan a patient’s cornea and then use Vukelic’s algorithm to make patient-specific changes to improve his/her vision.

“What’s especially exciting is that our technique is not limited to ocular media — it can be used on other collagen-rich tissues,” Vukelic adds. “We’ve also been working with Professor Gerard Ateshian’s lab to treat early osteoarthritis, and the preliminary results are very, very encouraging. We think our non-invasive approach has the potential to open avenues to treat or repair collagenous tissue without causing tissue damage.”