Sunday, February 15, 2015

Attack of the Killer Bots

"There's a great big beautiful tomorrow/Shining at the end of every day."
--- Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress, 1967.

I was thinking about our big beautiful tomorrow recently when I watched a video produced by a Google subsidiary called Boston Dynamics.

In it, they introduced their latest invention, a robotic dog called Spot who weighs in at 160 pounds, can run, jump and climb hills and stairs with the best of them.

The company has produced several other “animals” that run faster and jump higher than their human overlords. They share one other trait: they are terrifying.

Spot is no Golden Retriever.  He is a headless, tailless menacing machine that looks like it was rejected by “Star Wars” as too evil looking.

During the video presentation, a Boston Dynamics employee stepped into camera range and delivered a swift kick to Spot’s midsection. The “dog” staggered briefly, legs flayed, then regained his balance. You could almost hear the growls.
When they figure out how to pack a brain into one of these contraptions, Spot and his buddies, remembering that kick, may someday gather in packs and chase us off a cliff.

Or, as one wag remarked, “An artificially intelligent elevator will ask him "Are you the guy who kicked the robo-dog?" just as the doors are closing.”  Fade to black.

We’ve been assured that we have nothing to fear from robots, even nightmarish creatures like Spot. And being a nation that embraces technology, we believe it.
Then we read this recent news dispatch:

 “When a South Korean woman invested in a robot vacuum cleaner, the idea was to leave her trustworthy gadget to do its work while she took a break from household chores.

“Instead, the 52-year-old resident of Changwon city ended up being the victim of what many believe is a peek into a dystopian future in which supposedly benign robots turn against their human masters.

“The woman, whose name is being withheld, was taking a nap on the floor at home when the vacuum cleaner locked on to her hair and sucked it up, apparently mistaking it for dust.

 “Unable to free herself, she called the fire department with a “desperate rescue plea” and was separated from the robot’s clutches by paramedics, according to a South Korean newspaper.”

Then, there was this:

“A Swedish company has been fined 25,000 kronor ($3,000) after a malfunctioning robot attacked and almost killed one of its workers at a factory north of Stockholm.

“The incident took place when an industrial worker was trying to carry out maintenance on a defective machine generally used to lift heavy rocks. Thinking he had cut off the power supply, the man approached the robot with no sense of trepidation.

“But the robot suddenly came to life and grabbed a tight hold of the victim's head. The man succeeded in defending himself but not before suffering serious injuries.”

OK, so things go wrong sometimes. But what happens when things go wrong with something more deadly than a vacuum cleaner? Think of Spot with a heat-seeking missile strapped to his back.

The day of the Killer Bots is not that far away.

Gen. Robert Cone, the chief of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, was quoted in a published report that he thinks there’s a chance the size of the military’s brigade combat teams will shrink by a quarter in the coming years from 4,000 total troops down to 3,000.

Picking up the slack, he said, could be a fleet of robotic killing machines akin to the ground versions of the unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, increasingly used by the world’s armies.

We are already beginning to develop robots that can coordinate autonomously—that is, with no human input—in order to complete team objectives. Just last August, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences invented a robotic swarm consisting of 1,000 small robots that worked to form shapes.

So here we stand at the threshold of a great big beautiful tomorrow populated by robotic killing machines that can think for themselves.

No less a visionary than Stephen Hawking, the preeminent physicist, has warned that success in creating artificial intelligence “would be the biggest event in human history, [but] unfortunately, it might also be the last.”

It’s serious enough that in Geneva this past year, 118 nations present at a UN conference agreed about the need to tackle the future threat of robotic killing systems, according to Human Rights Watch.

Abandon the research and development of robotics? No, but let us proceed with caution.

Let’s hope this is one case where the human race doesn’t learn a lesson through trial and error.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Jobs Report

There is enough data on jobs released in this country each month to choke a hippopotamus. It is discussed, debated and analyzed, politicized and probed until it becomes a statistical Tower of Babel.

I don’t pretend to understand it. But I do know this. Job hunting for journalists is treacherous. Openings are so rare these days that they’re passed around the Internet like so many puppy photos.

It doesn’t matter that they usually read something like this:

“An award-winning bi-weekly located in the Midwest is looking for a sports editor to lead a two-person staff. The Global Observer, located in Feed Lot, South Dakota serves roughly 2000 square miles of largely uninhabited territory.

“The winning applicant will direct coverage of sports at our only school in addition to the weekly cow chip throwing contests that pit our many local taverns against each other. Coverage of 4-H Clubs and church potlucks is also required.

“The editor is expected to assign, edit, write, shoot pictures and videos, design the pages and do light janitorial work in the office. It’s the perfect opportunity for you young folks who didn’t get that internship at the Washington Post. Salary is negotiable but it will be helpful if you can hunt and kill your own food.”

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But only slightly.

Here’s an honest-to-God posting from a New Orleans business publication that appeared recently, admonishing we can smell desperation from a mile away (strangely, it’s reminiscent of bacon). So take the time and write an original cover letter if you want to be considered a candidate.

“… send me your mind-blowing cover letter. If you don’t think it’s mind-blowing, at least make it sincere and original. If it’s lame, I might just post it here so that you are mocked and scorned…”

Sound like someone you’d want to work for? Me neither. Which proves that writing a job posting takes as much care and thought as answering one.

This example is more like it:

“We want to add some talent to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative team. Every serious candidate should have a proven track record of conceiving, reporting and writing stellar investigative pieces that provoke change. However, our ideal candidate has also cursed out an editor, had spokespeople hang up on them in anger and threatened to resign at least once because some fool wanted to screw around with their perfect lede.

“For those unaware of Florida’s reputation, it’s arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery. The 9/11 terrorists trained here. Bush read My Pet Goat here…

“Our new governor once ran a health care company that got hit with a record fine because of rampant Medicare fraud. We have hurricanes, wildfires, tar balls, bedbugs, diseased citrus trees and an entire town overrun by giant roaches (only one of those things is made up). And we have Disney World and beaches, so bring the whole family.”

Then there is this one, courtesy of Kevin Roderick’s LA Observed website, which goes to show you than no matter how well written, it’s a tough sell:

“This position is responsible for management of the online Antarctic Sun newspaper and management of the photo library archive. The Editor will create a budget of story ideas and timelines, conduct interviews, write articles, take photographs, edit, obtain approvals, and publish news and feature content about the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) research and operations.

“You must pass rigorous medical and dental examinations before going to the Antarctic. Antarctica is an extreme, remote environment, and medical facilities are limited. U.S. Antarctic Program facilities are equipped and staffed to provide routine ambulatory care that would be expected in a U.S. clinic, and have the capability to stabilize and manage a range of emergency medical and dental conditions before transporting patients off the continent. However, medical evacuations take a lot of time and effort and place others at risk, even when the weather allows travel. Remote field camps and research vessels pose additional difficulties. Therefore, the physical qualification …process administered seeks to screen out people with conditions that cannot effectively be managed on the Ice or aboard ship.”

No mention of pay but I assume it’s in cold, hard cash.

I’ve had it both ways in my career. I worked for publications small enough that job listings suggested covering Palmdale was a notch above the Paris beat.  I’ve worked for newspapers so big that applicants were told they needed a Pulitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize and a Medal of Honor, awarded simultaneously, just to get in the door.    

One of the most infamous job postings is from a literary journal is Britain warning that “Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the Internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.”

At least they were honest. 

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Sky Is Falling

Ah, the joy of flying. It brings out the animal in all of us. Airports resemble stockyards. An aquatic hierarchy governs boarding: Big Fish in front, sardines in the back.

Then there’s the bad food, bad air, bad equipment and a guaranteed bad attitude when you deplane. Nobody is going to remember this as the Golden Era of Air Travel.

And it just got worse.

Faced with the gloomy prospect of a long flight, any ray of sunshine, anything that could put a smile on your face is to be embraced.

For me, and many others, it was the SkyMall magazine, in the seat pocket in front of you, just behind the dog-eared airline magazine whose crossword puzzle had been filled out in ink and the barf bag.

A veritable kaleidoscope of items nobody really needed, it was nonetheless a diversion that helped you forget that your knees were pushed up under your chin and that the guy in front you just went into full recline mode while the kid in back of you kicked the seat.

Besides, it beat the hell out of reading the emergency safety instructions card.

Alas, SkyMall is no more. The magazine is a victim of the same forces that batter many publications theses days. Its owners said it had been affected by new regulations that allow passengers to use their smartphones and tablets during flights. 

"With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the SkyMall in-flight catalog," Scott Wiley, the CEO and CFO of Xhibit Corp., SkyMall's parent company, said in court filings.

Another scalp on the belt of progress.

But there was more to it than that. It was undercut by websites like Amazon that sold similar products but at a cheaper price. And its parent company was involved in some questionable business decisions.

No matter. Its owners are requesting an auction in late March to begin the process of liquidating remaining merchandise.

SkyMall, Inc. was founded in 1990 by a bunch of guys with a great idea: "get customers to order within 20 minutes of landing and have the goods waiting for them on arrival."
That would have required SkyMall to operate warehouses near major airports. According to one report, this business model translated into a $6 million loss per year.

Then they had a better idea. They wouldn't carry any products, they'd just be a magazine where other companies could advertise. These companies would either pay a flat advertising fee or pay SkyMall a percentage of each transaction. The companies that advertise in SkyMall would be responsible to "drop ship" their products directly to the customer, according to a story in Atlantic.

But what products! 

A bar contained in a replica antique Italian world globe. A spatula with a headlight for flipping burgers at night. A head massager. An underwater cell phone system.  A paper towel holder with USB ports. A pizza scented T-shirt. A mounted squirrel head. A laser guided pool cue.

But wait, there’s more. A selection of lawn ornaments such as a ceramic Sasquatch, 8-foot-tall giraffe, or "muscular god of the sea." A dainty wooden box that emits laughter when opened. A living room end table that doubles as a litter box. A foot tanner, a high heel bottle holder, a Star Wars Darth Vader toaster or a glow-in-the-dark toilet seat.

For the person who has everything there was the Velociraptor Dinosaur Statue. It was described this way:

“This Jurassic-sized, meat-eating prehistoric replica dinosaur statue is realistically sculpted with terrifying teeth, retracted foot claws and an S-shaped neck, then cast in quality designer resin and hand-painted with powerfully convincing color and texture as faithful to the ancient species as possible.

“This large-scale, display-quality sculpture transforms any home, garden, restaurant.”

The last sentence can only be described as an understatement.

There is an upside to the decline and fall of Skymall, especially if you’re an airline CEO.

According to an article on the Wired website, the company’s bankruptcy could improve airlines’ bottom lines, because they’ll no longer carry the catalog in every seat-back pocket.

Airlines are obsessed with cutting weight, because lighter planes need less fuel, and jet fuel is, depending upon who you ask, an airline’s no. 1 or no. 2 expense. That’s why airlines are investing in thinner seats, lighter trash compactors, and entertainment systems that use sleeker electronics.

So tossing those catalogs will save airlines like Southwest (which already planned to ditch them), United, and American hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Will the savings quickly be passed onto the traveling public? When pigs fly first class. Or Velociraptor statues become all the rage.

I’ll miss SkyMall.  I’ll rue the day I didn’t order the Justin Beiber travel kit or the sippy wine cups.

Like air travel itself, the fun is gone.