Category Archives: Singularity Watch

60% of web traffic now on mobile devices

Qualify this under “general musings.”

But: the majority of web traffic is now on smartphones, tablets, etc.

I remember how much grief I used to get for saying the PC was slowly disappearing. I started saying that about 10 years ago. Whenever I said this I was accused of saying the PC was going to  “die.” No. What I said was it would slowly disappear from most people’s lives because they wouldn’t need one, and it would eventually turn back into what it was originally: a tool and/or toy for engineers, scientists, hobbyists, gamers, and nerds. That process was already visible to me in the middle of the last decade, although as with most things, this takes time, it’s no more an overnight phenomenon than any other major shift; it takes years, but the inexorable nature of exponential growth eventually becomes obvious to everyone.

I’d say we’re very nearly there. About the only thing the average person–not the engineer, the geek, the gamer, etc., the average person–needs a PC for is if they’re doing a lot of typing. How much of the population is that? A few million in the US I’d wager. Some accountants, some writers, lawyers perhaps, that sort of thing.

I’m going to enjoy the PC as a hobby again. I do wonder at times how much effort there’s going to be to actually make it difficult to make your own computer though. Linux and BSD will likely be the future there I’d think.  The turn of the next decade should be interesting to watch in that regard.

Yes, yes, I get it. You will probably always want a PC. So will I. I just honestly wondering if corporate and government entities are going to start going out of their way to make that tough.

Technology & the end of capitalism as we know it?

This video by the always-fantastic CGP Grey is more far-reaching than most of his videos, and hits on several items we’ve discussed on Dean’s World in the past. For those of you still around (I’d guess well under 100% of what this site was at one point), I would merely note that this hits on something I’ve said many times before: we do seem to be getting into territory where we no longer even understand the economy let alone have a way to fix it:

I honestly have to wonder if the “socialist revolution” envisioned by Marx won’t become a reality not because anything Marx said was right (in fact I’m inclined to think he was wrong about most things) but because we literally hit a place where there are almost no jobs left even for bright talented people, and we are faced with whether to accept a situation where all available resources are owned by a tiny fraction of the populace, or whether we start entering a Star Trek-y future in which resource scarcity is no longer what drives society and “competition” becomes an almost meaningless concept, and we have some form of socialism-by-default because the only alternative is mass revolution and complete social collapse.

The horse analogy here is much more uncomfortably close to how I see the future than a lot of my friends seem willing to even look at:

What will we do when there really are hardly any jobs requiring humans for much of anything except to say “please give me stuff?”

I’ve thought for some time now we should start thinking about these questions more. Alas, most people seem content to either watch the TV, play video games, or engage in pointless partisan left/right questions instead.

I’ve spent much of the last 10 years being told I’m crazy when I mention these things, or accused of having an ideological agenda, which has been rather crazy-making,  as I sit and watch these trends unfold and when I say, “No, I really don’t have an agenda, I really do think this is what’s going to happen and I don’t know what to do about it but we ought to be thinking about it.

Nor do I have an answer now, except to say that I’m really pretty sure that the human species is now facing questions much bigger than anything, and I do mean anything, it has ever faced before. One possiblity is dystopia. Another is utopia. Likely it’ll be somewhere between those two, but I honestly don’t know what will happen, except I think all the old economic models will pretty much collapse.

Atomic Computing

It has been possible for some years now to use atoms to represent 0s and 1s as part of a computing scheme. Getting people to believe this is actually possible and practical seems to be hard, although this new demonstration by IBM should make it clearer just how much potential there is at this level.

And if you’re sitting there thinking “yes but is it practical?” contemplate that the first major commercially sold electronic computer used 5,200 vacuum tubes, had the equivalent of about 1K of memory, weighed 13 metric tons, consumed and performed about 1,900 operations per second, and cost millions of dollars. What is just a demonstration today can become an everyday reality in the blink of an eye in historical terms.

The exponential growth curve of technology is not going to be hitting a plateau any time soon methinks.

Unmanned fighters in near future

The US Navy has launched the first full fighter-sized robot plane from an aircraft carrier. Those of us who think growth in technology is linear rather than exponential often make the mistake of thinking this is no big deal because it hasn’t landed on a carrier yet. My prediction is they’ll have planes like this landing on carriers in fairly short time… and that by the end of this decade (which is only 6.5 years away) we’ll not only have them taking off and landing from carriers, but we’ll also be beginning to discuss publicly when and how to begin phasing out human pilots for most purposes. (Well, some people already are, I just mean that’s when the general public will become aware that it’s seriously under consideration.)

The thought of fighters, not to mention bombers, doing combat at accelerations and rolls and speeds that would kill a human in the cockpit is a little frightening–a machine can handle 20, 30, 50 Gs easily I would guess. But it also looks pretty inevitable now, and I don’t just mean “within my lifetime,” I mean within the next decade or so.

By the way, at this point I’m also calling mid-2020s (I’d say 2026 at the latest) before we begin openly contemplating making self-driving cars pretty much mandatory and openly questioning whether we should even allow people without special needs and training to drive themselves. To be clear, that’s when the discussions will begin in earnest.

Technological growth is rarely linear. That’s worth remembering.

Driverless Car Update

So now the team at Oxford University is getting into the act, and they are setting their sites on finding a way to cheaply retrofit existing cars to boot.

Audi, Volkswagen, and others are also still at work on it of course. Google is projecting 3-5 years before general availability. It still looks like my prediction that some rich person will purchase one just to have it as a toy by the end of this year may be overoptimistic–although on the flip side, that may have already happened and no one knows it yet.

This is especially exciting news for the visually impaired, although currently car companies are being cautious in what they say they’ll offer; they’re starting small, by incorporating more and more features they’re calling “driver assistance.”

I remain pretty staunch in my position that by 2020 these cars are going to be generally available.

No More Saturday Mail?

It appears the U.S. Post Office will stop delivering regular mail on weekends later this year.

I’m not surprised. I expect to see them further and further contract. Although I hate to leave the business entirely to private enterprise, I’m not sure the postal service is relevant anymore. I can think of only one or two things I use it for, and if you took away my use of Netflix, that would be something I do maybe a half dozen times a year. Mostly, what’s in my mailbox is spam, just like my email.

On the other hand, these days I regularly talk to friends on three different continents and in at least four different countries, daily, for free. I like living in the future, don’t you? :-)

Driverless Car Liability Non-Issue

First I was told driverless cars weren’t technically feasible in our lifetimes. Then I was told they would be too expensive to be practical. Then I was told it would be too regulated by government for anyone to make a profit. Now that every one of those hurdles was easily overcome or turned out to be groundless, the normally sensible Megan McArdle says driverless cars will be stopped by lawsuit liability, and then goes further and suggests the “fix” for that will be to require the driverless car to have someone behind the wheel, which will render the technology moot.

I call bullshit. I and others have heard these lawsuit liability arguments before and the answer is always the same: You don’t need the driver to be in the car. The solution is a regulatory environment (gasp! yes! we actually need those!) which makes the responsible party the owner of the vehicle, just like the owner of a horse or a dog or whatever is responsible for the actions of that animal whether the owner is present when the animal behaves inappropriately or not, or just like you’re responsible now if you forget your baby in a hot car and the baby suffocates. In this scenario the owner of the vehicle might then turn around and sue the automaker of course, but that’s happened in other industries and usually sorts itself out. As long as the direct liability follows the owner of the vehicle, or whoever last pressed the “go” button on it to send it off somewhere on the mission where the accident happened, the issue will sort itself. I predict this will be as much of an issue as all the other objections raised to it to date, i.e. a challenge not a massive insurmountable roadblock.

All it takes is that inconceivable thing that apparently libertarianoid/rightists can no longer imagine existing anywhere: a government policy that makes sense. One of the reasons I’ve become so skeptical of so many libertarian and/or right-ish economic thinkers is what I have begun to think of as the libertarian, “government can never, ever do anything right, ever, except maybe blow things up, and will always cause disaster no matter what it does” mentality. It’s become less a thoughtful position than a twitch in some corners, and I say that with all due respect to McArdle, who’s usually pretty damned sensible.

Yes, liberal/leftists have their own incredible array of petty hypocrisies, stupidities, and blind spots too. It’s called “being human” folks, and no matter where you sit on the political spectrum you’re going to have those.

Anyway, on the self-driving cars: First it was “oh they’ll never work.” Now that they indisputably do work, it was “the government won’t allow them on the road,” but now multiple states already do. Then it was “they’ll cost way too much money to make” but it turns out it won’t. Then it was “no one will trust them,” but tons of people are saying they’d love one, and multiple car companies, having researched the market, are promising to produce them–not just one company taking a risk, but the entire industry in multiple countries has researched it and believes consumers want them. The only remaining argument that seems to have any legs at all is “the liability costs will be sky high,” but the simple fix is, you make the operator responsible for the vehicle just like you do now, but define “operator” as “whoever turned it on and sent it off on the mission where it got in trouble.”

The only hitch will be if something goes drastically wrong and there’s a huge series of calamities, all at once, due to a design flaw. Which all the big car companies have gone through and managed to survive. Otherwise there’ll be a few settlements, most likely, and progress will continue, because these things will be safer than human drivers by far.

Driverless cars are coming. Period. As I said a few years ago, the only really interesting question left is when they start ratcheting up the requirements for human drivers to make it tougher to get a license, and then when they will start moving to outlaw human drivers entirely because it’s too unsafe and irresponsible to allow humans to drive on public roads anymore. I give that maybe 20 years before people begin thinking seriously about it.

Robots Genuinely Taking Jobs From People?

For years and years I said it doesn’t matter when jobs get replaced by automation, it didn’t matter, because it freed people up to do other more creative and interesting things. And I do believe that’s been a general trend for generations. That said, I increasingly find myself wondering how much longer it will be before there are essentially almost no jobs people are needed for.

What will “wealth” and “capital” mean in a society when most of the population has no clear purpose? I’m just not sure. But I’m not the only one who’s wondering, so do professors at places like MIT.

I’m no longer so blithe about assuming this is a self-solving problem. I think one problem futurists have always faced is predicting future events too soon (i.e. before they actually happen, even though they eventually do) or predicting things will happen a lot later than they do. But I suspect we’re in a decade where we’re growing to a point where an ever-increasing and noticeable percentage of the population actually doensn’t have anything they’re needed for, strictly speaking. And I wonder what happens then?

The High Price of Materialism

The funny thing is, there was a time when there would have been nothing at all controversial about this video. I remember, I was there. Yet now, somehow, today it seems like it is controversial:

There is not a word of that I disagree with. I also think it’s describing the issues we will wrestle harder and harder with in the emerging 21st century economy, as everything our way of life is dependent on is changing so rapidly no one can keep up. The better we have the lower two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs covered, the faster we seem to forget or are frustrated in our desire to climb to the higher layers.

But I do know one thing: the least happy people I know are often the most driven to “succeed” and define “success” as acquisition of power and status and money (which, really, are all part of the same thing, and are in my view much like a narcotic: pleasant, positive, potentially useful, and seductively poisonous). Living a life where you consider “competition” the ultimate in nobility is extremely likely to end in misery, like the Silverback Gorilla Male who takes over his harem and then just waits until he’s old or injured so he can be killed and have his place taken. It’s not a happy life.

And I hope it’s not the type of life we’re evolving toward as a species.

(Thanks Paul.)

Self-Driving Car Update

One of my New Year’s predictions for 2012 was that the first self-driving car would go on sale this year. Now, what I meant by that was that someone somewhere would sell one, in the same way that you can buy an Asimo robot right now if you’ve got 7 figures handy. We’ll see if that comes true, but it’s starting to look like the growth in self-driving cars will be faster than I expected even on the consumer end; BMW plans on having semi-autonomous cars available for sale to the general public next year, and General Motors is promising same by the middle of the decade. GM is also planning to have the fully autonomous car available for sale by 2020–Which pretty much matches with what my longer-term prediction has been for a while now, that such things will be available before the decade is out, because if GM plans on having it by 2020 you can expect others will be to market sooner.

At this point the self-driving car is a solved problem from a technical standpoint. No special modifications to the roadways required. In fact, it’s so well-solved they’re now turning to much more mundane questions like how robot cars will communicate to pedestrians.

Technologically, it’s a done deal. It’s a matter of working out the legalities (which are nowhere near as hard as some people seem to think), as well as cost and reliability factors. Just as with all other proven and working technologies, it will get cheaper and more reliable all the time. First, rich people. Then, upper middle class people. Then, middle class. Then, lower-middle-class. Then, everybody. To me, the only remaining question is how long before we start ratcheting up requirements for humans to even be allowed to drive instead of robots? 2030-ish perhaps?