(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”*…

 

We are surrounded by hysteria about the future of artificial intelligence and robotics—hysteria about how powerful they will become, how quickly, and what they will do to jobs.

I recently saw a story in ­MarketWatch that said robots will take half of today’s jobs in 10 to 20 years. It even had a graphic to prove the numbers.

The claims are ludicrous. (I try to maintain professional language, but sometimes …) For instance, the story appears to say that we will go from one million grounds and maintenance workers in the U.S. to only 50,000 in 10 to 20 years, because robots will take over those jobs. How many robots are currently operational in those jobs? Zero. How many realistic demonstrations have there been of robots working in this arena? Zero. Similar stories apply to all the other categories where it is suggested that we will see the end of more than 90 percent of jobs that currently require physical presence at some particular site.

Mistaken predictions lead to fears of things that are not going to happen, whether it’s the wide-scale destruction of jobs, the Singularity, or the advent of AI that has values different from ours and might try to destroy us. We need to push back on these mistakes. But why are people making them? I see seven common reasons…

Mistaken extrapolations, limited imagination, and other common mistakes that distract us from thinking more productively about the future: Rodney Brooks on “The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions.”

* Roy Amara, co-founder of The Institute for the Future

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As we sharpen our analyses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1995 that The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology chronicled the World Wide Web in its A Day in the Life of Cyberspace project.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Media Lab had invited submissions for the days leading up to October 10, 1995, on a variety of issues related to technology and the Internet, including privacy, expression, age, wealth, faith, body, place, languages, and the environment.  Then on October 10, a team at MIT collected, edited, and published the contributions to “create a mosaic of life at the dawn of the digital revolution that is transforming our planet.”

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Written by LW

October 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

“It is not enough for code to work”*…

 

It’s been said that software is “eating the world.” More and more, critical systems that were once controlled mechanically, or by people, are coming to depend on code. This was perhaps never clearer than in the summer of 2015, when on a single day, United Airlines grounded its fleet because of a problem with its departure-management system; trading was suspended on the New York Stock Exchange after an upgrade; the front page of The Wall Street Journal’s website crashed; and Seattle’s 911 system went down again, this time because a different router failed. The simultaneous failure of so many software systems smelled at first of a coordinated cyberattack. Almost more frightening was the realization, late in the day, that it was just a coincidence…

Our standard framework for thinking about engineering failures—reflected, for instance, in regulations for medical devices—was developed shortly after World War II, before the advent of software, for electromechanical systems. The idea was that you make something reliable by making its parts reliable (say, you build your engine to withstand 40,000 takeoff-and-landing cycles) and by planning for the breakdown of those parts (you have two engines). But software doesn’t break… Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination…

Invisible– but all too real and painful– problems, and the attempts to make them visible: “The Coming Software Apocalypse.”

* Robert C. Martin, Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

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As we Code for America, we might recall that it was on this date in 1983 that Microsoft released its first software application, Microsoft Word 1.0.  For use with MS-DOS compatible systems, Word was the first word processing software to make extensive use of a computer mouse. (Not coincidentally, Microsoft had released a computer mouse for IBM-compatible PCs earlier in the year.)  A free demo version of Word was included with the current edition of PC World—  the first time a floppy disk was included with a magazine.

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Written by LW

September 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“There are no sermons in stones. It is easier to get a spark out of a stone than a moral.”*…

 

In 1880 the Census Office and the National Museum in Washington, D.C. conducted a study of building stones of the United States and collected a set of reference specimens from working quarries. This collection was first displayed at the centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and was subsequently known as the Centennial Collection of U.S. Building Stones. Descriptions of producing quarries and commercial building uses in construction across the country were compiled for the report of the 10th Census of the United States in 1880. This collection of stones, augmented with building stones from other countries, was then placed on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1942, a committee was appointed to consider whether any worthwhile use could be made of the collection. It was decided that a study of actual weathering on such a great variety of stone would give valuable information… In 1948, a test wall was constructed at the NBS [National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology] site in Washington D.C…

And it stands to this day.  Visit– and learn about any stone you like– at NIST’s Stone Test Wall.

* John Burroughs

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As we take up the trowel, we might send sanitary birthday greetings to Thomas Crapper; he was baptized on this date in 1836 (his birthdate is unknown).  Crapper popularized the one-piece pedestal flushing toilet that still bears his name in many parts of the English-speaking world.

The flushing toilet was invented by John Harrington in 1596; Joseph Bramah patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778; then in 1852, George Jennings received a patent for the flush-out toilet.  Crapper’s  contribution was promotional (though he did develop some important related inventions, such as the ballcock): in a time when bathroom fixtures were barely mentionable, Crapper, who was trained as a plumber, set himself up as a “sanitary engineer”; he heavily promoted “sanitary” plumbing and pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom.  His efforts were hugely successful; he scored a series of Royal Warrants (providing lavatories for Prince, then King Edward, and for George V) and enjoyed huge commercial success. To this day, manhole covers with Crapper’s company’s name on them in Westminster Abbey are among London’s minor tourist attractions.

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Written by LW

September 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Baking is therapy”*…

 

Royal Baking Powder Exhibit at the International Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876. Note the “Absolutely Pure” tagline.

How much thought have you, over the course of your entire life, given to the subject of baking powder? Personally I can say perhaps 30 minutes—that is, until I noticed the existence of food historian Linda Civitello’s Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking. Sorry; come again?

This humble kitchen staple, not infrequently confused with baking soda and practically invisible, is apparently responsible for the fact you don’t have to spend all damn day making bread. Civitello argues that the invention of baking powder was a game-changer, a wildly labor-saving creation that frequently eliminated the necessity of maintaining your own little cache of yeast and made it possible to create all sorts of delicious goodies, from fluffy modern biscuits to birthday cake. Before baking powder, “You’re talking upwards of 12 hours of rising, usually more like 24 hours,” Jessica Carbone, a scholar in the National Museum of American History’s Food History Project, told Smithsonian magazine. Women spent the 19th century learning to use the stuff; cookbooks frequently offered recipes with and without.

But the market was also fiercely contested. Different companies had slightly different variations on a substance that did basically the same thing, leaving them to compete via other means. And they certainly did. Royal Baking Powder, which used cream of tartar, took the tagline “Absolutely Pure,” meant as an indictment of powders made with alum. The company played on consumer fears of adulterated food, Baking Powder Wars recounts, even lobbying to have alum varieties banned. And believe it or not, in Missouri, they succeeded—via bribery in the state Senate, according to the book. When the era’s muckrakers found out, it erupted into an enormous scandal…

The fascinating– and vicious– history of a kitchen staple: “Who Knew? The History of Baking Powder Is Incredibly Dramatic.”

* Paul Hollywood

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As we pop it into the oven, we might send finely-sifted birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755.  An inventor, engineer and businessman, he was one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States– a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling and steam power (for the lattermost of which, he is often referred to as “the American Watt”).

But before he turned to steam, Evans designed the first automatic flour mill.  He replaced labor-intensive grist mills with a mechanism in which grain moved automatically through a series of five machines to deliver flour packed in barrels at the end.

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Written by LW

September 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Don’t believe anything you read on the net. Except this. Well, including this, I suppose.”*…

 

Just a month ago, it was revealed that Facebook has more than two billion active monthly users. That means that in any given month, more than 25% of Earth’s population logs in to their Facebook account at least once.

This kind of scale is almost impossible to grasp.

Here’s one attempt to put it in perspective: imagine Yankee Stadium’s seats packed with 50,000 people, and multiply this by a factor of 40,000. That’s about how many different people log into Facebook every month worldwide.

The Yankee Stadium analogy sort of helps, but it’s still very hard to picture. The scale of the internet is so great, that it doesn’t make sense to look at the information on a monthly basis, or even to use daily figures.

Instead, let’s drill down to just what happens in just one internet minute…

More at “What Happens in an Internet Minute in 2017?

And for a cogent consideration of what all this might mean, see “You Are the Product.”

* Douglas Adams

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As we retreat behind the firewall, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that The Project Chess team at IBM showed a prototype microcomputer to their corporate management. Management gave approval– and a one-year deadline– for the team to build an operational computer to compete in the rapidly emerging personal computer market. One year and 4 days later, the IBM PC was introduced to the world… and the rest is history.

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Written by LW

August 8, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I like my new telephone, my computer works just fine, my calculator is perfect, but Lord, I miss my mind!*…

 

Before electronic calculators became affordable in the 1970s, logarithm tables and slide rules were the most common calculation tools used by scientists, engineers, financiers, and navigators.  But in the early 1940s there emerged a purely mechanical, pocket-sized calculator, the Curta; the “pepper mill,” as it was known, was short-lived – only 30 years or so – but it remains a mechanical marvel.

More at “Curta: a mechanical pocket calculator.”

* anonymous

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As we add it up, we might send intricately-interconnected birthday greetings to Mark D. Weiser; he was born on this date in 1952.  After earning an MA and a PhD in computing at the University of Michigan, Mark worked for a variety of computer-related startups.  But in 1987 he joined Xerox PARC, and began the work for which he is best remembered: he widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing, a term he coined in 1988 to describe the field he pioneered.

Mark was also the drummer of Severe Tire Damage, a garage (pun intended) rock band, the first band to perform on the internet: on June 24, 1993, the band was playing a gig at PARC while elsewhere in the building, scientists were discussing new technology (the MBone) for broadcasting on the Internet using multicasting.  As proof of their technology, the band was broadcast and could be seen live in Australia (by a scientist there alerted by the Palo Alto crew) and elsewhere.

Then. on Friday, November 18, 1994, the Rolling Stones decided to broadcast one of their concert tours on the Internet. Before their broadcast, Severe Tire Damage returned to the Internet, this time becoming the “opening act” for the Stones– so instead of an obscure Australian researcher, the entire world press was watching, and Severe Tire Damage was elevated from obscurity to Warholian fame.  Newsweek described STD as “a lesser known rock band.”  The Rolling Stones told The New York Times: “the surprise opening act by Severe Tire Damage was a good reminder of the democratic nature of the Internet.”

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Written by LW

July 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Any kid will run any errand for you, if you ask at bedtime”*…

 

Truly, bedtimes are one of the great injustices of American childhood. Turns out, they’re also a pretty good example of how sleep — a biological need that we can’t live without — is intertwined with the much more subjective vagaries of culture. It’s culture, after all, that convinced my parents that I needed to be in bed by 7:30 p.m. in July. And my still slightly simmering resentment of that fact, while anecdotally pretty normal among my late Gen X/early millennial American peers, might not be universal…

Hit the hay on your own time at: “Don’t Tell The Kids, But Bedtime Is A Social Construct.”

* Red Skelton

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As we move into the arms of Morpheus, we might celebrate one of the greatest contributions to a good night’s sleep: on this date in 1902, Willis Carrier completed drawings for what became recognized as the world’s first modern air conditioning system.  He kept improving his design…  and in the process created the air conditioning industry.

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Written by LW

July 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

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