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Will the future of work be ethical? Perspectives from MIT Technology Review

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In June, TechCrunch Ethicist in Residence Greg M. Epstein attended EmTech Next, a conference organized by the MIT Technology Review. The conference, which took place at MIT’s famous Media Lab, examined how AI and robotics are changing the future of work.

Greg’s essay, Will the Future of Work Be Ethical? reflects on his experiences at the conference, which produced what he calls “a religious crisis, despite the fact that I am not just a confirmed atheist but a professional one as well.” In it, Greg explores themes of inequality, inclusion and what it means to work in technology ethically, within a capitalist system and market economy.

Accompanying the story for Extra Crunch are a series of in-depth interviews Greg conducted around the conference, with scholars, journalists, founders and attendees.

Below he speaks to two key organizers: Gideon Lichfield, the editor in chief of the MIT Technology Review, and Karen Hao, its artificial intelligence reporter. Lichfield led the creative process of choosing speakers and framing panels and discussions at the EmTech Next conference, and both Lichfield and Hao spoke and moderated key discussions.

Gideon Lichfield is the editor in chief at MIT Technology Review. Image via MIT Technology Review

Greg Epstein: I want to first understand how you see your job — what impact are you really looking to have?

Gideon Lichfield: I frame this as an aspiration. Most of the tech journalism, most of the tech media industry that exists, is born in some way of the era just before the dot-com boom. When there was a lot of optimism about technology. And so I saw its role as being to talk about everything that technology makes possible. Sometimes in a very negative sense. More often in a positive sense. You know, all the wonderful ways in which tech will change our lives. So there was a lot of cheerleading in those days.

In more recent years, there has been a lot of backlash, a lot of fear, a lot of dystopia, a lot of all of the ways in which tech is threatening us. The way I’ve formulated the mission for Tech Review would be to say, technology is a human activity. It’s not good or bad inherently. It’s what we make of it.

The way that we get technology that has fewer toxic effects and more beneficial ones is for the people who build it, use it, and regulate it to make well informed decisions about it, and for them to understand each other better. And I said the role of a tech publication like Tech Review, one that is under a university like MIT, probably uniquely among tech publications, we’re positioned to make that our job. To try to influence those people by informing them better and instigating conversations among them. And that’s part of the reason we do events like this. So that ultimately better decisions get taken and technology has more beneficial effects. So that’s like the high level aspiration. How do we measure that day to day? That’s an ongoing question. But that’s the goal.

Yeah, I mean, I would imagine you measure it qualitatively. In the sense that… What I see when I look at a conference like this is, I see an editorial vision, right? I mean that I’m imagining that you and your staff have a lot of sort of editorial meetings where you set, you know, what are the key themes that we really need to explore. What do we need to inform people about, right?

Yes.

What do you want people to take away from this conference then?

A lot of the people in the audience work at medium and large companies. And they’re thinking about…what effect does automation and AI going to have in their companies? How should it affect their workplace culture? How should it affect their high end decisions? How should it affect their technology investments? And I think the goal for me is, or for us is, that they come away from this conference with a rounded picture of the different factors that can play a role.

There are no clear answers. But they ought to be able to think in an informed and in a nuanced way. If we’re talking about automating some processes, or contracting out more of what we do to a gig work style platform, or different ways we might train people on our workforce or help them adapt to new job opportunities, or if we’re thinking about laying people off versus retraining them. All of the different implications that that has, and all the decisions you can take around that, we want them to think about that in a useful way so that they can take those decisions well.

You’re already speaking, as you said, to a lot of the people who are winning, and who are here getting themselves more educated and therefore more likely to just continue to win. How do you weigh where to push them to fundamentally change the way they do things, versus getting them to incrementally change?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know that we can push people to fundamentally change. We’re not a labor movement. What we can do is put people from labor movements in front of them and have those people speak to them and say, “Hey, this is the consequences that the decisions you’re taking are having on the people we represent.” Part of the difficulty with this conversation has been that it has been taking place, up till now, mainly among the people who understand the technology and its consequences. Which with was the people building it and then a small group of scholars studying it. Over the last two or three years I’ve gone to conferences like ours and other people’s, where issues of technology ethics are being discussed. Initially it really was only the tech people and the business people who were there. And now you’re starting to see more representation. From labor, from community organizations, from minority groups. But it’s taken a while, I think, for the understanding of those issues to percolate and then people in those organizations to take on the cause and say, yeah, this is something we have to care about.

In some ways this is a tech ethics conference. If you labeled it as such, would that dramatically affect the attendance? Would you get fewer of the actual business people to come to a tech ethics conference rather than a conference that’s about tech but that happened to take on ethical issues?

Yeah, because I think they would say it’s not for them.

Right.

Business people want to know, what are the risks to me? What are the opportunities for me? What are the things I need to think about to stay ahead of the game? The case we can make is [about the] ethical considerations are part of that calculus. You have to think about what are the risks going to be to you of, you know, getting rid of all your workforce and relying on contract workers. What does that do to those workers and how does that play back in terms of a risk to you?

Yes, you’ve got Mary Gray, Charles Isbell, and others here with serious ethical messages.

What about the idea of giving back versus taking less? There was an L.A. Times op ed recently, by Joseph Menn, about how it’s time for tech to give back. It talked about how 20% of Harvard Law grads go into public service after their graduation but if you look at engineering graduates, the percentage is smaller than that. But even going beyond that perspective, Anand Giridharadas, popular author and critic of contemporary capitalism, might say that while we like to talk about “giving back,” what is really important is for big tech to take less. In other words: pay more taxes. Break up their companies so they’re not monopolies. To maybe pay taxes on robots, that sort of thing. What’s your perspective?

I don’t have a view on either of those things. I think the interesting question is really, what can motivate tech companies, what can motivate anybody who’s winning a lot in this economy, to either give back or take less? It’s about what causes people who are benefiting from the current situation to feel they need to also ensure other people are benefiting.

Maybe one way to talk about this is to raise a question I’ve seen you raise: what the hell is tech ethics anyway? I would say there isn’t a tech ethics. Not in the philosophy sense your background is from. There is a movement. There is a set of questions around it, around what should technology companies’ responsibility be? And there’s a movement to try to answer those questions.

A bunch of the technologies that have emerged in the last couple of decades were thought of as being good, as being beneficial. Mainly because they were thought of as being democratizing. And there was this very naïve Western viewpoint that said if we put technology and power in the hands of the people they will necessarily do wise and good things with it. And that will benefit everybody.

And these technologies, including the web, social media, smart phones, you could include digital cameras, you could include consumer genetic testing, all things that put a lot more power in the hands of the people, have turned out to be capable of having toxic effects as well.

That took everybody by surprise. And the reason that has raised a conversation around tech ethics is that it also happens that a lot of those technologies are ones in which the nature of the technology favors the emergence of a dominant player. Because of network effects or because they require lots of data. And so the conversation has been, what is the responsibility of that dominant player to design the technology in such a way that it has fewer of these harmful effects? And that again is partly because the forces that in the past might have constrained those effects, or imposed rules, are not moving fast enough. It’s the tech makers who understand this stuff. Policy makers, and civil society have been slower to catch up to what the effects are. They’re starting to now.

This is what you are seeing now in the election campaign: a lot of the leading candidates have platforms that are about the use of technology and about breaking up big tech. That would have been unthinkable a year or two ago.

So the discussion about tech ethics is essentially saying these companies grew too fast, too quickly. What is their responsibility to slow themselves down before everybody else catches up?

Another piece that interests me is how sometimes the “giving back,” the generosity of big tech companies or tech billionaires, or whatever it is, can end up being a smokescreen. A way to ultimately persuade people not to regulate. Not to take their own power back as a people. Is there a level of tech generosity that is actually harmful in that sense?

I suppose. It depends on the context. If all that’s happening is corporate social responsibility drives that involve dropping money into different places, but there isn’t any consideration of the consequences of the technology itself those companies are building and their other actions, then sure, it’s a problem. But it’s also hard to say giving billions of dollars to a particular cause is bad, unless what is happening is that then the government is shirking its responsibility to fund those causes because it’s coming out of the private sector. I can certainly see the U.S. being particularly susceptible to this dynamic, where government sheds responsibility. But I don’t think we’re necessarily there yet.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/11/28/will-the-future-of-work-be-ethical-perspectives-from-mit-technology-review/

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Of course Facebook and Google want to solve social problems. Theyre hungry for our data | Nathalie Olah

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Giving big tech companies power over the NHS or the climate crisis wont build a fairer world. But public ownership would, says author Nathalie Olah

We hear it said all the time, most recently in a national campaign for BT: Technology will save us. The slogan was plastered on billboards across the country as part of BTs new advertising campaign, linked to a UK-wide digital skills movement developed partly with Google. The sentiment is so ubiquitous that it even led to a dispute with a startup of a similar name. But in an era dominated by the big four (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) the idea that tech will save us rings hollow, an example of utopian messaging being used to conceal the simple pursuit of profit.

Having proposed solutions to everything from food shortages to suicide prevention to climate breakdown, companies such as Google and Facebook two of the leading western companies in the artificial intelligence arms race claim theres almost nothing that cannot be tackled through tech. But there are reasons to be sceptical. These companies business models depend on the development of ever more complex algorithms, sustained by enormous quantities of data. This data is used to improve the algorithms but access to it is also sold to advertisers and third-party businesses.

Conquering new sources of data has therefore become their primary mission. And thats why theyre eyeing our public commons: telecommunications, energy and even urban space, which continuously generate enormous quantities of real-time data. In 2017, it was reported that Googles AI outfit DeepMind was in talks with the National Grid. DeepMinds founder, Demis Hassabis, expressed an interest in expanding technology similar to that used to minimise energy wastage at Google data centres where electricity usage had been cut by 15% across the energy grid. This is an improvement, of course, but as one of the main examples of how AI systems might be used to tackle climate change it is hardly inspiring.

It also neglects to mention that unprecedented access to our critical infrastructure and publicly generated data would be given to a US tech giant. The collaboration between DeepMind and the (privatised, shareholder-paying) National Grid has for now been abandoned for reasons that are unclear. A recent article in Forbes speculates that the two companies couldnt reach an agreement on costs and intellectual property rights, in perhaps the most telling example of big techs ambitions to boost revenues through the commandeering of national infrastructure. Could Googles recent engagement with BT be built on a similar ambition?

Giving tech giants the power to solve social problems would mean granting them an immense stake in almost everything that our society requires in order to function. Google is currently signing contracts with the NHS to process patient records, despite there being legal question marks over a similar arrangement with a London hospital a few years ago. Whats more, the climate crisis is a political, not a technological problem. Whatever improvements Google or Facebook could make to our infrastructure would still fall far short of solving it. And when environmental collapse stands to affect poorest communities the hardest, the question remains as to how an industry that drives extreme wealth inequality can really be said to help build a greener, more humane, world.

These companies are able to make it seem as though their sole ambition is to optimise and improve their systems for the greater good. But this rhetoric distracts us from the fact that they are ushering in a new kind of surveillance capitalism, whereby a small number of entities extract enormous amounts of wealth through their access to data that is generated by us, the public.

To ensure that we retain the control to manage these systems, and to avoid an unprecedented level of power and wealth being concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, our infrastructure urgently needs to be brought under state control. This is why the Green New Deal, backed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US and taken up in the UK by the Labour party, is so important. Not only will the UK version pursue efforts to keep global average temperature rises below 1.5C, but by encompassing public ownership of energy companies it provides a democratic line of defence against the predations of Silicon Valley. Labours proposal to part-nationalise BT opens up a new front in this battle especially since the party is planning to help pay for it with a tax on big tech.

In the years to come, this will give the state a far stronger negotiating position on resources, both digital and physical, as well as on the practical applications of this potentially world-altering technology. It is absolutely essential that publicly powered technology is answerable to public power.

Nathalie Olah is the author of Steal As Much As You Can

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/02/big-tech-social-remedies-public-ownership-facebook-google

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Are drone swarms the future of aerial warfare?

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Technology of deploying drones in squadrons is in its infancy, but armed forces are investing millions in its development

As evening fell on Russias Khmeimim airbase in western Syria, the first drones appeared. Then more, until 13 were flashing on radars, speeding towards the airbase and a nearby naval facility.

The explosives-armed aircraft were no trouble for Russian air defences, which shot down seven and jammed the remaining six, according to the countrys defence ministry. But the failed attack in January last year was disturbing to close observers of drone warfare.

It was the first instance of a mass-drone attack and the highest number of drones that I believe weve seen non-state actors use simultaneously in a combat operation, says Paul Scharre, a defence analyst and author who studies the weaponisation of artificial intelligence.

The attempted attacks continued and in September the Russian army said it had downed nearly 60 drones around the Khmeimim base so far this year.

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A Russian general presents what he says are drones that were intercepted near the Khmeimim base. Photograph: Maxime Popov/AFP via Getty Images

For now, military drone use is dominated by lightweight surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and larger attack UAVs. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future: according to defence experts at the information group Janes, orders for both types of device are expected to increase dramatically in the decade ahead.

But the assaults on Khmeimim, as well as Septembers successful strike on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, were early flashes of a possible future for aerial warfare: drone swarming.

The technology of swarming drones deployed in squadrons, able to think independently and operate as a pack is in its infancy, but armed forces around the world, including in the UK, are investing millions of pounds in its development.

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Smoke rises from Saudi Aramcos Abqaiq oil processing facility on 14 September. Photograph: AP

The drones used to attack Khmeimim and the Saudi facilities were likely to have been programmed with the GPS coordinates of their targets and then launched in their direction. Israel is already using hordes of drones to overwhelm Syrian air defences, saturating areas with more targets than anti-aircraft systems can handle.

According to analysts, drone swarms of the future could have the capacity to assess targets, divide up tasks and execute them with limited human interaction.

The real leap forward is swarming where a human says Go accomplish this task and the robots in the swarm communicate amongst each other about how to divvy it up, Scharre says.

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A test at China Lake, California, shows drone swarms forming an attack orbit. Photograph: US Department of Defence

Analysts predict we might see rudimentary versions of the technology in use within a decade. That might include swarms of drones operating on multiple different frequencies, so they are more resistant to jamming, or swarms that can block or shoot down multiple threats more quickly than the human brain can process.

Two fielders running to catch a ball can [usually] coordinate amongst themselves, Scharre says. But imagine a world where you have 50 fielders and 50 balls. Humans couldnt handle the complexity of that degree of coordination. Robots could handle that with precision.

Advances in swarming technology are mostly classified, though governments have given glimpses of their progress.

In 2016, the US released video of more than 100 micro-drones over a lake in California manoeuvring as a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature, an air force scientist said.

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Footage shows 2016 drone swarm test over lake in California video

In tests last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency claimed a small squadron of its drones had successfully shared information, allocated jobs and made coordinated tactical decisions against both pre-programmed and pop-up threats.

The US navy has already announced breakthroughs in autonomous boats that could sweep for mines, or serve effectively as bodyguards for larger, manned vessels.

If you look back at the USS Cole bombing that boat was just sitting as an open target at that port in Yemen, says Dan Gettinger, a co-director at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, referring to the October 2000 attack by two boat-borne al-Qaida suicide bombers that killed 17 American sailors.

If you had a protective shield of unmanned service vehicles, they could intercept that before it happens, he says.

The idea of autonomous, intelligent drones empowered to kill understandably sparks concern. Antnio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said in a speech last year: The prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant.

In 2017, advocates of a ban against autonomous weapons released a short film, Slaughterbots, depicting a dystopian future where terrorists could unleash swarms of tiny drones capable of identifying and killing specific people.

Some analysts are sceptical of these nightmare scenarios. Drones may one day develop the capacity to carry out targeted killings in swarms. But militaries are not certain to adopt such technology, says Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Their reluctance would be more about expense than ethics. If you think about the logistics of having a lot of sophisticated drones that can pick out individuals, process the data, communicate with each other, navigate a city theres a lot of moving parts to that and its very expensive, Watling says.

More affordable, and therefore more likely to be procured, he says, will be drone swarms that perform relatively simple tasks such as cluttering radar systems to distract and confuse enemy sensors.

Part of what makes drones so attractive is their low cost, Scharre adds. Western military inventories have drastically shrunk in past years, as ships and aircraft have become more sophisticated and too expensive to purchase in large quantities (which, in turn, raises the cost of each vessel or plane).

Drones are a cheap way to boost the sheer size of a force. Western militaries are trying to find ways to add numbers to the equation, to complement these expensive, bespoke aircraft and ships with cheaper systems that can augment them, Scharre says.

Ultimately, he adds, it may be fruitless to try to predict the future of swarming technology from the vantage point of 2019. Imagine someone looking at an airplane in 1912, he says. They might be thinking, This will be useful. But nobody really knows yet what it can do.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/dec/04/are-drone-swarms-the-future-of-aerial-warfare

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AWS announces DeepComposer, a machine-learning keyboard for developers

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Today, as AWS re:Invent begins, Amazon announced DeepComposer, a machine learning-driven keyboard aimed at developers.

“AWS DeepComposer is a 32-key, 2-octave keyboard designed for developers to get hands on with Generative AI, with either pretrained models or your own,” AWS’ Julien Simon wrote in a blog post introducing the company’s latest machine learning hardware.

The keyboard is supposed to help developers learn about machine learning in a fun way, and maybe create some music along the way. The area involved in generating creative works in artificial intelligence is called “generative AI.” In other words, it helps you teach machines to generate something creative using “generative adversarial networks.”

“Developers, regardless of their background in ML or music, can get started with Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). This Generative AI technique pits two different neural networks against each other to produce new and original digital works based on sample inputs. With AWS DeepComposer, you can train and optimize GAN models to create original music,” according to Amazon.

AWS DeepComposer keyboard

Developers can train their own machine learning models or use ones supplied by Amazon to get started. Either way, you create the music based on the model, tweak it in the DeepComposer console on the AWS cloud, then generate your music. If you wish, you can share your machine-generated composition on SoundCloud when you’re done.

This is the third machine learning teaching device from Amazon, joining the DeepLens camera introduced in 2017 and the DeepRacer racing cars introduced last year. It’s worth noting that this is just an announcement. The device isn’t quite ready yet, but Amazon is allowing account holders to sign up for a preview when it is.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/02/aws-announces-deepcomposer-a-machine-learning-keyboard-for-developers/

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