Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Robotics and AI: more jobs and a more human world?

Much of the western world has operated in a way to saddle itself with large numbers of unemployed people with no prospect of job security or of doing anything that seems really worthwhile. Making money and making sure you enjoy yourself, if possible not at other people's expense, seems to be the ethos of a spiritually arid age.

Whatever our spiritual beliefs or indifference to these it cannot be denied that meaningful work is essential to the well being and balance of most people. It is an important role of a government to steer the country it governs towards an economic structure which generates meaningful jobs and careers. This means encouraging industries and enterprises, state or private, which create value-added products and services i.e. products and services which bring in the money needed to finance social services and investment for the future, and above all, to provide people with lifelong, meaningful employment, either with one organization or a variety of employers, ensuring that adequate training is available.

Here are some schemes which could employ a huge number of people, paying them good wages to do useful work. All are compatible with or driven by the growth in robotics or artificial intelligence.

  • Robot ships to clear up the oceans (briefly described in my novel 2077:Knights of Peace).This could provide a great opportunity to generate both IT and heavy engineering work, bringing back to life many a derelict shipyard (e.g. like those on the UK’s northern coast – Tyneside etc.) and creating entirely new ones. This could not only provide worthwhile employment and stimulate local economies but solve the burgeoning problem of microscopic, non-digestible plastic particles entering the marine food chain, including sea birds.

  • Roads and pavements, millions of miles of them world-wide, need ripping up and replacing with smooth, high quality surfaces. Consider the market for a machine that stops over a crumbling section of motorway or clearway, say, pulverises the existing material and replaces it with a smooth, tough, durable surface within an hour. The market would be mind boggling and  a boost to the manufacturing industry.

  • Laying of new roads and railways. Again, a robotic machine that could lay down strips of finished road by the mile would have a vast market worldwide. Imagine the sales potential of China and India alone as well as  the investment and employment opportunities for western economies.

  • Footpaths and small roads over mountains, rough terrain and marshland are especially useful in rural and tourist areas. Teams of skilled individuals equipped with robot-based systems could lay these down more efficiently than at present. The market would be enormous in the developing world, allowing small remote communities to share in the growing prosperity of the wider world as well as allowing medical aid to reach them more quickly. Hopefully, food aid would be less in demand as the communities prospered.

  • High tension overhead power cables need repairing rapidly so any robotic help could reduce the down-time. As completely new national grids are installed there will also be a big market for technological assistance in doing this rapidly. Again there would be a boost to employment as new infrastructure is manufactured, installed and maintained.

  • Robotic repair systems for use on sewage pipes, drains, water supply lines, gas pipes and buried cable conduits, especially in metropolitan areas, are already being used but there is no doubt plenty of scope for innovation. The demand for such technology in China and India alone should be enormous. More employment opportunities.

  • Caring for our fellow humans when their physical or mental faculties require this is primarily a personal task, requiring great kindness, skill and dedication by gifted individuals. If robotic devices could be developed to help the carers at a practical level (e.g. fastening buttons or handling soiled clothing) this would allow them to spend more time on personal interaction and transform the nature of care work.                                                                                                                                                                                

  • Drivers displaced by driverless vehicle technology could be trained to help, both practically and at an interpersonal level, infirm or disabled passengers at the start, during and after their journey. Taxi drivers, for instance, often have good interpersonal skills which could be put to good use providing they are not burdened with excessive demands for political correctness or following of petty rules and regulations.                                                                                                                                    
  • Automated telephone menu systems are widely resented because they are inhuman (made more so by pretending to be otherwise), complicated and inflexible. There is a place for these but they need to be kept behind the scenes as well as improved. There will be a need to employ a new version of the switchboard operator able to interpret the customer's needs and match it to the right department and support them if they get disconnected. The operator would in turn need plenty of training and an up-to-date knowledge of the organisation's structure, which in practice changes continually faster than the IT designed to service it. In large companies or departments the operator would need support staff.                                                                                                                              
  • Doctors could be geatly assisted by automated image recognition of X-rays, tomographs, f-NMR scans etc. to identify or eliminate disorders and diseases. If this approach proved very effective it would increase the turnover and complexity of work by medical secretaries and other ancilliary staff while at the same time dealing more effectively with many more patients.                                                                                                  
  • Lawyers could be released to make better use of their talents by employing artificial intelligence to scan routine legal documents. This could lead to more secretaries and other posts requiring interpersonal skills.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
  • Business services could be aided by artificial intelligence, leading to a simpler, faster, less burdensome process of setting up a small company. This could lead to a growth in self employment and make possible enterprises driven by creative individuals less hampered by paperwork.                                                                                                                                               
  • High street banks are closing local branches and customer counter positions at an alarming rate as automated menu driven customer stations are brought in. It could be that if small businesses (see above) multiply there will be a greater demand for bank staff able to advise them and connect them to the appropriate sources of finance and expertise.

If I can think up a list like this imagine what a dedicated think tank could come up with. So my hope is that readers may pressurise their MPs, senators, congressmen, local government officials, aid agencies and church leaders to move in this direction. Or plant ideas in the minds of existing and potential entrepreneurs, or, even better, start up their own companies to develop and launch such technology or use existing technology more imaginatively.

This could be a way to help the developing nations while saving the developed ones from their past sins and improving the quality of life  of their own citizens.

John Sears


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Monday, 21 August 2017

Is the earth alive?

Until only the last decade or so there appeared to be a widespread belief among most biologists that life on earth was not really that mysterious. (Many physicists and most engineers did not share this view.)

Admittedly there was much to learn but ultimately it was just a matter of finding the mechanisms by which atoms and molecules had accidently arranged themselves into reproducing entities which by random genetic mutations and natural selection would evolve into a bewildering plethora of competing viable species of  bacteria, insects, reptiles, fish, birds and mammals.  It all started with 20 different kinds of amino acid molecules (19 of which had to be 'left handed' as opposed to their 'right handed' counterparts)  being thrown together by chance to produce the first organisms able to reproduce and with the potential to differentiate into future species in a way which would ultimately lead to the biosphere we know today. There was admittedly a growing recognition that cooperation between species, as in symbiosis, played a role but it was all driven by chance and selection pressure.

The widespread appearance of design was considered illusory - but not even neo-Darwinists ever suggested that design did not seem to be present.

Now this picture is beginning to be recognised by most scientists, even many neo-Darwinists, to be at best inadequate and probably fundamentally wrong.

1.SPECIATION. This is observed mainly in  bacteria and some insects but as far as I am aware (I only have the knowledge of the interested layman) no new bird or mammal species has occurred since humans appeared a few tens of thousands of years ago. One occasionally hears about a 'new' species but this always means 'newly discovered', unless it is a bacterium.

2.MUTATIONS. The so called random mutations which give rise to new species of bacteria while intrinsically stochastic do not occur anywhere in the organism at random - they only happen where they lead to a viable variation of some kind.

3.EPIGENETICS. Learned behaviour and acquired characteristics are passed on down the generations. The gene is not the master. What determines the behaviour and characteristics of a organism is what genes are turned on or off and the instructions for this somehow get passed to the offspring. What you learn now on how to cope with your environment can be passed on to future generations. How many generations is not known.  I saw one paper recently talking about 18 generations but I can't remember at this moment what kind of life it was.

4.COOPERATION betweeen species seems to be common throughout the ecosphere, This, as far as I am aware, occurs for all types of life, from bacteria to mammals, both within one type of life and between different kinds of life.

5.BIOLOGY AND GEOLOGY INTERACT. For instance, vegetation in prehistoric times lubricated the movements of rocks in a way which led to certain patterns of tectonic activity which indirectly affected earthquakes, volcanoes, vegetation, animal life and human settlements today.

6.INTELLIGENCE is ubiquitous in nature. New examples appear in the scientific press almost daily whether it is insects solving the 'travelling salesman problem' or crows using twigs as tools . A clue as to how this intelligence is achieved may lie in recent quantum biological investigations into photosynthesis and bird migration.

7.PURPOSE.  Everything from an embryonic stem cell to the leader of a lion pack in some sense knows its purpose and behaves accordingly. In his book Improbable Planet the astrophysicist Hugh Ross cites a wealth of meticulously referenced evidence to support the thesis that the entire cosmic history is directed towards the realisation of human civilisation.

8.QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT. Physicists since the mid 20th century have been aware that molecules, atoms and other particles are able to interact independently of separation. This interaction is instantaneous, and so independent of time. In principle it is possible for particles on opposite sides of the universe to interact regardless of future, present or past. The controversial reports of learning within a species being passed without human intervention to another in a different part of the world should be seen in the light of this and the intergenerational information transfer proven in epigenetics (item 3 above).

While not inferring here  anything about the philosophical or theological implications of this emerging picture it worries me that many scientists, in particular biologists and cosmologists, are made uncomfortable by it. They also show great reluctance to accept, if not a fear of, the hyperfine tuning of the initial state of the universe for life  (e.g. gravitational constant, dark energy, electromagnetic constant, initial mass and initial entropy, to name only a few, are finely balanced to permit living systems to function). Yet the scientist's role is to discover truths about the world, not pretend they don't exist.

Some cosmologists have been so nonplussed by the Big Bang model (first conceived by a Roman Catholic priest), the fine tuning and the teleological evolution of the universe that they resort to invoking chance under the auspices of parallel or multiple universes which by definition cannot be experimentally verified, rather than focus on understanding the real universe we live in, over 90% of which is a total mystery..

Many young people regard scientists as priests and expect them to be guardians of the search for truth. If humanity is to continue to progress the holding of truth as a sacred target is its most precious resource. Popular science, e.g. BBC's Horizon, or the Discovery Channel or science articles in the press, need to acknowledge and discuss these aspects of the world. Otherwise instead of a new generation of scientists respecting God and truth we risk a descent into alchemy and magic.

John Sears
author, 2077:Knights of Peace

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Father James reflects on God's universe

Father James is a character from the novel 2077: Knights of Peace
Image result for universe

Travelling between Earth and the monastery on Mars I feel especially close to the Almighty God.

Why should this be? The environment of space is mainly sterile, apart from a few hardy types of bacteria, as are all the stars within it. I get a similar but less intense feeling when I look at the Moon while standing in open country on Earth. Yet the Moon is a barren ball of rock, almost  lifeless.

I look upon the Moon as part of God's creation illuminated by the Sun, the source of life's energy, to reveal its beauty to creatures that can experience it. The fact that it looks the same size in the sky gives a sense of everything being set up by a deity for some purpose. (As some cadets have pointed out during Enlightenment, the very existence of life on earth depends on the moon-earth system being exactly as it is. Praise the Lord.) 

 The ancients thought the Moon, planets and stars had something to do with God, and they were right. Today we understand the schemes and mechanisms by which they shine and are formed; we know how to describe them and even predict their movements and their critical role in allowing life on our planet; but why they should be there we can only wonder.

The panorama I get from the Confucius viewing port starkly places before me the celestial drama and omnipotence of the godhead. In the latter part the 20th and in the early 21st century many thought the very size and complexity of the universe earth showed we were of no significance in the scheme of things, that our planet was a pointless fluke in a meaningless universe, a mere grain of sand in the desert. Now we know that humanity is the whole point of God's creation. The home He has made for us, this Garden of Eden oasis, is uniquely beautiful, richly alive, wondrously intricate and fuitful beyond understanding. To create it he needed to create a universe. The universe, from flower to Milky Way, is made for us and is needed for our existence.

To quote from the introductory text used in the Enlightenment programme for both cadet Knights and dominophiles:

 Had the universe not been exactly this massive - to the weight of a coin - during its early expansion stage, had its initial degree of disorder not been exactly as it was, had the laws of physics been slightly different, the physical constants wrong by a hair's breadth, had not the celestial events leading to the earth's formation been orchestrated as they were and had life not been designed as it is, then humanity's origin and history could not have occurred. For this we must thank the Lord.

Technology, through the Grace of Our Lord, allows us not only to observe but to visit and experience other planets. It also allows us to delve further into the secrets of physics, life and the universe. By the creativity within us, being made in God's image, we invent new technology. As we do so, and stay humble, our faith in his benevolence strengthens, our wonderment at his majesty magnifies, our joy in the unfolding  dimensions of being is intensified, our praise of Him grows and we are eternally thankful to have this bountiful, beautiful planet to return to after experiencing the stark but faith affirming beauty of the worlds beyond.

Glory be to God the Father. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

Click  here for the cumulative writings of Father James.