Must Listen

Must Read

What Art Thinks


Today's Headlines

  • Sorry... Not Available
Man blowing a shofar

Administrative Area

Locally Contributed...



Special Interest

Daily News
“Learning to Think: Rise of the Machines”
by Steve Schiller, Steel on Steel   
December 14th, 2015

With more and more Americans and Europeans hitting the unemployment office, many are being turned away by mechanical hands. Recent studies have organized occupations into categories based on probability of automation and demonstrated the percentage of overall employment these jobs represent. The result: 56% of American jobs and nearly half of UK jobs are at risk of being lost to the rise of the machines.

Before anyone visualizes an army of Arnold Schwarzeneggers expressionlessly performing administrative and clerical tasks, the head researcher of the study claims, “this is only a hypothetical technical calculation.” Societal factors were not included. Living breathing people have an edge in areas requiring reasoning, cognition, and creativity.

But researchers at UC Berkeley are working on a way to enable robots to adapt to new situations – AKA learn – rather than respond to specific lines or programming code. Their guinea pig – a robot named Darwin – has learned to walk on flat ground and is now, through “reinforcement learning,” falling down and getting back up on his way to mastering slopes and obstacles.

The team at UC Berkeley is developing a neural network (we’ll whistle past any Skynet references here) that is designed to mimic the human brain. The network is designed to ignore specific behaviors, generalizing actions, which will allow Darwin to adapt to differing conditions. The algorithms need to be generic so they can be applied to many different situations. Darwin then learns and stores that information in his neural processor.

So as machines become smarter, learning to reason and be creative, the need for strictly human skills in the workplace will dwindle. 

One area that sees no shortage of controversy in the Great Robot Debate is with lethal autonomous weapons. You guessed it – the military. Still trying not to think about Skynet?

Thankfully no fully autonomous weapons have been put to use yet, but there are many semi-autonomous armaments currently in development. South Korea’s SRG-1 sentry robot patrols the border with North Korea to detect potential intruders. These sentries are armed with machine guns and are controlled remotely by human soldiers. These frightening SRG-1s, though, have the ability to kill intruders without the input of their handlers, though they have yet to execute that command.

China has unveiled a series of military robots designed to help fight the war on terror. From frontline attack robots armed with grenades and assault rifles to automatons programmed to detect poisonous gases and harmful chemicals to explosive ordinance disposal units, China is prepared to win on the battlefield without human losses.

The United Kingdom has designed the Taranis, an unmanned fighter jet that can locate enemy combatants. Like drones, these planes are operated remotely, but a British defense procurement manager has indicated they are close to being fully autonomous.

Representatives from several countries are meeting at the United Nations to discuss the ethics of and a possible pre-emptive ban on these weapons. But the major players – the U.S. and UK – are attempting to dilute the agreement’s language, which has experts worried.

Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, is leading the charge against the creative wording in this agreement. “The UK and U.S. are both insisting,” he says, “that the wording for any mandate about autonomous weapons should discuss only emerging technologies. Ostensibly this is because there is concern that … we will want to ban some of their current defensive weapons. However, if the discussions go on for several years as they seem to be doing, many of the weapons that we are concerned about will already have been developed and potentially used.”

He goes on to say, “Governments are continuing to test autonomous weapons systems. So if we are tied up [discussing a ban] for a long time then the word ‘emerging’ is worrying.”

Machines are already performing tasks which were unthinkable centuries – even decades ago. Only time will tell if humans will be completely eliminated from the workplace or the military. It appears a long way off, but plans are in place and the robotics train shows no sign of slowing down.

go back button