December 3, 2016

Body Snatchers Invade San Francisco

“I’ve lived in this city all my life and somehow today I felt everything had changed. People were different…It really became frightening. It was like the whole city had changed overnight.”
 Elizabeth in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978)

November 26, 2016

Lewis Mumford on out-of-control technology

"Like a drunken locomotive engineer on a streamlined train, plunging through the darkness at a hundred miles an hour, we have going past the danger signals without realizing that our speed, which springs from our mechanical facility, only increased our danger and will make more fatal the crash."
                                                      Lewis Mumford, 1952

Henry Adams on technological autonomy

"I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control."
                                                                    Henry Adams, 1918

November 25, 2016

Unintended Consequences and "The Magnificent Seven"

Regarding unintended consequences:

     In the 1960 version of "The Magnificent Seven," the bandits temporarily get the drop on the seven gunfighters who have been hired to defend an impoverished farming village in the middle of nowhere. The bandit leader, played by Eli Wallach, finds it hard to believe that professionals of their stature would agree to such a mission.

     "Why would you do that?" he asks.

      One of the gunfighters, played by Steve McQueen, answers.

      "A guy I knew in El Paso took off all his clothes one day and jumped in a pile of cactus. I asked him the same question: 'Why?' He said, 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.'"

November 9, 2016

Elon Musk Announces the Next Step: Machines Building Machines

Elon Musk announced today the acquisition of Grohmann Engineering, a German automation company that will allow him to increase Tesla production from around 80,000 cars in 2016 to 500,000 cars in 2018. (Tesla has already increased its vehicle production by 400 percent over the past four years.)

“Because automation is such a vital part of the future of Tesla," Musk said, "the phrase I’ve used before is that it’s about building the machine that’s building the machine. That actually becomes more important than the machine itself as the volume increases."

This is major: It represents where the AI revolution is taking us. In my book I discuss the previous revolutionary stage: 
The 19th century saw the introduction of standardized and interchangeable mechanical parts. This was an idea conceived in Europe but effectively realized in the United States, beginning soon after the Revolutionary War with the manufacture of firearms. A handful of innovative engineers, usually working separately but often drawing on one another's ideas, designed a series of machines that could be run by unskilled workers – boys, in many cases – to produce individual rifle parts. Those parts could then be easily assembled, also by unskilled workers, into a finished rifle, and the parts from one rifle could be used in any other rifle of the same type. The "American system," as envious Europeans called it, opened the door for the onset of true mass production and helped the new republic establish itself with surprising speed as a world industrial power.  
When the concept of interchangeable parts spread to other industries there was an explosion of converging and diffusing technologies based on shared production methods. Nathan Rosenberg has documented direct links from machinery used in rifle manufacture to machinery used in revolvers, locks, sewing machines, bicycles, and eventually automobiles. This diffusion in turn prompted a vast increase in specialization as companies increasingly focused on one part or one machine used by a wide variety of manufacturers. Thus improvements in sewing machines were applied in the production not only of clothing but also in the production of shoes, tents, sails, awnings, saddles, harnesses, handbags, and books. At the same time improvements in the machinery that made sewing machines subsequently became useful in machines used to make tools, cutlery, locks, arms, textiles, and locomotives, not to mention other machines. The reign of the skilled craftsman who made entire products by hand had come to an end.
Musk's announcement today suggests the next logical step in the evolution of standardized assembly. True, we have plenty of automated assembly lines that represent steps along the way, but there's a sense of completion here that's significant. The door to the next stage is opening.

October 24, 2016

Tea Party Anger and Environmental Degradation

The current issue of the New York Review of Books contains a review of Arlie Russell Hoschschild's new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. In the book Hoschschild recounts her travels to Louisiana in search of an explanation for one of the odder political phenomena of our time: the specter of poor white Americans so passionately supporting a right-wing agenda that seems diametrically opposed to their own best interests. 

I was struck by a passage from the book, quoted in the review, that describes the environment in which some of those she encounters live:
While Hochschild’s Tea Partiers contemplate a triumphant, if hazy, future, she leaves her readers with Grand Guignol images of their present day. We visit the tranquil bayou home belonging to Harold and Annette Areno, who, in the last two decades, have found themselves hemmed in by a chloride hydrocarbon manufacturing facility, a coal-fired power plant, a hazardous waste landfill, and the Conoco Docks, the site of one of the largest chemical leaks in North American history. The family’s cows, goats, and chickens fall over dead after drinking from the bayou, and the turtles go blind, their eyes turning white. 
We watch Bob Hardey, mayor of Westlake, as he dutifully tends a family cemetery that is about to be surrounded on all sides by a humungous Sasol gas-to-liquids plant to which he has sold much of his property. Louisiana has given the facility permission to emit benzene at eighty-five times the entire state’s “threshold rate.” And we meet a safety inspector at a Ford battery plant who is called a sissy by plant employees for wearing a respirator. When the workers cackle he sees that their teeth have been eroded by sulfuric acid mist.

To some degree this makes it even harder to understand why those who are most exposed to this level of environmental degradation would so readily support a political philosophy that aims to make it easier rather than harder to continue that degradation. What does make sense is that living with this level of environmental degradation would make anyone angry, and more likely to lash out in anger — logically or not — at anyone they can be convinced is responsible.