The contours of the European response to Putin’s aggression are emerging and at this stage one can say that the strategy for the Minsk talks seems to be based on a zero-leverage approach. Athens is threatening to block new sanctions against Russia and Berlin to striving to prevent new defence aid reaching Ukraine. Grim.
Moscow, on the other hand, is deploying maskirovka: deception and propaganda. And it is winning on both fronts. Maskirovka is the trademark of Russian warfare and the word, which translates as “something masked,” was made flesh last year in the form of masked unmarked soldiers in green army uniforms carrying Russian military equipment. Those who dreamed of perpetual peace and prosperity in Europe got a rude awakening when the little green men popped up in Crimea and Ukraine. Maskirovka had arrived, and it won’t go away if all that greets it is appeasement. Before sitting down with Putin on Wednesday, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande should brush up on the central components of maskirovka:
Demonstrativnye manevry: manoeuvres intended to deceive
Imitatsia: the use of decoys
The past week was dominated be one image: The burning to death in a locked cage of captured Jordanian pilot Muadh al- Kasasbeh by the Islamic State. Even by the brutal standards of radical Islam, this was barbarous beyond belief. Other harrowing images from recent days came from the town of Debaltseve, where terrified people were forced to flee their homes by Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine.
In Finalities, CP Cavafy uses irony and skepticism to address the calamities that can so swiftly sweep away our certainties. His poem was written at the beginning the of the 20th century but it has lost none of its relevance.
Amid fear and suspicions,
with agitated mind and frightened eyes,
we melt and plan how to act
to avoid the certain
danger that so horribly threatens us.
And yet we err, this was not in our paths;
the messages were false
(or we did not hear, or fully understand them).
Another catastrophe, one we never imagined,
sudden, precipitous, falls upon us,
and unprepared — there is no more time — carries us off.
CP Cavafy (1863 — 1933)
High-stakes talks last night between Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and François Hollande failed to produce an agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine. Attention turns now the annual Munich Security Conference in the hope that some kind of deal can be hammered out over the weekend. Meanwhile, the fighting in Mali continues.
At least 10 people have died so far this week in the country’s Tabankort region during skirmishes between the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the rival Tuareg Self-Defense Group. And in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, French troops killed a dozen Islamic terrorists. This is the world from which Tamikrest has emerged. The Tuareg band, led by Ousmane Ag Mossa, sings in Tamashek as it mixes traditional Malian music with Western blues and rock influences. The sound offers a glimmer of hope in a region wracked by violence and plagued by despair.Tweet
As we come to the end of our week of looking at developments in the emerging robotics/AI area, all signs indicate that the subject is moving from the technology pages to the mainstream. A sample of today’s headlines from Al Jazeera, Slate and Reuters: Hotel staffed by robots to open in Japan, Automated journalism is no longer science fiction, China to have most robots in world by 2017, an on and on and on.
Where is all this taking us? Well, take a look at Beansprock, a machine learning-based job search platform. Slogan: “Our artificial intelligence evaluates thousands of new tech jobs while you sleep and emails you only the best one.” When it knows a user’s skills, Beansprock can then predict which jobs are a match and which ones are not. The focus is on the tech industry in San Francisco, Boston and New York, and the company claims that it’s processing tens of thousands of job postings every day. Long term, the founders hope to expand the platform to include non-technical jobs.
Another example: “It’s what we call the hybrid force: humans and robots working together.” The person being quoted there by The Verge is the program manager at the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research. Thomas McKenna was speaking at the unveiling of the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). What can it can that humans cannot? Well, it’s loaded with sensors such as infrared stereo-vision and laser light detectors, which enable it to find its target through thick smoke. The creators imagine a future where human-robot hybrid teams will work together as first responders when fires break out. This, then, is the near future. It’s a world where robotics and AI will be working for us and with us.Tweet
Oren Etzioni, Executive Director of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, invites us to consider the following sentence: “The large ball crashed right through the table because it was made of Styrofoam.” What was made of Styrofoam, Etzioni asks? The large ball or the table? The answer is clearly ‘the table,’ but if we change ‘Styrofoam’ to ‘steel’, the answer is obviously ‘the large ball’. In other words, if we want computers to instantly answer this kind of question, they’ll need a massive corpus of knowledge and Oren Etzioni believes that they’ll get it from text mining. Listen up.
Might text mining lead us down the road to the beloved Star Trek universal translator? It would be more socially acceptable than the ear-insertable Babel Fish imagined by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Utopians say that by removing language barriers world peace would become a near certainty. But beware, in his comedy science fiction series, Adams warns that perfect understanding of language would cause “more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”Tweet
It’s Day 3 of our look at robotics/AI. “Japanese bank introduces robot workers to deal with customers in branches.” That’s a story from today’s Guardian. “Hello and welcome,” Nao said. “I can tell you about money exchange, ATMs, opening a bank account, or overseas remittance. Which one would you like?” Note: The humanoid was developed by French company Aldebaran Robotics, which is a subsidiary of the Japanese telecoms corporation SoftBank. Its slogan? “Happiness for everyone.”
Talking of robots and happiness, a team of robots programmed to transport meals, medications, linens and lab specimens began their 24/7 jobs on Sunday when the new $1.52 billion San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay opened to the public. The 25 TUG robots were created by Aethon Inc. and cost about $6 million. They will enable the human staff to spend more time on providing medical care and less on moving stuff around the hospital. Happiness for everyone? Certainly not for those supplying cleaning, catering or laundry services in hospitals. But just in case our white-coated friends think that they can ignore these changes, the Big Data doctor will see us soon.Tweet
Since the Industrial Revolution, there’s been an almost insatiable demand for labour, despite the relentless advance of technology. So why should it be any different this time. Surely, the cloud will create millions of jobs and the app industry will generate global employment? Well, yes, maybe. But let’s consider this: It took the United States some 200 years to change from an agricultural economy, where 90 percent of the people worked on farms, to the current situation, where the number is nearer two percent. The robotics/AI revolution is happening faster than its industrial and digital predecessors — and it will present an even bigger challenge.
Technologies such as the self-driving car will be dramatically disruptive, but over a much shorter time-frame. There are millions of truck drivers working today. What will happen if self-driving vehicles put them out of a job in a matter of years? Algorithms are getting better at translating and writing — jobs that once required humans. So what will we do for work? That is the question being posed by the MIT academics Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who say that we’re entering a “Second Machine Age,” where the increasing rate of change driven by information technologies could leave swathes of medium-and-low skilled workers in the slow lane. On the upside, the human ability to innovate offers grounds for hope. They say.Tweet
Here at Rainy Day, it’s going to be a week of robots, which may become remorseless killing machines, but which are helping children suffering from autism. We will also be looking at artificial intelligence, which Elon Musk and Bill Gates are worried about. Yes, AI might steal all our jobs, but it will also have a positive impact in healthcare, given its ability to analyze massive amounts of genomic data, leading to more accurate diagnoses and treatments on a personalized level.
To get us in the mood, here is All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan, whose characters pine for a Utopia free from technology, yet use the latest innovations to achieve their goals. Sounds familiar, that.
All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Richard Brautigan (1935 — 1984)
The Latin word coccineus means “scarlet” and the Coccinellidae are a family of small beetles, sometimes scarlet in colour with black spots on their wings. The insect became known as “Our Lady’s bird” because Mary (Our Lady) was often depicted in early Christian paintings wearing a scarlet cloak, and the spots of the seven-spot ladybird were said to symbolize her seven joys and seven sorrows. Incidentally, the German name Marienkäfer translates as Mary beetle.
Note: Today, 1 February, is the feast day of St. Brigid (“Mary of the Gaels”), the prolific patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle farmers, children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers, dairymaids, fugitives, Leinster, mariners, midwives, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars and travellers.Tweet
Mike Rosenberg wrote Let Her Go two years ago. Here’s What Happened Next. In true Upworthy manner, the song clip has clocked up more than 519 million YouTube views. Let Her Go signaled the breakthrough for Rosenberg, aka Passenger. His voice has been likened to a mix of Cat Stevens and David Gray, while his writing has been compared with that of Ed Sheeran. In fact, the two have collaborated and played played concerts together in Europe, the US and Australia. Speaking of the Antipodes, Passenger is down there at the moment. On Tuesday, he played in Cairns; tonight he’s in the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington and then it’s the turn of Darwin, Perth and Durban.
Here’s Rosenberg with Isobel Anderson and Stu Larsen on the beach in Brighton.Tweet
“This was the last time that such a thing could happen. This was the last time that London would be the capital of the world. This was an act of mourning for the imperial past. This marked the final act in Britain’s greatness. This was a great gesture of self-pity and after this the coldness of reality and the status of Scandinavia.”
The state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill took place 50 years ago today and Patrick O’Donovan covered the ceremony for the Observer. Rarely has journalistic prose matched an historic occasion so well. This is magnificent:
“But really this was a celebration. And however painful, most funerals are just that. When a man is buried, those who are still alive crave some gesture of respect that cannot help the cadaver. And this gesture is made over and over again by Christians and Communists and humanists and the unconcerned. It is a proud half-conscious assertion that man is not an animal that dies alone in a hole. It is almost a gesture of contempt to the face of death. And once or twice in a generation, a dead monarch or hero is chosen to epitomise a whole nation’s assertion of continuity and dignity. And because the central, the overwhelming fact was the dead body in a box of oak at a certain time and in a special way was, for all public purposes, Britain and more than Britain, this assertion was unbelievably eloquent over this corpse.
It was a triumph. It was a celebration of a great thing that we did in the past. It was an act of gratitude to a man whom we can no longer help or please. The many heads of state there were appropriate but not important. We were not sad. We knew for whom these bells tolled. We knew the man whose body we removed in such unimaginable splendour. And because he was us at our best, we gave him a requiem that rejected death and was almost a rejoicing.”