Tag Archives: Android

Is there a ‘dark side’ to Amazon drones, Google robots?

I’ve got Amazon.com drones in my future.

I use Amazon’s Prime delivery service for everything from rechargable batteries to art books to beef jerky, and so I was quite taken aback when CEO Jeff Bezos showcased a drone delivery system called Prime Air on 60 Minutes this past weekend. The idea is that packages below five pounds could be delivered straight from Amazon distribution centers to customers within 30 minutes using drones.

For now, it seems like half pipe dream, half pseudo-marketing: As many have observed, it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the 60 Minutes segment aired on Sunday ahead of Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year — a good time for Amazon to be in the news.

Since Sunday’s show, media coverage of Bezo’s plan has overwhelmingly focused on the technical and logistical aspects of Prime Air.

For example, will the FAA be okay with all these drones flying around? Are they safe enough to fly around crowded cities and neighborhoods? And can Amazon economically operate what would be a presumably large fleet of drones?

And Amazon’s not the only one in this game. The Verge reported that United Parcel Service is researching delivery drones, too.

Additionally, we learned this week that Google acquired seven robotics companies, which, according to a New York Times report, “are capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous robot.”

Remember, Google has been experimenting with driverless cars, and is actually running a same-day delivery service in California, so it is definitely interested in humanless logistics, for lack of a better term.

The Dark Side

I find it a bit disturbing how little conversation there is about the possible negatives of replacing humans with machines for things like delivering packages.

Here’s a passage from the Times’ article that actually startled me a bit:

A realistic case, according to several specialists, would be automating portions of an existing supply chain that stretches from a factory floor to the companies that ship and deliver goods to a consumer’s doorstep.

“The opportunity is massive,” said Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”

In terms of the massive opportunity, it certainly isn’t for the middle class. Mr. McAfee himself discussed this issue in a June piece from the M.I.T. Technology Review, fittingly titled “How Technology Destroys Jobs”:

New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected. “The middle seems to be going away,” he adds. “The top and bottom are clearly getting farther apart.” While technology might be only one factor, says McAfee, it has been an “underappreciated” one, and it is likely to become increasingly significant.

And what about the people who make a living in the back rooms of grocery stores? Should we simply write them off as left behind because machines are more productive?

Here’s more from the Times’ on Google’s Andy Rubin, the engineer behind the Android operating system who is now heading up the company’s robotics effort:

“I have a history of making my hobbies into a career,” Mr. Rubin said in a telephone interview. “This is the world’s greatest job. Being an engineer and a tinkerer, you start thinking about what you would want to build for yourself.”

He used the example of a windshield wiper that has enough “intelligence” to operate when it rains, without human intervention, as a model for the kind of systems he is trying to create. That is consistent with a vision put forward by the Google co-founder Larry Page, who has argued that technology should be deployed wherever possible to free humans from drudgery and repetitive tasks.

Well, there are a lot of people who earn honest livings from drudgery and repetitive tasks.

My father dropped out of school at a pretty early age. But he went to trucking school and learned a skill that allowed him to earn a good living doing something he enjoyed. In fact, he’d still be doing it at 71 if he could get his big belly up into the cab.

Nonetheless, as much as he liked his job, he certainly experienced a lot of drudgery and repetition — there was a lot of waking up at 4:00 a.m. to do round trips from Brooklyn to Indiana, and an awful lot of late nights on the road.

But would it have been better for that job to not exist?

The Great Debate

There’s no standing in the way of technological advancement. But we shouldn’t gloss over the inevitable friction that comes with evolution, especially since in this case, the end result looks like a class war.

The victims of this relentless innovation in automation will be, at least initially, people who work in factories, for delivery services, and in service industries like retail — not the programmers and entrepreneurs who reap the economic benefits of increased productivity.

The good news is that a truly automated world still seems pretty far off.

But that’s exactly why we should be talking about it now.


Banned on Google: The 1,400 words you can’t use

Google Settlement

Why, Google, you’re a prude!

On the latest version of Android, the predictive text won’t recognize the words “sex,” “intercourse” or “screwing,” among others.

Poking around the source code, Wired magazine discovered an “obsessive” and “baffling” list of 1,400 words — many naughty, some just weird — that Google wants to protect its users from seeing.

The list includes “coitus” and a few more variations on knocking boots, plus some medical and anatomy terms and slightly racy words such as “panty.”

“Taken as a whole,” Wired concludes, “Google’s list suggests not only a surprising discomfort with sexuality, but also reproductive health and undergarments.”

There’s even a whiff of self-loathing. Two nonsexy words that offend Google Keyboard are “geek” and “Chromebook”— the latter being the name for the firm’s own line of laptops.

Users can still type any dirty word onto an Android screen themselves, but must do so the traditional way — every letter, from start to finish. That means overriding the keyboard when it tries to volunteer something cleaner. “Condom,” for example, will become “condition” if you let it. The solution, says Wired, is to go into the app’s settings menu and disable the word-blocking filter. Then you can have all the “coitus” you like.

Great gadget gifts for drivers

Garmin HUD

To paraphrase a famous platitude, the journey’s the thing, not the destination — especially if you like to drive. If you’ve got someone on your holiday gift list who loves to get behind the wheel, there are plenty of gadgets to make the ride a bit smoother.

Here are three of the year’s best gadgets for the road:

Get Your Car Connected
Someday soon, all cars will have connections to the Internet. But you don’t have to buy a new $30,000 vehicle to get handy connected features. The $170 Car Connection from Audiovox is the size of a Fig Newton and simply plugs into the OBD-II (on-board diagnostic system) port that’s under the dashboard of any car built since 1996.

Once attached, the device connects to the Internet via its own cellular data connection. So you can track the location of the car from a Web browser, receive text alerts should the vehicle move without your authorization, and even mark its parked location. Parents will appreciate the fact that the Car Connection can also e-mail them alerts should the car stray outside of a pre-set area (known as geofencing) or travel faster than 75 mph.

The Car Connection requires a monthly $9.95 subscription, plus a one-time $19.95 activation fee. There are less expensive smart phone-based options, but they can’t track a vehicle and they stop working once the phone is out of the car.

Keep Your Head Up
Even helpful gadgets, such as navigation systems, can be a distraction in the car. Every time you want to check on the next turn, you have to look down at the dash — or up at a portable nav system that creates a blind spot above the dash. The solution: Use a head-up display.

The Garmin HUD is the first head-up navigation device you can install in any car. It projects a translucent image in the lower part of the windshield and uses blue turn arrows and large text to  display such information as your current speed, estimated time of arrival, and distance to the next turn. It works at night and in broad daylight so that all you have to do is shift your gaze slightly to check on the directions. It also uses spoken instructions conveyed through a connected smart phone. It works with Android, iPhone or Windows Phone handsets running either the Navigon or StreetPilot navigation app ($30 and up).

Souped Up Radar
The days of Smokey standing on the side of the Interstate picking off speeders with a radar gun may one day become a quaint anachronism. Increasingly, municipalities are using fixed speed cameras and red light cameras and simply mailing out tickets to unsuspecting motorists. No police intervention required.

Fortunately, radar detectors are keeping up with the technological changes. Escort’s $550 Passport Max is one example. It has built-in GPS so that it can compare your location to a database of fixed camera locations and warn you before you get into trouble. In fact, many towns make the location of red light cameras public in order to warn drivers of dangerous intersections and encourage people to slow down. Of course, the Max also warns you about standard Ka radar guns and looks for laser hits.

To weed out false alarms from security systems and emitters like garage door openers, the Passport Max learns your route and eliminates excessive pings from these innocuous devices. To get the most out of the device, a one-year $19.95 subscription for camera location updates is recommended.