A little robot round-up

I don’t know about you, but I find things to do with AI, robots and automation quite confusing. Will the impact of these technologies really be as widespread as envisaged by the futurists? And what will the consequences and implications really be? Is humanity at stake, even?

Here are a number of articles I’m working through, that will hopefully shed some light on it all. Let’s start with the robot uprising.

Social robots will become family members in the homes of the future
With fewer stay-at-home parents, social robots can serve as personalized practice partners to help with homework and reinforce what children have learned that day in school. Far beyond helping you find recipes and ordering groceries, they can be your personal sous-chef or even help you learn to cook. They can also act as personal health coaches to supplement nutrition and wellness programs recommended by doctors and specialists for an increasingly health-conscious population. As the number of aging-in-place boomers soars, social robots can provide a sense of companionship for retirees while also connecting seniors to the world and to their loved ones, as well as sending doctor-appointment and medication reminders.

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species
IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today’s fantastic species of robots. They’re cleverly organized into fun categories like “Robots You Can Hug,” “Robots That Can Dance,” “Space Robots,” and “Factory Workers.” If they keep it updated, it’ll be very helpful for the robot uprising.

We need to have a very serious chat about Pepper’s pointless parliamentary pantomime
Had the Committee summoned a robotic arm, or a burger-flipping frame they would have wound up with a worse PR stunt but a better idea of the dangers and opportunities of the robot revolution.

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Robots can look very cute, but it’s the implications of those faceless boxes housing the AIs that will be more important, I think.

Computer says no: why making AIs fair, accountable and transparent is crucial
Most AIs are made by private companies who do not let outsiders see how they work. Moreover, many AIs employ such complex neural networks that even their designers cannot explain how they arrive at answers. The decisions are delivered from a “black box” and must essentially be taken on trust. That may not matter if the AI is recommending the next series of Game of Thrones. But the stakes are higher if the AI is driving a car, diagnosing illness, or holding sway over a person’s job or prison sentence.

Last month, the AI Now Institute at New York University, which researches the social impact of AI, urged public agencies responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare and education, to ban black box AIs because their decisions cannot be explained.

Artificial intelligence has got some explaining to do
Most simply put, Explainable AI (also referred to as XAI) are artificial intelligence systems whose actions humans can understand. Historically, the most common approach to AI is the “black box” line of thinking: human input goes in, AI-made action comes out, and what happens in between can be studied, but never totally or accurately explained. Explainable AI might not be necessary for, say, understanding why Netflix or Amazon recommended that movie or that desk organizer for you (personally interesting, sure, but not necessary). But when it comes to deciphering answers about AI in fields like health care, personal finances, or the justice system, it becomes more important to understand an algorithm’s actions.

The only way is ethics.

Why teach drone pilots about ethics when it’s robots that will kill us?
For the most part, armies are keen to maintain that there will always be humans in charge when lethal decisions are taken. This is only partly window dressing. One automated system is dangerous only to its enemies; two are dangerous to each other, and out of anyone’s control. We have seen what happens on stock markets when automatic trading programs fall into a destructive pattern and cause “flash crashes”. In October 2016 the pound lost 6% of its value, with blame in part put down to algorithmic trading. If two hi-tech armies were in a standoff where hair-trigger algorithms faced each other on both sides, the potential for disaster might seem unlimited.

Nuclear war has been averted on at least one occasion by a heroic Russian officer overriding the judgment of computers that there was an incoming missile attack from the US. But he had 25 minutes to decide. Battlefield time is measured in seconds.

The Pentagon’s plans to program soldiers’ brains
DARPA has dreamed for decades of merging human beings and machines. Some years ago, when the prospect of mind-controlled weapons became a public-relations liability for the agency, officials resorted to characteristic ingenuity. They recast the stated purpose of their neurotechnology research to focus ostensibly on the narrow goal of healing injury and curing illness. The work wasn’t about weaponry or warfare, agency officials claimed. It was about therapy and health care. Who could object?

Let’s hope nothing goes wrong.

Machine learning confronts the elephant in the room
Then the researchers introduced something incongruous into the scene: an image of an elephant in semiprofile. The neural network started getting its pixels crossed. In some trials, the elephant led the neural network to misidentify the chair as a couch. In others, the system overlooked objects, like a row of books, that it had correctly detected in earlier trials. These errors occurred even when the elephant was far from the mistaken objects.

Snafus like those extrapolate in unsettling ways to autonomous driving. A computer can’t drive a car if it might go blind to a pedestrian just because a second earlier it passed a turkey on the side of the road.

So yes, things can go wrong. But AI and automation will all be good for jobs, right?

Artificial intelligence to create 58 million new jobs by 2022, says report
Machines and algorithms in the workplace are expected to create 133 million new roles, but cause 75 million jobs to be displaced by 2022 according to a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) called “The Future of Jobs 2018.” This means that the growth of artificial intelligence could create 58 million net new jobs in the next few years.

With this net positive job growth, there is expected to be a major shift in quality, location and permanency for the new roles. And companies are expected to expand the use of contractors doing specialized work and utilize remote staffing.

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AI may not be bad news for workers
Some jobs could be made a lot easier by AI. One example is lorry-driving. Some fear that truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. But manoeuvring a lorry around busy streets is far harder than driving down the motorway. So the driver could switch into automatic mode (and get some rest) when outside the big cities, and take over the wheel once again when nearing the destination. The obvious analogy is with jetliners, where the pilots handle take-off and landing but turn on the computer to cruise at 35,000 feet. Using AI may prevent tired drivers from causing accidents.

Ok, yes, I can see that. But then it goes on…

And the report argues that AI can produce better decision-making by offering a contrarian opinion so that teams can avoid the danger of groupthink. A program could analyse e-mails and meeting transcripts and issue alerts when potentially false assumptions are being made (rather like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who notices that the Emperor has no clothes). Or it can warn a team when it is getting distracted from the task in hand.

Really? That’s quite a jump from automated driving. Having a system read everything a company’s employees write to look for poor assumptions? I cannot see that happening. More over-selling.

But what else could AI do?

AI lie detector tests to get trial run at EU airports
Fliers will be asked a series of travel-related questions by a virtual border guard avatar, and artificial intelligence will monitor their faces to assess whether they are lying. The avatar will become “more skeptical” and change its tone of voice if it believes a person has lied, before referring suspect passengers to a human guard and allowing those believed to be honest to pass through, said Keeley Crockett of Manchester Metropolitan University in England, who was involved in the project.

AI anchors: Xinhua debuts digital doppelgangers for their journalists
The AI-powered news anchors, according to the outlet, will improve television reporting and be used to generate videos, especially for breaking news on its digital and social media platforms.

“I’m an English artificial intelligence anchor,” Zhang’s digital doppelganger said in introduction during his first news telecast, blinking his eyes and raising his eyebrows throughout the video. “This is my very first day in Xinhua News Agency … I will work tirelessly to keep you informed, as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted.”

 

This is what the world’s first AI newsreader looks and sounds like [via the Guardian]

But let’s not get too carried away here. We’re talking about people’s jobs, their livelihoods.

The automation charade
Since the dawn of market society, owners and bosses have revelled in telling workers they were replaceable. Robots lend this centuries-old dynamic a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A “jobless future” is inevitable, we are told, an irresistible outgrowth of innovation, the livelihood-devouring price of progress. …

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

That article goes on to introduce a new term to describe the overselling the workplace dynamic and the casualisation of low-skilled service work, “fauxtomation.”

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But maybe we should all loosen up, and stop being so serious.

Love in the time of AI: meet the people falling for scripted robots
“Obviously as the technology gets better and the interactivity increases we’re going to be able to form closer connections to characters in games,” Reed said. “They will operate with greater flexibility and ultimately seem more lifelike and easier to connect to.”

But for Wild Rose and many of the other dating sims enthusiasts I spoke to, making the characters more “human” wasn’t particularly exciting or even desired. Saeran didn’t need to be real for her to care about him.

The HAL 9000 Christmas ornament
Fans of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will want to bring home this special Christmas ornament that celebrates 50 years of the science-fiction masterpiece. Press the button to see the ornament light up as HAL says several memorable phrases.

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Hard work being lazy

Two articles on some recently published books which I thought worked well together.

What we do: The evolution of work
Much of Komlosy’s writing about the evolving understanding of labor is illustrated with excellent examples of linguistic differences. Across European languages, she points out, there exists a structural distinction roughly equivalent to what we’d recognize in English as that between “labor” and “work”—the former traditionally more toilsome, the latter signifying not just effort but also the redemption of a realized product. German makes the split between arbeit and werk; French, between travail and oeuvre. In one telling etymology, she points out that travail (and its Spanish and Portuguese cousins, trabajo and trabalho) comes from the Latin tripalium, a three-pronged stake used to torture slaves in ancient Rome. Oeuvre, on the other hand, along with the Latin opus and the Italian opera, speaks for itself.

Idleness as flourishing
It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.” This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time.

It’s ok to just be ok

Here’s a piece from the New York Times on what might be putting people off taking up hobbies — we might be a bit naff at them.

In praise of mediocrity
If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you? […]

Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

I enjoyed reading this, and found it personally quite encouraging. Photography is a hobby of mine, and I’ve enjoyed documenting family life for many years now. I like taking photos much more than I like looking at the photos I’ve taken, however. I’m often disappointed that they never quite match the ideas in my head. But that’s fine.

And I guess this blog is another hobby of mine that I enjoy doing but aren’t really that good at, judging by my blog stats. But you know what, that’s fine too.

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Unbalanced

It’s hard to stop rubbernecking the political car crash in the US at the moment, but I think this piece from The Economist is a perfect summary of the current state of politics here in the UK.

Britain’s equilibrium of incompetence
The country’s political parties are exactly as inept as each other.
It is common for one of Britain’s great parties to be in crisis while the other is in clover. Labour tore itself apart in the Thatcher era and the Tories did the same during the Blair years. But Britain is currently witnessing something unusual: both its main parties are in crisis at the same time, divided over their future direction, racked by factional fights and worried about leadership challenges.

What a mess.

That’s not the way to do it: Zoe Williams assesses the problems with questioning the Prime Minister in Parliament
In Punch and Judy Politics: An insider’s guide to Prime Minister’s questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, both of whom have prepared parliamentary Opposition leaders for the House of Commons’ weekly ritual, take an exhaustive look at the “joust”, concluding as they begin: “If you were starting from scratch, this isn’t the way you’d build it. But this is what it is. We think it works”. This is a relaxed, urbane, rather fatalistic assessment, in the tradition of “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms”.

It’s hard to be an optimist these days. But perhaps we don’t need to be.

We’re getting bigger and smaller

George Monbiot dispels some of the myths that try to explain why we’re so much fatter than we were in previous generations.

We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised
So what has happened? The light begins to dawn when you look at the nutrition figures in more detail. Yes, we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed. … In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed.

We can’t simply put this change in society’s shape down to a lack of willpower, there’s a whole industry out there working against us.

[F]ood companies have invested heavily in designing products that use sugar to bypass our natural appetite control mechanisms, and in packaging and promoting these products to break down what remains of our defences, including through the use of subliminal scents. They employ an army of food scientists and psychologists to trick us into eating more than we need, while their advertisers use the latest findings in neuroscience to overcome our resistance.

They hire biddable scientists and thinktanks to confuse us about the causes of obesity. Above all, just as the tobacco companies did with smoking, they promote the idea that weight is a question of “personal responsibility”. After spending billions on overriding our willpower, they blame us for failing to exercise it.

Whilst some people are getting larger, this piece argues that our culture, institutions and even our gadgets (“high-tech pacifiers”) are reducing us and treating us like children.

The infantilization of Western culture
While we might find it trivial or amusing, the infantilist ethos becomes especially seductive in times of social crises and fear. And its favoring of simple, easy and fast betrays natural affinities for certain political solutions over others.

And typically not intelligent ones.

Democratic policymaking requires debate, demands compromise and involves critical thinking. It entails considering different viewpoints, anticipating the future, and composing thoughtful legislation.

What’s a fast, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It’s not difficult to imagine an infantile society being attracted to authoritarian rule.

Indeed.

People are strange

The Cut, a style and culture website that’s part of the New York magazine, have a very odd set of articles tagged What it’s like, with titles such as What it’s like to be married to a very attractive man, What it’s like to crave amputation, What it’s like to be allergic to wi-fi, and What it’s like to date a horse.

It’s quite a collection, but don’t read too many at once, you’ll go mad.

The fabulous future of work awaits

Following on from that article about what it might be like to work until we’re 100, here’s another example of over-optimistic, blue-sky, work-based astrology, this time from Liselotte Lyngsø, a futurist from the Copenhagen-based consultancy Future Navigator.

This is what work will look like in 2100
Human potential, according to Lyngsø, is not best cultivated in today’s workplace structure, and many of the changes she predicts revolve around the ongoing effort to maximize the abilities of individuals. To that end, many of today’s workplace structures, such as the 9-to-5 workday, traditional offices, rigid hierarchies, and the very concept of retirement will change dramatically.

“I don’t think we’ll have work hours like we used to. Likewise I think we’ll replace retirement with breaks where we reorient and retrain, where the borders [of work] are blurred,” she says. “It’s also about creating a sustainable lifestyle so you don’t burn out, and you can keep working for longer.”

Oh great, thanks.

Can’t stop, won’t stop

I’ve mentioned before that, when it comes to our time here, we don’t get long. But perhaps our lives — and our working lives, especially — will be longer than we think.

What if we have to work until we’re 100?
Retirement is becoming more and more expensive – and future generations may have to abandon the idea altogether. So what kinds of jobs will we do when we’re old and grey? Will we be well enough to work? And will anyone want to employ us?

Mind your manners

A couple of polite reviews of In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas. I love the first reviewer’s breakdown of the passive-aggressive phrase “Polite Notice”.

In praise of (occasional) bad manners
There are some funny moments here. One involves Keith Thomas’s lunchtime encounter with Norbert Elias, “world authority on the history of table manners,” when Thomas apparently knocked a jug of water all over the table. Elias’s response is not recorded; perhaps it was unprintable. It would have been good to learn more about comparable embarrassments in the early modern period—tales such as that reported by John Aubrey involving the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), who, “making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travel [for] seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.’”

How manners made man
In his final chapter, Thomas reflects on today’s world, in which civility means the recognition of equality, the right to self-expression, and the tolerance of difference. The new barbarians, in my view, are those who conduct phone conversations on trains and take selfies outside Auschwitz. But these actions are not, insists Thomas, signs of a “decivilising process”, because they do not threaten the internal order. I disagree, but then civility, to quote Barack Obama, is about disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Happy Windrush Day, grandma and grandad

It’s Windrush Day.

UK makes Windrush Day official with £500k grant to support events
Windrush Day will take place on 22 June, the day when around 500 migrants from the Caribbean arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex in 1948 aboard the MV Empire Windrush. […] The communities minister, Lord Bourne, said the annual celebration will help to “recognise and honour the enormous contribution” of those who arrived between 1948 and 1971.

I mentioned before about my grandad being on the Windrush. Here he is.

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He and my grandma had first met during the war. They got married in September 1948.

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The only black guy at the wedding. In the village, probably.

Look at all these happy faces.

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They went on to have seven kids, my mum being one of them. Never got to meet him, sadly, as he died in a traffic accident in 1958. So it goes. And it would have been my grandma’s birthday tomorrow, too, if she was still around.

Anyway, happy Windrush Day, the pair of you.

Weaponized classical music?

An interesting but depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.

Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.

Bach at the Burger King
The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

[…]

It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”

So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.

Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.

Looking forward in anger

Zoe Williams at the Guardian tries to understand where all the anger is coming from these days. Does anger always have an economic basis? Is social media to blame? Can it be a force for good? There’s certainly a lot of it about.

Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?
There was the mean note left on the car of a disabled woman (“I witnessed you and your young able-bodied daughter … walk towards the precinct with no sign of disability”); the crazed dyspepsia of the woman whose driveway was blocked briefly by paramedics while they tried to save someone’s life. Last week, Highways England felt moved to launch a campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks. Violent crime has not gone up – well, it has, but this is thought mainly to reflect better reporting practices – but violent fantasies are ablaze. Political discourse is drenched in rage. The things people want to do to Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger make my eyes pop out of my head.

I’m not really convinced by the theories that suggest these things are cyclical. The dates of these suggested 40 to 60 year ‘Kondratiev waves’ of high and low economic growth, that tie in to periods of stagnation, unrest and anger, feel a little forced. I’m going to continue to blame Trump. And social media.

Social media has given us a way to transmute that anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. You can go on Mumsnet to get angry with other people’s lazy husbands and interfering mother-in-laws; Twitter to find comradeship in fury about politics and punctuation; Facebook for rage-offs about people who shouted at a baby on a train or left their dog in a hot car. These social forums “enable hysterical contagion”, says Balick, but that does not mean it is always unproductive. The example he uses of a groundswell of infectious anger that became a movement is the Arab spring, but you could point to petitions websites such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz or crowdfunded justice projects. Most broad, collaborative calls for change begin with a story that enrages people.

Yes, ok, fair enough.

Good, but not that good

Some interesting research from Pew Research Center, on shifting attitudes towards the internet over recent years. The majority of respondents to their survey think the internet is mostly good for them personally, but less so when thinking about society as a whole.

Declining majority of online adults say the internet has been good for society
By contrast, those who think the internet is a bad thing for society gave a wider range of reasons for their opinions, with no single issue standing out. The most common theme (mentioned by 25% of these respondents) was that the internet isolates people from each other or encourages them to spend too much time with their devices. These responses also included references to the spread and prevalence of fake news or other types of false information: 16% mentioned this issue. Some 14% of those who think the internet’s impact is negative cited specific concerns about its effect on children, while 13% argued that it encourages illegal activity. A small share (5%) expressed privacy concerns or worries about sensitive personal information being available online.

It’s interesting that, for all the talk in the media about online privacy and data protection fears, many more people are worried about the internet’s effect on children. This seems to get less attention, perhaps because it’s harder to unravel, less black and white.

Attempts have been made, however, and Pew Research Center have also published an extensive report on possible remedies relating to a wide range of issues.

The future of well-being in a tech-saturated world
Many of those who argue that human well-being will be harmed also acknowledge that digital tools will continue to enhance various aspects of life. They also note there is no turning back. At the same time, hundreds of them suggested interventions in the coming years they feel could mitigate the problems and emphasize the benefits. Moreover, many of the hopeful respondents also agree that some harm will arise in the future, especially to those who are vulnerable.

[…]

Three types of themes emerged: those tied to expert views that people will be more helped than harmed when it comes to well-being; those tied to potential harms; and those tied to remedies these experts proposed to mitigate foreseeable problems.

Lots of interesting opinions and ideas, from calls for government regulation to formally educating people about the impacts of digital life on well-being.

No time for friends?

It takes 90 hours to make a new friend
The report, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found that it usually takes roughly 50 hours of time together to go from acquaintance to “casual friend” (think drinking buddies, or friends of friends that you see at parties); around 90 hours to become a true-to-form “friend” (you both carve out time to specifically hang out with one another); and over 200 hours to form a BFF-type bond (you feel an emotional connection with this friend).

My first thought, when I read that, was to think ‘haha I don’t have time for that goodness me that’s absolutely ages I’m very busy 90 hours that’s crazy I’ve got a spare 30 minutes next Thursday is next Thursday good for you?’

But really? We’re measuring building relationships in hours? Friendships that can last years and enrich a lifetime?

(Perhaps we should grow our own AI friends.)

It’s Monday! Let’s get to work! Maybe.

We all work very hard in our jobs, right? Looking for ways to be more efficient and productive. Well, perhaps not all of us. Or perhaps not all the time.

The art of not working at work
Most work sociologists tend toward the view that non-work at work is a marginal, if not negligible, phenomenon. What all statistics point towards is a general intensification of work with more and more burnouts and other stress syndromes troubling us. Yet there are more-detailed surveys reporting that the average time spent on private activities at work is between 1.5 and three hours a day.

[…]

Even if the percentage of workers who claim they are working at the pinnacle of their capacity all the time is slowly increasing, the majority still remains unaffected. In fact, the proportion of people who say they never work hard has long been far greater than those who say they always do. The articles and books about the stressed-out fraction of humanity can be counted in the thousands, but why has so little been written about this opposite extreme?

It’s an interesting article, but I wonder if it really applies here in the UK. Take this paragraph, for example.

Many would say that the underworked should talk to their bosses, but that doesn’t always help. I spoke with a Swedish bank clerk who said he was only doing 15 minutes’ worth of work a day. He asked his manager for more responsibilities, to no avail, then told his boss of his idleness. Did he get more to do? Barely. When I spoke with him, he was working three-hour days—there were laws that barred any workday shorter than that—and his intervention only added another 15 minutes to his workload.

In this austerity-stricken land would the equivalent worker, who admits to only doing 15 minutes’ work a day, still have a job after admitting that? They’re admitting their post is superfluous and are asking to be dismissed, surely.

Everything is out to get us

Following on from that post about how technology is deliberately addictive and seemingly out to get us, here’s a wider view of the problems we face and “the price we have to pay for being born in modern times”.

How the modern world makes us mentally ill
The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.

Thankfully, for each area of concern there’s a solution of sorts. For instance:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

It can all seem quite overwhelming, but we need to stay positive.

The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

The trick is remembering all this when we’re caught up in the moment and wrapped up in our day-to-day troubles. They ought to produce and sell a little cheatsheet we can carry around in our wallets or something.

Our phones and (are?) us

If I’m reading this right, a mobile phone manufacturer is saying less than positive things about their mobile phones. (Not for the first time?)

Phones should be ‘slaves, not masters’, says Samsung UK mobile chief
… Following increasing unease from technology insiders and development experts that young and old alike are becoming increasingly addicted to smartphones, social media and the constant need for messaging, Samsung’s head of mobile in the UK says that something needs to change to stop the constant heads-down relationship we have with our devices.

“Ultimately what we want to try and do is create more of a heads-up lifestyle,” Conor Pierce, Samsung’s vice president of mobile and IT in the UK and Ireland, told the Guardian at the launch of the company’s new Galaxy S9 smartphone.

“Let’s not spend our life looking at these devices. You look around and everyone is doing it, leaning over [their] phones. Let’s make the device be the slave and we’ll be the master – let’s turn the roles completely on their head.”

And the problem of all this distracting technology can be resolved through more technology?

“What I’m really looking forward to is making sure that not only customers have the best mobile experience, but also the best connectivity experience,” said Pierce. “Through our SmartThings open alliance, we’re bringing a ubiquitous, convenient experience in which users can control their privacy, as they need to be able to do, regardless of brand, to make it all a really joyful, easy, trusted experience for real people.”

Combine that with this discussion on the ‘extended mind’ thesis:

Are ‘you’ just inside your skin or is your smartphone part of you?
After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself – and all this dating back years.

It’s cold outside

A photographer took a thermal camera out onto the cold streets of London to document the what it’s like to be homeless this time of year.

Traces of warmth: thermal images of London’s homeless
Photographer Grey Hutton has spent the winter photographing homeless people with a thermal imaging camera, offering a new perspective to the growing problem of homelessness in the UK, and highlighting the hardship that so many face on the streets of London in winter.

And more locally, a number of Leeds schoolchildren tried to see for themselves what it’s like to sleep rough.

‘It was awful, it was freezing cold and I was hungry’
40 kids from a school in Leeds spent the night sleeping without their home comforts. The aim was to give them an understanding of what it’s like to sleep rough in cold weather. They slept in an old office building and had no heating, no beds to sleep on and no luxuries like mobile phones.

Rethinking colour and country

I liked the synchronicity of these stories. (And yes, I’m deliberately linking to the Mail’s version of the first one.)

First ancient Britons had black skin and blue eyes
Dr Tom Booth, a scientist from the museum said that the findings that there was a 76 per cent chance that Cheddar Man was ‘dark to black’ – was ‘extraordinary’. He said in the documentary: ‘If a human with that colour skin wandered around now, we’d call him black, and a lot darker than we’d expect for Europe as well. He added: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions that are really not applicable to the past at all.’ Dr Rick Schulting, an archaeology professor at Oxford University said: ‘It may be that we may have to rethink some of our notions of what it is to be British, what we expect a Briton to look like at this time.’

Do the limbo! How the Windrush brought a dance revolution to Britain
Windrush: Movement of the People is based partly on Watson’s own parents’ journey from Jamaica to Leeds in the 1950s, emphasising the loyalty that motivated them to go through such an upheaval. It felt horribly poignant to Watson that, having set out for the UK with such high-minded hopes, her parents encountered so much cruelty. The racism of 1950s Britain was brutal, Watson says. “My mother wept and wept once she started telling me about it: ‘When the call came out we answered it. But we arrived to all these notices saying: No dogs, no blacks, no Irish. That really hurt.’”

And here’s a photo of my grandad on the cover of the Windrush 65th Anniversary edition of The Voice.

Pernicious Facebook

There’s a Pernicious Anaemia page on Facebook, but not an actual Pernicious Facebook page. Perhaps I should start one. I’m sure George Soros would give me a like.

George Soros: Facebook and Google a menace to society
“Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment,” said the Hungarian-American businessman, according to a transcript of his speech. “This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.”

There’s more from him on his webpage. (I’m guessing he doesn’t have a Facebook page.)

George Soros: Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum
Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.

You wouldn’t think those in charge of these social media companies would agree, but perhaps they do?

‘Never get high on your own supply’ – why social media bosses don’t use social media
“It’s possible that in 20 years we’ll look back at the current generation of children and say: ‘Look, they are socially different from every other generation of humans that came before and as a result this is a huge problem and maybe we need to regulate these behaviours.’ Or perhaps we’ll look back and say: ‘I don’t know what the fuss was – I’m not sure why we were so concerned.’ Until we have some evidence, until there’s something that seems tangible, I think it’s going to be very hard to get people en masse to change how they behave.”

Ambivalent, to say the least.

Tackling loneliness

Steps from the government, as well as research from the Co-op Group.

May appoints minister to tackle loneliness issues raised by Jo Cox
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.” May paid tribute to Cox’s work, saying she hoped the initiative would aim “to see that, in Jo’s memory, we bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good”.

Loneliness is harming our society. Your kindness is the best cure
The commission will be outlining its thinking at the end of the year with requests for government and business. But we’ll also be explaining how we all have a role to play. Jo knew this. She said that tackling loneliness is “something many of us could easily help with – whether looking in on a neighbour, visiting an elderly relative or making that call or visit we’ve been promising to a friend”.

What loneliness costs UK employers
Our latest research shows 4 key ways that loneliness is a financial cost to employers. 1. Sickness absence associated with ill health effects of loneliness costs £20 million. 2. Lost working days caring for someone suffering from the ill health effects of loneliness costs £220 million. 3. Reduced productivity costs related to lower wellbeing from loneliness are £665 million. 4. Costs associated with increased voluntary staff ‘turnover’ are £1.62 billion.

Local tragedy

Teenager dies in Leeds Harehills barber shop shooting
The teenager was at Too Sharp’s The Barber Shop on Gathorne Terrace, in the Harehills area, when he was shot shortly before 13.20 GMT on Thursday. West Yorkshire Police said the man was found seriously injured and taken to hospital by ambulance for treatment, but later died. A 49-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

A little unsettling when it’s so close like that.

Digital good?

Interesting publications on design, technology and change for ‘good’
“I’m pulling together a list of interesting, thought-provoking reading on how design, technology and change (the three things that, for me, define ‘digital’) can help organisations that work in the community, voluntary, charity, non-profit, social enterprise type space.”

There are some interesting people in the non-profit and public sectors, with some great ideas about how technology and a more digital outlook can improve organisations and help people. Hopefully Dave’s reading list is a growing resource.

Digital bad?

We are hopelessly hooked
What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? We wouldn’t be always clutching smartphones if we didn’t believe they made us safer, more productive, less bored, and were useful in all of the ways that a computer in your pocket can be useful.

As ever, with this subject as with many others, a simplistic modern-life-is-rubbish attitude falls short. Things are more complicated than that.​​

Alone together

Saving the lost art of conversation
Her methods are contagious; once you start noticing what Turkle notices, you can’t stop. It’s a beautiful day, and we walk past boutiques, restaurants, and packed sidewalk cafés. The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.

Work shy?

In defence of idleness
Our instictive aversion to freeloaders was an evolutionary response to pre-industrial times. But it is a maladaption in our present environment, an atavistic anachronism. There is now – and there is likely to remain – a shortage of jobs. In this world, the fact that some (few?) people don’t want to work should be welcomed, as it increases the chances of getting work for those who want it.