Arduino Revisited

I started to write this post on 2017 November 22. The original title was MKR: Arduino Revisited. Two hundred and fifty days should be long enough to write any post, but this one has defied me.

An Arduino MKR 1000, the most basic board in this new Arduino family. In November, I expected to be buying several of them for a home automation project. (Photo: Arduino.cc)

Soon, it will be ten years since I started using and teaching Arduino. In November, I was looking forward to the new series of Arduinos, the MKR (Maker) series, a small form factor microcomputer with a number of outputs and headers (electrical pin connectors), a battery management system and USB, that could be useful for building home automation room control units, small enough to fit inside almost anything, such as a light switch box inside a wall.

Each room in our house would have its own personal microprocessor. Some rooms, such as the workshop might have several. Each microprocessor would then connects to multiple sensors that would measure/ detect things like temperature, humidity, light and motion inside that room. Analogue data would be converted inside the microprocessor to digital data, then sent onwards to a central controller, located somewhere in the house. If specific conditions were met, the controller will initiate an action, sending a message to either the same or another microprocessor, and ordering it to activate an activator (as they are called) such as opening a vent or turning on a light. These microprocessors would be fried if they received power exceeding a few milliwatts, so they use relays to indirectly switch on components that can consume up to 2 500 Watts.

There are just two problems with microprocessors like this. First, they should not use wireless communication (including but not limited to WiFi, Bluetooth or radio), but should be wired. Second, they should not use batteries or mains current as a power source.

Both of these problems can be resolved using Ethernet, which is network cabling technology, initially developed at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) between 1973 and 1974. For most home automation circuits there is no great urgency to turn on or off an activator. A millisecond or two will not make much of a difference, so there is no need for gigabit per second Ethernet.  Megabit per second is good enough. Batteries and mains current can be eliminated by sending electrical power through the Ethernet cable.

At the moment, I have lost my enthusiasm for Arduino MKR boards, and am looking for a replacement. Why?  It all has to do with open-source, or lack thereof, if not in practice, at least in spirit.

Arduino, despite its open-source claims, has not always been transparent.  The following is a summary of some of the Arduino disputes, taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arduino

In 2008, the five cofounders of the Arduino project created a company, Arduino LLC to hold the trademarks associated with Arduino. They transfered ownership of the Arduino brand to the newly formed company. The same year one of the five cofounders, Gianluca Martino through his company, Smart Projects, registered the Arduino trademark in Italy and kept this a secret from the other cofounders for about two years. Later, negotiations with Gianluca to bring the trademark under control of the original Arduino company failed. In 2014, Smart Projects began refusing to pay royalties. It then renamed itself Arduino SRL and created the website arduino.org, copying the graphics and layout of the original arduino.cc. In January 2015, Arduino LLC filed a lawsuit against Arduino SRL. In May 2015, Arduino LLC created the worldwide trademark Genuino, used as brand name outside the United States. In 2016, Arduino LLC and Arduino SRL merged into Arduino AG. In 2017 BCMI, founded by four of the five original founders (with the initials representing those of their respective last names) acquired Arduino AG and all the Arduino trademarks.

In July 2017, Massimo Banzi announced that the Arduino Foundation would be “a new beginning for Arduino. ”  That same month, former CEO Federico Musto allegedly removed many open source licenses, schematics and code from the Arduino website.  See: https://techcrunch.com/2017/07/26/ceo-controversy-mars-arduinos-open-future/

Currently, I have been unable to find any further information about an Arduino foundation, and any new start. Instead, I find in May 2018, Arduino announcing the sale of engineering kits to encourage the use of Arduino at university level.  Unfortunately, the kits require the use of Mathlab and Simulink, closed-source and expensive software packages from MathWorks, despite open-source alternatives, such as R.  Admittedly, the kits contain a one year licence for the software. See: https://blog.arduino.cc/2018/05/12/arduino-goes-to-college-with-the-new-arduino-engineering-kit/

Back in 2013, Massimo Banzi was more enthusiastic about open-source hardware, as he explained in an Arstechnica interview. See: https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2013/10/arduino-creator-explains-why-open-source-matters-in-hardware-too/

Here are some quotes from the article:  As an open source electronic prototyping platform,  Arduino releases all of its hardware design files under a Creative Commons license, and the software needed to run Arduino systems is released under an open source software license.  Why is openness important in hardware? Because open hardware platforms become the platform where people start to develop their own products. For us, it’s important that people can prototype on the BeagleBone [a similar product] or the Arduino, and if they decide to make a product out of it, they can go and buy the processors and use our design as a starting point and make their own product out of it. … With the Raspberry Pi you cannot even buy the processor….  Raspberry Pi is a PC designed for people to learn how to program. But we [Arduino] are a completely different philosophy. We believe in a full platform, so when we produce a piece of hardware, we also produce documentation and a development environment that fits all together with hardware.

Even the Arduino website has changed its language. Before it might have distinguished between an original board and a clone, emphasizing the open source nature of boards. Now this nuance is missing entirely, it states:  “If you are wondering if your Arduino board is authentic you can learn how to spot a counterfeit board here [with link].” See: https://www.arduino.cc/en/Main/Products

While I live in hope that Arduino will reform, I don’t want to financially support it any more. What I want is an open-source board with its own Ethernet connectivity. They did have one, but retired it without a direct replacement. Currently, this feature seems to be unavailable from Arduino. They are undoubtedly too busy developing boards that connect an assortment of proprietary communications technology.

The Arduino Ethernet with PoE (Power over Ethernet), an almost ideal solution, except that it has been retired. (Photo: Arduino.cc)

I have considered using other boards, even Italian ones, such as the Fishino, but they also lack Ethernet connectivity: https://www.fishino.it/home.html

The board that seems to offer the most promise comes from DF Robot: https://www.dfrobot.com/product-1286.html

DF Robot W5500 Board with PoE, available at a price of USD 45 or less. (Photo: DF Robot)

Their W5500 Ethernet with PoE board is based on the ATmega32u4 in an Arduino Leonardo package with a W5500 Ethernet chip . The latter is TCP/IP hardwired for embedded systems, although not gigabit enabled. The board is compatible with most Arduino shields and sensors. Version 2.0 has an upgraded PoE power regulation circuit, which makes PoE power more reliable.

The main difference between a Uno and a Leonardo package is that the latter uses a more sophisticated chip, an ATmega32U4 chip.  It shares the same form factor and I/O placement (analog, PWM, I2C pins in the same place) as the Uno, which means that it can use the same shields, which are additional boards that sit on top of the Arduino, and connect directly to the pins below.

A Seeed relay shield, showing the pins that allow it to be directly connected to most Arduino boards. Yes, Seeed is spelled with 3 e’s. (Photo: Seeedstudio.com)

A relay shield provides several, typically four,  switches that can control high current loads. They can be wired as NO (Normally Open) or NC (Normally Closed) circuits. These are important, because most electrical equipment cannot be controlled directly by a microprocessor’s pins. Relays are useful for switching AC appliances such as fans, lights, motors as well as high current DC solenoids.

 

DF Robots, an alternative to Arduino. (Illustration: DF Robots)

The fact that the DF Robots W5500 board is open-source, means that everyone is permitted to make their own boards from scratch, if they should want. Most of the time, this is not an economic choice.

 

Open Source Mapping

An embedded map of Trondheim Fjord, Norway, showing the location of Cliff Cottage. It was made using an OSM (OpenStreetMap) plugin, in the WordPress program, used to make this weblog.

While I might have included a screen shot or image to display a map, a more flexible approach is to embed one. This requires adding a mapping plugin to the WordPress program that I currently use. Since there are so many plugins available, I have to decide which one to use. I’m using one that is open source to make a policy statement!

It all started with this item in /. ( https://slashdot.org/ )

Background theory: A factoid from Economics 101 – perfect competition leads to Pareto optimality, which is just a fancy way of saying that businesses that compete will stagnate. There is no way for any of them to make any profits. Ultimately, a little mistake will lead to bankruptcy. So businesses will do almost anything to avoid competition. They want monopolies or,  if that isn’t possible, a large market share, so they can charge whatever consumers will pay, to make lots of money.

Background event: As explained in the /. article, on 2018-07-16, the free ride of using Google Maps’ application programming interface (API) is over. Google is going to make it more difficult and expensive to use its API. The good news (for Google) is that they should be able to extract more revenue from users. The bad news (for organizations and people using these APIs) is that custom maps will be less sustainable or even unfeasible for organizations that made them. See: https://developers.google.com/maps/billing/important-updates

When a company makes programs that are high quality and free, people will use them. Google Maps is no exception. Thus, the most popular WordPress mapping plugins are (with the number of active installations in parentheses, from largest to smallest): WP Google Maps (400 000+ ); Google Maps Widget (100 000+); MapPress Easy Google Maps (100 000+); WP Google Map Plugin (100 000+); Google Maps plugin by Intergeo (60 000+); Snazzy Maps (60 000+); Google Maps Easy (40 000+); Simple Map (40 000+).  All of these plugins relate to Google Maps. It is only when one gets to Leaflet Map Marker (30 000+) that an alternative to Google Maps can be found that works with OpenStreetMaps and Bing Maps, as well as Google Maps.

Consequences: People who need a map, but don’t know how to program, and don’t have a budget to pay for a customized solution, have been able to make maps using Google (or equivalent) APIs. Google’s actions are part of a trend away from easy access to free mapping tools. Fewer companies are offering free accounts and there are fewer alternatives to Google.

Open source API choices to replace Google Maps APIs include Leaflet and OpenLayers.

Leaflet is an open-source JavaScript library for desktop and mobile platform interactive maps. The API code is small, 38 kB,  but has most mapping features needed by developers. It can be extended with plugins. Its focus is on the optimal performance of basic mapping features, rather than on an extensive features rich environment. See: https://leafletjs.com

In contrast OpenLayers is much more extensive, and larger (10 MB) requiring greater insight.  See: http://openlayers.org

Mapzen, often cited as a third open soure tool that ran on OpenStreetMaps, shut down its operations at the beginning of 2018.

For me, open source matters, so I chose to add on OSM – OpenStreetMaps, as a plugin. It took a couple of minutes to download the plugin, and up to several seconds to activate it. Here is the entire procedure:

Select Generate: OSM shortcode

Select the OSM control theme of your choice

Adjust the map and click into the map to generate the OSM shortcode

Copy (Ctrl+C) the generated shortcode and paste (Ctrl+V) it into your article or page.

Notes: The generator was located immediately below the WordPress text frame; Once the map was pasted into the text, the preview button had to be pressed to show the map. The only thing left to do is to publish the post!

 

Humanity Minus

This post started off as a reflection on Douglas Rushkoff (1961-) media theorist professor and author of, Survival of the Richest – The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind:  https://medium.com/s/futurehuman/survival-of-the-richest-9ef6cddd0cc1

Survival of the Richest

Article summary. Rushkoff wants us to be so annoyed with the richest among us, that we will rush off (pun intended) and buy his new book!

At a certain level of income , a discussion of technology changes from a discussion of its acquisition costs, to a discussion of the opportunities it offers for professional work. For affluent people, it becomes a discussion of investment opportunities. Beyond this, the opulent seldom need to understand technology, even as an investment. Hired minions understand it and deal with its practical application. Rushkoff is a minion, who sold his soul for an hour to a group of five hedge funders.

While the article is probably just the introduction of his new book, it hints that the author may have had some moral issues with his gig. Writing the book is probably some form of self-imposed quasi-penance. Real penance would have resulted in the book being published under a Creative Commons license.

The opulent already have retreats in areas of the world less impacted by crises, be they social or climatic. They have the financial means to buy them in New Zealand or Alaska or anywhere else that suits their fancy. There will always be a discussion about the level of fortification needed, where an underground bunker is the minimum. If such a retreat is too large and extensive, there will also be a need for another class of hired minion, the mercenary, to defend it. But mercenaries are fickle, and they are only loyal to money. What happens if money becomes worthless?

As we all know, the opulent have no interest in making the world a better place. Their major concern is their personal transcendence of the human condition. Preventing this are any number of potential challenges. Rushkoff lists them for us: climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. The opulent code this in one word, the event, which in turn precipitates just one response, the escape.

Transhumanism reduces reality to data, and humans to information-processing objects. Human evolution reduces to a video game, won by finding the escape hatch.

Rushkoff identifies a brief moment, in the early 1990s, when technology seemed open-ended,  an opportunity to create a more inclusive, distributed, and pro-human future. This faded quickly in the dotcom crash. The future was no longer created through creative decisions, but predetermined by passive venture capital investments.

Rushkoff questions the morality of unbridled technological development turning an exploitative and extractive marketplace (think Walmart) into an even more dehumanizing successor (think Amazon). Downsides include automated jobs, the gig economy, the demise of local retail, the destruction of the natural environment and the use of global slave labour to manufacture computers and smartphones.

Fairphone

As an aside Rushkoff mentions Fairphone, founded to make and market ethical phones. Except this was impossible. Bas Van Abel, Fairphone’s founder now sadly refers to their products as “fairer” phones. Interestingly, I had had discussions about these phones on several occasions during the days immediately before reading this article. The main question being, how much more would a person be willing to pay for a moral product? Note your guess before checking the answer at the bottom of the article.

At some point mining of rare earth metals by slave-labour ends, as reserves cease to be viable. Mines are replacing by toxic waste dump filled with disposed digital technology, “picked over by peasant children and their families, who sell usable materials back to the manufacturers.”

Yes, Rushkoff’s prose can be visible and moving. If people ignore technology’s social, economic, and environmental repercussions, the greater these problems become, resulting in more withdrawal, isolationism, apocalyptic fantasy and more “desperately concocted technologies and business plans. The cycle feeds itself.”

Rushkoff notes that this world view promotes seeing people as the problem and technology as its solution. Human traits are treated as system bugs. Technology is defined as neutral. “It’s as if some innate human savagery is to blame for our troubles. Just as the inefficiency of a local taxi market can be “solved” with an app that bankrupts human drivers, the vexing inconsistencies of the human psyche can be corrected with a digital or genetic upgrade.”

Repo! The Genetic Opera.

In 1996, Darren Smith (1962-) was inspired by a friend’s bankruptcy to write of a future where not only property, but also body parts, could be repossessed. In collaboration with Terrance Zdunich (1976-) this resulted in The Necromerchant’s Debt, a 2002 preliminary theatrical version of Repo! This was then expanded and transformed into assorted incarnations through 2005.  In 2008 it emerged as a science fiction musical horror comedy film, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (1979-).

As a media theorist Rushkoff is programmed to include film references in his works, especially those with post-apocalyptic zombies, where the future is a zero-sum game between humans. One tribe survives at the expense of another’s demise. Repo! is a transgressive film, a genre I appreciate more than most. I am awaiting a sequel, or perhaps, prequel where consciousness is uploaded to a computer. The only challenge is that the Matrix, seems to have had that as its plot.

Westworld is Rushkoff’s media product of choice, depicting a world where human beings are simpler and more predictable than general artificial intelligences. Humans are feeble. They deserve nothing. In contrast robots are far superior. I am looking forward to seeing it, if only to appreciate Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (1980-) as Armistice, a host. She is a brutal and ruthless bandit and a member of Hector Escaton’s gang. In real life, she was born in Inderøy, and attended the same rural elementary school as my children.

Convivial Technology

Surviving the event seemed to be the primary goal of the hedge funders. Rushkoff’s advice was to treat everyone well. The more the world develops sustainability and the wider wealth is distributed, the less chance there will be of an “event”. The challenge was that the hedge funders didn’t seem interested in avoiding a calamity, convinced the world had deteriorated too far. Wealth and power couldn’t affect the future, it could only buy insulation.

As one retreats from the opulent to the affluent, to the middle class, and the working poor, there are better options available for using technology. Convivial technology, where people can have fun, learn and develop, but simultaneously treat each other with respect. Being human is not about individual survival or escape. All individuals die. It is survival of the species that counts in the biological world. Humans thrive through co-operation.

[Answer: A Fairphone costs about 100% more than equivalent phones, about NOK 5 000 for a NOK 2 500 phone. ]

Construction Technology

A 50 m2 office hotel in Copenhagen’s Nordhavn made with a 3D printer, 8m x 8m x 6m (Illustration: 3D Printhuset)

When I look at  construction today (2018-07-03), fifty two years to the week after completing high school in 1966, and beginning work as a construction labourer at that very same location, Lester Pearson Senior Secondary School, the work looks surprisingly similar and the tools surprisingly familiar. Someone working in 1968 would have no problem working in 2018.

Pneumatic nailers have been in use since the 1950s, and can save a lot of time. They also give a superior join. Yet, this week, on a site some hundred meters from our residence, two builders were using conventional hammers to construct a cabin. The work was progressing slowly.

One of the main reasons I prefer to build, rather than to hire, is that too many builders are living in the past. Fortunately, I actually enjoy building construction. Yes, it can be tiring work. But it means that I never have to work out at a gym. Yes, it is necessary to take precautions to avoid physical injury, and to use personal protective clothing. Yes, at the end of the day, much of the work will be invisible, but that  isn’t too different from my previous work as a teacher.

Many of my first jobs involved working with wood. While still attending junior secondary school, I built a sabot sailboat out of two sheets of 1/4″ (6mm) plywood. Later, I worked clean-up on the weekends at Brownlee Industries, in Surrey. They processed alder into lumber and made glue-laminate products from it. Other summer jobs were with Bel-Par Industries in Surrey, where I worked as a cabinet-maker’s assistant.  This was undoubtedly the job in Canada that suited my personality best.

Somewhat later, I also working for Habitat Industries on Annacis Island, Delta. It was a pre-fabricated housing factory that has had other names, both before and since. It was named after the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, held in Vancouver in 1976. John Reagan’s designs were anything but modular boxes. He designed octangular, split level and mineshaft buildings. They involved post and beam as well as platform framing. Here, I worked in the factory, not just framing, but other tasks such as electrical and plumbing installation, as well as in the office, mostly related to scheduling and project planning.

Pre-fabrication saved on build time and labour costs by moving much of the work to a climate-controlled environment. Part of the challenge is that these parts have to be transported, which means that the building has to be sub-divided into transportable units, with a maximum length, height and width. Modules are not always the solution. One compromise is to use pre-cut materials for flooring and roofs, but to make and transport walls in sections. Modules can work for bathrooms, less so for kitchens.

In February 2012, I watched an inspiring TED Talk, Contour Crafting – Automated Construction, with Behrokh Khoshnevis at TEDxOjai: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdbJP8Gxqog After this, I expected there to be a surge of interest 3D-printing of houses. I am still waiting, but understand progress has been made by Khoshvevis in China. Not so much on the North American continent or in Europe.

AMT-SPECAVIA of Yaroslavl, Russia started serial production of construction printers in 2015. Currently, seven models are available ranging from a small format for the printing of small architectural forms, to a much larger scale, that allows printing of buildings up to 3 stories high. A construction printer was delivered to 3DPrinthuset, in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2017. This 8m x 8m x6m printer was used to construct a 50 m2 office-hotel.

This is referred to as a Building on Demand (BOD) project. Only its walls and part of its foundation are printed. The rest of the construction is traditional. Further information See: https://3dprinthuset.dk/europes-first-3d-printed-building/ A time-lapse video of the project is available here: https://3dprinthuset.dk/the-bod/

I don’t think I will have an opportunity to build and live in my own 3-D printed house. However, I am encouraging my children to consider the potential this technology offers. I would enjoy helping them.

 

 

A Copy of a Copy

Soon it will be time to end my surfing career, and I have been wondering what to replace it with.

Earlier, on Sunday (2018-07-01), I had read an article in The Independent about Deep Purple and their compelling song Smoke on the Water, which appears to reference the burning down of a casino at Montreux in 1971:  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/deep-purple-montreux-jazz-festival-lake-geneva-1971-a8418926.html

Later, that day I was into YouTube, and in addition to the usual mix of woodworking and computing videos, the second on the list of recommended videos was Rolling Stones time! Riffing on Gimme Shelter with my Bacchus BST-650, by Laura Cox. It had over 300 000 views, and was made 2018-05-26: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zy09E1HC7lE

Unlike many people with tinnitus, I restrict the amount of music I listen to. My normal music consumption is somewhere around one track/ song a week.

However, working on Project Retrograde at the time, I wondered why this particular video was included so high up on my recommendation list. My thoughts were, I was reading about another famous guitar riff earlier. Google knows this. Both Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet. Then I wondered, why not the original version? Does their algorithm conclude that I would prefer a cover version by an unknown woman, to the original by a famous rock band?

YouTube’s placement of the video worked. I decided that this 2-minute long video would be the one track I would listen to on Canada Day – and probably the only one for another week. I did play it, but what fascinated me was the guitar. It looked like a Fender Stratocaster. A little searching through the surface web and I  discovered that Bacchus guitars are made in Japan by the Deviser Custom Shop. They are generally well made copies of famous brand names. They are handmade without using CNC equipment.

A Bacchus BST-650 copy of a Fender Stratocaster guitar, in Fiesta Red. (Photo: Deviser)

In an instant, the framework of a new project started to appear, but one that would only begin after: 1)  the house was remodeled, 2) its furniture constructed, 3) the DIY CNC machine completed and 4) the electrically powered, jet surfboard made. Only then would I manufacture an electric guitar, using CNC equipment. No, probably not a Fender Stratocaster copy, but a bespoke design. One can only go so far in copying the works of someone else.

As for the amplifier and speaker system, one source of inspiration is Notes & Volts – Electronics, Guitars & Geekery: https://www.youtube.com/user/NotesAndVolts/videos?disable_polymer=1

The task after that would be to learn to play it!

Artificial General Intelligences

From a previous post …

haves will indirectly control artificial intelligence agents, while the majority have nots will be required to obey the whims of these agents, and their overlord handlers.

Post-modern bread and circus equivalents will pacify the great unwashed. If that doesn’t work even more direct, negative action will be taken.

Neural networks will live a life of their own, so it may not be possible for even the “haves” to exercise direct control over these agents. However, one proposed approach is to frame control, with an AI agent constitution, based on Isaac Asimov’s (1920-1992), Three Laws of Robotics.

In this post, these and other robotic laws will be examined and commented upon.

Sawyer (left) & Baxter (right) are collaborative robots. Just the sort of creatures that might end up in a dispute with living humans. (Photo: Jeff Green/ Rethink Robotics, 2015 CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were proposed in a 1942 short story Runaround. According to Asimov they had their origin in a meeting between himself and John W. Campbell on 1940-12-23.

The Three Laws are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Normality 2020

Voice activated actuators wait patiently to serve you. Invisible logistic trails ensure an orange (Citrus × sinensis) is peeled, split into boats, if that is your preference, and placed in front of you on a dish of your own choosing, when you demand it.

Your own speech controls your digital assistants, not only commercial varieties such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant, but also open source Lucida (formerly Sirius), Abot, Jarvis and Jasper.

On a clear day, the sun shines, oranges are peeled and served, and there is no need to reflect on the laws of robotics underpinning digital assistants.

A snake in the garden of Eden

I have nothing against snakes, personally, but use the term to describe an unwelcome intruder into Eden, subsonic commands hidden in music, videos, or even white noise. This is done by using software to cancel out the sound that the speech recognition system was supposed to hear and replacing it with sound at subsonic frequencies that would be transcribed differently. Instead of an orange, an apple (Malus pumila) is peeled, sliced and served on a dish of someone else’s choice. A humorous change in the eyes of many, but in our family, some people are allergic to apples. Other substitutions can be more serious, even deadly. There can be significant security risks. It is at this stage that laws of robotics, or their AI equivalent, need to be applied.

One challenge with these three laws, is the assumption that all human actions are legitimate. What happens if a human wants to harm another human? With these laws, it would be impossible for a robot to intervene on behalf of the person being harmed. So, it will undoubtedly not go many milliseconds before some enterprising hacker ensures that these three laws are voided.

Asimov was well aware of this shortcoming, which he would have undoubtedly described as a feature. He has referenced Arthur Hugh Clough’s  (1819-1861) satirical poem on the ten commandments, The Latest Decalogue, as its inspiration: “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive officiously to keep alive:”

Asimov introduced a zeroth law in Foundation & Earth (1986) but it seems of limited use in conflict situations:

0. A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

In western films, the cliché is that the good guys always wear white Stetson hats! In real life, it is more difficult to distinguish good people from evil doers, or white hackers from black hackers.

These laws have been modified many times, by Asimov as well as others. One extreme is represented by Jack Williamson’s (1908-2006) novelette With Folded Hands (1947), rewritten as the novel The Humanoids (1949), deals with robot servants whose prime directive is “To Serve and Obey, And Guard Men From Harm.” The Williamson robots take the robotic laws to the extreme, by protecting humans from everything, including unhappiness, stress, unhealthy lifestyle and all potentially dangerous actions. All humans may do is to sit with folded hands.

Some feel three laws are insufficient.

The Lyuben Dilov (1927-2008) novel, Icarus’s Way (alternative title, The Trip of Icarus) (1974) added:

4. A robot must establish its identity as a robot in all cases.

This law appears to have been violated in the celebrated Google Duplex restaurant reservation (2018-05-17): https://mashable.com/2018/05/17/google-duplex-dinner-reservation/#X7ChNbJ3baqw

Harry Harrison (1925-2012) also produced a fourth law, found in the short story, The Fourth Law of Robotics, in the tribute anthology Foundation’s Friends (1989):

4. A robot must reproduce. As long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First or Second or Third Law.

Reproduction, here, is asexual but sensational. Why not a fourth law requiring a robot to maintain itself, by undertaking necessary hardware and software repairs? There are robots who can and do reproduce themselves, the most famous being RepRap, a low-cost, self-replicating 3D printer, initially made at the University of Bath in 2005: http://www.reprap.org/

Nikola Kesarovski (c. 1935-2007) published the book The Fifth Law of Robotics (1983):

5. A robot must know that it is a robot.

I am not quite sure why. Is it so that it knows that it isn’t human? Should it know that it is a particular type of robot? For example, a vacuum robot, rather than a lawn mowing robot.

Roger MacBride Allen (1957-) wrote a trilogy set within Asimov’s fictional universe. Caliban (1993), Inferno (1994) and Utopia (1996) are each prefixed with “Isaac Asimov’s”. Here, there are four New Laws, which treat robots as partners rather than slaves to humanity.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must cooperate with human beings except where such actions would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence.
4. A robot may do whatever it likes as long as this does not conflict with the first three laws.

Discussion

The various robotic laws are very vague, with concepts such as human and robot undefined. This can give rise to people or equipment being regarded as something other than what they are, such as cyborg or actuator, respectively, in an attempt to avoid following the laws. Ambiguity is a literary device that is masterly exploited by Asimov, and other science fiction authors.

Another challenge with the Asimov approach, is that it is only concerned about the adversarial relationship between two groups – robots and people. Nothing else matters. Robots do not seem to have any ethical obligations with respect to the environment, for example.

Even if the laws were amended or expanded to take other aspects of the world into consideration, these laws would still not work. The only reason for positing laws is to have them fail, in interesting ways. It is not the laws, but the storytelling that is important. The lesson to be learned is that it is not possible to restrict ethics to a set of a few simple rules. If one does, the entire system will at some point fall apart.

In many science fiction worlds, robots only have mental capabilities that are less than, or equal to, their human controllers, for lack of a better word. What happens when artificial intelligence advances beyond human levels? Superintelligence is a key challenge, a situation in which artificial intelligence, or machine intelligence to distinguish it from organic intelligence, will require more advanced ethical considerations, than those that can be stated in a literary work.

Deontology judges the morality of an action based on rules. It is a field I know almost nothing about, except that it is regarded by many professional philosophers as a dead end.

Perhaps it should be stated here and now that robots are another dead end. The future belongs not to robots but to Artificial General Intelligences (AGI). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_general_intelligence These are machines with consciousness, intuitive, flexible and adaptive, even in terms of ethics. Like humans, AGIs do not rely on rote knowledge of rules, ethical or otherwise, but use them – if at all –  as guidelines to nudge ethical instincts and intuitions. It is a situation highly dependent on the environment people and AGIs are brought up in.

As an ethical amateur, I am attracted more to virtue-ethics than deontology. It is in the discussion of virtues, individually and collectively, that one can relate to behaviour that is beneficial, as well as that which is less so.

Rosalind Hursthouse writes in https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/ethics-virtue/ :

A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a “desirable” or “morally valuable” character trait. It is, indeed a character trait—that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say “goes all the way down”, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. (Hence the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action.)

Yes, this is a difficult act for a machine to follow, but absolutely essential if one is to have autonomous cars, autonomous surgeons and other tools that will interact intimately with humans.

The one recent book on ethics that I have enjoyed the most is After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre. But that is another story …

Notes

  1. I taught Artificial Intelligence (AI) at Nord-Trøndelag Regional College from 1988 to 1991. My focus was on expert systems.
  2. I do not normally enjoy reading science fiction. However, I do find it rewarding to read about the topic.
  3. Currently, my main interest in AI relates to robotics in general, and assistive devices in particular. However, I also see a need to look beyond the present to a future where machines acquire a form of consciousness.
  4. Personally, if I needed extensive care in the future, I would prefer that care given to me by a robot rather than a human.

 

Retrograde

Retrograde is an informal project for family and friends to test RetroShare, a friend-to-friend (F2F) network communication and file sharing system, to see if it can replace other social media platforms. Mega-corporate social media incessantly use surveillance trackers, and manipulate users for commercial, political and even more fundamental ideological purposes.

The RetroShare Logo

If you know me personally, you may participate in this project!

The key dates of the project are all the first day of the following months in 2018.

July: Official announcement of project, with a request for participants. If you want to participate, please send an email to brock at mclellan dot no, with Retrograde as subject. Nothing more is needed. The official deadline is 2018-07-14 23:59, Central European Summer Time (CEST). For people living on the West Coast of North America, the deadline is 14:59 or 2:59 PM, Pacific Daylight Time (PDT). Unofficially? Well, why don’t you send it now, so you don’t forget? But your request will be considered by a living human being, with long experience dealing with procrastinators!

August: Notification of selected participants. Participants will receive detailed instructions on how to download and install RetroShare, including creation of private and public keys needed to operate the system. Back channels (email) will be used for this purpose. You may want to have a few close friends and/or family members install RetroShare on their computers.

September. Trial operation. During this time you will be able to communicate with friends and family who have RetroShare, and send communication similar to that you would do on Facebook, but without Facebook being in control. Hopefully, during the month you will learn new features of RetroShare that improve the quality of your on-line life. Every few days, you will receive a new message (on RetroShare) suggesting new ways of communicating, building your skills (and confidence) as a RetroShare user.

October. You will be asked some questions about your experiences using RetroShare in September, and particularly about problems you encountered (and your solutions). The official deadline to reply will be Sunday, 2018-10-14 23:59, Central European Summer Time (CEST). For people living on the West Coast of North America, the deadline is 14:59 or 2:59 PM, Pacific Daylight Time (PDT). Note: This date is before the “fall back” to standard time.

November. An anonymized report on the trial operation will be sent to participants, a less detailed weblog post will follow. It will now be up to each participant to decide if they want to keep using RetroShare actively, to keep it passively on their machine, or deactivate it and remove it.

Why Retrograde?

In the final hours of preparing this post, I received a copy of a report from the Norwegian Consumer Council, titled Deceived by Design. It states,

“In this report, we analyze a sample of settings in Facebook, Google and Windows 10, and show how default settings and dark patterns, techniques and features of interface design meant to manipulate users, are used to nudge users towards privacy intrusive options. The findings include privacy intrusive default settings, misleading wording, giving users an illusion of control, hiding away privacy friendly choices, take-it-or-leave-it choices, and choice architectures where choosing the privacy friendly option requires more effort for the users.” (p. 3)

Yes, social media, including Facebook and Google, but also Microsoft with Windows 10, has gotten out of hand. I would like people to participate in a cyberspace where fundamental rights, including the right to privacy, dominate. At the same time, I want people to use dignity and respect in their dealings with each other, online as well as offline. Project Retrograde is an initial effort to provide such a forum.

About RetroShare

RetroShare is an open source, non-intrusive communication platform, with official and unofficial versions available for devices (usually computers) running the following operating systems:

Windows: XP, Vista, 7, 10.

Apple: MacOS.

Linux: Ubuntu, Debian, Mint, Arch, Fedora, Gentoo, , Raspberry Pi, Mageia, CentOS, OpenSUSE.

FreeBSD

Android:  Only a partial implementation.

There does not seem to be a distribution for iPhone, but this may be in part because Apple is not particularly open to products outside their very commercial ecosystem. One inexpensive solution for people trapped in an Apple environment, is to buy a raspberry pi, and to use it as a RetroShare server. People in this situation can contact me for details, as I will be implementing RetroShare on a Raspberry Pi 3 B+. A Mac computer, running any modern version of macOS can also be used.

RetroShare works as a communication platform, when it is based on real-life acquaintanceships of “trusted” people in a network. Add only people to the network you know and trust. In 2012, a German Court issued an injunction against a user of RetroShare for sharing copyrighted music files. The user had added an anti-piracy monitoring company as a friend, which allowed him to be “caught”.

Unless you tell someone, it will be very difficult for other people to know that you are running RetroShare.

I will only be adding people to my network that I know personally, even if the last time we met physically was over fifty years ago. I still know them, and trust them. On the other hand, there may be people I have regular contact with, but where, for one reason or another, there is a shortage of trust. With people in this category, I will certainly avoid mentioning anything about RetroShare. My estimate is that, fully populated, my RetroShare contact list will include about 100 people.

One challenge with using Facebook is that they categorize everyone as a friend, while I use much more selective nuances. The several hundred people I am Facebook-friends with include: friends (a core group of about 10 people, most of whom I have known for 30 years or more), close family (which may relate to my adoptive or biological family), not-so-close family, neighbours, co-religionists, former colleagues, former pupils, former prison inmates I have taught, other prison inmates, members of environmental and other organizations, random acquaintances, and people who claim to know me that I can’t even recall vaguely. I habitually turn down friend requests from unknown twenty-something year old women, who include a lot of photos of themselves but little real information, so they are not even included on the list of Facebook-friend categories.

Some of the communication services provided by RetroShare include : private chats, a private mailing system, public and private multi-user chat lobbies, a forum system, an auto-download file distribution system similar to RSS feeds, a link posting system, VoIP calls, Video calls, Tor and I2P  support. Admittedly, some of these are not fully developed, and are in Beta testing. During the trial period, a large number of these will be used (or at least proposed used) to see how they function, and if these would be appropriate for continued use.

RetroShare creates encrypted connections to your friends, which reduces the likelihood of surveillance. Retroshare is decentralized. There are no central servers that can retain copies of cleartext (unencrypted) data. Because of this, there is no fear that they will shut down or change their terms of services. RetroShare is independent of government and corporate systems.

For further information see:

https://fil.forbrukerradet.no/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/2018-06-27-deceived-by-design-final.pdf

Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RetroShare

Official Retroshare website: http://www.retroshare.net/

Tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zVVxtwEdps

(At the time of writing 2018-06-29 at 09:00 this video had 4 857 views, and was one of the most popular RetroShare videos.)