Sunday, March 20, 2016

Spot the Dog, and Other Robot Stories

  • Last week, Pew Research Center's “Public Predictions for the Future of Workforce Automation” report said, “From self-driving vehicles and semi-autonomous robots to intelligent algorithms and predictive analytic toolsmachines are increasingly capable of performing a wide range of jobs that have long been human domains … The ultimate extent to which robots and algorithms intrude on the human workforce will depend on a host of factors, but many Americans expect that this shift will become reality over the next half century.”
  • Comments from the Georgia Institute of Technology on its “In Emergencies, Should You Trust a Robot?’ research include: senior research engineer Alan Wagner - “People seem to believe that these robotic systems know more about the world than they really do, and that they would never make mistakes or have any kind of fault … In our studies, test subjects followed the robot’s directions even to the point where it might have put them in danger had this been a real emergency.”  Professor Ayanna Howard -  “We need to ensure that our robots, when placed in situations that evoke trust, are also designed to mitigate that trust when trust is detrimental to the human.”  
  • Separately, Google announced it was selling Boston Dynamics, a robotics firm known for its impressive (and perhaps creepyvideos that demonstrated some of the capabilities of Spot, a robot dog and Atlas, a human scale robot. 

MY TAKE
  • Regarding comments from Pew Research –  As an alternative to some dystopian views of robots, its research suggests a more pragmatic and perhaps positive view of the impact of technology innovation.
  • Regarding comments from Georgia Tech – its research suggests that 1) some humans are poor at assessing the quality of robotic guidance - at least in emergency situations and 2) robot designers must consider a broad set of use cases and user types.
  • Regarding the Boston Dynamics’ sale – Its impressive, and sometimes controversial, technology seems to be a victim of management conflictspoor strategic fit, and a lack of revenue growth. The loss of backing by the U.S. Marines, because its systems were too noisy, highlights the challenges of developing robotic solutions.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Nuclear Energy- After the Fukushima Meltdown

  • Last week was the five-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami neaFukushima, Japan which killed at least 15,000 people and caused a meltdown at the Daiichi nuclear power plant. Today, the region continues to recover from both the natural disaster and clean-up efforts at the nuclear facility.
  • At the same time, while some governments around the world have become more cautious about nuclear energy, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reports that there are 442 operational reactors globally, with an additional 66 under construction.  Twenty four of the new projects are in China and reports suggest that twelve new reactors are planned for India.  (Note: in China and India, nuclear power accounts for about 2% of total output, with +70% of energy output coming from fossil fuels).
  • As demand for energy increases, evidence of climate change continue to increase as well.  For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the earth’s land and ocean surface temperatures for 2015 was the highest since it began keeping record in 1880.  
  • As solutions are examined, the article “Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change” (The Guardian Dec. 4, 2015 ) is worth considering.  The authors (climate scientists  James Hansen, Ken Caldeira and others) said: “Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them. We are hopeful in the knowledge that, together with renewables, nuclear can help bridge the ‘emissions gap’ that bedevils the Paris climate negotiations. The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”

MY TAKE
  • To address the challenge of climate change requires assessing trade-offs, embracing a broad set of solutions and moving beyond watered down resolutions.
  • The playbook for success requires a focus on addressing climate change at a large scale – a process that will include 1) energy alternatives such as wind, solar and geothermal, 2) advances in new technologies (lithium battery, hydrogen fuel cell, etc)., 3) conservation, 4) various forms of carbon taxes and 5) a reconsideration of the nuclear power option

Sunday, March 6, 2016

From Warren Buffet's Annual Investor Letter

  • Last weekend, investor Warren Buffett’s annual letter included: “For 240 years it’s been a terrible mistake to bet against America, and now is no time to start. America’s golden goose of commerce and innovation will continue to lay more and larger eggs. America’s social security promises will be honored and perhaps made more generous. And, yes, America’s kids will live far better than their parents did."
  • "Though the pie to be shared by the next generation will be far larger than today’s, how it will be divided will remain fiercely contentious. Just as is now the case, there will be struggles for the increased output of goods and services between those people in their productive years and retirees, between the healthy and the infirm, between the inheritors and the Horatio Algers, between investors and workers and, in particular, between those with talents that are valued highly by the marketplace and the equally decent hard-working Americans who lack the skills the market prizes. Clashes of that sort have forever been with us – and will forever continue. Congress will be the battlefield; money and votes will be the weapons. Lobbying will remain a growth industry.”
  • “There is, however, one clear, present and enduring danger to Berkshire against which Charlie and I are powerless. That threat to Berkshire is also the major threat our citizenry faces: a “successful” (as defined by the aggressor) cyber, biological, nuclear or chemical attack on the United States. That is a risk Berkshire shares with all of American business."
  • "It seems highly likely to me that climate change poses a major problem for the planet. I say “highly likely” rather than “certain” because I have no scientific aptitude and remember well the dire predictions of most “experts” about Y2K. It would be foolish, however, for me or anyone to demand 100% proof of huge forthcoming damage to the world if that outcome seemed at all possible and if prompt action had even a small chance of thwarting the danger.”
MY TAKE
  • Given that Buffett’s annual letter is among the most widely followed documents in the investment industry, it is important that he is highlighting several concerns shared by many people around the world.
  • It is notable, but not surprising, that he believes that the US Congress will continue to be a battleground and lobbying will continue to expand.