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Inventions Letters

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Licence Patents

I found David Cooper's article on changes to European patent law illuminating (15 February, p 32). A question arises that I have never had a good answer to: if the aim is to foster invention, why do patents grant a monopoly, rather than an obligatory licensing fee so that others can use a newly patented idea or invention? If others could legally use an invention and then improve it as they saw fit, that would spawn many more breakthroughs than is likely from a single organisation that is often preoccupied with defending its patent.

What's more, a small organisation with a great idea has a better chance of getting royalties from Megacorp for using their idea than of being able to prevent Megacorp from stealing it. I believe this approach has been used in the urgencies of wartime and worked out well. Deciding what would be a fair royalty could be tricky, but compromises here should be easier to adjudicate than the black and white of granting a monopoly.

Robot Love

Your leader on getting hitched to robots was quite right: "The love for a robot may become a love that dare not speak its name" (15 February, p 5). But first we need a name to avoid mentioning. How about "automating"? The robot itself (herself? himself?) could then be an automate. And presumably give you a lovebyte.

Barbed Wire Telephone Lines

Australia had barbed-wire telephone lines that served many farms up to the late 1960s, just like those you describe in the rural US in the early 20th century (21/28 December 2013, p 76).

The granddaddy of them all was a 700-kilometre-long line in Western Australia. This was a single galvanised iron fencing wire on poles. I once spoke end-to-end over this line, but the weather usually made it necessary to call a farm part way down the line and they would relay the call.

The lines were eventually replaced in 1964 by a microwave radio relay system

Robot Consciousness

Ian Mapleson asks how we should respond if a self-aware robot requests not to be turned off (23 November, p 33). Surely a more thorny moral dilemma lies in store when a self-aware robot asks to be turned off.

Rescue Robots

In your 2015 preview, Hal Hodson writes about humanoid rescue robots (20/27 December 2014, p 26).

I would suggest giving them four arms and four hands. Such a robot could push down a wall with one pair of arms and clear the rubble with the other set, likely progressing more quickly. Or it could climb or descend slopes to make a rescue with more dexterity along the way.

This would also make them more useful for everyday tasks. When raising my small children I often wished for more arms and hands. Just try pushing a stroller while carrying a few parcels, holding a toddler's hand and negotiating a street crossing or car park.

A four-armed robot could open doors or gates while carrying parcels, and could be especially useful in helping immobile people. So can someone redesign the helpful robot to be even more handy?

Robot Warfare

The implicit assumption in your article is that robotic weapons would be deployed against human combatants. This ignores the facts about arms acquisition in the modern world.

In many conflicts, the same manufacturer may ultimately have provided the weapons used by both sides. This was the case in the 1980 war between Iran and Iraq, where British weapons were procured by both nations.

What happens when both sides send in the same robots? Do we apply the principle of warfare expressed by first world war general Douglas Haig that both sides keep shooting until one combatant is left? Do we revert to human versus human trench warfare? Or do we all realise the stupid futility of it all, have a good laugh at ourselves and settle down to peaceful coexistence?

In your article on the moral dangers of autonomous, lethally armed robots, Peter Asaro says "most people now feel it is unacceptable for robots to kill people without human intervention" (18 April, p 7). The moral reasoning behind this view is intriguing. How is sending a programmed, armed robot into an area designated as "enemy occupied" any worse than, say, bombing the area from 10 thousand feet?

In fact, the level of precision and the amount of human judgement involved in target selection with the robot would arguably be greater.

There is an even stranger moral angle. Someone who is ordered to go and kill strangers in a war can suffer severe emotional trauma and other mental distress as a result. In the future, there may be societies that decide, on moral grounds, to delegate all killing of the enemy in their wars tofully-autonomous robots so as to protect their citizens from such emotional trauma. In that unnerving scenario, the bots wouldn't be seen by those citizens as devils, but heroic guardians.

As I consider the question of whether we can control killer robots, I also ask: will a killer robot panic and shoot at everything in sight? Will it kill when in doubt? Will it suffer battle fatigue and shoot in uncontrolled rage? I suggest that in future soldiers should not be authorised to kill without robotic supervision, rather than the other way around.


David Hambling describes a weapon that disturbs vision by heating the eyeball with infrared radiation (7 March, p 44)Movie Camera. This will, fortunately, be cheap and easy to nullify. I foresee that infrared blocking sunglasses will become the "cool" eyewear for the military and anyone planning to riot.

Who Benefits?

"If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed," Stephen Hawkings wrote. "Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution."

Star Trek would be a better one.
Want something? Synthesize it. Their synthesizers are pretty much future 3d printers.
Without money and the need for lab our jobs that can be done with robots, people are freed up for other pursuits in life.
Just think if right now you were given a basic wage assured for the rest of your live. Would you sit on your ass all day for the rest of your life (and some people would of course) or would you use the time to further your education, learn what you've always wanted to (arts, music, engineering/robotics) or explore the world and in the process improve knowledge/humanity?
That's pretty much what happens now in countries that have social security for fall back on. People are far more willing to pursue a career in areas that are less lucrative or assured monetary-wise because not making money doesn't mean starving to death.
Kind of silly how everyone still brings up 'but then where does everyone get money to spend if there are no jobs' when the entire point is to rethink wealth redistribution.

There's a wonderful book on this topic called The Second Machine Age published last year. It basically says what Hawking is saying: in a nutshell, all economic systems (capitalism, socialism, etc.) have been created and predicated upon the idea of scarcity, and if scarcity is no longer a real factor, then we need to completely rethink the way we run our economies, and institute things like massive basic incomes.

The system doesn't continue to work in this scenario, though. If the vast majority of consumers have no disposable income, there really isn't anyone to buy all those products the robots would be making. The redistribution of wealth toward the bottom and an emphasis on the value of consumer choice is the way to keep it from collapsing in a world where robots do most of the work.

I believe the late Iain M Bank's "Culture" novels provide a brilliant blueprint for this type of civilisation. Off the top of my head:
There is no money at all. If you want something, you just order it.
The absence of money eliminates a lot of crime motives.
Stuff is manufactured by machines.
Everything is run by ultra-intelligent AI systems (called "Minds").
People are free to relax and enjoy a life of extreme decadence. Some do jobs as hobbies.
People are genetically modified for maximum pleasure, e.g. built-in drug glands (able to secrete a huge range of drugs at will) and enhanced sex organs (orgasms are measured in minutes!)

That's because in the Culture universe, humans are glorified pets for the AI.

Oh, and the Culture has mega-powerful kilometres-long starships with silly names. I believe this was the inspiration for the spaceship names in Halo.

A massive warship named The Frank Exchange of Views is easily my favorite thing about those novels.

Imagine you have all the money and power. And a bunch of powerless, moneyless people decide to try to rise up against you. What resources DON'T you have to quickly and efficiently end the rebellion? Militarized police, well-armed guards, security measures built into your mansion, you name it. I don't see any way such a scenario could end in anything but a bloodbath for the 99%. How exactly would they "take that power" in the first place?

The interesting thing is what happens further down the cycle.
For the wealthy, as the social contract has completely imploded, the most pressing concern is defense and law enforcement, to preserve the wealth concentration. However, at what point does that begin to swamp productive assets-- you're spending all your money hiring technicians to program your kill-bots?
At that point, the corporation/estate starts to look a lot like a third-world basket-case state... you start to burn through your existing wealth or non-renewable assets just to keep the books balanced.
Eventually you run out of assets to pay your engineers, and they probably end up dividing the carcass of the company just to settle their bills, and the process repeats on a smaller scale.
I suppose it eventually goes fractal-- everyone eventually burns through all his wealth trying to defend it.

I see three possible outcomes here:
an Elysium world where the rich isolate themselves and leave the poor to fend for themselves.
a basic income system where the rich enjoy the fruits of their technology and people lead a albeit "basic" lifestyle but not really need to worry about food, but a majority of people will live unfulfilling lives.
a star trek style world where all the needs of everyone is met and all prosper from the fruits of technology.
or a bleaker vision
the tipping point is met and violence is the result.

Well sure, if you look at capitalism as a whole, then yes, it's totally exploitative and cruel. BUT if you look at an artificial upper section, say America, where everyone is better off than most everyone in Vietnam, everybody technically has a chance to become one of the few who lord over everyone else. Technically. So it's great and it's fine and it definitely isn't anything like a feudal system whatsoever. At all. So stop asking.
Edit: yup - capitalism has brought great wealth to many, but it isn't a political end-step, and, more to the point, what we have going on in the world right now is hardly capitalism - it's cronyism run by a global elite which perpetuates itself. This is where the comparison to feudalism comes into play. If you think you're playing on a level playing field, they've done their job.

Capitalism has been the driving force behind technological innovation that has pulled the great mass of humanity out of poverty on a global scale and created the wealthiest, healthiest, safest societies ever.
But apparently capitalism is literally feudalism because some McEdgy edge lords said so on the Internet from behind their personal supercomputer.

Realistically speaking, in capitalism if you don't already have money, you have a really tough time making it. Parents can't afford to send you to college? Can't afford to go yourself because you can't afford the extra time that your low-wage job is using up? Oh well. Wanna start a business yourself? Great! But you need collateral and good credit, neither of which you can get from the bottom. It's a rigged system. A few do make it up; if none did, it would be a revolution. But people forget this is the wealthiest country on earth, we shouldn't settle at a 14% poverty rate with 1% owning 40% of the wealth. Something as basic as a comfortable living wage so there's a better starting point is necessary for capitalism to thrive.

It is a perplexing scenario. People are not going to just sit around. If they have no resources, they are going to work with others, collaborate, and barter to get them. Will this result in neighborhoods sprouting their own micro-economy?

It's not the nature of capitalism, it's the nature of people. Reddit seems to believe that if it weren't for Capitalism, we'd all live in harmony. What they don't grasp is that it's called human nature for a reason. In any system we implement, we will have the same tendencies. In communist systems, people still lie, steal, take advantage of others, and create their own elite class that lords over the peasants. Any system that isn't designed to work with human nature will be corrupted by it. Capitalism is efficient because human nature is the driving force.

It's not that greed is romanticized by our society, is that it is literally unavoidable. The entire planet runs on people searching to further their own self interests. Every day people and businesses take risks by sacrificing their capital and putting their financial security on the line. Why? In the hopes they can get more. Is this greed? Well yes, by definition, but without it we simply would not have the commodities and living standards that you and I currently enjoy. All the products that make our lives easier: cars, computers, cell phones, and anything else you can think of, they all exist because someone wanted to make a profit. And that is fundamentally a good thing. Every country in the world runs on this principle. Whether they be capitalist, socialist, communist, or some mixture of them.

These people are so poor that the average person in the US/Canada/UK/etc couldn't even picture what it looks like. What does poverty look like to us? Working two jobs, having a cheap cell phone or an old car, living in a small apartment. This isn't even close to poverty in areas without free markets. Without the prospect of personal gain for people who risk what they have for more, there is nothing to push their quality of life forward.

We have all these products, but we don't seem to be any happier. Are you sure that's fundamentally a good thing?

Yes I am quite sure. You're free to sell/give yours away if you feel so compelled but you will be demonstrably worse off because of it. Go spend some time in a country where people don't have these luxuries. Where they work harder in a month than you have in your life, for pennies on the dollar that you and I make, and tell me how much better off they are because of it.

[–]Pickledsoul 49 points 5 hours ago
the lynchings will continue until moral improves

[–]TEARANUSSOREASSREKT 32 points 5 hours ago

[–]Pickledsoul 36 points 5 hours ago
The embarrassment will continue until grammar improves