Robots: unpopular in the home, increasingly popular on the front

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2011

We’ve made mention previously of Japan’s strategy to help its rapidly greying population with robot home-help, which is a wonderful idea on paper… but there are a few problems: for a start, effective useful robots aren’t cheap, and the care recipients aren’t actually that keen on the idea.

“Robotic support of the infirm and elderly has got to be aimed at improving quality of life,” says Geoff Pegman, managing director of one of the UK’s few robot manufacturers R.U.Robots. “It should not just be for governments to save money in caring for them.”

Robot guides have been removed from hospitals because they “put patients off”

The Japanese government and care industry now seems to agree after robots have turned out to be too expensive, impracticable and sometimes unwelcome, even in “robot friendly” Japan.

The country’s biggest robot maker Tmsuk created a life-like one-metre tall robot six years ago, but has struggled to find interested clients.

Costing a cool $100,000 (£62,000) a piece, a rental programme was scrapped recently because of “failing to meet demands of consumers” and putting off patients at hospitals.

“We want humans caring for us, not machines,” was one response.

That said, one look at the institutional care system in the UK should be enough to tell you that human-provided care isn’t de facto better; the underlying problem seems to be the way we’re increasingly viewing the elderly and infirm as a sort of toxic asset on the social balance sheet, something to be stored away out of sight, “managed” with minimal resource expenditure. “Grannyfarming” – especially in light of of a new ConDem policy of withdrawing most regulatory oversight from an already deeply corrupt and greedy industry – is a shocking business; when pictures of animals being neglected on a similar scale are broadcast, there’s a national uproar. A sad state of affairs.

But there’s a definite pattern emerging, wherein we’re turning to machines to do the sort of jobs that meatfolk aren’t so keen on. According to Wired, one in fifty soldiers in Afghanistan is a robot. One assumes they’ve been programmed carefully so as not to get disillusioned with the task of exporting democracy and deciding to leak sensitive documents to whistleblower websites…


#WarLogs: the beginning of the end for nation-state secrecy?

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2010

Well, now I understand why I was seeing Julian Assange and Wikileaks everywhere last week. Unless you’ve been under our oft-referred-to yet hypothetical news-proof rock for the last 48 hours, you’ll be aware that The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are busily publishing the contents of a massive batch of classified documents about the conflict in Afghanistan, which were apparently released to them by Wikileaks about a month back. It’s decidedly unpretty and embarrassing reading for the US government and other members of the “coalition of the willing”, but I think the saddest thing is how little of what’s being reported surprises me in the least. I think we all suspected it was happening that way, deep down; the only difference now is that denial and spin are weak options. The collective bluff has been called, and rather spectacularly.

As usual, I’m less interested in the leak itself than the larger implications. The next few months will be crucial in determining the shape of the political world to come, because Wikileaks have suddenly brought radical and deep transparency to the geopolitical process, and that cloak and dagger world has always thrived on the comparative ease with which it could obscure distant truths from the sight of its electorates. If Wikileaks and similar organisations cannot be squelched, and squelched quickly, dirty wars with hidden agendas are going to become much more politically risky… and it’s those wars and agendas that are the mainstay of the nation-state as power unit. I’m rather intrigued to see a pro-interventionist commentator like Thomas P M Barnett cautiously welcoming this new and uninvited transparency, even if not entirely approving of its source; either I’ve spectacularly misread his political stance – which is more than possible, I’ll grant you – or he’s seeing the same writing on the wall that I am. Other commentators seem to have been concluding that interventionism is all over bar the shouting, and that was before the leak; it’ll be interesting to watch the public approval ratings for overseas operations over the next few months.

I read somewhere (though I’ve lost the link) that Julian Assange is making a point of never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row; I suspect he’ll be spending as much time being publicly visible as possible, too, because he’s now the figurehead of something that is scaring the shit out of people whose long-term modus operandi has been the disappearing (or unvarnished assassination) of obstacles to their agendas. If they can bump him off and not get caught, the warning will have been sent: don’t lift the curtain, or the puppetmaster will rap your knuckles. If he stays free and alive, the warning goes in the other direction: we’re watching, and you can’t reliably stop us from doing so any more.That’s one hell of a responsibility to be walking around with – whatever you may think of Assange’s personal politics and motives, I think it’s safe to say the guy has solid brass balls.

It’s worth noting the language of the White House statement in response to the leak, with its talk of “threatening national security”. “National security” isn’t about the security of the nation’s population, it’s about the security of the nation-state as a political entity… and that is profoundly threatened by Wikileaks and the radical transparency it represents. This isn’t the end of the road for the nation-state, but it could well be the beginning of the end.

I can’t say I’m too sad about that, either.


This is sure to end well: Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral resources

Paul Raven @ 14-06-2010

Looks like my cynicism gland gets an early boost this week, as the New York Times reports that the US government has discovered Afghanistan holds an estimated US$1 trillion in previously untapped mineral deposits [via MetaFilter].

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Looks like I’m reading from the same page as Charlie Stross:

Note the presence of lithium in that list. It’s a vital raw material for high-capacity rechargable batteries, used in everything from mobile phones to hybrid or electrically-powered automobiles — and there’s a growing worldwide shortage of the stuff. There’s no intrinsic shortage of lithium, but high grade mineral sources are hard to find — it’s mostly bound up in other mineral deposits, in very low concentrations. Half the known exploitable reserves are in Bolivia (at least, before this new discovery).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the inductive jump from oil:old burning-stuff-to-keep-warm economy to lithium:new post-carbon alternative energy economy. And by applying the PNAC’s equation of control over energy reserves with maintenance of competitive advantage (by applying the choke collar to rivals), it’s fairly likely that, coming at this time, the discovery of Lots of Lithium in Afghanistan will be used to reinforce western support for an increasingly unpopular war of occupation.

Charlie expresses his hope that he’s being overly cynical; it’s a hope I share, but not one I’d like to put money on. But here’s Thomas Barnett with a slightly different take on the situation:

Before anybody gets the idea that somehow the West is the winner here, understand that we’re not the big draw on most of these minerals–that would be Asia and China in particular. What no one should expect is that the discovery suddenly makes it imperative that NATO do whatever it takes to stay and win and somehow control the mineral outcomes, because–again–that’s now how it works in most Gap situations like Africa.  We can talk all we want about China not “dominating” the situation, but their demand will drive the process either directly or indirectly.  There is no one in the world of mining that’s looking to make an enemy out of China over this, and one way or another, most of this stuff ends up going East–not West.

[…]

Here’s the simplest reality test I can offer you:  if we’re just at the initial discovery phase now, we’re talking upwards of a decade before there will be mature mines.  Fast-forward a decade in your mind and try to imagine the US having a bigger presence in Afghanistan than China.  I myself cannot.

Start with that realization and move backward, because exploring any other pathway will likely expose you to a whole lotta hype.

A rather more optimistic viewpoint than my own (and, to judge by the content of my Twitter feed, a lot of other people’s). We’ll just have to wait and see… which will certainly be an easier experience for us Westerners than for the poor Afghanis. Better make some more adjustments to that perpetually mutating narrative, eh?


Hidden histories: Afghanistan

Paul Raven @ 04-06-2010

We all know about Afghanistan – a poor and predominantly Muslim nation that’s never really made it out of the Middle Ages, right?

Well, it turns out that’s simply not the case: retconning Afghanistan as a backward barbarian enclave has probably been useful for the global psyops propaganda machine (because what does one do with backward nations but export some much needed corporate democracy, in the hope of neutralising the threat that our earlier meddlings have created?), but as recently as the 1960s, Afghanistan was a modern progressive country… and to look at photographs from that era, you’d be hard pressed to tell at a glance that you weren’t looking at the science classrooms, record stores or factories of some Western nation [via MetaFilter].

Makes you wonder how much of our own national mythology has been carefully constructed retrospectively in order to tell a story we find comforting. For example, I’ve read quite a few books that suggest Britain’s “stiff upper lip” during World War Two was a long way from being as universal as we like to imagine. We’re also pretty fond of mentioning how we stopped the slave trade, but the fact that we played a large part in kickstarting that particular transAtlantic business model is usually left unvoiced…

So, a user-contribution opportunity for a Friday: share a conveniently glossed-over moment from the history of your preferred nation-state!


Has the “War on Drugs” gone biological in Afghanistan?

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2010

This is sure to end well: UK and US forces in Afghanistan stand accused of using biological warfare tactics against the region’s opium poppy crops, which are being rapidly swept by some hitherto-unseen disease.

According to the Telegraph, yields have dropped by up to 90 per cent in some fields. […] Considering that spraying has been forbidden by the president of Afghanistan, “we start with the belief that this is a natural phenomenon,” says Lemanhieu. It could be due to insects such as aphids, or fungi, he says.

The Telegraph reports that the disease was first noticed a month ago and has spread to four provinces across the south, including Helmand – responsible for producing over half of Afghanistan’s opium poppies in 2009.

Could just be one of those things, I suppose…

According to the Telegraph, an international official in Afghanistan has flatly denied US or British involvement in spreading the disease. He said: “The government of Afghanistan are not using any kind of spraying and there’s nothing else going on either.”

Or then again, maybe not. Nothing like a strenuous official denial to make something seem that much more likely.

While we’re on the subject of drug agriculture, maybe you’ve wondered which recreational substance is the most environmentally friendly in terms of its impact on the ecosystem? Cue lots of smug smoke-wreathed hippies:

[A] U.N. report finds that a square meter of marijuana cultivation can support 250 dose units of the drug. About the same amount of land—200,000 hectares—is under cultivation for cannabis, cocaine, and heroin around the world, but the cannabis is getting a heck of a lot more people high. For users in the United States, it also has the relative advantage of being produced in large quantities on American soil. About half of our marijuana supply comes from domestic sources—with minimal “drug miles” and a slimmer carbon footprint.

But leaving aside the sophistry of arguing that any drug is “better” (in environmental or any other terms), I’m with Klint Finley of Technoccult: that’s the first time I’ve seen an ecological argument for ending the “War on Drugs”.


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