US now trains more drone operators than pilots


As part of an expanding programme of battlefield automation, the American air force has said it is now training more drone operators than fighter and bomber pilots.

In a controversial shift in military thinking – one encouraged by the confirmed death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone-strike on 5 August – the air force is looking to hugely expand its fleet of unmanned aircraft by 2047.

Three years ago, the service was able to fly just 12 drones at a time; now it can fly more than 50. At a trade conference outside Washington last week, military contractors presented a future vision in which pilotless drones serve as fighters, bombers and transports, even automatic mini-drones which attack in swarms.

Five thousand robotic vehicles and drones are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2015, the Pentagon’s $230bn (£140bn) arms procurement programme Future Combat Systems expects 15% of America’s armed forces to be robotic.

A recent study ‘The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan 2020-2047’ predicted a boom in drone funding to $55bn by 2020 with the greatest changes coming in the 2040s.

“The capability provided by the unmanned aircraft is game-changing,” said General Norton Schwartz, the air force chief of staff. “We can have eyes 24/7 on our adversaries.”

Read the full story on the Observer website.


Who will be responsible for autonomous machines?


Within a decade, we could be routinely interacting with machines that are truly autonomous – systems that can adapt, learn from their experience and make decisions for themselves. Free from fatigue and emotion, they would perform better than humans in tasks that are dull, dangerous or stressful.

Already, the systems we rely on in our daily lives are being given the capacity to operate autonomously. On the London Underground, Victoria line trains drive themselves between stations, with the human “driver” responsible only for spotting obstacles and closing the doors. Trains on the Copenhagen Metro run without any driver at all.

While our cars can’t yet drive themselves, more and more functions are being given over to the vehicle, from anti-lock brakes to cruise control. Automatic lighting and temperature control are commonplace in homes and offices.

The areas of human existence in which fully autonomous machines might be useful – and the potential benefits – are almost limitless. Within a decade, robotic surgeons may be able to perform operations much more reliably than any human.

Smart homes could keep an eye on elderly people and allow them to be more independent. Self-driving cars could reduce congestion, improve fuel efficiency and minimise the number of road accidents.

But automation can create hazards as well as removing them. How reliable does a robot have to be before we trust it to do a human’s job? What happens when something goes wrong? Can a machine be held responsible for its actions?

Read the full story on the Guardian website.

Computer viruses slow African expansion


Hampered by pirated software and super-slow download times, computer users in Africa are finding PC viruses hard to eradicate.

While western countries have partially learned to neutralise the threat of computer viruses, Africa has become a hive of trojans, worms and exploiters of all stripes. As PC use on the continent has spread in the past decade, viruses have hitched a ride, wreaking havoc on development efforts, government programmes and fledgling businesses.

“It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say 80% of all computers you find in Africa will have some nastiness on them,” says Tariq Khokhar, the chief development officer of Aptivate, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on IT. This compares to around 30% in the UK, according to Panda Security.

The cost is hard to measure, but ask IT consultants and development workers about the impact, and the stories pour out. Even the Congress of South African Trade Unions found in May that its website was spreading viruses to visitors.

Viruses spontaneously reboot computers, destroy vital data, and clog already severely pinched internet connection (it is not unusual to wait 10 minutes to access a single web page). The result: funding applications delayed, small businesses hurt, and hours wasted.

Read the full story on the Guardian website.

Baby emissions fuel global warming


There are already 6.8 billion people living on this crowded planet and the figure is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. How can we expect to reduce global carbon emissions by 50 per cent or more if populations continue to grow exponentially? Family planning is often regarded as taboo by environmentalists, but many are now coming round to the view that curbing population growth will be crucial to combat climate change.

The Optimum Population Trust (patron, David Attenborough) runs a campaign urging parents to “Stop At Two”. Gordon Brown’s green adviser Jonathon Porritt and Science Museum director Chris Rapley have also spoken of the environmental importance of tackling population growth.

Ed Miliband, the UK’s secretary of state for energy and climate change, addressed the issue recently at a town hall meeting in Oxford. “There’s no question that population growth is part of the reason why we have growth in carbon emissions… but I’m not sure that there’s an easy or necessarily desirable solution once you’ve stated that fact.”

There are plenty of reasons why reducing birth rates might not be desirable. No country wants to end up with a situation in which the workforce is too small to support the elderly – as Japan and China are experiencing.

Most of the projected global population increase will happen in the developing world, but the impact of each extra person on the climate is less in poor countries because emissions per capita are lower. Can we quantify the extra emissions that result from each child born?

Read the full story on the Guardian website.

Call for debate on killer robots


An international debate is needed on the use of autonomous military robots, a leading academic has said. Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield said that a push toward more robotic technology used in warfare would put civilian life at grave risk.

Technology capable of distinguishing friend from foe reliably was at least 50 years away, he added. However, he said that for the first time, US forces mentioned resolving such ethical concerns in their plans.

“Robots that can decide where to kill, who to kill and when to kill is high on all the military agendas,” Professor Sharkey said at a meeting in London. “The problem is that this is all based on artificial intelligence, and the military have a strange view of artificial intelligence based on science fiction.”

Professor Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics, has long drawn attention to the psychological distance from the horrors of war that is maintained by operators who pilot unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often from thousands of miles away.

“These guys who are driving them sit there all day… they go home and eat dinner with their families at night,” he said. “It’s kind of a very odd way of fighting a war – it’s changing the character of war dramatically.”

Read the full story on the BBC News website.

Rain puts dampers on British summer


It always seemed a little too good to be true, especially for anyone who has endured a beach holiday huddled under an umbrella. This year was to be different, we were told. A “barbecue summer” – from no less an authority than the Met Office itself.

Yesterday, though, the Met Office conceded what Britons have seen with their own eyes over the last few weeks: apart from a fortnight in June, the summer has been more soggy than sizzling.

And it’s not likely to get much better in August, a prediction that will disappoint, if not entirely surprise, millions of “staycationers” who booked a holiday in the UK to enjoy the sunshine and beat the recession.

A Met Office forecaster, Helen Chivers, said today the summer was still on track to be slightly warmer than usual, with average or slightly above average rainfall, and showed no sign of the washouts witnessed in 2007 and 2008. But there were no more promises of a hot summer.

Instead, more familiar language was used to describe what the UK can expect in the coming weeks. “The weather will remain unsettled… with similar patterns of sunshine and showers, and occasional longer spells of rain” she said.

Read the full story on the Guardian website.

Thinkers meet to plot the future


Leading thinkers in technology, design and science are gathering in Oxford to share their ideas about the future. TED Global (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is the European cousin of an already established top US event.

The invitation-only conferences are dedicated to “ideas worth spreading” and have seen talks by former US presidents and Nobel Laureates. This year’s event will explore questions in neuroscience, astrophysics and economics.

“It is about all the hidden, invisible, not yet discovered or fully explored parts of our lives, society and the world,” said Bruno Giussani, European director of TED. “For example, the human brain; how do you make sense of what I am thinking?”

Other questions to be explored include whether life is a mathematical equation, where motivation comes from and whether it is possible to design the air that we breathe.

The invited speakers, who are each given 18 minutes in front of the audience, are drawn from an eclectic backgrounds. This year’s line up includes an aphorist, a wireless electrician, an underworld investigator and a high-altitude archaeologist.

Read the full story on the BBC News website.