Tangentially related 2: 2 Sep 2020

Automation, efficiency, and being a healthy human. Applications of automation technology always fall on a knife edge, and we are at an inflection point in many axes. 

This is my intermittent newsletter on robotics, automation, and AI. In this issue:

Automation, optimization, and efficiency as a human

I think a lot about efficiency. I think too much about efficiency, and I am guessing many of my readers are in the same boat. I am excited to write some future pieces on the triangle of automation, efficiency, and happiness. 

We get more and more tools to “help” us, but I really don’t know where that line falls. Here are some pieces I read recently that help me keep my head on straight (especially in this crazy year).

Mental health & efficiency

I am working hard on my mental health, and I think it’s worth it. I am not training for anything, I am keeping a meditation journal, I have great friends, but it still isn’t always enough. It’s hard to fight the drive for efficiency. I particularly agreed with an excerpt from this article:

A decade ago, the American psychologist Adam Grant and I argued in a journal paper that this ‘too much of a good thing’ phenomenon might be a general rule. Some motivation produces excellent performance; too much motivation produces choking. Some group collaboration produces cohesion and enhances productivity; too much of it leads to staleness. Some empathy enables you to understand what another person is going through; too much could prevent you from saying and doing hard things. Similarly, in my book The Paradox of Choice (2004), I argued that, whereas a life with no freedom to choose is not worth living, a life with too much choice leads to paralysis, bad decisions and dissatisfaction. Finding the right amount – what Aristotle called the ‘mean’ – of motivation, collaboration, empathy, choice and many other aspects of life, including efficiency, is a key challenge we face, both as individuals and as a society.

The last sentence is striking — Aristotle looked for the ‘mean’, while today most of the high achieving people I know are fighting to be the ‘anti-mean,’ their view of the top.

Something that I have heard so many times is that higher IQs are correlated with mental disorders. While it is true in our current society, I refuse to just accept that at face value and see many of my friends subject to it. There has to be more done here — I think a huge gain would come from normalizing the discussion of it more.

Prohibition and desire 

This is unsurprising, but this article encompasses a lot of the American mentality and response from circles not far from myself.

But Christina's story also shows the danger of premature reopening. In late April, the Governor of Arizona allowed partial reopening of the state, and on May 13, he extended the order so that even indoor fitness centers could open. The gym bros at her gym went back to their home gyms. Then, COVID-19 started surging like crazy around the state. And, on June 29, the governor issued an executive order that paused reopening, including re-shutting down indoor gyms and fitness centers. To Christina's dismay, the bros are back at the only speakeasy gym in town. It's really messed up her workout routine.

This level of need for the workout routine shows how much a crutch exercise is for mental stability for much of America, and definitely myself. It should be a tool in the support tool kit, but we all figure out our own addictions.

Athletes are on an accelerated timeframe of “figuring it out”

But, with an accelerated timeframe comes steeper waves and lower troughs. I watched The Weight of Gold on HBO and it was pretty eye-opening the extent to which the mental-health of some of the nation’s cover-stars is blatantly ignored. Essentially the best athletes in our country will get the top orthopedic doctors flown out to them, but their insurance may not even cover therapist costs.

Honestly, most adults in the modern world should go to therapy. I started recently. Your problems are valid, and people can help you with them.

The personal side to science

I have been reading more fiction recently. It was kicked off with some audiobooks and these set of short stories, Friday Black. It’s fantastic for reminding me how individual stories bring so much more impact to events. Example: I listened to Tyler Shultz’s take on being the whistleblower in the Theranos case — individual stories are sort of like amplified trends that we hear through the mainstream media.

Or, personally avoiding tech (applied science) by buying an adversarial shirt. Can’t track this!

Robots in the wild

Deeper into the valley

I wrote on the uncanny valley last week, and this robot in development confirmed my hunch that we are entering the trough of the uncanny valley. I do not want to interact with this thing.

Or maybe an inflection point in two axes (job disruption and design eeriness)

will continue to keep you up to date on the push or autonomy into our economy: here’s another WSJ piece on the divergence of “The American Worker.” The fact that the S&P 500 is diverging — technology stocks are up big, and all other stocks are negative, resulting in growth — summarizes this trend at a macro level.

Computer vision in the wild

Pro: safety

company is using traffic cameras to inform governments where their roads are unsafe (anonymous data). This is a prime use of computer vision and data-driven techniques. Now, if only could do something where it was focusing on cyclist safety.

Pro: fun

Personal projects with computer vision are awesome. This person created photorealistic portraits of ancient rulers. I think things like this are often just a few steps away from a product, and the fact that people spin them together for a project shows how many more services and companies can come out of the deep learning revolution we are on.

A thought with this: will the rate of technological increase continue to be exponential, or are we really on the coattails of Moore’s law and having trouble disambiguating the causes?

Con: tracking

In unsurprising and sad news, RiteAid was found to be using cameras to track users. I can’t help but expect this to be a normal occurrence, but how do we find out about this other than via reporters and whistleblowers? It is even hard to regulate because stores are a private entity, but things like groceries and pharmaceuticals everyone needs.


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Hopefully, you find some of this interesting and fun. You can find more about the author here. Tweet at me @natolambert, reply here. 

I write to learn and converse.