Stepford Wives, Blade Runner and Ex Machina are here

I have seen snippets about this, but my wife turned over to a Dr. Oz show today whose subject was about “sexbots.” If you have not seen these, they exist, look somewhat real, and have artificial intelligence. Yikes. Dr. Oz first interviewed psychologists, one who was alarmed, while the other who felt it was OK. The former noted those who would be missing out on real intimacy plus some who may have a tendency to act out more violent fantasies, while the latter noted that people need companionship even if electronic.

Then, he interviewed one of the inventors, who dutifully said it is like owners talking with pets, with the robot being more of a companion. The robots were programmed with favorite movies, books, etc. that could be espoused, if asked. He noted if the owner tried to treat the robot violently (sexual assault, rape), it would shut down. He added with such a high cost (about US$10,000), it would be bad for the owner to treat the robot poorly.

And, if that was not a bridge too far, he said some have made the robot look like a former wife who had passed away. The thought of “Stepford Wives” came to mind. As for the companionship, I was recalling the recent “Blade Runner 2049” movie which updated the earlier version made in the early 1980s. In both, the “replicants” included some that were built to be consorts to men (and I presume women), where few of the opposite sex were present. In the latter, one of the replicants had a holographic live-in girlfriend who offered the companionship. The theme of “Ex Machina” is about a talented AI programmer being asked to test a lifelike, attractive companion.

So, what about this? In the category of “to each his (or her) own,” I guess if this is what floats your boat and provides a solution to loneliness, so be it. I guess we each have fantasy lovers that we can dream about, so is this a natural evolution? Yet, it still gives me the willies. Plus, most movies about robots usually do not end well for humans. So, maybe this could lead to our extinction or replacement. Maybe it will lead to test tube babies as in “Brave New World.” Or, maybe we will become cyborgs like the group in “Star Trek Next Generation” called “The Borg” a collective intelligence embodied in former humanoids.

Tell me what you think? Is this a good thing or a horrible path to follow? I did think of a humorous use for women if they had their own sexbot. The robot would have to be adept at foreplay and cuddling, but would also take out the trash and do the dishes without being asked and could fix a clogged drain or install a dimmer switch. And, if it needed to ask directions, it would do so. But, that internal GPS would forego the need.

 

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A little bit of this and that

It is a rainy Sunday, so it is a great day to drink coffee and read. Since I am struggling for a longer post subject, here is a little bit of this and that for your reflection and thoughts. In no particular order:

There are many people who will tell you what is wrong with the Middle East, but I don’t believe it is a solvable problem. There are too many passionate religious and tribal differences that cross borders. Unless like minded people had control over their situation, did not need to rely on others and could respect the rights of others, peace is simply not achievable. In my simple view, the best anyone can achieve is to place lids on simmering pots on a stove.

The global economy is expected to grow by 3.9% each of the next two years, up from slightly lower results in 2016 and 2017. Yet, Christine LaGarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, cautioned at Davos last week over concerns of socio-economic inequity and the rising debt in the US. Not everyone is benefitting from the growth which will cause greater uncertainty and unrest.

In a very interesting and not unexpected development, Canada and other nations completed the TPP, which is the Asia-Pacific trade agreement the US exited, When the US tried to negotiate a bilateral agreement with Japan, the Japanese trade leaders suggested the US reconsider the TPP instead. The US finds itself on the outside looking in. I find it interesting that the US President said in an interview which will air tonight that he would reconsider the pullout from Paris. It is hard to have a relationship when you are not in the room with others.

On a related subject, if Brexit follows through with the commitment to leave the EU, other cities will continue to benefit from EU headquarters migration from London. Paris, Dublin and Frankfurt are each benefitting from conpanies moving EU headquarters. A softer Brexit will help reduce the migration, but it will continue.

I guess if there is a theme to all of these subjects it is working together across country borders and regions within is more productive than going it alone. Yet, one thing remains true – collaboration is hard work. It requires give and take. If one party gets everything it wants, then the others will not, so detente is harder. So, when I hear someone who likes to win say an agreement is a disaster, I don’t put as much credence in those comments. Lifting all boats makes more money for everyone. A man won a Nobel prize for this concept. So, let’s work hard together for peace and prosperity for all. It beats the hell out of the alternatives.

 

And the band played on

Earlier this week, a fifteen year old decided that he should bring a gun to school in Marshall County, Kentucky. Two teens are dead and 18 more are wounded. Less noticed is that there were 81 other shooting incidents that same day in America leaving 28 dead and 40 wounded per the LA Times.

Per the New York Times, the Marshall County shooting was the eleventh on school grounds just this year, with three occurring the very same week in Winston-Salem, NC, New Orleans, LA and Italy, TX, Just toward the end of last year, there were shootings at the following high schools:

– 9/13/2017: Freeman High School in Rockford, WA where a 15 year old killed one and wounded three students.

– 9/20/2027: Mattoon High School in Mattoon, IL where a 14 year old wounded one student.

– 12/7/2017: Aztec High School in Aztec, NM where a 21 year old former student killed three students.

The two horrific shooting tragedies last year at a church in Texas and concert in Las Vegas were not enough to elicit action – now isn’t the time to make knee jerk actions we were told by serious minded leaders in the pocket of the NRA. I am still dismayed that after Sandy Hook Elementary shooting which killed twenty-six, now was not the time was said then as well.

Well, let me ask a simple question. When is the time? How many children, teens and adults have to die for it to be time. The LA Times reports that 60% of Americans want  gun laws to be stricter. An Elon Univeristy survey a couple of years ago pegged universal background checks and elongated waiting periods at even higher rates of preference by Americans.

To be brutally frank, we are well passed time. For those who give the standard NRA fed response that certain changes would not stop certain crimes, the answer is “obviously doing nothing isn’t preventing them either.” Politicians it is time to stop worrying about keeping your job and start doing your job. We need leaders to think  more like parents and grandparents and less like politicians scared of lobbyists.

Headwinds and Tailwinds to the Economy

Presidents get too much credit and blame for the economy. They can provide headwinds and tailwinds, but global market forces tend to control what happens. By headwinds, I mean the wind is against the economic growth, with tailwinds aiding economic growth.

In the US, we are under the third longest economic growth period in our measured history with 103 consecutive months of growth. We have also had seven consecutive years of 2 million plus jobs created. And, the stock market more than doubled under Obama and continues its rise under Trump. These are great numbers. But, before we pat ourselves on the back too much, not everyone has benefitted and wealth disparity among economic classes has been widening for the past thirty-five years.

Economists I have watched project the good news to continue for the year, but several have cautioned about the future and if we don’t address the inequity, we will have major problems on top of other concerns.

On the tailwinds ledger, the global economy continues to grow and the World Economic Forum projects a 3.9% increase for the year. In the US, the cut back on regulations, plus the reduction in new ones over the rates of the past, have given more confidence to businesses (more on this later). Plus, the reduction in corporate tax rates will help fuel some growth, provided these companies who are sitting on cash, choose to invest it in their people and business. And, with more money in many people’s pockets, this will add some fuel.

On the headwinds ledger, several economists have noted we are robbing Peter to pay Paul, leveraging our future with even more debt. Not only did we not address the expected increase in debt taking it from $20 trillion to $30 trillion in 2027, the tax law will increase it by $1.5 trillion. The interest cost thereon will take a greater bite out of our budget. But, other headwinds are of concern. Retrenching from global markets and trade agreements replacing them with binary ones, will be dilutive to growth. Not investing as much in science and innovation is a major concern to Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics.

This will be heightened if we restrict immigration. What seems to get lost in the argument where some have become too cold-hearted in my view, is immigration is accretive to the US economy. Plus, the people immigrating tend to be more entrepreneurial and better educated, in many cases. These sh**hole countries that someone demeaned are sending us more educated people than reside here in the states, on average.

We should not fail to remember that “innovation is portable” so says David Smick, an economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Jack Kemp, one of the smartest Congresspersons who considered a run for President. If we do not provide an inviting place, innovation may be hindered. I should note that Steve Jobs was born to Syrian immigrants to the US. What if they had been denied entry? Apple might not have ever come to fruition.

Finally, not all regulations are bad, so restricting regulations may cause headwinds down the road especially with more freedoms given to pollute the environment and take advantage of customers. This is a developers mindset. Remove obstacles to build, but leave the clean up for others. Unfortunately, we taxpayers are the others. We citizens, that must drink and breathe more polluted waters and air and realize the impact of climate change, are the others. As coal ash deposits have taught us, there is a cost to environmental degradation.

So, we need to be mindful of what we are facing. I have communicated with numerous Congresspersons, Senators and the President, that we are avoiding some elephants in the room – debt, climate change, water crisis and income inequity. In my view as an Independent voter, passing a tax law that increases the debt was extremely poor stewardship, as we cannot cut our way out of this problem. The math won’t work.

 

Keep on pushing forward ladies

Disillusioned by tribal politics and a President who has reduced civil discourse to a new low and untruthfulness to a new high, it was nice to get outdoors and participate in the second Women’s March in my city. My wife and I joined some friends and over 5,000 more marchers to hear important messages about pushing women and human issues forward.

I am very encouraged by the 26,000 women who have moved ahead with running for office. We need more women in all forms of government as they are woefully underrepresented. Some of the highlights from the speeches in addition to the above are as follows:

– while the push for equality was mentioned most, I was impressed by a Muslim American woman, Rose Hamid who spoke of equity, to value our differences in perspectives and not let fear of the unknown drive wedges between us. Hamid gained notoriety for sitting quietly in a Trump campaign event, until she was escorted out.

– I was appalled to hear a statistic that I had written about a couple of years ago continues to get worse – we have an increasing rate of maternal mortality around childbirth and our global ranking on this statistic is even more negative. A key driver is the lack of healthcare insurance access and education in too many areas of the country.

– I was troubled by the increasing statistics around domestic violence. Locally, the first four homicides of the year in my city were related to domestic violence. Men and women need to help women get out of relationships where signals are apparent. And, better education for boys and girls need to occur that violence is not the answer to relationship conflict.

– I am encouraged by the unifying voices from various fabrics of our culture regarding the need to treat everyone with dignity and respect. And, we must listen to each other and glean points of view. We are listening to respond, not hear.

– I am encouraged by the recognition to act and not just talk or tweet. One speaker said the quote, which may have been made by Rosa Parks, that “even the mighty oak tree was once a nut that stood its ground.” So, don’t worry if someone is calling you a nut.

I have often written about the tough-to-read book “Half the Sky,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn about the plight of women and girls around the globe. The Chinese proverb is “women hold up half the sky.” Not only is it the right thing to do, but treating women with dignity, respect and equality is the economic best thing to do. Otherwise, a country or area is competing with only 1/2 of its intellectual capital.

As our country enters its 104 consecutive month of economic growth and closes out its seventh consecutive year of 2 million plus jobs added, we should celebrate our economic success, but it is not bearing fruit equitably for everyone. Our economic classes have become more disparate and women remain relatively underpaid. Plus, with significant pay disparity, women are subject to more sexual harassment to keep better paying jobs or get better work scheduling for their parental duties.

So, let’s applaud this push by women. We will all benefit with more female voices being heard and heeded. That sky is heavy without the extra half holding it up.

 

Protecting institutions must start with accountability

With the parade of accusers testifying at the trial of Larry Nassar, the US Olympic gymnastic physician who sexually assaulted hundreds of young females, the finger is now being pointed back at Michigan State University, his employer. The university leadership allegedly did not take seriously previous accusations. It is alleged MSU brushed it under the rug to protect the institution.

The same could be said about Barry Bennell, an elite youth soccer (football) coach in the UK who sexually abused young boys for decades and yet no one did anything about it. Or, Penn State University where the University President and legendary football coach turned a blind eye toward Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys and men. And, by far the worst example is the Catholic Church which long knew of sexual assault in their ranks and chose to hide it, move priests around or, in a horrible failure, try to train the sexual proclivity out of the predatory priest.

Now, the #metoo movement is providing support, encouragement and a window for women and men to come forward. And, they need that support. Harvey Weinstein is more than an individual predator, he represents a business, as do Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, Charlie Rose, etc. These men represent institutions that have revenue streams and reputations that are bigger than that of the individuals.

What happens to the victims who dare come forward are they run up against institutions that first and foremost think of protecting their reputations and/ or revenue streams. Weinstein had a mountain of people helping him threaten and pay off victims who accused him. The movie “Spotlight” on the investigative work of The Boston Globe (about sexual abuse by priests) revealed how there was a secret list of about ninety priests in the Boston area who were known by the church as to having sexually abused young boys as the church settled the cases.

The first step to addressing these issues must be for the institutions to be accountable. They must investigate these accusations with accountability, responsibility and due diligence. If they find fault, they need to admit it and take action. If they do not, the institution betrays the trust of people who support that institution. Leaving a predator in place is beyond poor stewardship, it is criminal.

The movie that angers me more than any other is called “Mea Maxima Culpa,” about the sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in a Milwaukee home for deaf boys in the 1960s. It is revealed later that some church leadership knew of the abuse and did not act. Sadly, there was a similar home for deaf boys near The Vatican that had the same kind of abuse. What would Jesus do? – he would not let a predator prey on more children.

Sexual assaulters prey on people. They use their power of control to abuse, silence, deny, defame and refute their victims. And, if needed, they pay off the victims asking for silence in return. Institutions must stand up more for their victims and less for the assaulters they employ. Believing the predator will stop after a settlement has been proven time and again to be a pipe dream.

To close, I am reminded of the true story of the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who effectively ended her soaring career when she tore up a picture of the Pope on live TV in protest over the silence of church leadership on sexual abuse by Irish priests and other failures. She was booed off every stage after that and unjustly ridiculed. Twenty years later after the Irish priest scandal broke, she was proven correct. Yet, how many more boys were sexually abused in those twenty years?

This story is why it is important. How can these institutions and companies allow these predators to abuse more children and adults after they know? Again, that is criminal, in my mind. Sadly, these kinds of sexual assaults occur too often in everyday organizations affecting everyday workers. We must shine spotlights on these activities and efforts to mask them from the public if not remedied.

Good energy news on this cold, snowy day

Global citizens are rightfully concerned the US President is pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Change Accord, but progress continues as “we are passed the tipping point on renewable energy.” Even the US pullout cannot stop the train, as states, cities, businesses and other countries continue the push. It just means the President and his team will not be at the adult table on this issue and may not be invited at all.

Here are a few miscellaneous energy tidbits that should offer encouragement.

Per the UK Based organization Carbon Tracker, here are a few highlights from the past year:

  • more than 1/2 of the US coal plants in existence in 2010 have been closed;
  • more than 1/2 of the remaining coal plants in Europe are losing money;
  • the UK has slashed electricity from coal usage from 40% to 2% in the last five years; and
  • there have been big strides in China and Australia on reducing coal usage.

Per the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the five member, Republican dominated agency denied the request by Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry to fund the building of more coal-fired and nuclear plants. This was a surprise move given the make-up of the committee. I would call this decision as not wanting to throw good money after bad.

It should be noted, it is not just coal that is giving the FERC commissioners pause. The US division of Westinghouse Electric Company had to declare bankruptcy for cost overruns on a new nuclear power plant for SCANA, the South Carolina utility. As a result, the new plant is being shuttered and SCANA is being sold to Dominion Resources, so as not to overburden SC citizens with the cost of the lost investment.

The International Energy Agency in their 2017 Energy Outlook notes the cost of new solar photovoltaic electricity has declined by 70% and wind energy has fallen 25% since 2010. It should be noted the IEA has tended to favor fossil fuel energy in past releases. China, the new country leader in the climate change fight, will be investing US$360 billion more in renewable energy by 2020. Plus, the price of solar has fallen so much in places like Zambia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, it has won bidding contests against fossil fuel energy sources for projects.

Finally, any discussion on future energy cannot exclude the declining cost and increasing capacity in battery storage. Per Bloomberg New Energy Financials, energy storage will double six times between 2016 and 2030. Elon Musk just helped southern Australia go live with a major battery installation and 21 states in the US have planned projects on energy storage.

All of the above stories are important because it has always been a financial argument to combat the environmental concerns, whose long term costs have been undervalued. Now, the financials are favoring the renewable energy engine, so market forces will continue to force the ultimate demise of coal-fired energy, which started with the lower cost of natural gas. If a company can find a clean energy source which is cheaper and more predictable long term, that is easily the better path forward. If you don’t believe me, just ask companies like Google, Facebook, Walmart and IKEA to name only a few.