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Robots: stealing our jobs or solving labour shortages? | Robots

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As the coronavirus pandemic enveloped the world last year, businesses increasingly turned to automation in order to address rapidly changing conditions. Floor-cleaning and microbe-zapping disinfecting robots were introduced in hospitals, supermarkets and other environments. Some enterprises found that, given the new emphasis on hygiene and social distancing, robotic operations offered a marketing advantage. The American fast food chain White Castle began using hamburger-cooking robots in an effort to create “an avenue for reduced human contact with food during the cooking process”.

With the worst days of the pandemic hopefully now behind us, the jobs story has turned out to be unexpectedly complicated. While overall unemployment rates remain elevated, both the US and the UK are experiencing widespread worker shortages, focused especially in those occupations that tend to offer gruelling work conditions and relatively low pay. Even as a quarter of a million of British workers who held jobs in 2019 remain unemployed, job vacancies are up 20% from pre-pandemic levels as employers struggle to fill many positions. The reasons behind the worker shortages are not entirely clear. A common assumption is that extended payments to furloughed workers allowed people to remain out of the workforce. However, evidence from a number of US states that moved to discontinue unemployment benefits early suggests that the extended payments may not have played a major role. Many workers may have simply reassessed their willingness to do difficult and often unrewarding jobs in return for low pay. In the UK, Brexit has greatly exacerbated the situation. At least 200,000 EU nationals, primarily from eastern Europe, who once filled roles in areas such as agriculture, transportation and logistics, have left the country and may never return.

All of this has created a powerful incentive for businesses to invest in automation as a way to adapt to the worker shortage. As British farms confront the absence of seasonal workers who once flooded in from eastern Europe, interest in agricultural robots is growing. The UK-based startup Small Robot Company, for example, has developed two robots capable of killing weeds in wheat fields while cutting down dramatically on the use of chemical pesticides. The first robot autonomously prowls a wheat field, and with precision and patience that no human could match analyses each individual wheat plant using several cameras, mapping the exact locations where weeds are beginning to encroach. Once this data has been collected, a second, somewhat frightening, five-armed robot follows, killing the weeds by administering a powerful electric shock.

Robots at a distribution centre
Today’s most advanced distribution centres employ fully autonomous robots. Photograph: vanit Janthra/Alamy

Another startup company, Xihelm, which received venture funding from the UK government in 2018, has built a robot capable of harvesting fragile fruits and vegetables in greenhouses. The robot can, for example, carefully pick tomatoes after using artificial intelligence to identify only the ripest fruit. In the US, where the worker shortage has hit the restaurant industry especially hard, the White Castle chain has introduced french fry automation to work alongside its new hamburger robots, while the national restaurant chain Sweetgreen acquired a startup company that provides robotic kitchen technology. McDonald’s restaurants in the Chicago area are experimenting with an artificial intelligence-powered voice system that can process customer orders in drive-throughs.

There can be no doubt that the pandemic and the associated worker shortage are accelerating the drive toward deploying artificial intelligence, robotics and other forms of automation. In the UK, the trend is being further amplified as Brexit’s impact on the workforce becomes evident. However, the reality is that most of these technologies are unlikely to arrive in time to offer a solution to the immediate challenges faced by employers. Xihelm’s tomato-picking robot, for example, remains in the testing phase; the machines are not yet generally available for purchase. Some of the most critical worker shortages the UK are in transportation and logistics. By one estimate, the country is currently short of at least 100,000 truck drivers. As has been widely publicised, this has led to shortages of everything from petrol to McDonald’s milkshakes. No robots will be coming to the rescue in the near future. While a number of startup companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are working on self-driving trucks, the technology remains at several years away from commercial viability. Add time for governments to craft the necessary regulations or simply to get the public to accept the idea of fully loaded trucks navigating local roads without a driver at the wheel and the wait could easily be much longer.

Over the course of a decade or more, however, the overall impact of artificial intelligence and robotics on the job market is likely to be significant and in some specific areas the technologies may lead to dramatic change within the next few years. And many workers will soon confront the reality that the encroachment of automation technology will not be limited to the often low-paying and less desirable occupations where worker shortages are currently concentrated. Indeed, many of the jobs that employers are struggling to fill may prove to be highly resistant to automation. At the same time, better-paying positions that workers definitely want to retain will be squarely in the sights as AI and robotics continue their relentless advance.

Hamburger-cooking robots in Los Angeles.
Get the patty started: a hamburger-cooking robot in Los Angeles. Photograph: Miso Robotics

Consider, for example, the distribution centres run by Amazon or the online grocery retailer Ocado. As online shopping has accelerated, these warehouses have become an employment bright spot, providing jobs for many thousands of workers. Less than a decade ago, facilities of this kind would have been animated by hundreds of workers continuously roving between tall shelves containing thousands of different items. The workers would have included “stowers” tasked with taking newly arrived inventory and storing it on shelves and “pickers” responsible for retrieving items in order to fulfil customer orders. The activity would have been a continuous mad scramble, perhaps resembling an especially disordered anthill, in which a typical worker might trek a dozen or more miles over the course of a single shift.

In today’s most advanced distribution centres, this bustling motion has become almost a mirror image of itself. It is now the workers who remain stationary – doing the picking and stowing – while the inventory shelves speed about, conveyed between destinations by fully autonomous robots. Amazon now operates more than 200,000 of these robots at its distribution centres worldwide, while Ocado employs more than 1,000 at a single facility in Andover in Hampshire.

Companies such as Amazon and Ocado continue to employ massive human workforces largely because the robots are – so far – unable to perform the picking and stowing operations that require human-level visual perception and dexterity. This is certain to change, however. Both companies, as well as number of well-funded startups, are working on building more dexterous robots. Indeed, Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, speaking at a conference in 2019, said: “I think [robotic] grasping is going to be a solved problem in the next 10 years.” In other words, a great many of the hundreds of thousands of workers now employed in these facilities are likely to become redundant in the relatively near future. And as robots advance, they will likewise be deployed ever more frequently in restaurants, supermarkets and other environments.

Startup company Xihelm’s harvesting robot
Startup company Xihelm’s harvesting robot is capable of picking fragile fruits and vegetables in greenhouses. Photograph: Xihelm

More educated white-collar workers will quickly discover that they are by no means exempt from the rise of AI. Any job that involves the relatively routine analysis or manipulation of information is likely to fall in whole or in part to software automation. Some of the world’s largest media organisations, for example, already use AI systems that automatically generate news articles, while intelligent legal algorithms analyse contracts and predict the outcome of litigation. AI is even beginning to demonstrate a talent for routine computer programming. In many cases, knowledge work will prove to be easier and less expensive to automate than lower-paid work that requires physical manipulation. When the job is focused purely on working with information, there is no requirement for an expensive mechanical robot and no need to surmount the difficult technical challenges involved in replicating human dexterity or mobility.

In the long run, as advancing technology shapes our post-pandemic future, the workforce will increasingly be divided into winners and losers. The losers will be those who focus largely on routine, predictable tasks, regardless of whether these activities are physical or intellectual in nature, and often independent of education level. The winners are likely to fall into one of three general groups. First, skilled trade workers, such as plumbers and electricians, who do work that requires dexterity, mobility and problem-solving ability in highly unpredictable settings. The same is true for a care worker who assists an elderly person with his or her daily needs. This type of work is far beyond the capability of any existing robot and these jobs will remain safe for the foreseeable future. Second, those workers whose occupations require the development of deep, sophisticated relationships with other people will be relatively safe. This might include caring roles, such as nursing, or business or educational occupations that require complex human interactions. While AI is making progress in this arena – for example, there are already chatbots that can provide rudimentary mental health support – it is likely to be a long time before machines can form truly meaningful relationships with humans. The final category includes intellectual work that is creative or activities that are otherwise genuinely non-routine and unpredictable in nature. For these workers, artificial intelligence will be likely to amplify, rather than replace, their efforts. Within many professions, a winner-take-all scenario might unfold; the most creative individuals will rise to the top, while those focused on more routine activities will face a growing threat from automation.

The best advice for individuals is to transition from routine, predictable work and towards one of these winning categories. There are real questions, however, about the viability of this advice when applied to society as a whole. Historically, advancing technology has tended to drive most workers from routine work in one sector to routine work in another. As agriculture became mechanised, workers moved from farms to factories, but they continued to do routine work. Later, workers moved to routine jobs in the service sector. The rise of artificial intelligence will require an unprecedented transition in which a large fraction of the workforce will have to find and adapt to roles that are genuinely non-routine. It is unclear whether a sufficient number of these jobs will be created – and, even if they are, many workers will likely lack the inherent talents and personality traits required to take on creative or relationship-based roles.

Designing a society that can adapt to the rise of artificial intelligence and allow everyone to thrive as these changes unfold is likely to be one of our most significant challenges in the coming years and decades. It will require an emphasis on retraining and education for those workers who can realistically undertake the necessary transition, as well as an improved safety net – and perhaps an entirely new social contract – for those who will inevitably be left behind.

  • Martin Ford is the author of Rule of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything, published on 30 September (Basic Books, £20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy? • The Register

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In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn’t pay a $20 million ransom. 

Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government’s computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti’s leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that “We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency.” 

Experts who spoke to the AP said they doubt actual regime change is likely, or the goal; Emsisoft analyst Brett Callow told the newswire that the threats are simply noise, and not to be taken seriously.

Callow may be right: News unfolding late this week suggests that Conti has gone offline, and may be breaking into several subsidiary groups. Its political ambitions in Costa Rica may just be a distraction, albeit one that could also turn a tidy profit. 

NSA: Trust us, no post-quantum encryption backdoors

The NSA wants to ease everyone’s concerns now: Even though it’s been involved in the US government’s post-quantum encryption research, the spy agency won’t have a backdoor.

Speaking to Bloomberg while discussing the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s post-quantum encryption competition, NSA Director of Cybersecurity (and Christmas-tree hacker) Rob Joyce said the new standards being developed are so strong that “there are no backdoors.” 

That would be a departure from previous encryption standards, which the NSA is believed to have had ready access to – until foreign spies acquired a copy of the backdoor software for their own use. The Biden administration recently announced additional funding for post-quantum encryption research, which aims to develop a form of protecting sensitive data so secure that even a quantum computer couldn’t crack it. 

The US has been actively working to develop encryption standards able to stand up to quantum computers for some time; Joyce claimed to Bloomberg that the NSA has had its own post-quantum encryption algorithms for several years, but those aren’t part of the NIST competition or available to the public. 

Despite spending tens of millions to address the security problems posed by quantum computers, the NSA also readily admits that it has no idea when, or even if, quantum computers able to crack modern public key cryptography will be realized. 

Frustrated IT admin gets seven years for deleting company databases

A former database administrator from China who wiped out his employer’s financial records has been sentenced to seven years in prison as a result.

Han Bing, who managed databases for Chinese real estate brokerage Lianjia, allegedly used his administrator access and root privileges to log in to two of Lianjia’s database servers, and two application servers, where he wiped financial data and related applications that took the company’s entire finance system offline, said Chinese news sources. 

Bing was reportedly disgruntled with his employer. He repeatedly warned them of security flaws in Lianjia’s finance system but felt ignored and undervalued, Lianjia’s ethics chief testified in court. Bing’s actions directly cost the company around $27,000 to recover data and rebuilt systems, but that doesn’t include the impact of lost business.

Bing was caught when Lianjia questioned everyone with access to the financial systems who had permissions to do what Bing did, of whom there were only five. The company claims that Bing acted suspiciously when asked to present his laptop for inspection, refusing to provide his password and claiming privacy privileges. 

The company said it suspected none of the laptops would show traces of the attack, but wanted to see how those it questioned would react. Investigators were later able to recover logs that pointed to Bing’s laptop’s IP and MAC addresses, and crosschecking logs against security footage put Bing in the right place at the right time to be the guilty party.

Apple patches a whopping 98 separate vulnerabilities

Apple has had a busy week: In a series of security updates released Monday and Wednesday, the iMaker patched 98 separate vulnerabilities out of its various software platforms.

The updates in question cover most every bit of software Apple makes: WatchOS, iOS and iPad OS, macOS Monterey, Big Sur and Catalina, Xcode, tvOS, Safari and iTunes for Windows were all included. Most of the vulnerabilities are from the past few months, but one common vulnerability and exposure (CVE) number covered by the updates dates back to 2015.

A few of the vulnerabilities covered by this week’s glut of Apple patches were rolled out previously for one system, but not others, as was the case with CVE-2022-22674 and -22675, which were patched in macOS Monterey, but not older versions, in April. Those vulnerabilities were reportedly being actively exploited at the time. 

Malicious applications executing arbitrary code with kernel privileges appears to be the most common type of hole being closed in this round of patches, though some do stand out, like Apple Watch bugs that could let apps capture the screen and bypass signature validation.

On iOS, vulnerabilities patched include websites being able to track users in Safari private browsing mode, while macOS users are being protected against apps being able to bypass Privacy preferences and access restricted portions of the filesystem.

Russian-backing Chaos ransomware variant is pure destruction

Cybersecurity firm Fortinet has discovered a variant of the Chaos ransomware that professes support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but appears to have no decryption key to rescue victims in Putin’s regime. 

The variant appears to have been compiled with Chaos’ GUI customization tool as recently as May 16, Fortinet said. The researchers said they’re unsure how the Chaos variant infects its victims, and said the variant doesn’t act any differently than typical Chaos ransomware. 

Like other forms of Chaos, it enumerates files on infected systems, and irrevocably damages any larger than around 2MB by filling it with random bytes. Anything smaller is encrypted, but recoverable with a key. Chaos also typically attacks commonly used directories like Desktop, Contacts, Downloads and Pictures, which are encrypted entirely. 

Here’s where this Chaos variant differs: It’s overtly political, and instead of offering contact info and a ransom demand, the malware simply says “Stop Ukraine War! F**k Zelensky! Dont [sic] go die for f**king clown,” along with a pair of links to sites claiming to belong to the Information Coordination Center, but offering no information otherwise. Files are also encrypted with a “f**kazov” extension, likely referring to the Ukrainian Azov Battalion.

Fortinet said that this Chaos variant appears unique in the sense it appears designed to be file-destroying malware. “This particular variant provides no such avenue as the attacker has no intent on providing a decryption tool … clearly, the motive behind this malware is destruction,” Fortinet said. 

The FortiGuard team behind the research warns that with its GUI, Chaos ransomware has become a commodity product, and it expects additional attacks of this variety to emerge. ®



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UCD-led research finds potential treatment for advanced eye cancer

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The team said their research could help improve treatment options for advanced uveal melanoma, which currently has a poor survival rate.

An international team of researchers led by University College Dublin (UCD) have uncovered a potential treatment for a type of cancer that effects the eye.

The researchers looked at uveal melanoma (UM), the most common form of eye cancer which is diagnosed in 50 to 60 people in Ireland each year. The team explained that UM begins in the middle layer of the eye, but if it spreads to the liver and other parts of the body, patients have a poor survival prognosis.

Future Human

In their study, the team aimed to uncover treatment options for the advanced stage of this eye cancer, as it becomes very difficult to treat once it has spread.

The researchers focused on a drug called ACY-1215, which is currently in clinical trials for other solid tumours and blood cancers. This drug belongs to a relatively new group of anticancer drugs called histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACi).

“We wanted to understand how ACY-1215 works to prevent tumour cell growth and spread, in the context of UM,” said postdoctoral researcher Dr Husvinee Sundaramurthi.

Histones are proteins that provide structural support for DNA in cells, allowing DNA to be tightly packaged together. The researchers said these proteins act like a spool that a thread of DNA can wrap itself around.

In the study, the team used the drug ACY-1215 to interfere with the histones in advanced UM cells, to stop the processes involved in their survival and growth.

“We uncovered the particular molecules that may be involved in the anticancer effects the drug ACY-1215 has in advanced UM cells,” said study lead Prof Breandan Kennedy.

“This study will pave the way to look more closely at the benefits of using HDACi, specifically ACY-1215, as a suitable treatment option for advanced UM.”

Kennedy said that by understanding the therapeutic potential of the small molecules involved in the anticancer effects, researchers can improve UM patient care and create personalised treatment strategies.

The international research team involved groups from Spain, Sweden and Ireland. Funding was provided through grants from the Irish Research Council, in collaboration with Breakthrough Cancer Research, UCD’s TopMed10, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions CoFund Programme and Horizon 2020.

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Crypto is starting to lose its cool – just look at El Salvador | Rowan Moore

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To its evangelists, bitcoin is a frictionless, empowering form of money that liberates citizens of the world from the shackles of banks and national governments. To sceptics, the cryptocurrency is a tool of kleptocrats and gangsters, environmentally monstrous in its consumption of energy, a digitally glamorised Ponzi scheme whose eventual crash will most hurt those least able to afford a loss.

Confidence may or may not have been enhanced by the unveiling, by President Nayib Bukele, of images of a proposed bitcoin-shaped Bitcoin City in El Salvador, funded with a bitcoin bond, the currency’s logo embedded in the central plaza, a metropolis powered with geothermal energy from a nearby volcano. Bukele, the self-styled “coolest dictator in the world”, a former publicist who wears baseball caps back to front, has already made El Salvador the first country to adopt bitcoin as the official currency. “The plan is simple,” he said. “As the world falls into tyranny, we’ll create a haven for freedom.”

Leaving aside the worrisome Pompeii vibe of the city’s location, some shine has come off the president’s vision with the news that the country’s investments in cryptocurrency have lost 45% of their value, that it scores CCC with the credit rating agency Fitch, and that the perceived risk of its bonds is up there with that of war-torn Ukraine. And Bukele’s talk of freedom doesn’t sit well with Amnesty International’s claim that his recent state of emergency has created “a perfect storm of human rights violations”.

But why worry about any of this when you have shiny computer-generated images of a fantasy city to distract you?

Unsecured credit line

Boris Johnson waves his arms behind a podium with the Elizabeth line sign.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan looks on as Boris Johnson gives a speech at Paddington station on 17 May 2022. Photograph: Reuters

The use of constructional bluster by populist leaders – Trump’s wall, for example – is not in itself anything new. See also the island airport, garden bridge, Irish Sea bridge, 40 new hospitals and 300,000 homes a year promised but not delivered by Boris Johnson, and the nuclear power stations he has implausibly pledged to build at a rate of one a year.

Last week his fondness for Potemkin infrastructure took a new twist. Rather than over-promise illusory schemes and under-deliver them, he decided to take credit for something actually built, the £19bn Elizabeth line in London, formerly known as Crossrail, whose central section opens to the public on Tuesday. “We get the big things done,” he boasted to the House of Commons, choosing to ignore the fact that the line was initiated under a Labour prime minister and a Labour mayor of London. He almost makes Nayib Bukele look credible.

Behind the red wall

Characters from The House of Shades gather around a table on stage
Mounting misery: The House of Shades. Photograph: Helen Murray

If you want a light-hearted night out – a date, a birthday treat – then The House of Shades, a new play by Beth Steel, might not, unless you are an unusual person, be for you. It is a cross between Greek tragedy and what was once called kitchen sink drama, a story of ever-mounting misery set in a Nottinghamshire town from 1965 to 2019. It covers the collapse of manufacturing, the rise of Thatcherism, the promises of New Labour and the disillusionment that led to “red wall” seats voting Conservative in 2019.

It features illegal abortion, graphically portrayed, and the effects of inflation, both newly significant. All presented at the Almeida theatre in the famously metropolitan London borough of Islington, not far from the former restaurant where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did the 1994 deal that shaped some of the events in the play. There’s irony here to make this audience squirm. Which, along with several other not-comfortable emotions, is probably the desired effect.

Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent

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