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Good reads curated by Max
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This is my weekly collection of articles on ideas that matter and trends that are shaping culture today. It is a reflection of what I'm reading and what I've found valuable. This isn't a hot-off-the-press scramble to share the latest headlines.  I hope it is a broader, more wide-ranging look at some of the forces, ideas, and people changing society and the way we live today. 

Read Broadly. Think Deeply. Enjoy the Weekend.
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Defining The Drone
 
Happy weekend, my friends,
I figured it is a good week to consider the state of drones today. This week the Senate is considering un-banning new commercial drone technology in the United States.  Also this week, a new Ethan Hawke movie, Good Kill, opens. It is about a drone pilot who kills foes 7,000 miles away and makes it home in time for dinner.

Some are big, the size of a 737 and look like an airplane without windows. Others are tiny, you could hold them in the palm of your hand (perfect for spying up close). Many consumer drones are four-propeller "quadcopters," while some look and fly like butterflies. I guess a simple definition of drone might be "a machine that flies without a human on board." 

Whatever they are, they are changing us, faster than you may realize. They are even changing the format of this letter. Today I'm including far more videos and links to videos. Because for a lot of the things drones are doing now, you have to see it to believe it. 

Read widely, read wisely (and watch closely).
Max

 

Surprise #1 
Drones are Taking Selfies To A Whole New Level
President Obama recently proved selfie sticks are both geeky/funny and ubiquitous. And they will soon be obsolete. Now, by wearing a GPS wristband, you can have a quadcopter float 20 feet in the air above you and automatically follow you around at up to 25 mph, filming you in 1080p HD. Look out Go Pro. This is suddenly the killer app for snowboarders looking to relive their soaring 540 twist. This could be a BIG business, (though maybe not as big as the founders hope). According to Lily cofounder Antoine Balaresque, “In five years, our goal is that all non-flying cameras are obsolete.”
 
The Lily Promo Video is Just Plain Rad.

 

Surprise #2
Drones Are Making It Harder To Keep Prisons Secure


by Michael S. Schmidt for The New York Times

Prisons are designed to keep inmates in and everything else out. But in a troubling trend, correctional facilities are seeing drones used to airdrop contraband material like cell phones into prison yards. They are "the high-tech version of smuggling a file into a prison in a birthday cake." You can build a fence high enough that someone can't throw a package over it, but what if they just fly over the fence? 
 
DJI is the world's largest consumer drone producer, allegedly with 80% market share. It is also the company that made the drone that crashed at the White House. Partly in response to public concern following that incident, DJI has announced that "its new geofencing software would make its devices inoperable within roughly 16 miles of the White House. The company said it was working to create similar no-fly zones for “sensitive institutions and national borders.”
 

Surprise #3
You Will No Longer Need An Address to Accept a Delivery

Did you forget your phone charger at the office again? Instead of taking the subway to pick it up, you could just have a co-worker throw it in a drone and fly them right over to you. Amazon has publicly announced it's desired to do drone delivery. But one company is already testing in Switzerland. 

"The Matternet ONE is a relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use system controlled by an app that does all of the piloting and most of the mission planning itself." In other words, this company has a drone that can pilot itself without a human operator keeping it from running into things. You just need to have the app on your phone for it to find you. 


Matternet has already been delivering medical supplies "in places like Haiti, Bhutan, the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea. In those trials Matternet field tested its drone technology, proving that its aircraft can fly in bad weather and beyond the line of sight of its operators."  Drones were also used to deliver recovery supplies to Nepal after the recent earthquake. This technology is currently banned in the United States, where drones must only be flown within eyesight of the human operator.
 
The Matternet promo video is odd.
Why would you choose delivering an apple as the signature story of your brand? Especially when you could make it about delivering emergency medical supplies?

Surprise #4
Drones are becoming "athletic"
by Raffaello D'Andrea at TED
 
This video is in the category of "seeing-is-believing." D'Andrea is a professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. He also knows how to make drones dance, jump and flip. He demonstrates that drones aren't just stable-flying helicopters, they can do radical mid-air maneuvering with unbelievably sophisticated and precise control. 

You could watch this whole TED Talk but if you want to skip to some of the coolest stuff, I recommend:
  • 4 minutes 30 seconds in:  you see how waiters will soon be replaced by drones that can scream through the air carrying a glass of water without spilling a drop. 
  • 11 minutes, 15 seconds in: he controls two helicopters without a joystick using just his hands, making him look like some 21st Century Yoda raising a starship out of the Degoba swamp.

 

Surprise #5
Some argue that drones are a more humane way to kill people


The Killing Machines
by Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down in The Atlantic

By now everyone is familiar with most of the big questions of drone warfare. Do drone strikes help by taking out terrorist leaders or do they create more recruits by enraging local populations? Is it ethical to execute an enemy when they have no chance of fighting back? Do drones cause a lot of "collateral damage" a.k.a., killing innocent bystanders, even children? This article is from 2013, but is the best piece I've read that surveys the whole of drone warfare. If you haven't read it, you ought to. It will make you think differently about drones.  

I couldn't possibly summarize this article in a paragraph, so let me instead just reprint a couple graphs as a teaser. The first is in a section about the trope that drones sanitize warfare into a de-personalized video game where men behind remote controls kill other humans at will. This is the plot of the Ethan Hawke movie. This article showed me there is at least an alternative narrative, which the author took from interviewing drone pilots: that drone warfare can feel incredibly personal.  .


"The dazzling clarity of the drone’s optics does have a downside. As a B-1 pilot, Dan wouldn’t learn details about the effects of his weapons until a post-mission briefing. But flying a drone, he sees the carnage close-up, in real time—the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. Often he’s been watching the people he kills for a long time before pulling the trigger. Drone pilots become familiar with their victims. They see them in the ordinary rhythms of their lives—with their wives and friends, with their children. War by remote control turns out to be intimate and disturbing. Pilots are sometimes shaken."


Another section explores the alternatives to drone warfare: manned bombers or ground operations and what is most likely to harm the fewest civilians. 

"The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a left-wing organization based in London, has made a strenuous effort, using news sources, to count bodies after CIA drone strikes. It estimates that from 2004 through the first half of 2013...if we assume the worst case, and take the largest estimates of soldier and civilian fatalities, then one-quarter of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been civilians...

"...No civilian death is acceptable, of course. Each one is tragic. But any assessment of civilian deaths from drone strikes needs to be compared with the potential damage from alternative tactics...In fact, ground combat almost always kills more civilians than drone strikes do. Avery Plaw, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, estimates that in Pakistani ground offensives against extremists in that country’s tribal areas, 46 percent of those killed are civilians. Plaw says that ratios of civilian deaths from conventional military conflicts over the past 20 years range from 33 percent to more than 80 percent."

Reading Bowden, you get the sense that he thinks drones are a difficult pill to swallow, but one that may give us the best way to fight terrorists.  But he's also pretty clear that for drones strikes to have moral authority, the state must be extremely careful in how it uses them, doing things like limiting lethal drone use to warfare (rather than policing), and making all targeting decisions and actions transparent to the public. 


Reflections

I bought my father a little toy drone for Christmas this past year. He likes gadgets and photography so I thought I'd hit a home run. But it took him four months before he took the thing for a spin. We didn't talk much about that. He said he was busy and didn't want to lose it in the winter snow. I can't help but wonder if deep down he was just a little hesitant to let this particular genie out of the bottle.  I couldn't blame him. I had some mixed feelings in buying it. Drones, with their spying and eerie hovering capabilities make me feel a bit uneasy. Even the word "drone" feels ominous, inhuman. 

But eventually he took it out of the box and I soon got a test flight video from him in my email. A few days later he said he was hooked and researching other models to buy...


This morning I showed my six year-old daughter this video from a lab at UPenn. It's nine minutes so only watch if you are getting into this drone learning, but it shows drones organizing in swarms like a flying marching band, jumping through flying hoops, and building three-dimensional structures. Her reaction: "Can they do anything? Can they do my homework for me?" 

Kids have a way of expressing things more clearly than adults sometimes. When I read about and watch this technology in action I can't help but wonder about similar questions. What could I have these incredible machines do for me? Entrepreneurs and engineers see opportunity and are racing to create the next billion dollar drone business - whether for delivering groceries or delivering lethal judgment. 

Big picture, flying drones are just one category of a broader trend in the growth unmanned technologies. Another is driverless cars. Another are robots that vacuum your house or mow your lawn. Twenty years ago American manufacturing workers started to be displaced by people overseas willing to work more cheaply. Soon all workers will be at risk of being displaced by machines who will effectively work for free. 

In the New York Times Book Review this weekend Barbara Ehrenreich reviews Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford, which warns that it's not just blue collar line workers, but attorneys, radiologists, and book editors that may be replaced by automated computers who can do the same work more accurately, objectively and cheaply. Some predict that 80-90% of articles will be written by computers in the next twenty years. 

New jobs will be created of course, jobs in companies that design robots and supercomputers. And predictions about robots throwing people out of work have been around for fifty years, each failing to predict how people and the economy would adapt to create new jobs and new industries. The question is whether these will be good jobs or bad jobs and whether we will be better off or just more technologically sophisticated (yes there is a difference). But more on that in another post. 

For now, the near-term future is clear: the drones are coming.

Worth Watching

This music video is ridiculous(ly cool). 
Someone spent a lot of time programming drones to form an automated rock band. I didn't know this was possible.
Flying Robot Rockstars
Last week's edition: 6 Fasion Trends You Didn't See Coming is here
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