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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Will ships without sailors be the future of trade?

By Stav Dimitropoulos, BBC Technology of Business reporter

16 July 2019

On 7 May, customs officers in Ostend, Belgium, received a box of oysters from the UK. The molluscs had been caught in Essex and transported to Belgium on a 12m (39ft) aluminium-hulled vessel, which traversed the English Channel with no humans on board. It was the world's first unmanned commercial shipping operation. The crewless boat was carefully watched by four people in a control centre in Tollesbury, Essex, headquarters of Hushcraft, the company behind the design and development of the craft. UK and Belgian coastguards also monitored the oysters' progress. "You could actually listen to the waves hitting the boat," says Ben Simpson, Hushcraft's managing director. It boasts a hybrid diesel engine, electrical generators, satellite links, CCTV and thermal cameras, an automatic identification system to warn approaching vessels of its position and more.

The boat was made by Sea-Kit, and the same vessel helped an international team of hydrographers, funded by the Japanese non-profit Nippon Foundation, win the $4m (£3.2m) Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize for advances in autonomously mapping the oceans. Now Hushcraft wants Sea-Kit to be used for transporting cargo, hence mounting the 5kg box of oysters - a local delicacy - on to the vessel and sending it to Ostend. But is there a market for it? "The benefits are many," says Mr Simpson. "You can send them around the world to do different jobs at a significantly reduced cost. Then, you don't have to have a galley, you don't have to have toilets. You can utilise space." They are better for the environment as they can be electrically propelled, and since they can use smaller ports they can replace road transport and cut even more fumes, he says.

For Lawrence Brennan, a retired US navy captain and adjunct professor of admiralty and maritime law at Fordham University School of Law, all these virtues of uncrewed cargo ships come with certain caveats. Ships with no sailors mean no risk to human life from fires or other hazards at sea. No-one needs to recruit staff, pay them, keep them trained or guard against unlicensed crew. The boats can go anywhere. But, in Prof Brennan's view, the first Achilles heel of unmanned shipping might be the very technology that created it. A failure in communications between vessel and base will render it a ghost ship, hopelessly drifting without a soul on board, a hazard to its owners, the owners of its cargo, and the environment, he argues.

"Unmanned ships may be stopped by pirates by disabling shots or damaging the ship's propeller and rudder," Prof Brennan continues. Karolina Zwolak, head of the Navigation Section at the Institute of Navigation and Marine Hydrography of the Polish Naval Academy, contributed to the success of the oysters' voyage. Part of her job was collision avoidance. Dr Zwolak is already working on the Sea-Kit international team's next ambitious endeavour, which will be to sail across the Atlantic next year, but is aware of the technology's limitations. "When unexpected situations occur on board, human creativity, experience, and non-schematic thinking can solve the problem," she says. So she does not see a revolution in the shipping industry in the near future. "I just believe more and more tasks will be delegated on shore, using communication technology," she says.

For his part, Mr Simpson, who believes crewless short-sea transportation might not be a rarity in five years from now, says that problems such as the risk of piracy plague both manned and unmanned vessels. He also thinks it is not economically sound to lay people off. "Unmanned ships need to be built, maintained, and controlled. The people that would have been on the bridge of a manned vessel are now in the office," he maintains, adding that a lot of training will be involved in the transition. The other obstacle is the law. "The legal regime is decades, if not a century-and-a-half out of date," says Prof Brennan. "As unmanned ships were never contemplated until recently, legislation says manning is essential for having a ship that is seaworthy, classified, and authorised to operate in national waters and on the high seas," he explains. For self-navigating ships to crisscross the oceans free from legal constraints, an entirely new maritime legislation will have to be drawn up and embedded in national laws and international regimes, otherwise financiers will be frightened off. Still, the international maritime community is going through such a frenzy of technological creativity, that for Dr Zwolak there will be a solution soon. "Technology has always preceded law," she says.

[..and another AI milestone falls…. Shipping will be one of the first transport industries to be largely automated I think (along with train travel before moving into the air and on the roads). Obviously there are hurdles, indeed entire mountain ranges, ahead but these problems can be identified and solved one by one. Start with the position that a new technology will never reach its full potential is simply setting yourself up for a fail. Robots are simply here to stay. The smart response is to ensure it’s implemented properly with minimal disruption to human livelihoods.]

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Vanquished – Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 by Robert Gerwarth (FP: 2016)

For those who had been there and had been fortunate enough to leave again it was known as the most dangerous place on Earth – Eastern Europe between 1917 and 1923. Whilst the victorious Powers of France, England and the USA returned to a state close enough to normal (or at least what passed for normal after 5 years of bloody conflict) those on the losing side as well as Italy with its “mutilated victory” descended into an era of political strife, uncertainty and civil war. With the great land Empires torn apart under the principle of ‘self-determination’ (largely undefined or even undefinable) the recently created and largely artificial new ‘nations’ attempted to solidify around a single ethnicity, culture or religion in a definable, defendable and rationale space – whilst often in direct conflict with their neigbours doing exactly the same thing. A few countries were relatively lucky with a historically agreed (and agreeable) border and a simple ethnic mix. Others, substantially less lucky, had borders than no army could defend and an ethnic mix so complex and so deeply historical that the locals themselves could not answer the simplest questions posed to them in plebiscites arranged in Paris. Families, neighbours, friends were torn asunder depending on church affiliation, accent or traditional dress. Before the ink was dry and the dust had time to settle the fighting started and before long the fighting was over something more than where a line was drawn on a map but who a people were and what kind of future – if any – they had in the new reality. Then it got nasty. Very nasty.

Across Russia revolution turned to Civil War, in Germany governments tottered on the edge of dissolution as Left fought Right in street battles and targeted political assassinations, in the Balkans where it all started a wave of ethnic ‘cleansing’ sept across the region resulting in mass expulsions and mass starvation. Further East in the remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire whilst the French and the British carved up vast areas to satisfy their imperial ambitions (and ignored by the anti-imperialist Americans) new forces arose to challenge the western narrative assumptions and began to fight back first against the victorious allies and then against the invading Greeks ending in the massacres of Smyrna as allied warships stood at anchor and did precisely nothing. The smug assertion that the war had ended in November 1918 was not even a sick joke to those in the East. They had forgotten how to laugh long before the war to end wars supposedly came to an end with a meaningless armistice ignored everywhere outside of the victorious powers. As the fighting rumbled on and countless lives were lost in massacre, famine, plague and political assassination the ground was being laid for an even greater conflict to come. One where the revolution stated in St Petersburg would engulf the world, were Germany would be vindicated and gain her rightful place in the world, where Italy would finally be given the empire and respect they deserved and where Japan would no longer be looked upon as inferior, foreign and sub-human.

Told with devastating frankness and with few punches pulled this is an eye-opening account of how the First World War most certainly did NOT end for the majority of Europeans (and beyond) in 1918 something I for one naively believed until fairly recently. The armistice may have stopped western armies fighting the central powers but it most certainly did not stop the fighting and destruction over huge tracks of land. It was not until a series of treaties signed in 1922 and 1923 that much of the fighting stopped simply because by then most of the survivors had, at least temporarily, managed to acquire most of what they wanted. A series of open sores across the world would need to be addressed by the new League of Nations once stability had been achieved which it had by 1926. Now, if only the nascent economic growth could be maintained for the next 10 years the world might have a chance to recover from its greatest calamity….. Whilst only 267 pages long this is still a heavy book (though by no means heavy going). I did feel more than once that I was wading through rivers of blood rather through words on a page but I guess that was the point. Vast in geographical scope it gives you an invaluable look at the disaster of World War One and why a mere 20 years later the world slipped into the Second World War. Unmissable for anyone interested in the end of one war, the beginning of the next and the often ignored turbulence in-between…. and for those who want more there’s a very impressive 62 page bibliography! Highly recommended to all 20th Century history buffs. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Looks safe...........


My LOVE for Cartoons

I LOVE cartoons. Presumably like most children my first entrancing TV moment is during cartoons. I can honestly say that some of my most formative heroes have been of the animated kind (hand drawn back then of course!) Even today I hold up Bugs Bunny as probably my favourite cartoon character and still one of my heroes. I LOVED the way that, not only did he always win (as far as I remember) but he did so by using his brains to achieve his aims. Probably my second favourite – from the pre-CGI Age – is the ‘underdog’ Mutley from The Whacky Races. Again under appreciated, scorned, but very smart and who won (or at least go his own back) by using devious methods. Some of my other favourite are The Scooby Gang (before Srappy or the risible movies) when they solved problems and uncovered fraudulent Supernatural events using reason and logic, then there’s Dangermouse (the great detective) and finally the totally bizarre but wonderful Magic Roundabout (HATE the movie BTW). But there days it’s essentially seventh heaven to all cartoon lovers. We live in the age of CGI and, more importantly, Pixar. Hardly a month goes by where I don’t watch one of my favourite CGI movies. But here are my favourites from recent years (in no particular order).

Inside Out
Monsters, Inc
Shrek (and Shrek 2)
Toy Story (and Toy Story 2)
Wreck-It Ralf
Despicable Me (and Despicable Me 2)
The Incredibles (and Incredibles 2)
Ice Age
Over The Hedge
Final Fantasy – The Spirits Within

They make me laugh, make me cry make me look on in wonder and make me think…. Can’t beat it.   

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Google's DeepMind goes undercover to battle gamers

From The BBC

11 July 2019

Gamers in Europe are being invited to take on a bot developed by some of the world's leading artificial intelligence researchers. But there's a twist: players will not be told when they have been pitted against it. The tests are being carried out by DeepMind, the London-based AI company that previously created a program that defeated the world's top Go players. In this case, the challenge involves the sci-fi video game Starcraft II. It is seen as being a more complex task, since players can only get a partial overview of what their opponent is doing, unlike the Chinese board game Go where all the pieces are on show. In addition, both Starcraft players move their armies about simultaneously rather than by taking turns. DeepMind - which is owned by Google's parent Alphabet - has said its bot AlphaStar is playing anonymously so as to get as close to a normal match situation as possible. The concern is that if people knew for sure that they were playing against a computer, they might play differently. But gamers will only face the algorithm-controlled system if they have first opted in to be part of the experiment.

There is a risk that if they lose, then their Match Making Rating (MMR) score will suffer, reducing their ranking against other players and affecting their likelihood of being promoted to higher leagues. One of the UK's leading players said there was a lot of interest among the Starcraft community as to how AlphaStar would perform. "It's a game of hidden information and making decisions with very limited knowledge," explained Raza Sekha, from Kent. "People are very curious to see whether DeepMind will innovate and come up with new strategic thoughts. That would be a really great achievement, but I don't think many people are expecting it to happen." AlphaStar's predecessors have, however, come up with creative strategies within the games of chess, Go and shogi, which have in turn influenced some of the top human players to change their own tactics.

This is not the first time AI researchers have sought to advance the field via video games. Last year, San Francisco-based OpenAI reported a breakthrough when it effectively created a "curious" agent to achieve high scores within Montezuma's Revenge. A range of machine learning experiments have also been carried out within Minecraft, thanks to Microsoft developing a special version of its block-building title. And DeepMind itself rose to prominence by developing agents that taught themselves how to play dozens of Atari games including Breakout and Space Invaders. More recently it created software that plays alongside human team-mates within Quake III Arena. These ready-made virtual environments provide a way to carry out a process called reinforcement learning. This involves agents discovering ways to perform better by themselves via a process of trial and error, receiving "rewards" for success rather than being told what to do. In some cases, agents teach themselves from scratch. But in AlphaStar's case, it was first trained to imitate human play by referencing past matches, before being unleashed against other versions of itself to further improve performance.

AlphaStar's progress has not been without controversy. Some players felt that it had an unfair advantage in earlier matches because it could look at a game's entire map at once, taking in more detail than a human could. "As a human, one of the hardest parts of the game is multitasking," explained Mr Sekha. "It's really hard to split your attention between two places. So, an AI has a crucial advantage when it can see everywhere at once, as that lets it attack and defend almost at the same time, whereas a human would have to choose whether it's best to do one or the other." To tackle this, the agent has been tweaked to use the game's map more like humans do. It now has to zoom in to a section to determine the action within, and can only move units to locations in view.

DeepMind has also reduced the number of actions AlphaStar can take per minute to address other criticism. But Mr Sekha said there were still unanswered questions. "If it can switch very quickly from one camera to another camera, much faster than a human could, that would still be a bit unfair," he said. "So it will be really interesting to see what steps they have taken to level the playing field, because last time the community felt it was a bit too much in favour of the artificial intelligence." DeepMind intends to share more details about the project as part of a scientific research paper, but has yet to determine when it will be published.

[I’ve long thought that there are players out there who HAD to be AI’s – they were just too damned good! It’s also well understood that online gaming is THE place to train AI’s. Not only is it an existing artificial environment with bounded rules where a machine intelligence can do well it’s also a ready-made laboratory to study many aspects of human behaviour. Inevitably I think AI’s will do very well in many if not all game formats. I for one certainly wouldn’t like a fully ramped up AI opponent. But, as most of my friends would agree, playing against the computer on single player is sometimes very easy as the AI continues to do stupid things are singularly fails to learn from its mistakes. But once learning kicks in the human player is very quickly outclassed and the game becomes unplayable. Good for training AI’s – just not particularly fun for human players.]