Monday, September 26, 2016

Uber plans self-flying drone taxis to beat city traffic

Uber plans self-flying drone taxis to beat city traffic

The Ehang 184, a passenger drone CREDIT: EHANG
By James Titcomb  26 SEPTEMBER 2016 • 10:32AM

If you summon an Uber in 10 years’ time, you will probably get a car that drives itself. But then again, you may not be travelling in a car at all.

The taxi-hailing app is working on technology that would allow airborne passenger drones to fly its users short distances around cities, it has emerged, raising the prospect of a future in which skylines are dotted with Uber aircraft shuttling commuters back and forth.

Jeff Holden, Uber’s head of product, told technology website Recode that the company is researching “vertical takeoff and landing” (VTOL) technology. Instead of the helicopter-style rotor blade drones, VTOL aircraft have fixed wings like planes, enabling them to fly silently, while taking off and landing vertically.

Amazon’s delivery drones, currently being tested in Cambridgeshire, use a similar technology to cut down on noise and extend their range.

Holden said Uber wanted to “offer our customers as many options as possible to move around” and that the technology could be available within a decade.

“It could change cities and how we work and live,” Holden said, pointing out that moving traffic from the road to the air could dramatically cut down on congestion and the time it takes to cross cities. He said he envisages aircraft taking off from and landing on the roofs of buildings.

While the idea may seem far-fetched, Uber is not the only one researching passenger drones. Earlier this year Ehang, a Chinese company, unveiled the 184, an autonomous quadcopter drone designed to carry a single passenger, with a battery life of 23 minutes. The 184, which has been slated for release as early as this year, is expected to cost up to $300,000 (£232,000).

Google founder Larry Page is one of the major believers in flying cars, putting $100m of his own money into startups developing the technology.



Saturday, September 24, 2016

Zuckerberg downplays Facebook advertising deception

Zuckerberg downplays Facebook advertising screwup

By James Covert September 24, 2016 | 2:26am

Facebook insists it’s no big deal that it inflated numbers on viewership of its video ads — but some advertisers aren’t buying it.

Mark Zuckerberg’s social-networking giant apologized Friday as it admitted that, for the past two years, it has overestimated the amount of time users spent watching video ads by as much as 60 to 80 percent.

Specifically, Facebook said it had only included video views of 3 seconds or longer when calculating the average length of a video views it showed to advertisers, leaving out shorter times that would have brought down the averages.

The “discrepancy,” as Facebook called it, distorted its numbers to its advantage as the company ramped up a fierce battle with Google’s YouTube division for video ads — the most lucrative segment of internet advertising.

Facebook claimed the screwup didn’t affect its “billing” because technically its ad rates are based on the number of clicks a video ad gets rather than how long users linger over it.

Nevertheless, metrics on average viewing time are prominently circulated to advertisers. Don’t be surprised if, in the near term, existing advertisers demand reimbursement, and if prospective advertisers hesitate over launching fresh, high-dollar campaigns, experts said.

“Advertisers will be demanding compensation, and I’ll bet they get it,” said Mitchell Reichgut, chief executive of New York ad firm Jun Group.

Facebook initially disclosed the problem on an obscure Web page for advertisers several weeks ago.

“They tried to bury it in a blog,” Reichgut said. “That’s not how you announce something of this magnitude.”

On Thursday, the issue blew up when the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that advertisers including Publicis Group were asking questions, forcing Facebook to come clean.

The incident raises fresh concerns about Facebook’s “walled garden” policy with publishers and advertisers, which is notoriously stingy when it comes to data sharing and has spurred calls for greater third-party monitoring.

Moat, a New York firm that specializes in monitoring Web-page views and whose clients include Facebook, said its measurements of Facebook activity were accurate.

“The metric miscalculation reported by Facebook was independent of Moat,” the company said in a statement.

Facebook shares on Friday lost 1.6 percent to close at $127.96. Wall Street analysts with buy ratings on the stock downplayed the news.

“In our view, this looks like a story in search of a controversy,” wrote Cowen & Co. analyst John Blackledge, reiterating an outperform rating on the shares.

Wells Fargo’s Peter Stabler, who has an outperform rating on Facebook, added, “We haven’t encountered analysis that has dwelled on ‘average view time’ ” in measuring ad campaigns.

Still, some prospective advertisers may get cold feet, said Ryan Urban, CEO of Bounce Exchange, a New York web analytics firm.

“They’ll see some negative impact with brand dollars in the short term,” Urban said.



Thursday, September 22, 2016

Yahoo Says Hackers Stole Data on 500 Million Users in 2014

Yahoo Says Hackers Stole Data on 500 Million Users in 2014

By NICOLE PERLROTH SEPT. 22, 2016

The announcement of the breach at Yahoo comes as Verizon Communications moves forward with its $4.8 billion acquisition of the company.

SAN FRANCISCO — Yahoo announced on Thursday that the account information for at least 500 million users was stolen by hackers two years ago, in the biggest known intrusion of one company’s computer network.

In a statement, Yahoo said user information — including names, email addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, encrypted passwords and, in some cases, security questions — was compromised in 2014 by what it believed was a “state-sponsored actor.”

While Yahoo did not name the country involved, how the company discovered the hack nearly two years after the fact offered a glimpse at the complicated and mysterious world of the underground web.

The hack of Yahoo, still one of the internet’s busiest sites with one billion monthly users, also has far-reaching implications for both consumers and one of America’s largest companies, Verizon Communications, which is in the process of acquiring Yahoo for $4.8 billion. Yahoo Mail is one of the oldest free email services, and many users have built their digital identities around it, from their bank accounts to photo albums and even medical information.

Changing Yahoo passwords will be just the start for many users. They’ll also have to comb through other services to make sure passwords used on those sites aren’t too similar to what they were using on Yahoo. And if they weren’t doing so already, they’ll have to treat everything they receive online with an abundance of suspicion, in case hackers are trying to trick them out of even more information.

The company said as much in an email to users that warned it was invalidating existing security questions — things like your mother’s maiden name or the name of the street you grew up on — and asked them to change their passwords. Yahoo also said it was working with law enforcement in their investigation and encouraged people to change up the security on other online accounts and monitor those accounts for suspicious activity as well.

“The stolen Yahoo data is critical because it not only leads to a single system but to users’ connections to their banks, social media profiles, other financial services and users’ friends and family,” said Alex Holden, the founder of Hold Security, which has been tracking the flow of stolen Yahoo credentials on the underground web. “This is one of the biggest breaches of people’s privacy and very far-reaching.”

The Yahoo hack also adds another miscue to what has been a troubled sale of a long-troubled company. In July, Verizon said it would acquire the internet pioneer, roughly a month before Yahoo security experts started looking into whether the site had been hacked. It is unclear what effect, if any, the breach will have on Yahoo’s sale price.

In a statement on Thursday, a Verizon spokesman, Bob Varettoni, said his company learned of the breach of Yahoo’s systems only two days ago and had “limited information and understanding of the impact.”

It is unclear whether security testing — such as a test to see if security experts could break into the Yahoo network — was performed as part of Verizon’s due diligence process before it agreed to the acquisition.

But such security is often overlooked by investors, even though breaches can result in stolen intellectual property, compromised user accounts and class-action lawsuits. To date, no law requires such security checks as part of due diligence.

“Cybersecurity can absolutely affect a valuation, and these are important questions that investors need to be asking,” said Jacob Olcott, vice president of BitSight Technologies, a security company.

Yahoo said it learned of the data breach this summer after hackers posted to underground forums and online marketplaces what they claimed was stolen Yahoo data. A Yahoo security team was unable to verify those claims. But what they eventually found was worse: a breach by what they believe was a state-sponsored actor that dated back to 2014.

A potential breach of Yahoo’s systems was first reported by the tech news site Recode early Thursday morning.

The first sign that something was amiss appeared in June, when a Russian hacker who goes by the user name Tessa88 started mentioning, in underground web forums, a new trove of stolen Yahoo data, Mr. Holden said. In July, Tessa88 supplied a sample of the stolen collection to people in the so-called underground web for authentication.

The sample contained valid Yahoo user accounts, but it was unclear whether the data was from a breach of a third-party service or Yahoo itself. And it was not clear whether it came from a recent Yahoo breach or a previous incident in 2012, when the internet service acknowledged that more than 450,000 user accounts were compromised.

Then, in August, a second hacker who goes by the alias Peace of Mind began offering a large collection of stolen Yahoo credentials — including user names, easily cracked passwords, birth dates, ZIP codes and email addresses — on a site called TheRealDeal, where hackers can buy and sell stolen data, Mr. Holden said.

TheRealDeal uses Tor, the anonymity software, and Bitcoin, the digital currency, to hide the identities of buyers, sellers and administrators who are trading attack methods and stolen data.

After looking into that data, Yahoo did not find evidence that the stolen credentials came from its own systems. But it did find evidence of a far more serious breach of its systems two years earlier.

Two years is an unusually long time to identify a hacking incident. According to the Ponemon Institute, which tracks data breaches, the average time it takes organizations to identify such an attack is 191 days, and the average time to contain a breach is 58 days after discovery.

Security experts say the breach could bring about class-action lawsuits, in addition to other costs. An annual report by the Ponemon Institute in July found that the costs to remediate a data breach is $221 per stolen record. Added up, that would top Yahoo’s $4.8 billion sale price.

Thursday afternoon, Senator Mark R. Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and former technology executive, issued a statement that said the “seriousness of this breach at Yahoo is huge.”

He weighed in with a call for a federal “breach notification standard” to replace data notification laws that vary by state. Senator Warner added that he was “most troubled” that the public was only learning of the incident two years after it happened.

Michael J. de la Merced contributed reporting in San Francisco.


Cyber attacks on satellites could spark global catastrophe, experts warn

Cyber attacks on satellites could spark global catastrophe, experts warn

The world is unprepared for how vulnerable it is to attack from the skies, argues a major new paper from Chatham House

By Andrew Griffin September 22, 2016

The world is dangerously unprepared for a global disaster sparked by cyber attacks on space infrastructure, experts have warned.

Authorities are not doing nearly enough to stop space assets being hacked and used maliciously, according to a warning from security experts. The consequences of such a hack could be disastrous – anything from damage to trade and financial services to terrorists taking over strategic weapons.

Much of the world’s infrastructure is dependent on space machinery – almost every important business or technology on the ground is powered by space assets. And while governments have done a great deal in looking to secure those technologies on Earth, they could easily be threatened from space.

Those weaknesses could be exploited by people and groups including states, criminal syndicates, terrorists and hackers to create a potential global catastrophe on Earth, according to a new report from Chatham House.

The think tank suggested that authorities should commit to a “radical review” of cyber security in space. There’s currently no global organisation looking at the issue and the situation may advance so quickly that governments soon won’t be able to do anything about it, argued Dr Patricia Lewis, director of the international security department at Chatham House, and her co-author David Livingstone, an associate fellow at the institute.

That is because space is quickly becoming somewhere that isn’t dominated just by a few privileged countries. Instead, it is becoming a domain “ruled by market forces”, and this is likely to intensify in future.

As such, the authors fear that isolated governments could do little about any specific cyber threat, and that countries must work together to respond to them.

That shouldn’t be done by regulation, which can tend to be slow, the authors said. Instead the world should develop a flexible new cyber security regime that can allow space companies to work together across the world and stop attacks on infrastructure.

The authors said that they hoped the required changes would be made by the space industry itself.

“The space industry is renowned as a forward-thinking, market-leading community and it needs to address cyber security urgently,” said Mr Livingstone. “What we need is an international community of the willing that would be tasked with developing industry-led standards in order to develop pace and agility in response to the growing cyber threat in space.”

Patricia Lewis said that some of that work was already being done, with space agencies looking seriously at advanced protections for space infrastructure.

“The fact that countries such as China are prepared to try completely new approaches such as quantum entanglement, and the European Galileo space navigational network has introduced new security measures, shows the capacity and determination of the space industry to counter the cyber security challenges all of our countries face,” she said.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Microsoft will 'solve' cancer within 10 years by 'reprogramming' diseased cells

Microsoft will 'solve' cancer within 10 years by 'reprogramming' diseased cells

By Sarah Knapton, science editor  20 SEPTEMBER 2016 • 4:02PM

Microsoft has vowed to “solve the problem of cancer” within a decade by using ground-breaking computer science to crack the code of diseased cells so they can be reprogrammed back to a healthy state.

In a dramatic change of direction for the technology giant, the company has assembled a “small army” of the world’s best biologists, programmers and engineers who are tackling cancer as if it were a bug in a computer system.

This summer Microsoft opened its first wet laboratory where it will test out the findings of its computer scientists who are creating huge maps of the internal workings of cell networks.

The researchers are even working on a computer made from DNA which could live inside cells and look for faults in bodily networks, like cancer. If it spotted cancerous chances it would reboot the system and clear out the diseased cells.

Chris Bishop, laboratory director at Microsoft Research, said: “I think it’s a very natural thing for Microsoft to be looking at because we have tremendous expertise in computer science and what is going on in cancer is a computational problem.

"It’s not just an analogy, it’s a deep mathematical insight. Biology and computing are disciplines which seem like chalk and cheese but which have very deep connections on the most fundamental level.”

The biological computation group at Microsoft are developing molecular computers built from DNA which act like a doctor to spot cancer cells and destroy them.

Andrew Philips, head of the group, said: “It’s long term, but… I think it will be technically possible in five to 10 years time to put in a smart molecular system that can detect disease.”

The programming principles and tools group has already developed software that mimics the healthy behavior of a cell, so that it can be compared to that of a diseased cell, to work out where the problem occurred and how it can be fixed.

The Bio Model Analyser software is already being used to help researchers understand how to treat leukemia more effectively.

Dr Jasmin Fisher, senior researcher and an associate professor at Cambridge University, said: “If we are able to control and regulate cancer then it becomes like any chronic disease and then the problem is solved.”

“I think for some of the cancers five years, but definitely within a decade. Then we will probably have a century free of cancer."

She believes that in the future smart devices will monitor health continually and compare it to how the human body should be operating, so that it can quickly detect problems.

“My own personal vision is that in the morning you wake up, you check your email and at the same time all of our genetic data, our pulse, our sleep patterns, how much we exercised, will be fed into a computer which will check your state of well-being and tell you how prone you are to getting flu, or some other horrible thing,” she added.

“In order to get there we need these kind of computer models which mimic and model the fundamental processes that are happening in our bodies.

“Under normal development cells divide and they die and there is a certain balance, the problems start when that balance is broken and that’s how we had uncontrolled proliferation and tumours.

“If we could have all of that sitting on your personal computer and monitoring your health state then it will alert us when something is coming.”  

Improved scanning technology offers hope

Patients undergoing radiotherapy could see treatment slashed from hours to just minutes with a new innovation to quickly map the size of a tumour.

Currently radiologists must scan a tumour and then painstakingly draw the outline of the cancer on dozens of sections by hand to create a 3D map before treatment, a process which can take up to four hours.

They also must outline nearby important organs to make sure they are protected from the blast of radiation.

But Microsoft engineers have developed a programme which can delineate a tumour within minutes, meaning treatment can happen immediately.

The programme can also show doctors how effective each treatment has been, so the dose can be altered depending on how much the tumour has been shrunk.

“Eyeballing works very well for diagnosing,” said Antonio Criminisi, a machine learning and computer vision expert who heads radiomics research in Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, lab.

“Expert radiologists can look at an image – say a scan of someone’s brain – and be able to say in two seconds, ‘Yes, there’s a tumor. No, there isn’t a tumor. But delineating a tumour by hand is not very accurate.”

The system could eventually evaluate 3D scans pixel by pixel to tell the radiologist exactly how much the tumor has grown, shrunk or changed shape since the last scan.

It also could provide information about things like tissue density, to give the radiologist a better sense of whether something is more likely a cyst or a tumor. And it could provide more fine-grained analysis of the health of cells surrounding a tumor.

“Doing all of that by eye is pretty much impossible,” added Dr Criminisi.

The images could also be 3D printed so that surgeons could practice a tricky operation, such as removing a hard-to -reach brain tumour, before surgery.


Self-Driving Cars Gain Powerful Ally: The Government - Federal guidelines Issued

Self-Driving Cars Gain Powerful Ally: The Government
By CECILIA KANG SEPT. 19, 2016

Uber, the ride-hailing giant, began trials in Pittsburgh last week using driverless technology. The government’s new guidelines for autonomous driving will speed up the rollout of self-driving cars, experts said. Credit Angelo Merendino/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Federal auto safety regulators on Monday made it official: They are betting the nation’s highways will be safer with more cars driven by machines and not people.

In long-awaited guidelines for the booming industry of automated vehicles, the Obama administration promised strong safety oversight, but sent a clear signal to automakers that the door was wide open for driverless cars.

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” said Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, adding that highly automated vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”

The statements were the most aggressive signal yet by federal regulators that they see automated car technology as a win for auto safety. Yet having officially endorsed the fast-evolving technology, regulators must now balance the commercial interests of companies including Tesla, Google and Uber with concerns over public safety, especially in light of recent crashes involving semiautonomous cars.

The policies unveiled on Monday were designed to walk that line. In a joint appearance, Mr. Zients and Anthony Foxx, secretary of the United States Department of Transportation, released the first guidelines, which outlined safety expectations and encouraged uniform rules for the nascent technology. The instructions signaled to motorists that automated vehicles would not be a Wild West where companies can try anything without oversight, but were also vague enough that automakers and technology companies would not fear overregulation.

The new guidelines on Monday, which stopped short of official regulations, targeted four main areas. The Department of Transportation announced a 15-point safety standard for the design and development of autonomous vehicles; called for states to come up with uniform policies applying to driverless cars; clarified how current regulations can be applied to driverless cars; and opened the door for new regulations on the technology.

Both Silicon Valley and Detroit are doubling down on their bets for autonomous vehicles.

Tech companies and automakers are investing heavily in self-driving technology, including Ford, Google, Volvo, Tesla and BMW, among others.

There is a range of technologies already in use for fully and semi-autonomous driving, including some that use lasers.

A Barclays analyst predicted recently that once autonomous vehicles become widely used, auto sales could fall as much as 40 percent.

Proponents say autonomous driving would reduce the number of people killed in traffic accidents. Last year, with nearly 40,000 auto-related deaths in the United States, was the deadliest since 2008.

There have been safety concerns around the budding technology. A man was killed in May when his Tesla, in Autopilot mode, crashed into a tractor-trailer on a Florida highway.

The 15-point safety assessment covers a range of issues, including how driverless cars should react if their technology fails, what measures to put in place to preserve passenger privacy, and how occupants will be protected in crashes. The points also include how automakers should approach the digital security of driverless vehicles, and how a car can communicate with passengers and other road users.

The agency also urged driverless-car manufacturers to show how their technology is validated and how they would share data collected by the vehicles. The Department of Transportation also said it would assert its authority to recall semiautonomous and fully autonomous vehicles that it found to be unsafe.

But the guidelines weren’t nearly as specific as the safety requirements imposed on standard human-driven vehicles today.

“We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators,” said Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Driverless and semiautonomous cars have already hit the open roads, forcing regulators to keep up. Tesla, the electric-car maker, has sold tens of thousands of cars with a self-driving feature known as Autopilot. The company has been grappling with the fallout from the death in May of a Florida driver who had the car’s Autopilot on, as well as a report last week of another crash in China where the technology was apparently turned on.

Tesla plans as soon as this week to download new software to its cars. The company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has said the new software would include improvements to Autopilot that could have avoided the fatal accident in May.

Uber, the ride-hailing giant, began trials in Pittsburgh last week to let its most loyal customers order rides from driverless cars through their smartphone app. Google has been testing self-driving cars in its hometown, Mountain View, Calif., and rivals including Apple are also exploring similar technology.

The federal government’s embrace of driverless technology has accelerated since 2013. That year, the Obama administration waded cautiously into driverless car safety for the first time by issuing some definitions for the technology and pledging more safety research. By early this year, the president had wholeheartedly taken to the technology, proposing about $4 billion in the federal budget for driverless car research and development over 10 years.

On Monday, President Obama published an editorial in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about self-driving cars, saying they could save tens of thousands of lives a year and that the new policy is “flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.”

Last year, there were nearly 40,000 deaths in the United States from auto-related accidents, the deadliest for automotive-related deaths since 2008 and the largest year-over-year percentage increase in 50 years, according to the National Safety Council.

Karl Brauer, senior editor at Kelley Blue Book, an auto research and valuation company, said the new guidelines struck a balance between ensuring safety as automakers develop self-driving cars and making sure the introduction of lifesaving technology is not delayed unnecessarily.

“We are in this weird transition,” Mr. Brauer said. “It’s a tough balance for the regulators. You want to get this technology out, but you don’t want to move too quickly.”

Currently, driverless cars face a patchwork of state regulations. In the last three years, about a dozen states have introduced laws that specifically address testing of driverless vehicles. Most laws require a licensed driver to be in the car.

Mr. Foxx said states would continue to regulate the licensing of drivers and insurance. But he affirmed the agency’s oversight of the software technology used in driverless cars.

“What we are trying to do is avoid a patchwork of state laws,” Mr. Foxx said.

The federal guidelines were welcomed by auto manufacturers. Ford, which is targeting fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 for ride-sharing, said in a statement that the guidance “will help establish the basis for a national framework that enables the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. We also look forward to collaborating with states on areas that complement this national framework.”

Google, Uber and Lyft, through a trade association in which they are members, also hailed the guidelines. “State and local governments also have complementary responsibilities and should work with the federal government to achieve and maintain our status as world leaders in innovation,” said David Strickland, general counsel for the trade group, Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

Consumer advocates said they were encouraged that the government’s efforts would advance safety laws and pressure companies that have operated largely in secret. But the groups also said the guidelines might result in weaker state laws.

“What I fear is that there are some really good state regulations that might get tamped down or pre-empted,” said John Simpson, a director at Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group that has pushed for greater federal enforcement of the industry.

Over all, the government’s endorsement will speed up the rollout of autonomous cars, experts said, potentially within the next five years.

“It helps companies by providing some cover. If a car crashes, courts may look to these guidelines to help us determine what was reasonable and not,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina.

Large automakers in particular have made big strides in the technological development of driverless cars but have been wary of introducing those features too quickly without the backing of federal regulators.

“Big companies love certainty and targets that they need to aim for,” said Brad Templeton, a consultant and publisher of Robocars.com.

Neal E. Boudette contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on September 20, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Guidance on Driverless Cars Balances Safety and Innovation.



Monday, September 19, 2016

A world without work is coming – it could be utopia or it could be hell

Opinion

A world without work is coming – it could be utopia or it could be hell

Robots will eventually do all our jobs, but we need to start planning to avert social collapse

By Ryan Avent Monday 19 September 2016 01.00 EDT

Most of us have wondered what we might do if we didn’t need to work – if we woke up one morning to discover we had won the lottery, say. We entertain ourselves with visions of multiple homes, trips around the world or the players we would sign after buying Arsenal. For many of us, the most tantalising aspect of such visions is the freedom it would bring: to do what one wants, when one wants and how one wants.

But imagine how that vision might change if such freedom were extended to everyone. Some day, probably not in our lifetimes but perhaps not long after, machines will be able to do most of the tasks that people can. At that point, a truly workless world should be possible. If everyone, not just the rich, had robots at their beck and call, then such powerful technology would free them from the need to submit to the realities of the market to put food on the table.

Of course, we then have to figure out what to do not only with ourselves but with one another. Just as a lottery cheque does not free the winner from the shackles of the human condition, all-purpose machine intelligence will not magically allow us all to get along. And what is especially tricky about a world without work is that we must begin building the social institutions to survive it long before the technological obsolescence of human workers actually arrives.

Despite impressive progress in robotics and machine intelligence, those of us alive today can expect to keep on labouring until retirement. But while Star Trek-style replicators and robot nannies remain generations away, the digital revolution is nonetheless beginning to wreak havoc. Economists and politicians have puzzled over the struggles workers have experienced in recent decades: the pitiful rate of growth in wages, rising inequality, and the growing flow of national income to profits and rents rather than pay cheques. The primary culprit is technology. The digital revolution has helped supercharge globalisation, automated routine jobs, and allowed small teams of highly skilled workers to manage tasks that once required scores of people. The result has been a glut of labour that economies have struggled to digest.

Labour markets have coped the only way they are able: workers needing jobs have little option but to accept dismally low wages. Bosses shrug and use people to do jobs that could, if necessary, be done by machines. Big retailers and delivery firms feel less pressure to turn their warehouses over to robots when there are long queues of people willing to move boxes around for low pay. Law offices put off plans to invest in sophisticated document scanning and analysis technology because legal assistants are a dime a dozen. People continue to staff checkout counters when machines would often, if not always, be just as good. Ironically, the first symptoms of a dawning era of technological abundance are to be found in the growth of low-wage, low-productivity employment. And this mess starts to reveal just how tricky the construction of a workless world will be. The most difficult challenge posed by an economic revolution is not how to come up with the magical new technologies in the first place; it is how to reshape society so that the technologies can be put to good use while also keeping the great mass of workers satisfied with their lot in life. So far, we are failing.

Preparing for a world without work means grappling with the roles work plays in society, and finding potential substitutes. First and foremost, we rely on work to distribute purchasing power: to give us the dough to buy our bread. Eventually, in our distant Star Trek future, we might get rid of money and prices altogether, as soaring productivity allows society to provide people with all they need at near-zero cost.

For a good while longer, wages will continue to be the main way people come by money, and prices will be needed to ration access to scarce goods and services. But in the absence of any broader social change, pushing people out of work will simply redirect the flow of income from workers to firm-owners: the rich will get richer. Freeing people from work without social collapse will therefore require society to find ways other than pay for labour to channel money to those not on the job. People might come to receive more of their income in the form of state-led redistribution: through the payment of a basic income, for instance, or direct public provision of services such as education, healthcare and housing. Or, perhaps, everyone could be given a capital allotment at birth.

These sorts of arrangements don’t magically materialise as machines become more powerful. They must be brought into existence through political action. And that’s where things start to get complicated. One problem is that large-scale social overhaul takes a long time to emerge and have an effect. Another is that money for nothing is not necessarily what the displaced masses are interested in.

Ongoing political debates illustrate the problem. There are lots of ways a government could boost workers’ pay. It could raise the minimum wage, increase wage subsidies, enact a basic income, or use more heavy-handed regulation to protect industries and force firms to share more of their profits with labourers. Tellingly, workers and trade unions seem least interested in the policies, such as a basic income, that break the link between compensation and work. This makes the building of our eventual utopia tricky; a hefty rise in the minimum wage would benefit lots of workers, but it would also discourage some firms from using the cheap labour they have been soaking up, forcing the jobless to get along in a world in which they cannot find work yet also lack the monetary means to stay out of poverty.

Workers’ preferences are easy to understand. Work is not just a means for distributing purchasing power. It is also among the most important sources of identity and purpose in individuals’ lives. If the role of work in society is to shrink, other sources of purpose and identity will need to grow. Some people will manage to find these things for themselves: pursuing passions too uneconomic to live on or engaging in voluntarism, just as many retirees find satisfying ways to fill their days. But others will find themselves at a loss.

Workers are sure to feel uncomfortable with reforms designed to clear a path to their own economic irrelevance. They are not the only ones likely to object. Redistribution implies taking as well as giving. And while some tech entrepreneurs seem to be warming to the idea of something like a universal basic income, perhaps seeing it as a moral licence to disrupt, the reservoir of resentment at those perceived to be getting too good a deal from the government never runs dry. Rich Americans are already annoyed enough at the “takers” among their countrymen, those Mitt Romney labelled an incorrigible 47% in his 2012 campaign for the presidency, who pay no federal income tax – even though most work, pay other taxes, and are simply too poor to owe any income tax to the federal government. The haves who will inevitably provide a disproportionate share of the funding for future welfare states will need convincing to part with their cash.

So societies might decide that people must be made to contribute in some way to the community to qualify for state support. Those not in work, for example, might have to participate in community service or other activity. Another approach might be more seductive. Those still in work might be less grumpy about funding a more generous welfare state if beneficiaries are deemed to be enough like them: fellow tribesmen, people of similar background and therefore felt to be deserving of charity.

Around the rich world, it is interesting to note that it is not so much the generosity of state redistribution that is provoking societal unrest, but the fact that out groups – from Latinos to Poles to refugees –are grabbing a share.

Building a workless utopia in which wealth is broadly shared, people are mostly satisfied with their lot in life, and the peace isn’t kept by excluding any inconvenient foreigners, is no easy task. The grappling has already begun, and the initial rounds of negotiation are more than a little discouraging. Two centuries from now, I am confident, we will have worked everything out splendidly. Assuming, that is, that those of us alive now can manage the first painful steps without wrecking the world in the process.