Kasparov: now racing with — rather than against — the machine

My Observer review of Garry Kasparov’s new book — Deep Thinking:

Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chess player of all time. From 1986 until his retirement in 2005, he was ranked world No 1. He is also a leading human rights activist and is probably close to the top of Vladimir Putin’s hitlist, not least because he tried to run against him for the Russian presidency in 2007. But for people who are interested only in technology, Kasparov is probably best known as the first world champion to be beaten by a machine. In 1997, in a famous six-game match with the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, he lost 3½-2½.

In the grand scheme of things, losing by one game in a six-game match might not seem much, but at the time it was seen as a major milestone in the long march towards “artificial” intelligence (AI). With the 20/20 vision of hindsight we can view it in a less apocalyptic light: the triumph of Deep Blue was really a victory of brute computing power, clever programming and the ruthless determination of a huge but struggling corporation to exploit the PR advantages of having one of its products do something that would impress the world’s media. But if you believe that AI has something to do with cognition, then Kasparov’s epochal defeat looks like a sideshow.

That it retains its fascination owes more to the popular view of proficiency at chess as a proxy for superintelligence rather than as possession of a very specialised skill…

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And see also Kasparov’s long conversation with Tyler Cowen.

Celebrating Walt

This morning’s Observer column:

Walt Mossberg has written his final column. Some people in the tech industry will probably have heaved a sigh of relief, because the one guy in mainstream journalism who never drank their Kool-Aid is going dark. But for those of us who value common sense and a cussedly independent temperament, his retirement is a moment for reflection…

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Move fast and fix things

This morning’s Observer column:

‘Move fast and break things”, was the exhortation that Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg originally issued to his developers. It’s a typical hacker’s mantra: while the tools and features they developed for his platform might not be perfect, speed was the key aspiration, even if there were some screw-ups on the way.

In 2016, we began to realise that one of the things that might get broken in Mr Zuckerberg’s quest for speed is democracy. Facebook became one of the favourite platforms for disseminating “fake news” and was the tool of choice for micro-targeting voters with personalised political messages. It also became a live broadcasting medium for those engaging in bullying, rape, inflicting grievous bodily harm and, in one case, murder.

One way of thinking about the internet is that it holds up a mirror to human nature…

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Microsoft’s pre-emptive strike for the moral high ground

Today’s Observer column on the fallout from the ‘ransomeware’ attack.

The attack was good for the computer-security companies, some of whose shares rose sharply. But other companies exploited the marketing opportunities offered by the crisis. First out of the blocks was Microsoft, whose product deficiencies lay at the heart of the problem. Brad Smith, the company’s president, made a pre-emptive strike for the high moral ground. “We take every single cyber-attack on a Windows system seriously,” he blogged, “and we’ve been working around the clock since Friday to help all our customers who have been affected by this incident. This included a decision to take additional steps to assist users with older systems that are no longer supported.”

Smith went on to castigate governments – correctly – for stockpiling vulnerabilities rather than reporting them to companies. But what took the biscuit was his implication that the root of the problem was that so many people were foolish enough to continue using old versions of Windows rather than upgrading to the latest version (and forking out for both the upgrades and the new kit needed to run them). So the solution is to keep buying the latest version.

You have to admire the sheer brazenness of this: blaming users for continuing to use your defective product. It’s like Mark Zuckerberg’s idea that the solution to the problems caused by social media is… more Facebook. And it’s the kind of thinking that gives hypocrisy a bad name…

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Vive la France! (For the time being)

This morning’s Observer column:

The two biggest lessons of 2016 were the discovery of how social media could be used for “voter suppression” and how the open web could be “weaponised” by the “alt-right” to pollute the public sphere. The conventional wisdom that Trump did not have a data operation was mistaken. He did have a “digital operations division” based in San Antonio with about 100 programmers, web developers, network engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, ad copywriters and media buyers. Their main approach seems to have involved using social media and other data to identify Democratic voters in swing states who were unenthusiastic about Clinton and to target them with messages likely to reduce the likelihood that they would vote for her. On other words, to engage in data-driven vote suppression.

The other insight of 2016 was provided by Jonathan Albright’s revelations of the extent of the far right’s online ecosystem and its ingenuity in exploiting YouTube and other legitimate sites to disseminate fake news and conspiracy theories. In doing this, the movement exploited both the business models of Google and Facebook, which depend on increasing “user engagement” (ie sharing, likes, links), and human psychology (which seems to find fake news more interesting and “shareable” than more sober, reliable information).

It is now surmised that the Brexit campaign in the UK may have been a dry run for these techniques and we know that they were deployed in France, presumably to increase the chances of a Le Pen victory…

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Zuckerberg’s virtual world

This morning’s Observer column:

On Thursday 16 February, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and supreme leader of Facebook, the world’s most populous virtual country (population 2bn) published an epistle to his 89m disciple-followers. “Building Global Community” was the headline. “On our journey to connect the world,” the supreme leader began, “we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?”

Good question. But wait a minute, who’s the “we” here? It crops up 156 times in the 5,700-word epistle…

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Jimmy Wales goes after fake news. Brave man.

This morning’s Observer column:

What has come to be called “fake news” is a hard problem to solve, if indeed it is solvable at all. This is because it is created by the interaction of human psychology with several forces: the affordances of digital technology, the business models of giant internet companies and the populist revolt against globalisation. But that hasn’t stopped people trying to solve the problem.

To date, most well-intentioned people have gone down the “fact-checking” route, on the assumption that if only people knew the facts then that would stop them believing lies. This suggests a touching faith in human nature. People have been believing nonsensical things since the beginning of time and nothing we have seen recently indicates that they plan to change the habits of millenniums.

Think, for example, of the infamous lie put about by the Leave campaign in the referendum – that the £350m that the UK supposedly pays every week to the EU could be better spent on the NHS…

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Facebook: the Psychopaths ‘R Us channel

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The old adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. A while back, Facebook launched Facebook Live, a service that enables its users to broadcast live video to the world. Shortly after the service was activated, the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said that the service would support all the “personal and emotional and raw and visceral” ways that people communicate. Users were encouraged to “go live” in casual settings – waiting for baggage at the airport, for example, or eating at a restaurant.

Note the phrase “raw and visceral”. Facebook Live has already broadcast a live stream of a young disabled man being tied up, gagged and attacked with a knife. In March, two Chicago teenage boys live-streamed themselves gang-raping a teenage girl. And around 40 Facebook users watched the video without reporting it either to Facebook or the police.

That’s pretty raw and visceral, you might think. But it turns out that it was just a prelude…

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Shattering the mask of the benevolent tech company

My Observer review of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things:

Much has been made in previous histories of Silicon Valley’s counter-cultural origins. Taplin finds other, less agreeable roots, notably in the writings of Ayn Rand, a flake of Cadbury proportions who had an astonishing impact on many otherwise intelligent individuals. These include Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over events leading to the banking collapse of 2008, and [Peter] Thiel, who made an early fortune out of PayPal and was the first investor in Facebook. Rand believed that “achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life”. She had no time for altruism, government or anything else that might interfere with capitalism red in tooth and claw.

Neither does Thiel. For him, “competition is for losers”. He believes in investing only in companies that have the potential to become monopolies and he thinks monopolies are good for society. “Americans mythologise competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines,” he once wrote. “Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away.”

The three great monopolies of the digital world have followed the Thiel playbook and Taplin does a good job of explaining how each of them works and how, strangely, their vast profits are never “competed away”. He also punctures the public image so assiduously fostered by Google and Facebook – that they are basically cool tech companies run by good chaps (and they are still mainly chaps, btw) who are hellbent on making the world a better place – whereas, in fact, they are increasingly hard to distinguish from the older brutes of the capitalist jungle…

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If something can be done, then…

This morning’s Observer column:

The biggest impediments to automation are the practical difficulties that tech evangelists tend to ignore. Some of them have already sussed that self-driving cars are a distant prospect because their regulatory and infrastructural requirements are so complex. That’s why much of the excitement in the industry is now focused on trucks. It’s easy to see how autonomous “truck trains” could work on motorways, and indeed there have already been trials of such convoys.

The trouble starts when the vehicle has to leave the motorway in order to reach its final destination. Suddenly the truck faces the same obstacles as the self-driving car. So maybe it will be necessary to have human pilots to take it that last mile safely, just as ships have pilots to guide them into harbour. That’s also why we are unlikely to see autonomous white vans any time soon: their drivers do much more than simply drive – just like those DHL guys in Venice. So perhaps tech determinists need to revise their mantra: if something can be done, then it may be done – provided the economics and the practicalities are right.

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