The next war

Interesting snippet from Tom Ricks:

I interviewed Eric Schmidt of Google fame, who has been leading a civilian panel of technologists looking at how the Pentagon can better innovate. He said something I hadn’t heard before, which is that artificial intelligence helps the defense better than the offense. This is because AI always learns, and so constantly monitors patterns of incoming threats. This made me think that the next big war will be more like World War I (when the defense dominated) than World War II (when the offense did).

Is Snapchat the canary in the post-literate mine?

This morning’s Observer column:

To the average grownup [Snapchat] seems weird. And it is. Just when we’d got used to the idea that digital technology never forgets – that there’s no way of being sure that the embarrassing photograph you posted to Facebook five years ago will not stay on some server somewhere for ever – here’s a digital service that runs completely counter to that. And of course Snapchat’s wild popularity must owe something to the ephemerality of its messages.

But some perceptive observers are beginning to think that there’s more to it than that. One clue can be found in something that Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, recently said to a reporter. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” Another clue is hiding in plain sight in the name of the app: “snap” (the term introduced by Kodak for the act of taking a photograph) plus “chat” (which has connotations of oral conversation). So, in some strange way, is Snapchat beginning to assume the qualities of an oral medium?

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Online advertising and the return of the Wanamaker problem

This morning’s Observer column:

And so the advertisers’ money, diverted from print and TV, cascaded into the coffers of Google and co. In 2012, Procter & Gamble announced that it would make $1bn in savings by targeting consumers through digital and social media. It has got to the point where, according to last week’s Financial Times, 2017 will be the year when advertisers spend more online than they do on TV.

Trebles all round, then? Not quite. It turns out that the advertising industry is beginning to smell a rat in this hi-tech nirvana. In a speech to the annual conference of the Internet Advertising Bureau in January, the Procter & Gamble boss, Marc Pritchard, said this: “We have seen an exponential increase in, well… crap. Craft or crap? Technology enables both and all too often the outcome has been more crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences… is it any wonder ad blockers are growing 40%?”

But the exponential growth in crap is not the biggest problem, he said. Much more worrying was the return of the Wanamaker problem: how many people are actually seeing these ads?

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Should robots be taxed

This morning’s Observer column:

The problem with the future is that it’s unknowable. But of course that doesn’t stop us trying to second-guess it. At the moment, many people – and not just in the tech industry – are wondering about the impact of automation on employment. And not just blue-collar employment – the kind of jobs that were eliminated in the early phase of automating car production, for instance – but also the white-collar jobs that hitherto seemed secure…

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At the end of the piece I mentioned (and applauded) Bill Gates’s suggestion that robots should be taxed — just as human workers are — to enable the social and human costs of automation to be mitigated. There’s a thoughtful Schumpeter column in this week’s Economist arguing that this might not be such a good idea.

“A robot is a capital investment”, writes the Schumpeter columnist,

like a blast furnace or a computer. Economists typically advise against taxing such things, which allow an economy to produce more. Taxation that deters investment is thought to make people poorer without raising much money. But Mr Gates seems to suggest that investment in robots is a little like investing in a coal-fired generator: it boosts economic output but also imposes a social cost, what economists call a negative externality. Perhaps rapid automation threatens to dislodge workers from old jobs faster than new sectors can absorb them. That could lead to socially costly long-term unemployment, and potentially to support for destructive government policy. A tax on robots that reduced those costs might well be worth implementing, just as a tax on harmful blast-furnace emissions can discourage pollution and leave society better off.

The biggest problem with the Gates proposal, he goes on, is not that automation is happening but that it is not happening quicker.

Mr Gates worries, understandably, about a looming era of automation in which machines take over driving or managing warehouses. Yet in an economy already awash with abundant, cheap labour, it may be that firms face too little pressure to invest in labour-saving technologies. Why refit a warehouse when people queue up to do the work at the minimum wage? Mr Gates’s proposal, by increasing the expense of robots relative to human labour, might further delay an already overdue productivity boom.

And even if automation speeds up, the share of income attributed to the machines might also decline quickly — or at any rate follow the historic trend.

A new working paper by Simcha Barkai, of the University of Chicago, concludes that, although the share of income flowing to workers has declined in recent decades, the share flowing to capital (ie, including robots) has shrunk faster. What has grown is the markup firms can charge over their production costs, >ie, their profits. Similarly, an NBER working paper published in January argues that the decline in the labour share is linked to the rise of “superstar firms”. A growing number of markets are “winner takes most”, in which the dominant firm earns hefty profits.

Large and growing profits are an indicator of market power. That power might stem from network effects (the value, in a networked world, of being on the same platform as everyone else), the superior productive cultures of leading firms, government protection, or something else. Waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms: through distributed share-ownership when they are public, or by taxing their profits when they are not. Robots are a convenient villain, but Mr Gates might reconsider his target; when firms enjoy unassailable market positions, workers and machines alike lose out.: the owners of robots have to be taxed so that the increases in productivity (and profits) that they enable is redistributed.

Thus by a roundabout route the Economist columnist reaches the right conclusion — although even then it’s a rather weaselly concession: waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms. Might??? Gates’s proposal may have been motivated by a shrewd conviction that, in this neoliberal world, redistributive taxation of that kind is never going to happen. Taxing robots like workers is, in contrast, something that even the dumbest government can organise.

LATER Yanis Varoufakis isn’t impressed by the Gates proposal.

Common sense on AI

Interesting responses from Stuart Russell in an World Economic Forum interview:

Are robots taking over the world?

SR: There are three timescales and three versions of this question, and the answers are “Not if I can help it”, “Quite possibly, but hopefully in a good way” and “We would be crazy to be complacent on this issue”. In the near term, autonomous weapons in the hands of unpleasant humans are a real threat, the UN is working (slowly) towards a treaty banning them, and our council has been active in building support for a treaty within the profession and in the media. In the medium term, will robots take away all of our jobs? Some experts say yes, and economists recommend more unemployment insurance as the solution. Better ideas wanted!

But the real world-changing questions are further off, when, after several intrinsically unpredictable breakthroughs, we have human-level or superhuman AI. See, for example, Elon Musk’s comment that superintelligent AI poses the greatest existential threat to the survival of the human race. His point was that regulatory oversight at a national and international level is needed to responsibly develop technology. In my view it’s too soon to start designing regulations – on equations?? – but not too soon to start solving the technical questions of how to maintain absolute control over increasingly intelligent machines.

Yep.

AI now plays pretty good poker. Whatever next?

This morning’s Observer column:

Ten years ago, [Sergey] Brin was running Google’s X lab, the place where they work on projects that have, at best, a 100-1 chance of success. One little project there was called Google Brain, which focused on AI. “To be perfectly honest,” Brin said, “I didn’t pay any attention to it at all.” Brain was headed by a computer scientist named Jeff Dean who, Brin recalled, “would periodically come up to me and say, ‘Look – the computer made a picture of a cat!’ and I would say, ‘OK, that’s very nice, Jeff – go do your thing, whatever.’ Fast-forward a few years and now Brain probably touches every single one of our main projects – ranging from search to photos to ads… everything we do. This revolution in deep nets has been very profound and definitely surprised me – even though I was right in there. I could, you know, throw paper clips at Jeff.”

Fast-forward a week from that interview and cut to Pittsburgh, where four leading professional poker players are pitting their wits against an AI program created by two Carnegie Mellon university researchers. They’re playing a particular kind of high-stakes poker called heads-up no-limit Texas hold’em. The program is called Libratus, which is Latin for “balanced”. There is, however, nothing balanced about its performance…

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Amazon’s Echo seems great, but what does it hear?

Illustration by James Melaugh/Observer

This morning’s Observer column:

I bought it [the Echo] because it seemed to me that it might be a significant product and I have a policy of never writing about kit that I haven’t paid for myself. Having lived with the Echo for a few weeks I can definitely confirm its significance. It is a big deal, which explains why the company invested so much in it. (It’s said that 1,500 people worked on the project for four years, which sounds implausible until you remember that Apple has 800 people working on the iPhone’s camera alone). Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, may not have bet the ranch on it (he has a pretty big ranch, after all) but the product nevertheless represents a significant investment. And the sales so far suggest that it may well pay off.

Once switched on and hooked up to one’s wifi network, the Echo sits there, listening for its trigger word, “Alexa”. So initially one feels like an idiot saying things such as: “Alexa, play Radio 4” or: “Alexa, who is Kim Kardashian?” (A genuine inquiry this, from a visitor who didn’t know the answer, which duly came in the form of Alexa reading the first lines of the relevant Wikipedia entry.)

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Be careful what you wish for

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1996, two US congressmen, Chris Cox (Republican, California) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon), drafted a law that they felt was essential if the nascent internet was to grow and prosper. The clause they wrote eventually found its way on to the statute book as section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, part of the sprawling Telecommunications Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.

Cox and Wyden had been troubled by the rise of libel suits against internet service providers (ISPs) for defamatory content posted on websites that they hosted. The key sentence in the clause that they eventually drafted read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This single sentence provided the legal underpinning for how the world wide web has evolved…

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The network architecture of the alt-right

This morning’s Observer column:

While there is no single, overarching explanation for Donald Trump’s election, his ascendancy would have been unthinkable in a pre-internet age, for two reasons.

The first is that much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric would never have got past the editorial “gatekeepers” of an earlier era – the TV network owners and controllers, the editors of powerful print media and the Federal Communications Commission with its “fairness doctrine” (which required holders of broadcast licences to “present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission’s view, honest, equitable and balanced”).

The second reason is that in the pre-internet era, the multitudes of Trump’s vigorous, engaged and angry supporters would have had little option but to fume impotently in whatever local arenas they inhabited. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for them to hook up with millions of like-minded souls to crowdsource their indignation and their enthusiasm for the candidate.

So I think we can say that while the net may not have been a sufficient condition for Trump’s victory, it was definitely a necessary one…

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