So where do we ‘Go’ from here?

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Last week, researchers at the artificial intelligence company DeepMind, which is now owned by Google, announced an extraordinary breakthrough: in October last, a DeepMind computing system called AlphaGo had defeated the reigning European champion player of the ancient Chinese game go by five games to nil. The victory was announced last week in a paper published in the scientific journal Nature.

So what? Computers have been getting better and better at board games for yonks. Way back in the dark ages of 1997, for example, IBM’s Deep Blue machine beat the then world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, at chess. So surely go, which is played not with six different pieces but black and white tokens – would be a pushover? Not so: the number of possible positions in go outnumber the number of atoms in the universe and far exceed the number of possibilities in chess…

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Economics in an age of abundance

Brad de Long is one of my favourite bloggers — and economists. Here he is brooding on a problem that once preoccupied Keynes and is likely to surface again, if we do crack the problem of increasing productivity with robotics — and displacing employment. Sample:

There is no shortage of problems to worry about: the destructive power of our nuclear weapons, the pig-headed nature of our politics, the potentially enormous social disruptions that will be caused by climate change. But the number one priority for economists – indeed, for humankind – is finding ways to spur equitable economic growth.
But job number two– developing economic theories to guide societies in an age of abundance – is no less complicated. Some of the problems that are likely to emerge are already becoming obvious. Today, many people derive their self-esteem from their jobs. As labor becomes a less important part of the economy, and working-age men, in particular, become a smaller proportion of the workforce, problems related to social inclusion are bound to become both more chronic and more acute.

Such a trend could have consequences extending far beyond the personal or the emotional, creating a population that is, to borrow a phrase from the Nobel-laureate economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, easily phished for phools. In other words, they will be targeted by those who do not have their wellbeing as their primary goal – scammers like Bernie Madoff, corporate interests like McDonalds or tobacco companies, the guru of the month, or cash-strapped governments running exploitative lotteries.
Problems like these will require a very different type of economics from the one championed by Adam Smith. Instead of working to protect natural liberty where possible, and building institutions to approximate its effects elsewhere, the central challenge will be to help people protect themselves from manipulation.

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The Viking who is taking on Silicon Valley

FT_Vestager

Terrific Financial Times profile of Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s Competition Commissioner, who is really getting up the noses of Silicon Valley’s overlords. Because of public hostility to the craven deal that HMRC negotiated with Google over back-taxes, many people here will be rooting for her. (She’s said that she is prepared to examine the deal.) But if her probe into Apple’s weird tax arrangements with the Irish government results in a colossal back-tax bill for the company, then we will really have moved into new territory.

For one thing, it’ll unravel a crazy system of international tax laws that dates back to 1928. And it’ll open all kinds of worm-cans — Amazon pretending that it’s based in Luxembourg; Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google pretending they’re based in Dublin; and so on. And of course the US will be mightily pissed off. Not bad for the daughter of two Lutheran pastors. Just as well that she’s a tough cookie. The FT profile has a nice story about her time as Deputy Prime Minister of Denmark. An opposition spokesman complained in Parliament that her proposed spending plans were “small”.

“Some think it is a rather small plan,” she retorted, with a mischievous grin. “But I am a bit cautious about trusting any judgments on size from men, and perhaps — but this might be a woman’s perspective — I am more interested in the effect.”

How the BBC iPlayer came to be

iPlayer

Fabulous story by Tony Ageh. Long read, but well worth it, and tells you a lot about innovation, serendipity and organisational politics. Also tells you what’s wrong with the iPlayer. Make some coffee, pull up a chair and savour…

So I take this guy out, and I say, ‘We have to go drinking tonight,’ and he says, ‘You’re going to sack me, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Not necessarily, but we are going to go drinking.’ We go down the stairs to the bar at Bush House, which stays open all night, because that’s where the World Service is, and I said, ‘We’re not leaving this bar until we’ve come up with such a great idea that I can’t sack you, because I’m going to have to tell her tomorrow that you can’t be sacked, because you’ve got the greatest idea the BBC has ever had.’

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Commuters

commuting

Most passengers in UK trains seem to fiddle with their smartphones. But not all. This from a commuter train yesterday. Mind you, they’re all reading the same (free) newspaper, so maybe it’s not as hopeful as I thought.

The “has Apple peaked?” meme is back. Sigh.

But some horse-sense from Farhad Manjoo :

If Apple is now hitting a plateau, it’s important to remember that it’s one of the loftiest plateaus in the history of business. The $18.4 billion profit that Apple reported on Tuesday is the most ever earned by any company in a single quarter.

Yep. If this is failure, then I’d like some of it, please.

Corporate logic

Apple has over $200B in cash, and yet it borrows money to fund buy-backs of its shares — to keep its investors happy. How come?

Simple, says the NYT:

Mr. Maestri [Apple’s CFO] said that Apple would continue to raise money in debt markets in the United States and abroad to continue to return money to investors in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. Because Apple houses the majority of its $216 billion in cash overseas, it has borrowed money over the last three years to pay out more than $9 billion to investors.

And why is that $216B housed overseas? Equally simple: if Apple repatriated it to the US, it would have to pay tax.