The end of the internal combustion engine

This morning’s Observer column:

Two interesting things happened last week. One was Tesla’s delivery of the first batch of its Model 3, the company’s first “affordable” car. (If you think $35,000, about £26,500 – is affordable, that is.) The second was a “diesel summit” held in Berlin, a meeting where the bosses of Germany’s leading car manufacturers (VW, BMW, Audi, Ford, Porsche and Daimler) got together with ministers to ponder the industrial implications of the emissions-cheating scandal and the decisions of the British and French governments to outlaw petrol cars and vans from 2040.

Although no one in the car industry will say so, diesel technology has been a dead duck since the emissions-cheating scandal erupted, followed by the revelations of how polluted London’s atmosphere has become, with emissions of nitrous fumes from diesels being blamed for much of the problem. And the fallout is already being seen in the sales figures…

Read on

The auto industry’s ‘iPhone moment’

The bosses of Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW are meeting with ministers in Berlin today to discuss the end of diesel cars and the disaster that the industry brought on itself. Ironically, the meeting more or less coincides with the hoopla over the delivery of the first Tesla Model 3 ‘affordable’ electric vehicles in the US. There’s a 400,000-long waiting list for this car, which means that if you placed an order (and paid the $1,000 deposit) you’ll probably have to wait two years before delivery. But if you want a nice VW, BMW or Mercedes diesel model, well any dealer will be happy to offer one by lunchtime, and maybe even give you a good price. Writing in today’s Financial Times, John Gapper wonders if the automobile industry is suddenly experiencing its own ‘iPhone moment’.

Good question, to which I suspect that the answer is “yes”. It’s not the manufacturer that matters most, it’s the technology. The significance of the iPhone in 2007 was that it was the first real smartphone. The significance of the Model 3 is not that it’s a Tesla but that it’s a working electric car with a decent range that many people can afford.

Commedia dell’arte at the White House

Nice scholarly column by Roger Cohen on how Trump’s White House is straight out of commedia dell’arte:

The commedia featured larger-than-life stock characters like the Scaramouch. They included deluded old men, devious servants, craven braggarts and starry-eyed lovers. The president, at 71, is clearly a “vecchio,” or elder. He is probably best imagined as the miserly Venetian known as Pantalone wandering around in red breeches with the oversized codpiece of the would-be womanizer.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, fits the bill as the “Dottore,” who, as Jennifer Meagher writes in an essay, is “usually depicted as obese and red-cheeked from drinking.” I’m tempted to offer the role of the belligerent, windy “Il Capitano,” or Captain, to Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, who recently told the BBC that, “The military is not a microcosm of civilian society. They are not there to reflect America. They are there to kill people and blow stuff up.”

The lovers, of course, have to be Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — they of the almost bloodless perfection — whose doting father complicates their sumptuous lives by bestowing upon them titles and tasks for which they are unqualified. The lovers grow quieter and quieter but are so pale they are unable to blush.

Behind Trump’s war on the LGBT community

From Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books:

July 26, 2017, was a personal anniversary for me: one year earlier I had written a piece in which I argued for setting aside the idea of a Trump-Russia conspiracy (yes, this idea was with us a year ago) for the much more important task of imagining what a Trump presidency might bring. I wrote that Trump would unleash a war at home and while it was difficult to predict the target, “my money is actually on the LGBT community because its acceptance is the most clear and drastic social change in America of the last decade, so an antigay campaign would capture the desire to return to a time in which Trump’s constituency felt comfortable.” This was a thought exercise; even as I made an argument that I believed to be logical, I could not believe my own words. On Wednesday of this week, one year to the day since I made that prediction, President Trump announced, by tweet, that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the US military—a policy reversal that would directly and immediately affect thousands of people.

Like many others I thought that this move was a distraction — a classic way of appealing to his base — policy by tweeting. The Pentagon announced that it had received no instruction from the President and so things would remain as they were, at least for the time being. Gessen, however, sees it as part of a bigger trend.

Trump got elected on the promise of a return to an imaginary past—a time we don’t remember because it never actually was, but one when America was a kind of great that Trump has promised to restore. Trumps shares this brand of nostalgia with Vladimir Putin, who has spent the last five years talking about Russian “traditional values,” with Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who has warned LGBT people against becoming “provocative,” and with any number of European populists who promise a return to a mythical “traditional” past.

With few exceptions, countries that have grown less democratic in recent years have drawn a battle line on the issue of LGBT rights…

The appeal of autocracy, Gessen says,

lies in its promise of radical simplicity, an absence of choice. In Trump’s imaginary past, every person had his place and a securely circumscribed future, everyone and everything was exactly as it seemed, and government was run by one man issuing orders that could not and need not be questioned. The very existence of queer people—and especially transgender people—is an affront to this vision. Trans people complicate things, throw the future into question by shaping their own, add layers of interpretation to appearances, and challenge the logic of any one man decreeing the fate of people and country. lies in its promise of radical simplicity, an absence of choice. In Trump’s imaginary past, every person had his place and a securely circumscribed future, everyone and everything was exactly as it seemed, and government was run by one man issuing orders that could not and need not be questioned. The very existence of queer people—and especially transgender people—is an affront to this vision. Trans people complicate things, throw the future into question by shaping their own, add layers of interpretation to appearances, and challenge the logic of any one man decreeing the fate of people and country.

This is very perceptive stuff IMHO. What most liberals (like me) underestimate is Trump’s intuitive understanding of the prejudices and longings of his core supporters. In a strange way, he’s a gifted populist.

The EU problem that nobody seems to be talking about

My big question about the EU has nothing to do about Brexit, but about why Hungary — and now Poland — have not already been expelled from the Union. Neither country now meets the criteria for a functioning liberal democracy. As Jacek Rostowski (a former Deputy Prime Minister of Poland) points out in a sobering essay:

The EU … faces not just an “illiberal democracy” in its midst, as it does with Victor Orbán’s Hungary. For the first time in its history, the EU must confront the prospect of a member state that is a non-democracy, in the fundamental sense of lacking free, unrigged elections. And Kaczyński can count on Orbán to provide him cover (in the expectation of reciprocation when needed), by vetoing any attempt at depriving the PiS government of its vote within the EU, a move that would require member states’ unanimous support.

If Kaczyński succeeds in controlling Poland’s Supreme Court, or if he finds another way to rig Polish elections, the implications for the EU will be profound and far-reaching. Unless Hungary’s veto can be circumvented, a non-democratic state will participate in legislating for the populations of the remaining democratic member states for many years.

Despite the hype, AI is stuck

Interesting essay by Gary Marcus. I particularly like this bit:

Although the field of A.I. is exploding with microdiscoveries, progress toward the robustness and flexibility of human cognition remains elusive. Not long ago, for example, while sitting with me in a cafe, my 3-year-old daughter spontaneously realized that she could climb out of her chair in a new way: backward, by sliding through the gap between the back and the seat of the chair. My daughter had never seen anyone else disembark in quite this way; she invented it on her own — and without the benefit of trial and error, or the need for terabytes of labeled data.

Presumably, my daughter relied on an implicit theory of how her body moves, along with an implicit theory of physics — how one complex object travels through the aperture of another. I challenge any robot to do the same. A.I. systems tend to be passive vessels, dredging through data in search of statistical correlations; humans are active engines for discovering how things work.

Marcus thinks that a new paradigm is needed for AI that places “top down” knowledge (cognitive models of the world and how it works) and “bottom up” knowledge (the kind of raw information we get directly from our senses) on equal footing. “Deep learning”, he writes,

“is very good at bottom-up knowledge, like discerning which patterns of pixels correspond to golden retrievers as opposed to Labradors. But it is no use when it comes to top-down knowledge. If my daughter sees her reflection in a bowl of water, she knows the image is illusory; she knows she is not actually in the bowl. To a deep-learning system, though, there is no difference between the reflection and the real thing, because the system lacks a theory of the world and how it works. Integrating that sort of knowledge of the world may be the next great hurdle in A.I., a prerequisite to grander projects like using A.I. to advance medicine and scientific understanding.”

Yep: ‘superintelligence’ is farther away than we think.

Posted in AI

Quote of the Day

“More than two years ago, soon after Donald Trump entered the presidential race, I noted online that no one like him—with no political, military, judicial, or public-service experience, with no known expertise on policy matters, with a trail of financial and personal complications—had ever before become president. Therefore, I said, it wasn’t going to happen this time. Quite obviously that was wrong. Penitent and determined to learn from my errors, I’ve avoided any predictions involving Trump and his circles ever since.”

James Fallows

Links for 29/7/2017

  1. Tim Harford: We are still waiting for the robot revolution. More on the lessons of the ATM machine. In the same vein as Tyler Cowen’s Bloomberg column yesterday. This is getting to be a trend.

  2. Diane Coyle: Economics for a Moral End. Nice review of Ian Kumekawa’s The First Serious Optimist: A. C. Pigou and the Birth of Welfare Economics. Pigou’s misfortune was that he was eclipsed by Keynes, and so undeservedly forgotten.

  3. Simon Wren-Lewis: Why Owen Jones is wrong about Brexit. Terrific post, taking down the arguments of the emerging ‘re-leaver’ lobby. I particularly like this: “It is an utterly defeatist argument: we must let people harm themselves because only then might they learn that they were mistaken in what they wanted. A much more progressive policy is to persuade people they are wrong.”