We’re not just in a tech bubble. Silicon Valley is a Reality Distortion Field

For my money, danah boyd is one of the smartest and most perceptive people around. This year she went to Davos, and wrote a stunning essay about what she saw there, and the implications thereof. Well worth reading in full, but here’s a sample:

Walking down the promenade through the center of Davos, it was hard not to notice the role of Silicon Valley in shaping the conversation of the powerful and elite. Not only was everyone attached to their iPhones and Androids, but companies like Salesforce and Palantir and Facebook took over storefronts and invited attendees in for coffee and discussions about Syrian migrants, while camouflaged snipers protected the scene from the roofs of nearby hotels. As new tech held fabulous parties in the newest venues, financial institutions, long the stalwarts of Davos, took over the same staid venues that they always have.

Yet, what I struggled with the most wasn’t the sheer excess of Silicon Valley in showcasing its value but the narrative that underpinned it all. I’m quite used to entrepreneurs talking hype in tech venues, but what happened at Davos was beyond the typical hype, in part because most of the non-tech people couldn’t do a reality check. They could only respond with fear. As a result, unrealistic conversations about artificial intelligence led many non-technical attendees to believe that the biggest threat to national security is humanoid killer robots, or that AI that can do everything humans can is just around the corner, threatening all but the most elite technical jobs. In other words, as I talked to attendees, I kept bumping into a 1970s science fiction narrative.

Yep. The problem is not just that we’re in a tech bubble. It’s that we’re in a Reality Distortion Field which leads those who dominate the tech industry to think that they are the centre of the universe, that Silicon Valley is the Florence of Renaissance 2.0. And — worse still — it’s a RDF that leads powerful and influential non-tech people to believe that maybe they’re right.

Like I said, danah’s piece is unmissable — and wise. Make space for it in your day.

Marvin Minsky RIP

Nice informative obituary by Martin Campbell-Kelly which includes stuff I hadn’t known. This,for example:

Minsky was an exceptional pianist, and in 1981 wrote a remarkable paper, Music, Mind and Meaning, that explored the cognitive processes in musical appreciation. In 1985 he became a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research laboratory devoted to projects at the convergence of technology, multimedia, sciences, art and design.

His last book, The Emotion Machine (2006), which was written for the lay reader as much as the specialist, sought to understand and explain how “thinking” works, and to explain such phenomena as consciousness and common sense. He was the recipient of many academic awards and scientific honours, including, in 1969, the AM Turing award of the Association for Computing Machinery.

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…

Read on