Wednesday 9 June, 2021

Welcome, Ol’ Timer

The ad Apple ran in 1981 when IBM introduced its PC.

(Thanks to Dave Winer)

Quote of the Day

”Though you think the world is at your feet, it can rise up and tread on you”

  • Ian McEwan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Cherish the Ladies | Lord Inchiquin Medley


Cherish the Ladies is an interesting and talented group.

Long Read of the Day

Between Golem and God: The Future of AI

An illuminating essay by Ali Minay, who is Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and a member of the Neuroscience Graduate Faculty at the University of Cincinnati. His research focuses on complex adaptive systems, computational neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence.

Maybe it’s because I’m an engineer, but what I really liked about this piece is the elegant way he structured his analysis round a simple diagram:

Anyway, it’s well worth your time.

The physical reality of ‘AI’

Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI:Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence is a landmark book which challenges the glib way in which ‘AI’ (a polite and misleading term for machine-learning) is regarded as an abstruse abstraction.

Last Sunday, the Observer carried an excellent interview of her by Zoë Corbyn. Here’s a sample:

What’s the aim of the book?

We are commonly presented with this vision of AI that is abstract and immaterial. I wanted to show how AI is made in a wider sense – its natural resource costs, its labour processes, and its classificatory logics. To observe that in action I went to locations including mines to see the extraction necessary from the Earth’s crust and an Amazon fulfilment centre to see the physical and psychological toll on workers of being under an algorithmic management system. My hope is that, by showing how AI systems work – by laying bare the structures of production and the material realities – we will have a more accurate account of the impacts, and it will invite more people into the conversation. These systems are being rolled out across a multitude of sectors without strong regulation, consent or democratic debate.

.What should people know about how AI products are made?

We aren’t used to thinking about these systems in terms of the environmental costs. But saying, “Hey, Alexa, order me some toilet rolls,” invokes into being this chain of extraction, which goes all around the planet… We’ve got a long way to go before this is green technology. Also, systems might seem automated but when we pull away the curtain we see large amounts of low paid labour, everything from crowd work categorising data to the never-ending toil of shuffling Amazon boxes. AI is neither artificial nor intelligent. It is made from natural resources and it is people who are performing the tasks to make the systems appear autonomous.

Worth reading in full.

Italy’s fading digital democracy dream

Interesting Wired piece by Michele Barbero.

The Five Star Movement (5SM), launched one of the most interesting experiments in using tech to revitalise democracy by reconciling thousands of disenfranchised citizens with democratic processes by giving them a say on strategic decisions and in the selection of candidates by means of frequent online votes. But, writes, Barbero,

over the past two months its internal processes have been disrupted by a painful divorce with the association that owns Rousseau, the web platform (named after the Genevan political philosopher and theorist of direct democracy) where the 5SM used to hold its ballots and debates. The end of a long stalemate between the party and the platform, this week, provided some respite – but questions remain on whether the party’s online democracy utopia can ever be revived.

In many ways, the row resembled an Italian opera buffa rather than a political showdown over the future of participatory democracy. The Rousseau association, founded by Gianroberto Casaleggio and his son Davide – now the president following Gianroberto’s death in 2016 – had long been complaining that many Five Star elected officials had stopped paying, with the blessing of their leaders, the €300 (£260) monthly quotas that accounted for much of its revenue. The organisation claimed that the total back fees amounted to about €450,000 (£388,000), a figure that the 5SM rejected, arguing that it had been calculated including representatives that had long left the party, and billing for services it had never asked for.

The billing fiasco will doubtless be used by opponents of digital experiments as proof that this kind of ‘direct democracy’ can’t work. But the interesting thing about the 5SM experiment is that it was the biggest experiment of its kind to date. It shows that governing is a difficult business, that deliberative democracy is hard and that the problems highlighted by Edmund Burke in his famous letter to the electors of Bristol are still relevant. The fact that there’s no magic tech solution doesn’t mean that we can’t use the technology creatively to reduce the distance between the governors and the governed.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Puffin island: a voyage to one of Scotland’s remotest habitats A wonderful photo-essay by Murdo MacLeod. They are the most beautiful birds. Link

  • US recovers millions in cryptocurrency paid to Colonial Pipeline ransomware hackers So much for the idea that crypto kept the Feds at bay. Link

ERRATUM The link to yesterday’s Long Read was missing. It’s Apologies for the omission.

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