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Sebastian Thrun is a brilliant guy who was positioned at the starting line of the recent boom in driverless technology, but he’s no stranger to irrational exuberance. A couple years ago, the Udacity founder earnestly announced that “if I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me.” Yes, that would be nice.

The computer scientist and entrepreneur is now employed as CEO of Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk, engaged in trying to perfect the flying car, a vehicle of retrofuture dreams that seems exceedingly unnecessary. Wouldn’t it be far better for society if he and others like him were engaged in innovation aimed at more practical public transportation solutions for the masses? The thing about childhood dreams is that most of them are childish.

Steven Levy held roughly the same view last month when he sat down to interview Thrun for Backchannel (now housed at Wired). The opening:

Steven Levy:

Why do we need flying cars?

Sebastian Thrun: 

It is a childhood dream. Flying is just such a magical thing to do. Making personalized flight available to everybody really opens up a set of new experiences. But in the long term there’s a practicality to the idea of a flying vehicle that takes off vertically like a helicopter, is very quiet, and can serve short range transportation. The ground is getting more and more congested. In the US, road usage increases by about three percent every year. But we don’t build any roads. And countries like China that very recently witnessed an explosion of automotive ownership are suffering tremendously from unbelievable traffic jams. While the ground infrastructure of roads is one-dimensional, the sky is three-dimensional, and it is much, much larger.

Steven Levy:

But it you build flying cars, won’t the air be just as congested?

Sebastian Thrun: 

The nice thing about the air is there is more of it. You could have virtual highways in the sky and stack them vertically. So you never have a traffic intersection or similar.

Steven Levy:

But highways have lanes. You can’t have dotted lines in the sky.

Sebastian Thrun: 

Yes, you can, it turns out. Thanks to the US government we have the Global Positioning System that gives us precision location information. We can paint virtual highways into the sky. We are actually doing this today. When you look at the way planes fly, they use equipment that effectively constructs highways in the sky.

Steven Levy:

Still, the number of planes is tiny compared to cars, which you want to put in the air. Plus, everybody is buying drones. If you folks get your way, the sky is going to be completely full.

Sebastian Thrun: 

Every idea put to the extreme sounds odd.•

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As I’ve written before, plenty of people will rush to have “CRISPR babies” and be willing recipients of makeovers that extend far further than skin-deep. Botox and fillers and cosmetic surgery apps are just a dress rehearsal for what’s to come, and it will arrive, whether China or Europe or the U.S. first begins experimenting in earnest with gene modification. There are currently many unintended consequences attending the process, but the “games” will eventually begin.

In regards to the proliferation of plastic surgery, here’s an excerpt from a BBC piece by Dominic Hughes about children being targeted with propaganda:

Prof. Jeanette Edwards, from the University of Manchester, who chaired the council’s inquiry into ethical issues surrounding cosmetic procedures, said some of the evidence around games aimed at younger children had surprised the panel.

“We’ve been shocked by some of the evidence we’ve seen, including make-over apps and cosmetic surgery ‘games’ that target girls as young as nine.

“There is a daily bombardment from advertising and through social media channels like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat that relentlessly promote unrealistic and often discriminatory messages on how people, especially girls and women, ‘should’ look.”•

The next phase, the bold move toward “designer babies,” is addressed in Ed Yong’s smart Atlantic article about scientist Jennifer Doudna trying to reckon with her prominent role in the “CRISPR Revolution.” The opening:

Jennifer Doudna remembers a moment when she realized how important CRIPSR—the gene-editing technique that she co-discovered—was going to be. It was in 2014, and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur had contacted Sam Sternberg, a biochemist who was then working in Doudna’s lab. Sternberg met with the entrepreneur in a Berkeley cafe, and she told him, with what he later described to Doudna as “a very bright look in her eye that was also a little scary,” that she wanted to start applying CRISPR to humans. She wanted to be the mother of the first baby whose genome had been edited with the technique. And she wanted to establish a business that would offer a menu of such edits to parents.

Nothing of the kind could currently happen in the U.S., where editing the genomes of human embryos is still verboten. But the entrepreneur apparently had connections that would allow her to offer such services in other countries. “That’s a true story,” Doudna told a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “That blew my mind. It was a heads-up that people were already thinking about this—that at some point, someone might announce that they had the first CRISPR baby.”

The possibility had always been there. Bacteria have been using CRISPR for billions of years to slice apart the genetic material of viruses that invade their cells. In 2012, Doudna and others showed how this system could be used to deliberately engineer the genomes of bacteria, cutting their DNA with exceptional precision. In quick succession, researchers found that they could do the same in mammalian cells, mice, plants, and—in early 2014—monkeys. “I had all of this at the back of my mind,” Doudna told me after her panel. But Sternberg’s story about his meeting “was the moment where I said I needed to get involved in this conversation. I’m not going to feel good about myself if I don’t talk about it publicly.”

That has not been an easy journey. Doudna built her career on molecules and microbes. As few as five years ago, she was, by her own admission, working head-down in an ivory tower, with no plans of milking practical applications from her discoveries, and little engagement with the broader social impact of her work.

But CRISPR forcefully yanked Doudna out of that closeted environment, and dumped her into the midst of intense ethical debates about whether it’s ever okay to change the DNA of human embryos, whether eradicating mosquitoes is a good idea, and whether “fixing” the genes behind inherited diseases is a blow to disabled communities.•

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Jack Ma thinks our current technological age may lead to WWIII, but otherwise he’s pretty hopeful. 

The Alibaba executive chairman recently told CNBC: “The first technology revolution caused World War I. The second technology revolution caused World War II. This is the third technology revolution.” His time frame for the possible global cataclysm is the next three decades, when many of us may be disrupted and disenchanted by improving Artificial Intelligence.

Chilling, sure, but China’s richest man also foresees 16-hour workweeks, wider markets for local products (Chinese consumption will be the engine that drives the world economy, he’s said) and plenty of new travel opportunities. My friends, you have to break some eggs to make that omelette.

If there will be blood, perhaps it’s appropriate that data is the new oil, as Louise Lucas of the Financial Times asserts in writing about the outsize success of Ma’s corporation. “Information collection,” a fairly benign term for the biggest gusher ever, is at the heart of the growth. An excerpt: 

If data are the new oil, Jack Ma, former English teacher turned China’s richest man, is the new John D Rockefeller.

Like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Mr Ma’s Alibaba is a lucrative and rapidly growing business. Earlier this month, it forecast annual revenues would increase 45 to 49 per cent, besting analysts’ consensus estimates by 10 percentage points and adding $42.25bn to its value — almost an entire Barclays bank — the following day.

“Alibaba is evolving into a big data conglomerate,” enthused Jessie Guo, analyst at Jefferies, and one of the many who attended the group’s two-day investor conference in Hangzhou this month.

Revenue guidance and discussions at the event “indicate we are at the beginning of data-driven monetisation”, added Chi Tsang, head of internet research at HSBC.

Alibaba’s vertically and horizontally integrated services span shopping, movies, finance and logistics, all collecting information on people’s spending, location and viewing. Once refined, the data are fed back to merchants, who in turn can better target their goods and sell more over Alibaba’s ecommerce platforms.•

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IEEE Spectrum has an interesting article in which a raft of scientists and futurists are questioned about the ETA of conscious machines and their potential impact. Notably, nobody says such a development is impossible nor does anyone suggest pursuit of such has a good chance to extinct us.

Robin Hanson, author The Age of Em, sticks to his previous prognostication that our increasingly technological future may bring us an economy that doubles every month, which might seem inviting to a society in stagnation, but a world that could potentially “turn over” so quickly would be a shock to the system to anyone not gradually eased into it.

Marthine Rothblatt, the Sirius founder turned Transhumanist and developer of “consciousness software,” believes robots will largely be “good,” saying that she’s “confident the computers will be overwhelmingly friendly since they will be selected for in a Darwinian environment that consists of humanity. There is no market for [a] bad robot, no more than there is for a bad car or plane. Of course, there is the inevitability of a DIY bad human-level computer, but that gives me even more reason to welcome human-level cyberintelligence, because just like it takes a [thief to catch a thief], it will take a human-friendly smart computer to catch an antihuman smart computer.”

There’s also no market for terrorism or for genocide, but those things happen. We can’t avoid far stronger tools because of the human capacity to cause chaos, but we have to at least consider the possibility that our own doom is embedded in these advances.

Rodney Brooks is perhaps the most sober of all the participants. In Errol Morris’ 1997 documentary, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, the roboticist famously says that in tomorrow’s world of intelligent machines, humans might not be necessary. Brooks, who has since backed off that statement (“You can’t expect me to stand by something I said during a long day of filming 20 years ago!”), now mocks what he believes to be reckless conjecture about the future.

An excerpt:

Question:

When will we have computers as capable as the brain?

Rodney Brooks:

Rodney Brooks’s revised question: When will we have computers/robots recognizably as intelligent and as conscious as humans?

Not in our lifetimes, not even in Ray Kurzweil’s lifetime, and despite his fervent wishes, just like the rest of us, he will die within just a few decades. It will be well over 100 years before we see this level in our machines. Maybe many hundred years.

Question:

As intelligent and as conscious as dogs?

Rodney Brooks:

Maybe in 50 to 100 years. But they won’t have noses anywhere near as good as the real thing. They will be olfactorily challenged dogs.

Question:

How will brainlike computers change the world?

Rodney Brooks:

Since we won’t have intelligent computers like humans for well over 100 years, we cannot make any sensible projections about how they will change the world, as we don’t understand what the world will be like at all in 100 years. (For example, imagine reading Turing’s paper on computable numbers in 1936 and trying to pro­ject out how computers would change the world in just 70 or 80 years.) So an equivalent well-grounded question would have to be something simpler, like “How will computers/robots continue to change the world?” Answer: Within 20 years most baby boomers are going to have robotic devices in their homes, helping them maintain their independence as they age in place. This will include Ray Kurzweil, who will still not be immortal.

Question:

Do you have any qualms about a future in which computers have human-level (or greater) intelligence?

Rodney Brooks:

No qualms at all, as the world will have evolved so much in the next 100+ years that we cannot possibly imagine what it will be like, so there is no point in qualming. Qualming in the face of zero facts or understanding is a fun parlor game but generally not useful. And yes, this includes Nick Bostrom.•

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“Spying among friends, that isn’t done,” Angela Merkel has said, but the absolutely least surprising thing in this period of constant shocks is that Germany was apparently spying on America as America was spying on Germany. Of course.

Nearly three years ago, I assumed that at the very least “Germany didn’t want to delve too deeply into NSA spying because Germany has been complicit in it.” It isn’t surprising the surveillance was bilateral at least during the first decade of this century because one truism about the technological tools we’ve created is they will be used. The argument that we’ve managed to (mostly) not employ nuclear weapons so we can control privacy-obliterating devices is silly because these instruments and methods are decentralized and available to all, and governments and corporations and individuals will give in to the temptation to use them regardless of the law.

Also: Spying isn’t one big boom but instead death by a thousand cuts. Each individual act won’t feel calamitous. In Errol Morris parlance, these surveillance tools are fast, cheap and will continually be out of control.

From “German Intelligence Also Snooped on White House,” a Spiegel piece by Maik Baumgärtner, Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler:

Documents that Spiegel has been able to review show that the BND, until a few years ago, actually had considerable interest in the United States as a target of espionage. The document states that just under 4,000 search terms, or selectors, were directed against American targets between 1998 and 2006. It is unknown whether they continued to be used after those dates.

The German intelligence agency used the selectors to surveil telephone and fax numbers as well as email accounts belonging to American companies like Lockheed Martin, the space agency NASA, the organization Human Rights Watch, universities in several U.S. states and military facilities like the U.S. Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the secret service agency belonging to the American armed forces. Connection data from far over 100 foreign embassies in Washington, from institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Washington office of the Arab League were also accessed by the BND’s spies.

The entries also prove the existence of a top-secret anti-terror alliance between Western intelligence services, including those of Germany, the United States and France. Spiegel already reported back in 2005 on the elite unit, which is named Camolin. The papers now show several BND selectors were “Camolin-related.”

It’s Unlikely Spying Was Unintentional
 
Also on the selector list were lines at the U.S. Treasury Department, the State Department and the White House. Were they really all just “coincidental capture” as the former BND head claimed? Was it just an oversight?

That’s unlikely.•

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In January, I wrote this:

More than two centuries before Deep Blue deep-sixed humanity by administering a whooping to Garry Kasparov, that Baku-born John Henry, the Mechanical Turk purported to be a chess-playing automaton nonpareil. It was, of course, a fake, a contraption that hid within its case a genius-level human champion that controlled its every move. Such chicanery isn’t unusual for technologies nowhere near fruition, but the truth is even ones oh-so-close to the finish line often need the aid of a hidden hand.

In “The Humans Working Behind The Curtain,” a smart Harvard Business Review piece by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, the authors explain how the “paradox of automation’s last mile” manifests itself even in today’s highly algorithmic world, an arrangement by which people are hired to quietly complete a task AI can’t, and one which is unlikely to be undone by further progress. Unfortunately, most of the stealth work for humans created in this way is piecemeal, lower-paid and prone to the rapid churn of disruption.

An excerpt:

Cut to Bangalore, India, and meet Kala, a middle-aged mother of two sitting in front of her computer in the makeshift home office that she shares with her husband. Our team at Microsoft Research met Kala three months into studying the lives of people picking up temporary “on-demand” contract jobs via the web, the equivalent of piecework online. Her teenage sons do their homework in the adjoining room. She describes calling them into the room, pointing at her screen and asking: “Is this a bad word in English?” This is what the back end of AI looks like in 2016. Kala spends hours every week reviewing and labeling examples of questionable content. Sometimes she’s helping tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft train the algorithms that will curate online content. Other times, she makes tough, quick decisions about what user-generated materials to take down or leave in place when companies receive customer complaints and flags about something they read or see online.

Whether it is Facebook’s trending topics; Amazon’s delivery of Prime orders via Alexa; or the many instant responses of bots we now receive in response to consumer activity or complaint, tasks advertised as AI-driven involve humans, working at computer screens, paid to respond to queries and requests sent to them through application programming interfaces (APIs) of crowdwork systems. The truth is, AI is as “fully-automated” as the Great and Powerful Oz was in that famous scene from the classic film, where Dorothy and friends realize that the great wizard is simply a man manically pulling levers from behind a curtain. This blend of AI and humans, who follow through when the AI falls short, isn’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, the creation of human tasks in the wake of technological advancement has been a part of automation’s history since the invention of the machine lathe.

We call this ever-moving frontier of AI’s development, the paradox of automation’s last mile: as AI makes progress, it also results in the rapid creation and destruction of temporary labor markets for new types of humans-in-the-loop tasks.•

The Harvard Business Review report was terrain previously covered from a different angle by Adrian Chen in Wired in 2014 with “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed.” The journalist studied those stealthily doing the psychologically dangerous business of keeping the Internet “safe.” The opening:

THE CAMPUSES OF the tech industry are famous for their lavish cafeterias, cushy shuttles, and on-site laundry services. But on a muggy February afternoon, some of these companies’ most important work is being done 7,000 miles away, on the second floor of a former elementary school at the end of a row of auto mechanics’ stalls in Bacoor, a gritty Filipino town 13 miles southwest of Manila. When I climb the building’s narrow stairwell, I need to press against the wall to slide by workers heading down for a smoke break. Up one flight, a drowsy security guard staffs what passes for a front desk: a wooden table in a dark hallway overflowing with file folders.

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair. If the space does not resemble a typical startup’s office, the image on Baybayan’s screen does not resemble typical startup work: It appears to show a super-close-up photo of a two-pronged dildo wedged in a vagina. I say appears because I can barely begin to make sense of the image, a baseball-card-sized abstraction of flesh and translucent pink plastic, before he disappears it with a casual flick of his mouse.

Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video. Social media’s growth into a multibillion-dollar industry, and its lasting mainstream appeal, has depended in large part on companies’ ability to police the borders of their user-generated content—to ensure that Grandma never has to see images like the one Baybayan just nuked.

So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor.•

Chen has now teamed with Ciarán Cassidy to revisit the harrowing topic for a 20-minute documentary called “The Moderators.” It’s a fascinating peek into a hidden corner of our increasingly computerized world–one that’s even more relevant in the wake of the Kremlin-bot Presidential election–as well as very good filmmaking. 

We watch as trainees at an Indian company that quietly “cleans” unacceptable content from social-media sites are introduced to sickening images they must scrub. That tired phrase “you can’t unsee this” gains new currency as the neophytes are bombarded by shock and gore. The movie numbers at 150,000 the workers in this sector trying to mitigate the chaos in the “largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” For these kids it’s a first job, a foot in the door even if they’re stepping inside a haunted house. You have to wonder, though, if they will ultimately be impacted in a Milgramesque sense, desensitized and disheartened, whether they initially realize it or not.

We are all like the moderators to a certain degree, despite their best efforts. Pretty much everyone who’s gone online during these early decades of the Digital Age has witnessed an endless parade of upsetting images and footage that was never available during a more centralized era. Are we also children who don’t realize what we’re becoming?

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Gained much insight early in the year from reading Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, which analyzes how wealth inequality can be interrupted and reversed, his analysis stretching back far earlier than the Gini coefficient to the time of the development of rudimentary tools like spears.

How do we make the world more equal? To put it simply, through great pain, unless you’re into mass mobilization warfare, plague, bloody revolution or societal collapse. (I think Steve Bannon is deeply in love with at least two or three of these options, though not to make the economy more equal.) Of course, leveling doesn’t necessarily mean the raising of all boats but sometimes the sinking of every last ship. Scheidel asserts that wealth inequality has been the logical outcome of stable societies, with leveling occurring for relatively brief spells by virtue of the sweep of history or the spread of Influenza. 

The book isn’t entirely resigned, believing that perhaps past won’t be prologue, holding out hope that human progress can find new means of mitigation. Of course, sitting here at this moment in time, that doesn’t look like the plausible near-term scenario.

Scheidel has just published a smart essay for Aeon wondering anew if we can arrive at a more-equal playing field with trampling all the players. He isn’t sanguine about our chances, thinking genetic engineering may further complicate matters. An excerpt:

History offers very little comfort to those in search of peaceful levelling. To be sure, it is perfectly possible to reduce inequality at the margins: if Latin American countries have done it, the US, UK or Australia certainly ought to be able to accomplish the same, using an array of policy measures, from fiscal interventions, basic incomes and the targeting of concealed offshore wealth, to carefully focused investment in education and campaign finance reform. However, policymaking does not take place in a vacuum, and not everything that worked well for the postwar generation, say, could be easily implemented in today’s more globally integrated, competitive and deregulated environment. Throughout history, truly substantial compressions of inequality invariably had much darker origins, and no similarly powerful alternative mechanisms have since emerged.

It is always tempting to assume that the lessons of history are no longer relevant because the world has changed so much – as indeed it has. But we must bear in mind that the exact same claim could have been made back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when inequality declined even as economies boomed and the middle classes thrived. There was no obvious reason why this should ever change: and yet change it did. It is just as likely as not that we are currently riding another upward wave in the concentration of income and wealth, continuing a pattern that stretches back thousands of years. In the not-too-distant future, robotics, genetic engineering and biomechatronic enhancements of the human body could well create inequalities we can barely even imagine. And if they do, will it all end in yet another unforeseen, sudden and dramatic violent turn?

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Baseball is very different than it used to be yet more or less the same. Maybe that’s because it was always a strange thing, with no uniform playing field.

In 1900, it was considered America’s pastime, even more popular than cricket which was still wildly successful. Two decades later, the latter sport was largely gone from the scene, and baseball survived despite the existential threat of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The game thrived during its prolonged mythologizing epoch, when narratives reigned, and has grown even wealthier now that numbers have ascended.

There are some dark clouds on the horizon. The average fan is quite old, African-American athletes in recent decades have gravitated to other sports, those bountiful regional cable contracts may prove bad bets not repeated, etc. It’s already no longer America’s favorite game, but you would think that as long as it can provide giant blocks of family-friendly entertainment, it will find itself in a good place in a media-saturated society. Its chances are certainly better than two of the other team-sports leagues, the NFL and NHL, with their head-injury issues.

In a fun ESPN article, Tim Kurkjian and a panel of unnamed experts imagine what changes will come to the game in 20 years, in terms of rules, technology and training. There’s plenty to argue over, and I disagree with some aspects. If baseball has contracted to just 28 teams by 2037 as Kurkjian predicts, either MLB will be doing poorly or the nation will in rough shape, perhaps locked be in Civil War 2.0 (likely!). I also don’t understand why, by that point, computers calling balls and strikes won’t be able to adjust to a batter’s stance. Seems easier to figure out than, say, driverless cars.

Three short examples from the ESPN piece is followed by the opening of George Will’s WSJ review of Smart Baseball, a book about next-level stats by Keith Law, whom the reviewer likens to baseball’s “Wittgenstein,” which may be the George Will-est thing ever.


From Kurkjian:

  • In 20 years, all players will be monitored to an intense degree. Heart rate and brain function will be watched in several ways, including through the bloodstream, and will detect when the stress level, among other levels, is too high. The monitors will determine when a player reaches failure capacity, which could reduce the risk of injury and alert a performance risk. It’s a paradox: Players are bigger, stronger and fitter today, but they get hurt more often. There will be far more healthy players and less use for the disabled list in 2037.
  • There will still be four umpires on the field as opposed to sensors on player’s uniforms and on each base to electronically determine out or safe calls. Instead of having a laser system at home plate to call balls and strikes because such a system can’t always account for the shifting size of a player’s strike zone or the element of a crouch, the home plate umpire will be standing behind the pitcher’s mound. Many in the game will acknowledge that is the best vantage point to call balls and strikes, especially the horizontal strike zone — inside and outside. For the vertical ball/strike call (high or low) advanced technology will provide an augmented reality for umpires, it will help them better see what they see. The home plate umpire will touch a receiver on his belt and receive a signal, such as a buzz, to help him better call a pitch.
  • There will be no American League and National League, it will all be under one MLB. There will be no Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays. The game will not expand to Mexico or Japan or Las Vegas. Instead, it will contract from 30 to 28 teams. That will make scheduling easier and more equitable: All teams will play each other six times, 27 times six equals 162. The top 10 teams in the game will make the playoffs.

From Will:

“Philosophy,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Baseball has found its Wittgenstein.

Or, more precisely, another Wittgenstein. Keith Law, a senior baseball writer and analyst for ESPN, is a member of the growing cohort of exasperated baseball analysts who persuasively argue against what they consider the bewitchment of the sport’s intelligence by outdated or ill-considered metrics.

The title, and especially the subtitle, of Mr. Law’s book—Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball—indicates he did not get the memo recommending intellectual tentativeness. In today’s garden of baseball journalism, the flora includes many practitioners who are not shrinking violets, and Mr. Law himself is a human cactus with a prickly impatience regarding those he considers slow learners.

Baseball is the sport with the longest season: 162 games before 10 teams play on into October, with two often finishing in early November. As a game of distinct episodes—pitch by pitch, out by out, inning by inning—it generates an ever-richer sediment of data as new technologies yield ever-more refined measurements: spin rates of pitches, “tilts” (angles of break) of sliders, launch angles of swings, exit velocities of balls coming off bats, and so on. These measurements are massaged by a new generation of mostly young and well-educated front-office “quants.” All 30 teams have analytics departments; the Astros have a “director of decision sciences.” Many of these savants’ baseball-playing careers peaked in Little League. They work, not always harmoniously, with their teams’ managers, who are expected to use the data when putting together lineups and making in-game decisions.

Mr. Law’s demolition derby begins by disparaging the hitting and pitching metrics we grew up reading beneath the bubblegum residue on the backs of baseball cards—batting averages, runs batted in, wins, saves, fielding percentage. •

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“It started off as a kind of utopian promise,” Andrew O’Hagan writes of the Internet in a new Guardian essay that meditates on the death of privacy and, perhaps, the novel. During Web 1.0, some worried that this new-to-the-masses technology would be co-opted, watered down and lose it’s anarchic spirit, becoming a tool of corporations and governments. Never let it be tamed, they exhorted. Well, it never has been tamed and still has become a tool of corporations and governments. The anarchy is actually useful to them (see U.S. Presidential election, 2016).

The thing is, we’re still in the prelude of what the Internet will become and of what being connected will mean. Marshall McLuhan feared the Global Village, and we’re going to experience a version of it beyond what the visionary contemplated. That’s what the Internet of Things will effect, with every last object becoming a computer. It will bring great benefits while also being a machine with no OFF switch. We’ll all permanently be inside a contraption that may be antithetical to human nature. It will contain sensors but perhaps not sense.

As far as O’Hagan’s fears about the effect of social media on fiction, I addressed a similar subject in a 2015 essay about Charlie Brooker’s outstanding television program Black Mirror:

It’s tough being Paddy Chayefsky these days. Charlie Brooker, the brilliant satirist behind Black Mirror, comes closest. If he doesn’t make it all the way there, it’s not because he’s less talented than the Network visionary; it’s just that the era he’s working in is so different. I’ve read many articles about Brooker’s impressive program and pretty much all of them miss the point I believe he’s making about our brave new world of technology. That includes Jenna Wortham’s New York Times Magazine essay, which referred to Mirror as “functioning as a twisted View-Master of many different future universes where things have strayed horribly off-course.” The Channel 4 show is barely about the future. It’s mostly about the present. And it isn’t about the present in the manner of many sci-fi works, which create outlandish scenarios which can never really be in the service of telling us about what currently is. Brooker’s scenarios aren’t the exaggerations they might seem at first blush. In almost no time, our hyperconnected world delivers something far more disturbing than his narratives.

Chayefsky and Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan could name the future and we’d wait 25 or 50 years as their predictions slowly gestated, only becoming fully manifest at long last. None of that trio of seers even lived long enough to experience the full expression of Mad As Hell of 15 Minutes of Fame or the Global Village. Brooker will survive to see all his predictions come to pass, and it won’t require an impressive lifespan.•

O’Hagan, author of The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age, believes that since we’ve surrendered an interior life (“everything became fake”), there really isn’t even a way to observe the present let alone predict the future, and that writers and readers alike are being wrecked by living in public. The novel is a dogged form and may find a way to persist regardless of each of us living in our own Reality TV show while being flattered by or fired upon by armies of bots. Perhaps it can serve as an antidote to such an existence? The writer himself believes that could be the ultimate outcome. Regardless, his excellent essay is one that can be meditated on in myriad ways.

An excerpt:

The other day I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV. Because of several stories of mine, I’d suffered a few cyber-attacks recently, and, though a paragon of dullness, I decided to greet the future by making it harder to find me. One of the great fights of the 21st century will be the fight for privacy and self-ownership, which is also, to my mind, the struggle for literature as distinct from the dark babble of social media. Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low. Giving your sentences thoughtlessly away, and for nothing, seems a small death to contemplation, and does harm to the profession of writing, where you’re paid because you’re good at it. We are all entertainers now, politicians are theatrical in their every move, but even merely passable writers have something large at stake when it comes to opposing the global stupidity contest. Literature, which includes great journalism, might enhance the public sphere but it more precisely enriches the private one, and we are now at the point where privacy, the whole secret history of a people, might be the only corrective we have to the political forces embezzling our times.

In the interests of “national security”, in the service of “global harmony”, you are now obliged to become your own Winston Smith, both watched and self-watching. The TV downstairs may not be “off” at all – it may be “fake-off”, a condition defined in a joint programme of June 2014 between the CIA and MI5 called “Weeping Angel”. (Certain models of televisions are programmed to stay on, with their cameras operative, and the “data” they collect can be harvested by agencies.) The principle, as with Britain’s Prevent campaign, is to assume that everyone with a private life might have something to hide, which means that nobody, in the future, unless they have sinister motives, should expect the luxury of privacy. Some TVs and all phones operate “as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert CIA server”, reported WikiLeaks as it released the “Weeping Angel” documents. Being bugged at home or stopped and searched in the street and having your “information” handed to security agencies are now understood to be security measures, and questioning it will make you an enemy of the Daily Mail’s “common sense”. One doesn’t have to be much of a freedom fighter nowadays to be branded a member of the “liberalocracy”: all you have to do is believe in free speech and freedom of movement, and stand up for basic rights of sovereignty over your own thinking. Only recently have these sanctities been taken for the demands of a potential terrorist.•

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The very idea of a World’s Fair seems antiquated. No one really has to travel anywhere to see the future when we hold supercomputers in our palms. And the idea of roping off tomorrow for us too gaze at from a safe distance is an anachronism. What’s next happens all around us all the time, and when every object becomes a computer, we’ll be deeply and permanently within the experiment, resting, if uneasily, inside the machine.

Somehow Kazakhstan didn’t get the memo. The former Soviet nation is currently hosting EXPO 2017, which cost billions to create, in what’s a bewilderingly remote location. Almost nobody has shown up to look at the “City of the Future,” for instance, because they already live there. While that’s truer in the West than in the developing world, such events are headed for obsolescence everywhere in an increasingly wired, connected world.

Beyond modern technological and cultural dynamics, blame has to fall on autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who foolishly hoped the huge outlay would burnish Kazakhstan’s world image. It’s an ill-considered vanity project hatched by a repressive regime. While China has been able to successfully stage similar events in the recent past, large-scale authoritarian dreams can fail spectacularly even if the people are essentially forced to purchase tickets.

James Palmer penned a smart article on the perplexing project for Foreign Policy, reporting that one resident told him the “government is running tramps through the turnstiles to keep the numbers up.” The opening:

ASTANA, Kazakhstan    I was the only visitor in Greece. As I walked through the tunnel of philosophers, eager young Kazakhs accosted me. “This is the Greek alphabet! It has 24 characters, and it was the original language of science. Here, please, come and take a photo by the sea.” They hustled me over to a Mediterranean backdrop. They outnumbered me five to one, I succumbed to relentless explanation.

It was a sunny afternoon on the second day of EXPO 2017, held on the outskirts of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The Expo boasts of being “the Olympics of economy, business, and culture,” a global event where each participating country showcases its national achievements in its own “pavilion” and crowds come to see pieces of the wider world. But today — at the first Expo ever held in a post-Soviet state — there weren’t any crowds.

The Expo was being held on the outskirts of Astana, near one of the city’s many construction sites, in a purpose-built park. Dubbed a “future city” but looking more like a vast conference center, the organizers claimed the site was self-powered, fueled by a mix of wind and water. Each pavilion takes up anywhere from one room to several floors in a giant ring of new buildings built to encircle a great sphere of black glass at the center, the Kazakhstan pavilion. Viewed from the west, the dome loomed over neighboring apartment buildings. “There’s two big ways to piss off the Kazakhs,” a delegate commented, “Mention Borat, or call the dome the Death Star.”

The obvious lack of attendees, by contrast, didn’t require mentioning. Greece wasn’t the only deserted pavilion. Many were barren of anyone except staff. A few of the big names — China, Germany, the United States — had clusters of a couple of dozen visitors at a time, but outside most nations I snaked my way through empty rail guards. On the avenues outside, two out of every three people were wearing lanyards. I eavesdropped on a conversation between two European delegates: “We have to plan for the worst-case scenario — if there are no visitors to our event.”•

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Ducklings, like the babies of pretty much any species, are adorable. Full-grown ducks seem to me to be kind of assholes. Not killing machines like owls or heartless predators like vultures, but irritating. Always quacking. Fuck off. I don’t care for the attitude.

· · ·

Louis CK, also sort of an asshole, has spoken of duck genitalia: “I’ve heard that ducks have one hole, and they pee out of it, and they shit out of it, they get fucked in it, and they lay eggs out of it. That has got to be one dirty, smelly hole.” That being said, Louis still seems far pervier.

· · ·

In a fascinating Spiegel Q&A, Johann Grolle questions ornithologist Richard Prum about duck copulation, a process that sounds like a nightmare. The opening (so to speak):

Spiegel:

Professor Prum, among all the wonders of nature you were most inspired by the sex of ducks. Why?

Richard Prum:

For a long time, I have been fascinated by the sex life of birds. But there is probably no other species where the deep sexual conflict between male and female sex is as blatant as in ducks.

Spiegel:

And so you started studying their genitalia?

Richard Prum:

No, it was actually even more simple than that. I had a prospective post-doctoral student who was looking for something to do, and she was interested in studying genitalia. I said to myself: Well, I have never worked on that end of the bird before. As a result, we studied duck sex intensively for six, seven years.

Spiegel:

What surprised you most?

Richard Prum:

Oh, there were many surprises. Not the least that we had all these descriptions of duck genitalia, and when we looked ourselves, we said: There is almost nothing to see. How could this be? That is how we discovered that the genitalia of ducks regress and regrow each year, so that a 10- or 15-centimeter penis in the summer will reduce to less than 1 centimeter in the winter and then grow back the next year.

Spiegel:

This is part of the sexual conflict you mentioned before? 

Richard Prum:

Yes, indeed. Mate choice occurs first. In winter the males do these elaborate displays, and the females choose the one they like most. Because, parallel to the evolution of the males’ display behavior, the females have evolved preferences for these displays. We call this “coevolution.”

Spiegel:

So far, this sounds quite harmonious.

Richard Prum:

Yes, it is. The pairs stay together until the clutch is laid and the females incubate. The conflict part comes next. Because now some of the males pursue an alternative mating strategy, which is to violently enforce copulation. For this they make use of their penis, which is regrown by now. This penis is a very bizarre structure. It is counterclockwise coiled, and erection takes place in less than half a second. Erection, penetration and ejaculation in ducks is one and the same event, and it happens very, very rapidly.

Spiegel:

How do the females react?

Richard Prum:

It’s very interesting.•


“A huge barrel of fucking duck vaginas.”

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Those who are no position to talk are often the loudest of all. Those most in need of improvement are frequently the least likely to seek it. Projection of inner turmoil is a key component in the creation of a sick society, a hellscape for destroyers and their dictator.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of his system and methods, it’s no small irony that Sigmund Freud died against the backdrop of one of the worst explosions of repressed rage the world has ever known. The Jewish “Father of Psychoanalysis” was hectored and hounded in his dying years by Nazis, who desperately needed the very inspection of self he encouraged. Freud ultimately fled Austria in a weakened state and died in London. All four of his elderly sisters would were unable to escape Vienna ultimately be killed in concentration camps.

Three Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles below tell part of the story.

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From March 22, 1938:

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From June 4, 1938:

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From September 24, 1939.

Here in America–as in many other places in the world–we live in desperate times, barely capable of running our country despite great wealth, so the idea of us engineering new forms of life or even an entire universe seems beyond reason. Have we earned the right to play creator?

Freeman Dyson has written of a revolutionary vision for next-level space colonization, suggesting we design a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the Milky Way with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years,” he’s theorized, “biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth.” Dyson believes this scenario favorable to launching humans (as we know them) into radically unforgiving environments.

That’s mind-blowing enough, but some theoretical physicists takes matters a giant leap further, wondering if we can actually create new baby universes in vitro. Zeeya Merali, author of A Big Bang in a Little Room, has a smart Aeon article on the moral implications of “cosmogenesis.” She interviews Anders Sandberg, among others, on the thorny topic. The opening:

Physicists aren’t often reprimanded for using risqué humour in their academic writings, but in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article entitled ‘Hard Art of the Universe Creation’ to the journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that might one day evolve its own stars, planets and intelligent life. Near the end, Linde made a seemingly flippant suggestion that our Universe itself might have been knocked together by an alien ‘physicist hacker’. The paper’s referees objected to this ‘dirty joke’; religious people might be offended that scientists were aiming to steal the feat of universe-making out of the hands of God, they worried. Linde changed the paper’s title and abstract but held firm over the line that our Universe could have been made by an alien scientist. ‘I am not so sure that this is just a joke,’ he told me. 

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the notion of universe-making – or ‘cosmogenesis’ as I dub it – seems less comical than ever. I’ve travelled the world talking to physicists who take the concept seriously, and who have even sketched out rough blueprints for how humanity might one day achieve it. Linde’s referees might have been right to be concerned, but they were asking the wrong questions. The issue is not who might be offended by cosmogenesis, but what would happen if it were truly possible. How would we handle the theological implications? What moral responsibilities would come with fallible humans taking on the role of cosmic creators?•

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Almost developing a driverless car isn’t nearly the same thing as perfecting a fully driverless one, that last two or three percent to be worked out making all the difference. Getting most of the way there is useful but not transformational. When autonomous has truly arrived it will impact environment, safety, economics, law and urban, suburban and rural life in myriad ways. 

Mary Barra just announced GM is deploying a new fleet of (almost) driverless vehicles for testing. Despite the bold headlines, that’s no so different than what other traditional automakers and Silicon Valley startups are doing, though the company is stressing that it’s uniquely positioned to mass-produce the cars once autonomous is a going concern–whenever that is. If money and talent are mainly what’s required, the industry has those factors covered. GM alone is spending $600 million annually on their division and is in the process of recruiting nearly 1,200 additional engineers.

While those are solid, well-paying positions, the lucky new hires endeavoring to remove human hands from the wheel will also, if successful, be disappearing millions of blue-collar jobs. That will make us richer in the aggregate but put undue pressure on segments of society, though as Nicholas Carr recently wrote, the promised AI-induced jobspocalypse has yet to materialize despite all the bold predictions. Has our “death” been greatly exaggerated or just deferred?

My best guess is that new tools, once envisioned, often take longer to perfect than we hope (or fear)–remember that Lillian Ross reported on VCRs and a Netflix-like service in 1970! The process, however, may speed ahead faster now than in the past because tools today are cheaper and more powerful. It’s probably more a question of whether we’ll produce an adequate array of new positions to replace the old ones and enable workers to educate and re-educate themselves to continually cope with shifting landscapes.

Two excerpts follow, the first about GM’s announcement, and the second concerning AI’s possible impact on the middle class.•


From Brent Snavely in USA Today:

LAKE ORION, Mich. — General Motors said Tuesday it has finished making 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt test vehicles, an achievement that the automaker says will help put it at the forefront of the race to develop and deploy autonomous cars.

CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said GM is the only automaker currently capable of mass-producing self-driving vehicles.

“The autonomous vehicles you see here today are purpose-built, self-driving test vehicles,” Barra said before several hundred employees gathered at the plant in Lake Orion, Mich., Tuesday. “The level of integration in these vehicles is on par with any of our production vehicles, and that is a great advantage. In fact, no other company today has the unique and necessary combination of technology, engineering and manufacturing ability to build autonomous vehicles at scale.”

The self-driving version of the Chevrolet Bolt is the second generation of vehicles capable of handling nearly all road situations on their own without driver intervention. They are equipped with the latest array of equipment, including cameras, radar, sensors and other hardware designed and built by GM and its suppliers.

The new version of the self-driving Bolts must still be driven with a person behind the wheel who is alert and ready to take control if necessary.•


From Cade Metz at Wired:

IN FEBRUARY 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world. These researchers were just beginning to explore the science of genetic engineering, manipulating DNA to create organisms that didn’t exist in nature, and they were unsure how these techniques would affect the health of the planet and its people. So, they descended on a coastal retreat called Asilomar, a name that became synonymous with the guidelines they laid down at this meeting—a strict ethical framework meant to ensure that biotechnology didn’t unleash the apocalypse.

Forty-two years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. But this time, the threat wasn’t biological. It was digital. In January, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference—the enormity of the subject deserves some privacy—but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience, shedding some light on the way AI researchers view the threat of their own field.

Yes, they discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end of the month, the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. But the researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.

“One of the reasons I don’t like the discussions about superintelligence is that they’re a distraction from what’s real,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, who attended the conference. “As the poet said, have fewer imaginary problems and more real ones.”

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration—far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.•

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Still haven’t written my thoughts on Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking. Will do so soon, I promise. For whatever philosophical differences I have with the author on technology, the long centerpiece about his pair of matches with Deep Blue in ’96 and ’97 is riveting. It’s also revealing in surprising ways, about both humans and machines.

In a New Scientist Q&A conducted by Sean O’Neill, the chessman is asked about surveillance, a topic which receives a scant few pages in his book, but I believe the question posed is the wrong one. The reporter wonders about new technologies being hoarded by the “ruling class,” which is silly, because these tools, ever cheaper and more powerful, will snake their way through every inch of society. Artificial Intelligence will be useful in countless ways, but it will just as surely enable the anarchy of the Internet to be visited upon the physical world. The problem we face isn’t that it may be controlled but that it absolutely cannot be. There’s no going back (nor should there be), but this progress will be attended by regress. Constantly trying to separate those realities will be our task–our burden.

An excerpt:

Question:

What happens if AI, high-tech surveillance, military tech, and communications are sewn up by the ruling class?

Garry Kasparov:

Ruling class? Sounds like Soviet propaganda! New tech is always expensive and employed by the wealthy and powerful even as it provides benefits and trickles down into every part of society. But it seems fanciful – or dystopian – to think there will be a harmful monopoly. AI isn’t a nuclear weapon that can or should be under lock and key; it’s a million different things that will be an important part of both new and existing technology. Like the internet, created by the US military, AI won’t be kept in a box. It’s already out.

Question:

Will handing off ever more decisions to AI result in intellectual stagnation?

Garry Kasparov:

Technology doesn’t cause intellectual stagnation, but it enables new forms of it if we are complacent. Technology empowers intellectual enrichment and our ability to indulge and act on our curiosity. With a smartphone, for example, you have the sum total of human knowledge in your pocket and can reach practically any person on the planet. What will you do with that incredible power? Entertain yourself or change the world?•

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Walt Mossberg, who’s been covering technologies for assorted periodicals since the advent of the dandy horsejust retired from his brilliant career, filing one last column for the Verge about what will come next in the Digital Age.

He foresees “ambient computing” becoming prevalent and that’s a safe bet. The problem is, such seamlessness almost invites abuse. Mossberg advises there’ll have to be an intensive tandem effort by private industry and the federal government to ensure safety and privacy, but as we are currently witnessing with the Trump Administration, the public sector can also introduce surprising disruptions, and such unfortunate twists may be even more punitive when the tools that quietly surround us, barely making a hum, become infinitely more powerful and intrusive.

An excerpt:

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.

This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all. …

Some of you who’ve gotten this far are already recoiling at the idea of ambient computing. You’re focused on the prospects for invasion of privacy, for monetizing even more of your life, for government snooping and for even worse hacking than exists today. If the FBI can threaten a huge company like Apple over an iPhone passcode, what are your odds of protecting your future tech-dependent environment from government intrusion? If British hospitals have to shut down due to a ransomware attack, can online crooks lock you out of your house, office, or car?

Good questions.

My best answer is that, if we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health, and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist. Especially in the US, it’s time to stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws.•

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The funny thing about the titanic 1997 battle between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue was that the outcome, so highly anticipated, was a moot point. Within a few years, Moore’s Law was going to make smart machines king regardless of what happened during those tense days in New York City. The match was important to Kasparov’s ego and IBM’s stock price, but the result in a bigger sense was fait accompli.

The fundamental difference between IBM’s two-decade-ago triumph and AlphaGo’s recent stunners is that the latter employed Deep Learning (to an extent) to teach itself. That was necessary since the ancient Chinese game is magnitudes more complex. One important similarity, however, is that world Go champion Ke Jie echoed Kasparov in his comments about the frailty of a human in a contest with a machine, acknowledging that his emotions were not an ally. “Maybe because I was too excited,” he said “I made some stupid moves. Maybe that’s the weakest part of human beings.”

“The future belongs to AI,” the human player concluded, broadly extrapolating his trouncing. 

In a Guardian article, Tim Dunlop agrees that the Go victory does in fact have wide-ranging implications, especially for the future of work. He suggests we should consider consciously uncoupling work from salaries, something that’s already getting a dress rehearsal if you consider the hundreds of millions among us already creating free content for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. The writer offers an extremely hopeful take about the potential nature of this new normal should we be able to abandon our traditional work ethic.

An excerpt:

In Go, there are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe, so number-crunching is not enough: a computer simply cannot memorise every possible Go move, or even a significant fraction of them. The program therefore needs to be able to “think”, to understand the state of play and develop a strategy in order to win. Until recently we could kid ourselves that there was something uniquely human about this type of intelligence, but no more.

This has enormous implications for the future of work.

Work, broadly defined, is likely to always be at the centre of human self-worth. We are embodied creatures and we understand ourselves by interacting with our environment physically and mentally. It’s this embodiment that makes us different from machines and why machines will never actually think like us, no matter how smart they get. For humans, it is meaningful to do work of many different kinds and we will always find work to do that we find satisfying and fulfilling.

The problem is that work has come to mean “a paid job” and, for most us, that means working for someone else. Under these circumstances, we value “work” less for the improvement to our self-worth it brings us as embodied human beings than for the fact that we have to sell our labour to earn a wage in order to survive.

So when economists tell us that we don’t need to worry about robots taking our jobs because technology will create new jobs, they are basically arguing for perpetuation of this status quo, where the few employ the many and where “work” is a paid job. In fact, more than that, they are defining us as mere units of production, inputs into the economy, rather than as embodied beings seeking meaning by interacting with the world around us.

But in a world of incredibly smart machines, is this really the best future we can imagine for ourselves? After all, there is nothing intrinsic to human self-worth about selling your labour to the owners of capital. In fact, in many ways it represents the worst of us, an exercise in exploitation, where the few wield power and control over the many.

Is it possible that the rise of ever-smarter machines, those exemplified by AlphaGo, may offer us a way out?•

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The Man From Mars.

It wasn’t a commercial triumph like his namesake organ, but Laurens Hammond’s “Teleview” projection system for early 3-D films was critically acclaimed. The set-up was installed in Manhattan’s Selwyn Theater in the early 1920s, and moviegoers were treated to screenings of The Man From Mars, a stereoscopic film made especially for Teleview, which was shown on a large screen and on individual viewing devices attached at each seat. It apparently looked pretty great. Alas, the equipment and installation was costly, and no other cinemas adopted the technology. From the December 17, 1922 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In a great, wide-ranging Edge piece, Martin Rees meditates on everything from the Big Bang to a potential post-human age in space, when genetic modification and cyborgism could make for a comfortable life in what are currently severely inclement conditions. We will live beyond Earth, but it won’t really be us.

I’m optimistic that within ten years or so, we will have an understanding of how life began on the Earth,” he writes, which will enable us to understand how likely life is on the billions of planets in our galaxy. The astronomer argues that any life in the inhospitable environs of outer space has probably already successfully transitioned into that of conscious machines, and that earthlings will have to master something similar to get anyone beyond the “crazy pioneers” to purchase a one-way ticket to Mars.

The shrinking of technological hardware makes it most sensible for us, certainly for now and likely in the long run, to send space probes with smart machines rather than half-mad humans, though I don’t doubt some of the latter will make their way out there.

From Rees:

Even though the rate of progress is uncertain, the direction of travel is pretty well agreed. It’s almost certainly going to be towards a posthuman world, where our intelligences would be surpassed by something genetically engineered from us or, more likely, it will be some sort of artificial electronic device that has robotic abilities and intelligence.

Some people say that will happen within a century, others say it will happen within a few hundred years. Even if it takes a few hundred years, that is a tiny instant compared to the past history of the Earth. More importantly, it’s a tiny instant compared to a long-range future. There are billions of years ahead for our solar system, and maybe even more for the universe.

If you imagine a time chart for what’s happened on the Earth, there’s been 4 billion years where there’s been no manifestation of any technology. Then, a few millennia of gradually expanding technology generated by human beings. After that, maybe there will be billions of years more when the dominant technology, the dominant non-natural things, will be entirely inorganic. That means the following: If we were to detect some other planet on which life had taken a course similar to what happened here on Earth, it’s unlikely that its development there would be sufficiently synchronized with development here that we would catch it in those few millennia in which we’ve got technology that is controlled by organic beings like us. If it’s lagging behind what’s happened on Earth, then we’ll see no evidence for anything artificial.

On the other hand, if it’s ahead, then what we will detect—if we detect any evidence that that civilization existed—will be something mechanical, machines. Those machines maybe will not be on the planet because they may not want gravity, they may not want water, et cetera. They may be in space. If the Yuri Milner program detects anything, then it’s likely to be some artifact created by some long-dead civilization. It’s unlikely that there would be any coded message intended for us, but it might be something we could clearly see was not something that emerged naturally. That in itself would be very exciting.

To expand on what’s going to happen here on Earth that might lead to this takeover by posthumans in some form leads to another fascinating topic: the future of manned spaceflight. …

I don’t think Elon Musk is realistic when he imagines sending people a hundred at a time for normal life because Mars is going to be far less clement than living at the South Pole, and not many people want to do that. I don’t think there will be many ordinary people who want to go, but there will be some crazy pioneers who will want to go, even if they have one-way tickets.

The reason that’s important is the following: Here on Earth, I suspect that we are going to want to regulate the application of genetic modification and cyborg techniques on grounds of ethics and prudence. This links with another topic I want to come to later about the risks of new technology. If we imagine these people living as pioneers on Mars, they are out of range of any terrestrial regulation. Moreover, they’ve got a far higher incentive to modify themselves or their descendants to adapt to this very alien and hostile environment.

They will use all the techniques of genetic modification, cyborg techniques, maybe even linking or downloading themselves into machines, which, fifty years from now, will be far more powerful than they are today. The posthuman era is probably not going to start here on Earth; it will be spearheaded by these communities on Mars.•

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I’m given pause when someone compares the Internet to the printing press because the difference of degree between the inventions is astounding. For all the liberty Gutenberg’s contraption brought to the printed word, it was a process that overwhelmingly put power into the hand of disparate professionals. Sure, eventually with Xeroxes, anyone could print anything, but the vast majority of reading material produced was still overseen by professional gatekeepers (publishers, editors, etc.) who, on average, did the bidding of enlightenment.

By 1969, Glenn Gould believed the new technologies would allow for the sampling, remixing and democratization of creativity, that erstwhile members of the audience would ultimately ascend and become creators themselves. He hated the hierarchy of live performance and was sure its dominance would end. “The audiences [will] become the performer to a large extent,” he predicted. He couldn’t have known how right he was.

The Web has indeed brought us a greater degree of egalitarianism than we’ve ever possessed, as the centralization of media dissipated and the “fans” rushed the stage to put on a show of their own. Now here we all are crowded into the spotlight, a turn of events that’s been both blessing and curse. The utter democratization and the filter bubbles that have attended this phenomenon of endless channels have proven paradoxically (thus far) a threat to democracy. It’s acknowledged even those who’ve been made billionaires by these new tools that “the Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” though they never mention when some semblance of order might return.

In Stephen Fry’s excellent recent Hay Festival lecture “The Way Ahead” (h/t The Browser), the writer and actor spoke on these same topics and other aspects of the Digital Age that are approaching with scary velocity. Like a lot of us, he was an instant convert to Web 1.0, charmed by what it delivered and awed by its its staggering potential. Older, wiser and sadder for his knowledge of what’s come to pass, Fry tries to foresee what is next in a world in which 140 characters cannot only help topple tyrants but can create them as well, knowing that the Internet of Things will only further complicate matters. Odds are life may be greater and graver. He offers one word of advice: Prepare.

An excerpt: 

Gutenberg’s printing revolution, by way of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, by way of smashed samizdat presses in pre-Revolutionary Russia, by way of The Origin of Species and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by way of the rolling offset lithos of Fleet Street, Dickens, Joyce, J. K. Rowling, Mao’s Little Red Book and Hallmark greetings cards brought us to the world into which all of us were born, it brought us, amongst other things – quite literally – here to Hay-on-Wye. I started coming to this great festival before the word Kindle had a technological meaning, when an “e-book” might be a survey of 90s Rave drug Culture, or possibly an Ian McMillan glossary of Yorkshire Dialect.

Printed books haven’t gone away, indeed, we are most of us I suspect, pleased to learn how much they have come roaring back, in parallel with vinyl records and other instances of analogue refusal to die. But the difference between an ebook and a printed book is as nothing when set beside the influence of digital technology as a whole on the public weal, international polity and the destiny of our species. It has embedded itself in our lives with enormous speed. If you are not at the very least anxious about that, then perhaps you have not quite understood how dependent we are in every aspect of our lives – personal, professional, health, wealth, transport, nutrition, prosperity, mind, body and spirit.

The great Canadian Marshall McLuhan –– philosopher should one call him? – whose prophetic soul seems more and more amazing with each passing year, gave us the phrase the ‘Global Village’ to describe the post-printing age that he already saw coming back in the 1950s. Where the Printing Age had ‘fragmented the psyche’ as he put it, the Global Village – whose internal tensions exist in the paradoxical nature of the phrase itself: both Global and a village – this would tribalise us, he thought and actually regress us to a second oral age. Writing in 1962, before even ARPANET, the ancestor of the internet existed, this is how he forecasts the electronic age which he thinks will change human cognition and behaviour:

“Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world will become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses go outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. […] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.”

Like much of McLuhan’s writing, densely packed with complex ideas as they are, this repays far more study and unpicking than would be appropriate here, but I think we might all agree that we have arrived at that “phase of panic terrors” he foresaw.•

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America desperately needs to win the race in AI, robotics, driverless, supercomputers, solar and other next-level sectors if the nation is to maintain its place in the world. If a powerful and wealthy democracy were to invest wisely and boldly, it would have a great advantage in such competitions with an autocracy like China. Unfortunately, we’ve never had a government less-equipped or less willing to pull off this feat. Trump wants to make coal great again, and Mnuchin can’t see AI on his radar.

If the U.S. and the European states are lose in these areas to China, infamous only a decade ago for its knockoff Apple Stores, the latter nation’s technological might and soft power will increase, further imperiling liberty.

The opening of a New York Times piece by Paul Mozur and John Markoff:

HONG KONG — Soren Schwertfeger finished his postdoctorate research on autonomous robots in Germany , and seemed set to go to Europe or the US, where artificial intelligence was pioneered and established.

Instead, he went to China.

“You couldn’t have started a lab like mine elsewhere,” Schwertfeger said.

The balance of power in technology is shifting. China, which for years watched enviously as the west invented the software and the chips powering today’s digital age, has become a major player in artificial intelligence, what some think may be the most important technology of the future. Experts widely believe China is only a step behind the US.

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out sci-fi ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the internet.

Beijing is backing its artificial intelligence push with vast sums of money. Having already spent billions on research programs, China is readying a new multibillion-dollar initiative to fund moonshot projects, start-ups and academic research, all with the aim of growing China’s A.I. capabilities, according to two professors who consulted with the government on the plan.•

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hugh-hefner-chicago-playboy-townhouse-bed

During the heyday of the Magazine Age, when Playboy was still based in Chicago, Hugh Hefner thought most people would soon be enjoying his lifestyle. Well, not exactly his lifestyle.

The mansion, grotto and Bunnies were to remain largely unattainable, but he believed technology would help us remove ourselves from the larger world so that we each could create our own “little planet.” The gadgets he used five decades ago to extend his adolescence and recuse himself are now much more powerful and affordable. Hefner believed our new, personalized islands would be our homes, not our phones, but he was right in thinking that tools would make life more remote in some fundamental way.

In 1966, Oriana Fallaci interviewed Hefner for her book, The Egotists. Her sharp introduction and the first exchange follow.

_________________________

First of all, the House. He stays in it as a Pharaoh in a grave, and so he doesn’t notice that the night has ended, the day has begun, a winter passed, and a spring, and a summer–it’s autumn now. Last time he emerged from the grave was last winter, they say, but he did not like what he saw and returned with great relief three days later. The sky was then extinguished behind the electronic gate, and he sat down again in his grave: 1349 North State Parkway, Chicago. But what a grave, boys! Ask those who live in the building next to it, with their windows opening onto the terrace on which the bunnies sunbathe, in monokinis or notkinis. (The monokini exists of panties only, the notkini consists of nothing.) Tom Wolfe has called the house the final rebellion against old Europe and its custom of wearing shoes and hats, its need of going to restaurants or swimming pools. Others have called it Disneyland for adults. Forty-eight rooms, thirty-six servants always at your call. Are you hungry? The kitchen offers any exotic food at any hour. Do you want to rest? Try the Gold Room, with a secret door you open by touching the petal of a flower, in which the naked girls are being photographed. Do you want to swim? The heated swimming pool is downstairs. Bathing suits of any size or color are here, but you can swim without, if you prefer. And if you go into the Underwater Bar, you will see the Bunnies swim as naked as little fishes. The House hosts thirty Bunnies, who may go everywhere, like members of the family. The pool also has a cascade. Going under the cascade, you arrive at the grotto, rather comfortable if you like to flirt; tropical plants, stereophonic music, drinks, erotic opportunities, and discreet people. Recently, a guest was imprisoned in the steam room. He screamed, but nobody came to help him. Finally, he was able to free himself by breaking down the door, and when he asked in anger, why nobody came to his help–hadn’t they heard his screams?–they answered, “Obviously. But we thought you were not alone.”

At the center of the grave, as at the center of a pyramid, is the monarch’s sarcophagus: his bed. It’s a large, round and here he sleeps, he thinks, he makes love, he controls the little cosmos that he has created, using all the wonders that are controlled by electronic technology. You press a button and the bed turns through half a circle, the room becomes many rooms, the statue near the fireplace becomes many statues. The statue portrays a woman, obviously. Naked, obviously. And on the wall there TV sets on which he can see the programs he missed while he slept or thought or made love. In the room next to the bedroom there is a laboratory with the Ampex video-tape machine that catches the sounds and images of all the channels; the technician who takes care of it was sent to the Ampex center in San Francisco. And then? Then there is another bedroom that is his office, because he does not feel at ease far from a bed. Here the bed is rectangular and covered with papers and photos and documentation on Prostitution, Heterosexuality, Sodomy. Other papers are on the floor, the chairs, the tables, along with tape recorders, typewriters, dictaphones. When he works, he always uses the electric light, never opening a window, never noticing the night has ended, the day begun. He wears pajamas only. In his pajamas, he works thirty-six hours, forty-eight hours nonstop, until he falls exhausted on the round bed, and the House whispers the news: He sleeps. Keep silent in the kitchen, in the swimming pool, in the lounge, everywhere: He sleeps.

He is Hugh Hefner, emperor of an empire of sex, absolute king of seven hundred Bunnies, founder and editor of Playboy: forty million dollars in 1966, bosoms, navels, behinds as mammy made them, seen from afar, close up, white, suntanned, large, small, mixed with exquisite cartoons, excellent articles, much humor, some culture, and, finally, his philosophy. This philosophy’s name is “Playboyism,” and, synthesized, it says that “we must not be afraid or ashamed of sex, sex is not necessarily limited to marriage, sex is oxygen, mental health. Enough of virginity, hypocrisy, censorship, restrictions. Pleasure is to be preferred to sorrow.” It is now discussed even by theologians. Without being ironic, a magazine published a story entitled “…The Gospel According to Hugh Hefner.” Without causing a scandal, a teacher at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, writes that Playboyism is, in some ways, a religious movement: “That which the church has been too timid to try, Hugh Hefner…is attempting.”

We Europeans laugh. We learned to discuss sex some thousands of years ago, before even the Indians landed in America. The mammoths and the dinosaurs still pastured around New York, San Francisco, Chicago, when we built on sex the idea of beauty, the understanding of tragedy, that is our culture. We were born among the naked statues. And we never covered the source of life with panties. At the most, we put on it a few mischievous fig leaves. We learned in high school about a certain Epicurus, a certain Petronius, a certain Ovid. We studied at the university about a certain Aretino. What Hugh Hefner says does not make us hot or cold. And now we have Sweden. We are all going to become Swedish, and we do not understand these Americans, who, like adolescents, all of a sudden, have discovered that sex is good not only for procreating. But then why are half a million of the four million copies of the monthly Playboy sold in Europe? In Italy, Playboy can be received through the mail if the mail is not censored. And we must also consider all the good Italian husbands who drive to the Swiss border just to buy Playboy. And why are the Playboy Clubs so famous in Europe, why are the Bunnies so internationally desired? The first question you hear when you get back is: “Tell me, did you see the Bunnies? How are they? Do they…I mean…do they?!?” And the most severe satirical magazine in the U.S.S.R., Krokodil, shows much indulgence toward Hugh Hefner: “[His] imagination in indeed inexhaustible…The old problem of sex is treated freshly and originally…”

Then let us listen with amusement to this sex lawmaker of the Space Age. He’s now in his early forties. Just short of six feet, he weighs one hundred and fifty pounds. He eats once a day. He gets his nourishment essentially from soft drinks. He does not drink coffee. He is not married. He was briefly, and he has a daughter and a son, both teen-agers. He also has a father, a mother, a brother. He is a tender relative, a nepotist: his father works for him, his brother, too. Both are serious people, I am informed.

And then I am informed that the Pharaoh has awakened, the Pharaoh is getting dressed, is going to arrive, has arrived: Hallelujah! Where is he? He is there: that young man, so slim, so pale, so consumed by the lack of light and the excess of love, with eyes so bright, so smart, so vaguely demoniac. In his right hand he holds a pipe: in his left hand he holds a girl, Mary, the special one. After him comes his brother, who resembles Hefner. He also holds a girl, who resembles Mary. I do not know if the pipe he owns resembles Hugh’s pipe because he is not holding one right now. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and, as on every Sunday afternoon, there is a movie in the grave. The Pharaoh lies down on the sofa with Mary, the light goes down, the movie starts. The Bunnies go to sleep and the four lovers kiss absentminded kisses. God knows what Hugh Hefner thinks about men, women, love, morals–will he be sincere in his nonconformity? What fun, boys, if I discover that he is a good, proper moral father of Family whose destiny is paradise. Keep silent, Bunnies. He speaks. The movie is over, and he speaks, with a soft voice that breaks. And, I am sure, without lying.

Oriana Fallaci:

A year without leaving the House, without seeing the sun, the snow, the rain, the trees, the sea, without breathing the air, do you not go crazy? Don’t you die with unhappiness?

Hugh Hefner:

Here I have all the air I need. I never liked to travel: the landscape never stimulated me. I am more interested in people and ideas. I find more ideas here than outside. I’m happy, totally happy. I go to bed when I like. I get up when I like: in the afternoon, at dawn, in the middle of the night. I am in the center of the world, and I don’t need to go out looking for the world. The rational use that I make of progress and technology brings me the world at home. What distinguishes men from other animals? Is it not perhaps their capacity to control the environment and to change it according to their necessities and tastes? Many people will soon live as I do. Soon, the house will be a little planet that does not prohibit but helps our relationships with the others. Is it not more logical to live as I do instead of going out of a little house to enter another little house, the car, then into another little house, the office, then another little house, the restaurant or the theater? Living as I do, I enjoy at the same time company and solitude, isolation from society and immediate access to society. Naturally, in order to afford such luxury, one must have money. But I have it. And it’s delightful.•

That Mark Zuckerberg’s self-described religious conversion and his 50-states “listening tour” have been carefully managed, documented and publicized for public consumption is undeniable, but let’s not suppose that something so staged will be unsuccessful. After all, there’s never been a more obvious con man than Donald Trump, so let us never, ever again underestimate the propensity of Americans to be impressed by fabulously wealthy celebrities going through the motions. Enough of us assume they have to be brilliant and special. 

Maybe the founder of Facebook, the platform of choice for Alt-Reich enthusiasts, is really prepping for a 2020 Presidential run that will be aided by his media holdings–like Berlusconi minus all the fascinating bunga bunga?–or perhaps he’s just trying on a new style like when he was killing the animals he ate or being a proud Atheist or saying idiotic pseudo-philosophical about dying Africans. Sure, it’s possible he’s truly changed and grown, but real personal development is not usually connected to the end of a selfie stick.

Regardless, there are many Americans who’d be far better in the Oval Office and at least one who’s way worse.

From Mike Isaac of the New York Times:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In March, Mark Zuckerberg visited the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the site of a mass murder by a white supremacist.

Last month, he went to Dayton, Ohio, to sit down with recovering opioid addicts at a rehabilitation center.

And he spent an afternoon in Blanchardville, Wis., with Jed Gant, whose family has owned a dairy and beef cattle farm for six generations.

These were all stops along a road trip by Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, across the United States this year. His goal: to visit every state in the union and learn more about a sliver of the nearly two billion people who regularly use the social network.

On Thursday, in a commencement speech at Harvard, from which he dropped out in 2005, Mr. Zuckerberg discussed how his views on how people live and work with one another had broadened, partly as a result of what he has seen on the tour. He said he had come to realize that churches, civic centers and other organized meeting places are integral to building and maintaining a strong sense of community.

“As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after-school program or somewhere to go,” said Mr. Zuckerberg, who also received an honorary doctoral degree at the ceremony. “I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place.”

To his critics, Mr. Zuckerberg’s road trip is a stunt and has taken on the trappings of a political campaign. His every pit stop — eating with a farming family in Ohio; feeding a baby calf at a farm in Wisconsin — has been artfully photographed and managed, and then posted to Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.

“He has all of the mechanics needed for a massive, well-staged media operation,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media watchdog group. “Photographers, handlers, its size, scope and scale — all the ingredients are there. And he’s appearing in an environment where there’s no sole Democratic leader or counterbalance to Trump, who’s consuming all the oxygen in media.”

Mr. Zuckerberg has publicly denied that he is using the visits as a platform to run for public office.•

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Social mobility as it relates to geography, gender, integration, education and other factors is at the heart of much of the research conducted by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. An erstwhile wunderkind who’s still very young at 37, the academic, an immigrant from New Dehli whose family relocated to Milwaukee when he was a child, has often wondered what allowed his success. Certainly native genius was a key component and having a father who was an economist and mother a pulmonologist didn’t hurt, but how much did physical location and primary and secondary schools matter?  

It’s a topic I consider often not only because the American Dream has been dragging for many for decades, but because I grew up in a lower-income, blue-collar neighborhood that didn’t have a bookstore. It was hard to get from here to there, and part of the problem went beyond money, location and access, though those factors undoubtedly loomed large. The problem was also cultural, as scholarly achievements–even a mere love of reading–was viewed as a “sellout” or sorts. Don’t know if that’s still the situation where I’m from, but I bet it stubbornly persists in other quarters of the country. 

Certainly the nativism and scapegoating of the most recent Presidential election was so shockingly acceptable to so many citizens in part because of our ever-widening economic segregation. The terrible outcome of that race will likely only exacerbate the issue.

Tyler Cowen just interviewed Chetty. Three excerpts follow.


Tyler Cowen:

It’s a common view, derived from William Baumol and Bowen, that education is subject to a kind of cost disease, that it’s harder and harder to augment productivity, wages rise in other sectors of the economy, education takes a rising share of GDP but doesn’t really get much better. Do you accept that story, or, if not, how would you modify it? Are we doomed to low productivity growth in K–12 education?

Raj Chetty:

I don’t think so because, while in some limited case that might end up being true, at the moment I see so many opportunities within the US K–12 education system to potentially have significantly higher productivity without dramatically higher cost. Let me give you an example. Coming back to the case of teachers, my sense is, if we were to try to keep the most effective teachers in the classroom and either retrain or dismiss the teachers who are less effective, we could substantially increase productivity without significantly increasing cost.

Tyler Cowen:

But say we do that. What do we do next?

Raj Chetty:

I think eventually it’s conceivable that you move up the quality ladder, and you’ve got everybody getting a very good primary school education. Then you need to work on secondary education and so forth. But there again, I would say there are lots of bargains to be found.

In our most recent work looking at colleges and upward mobility, we see that there are a number of colleges where kids seem to be doing extremely well that are not all that expensive. Also, I think, here a macroeconomic perspective is useful. If you look at countries that have some of the best educational outcomes, like Scandinavian countries, they’re not actually spending dramatically more than the United States.

At some abstract level, I think that logic has to be right, that eventually, in order to raise the level of education beyond some point, we’re going to have to spend more and more on that, but I don’t think we’re close enough empirically to such a point that that is really a critical consideration at the moment.


Tyler Cowen:

If you told the story about molecules impinging on your body and impelling you to action, what’s the best story you can come up with for Iowa, say, or Utah?

Raj Chetty:

Yeah, a few different things. Iowa is known for having very good public schools for a long time.

Tyler Cowen:

But that too is arguably just part of the package.

Raj Chetty:

Yes. Where did that come from? Why does Iowa have good public schools?

Tyler Cowen:

Right.

Raj Chetty:

One of the strong correlates we find is that places that are more integrated across socioeconomic groups, that have lower segregation, tend to have better outcomes for kids. And that kind of thing in a rural area — you can see why that occurs and why it might lead to better outcomes.

If you live in a big city, it’s very easy to self-segregate in various ways. You live in a gated community, you send your kids to a private school. You essentially don’t interact with people from different socioeconomic classes. If you live in a small town in Iowa, pretty much there’s one place your kids are going to go to school. There’s one set of activities that you can all participate in. And that is likely to lead to more integration.


Tyler Cowen:

As I’m sure you know, since the 1990s, segregation by income has been rising in this country. And here, Silicon Valley is one of the most extreme cases of that. So seeing that, are you on net a segregation optimist or pessimist? If I may ask.

Raj Chetty:

I think current trends suggests that segregation will continue to grow in the US. Take the case of driverless cars, for example. One way that could go is, if you have access to driverless cars, it makes it all the more easy to go live further away in a secluded place, further reduce interaction, right?

So I think it’s very important to think about social policy in the context of that type of technology. How do you set cities up? How do you do urban planning and architecture in a way such that you don’t actually just facilitate more segregation? Such that you make it attractive to live in a more mixed-income community? That’s a key challenge, I think.•

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Overall I enjoyed Garry Kasaprov’s Deep Thinking. Have philosophical disagreements with it, for sure, and there is some revisionism in regards to his personal history, but the author’s take on his career developing parallel to the rise of the machines and his waterloo versus IBM is fascinating. It’s clear that if there had been a different World Chess Champion during Kasparov’s reign, one who lacked his significant understanding of the meaning of computers and maverick mindset, the game would have been impoverished for it. I’ll try to make time this weekend to write a long review.

The 20-year retrospective on Deep Blue’s 1997 victory would be incomplete without reflection by Steven Levy, who penned the famous Newsweek cover story “The Brain’s Last Stand” as a preface to the titanic match in which humanity sunk. (It turns out Levy himself composed that perfectly provocative cover line that no EIC could refuse.)

The writer focuses in part on the psychological games that Deep Blue was programmed to play, an essential point to remember as computers are integrated into every aspect of life–when nearly every object becomes “smart.” Levy points out that no such manipulations were required for DeepMind to conquer Go, but those machinations might be revisited when states and corporations desire to nudge our behaviors.

An excerpt:

The turning point of the match came in Game Two. Kasparov had won the first game and was feeling pretty good. In the second, the match was close and hard fought. But on the 36th move, the computer did something that shook Kasparov to his bones. In a situation where virtually every top-level chess program would have attacked Kasparov’s exposed queen, Deep Blue made a much subtler and ultimately more effective move that shattered Kasparov’s image of what a computer was capable of doing. It seemed to Kasparov — and frankly, to a lot of observers as well — that Deep Blue had suddenly stopped playing like a computer (by resisting the catnip of the queen attack) and instead adopted a strategy that only the wisest human master might attempt. By underplaying Deep Blue’s capabilities to Kasparov, IBM had tricked the human into underestimating it. A few days later, he described it this way: “Suddenly [Deep Blue] played like a god for one moment.” From that moment Kasparov had no idea what — or who — he was playing against. In what he described as “a fatalistic depression,” he played on, and wound up resigning the game.

After Game Two, Kasparov was not only agitated by his loss but also suspicious at how the computer had made a move that was so…un-computer like. “It made me question everything,” he now writes. Getting the printouts that explained what the computer did — and proving that there was no human intervention — became an obsession for him. Before Game Five, in fact, he implied that he would not show up to play unless IBM submitted printouts, at least to a neutral party who could check that everything was kosher. IBM gave a small piece to a third party, but never shared the complete file.

Kasparov was not the same player after Game Two.•


“It was very easy, all the machines are only cables and bulbs.”

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