Category: Technology

I, Robot and Us

What happens if artificial intelligence (AI) technologies become significant economic players? The topic has come up in various ways for the past thirty years, perhaps longer. One model, the so-called technological singularity, posits that self-improving machines may be capable of a level of knowledge generation and disruption that will eliminate humans from economic participation. How far out this singularity might be is a matter of speculation, but I have my doubts that we really understand intelligence enough to start worrying about the impacts of such radical change.

Barring something essentially unknowable because we lack sufficient priors to make an informed guess, we can use evidence of the impact of mechanization on certain economic sectors, like agribusiness or transportation manufacturing, to try to plot out how mechanization might impact other sectors. Aghion, Jones, and Jones’ Artificial Intelligence and Economic Growth, takes a deep dive into the topic. The math is not particularly hard, though the reasons for many of the equations are tied up in macro and microeconomic theory that requires a specialist’s understanding to fully grok.

Of special interest are the potential limiting role of inputs and organizational competition. For instance, automation speed-ups may be limited by human limitations within the economic activity. This may extend even further due to fundamental limitations of physics for a given activity. The pointed example is that power plants are limited by thermodynamics; no amount of additional mechanization can change that. Other factors related to inputs or the complexity of a certain stage of production may also drag economic growth to a capped, limiting level.

Organizational competition and intellectual property considerations come into play, as well. While the authors suggest that corporations will remain relevant, they should become more horizontal by eliminating much of the middle tier of management and outsourcing components of their productivity. The labor consequences are less dire than some singularity speculations: certain low knowledge workers may achieve more influence in the economic activities because they remain essential to the production chain and their value and salaries rise. They become more fluid, as well, because they can operate as free lancers and thus have a broader impact.

This kind of specialization and out-sized knowledge influence, whether by low or high-knowledge workers, is a kind of singularity in itself. Consider the influence of the printing press in disseminating knowledge or the impact of radio and television. The economic costs of moving humans around to convey ideas or to entertain evaporate or minimize, but the influence is limited then to highly-regarded specialists who are competing to get a slice of the public’s attention. Similarly, the knowledge worker who is not easily replaceable by machine becomes the star of the new, AI economy. This may be happening already, with rumors of astronomical compensation for certain AI experts percolating out of Silicon Valley.

Theories of Leisure, Past and Future

img_0028I am at leisure. Specifically—and many may not regard this as leisure—I just ran 17.71 miles in Yosemite Valley. I dropped the car along the road near the 41 junction and then just started running. I went south for a while, then circled back to Bridalveil Falls (lightly flowing), then up to the Glacier Point loop, then back down to El Capitan, then up to Yosemite Falls (not flowing). Lunch was at the Village and then I tracked down the car again.

Now, then, I am at leisure. The barman has set me up with a martini. I have a Fresno Fig flatbread on the way: goat cheese, bacon, arugula, and the critical figs. I am showered all the way down to between my toes. The late afternoon light is filtering through a mild haze onto the muddy belly of the lake. There must be bass out there somewhere. Let the bass live. Let them be at leisure.

A must-read on this topic is Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article, The Free-Time Paradox in America. I don’t agree with the thesis, though. It’s not really a paradox. It’s just an unknown. You should read Derek’s original, but I will comment briefly on some of his points. He argues that John Maynard Keynes forecast a reduction in work requirements by the 21st Century. Mechanization would take the drudgery out of most things and we would get to 15 hour work weeks with the management of our leisure time an increasing burden on us.

The present didn’t work out that way.

Instead, educated high-earners work ever harder. The only leisure class is the non-college-educated male youth who don’t work much these days but instead play video games (75% of their spare time) and are happier than when more of them worked. Derek rolls up several theories about why this might be the case. First, maybe it’s because the industry jobs disappeared and young men don’t like to work in retail and health care. Second, perhaps it’s because the wealthy workers are trying to keep up with the Joneses, though not exactly in the way that the Thorstein Veblen imagined it. Instead of conspicuous consumption, it is conspicuous activity. Finally, maybe it’s because work and leisure have blurred too much; entertaining ourselves on our smartphones is just too close to responding to an email from work.

I agree partly with the suggestion that economic productivity can be a very high level of creative action that is implicit in some of Derek’s commentary. Is there really much difference between landscape design and watercolor painting? Both require an understanding of materials and methods that result in an aesthetic outcome, though the former has more of a pragmatic impact than the latter. Is this a significant deviation from past economic efforts? Perhaps. The modern startup doesn’t have the dark satanic mills of the past, and is based, generally, on technological advances that are intellectually interesting. Sometimes this was the case historically, but not consistently.

Ultimately, what constitutes leisure activities rather than productive activities is inherently blurry. I suppose the golfing set might claim otherwise, but I do work-related thinking while running, and may intertwine writing efforts with other actions without harm to either of them. Leisure is fungible.

The future of leisure is similarly fungible. We can guess that virtual gaming will be even more compelling than existing gaming options, pulling young men and others even further away from engagement with the traditional economic sphere. Yet, even here there are opportunities: toolkits for virtual world design, the designs themselves, monetizing the experiences in compelling ways. Even my Yosemite experience can be virtualized. Fly drones around, mapping and imagining every square inch in ultra-4K resolution. Yes, drones are currently illegal in National Parks, but they could be used by licensed content producers, I’m guessing. Then everyone could fly, run, hike, walk, boat, and swim this little, leisurely experience.

I am at leisure.

Neutered Inventiveness

I just received an award from my employer for getting more than five patents through the patent committee this year. Since I’m a member of the committee, it was easy enough. Just kidding: I was not, of course, allowed to vote on my own patents. The award I received leaves a bit to be desired, however. First, I have to say that it is a well-crafted glass block about 4″ x 3″ and has the kind of heft to it that would make it invaluable as a weapon in a game of Clue. That being said, I give you Exhibits 1 and 2:

Vitruvian Exhibits

Exhibit 1 is a cell-phone snap through the glass surface of my award at Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man, so named because it was a tribute to the architect Vitruvius—or so Wikipedia tells me. Exhibit 2 is an image of the original sketch by da Vinci, also borrowed from Wikipedia.

And now, with only minimal scrutiny, my dear reader can see the fundamental problem in the borrowing and translation of old Vitruvius. While Vitruvius was deeply enamored of a sense of symmetry to the human body, and da Vinci took that sense of wonder as a basis for drawing his figure, we can rightly believe that the presence of all anatomical parts of the man was regarded as essential for the accurate portrayal of man’s elaborate architecture.

My inventions now seem somehow neutered and my sense of wonder castrated by this lesser man, no matter what the intent of the good people in charge of the production of the award. I reflect on their motivations in light of recent arguments concerning the proper role of the humanities in our modern lives. I have consulted with my wife, an expert on a range of obscure matters concerning art history, mythology, pagan traditions, and other scholarly things that enrich our lives but are sometimes hard to assign tangible value. She insists that penises should never be removed—nor inserted—just to make a point.

Further reflection suggests that the very choice of Vitruvian Man really wasn’t a very good one. How about this?


Shaft intact and all, it represents inventiveness far better than old Vitruvius’ meditations on the architecture of the body and the world.

Machine Learning and the Coming Robot Apocalypse

Daliesque creepy dogsSlides from a talk I gave today on current advances in machine learning are available in PDF, below. The agenda is pretty straightforward: starting with some theory about overfitting based on algorithmic information theory, we proceed on through a taxonomy of ML types (not exhaustive), then dip into ensemble learning and deep learning approaches. An analysis of the difficulty and types of performance we get from various algorithms and problems is presented. We end with a discussion of whether we should be frightened about the progress we see around us.

Note: click on the gray square if you don’t see the embedded PDF…browsers vary.

Download the PDF file .

Informational Chaff and Metaphors

chaffI received word last night that our scholarship has received over 1400 applications, which definitely surprised me. I had worried that the regional restriction might be too limiting but Agricultural Sciences were added in as part of STEM so that probably magnified the pool.

Dan Dennett of Tufts and Deb Roy at MIT draw parallels between informational transparency in our modern world and biological mechanism in Scientific American (March 2015, 312:3). Their article, Our Transparent Future (related video here; you have to subscribe to read the full article), starts with Andrew Parker’s theory that the Cambrian Explosion may have been tied to the availability of light as cloud cover lifted and seas became transparent. An evolutionary arms race began for the development of sensors that could warn against predators, and predators that could acquire more prey.

They continue on drawing parallels to biological processes, including the concept of squid ink and how a similar notion, chaff, was used to mask radar signatures as aircraft became weapons of war. The explanatory mouthful of the Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) with dummy warheads to counter anti-ballistic missiles were likewise a deceptive way of reducing the risk of interception. So Dennett and Roy “predict the introduction of chaff made of nothing but megabytes of misinformation,” designed to deceive search engines of the nature of real info.

This is a curious idea. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a whole industry that combines consulting with tricks and tools to try to raise the position of vendors in the Google rankings. Being in the first page of listings can be make-or-break for retail vendors, and they pay to try to make that happen. The strategies are based around trying to establish links to the vendor from individuals and other pages to try to game the PageRank algorithm. In turn, Google has continued to optimize to reduce the effectiveness of these links, trying to establish whether hand- or machine-created content with links looks like real, valuable information or just promotional materials. This is, in some ways, the opposite of informational chaff. The goal is not to hide the content in plain sight, but to make it more discoverable. “Information scent” was a concept introduced at XeroX PARC when I was there and it applies here.

But what of chaff? Perhaps the best example that I can think of is the idea of “drowning in paper” that lawyers occasionally describe, on TV or otherwise, where huge piles of non-digitized materials are dumped in the hopes that the criminal or civil needle-in-the-haystack will be impossible to find. This is highly dependent on the temporal limitations of individuals to ingest the materials, and is equally countered by OCR and scanning services to produce accessible forms of data. Dennett and Roy point out that more sophisticated search engines (and I’ll add other analytic tools) can counter efforts at chaff.

More broadly, though, we get to the issue of whether evolutionary metaphors provide us with any new insights into the changing role of information in an interconnected and digitized society? I’m not altogether sure. It is routinely argued that the existence of early computing machines led to cognitive science as we have known it, conflating problem solving with algorithms and describing the brain’s hardware and software. Is evolutionary adaption equally influential in steering weapon’s designs or informational secrecy strategy? I think we are probably cunning enough (thanks evolution) about proximate threats and consequences that there might not be much to learn from metaphorical analysis of this type.

Inequality and Big Data Revolutions

industrial-revolutionsI had some interesting new talking points in my Rock Stars of Big Data talk this week. On the same day, MIT Technology Review published Technology and Inequality by David Rotman that surveys the link between a growing wealth divide and technological change. Part of my motivating argument for Big Data is that intelligent systems are likely the next industrial revolution via Paul Krugman of Nobel Prize and New York Times fame. Krugman builds on Robert Gordon’s analysis of past industrial revolutions that reached some dire conclusions about slowing economic growth in America. The consequences of intelligent systems on everyday life will have enormous impact and will disrupt everything from low-wage workers through to knowledge workers. And how does Big Data lead to that disruption?

Krugman’s optimism was built on the presumption that the brittleness of intelligent systems so far can be overcome by more and more data. There are some examples where we are seeing incremental improvements due to data volumes. For instance, having larger sample corpora to use for modeling spoken language enhances automatic speech recognition. Google Translate builds on work that I had the privilege to be involved with in the 1990s that used “parallel texts” (essentially line-by-line translations) to build automatic translation systems based on phrasal lookup. The more examples of how things are translated, the better the system gets. But what else improves with Big Data? Maybe instrumenting many cars and crowdsourcing driving behaviors through city streets would provide the best data-driven approach to self-driving cars. Maybe instrumenting individuals will help us overcome some of things we do effortlessly that are strangely difficult to automate like folding towels and understanding complex visual scenes.

But regardless of the methods, the consequences need to be considered. Our current fascination with Big Data may not lead to Industrial Revolution 4 in five years or twenty, but unless there is some magical barrier that we are not aware of, IR4 seems to be inevitable. And the impacts will perhaps be more profound than the past revolutions because, unlike those transitions, the direct displacement of workers is a key component of the IR4 plan. In Rotman’s article, Thomas Piketty’s r > g is invoked to explain the excess return on capital (r) versus economic growth rate (g) and how that leads to a concentration of wealth among the richest members of our society, creating a barbell distribution of economic opportunities where the middle class has been dismantled due to (per Gordon) the equalization of labor costs through outsourcing to low-cost nations. But at least there remains a left bell to that barbell in that it is largely impossible to eliminate the services jobs that are critical to retail, restaurant, logistics, health care, and a raft of other economic sectors.

All that changes in IR4 and the barbell turns into the hammer from the Olympic hammer throw as the owners of the capital take over the entire cost structure for a huge range of economic activities. The middle may not initially be gone, however, as maintenance of the machinery will require a skilled workforce. Even this will be a point of Big Data optimization, however, as predictive maintenance and self-healing systems optimize against their failure modes over usage cycles.

So let’s go back to Gordon’s pessimism (economics is, after all, the “dismal science”). What headwinds and tailwinds are left in IR4? Perhaps the most cogent is the recommended use of redistributive methods for accelerating educational opportunities while reducing the debt load of American students. The other areas that are discussed include unlimited immigration to try to offset hours per capita declines due to retirement and demographic effects, but Gordon’s application of this is not necessarily valid in IR4 where low-skilled immigration would cease because of a lack of economic opportunities and even higher-skilled workers might find themselves displaced.

One lesson learned from past industrial revolutions is that they created more opportunities than worker displacements. Steam power displaced animal labor and the workers needed to shoe and train and feed those animals. Diesel trains displaced steam engine builders and mechanics. Cars and aircraft displaced trains. But in each case there were new jobs that accompanied the shift. We might be equally optimistic about IR4, speculating about robot trainers and knowledge engineers, massive extraction industries and materials production, or enhanced creative and entertainment systems like Michael Crichton’s dystopian Westworld of the early 70s. Is this enough to buffer against the headwind of the loss of the service sector? Perhaps, but it will not come without enormous global disruption.

Hits and MITS

I just came across the following scan that describes how an MITS Altair 8800B became my first personal computer, journeying from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, New Mexico and getting an EEPROM burner attached to a ribbon cable snaking out through the enameled steel case. The speech synthesizer predated stored digital samples, by the way, so it instead emulated phonemic mixtures generated by digital waveform filtering.

And that young chap on the left would later become my boss, three or four parts removed, at Microsoft. I still have that Altair, too, safely stored away.

MITS Altair Convention

Original PDF Scan:

MITS Computer Convention