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Monday, 17 October, 2016 0 Comments

On Thursday, President Barack Obama will host the Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh to imagine the USA and the world in 50 years and beyond. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play a growing role in this world and the White House has released a pre-conference report on considerations for AI called “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” (PDF 1.1MB). The report looks at the state of AI, its existing and potential uses — data science, machine learning, automation, robotics — and the questions that it raises for society and policy. Snippet:

“Fairness, Safety, and Governance: As AI technologies gain broader deployment, technical experts and policy analysts have raised concerns about unintended consequences. The use of AI to make consequential decisions about people, often replacing decisions made by human actors and institutions, leads to concerns about how to ensure justice, fairness, and accountability—the same concerns voiced previously in the ‘Big Data’ context. The use of AI to control physical-world equipment leads to concerns about safety, especially as systems are exposed to the full complexity of the human environment.”


Sunday, 16 October, 2016 0 Comments

“An axe or a hammer is a passive extension of a hand, but a drone forms a distributed intelligence along with its operator, and is closer to a dog or horse than a device.” So says Bryan Johnson, founder and CEO of Kernel, which aims to develop biomedically engineered devices linked our central nervous system to restore and enhance human cognitive, motor and sensory abilities. In a word: neuroprosthetics.

“The combination of human and artificial intelligence will define humanity’s future” declares Johnson an article for TechCrunch that examines the interplay of artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence (HI). He argues that humanity has arrived at the border of intelligence enhancement, “which could be the most consequential technological development of our time, and in history.” Once we head into new country, the result could be people who need never need worry about forgetfulness again, or suffer the degradations of ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. Johnson is very much on the side of the Valley evangelists, but he feels obliged to add what has become the mandatory cautionary note:

“It is certainly true that with every new technology we create, new risks emerge that need thoughtful consideration and wise action. Medical advances that saved lives also made germ warfare possible; chemical engineering led to fertilizers and increased food production but also to chemical warfare. Nuclear fission created a new source of energy but also led to nuclear bombs.”

Despite mankind’s inherent wickedness, Bryan Johnson does not fear the future and warns against using “a fear-based narrative” as the main structure for discussing HI+AI. This would limit the imagination and curiosity that are at the core of being human.

“The basis of optimism is sheer terror,” said Oscar Wilde, who was born on this day in 1864 at 21 Westland Row in Dublin.

Enough whiskey for a Mississippi River of pain

Saturday, 15 October, 2016 0 Comments

“Ya got cigarettes?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say,
“I got cigarettes.”
“Matches?” she asks.
“Enough to burn Rome.”
“Enough whiskey for a Mississippi River of pain.”
“You drunk?”
“Not yet.”

Charles Bukowski (1920 — 1994)

Galty whiskey

Bob Dylan: The Swedish connection

Friday, 14 October, 2016 0 Comments

Yesterday, Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, shook up the world of highbrow literature by announcing the awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. She seemed pleased with the outcome and there’s another Swede who’s happy with the news: Fredrik Wikingsson. Two years ago, Dylan performed a private four-song set for the Swedish journalist at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, prior to his show later that night at the venue. Wikingsson is a dedicated fan and has written at length about his personal experience with Dylan’s music.

Among the songs Bob Dylan performed for Fredrik Wikingsson were Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill, Chuck Willis’ It’s Too Late (She’s Gone) and Buddy Holly’s Heartbeat.

When Bob Dylan dreamed of St. Augustine

Thursday, 13 October, 2016 0 Comments

On 16 June 2011, Bob Dylan began a European tour in Cork, the southern capital of Ireland. The set opened with Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking and closed with Forever Young, but what made the evening particularly interesting was a song not heard all that often: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, from the 1967 album John Wesley Harding. Oddly enough, the last time he had played it before that was in Dublin, in 2005.

“I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.”

In the song, Dylan is addressed in his dreams by St. Augustine of Hippo, the bishop-philosopher who held the episcopal seat in Hippo Regius, a Roman port in northern Africa. He died in 430 A.D. when the city was overrun by Vandals. Dylanologist Tim Riley wrote that Bob uses St. Augustine’s “symbolic stature to signify anyone who has been put to death by a mob,” and his vision of the saint reveals “how it feels to be the target of mob psychology, and how confusing it is to identify with the throng’s impulses to smother what it loves too much or destroy what it can’t understand”. The opening lyrics and melody are based on the old union song I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.

Danny MacAskill’s Wee Day Out

Thursday, 13 October, 2016 0 Comments

The Scottish bike artist Danny MacAskill from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye leaves no trick unturned when he takes a two-wheeler trip around Edinburgh.

The background song is National Express by Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy from their 1998 album Fin de Siècle. National Express is based on Hannon’s observations of life as seen from the window of a British National Express bus. Critics have accused him of sneering at the English working classes in the song:

“On the National Express there’s a jolly hostess
Selling crisps and tea
She’ll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks
For a sky-high fee
Mini-skirts were in style when she danced down the aisle
Back in ’63 (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
But it’s hard to get by when your arse is the size
Of a small country
And everybody sings ‘ba ba ba da’
We’re going where the air is free
Tomorrow belongs to me.”

Ko Un can win

Wednesday, 12 October, 2016 0 Comments

The Samsung catastrophe has made this a very bad week so far for Seoul, but the Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded tomorrow and, according to Ladbrokes, Ko Un has a 14/1 chance of winning it. The South Korean poet was born on 1 August 1933 and among his works are haiku-like reflections with epigrammatic juxtapositions:

Some say they can recall a thousand years
Some say they have already visited the next thousand years
On a windy day
I am waiting for a bus

Other works, however, are longer. Much longer. There’s his seven-volume epic of the Korean independence movement under Japanese rule, Paektu Mountain, and this is topped by the monumental 30-volume Ten Thousand Lives, which was written during the years 1983–2010 to fulfil a vow Ko Un made during his imprisonment, when he expected to be executed following the coup d’état led by Chun Doo-hwan. If he lived, he swore that every person he had ever met would be remembered with a poem. Ko Un would be a deserving winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Japan’s running writer, Haruki Murakami, is our bet at 5/1.

Samsung up in smoke; HTC and Huawei burned

Tuesday, 11 October, 2016 0 Comments

In business schools all over the world, the Samsung Galaxy Note7 case study is guaranteed to be popular. Case studies about the fall of video-rental companies or the rise of low-cost airlines are interesting in their own way, but because so many business students have a smartphone made in Asia, this one is, like, personal.

Fire Today’s press release headline is worthy of study: “Samsung Will Ask All Global Partners to Stop Sales and Exchanges of Galaxy Note7 While Further Investigation Takes Place.” One can almost sense the trust people have in Samsung’s products going up in smoke as that was being typed, and the jokes have started: “Galaxy Note 7 — the smartphone that doubles as a lighter.”

It’s the cover-up that gets you, they say, and it seems all the initial work Samsung did to undo the Note 7 damage has been undone by its ongoing denial that the phone was still dangerous. With its aggressive, can-do culture, this world leader in electronics could not imagine making a disastrous safety mistake… Twice!

Samsung’s nightmare does not automatically mean good news for HTC, however. Google has picked the Taiwanese electronics company to assemble its new Pixel smartphone, but by becoming for Google what Foxconn is to Apple, HTC has lost status. “HTC, You Loser” wrote Bloomberg technology columnist Tim Culpan: “After spending years building its design and engineering chops, HTC has been demoted to water boy. Supplying Google with smartphones isn’t a victory — it’s an embarrassing end to HTC’s decade-long campaign to break out of that contract-manufacturing business and stand on its own two feet.”

The catastrophe at Samsung and the degrading of HTC should work in favour of Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications giant, but David Ruddock of Android Police pours cold water on that one:

“Google began talks with Huawei to produce its 2016 smartphone portfolio. Google, though, set a hard rule for the partnership: Huawei would be relegated to a manufacturing role, producing phones with Google branding. The Huawei logo and name would be featured nowhere on the devices’ exteriors or in their marketing… According to our source, word spread inside Huawei quickly that global CEO Richard Yu himself ended negotiations with Google right then and there.”

Meanwhile, Apple has brought forward its earnings report for the fourth fiscal quarter (third calendar quarter) of 2016. “Due to a scheduling conflict, Apple’s conference call to discuss fourth fiscal quarter results has been moved to Tuesday, October 25,” the company announced yesterday. It’s not clear what the conflict is, but there’s no smoke without fire. Also yesterday, Apple’s share price bounced 1.75 percent, hitting an intraday high of $116.75, the highest level since 10 December 2015.

Contracts: Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström

Monday, 10 October, 2016 0 Comments

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström. It was “their contributions to contract theory” that convinced the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

“Modern economies are held together by innumerable contracts. The new theoretical tools created by Hart and Holmström are valuable to the understanding of real-life contracts and institutions, as well as potential pitfalls in contract design.”

Next year, the economics of productivity or the environment might get the gong. And William Baumol will be 95, we hope.

The Nobel Prize in Economics: William Baumol?

Monday, 10 October, 2016 0 Comments

This morning, the Nobel Prize in Economics will be awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Who’ll win? The Thompson Reuters Web of Science is predicting either Olivier Blanchard, Edward Lazear or Marc Melitz, based on citation counts. But maybe the Swedes will signal a change by giving the award for environmental economics instead to William Nordhaus, Partha Dasgupta or Martin Weitzman. The favourite here, however, is William Baumol.

The 94-year-old is famous for what’s known as Baumol’s cost-disease hypothesis, which states that as manufactured goods become cheaper, people devote more of their resources to the thing that’s really scarce — human labour. Baumol In the future, especially, a lot of what people will pay for will be time spent with another human being: a nanny, a teacher, a carer, a nurse, a fitness trainer, a coach, a storyteller… Baumol is regarded as important for interpreting the productivity slowdown that’s been puzzling economists in recent times. Maybe there will always be labour-intensive industries with slow productivity growth, and those will have costs that go up rapidly relative to the others.

“There are many reasons for increased spending on health care, including an aging population, technological change, perverse incentives, supply-induced demand, and fear of malpractice litigation. The broader point is that the basic underlying problem does not entail misbehavior or incompetence but rather stems from the nature of the provision of labor-intensive services.” — William J. Baumol, The Cost Disease

Computer vision needed

Sunday, 9 October, 2016 0 Comments

So, this company is looking for a software engineer with the “Computer Vision” thing because “The core of our system is the computer vision algorithms that allow drones to understand the world around them.” The daily routine means the engineer will “Design and implement real-time estimation, mapping, tracking, classification, and detection algorithms.” What kind of experience is required for such work? “Hands-on experience with visual odometry, mapping and SLAM; Proficiency with probabilistic inference and 3d geometry, and Deep Learning — training data, neural networks, online learning.”

The company is Skydio, which is developing autonomous, affordable drones. Depending on how one sees this kind of thing, and whether one wishes to be classed as a Luddite or a technophile, we’re heading towards an AI future that’s either a science fiction film or a horror movie. Having a sense of humour will protect us, however.