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AI: Chappie and Ex Machina

Wednesday, 5 November, 2014 0 Comments

The fate of the gorillas now depends more on humans than on the actions of the gorillas themselves. So says Nick Bostrom. His alarming argument is that a time is coming when the fate of humanity could depend on the super-intelligence of machines. Bostrom lays out his thinking in his latest book, The Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. He worries that when machine brains surpass human brains in intelligence, this new “superintelligence” could become the dominant life-form, and if we want to avoid such a catastrophe, we’d better start planning now. The dangers of artificial intelligence are central to Ex Machina, which is coming to the big screen in spring.

Elon Musk, the business genius and inventor, CEO of Tesla Motors, CTO of SpaceX and chairman of SolarCity was born in South Africa, as was Neill Blomkamp, the director of Chappie, which is also coming to the cinema in spring. Chappie is a robot, but he’s super-intelligent enough to think and feel for himself. Which brings us back to Musk, who tweeted, “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.”

Speaking recently at the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics department’s Centennial Symposium, Musk called AI our biggest existential threat: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.”

How Obama Lost America

Tuesday, 4 November, 2014 0 Comments

According to the analysts, the Republicans are set to become the majority party in the US Senate following today’s mid-term elections. In his New York Times column on Sunday, Ross Douthat sought an explanation for a key talking point of the campaign: the unpopularity of President Obama. With the US unemployment rate down to six percent and energy independence getting closer, one would think that voters should be somewhat grateful, but no. “The public’s confidence is gone, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back,” writes Douthat.

After poring over the landscape, Douthat says that the disaffection with Obama “mostly reflects a results-based verdict on what seems like poor execution, in which the White House’s slow response to ISIS is of a piece with the Obamacare rollout and the V.A. scandal and various other second-term asleep-at-the-tiller moments.” Another essential part of the picture is the state of the American middle class. Its members seem to have concluded that the drop in the jobless numbers and the fruits of fracking won’t make things much better. The squeezed middle believes that the recession is not temporary but deeply structural and this has led to disillusionment and despair. Gone forever are the heady days of Hope. When people look at Obama now they can sense the drift caused by a captain dozing at the wheel. Today, the voters will opt for change.

Three billion, and counting

Monday, 3 November, 2014 0 Comments

Another day, another statistic. But a big one, nonetheless. Internet Live Stats is showing that the number of internet users has passed the the three billion milestone. In its monthly snapshot of all things connected, We Are Social goes granular on the details in this SlideShare embed.

We Are Social

Talking of SlideShare embeds, one of the most discussed in recent days was “Mobile is eating the world,” which formed the core of an updated presentation Benedict Evans gave at the WSJD conference and at the a16z Tech Summit. Each slide is a gem.

The used graveyard

Sunday, 2 November, 2014 0 Comments

Today is All Souls’ Day, an observance that dates back to the 11th century, when Odilo, Abbot of Cluny in Saône-et-Loire, decreed that all monasteries should offer prayers for the Dead on 2 November, the day after the feast of All Saints. The custom spread and was adopted throughout the Catholic Church.

A New England graveyard is no longer used because the local community has died out, but visitors still come to read the tombstones, out of curiosity. The inscriptions, however, warn those reading them that they must eventually join the dead. In this poem, Robert Frost gently mocks our unwillingness to face this fact.

In A Disused Graveyard

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.
The verses in it say and say:
“The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

Robert Frost (1874 — 1963)

Graveyard

George Ezra: more charming than Jake Bugg

Saturday, 1 November, 2014 0 Comments

Sony Music is placing a big bet on George Ezra, the 21-year old singing-songwriting University of Bristol dropout. But it could be a winning wager. Ezra made news recently when it was announced that he’d sold out his February 2015 UK tour in just 10 minutes. There’s a number one album, too, and this catchy top 10 single, as well. It’s all fuelling the buzz. No doubt, he is very marketable: the looks, the swagger, the wryness, the honeyed voice. What’s missing, though, is the compositional talent of Jake Bugg. There’s more to the music game than charm. That said, charm is not such a bad attribute.

Happy anniversary!

Friday, 31 October, 2014 0 Comments

Wedding cake

The economy: Everyone’s talking about it…

Thursday, 30 October, 2014 0 Comments

… buy who can explain it? Maybe a philanthropist and a filmmaker. Combine the wealth of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, with the creativity of Morgan Spurlock, director of Super Size Me, and you get We The Economy, a series of 20 videos that seeks to explain key economic concepts. Topics covered and questions asked include, “Why is the law of supply and demand so powerful?”, “What causes a recession?”, “Why do we have budget deficits and a national debt?”, “What happens when jobs disappear?” and “Is inequality growing?”

Here’s THE STREET by Joe Berlinger. The clip comes with a range of resources curated to deepen one’s understanding of how the stock market works.

Elon Musk warned about old Russian rocket engines

Wednesday, 29 October, 2014 0 Comments

There’s nothing quite like fireworks to light up a front/home page, is there? Background: Yesterday evening, the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded just six seconds after lifting off from the Wallops Island spacepad in Virginia. NASA says that all personnel in the area have been accounted for, and there were no injuries.

Rockets have a history of exploding and the cause of the Antares failure is not yet known, but relying on old Russian engines may not be the wisest use of critical components. Which brings us to Elon Musk, the brilliant innovator and entrepreneur, CEO of Tesla Motors and founder of SpaceX. Two years ago, to the week, he said the following to Chris Anderson of Wired:

“One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s — I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.”

Four days ago, Musk’s Dragon capsule safely landed in the Pacific Ocean, returning some two tons of cargo and science experiments to Earth from the International Space Station. Instead of relying on rusty Russian parts, Musk is making rockets using an advanced technology called stir welding:

“Instead of riveting the ribs and hoops, you use a special machine that softens the metal on both sides of the joint without penetrating it or melting it. Unlike traditional welding, which melts and potentially compromises some metals, this process works well with high-strength aluminum alloys. You wind up with a stiffer, lighter structure than was possible before.”

Yes, SpaceX has had its setbacks, but nothing as spectacular as yesterday’s Antares fail.

Facebook: Earnings and Yearnings

Tuesday, 28 October, 2014 0 Comments

Can Facebook keep telling its growth story? The social network reports third quarter earnings this evening and expectations are high. Last quarter it generate revenue of $1.81 billion, a 53 percent increase from the same quarter a year ago and, as The Motley Fool encapsulates it, “shares up 45% in 2014 and nearly 200% since the start of 2013.” While all this is good news for investors, not everyone is thrilled by the rise and rise of the behemoth. Take publishers, for instance.

Their increasing dependency on referral social media traffic and Facebook’s increasing focus on mobile is creating a relationship that’s potentially ruinous. The inability of traditional publishers to create pages that load rapidly on mobile devices has led Facebook to dangle a lure. “One possibility it mentioned was for publishers to simply send pages to Facebook that would live inside the social network’s mobile app and be hosted by its servers; that way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells. The revenue would be shared.” That’s what David Carr wrote in the New York Times on Sunday in a piece titled Facebook Offers Life Raft, but Publishers Are Wary. And so they should be, because attractive and all as this might appear, Carr quickly adds, “Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

Can this grim fate be avoided? Over at Gigaom, Mathew Ingram follows up on Carr’s article and suggests that salvation might be found in offering readers the things Facebook cannot. Snippet:

“For me, the only possible route to survival (notice I didn’t use the word prosperity or success, just survival) is to play in Facebook’s sandbox, but to give up as little as possible — and at the same time, to spend as much or more effort on figuring out how to make your content as engaging and social as it can be on your own terms. Give readers the ability to do things that Facebook can’t or won’t: the ability to interact with you, to be part of the process… If you hand all of your content and relationships over to Facebook and assume that your work is done, then you have already lost.”

But what if the war has been lost? This chart from Shareaholic shows just how dominant Facebook is in the social media traffic business. We know enough now about its yearnings. They are being powered by its earnings and that’s why this evening’s results are so important.

Facebook traffic

From flash freezing to social freezing

Monday, 27 October, 2014 0 Comments

One of the joys of reading Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World lies in the many ways the author riffs on the butterfly effect. For example, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans marked not just the end of the Roman Empire and a huge setback for Christendom; it also led to an exodus of glass makers. Many of them found a welcome in Venice, but because their furnaces caused numerous conflagrations of the city’s wooden houses, they were exiled again, this time to the island of Murano, where they could do less damage. There, they flourished in a kind of watery Silicon Valley and came up with astonishing ideas thanks to their co-operation and competition with each other.

How We Got to Now One of these innovations plays a key role in Las Meninas, the great painting by Diego Velázquez. This Spanish masterpiece mixes reality and illusion and puts royalty in perspective by having the king and queen, Felipe IV and María de Austria, reflected in a mirror at the back of the room. The mirror was another Murano byproduct. By coating the back of crystal-clear glass with an amalgam of tin and mercury, the island’s glass makers created a shiny, reflective surface and the mirror was born.

Another example. In the chapter titled “Cold”, Johnson recounts the story of Clarence Birdseye, an eccentric American naturalist and entrepreneur, who moved his family to the Canadian wilds of Labrador in 1916. While fishing with some local Inuit, he noticed that the trout they pulled out of carved holes in the ice froze solid in seconds and tasted fresh and crisp when thawed out and cooked. He became obsessed with the puzzle of why ice-fished trout tasted better than the rest of the family’s frozen food and eventually figured out that it was all in the speed of the freezing process. Back in New York City, Clarence Birdseye created a flash-freezing food business and he sold his company for millions in June 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash. Today, Birdseye’s name is synonymous with frozen food.

The frozen food culture Birdseye created “would do more than just populate the world with fish sticks,” notes Johnson. The revolutionary thing is that “It would also populate the world with people, thanks to the flash freezing and cryopreservation of human semen, eggs, and embryos… Today, new techniques on oocyte cryopreservation are allowing women to store more eggs in their younger years, extending their fertility well into their forties and fifties in many cases. So much of the freedom in the way we have children now… would have been impossible without the invention of flash freezing.”

Seeing that companies are now promoting oocyte cryopreservation for their female employees, a more user-friendly term is needed for the process, hence, “social freezing.”

Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now is nourishing food for thought.

A girl whose single bed held two to make ends meet

Sunday, 26 October, 2014 0 Comments

If he had lived past 39, the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”, as Dylan Thomas called himself, would be 100 years old tomorrow. The end came in New York when he drank 18 straight whiskies in the White Horse Tavern and announced “I think that’s the record.” He staggered outside, collapsed, was taken to the Chelsea Hotel, fell into a coma and died the next morning in St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Dylan Thomas loved words. In his unfinished Notes on the Art of Poetry, he wrote: “What the words stood for, symbolised, or meant, was of very secondary importance; what mattered was the sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world. And these words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milk-carts, the clopping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone, deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.”

But words, in the form of gossip, can be a cause of great hurt, too. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV Part 2 Act 1 Scene 1, “Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues.” Here’s now Thomas viewed those dishing the dirt.

The Gossipers

The gossipers have lowered their voices,
Willing words to make the rumours certain,
Suspicious words tug at the neighbouring vices,
Unthinking actions given causes
Stir their old bones behind cupboard and curtains.

Putting two and two together,
Informed by rumour and the register,
The virgins smelt out, three streets up,
A girl whose single bed held two
To make ends meet,
Found managers and widows wanting
In morals and full marriage bunting,
And other virgins in official fathers.

For all the inconveniences they make,
The trouble, devildom, and heartbreak
The withered women win them bedfellows,
Nightly upon their wrinkled breasts
Press the old lies and the old ghosts.

Dylan Thomas (27 October 1914 — 9 November 1953)