Fundamental technology, artificial intelligence, blockchain, social media and the music industry

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

Digits to Dollars looks at the challenges in launching a fundamental technology as opposed to those for which there’s already a proven market:

One of the hardest problems faced by such companies is that not only do they lack for customers, they lack for partners. Typically, they need a whole ecosystem of partners and developers to make their technology viable. For a start-up this often translates into a vast amount of time spent doing custom work and educating partners. These other parties are always larger which means they are going to make the start-up jump through hoops. Every start-up faces this when selling to enterprises, but here the challenged is doubled. Just to get to a working product means working with large, hard-to-work-with partners and only then selling to large, hard-to-work-with customers.

For all the talk of the machines are coming to get you, there are some interesting examples of where artifical intelligence falls short including GPT-3’s pick up lines and OpenAI’s image recognition tool being fooled by text.

It has been interesting watching the growing environmental criticisms of proof of work as a foundation for consensus in blockchain technologies. Whilst advocates have pointed to the option of using renewable energy, this is arguably simply displacing consumption from arguably more productive economic activities. As Noah Smith comments:

This spiraling resource consumption indicates a basic weakness in the technology that supports Bitcoin. For most financial assets, like gold, the cost of storage doesn’t go up much as the price goes up; it’s just about as easy to guard the world’s gold at $2,000 an ounce as at $200 an ounce. And for most currencies, transactions are super cheap. Because people already trust banks and the government, these centralized institutions can handle massive amounts of transactions with near-costless efficiency. Bitcoin’s decentralized trust, in contrast, keeps getting more expensive as Bitcoin gets more valuable.

You can tell Facebook is in damage control mode when it’s advertising for internet regulations on high profile podcasts. Another facet of Facebook’s attempt to control the narrative is its launch of an Oversight Board although it’s not without its criticisms as Pema Levy reports:

“What I worry is going to happen here is that there’s this kind of theater around the board’s decision that is entrenching the notion that it’s the content moderation decision that matters,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It’s much, much less important than all these design decisions”—algorithms that sort people into filter bubbles and amplify hate, for example—”that Facebook isn’t talking about, that Facebook doesn’t want anyone to talk about. And that Facebook will never turn over to the board, because those design decisions are what ultimately determine whether Facebook makes money or not.” 

Lee Vinsel provides a rather different framing of the power of social media, not exactly excusing them but warning against making them out to be worse than they are:

To be clear, I am NOT saying that there’s nothing to worry about or study when it comes to how social media use shapes behavior. There are many things to be concerned about and try to better understand, including misinformation, radicalization, the formation of mobs through online platforms, and more. There are also plenty of reasons to question Facebook’s, Google’s, and other firms’ monopolistic powers and potentially even to break them up. But none of these problems or our criticisms of them have anything to do with social media companies being able to control our minds.

Therapy on demand sounds like a dream come true. Molly Fischer’s look into the growth of startups therapy providing therapy online provides a much more mixed picture with providers struggling to meet demand and concerns about the quality of care:

But chatbots and mood scores aren’t generally what people are imagining when they say, for example, that their ex needs therapy. “Therapy” here conjures an intervention to fix the personality and save the soul. Different people want different things from therapy. They want to break bad habits, work through trauma, vent about their boss, their boyfriend, their mom. They want to feel better (always easier said than done). They want someone to talk to, and they want some tools. When I resumed seeing my longtime therapist over video, I wanted her to tell me whether the problem was my brain or the pandemic — I needed someone I trusted to judge the situation. That is to say, I wasn’t sure what I needed, but I wanted the help of someone who knew better. And this — expert counsel in the palm of your hand — is what the high end of an emerging class of therapy apps claims to deliver.

Mark Leopold drawing on his research into the life of Idi Amin points to benefits of political buffoonery with obvious parallels with some of our contemporary politicians:

1) It leads opponents to underestimate the ability and intelligence of the buffoon.

2) It provides deniability— “it was only a joke.”

3) It appeals to core supporters (many Africans loved Amin’s teasing of the former colonial masters).

4) It serves as a distraction from the more serious, perhaps frightening or incompetent, actions of the leader, what we now call the “dead cat” tactic.

5) It leads to ambiguity (was it a joke or not?), producing confusion and uncertainty about how to respond.

Musicians are one of the parts of society most hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and will be among the last to see a return to “normal.” David Dayen in his look at the music market points to musicians as being increasingly powerless particularly in the US where they are at the mercy of a consolidated network of distributors, venues and ticketsellers:

This has severed the traditional relationship between musicians and commerce. Artists used to rely on labels, and while that could get antagonistic, the labels still needed hit music to stay alive. “Apple stepped in, if they abandoned music tomorrow, it wouldn’t change their bottom line,” said Damon Krukowski. “They’re not a music company, Spotify is not a music company, YouTube is not a music company. None of them need me, but I need them. That is unsustainable for music.”

A recent addition to my podcast feed is Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes’s Maintenance Phase. It describes itself as “debunking the junk science behind health fads, wellness scams and nonsensical nutrition advice” and is great for reframing issues of body image.

Providing a good complement to the podcast is the Shimano sponsored film All Bodies on Bikes. The video follows Kailey Kornhauser and Marley Blonsky, a couple of self described fat women on their two wheeled adventure. It provides a refreshing look at an activity that all too often fetishes suffering rather than having fun.

Cover photo is Walala Parade by designed by Camille Walala in Leyton. You can find more photos here

Thought starters: Artificial Intelligence and its malcontents

Karen Hao takes a look at how OpenAI is looking to develop artificial general intelligence and the conflicts between getting there first and fulfilling its founding ethical principles don’t always make for perfect bedfellows:

“They are using sophisticated technical practices to try to answer social problems with AI,” echoes Britt Paris of Rutgers. “It seems like they don’t really have the capabilities to actually understand the social. They just understand that that’s a sort of a lucrative place to be positioning themselves right now.”

Whilst were on the subject of artificial intelligence, it’s worth reading Paul Grimstad’s profile of Alan Turing whose life came to a premature end due to homophobia of the post war era:

“It is fortifying to remember that the very idea of artificial intelligence was conceived by one of the more unquantifiably original minds of the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine a computer being able to do what Alan Turing did.”

Ian Parker wrote a great profile of Yuval Noah Harari who I’ve been a big fan of since reading Sapiens. It’s well worth a read but did leave me feeling rather wary of his assiduous avoidance of taking a stance on the issues he writes about.

The concept of filter bubbles has provided a tidy justification for what many of us see as the growing polarisation in this era of social media. Research from the Dr Richard Fletcher at the Reuters Institute provides a much more nuanced analysis in a world where there’s a growing abundance of news sources and algorithms aren’t the only means of discovery:

“Most of the best available independent empirical evidence seems to suggest that online news use on search and social media is more diverse. But there’s a possibility that this diversity is causing some kind of polarisation, in both attitudes and usage. This is interesting, because in some ways it’s the opposite of what the filter bubble hypothesis predicted.”

Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolutions blog is a regular source of nuggets of information. The highlighting of research from Jason L Cummings provides an interesting look at a possible driver for the rise of Donald Trump

“Black women for instance, present a consistent pattern of improvement in happiness across decades, while White women display a persistent pattern of decline. In contrast, Black men experienced a discernable pattern of improvement in happiness between the 1970s and 1990s, followed by a leveling off in the early-2000s. White men experienced moderate gains in happiness between the 1970s and 1990s, but after the Great Recession/Obama Era, White male happiness followed a pattern of unprecedented decline, with the “happiness advantage” they once enjoyed (as a group) over Black men and women largely vanishing.”

Peter Thiel’s often quoted statement We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters has long given people food for thought particularly as people point to the lack of growth in productivity in the global economy.  The It’s Only Chemo blog provides a somewhat different point of view as we all become infovores less obsessed with the material, something not necessarily picked up in traditional measures:

“Perhaps much of this is explained by the Alchian-Allen Theorem. There is so much to be gained by simply sitting at your screen and surfing, exploring the cultural niches of YouTube or learning Game Theory online or simply playing videos games. We haven’t yet realised that our minds are the new frontier. And therefore the returns to any sort of physical world accomplishments are much diminished.”

For a look at traffic modelling, this video is mesmerising. What I also find interesting is what it leaves out such as the costs of different options and the impact the different solutions have on people who aren’t confident motorists (elderly motorists, cyclists, pedestrians etc). What you exclude sometimes says more about you than what you include:

 Culture

I find winter time is a great opportunity to catch films pre/post award seasons or simply catch those films that missed your attention when they came out on the silver screen. I’ve been really enjoying using Letterboxd to track films I’ve seen (apparently 741 films seen at last count with 335 films on my watch list) and you can catch me here.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is deserving of the praise that’s been piled on it in my opinion and explainer videos from Thomas Flight and Nerdwriter give an idea of the level thought that has gone into the finished film.

I appreciated 1917 nail biting trip the trenches but it was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life that made the bigger impression. The film is a beautiful look at the struggles endured by an Austrian conscientious objector and his family during World War II.

Whilst were on World War II, Ari Richter’s illustrated account of his trip to Auschwitz provides a valuable look at how histories are being rewritten by populist governments to serve their own ends.

I can remember Cerith Wyn Evans’ work catching my eye at the Tate Britain and it’s great to see him have the whole of White Cube Bermondsey to explore his artistic vision. Well worth a visit.

Tools

Aegisub: Whilst the open source software’s website looks like it’s something from an earlier era, the tool for creating subtitles hits the spot if you’re posting videos to Twitter or other video platforms. I used this for our recent Bobby Seagull video for our petition to end library austerity.

DIY Captions Launcher for Youtube: Transcribing video is a painful task I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Google has been doing great work with its subtitling technology and this Chrome Extension helps you pull down transcripts. There’s inevitably going to be some corrections involved but it does much of the leg work for you. In my case, this has been great for transcribing videos from CILIP Conference’s last year, I task I fear would otherwise never have been completed.