This week: Public libraires. Could We Blow Up the Internet? The Third Phase of Clean Energy. AI music. Zuck and Bengio.

A year ago: Half Life: The Decay of Knowledge and What to Do About It


In Praise of Public Libraries

It’s a bit weird how many people (including some politicians) seem to think public libraries are dead, considering all reports point to the opposite; they are packed, offer more diversified services, and are now one of few places where everyone can walk in. Here Sue Halpern weaves together books by Susan Orlean and Eric Klinenberg with a film by Frederick Wiseman, and her own story of the founding of a rural library, and shows us the great importance of libraries and other social infrastructures.

A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal. Even our little book-lined room, with its mismatched furniture and worn carpet, was, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg reminds us libraries were once called, a palace for the people. […]

“The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.” […]

“Infrastructure” is not a term conventionally used to describe the underpinnings of social life…[but] if states and societies do not recognize social infrastructure and how it works, they will fail to see a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction, both within communities and across group lines.

Could We Blow Up the Internet?

Tim Maughan—who’s first novel, Infinite Detail recently came out and is reportedly excellent—does some digging around for Motherboard on an idea central to his novel; could activists take down the internet or parts of it? He explores various scenarios around data centers, Internet Exchanges, jammers, and EMPs.

“On a symbolic, sort of optics level it might be compelling,” she said, “because data centers have become this fetishized, lionized, architectural artifact by companies, right? Like Facebook publishes glamor shots of their data centers and Google gets artists to paint murals on them.” […]

So it seems that while temporarily jamming Wi-Fi, radio, and cell signals might be easily within the reach of protest groups, doing more long term damage and physical destruction to the internet itself seems to be something only nation states—or incredibly powerful terrorist organizations would have the power to do.

More: No Redemption, an excerpt of Infinite Detail, and Data Centers Gobble Energy. Could a ‘Fossil-Free’ Label Help?

The Third Phase of Clean Energy Will Be the Most Disruptive Yet

Ramez Naam with four phases of clean energy. The first lowered prices through policy (1980-2015), the second where unsubsidized prices for solar and wind reached parity with new fossil energy in some use cases (2015 to know), three which we’re are on the verge off, where new renewables and storage are cheaper than existing coal and natural gas. The fourth phase is further in the future and is about some scaling difficulties, like seasonal intermittency and the unsolved problem of seasonal storage, but Naam is confident that they are far enough in the future to be solved by then.

[T]he most important aspect of clean energy policy has been to drive down the price of clean energy by scaling it, and thus kicking in the learning-by-doing that continually lowers the unsubsidized price of new solar, new wind, and new energy storage. […]

McKinsey shows that on almost every continent, and particularly in China and India, where energy demand has the most to grow, new solar and wind are cheaper than existing coal and gas by 2030. And often much sooner.

What Will Happen When Machines Write Songs Just as Well as Your Favorite Musician?

A few thoughts reading this; 1. We often say that creative and collaborative jobs will be hardest to replace because of some unique human quality. Perhaps. That assumes AIs need to match the best (or very good) humans but they don’t really need to, do they? Most people are quite satisfied with good enough and perhaps good enough doesn’t need that much “uniquely human” creativity. 2. AIs crunch data (music in this article) made by others, will these “others” get paid for their work? Before common users are paid for their surveillance data? 3. Will there be “algorithmer stars”? Will the intelligences you follow and listen to be the algorithms or the people who write them?

As AI capabilities improve, it’s possible­—probable even—that the songs will become good enough that we’d opt to listen to them, for instance, while working or driving. The economics are enticing for streaming services. Imagine Spotify self­-generating thousands of hours of chill-out ambient tracks with no need to pay human composers a dime. […]

“They won’t be able to bring any emotion, any life experiences, into it. They won’t be able to cross-pollinate ideas from other fields.” As Adam Hibble, creator of Popgun’s music-writing tool, puts it, “This AI has no idea what’s culturally relevant or what is politically relevant or whatever it is that is currently important in the zeitgeist. It’s a mindless but very intelligent music creation system.” […]

Yet in one sense, the neural nets are mere­ly mimicking the way humans compose. We, too, consume hundreds or thousands of songs over a lifetime, intuit patterns, and recombine our knowledge into something new. We sample, we steal, and we transmogrify. Our creativity, too, is built on the creativity of those who came before. But when a machine does this, it can feel like an impersonal, even vampiric act. […]

Southern says her project is a harbinger of a cyborg future in which AIs assist human composers rather than replace them. After all, she figures, few people truly want to listen to software-­generated music: “If it was all made by a robot, then it’s just not interesting.”

Mark Zuckerberg Does Not Speak for the Internet

The Zuck again being anti open-web by asking for regulation of the internet for problems his platform is experiencing / is responsible for / is fucking up people and politics with. Good list of how his view is flawed.

[W]hile the free and open Internet has never been fully free or open, at root, the Internet still represents and embodies an extraordinary idea: that anyone with a computing device can connect with the world, anonymously or not, to tell their story, organize, educate, and learn. […]

If governments and regulators want to explore new rules for the Internet, Mark Zuckerberg is the last person they should ask for advice. Instead, they should talk to users, small innovators and platforms, engineers (including the people who built the Internet), civil society, educators, activists, and journalists – all of whom depend on robust protections for both privacy and the freedom to express and communicate without running through a gauntlet of gatekeepers.

On the completely other end of the technologist spectrum, a short interview with the much more sensible Dr. Yoshua Bengio.

“A teacher who spends every day teaching a machine about the world resonated with me,” he said. “Science fiction was a way to dream about the future.” […]

“It wasn’t just some mathy thing or computer science, but about understanding human intelligence to build intelligent machines.”

Miscellany