Newsletter No.33 — May 13, 2018

Sentiers No.33

Heads up: For a couple of reasons related to early writing methods, the first forty-five issues archived here are “pre last review” and haven’t been fully re-reviewed yet. Please forgive typos and miscellaneous mistakes if you see them! They are also less structured than more recent issues and thus haven’t been split into multiple notes. (Yet?)

Lots of reading material this week as I did a bit of catching up and, as always, there’s a lot happening. Includes duplicitous Duplex, neo-colonialism, thoughtless AI, replicable cities, alchemy and hauntings, and the anthropocene.

About Google Duplex but it could easily have gone under The Churn.

Google AI Blog: Google Duplex: An AI System for Accomplishing Real World Tasks Over the Phone
An AI that makes calls for you, like booking a hair appointment or a restaurant reservation. For some reason, they decided that the AI should fake being human, including hmmms and hesitations. Because really, fooling people with software has been proving a great idea so far.

What this video by Rene Ritchie who’s on 🔥 and on point concerning responsibility and privacy. He presents the issues very well.

Chris Messina also had a good take: “The human booking the appointment has no idea she was talking to an AI. Humans quickly becoming expensive API endpoints”.

And so did Ethan Marcotte, Jeremy Keith (whom I stole this section title from).

The Churn
Which could also be called Hubris & Exploitation.

Without strong data law, India will end up as a digital colony of US, Chinese firms
The former chairman of Microsoft India starts with a parallel between the British East India Company’s extraction and ravages in India, and the GAFA. He follows with some ideas on how to prevent this from happening again and forge a win win scenario.

What does this have to do with Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber or other tech companies? All these companies use technology and new business models to re-architect industry after industry, leaving a swathe of destruction in their wake. The new business models delight consumers, create eye-popping wealth for their shareholders and employees but often impose huge costs on society such as invasion of privacy, destruction of trust, net loss of middle-income jobs.

++ Facebook Adds A.I. Labs in Seattle and Pittsburgh, Pressuring Local Universities
CLEAR CUT ALL THE THING! Typical short sightedness, externalization, and extraction by Facebook.

As it builds these labs, Facebook is adding to pressure on universities and nonprofit A.I. research operations, which are already struggling to retain professors and other employees. […]
“It is worrisome that they are eating the seed corn,” said Dan Weld, a computer science professor at the University of Washington. “If we lose all our faculty, it will be hard to keep preparing the next generation of researchers.”

++ A pioneer in predictive policing is starting a troubling new project
Take old data, no precautions against bias and racism, ignore calls for corrections and better ethics. Repeat.

Being classified as a gang member or related to a gang crime can result in additional criminal charges, heavier prison sentences, or inclusion in a civil gang injunction that restricts a person’s movements and ability to associate with other people. […]
“You’re making algorithms off a false narrative that’s been created for people — the gang documentation thing is the state defining people according to what they believe,” Harvey said. “When you plug this into the computer, every crime is gonna be gang-related.” […]
This new line of research suggests that Brantingham has not taken critiques of his research methodology to heart and is pressing forward with a project that is founded on incomplete data, dubious methods, and a premise that, if applied in the field, could result in more people of color behind bars.

Exclusive: How Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is rethinking Windows
Short interview with Nadella with some good points but also including here because of his thinking in general and the changes he’s been bringing to MS. He mentions that in the development of AI everyone should think about; privacy, security and cybersecurity, and what could be done vs what should be done.

Good AI is not just good technological frameworks but good ethical principles.

A Vision for Sidewalk Toronto
One of the better takes on this project. Shows how the focus of the company is on replicating the model, the idea of identity management and reduced friction, seamless vs seams, and how turning citizens into aggregated users is a scary proposition. Ends with some excellent recommendations for Waterfront Toronto.

Although I was shocked and offended by the question as a Canadian (::how blindly-ambitious do you have to be as a private American company to even imply that our public voting systems are within your mandate?::), it was not until after the interview that I realized I was not interviewing for a Sidewalk Toronto position. I was interviewing with Sidewalk Labs. I was talking to a company that aspired to export a complete platform for cities, and civics, using Toronto as an incubator. […]
In the case of Sidewalk Labs, an identity management system effectively creates an aggregated set of users that services can access if they are built on their platform. Except that new users are not consumers, but cities full of citizens who have no choice but to become users.

And for His Next Act, Ev Williams Will Fix the Internet
A bit like Williams has soured on social media, I’ve soured on Williams. I’m a fan of what he’s accomplished and, “philosophically” in agreement with his ideas. However, I did come to realize that none of his companies have made money while he was leading them and, even with the quote below, he still seems to not be taking seriously enough the perils of large scale platforms. But more importantly, he often seems to forget the “little guy” in Medium’s multiple pivots.

Echoing Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last month, Mr. Williams said he now believed that he had been too optimistic during social media’s early days, and had failed to appreciate the risks of putting such powerful tools in users’ hands with minimal oversight.
Listening to an architect of the fast-twitch internet extol the benefits of books and magazines is a little odd, like watching Chef Boyardee open a farm-to-table restaurant.

Case in point: Medium abruptly cancels the membership programs of its 21 remaining subscription publisher partners

Alchemy & Hauntings
AI researchers allege that machine learning is alchemy
Two AI researchers, Rahimi and Recht, making the case that various aspects of AI are so badly understood, even by engineers, that it amounts to alchemy. File the second quote below with “hubris” earlier in this issue. Also, I hate the expression “engineering is messy” which is used regularly to excuse roughly anything.

"I'm trying to draw a distinction between a machine learning system that's a black box and an entire field that's become a black box." […]
Yann LeCun, Facebook's chief AI scientist in New York City, worries that shifting too much effort away from bleeding-edge techniques toward core understanding could slow innovation and discourage AI's real-world adoption. "It's not alchemy, it's engineering," he says. "Engineering is messy."

Haunted Machines
Nathalie Kane and Tobias Revell have been exploring areas of thinking around hauntings, magic, and alchemy for a few years now. Lucky then that they launched a new version of their website just in time for me to include with the above alchemy piece. You should spend a little while having a look a their projects, including some superb collaborators like Georgina Voss, Eleanor Saitta, and Ingrid Burrington.

We need a new way of seeing the Anthropocene
An interview with Joanna Zylinska about her books Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene and The End of Man, A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Her answers present some very good questions, directions for inquiry, and attaches (or at least builds from) the thinking of a number of other scholars, citing Adorno, Haraway, Mirzoeff, and authors like Atwood and Tsing. Honestly, I’ll have to re-read this and go digging about to better understand all of the connections but it’s also why I’m including it here. Go digging too!

We should first of all try and see the Anthropocene as a phenomenon and a discourse, that is, as problem posed to us humans that we have to respond to somehow. […]
The story I am proposing is non-normative because it doesn’t list any “approved” behaviours; instead, it “just” poses the question of responsibility – which, for me, is the most important question. […]
All those different disciplines enact something between science and poiesis, or maybe even discover a certain poeticity of science, especially at that kind of open-ended level, where science itself is actually akin to philosophy, and where it can also generate narratives about the world. The point at which science comes to a halt, that is the edge of our current knowledge and understanding, is the point where it has to construct concepts to name things that it observes or postulates through equations.

Meet This Most Unusual Law Firm: 4-Day Workweeks And No Bosses
Noteworthy model for small companies, especially consultancy-like groups.

I designed a system in which employees need to work a minimum number of billable hours for us to break even as a firm. We call this the Break Even Point, or simply BEP. Employees set their own hourly rate with their clients. Of the extra billings hours above BEP, an employee receives half.” The other
half is distributed between shareholders of the firm.

++ The Revolutionary Giant Ocean Cleanup Machine Is About To Set Sail
If this actually works… wow.

With a full fleet of systems deployed, it believes that it can collect half of the plastic trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–around 40,000 metric tons–within five years.

++ China Is Quietly Setting Global Standards

As China boosts overseas investment through its Belt and Road infrastructure program, it is increasingly dictating not just the terms of financing but also a broader set of technological applications. In doing so, it is altering the global competitive landscape by defining and exporting technical standards for everything from artificial intelligence to hydropower.

++ 2018 National Design Award Winners | Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
++ The United States of Japan.
++ “One of the world’s most remarkable ruined places is the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion.Once a thriving hub of the ancient world, the city was devastated by a series of environmental disasters, & now lies 6.5km off the coast in the blue waters of the Egyptian sea.” (Why yes, I did include this in part to I could use one of the images as a header. ;) )