Tag Archives: society

Lost your wallet? Don’t worry

An article to show that honesty might not be as rare in people as the media would have us believe.

Majority of people return lost wallets – here’s the psychology and which countries are the most honest
Overall, 51% of those who were handed a wallet with smaller amounts of money reported it, compared with 72% for a larger sum. The most honest countries were Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands whereas the least honest were Peru, Morocco and China.

So why is this and what does it tell us about the psychology of honesty? To get an idea, I ran a very informal focus group to find out what kinds of things people may ask themselves when making a decision to return a found wallet. A common view was that no one wanted to appear to act in a socially unacceptable way, and nobody wanted to appear to be a thief. And, of course, the more money in the wallet, the greater the crime.

Is there anything you can do to increase the changes of your wallet being returned? Try this.

In 2009, a researcher carelessly “dropped” a number of wallets all over Edinburgh to see what would happen. He got 42% of the wallets back, but wasn’t not the most interesting finding. It wasn’t only the money in the wallet that influenced whether it would be returned. Where a family photo, an image of a cute puppy, a baby or an elderly couple were included, the chances of the wallet being returned significantly improved.

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You may want to cut this out and put it in your wallet.

Thefts do happen, of course, but some have happy endings.

Found: 15 wallets from the 1940s, stolen and stashed behind a bathroom wall
The pastor took to Facebook to wage a longshot campaign to return the wallets to their owners. His post—which featured a photo of the find along with eight names from the discovered student identification cards—has since picked up more than 3,000 shares, and has so far helped facilitate one reunion. Betty Sissom, 89, currently living more than an hour away from Centralia in Chesterfield, Missouri, is now back in possession of treasures once lost, such as her old social security card, a photo of herself with her childhood crush, and a picture of her brother, who had been fighting in World War II at the time and has since passed away. “I was just so glad to get that,” CNN quoted Sissom as saying, “because I don’t have a picture of him.”

And let’s not forget this from NBC News, under its ‘Criminal weirdness’ heading:

Man’s two ‘page one’ photos lead to arrest
Michael Millhouse, wearing a blue and black checkered coat, is painting decorative Christmas greetings on storefront windows in one photo published Dec. 13 in the Lewiston Tribune. The other image was taken from surveillance video footage that reportedly showed a then-unidentified man slipping a women’s wallet in the pocket of that same coat and walking away.

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Satire or harmful deception?

Fake videos — they’re just a bit of fun that we’re happy to spread around on social media, right? Whilst they play a part in the BBC dystopian future drama, Years and Years, helping to sway a general election, we’re not really fooled by them, are we?

Well, perhaps not yet, but they’ve got US politicians worried enough about their upcoming presidential election in 2020 to officially look into it all.

Congress grapples with how to regulate deepfakes
“Now is the time for social media companies to put in place policies to protect users from this kind of misinformation not in 2021 after viral deepfakes have polluted the 2020 elections,” Schiff said. “By then it will be too late.”

At the outset of the hearing, Schiff came out challenging the “immunity” given to platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, asking panelists if Congress should make changes to the law that doesn’t currently hold social media companies liable for the content on their platforms.

Another example.

Deepfakes: Imagine All the People
Of course this isn’t real. The video was done by a company called Canny AI, which offers services like “replace the dialogue in any footage” and “lip-sync your dubbed content in any language”. That’s cool and all — picture episodes of Game of Thrones or Fleabag where the actors automagically lip-sync along to dubbed French or Chinese — but this technique can also be used to easily create what are referred to as deepfakes, videos made using AI techniques in which people convincingly say and do things they actually did not do or say.

A ‘fake’ arms race, for real

This essay from Cailin O’Connor, co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, frames the issue of online misinformation as an arms race.

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting
What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.

Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.

I know I’m a pretty pessimistic person generally, but this all sounds quite hopeless. Here’s how one group of people is responding to the challenge of misuse of information and fake videos — by producing their own.

This deepfake of Mark Zuckerberg tests Facebook’s fake video policies
The video, created by artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe in partnership with advertising company Canny, shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk, seemingly giving a sinister speech about Facebook’s power. The video is framed with broadcast chyrons that say “We’re increasing transparency on ads,” to make it look like it’s part of a news segment.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram,” a spokesperson for Instagram told Motherboard. “If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages.”

We’re all in this together. Right?

Hanna Rosin from NPR has noticed a worrying trend. It’s not just that we’re caring less, but that we’re reducing who we care for.

The end of empathy
Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It’s strange to think of empathy – a natural human impulse — as fluctuating in this way, moving up and down like consumer confidence. But that’s what happened. Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.

But surely we’re all in this together.

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people
Personally, I’m happy to pay an extra 4.3 percent for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re a fundamentally different person than I am.

I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

A class act

Brexit blah blah blah. Chris Dillow makes some interesting points on how we might have got here.

On class difference
My point here should be a trivial one. Background determines character, so rich backgrounds tend to generate different characters than poor ones. I’d suggest other differences, all of which should disqualify most posh people from politics:

1. If everything comes naturally to you, you don’t need to think so much about how to get it. So you under-invest in learning how to hustle, negotiate or strategize. (Is it really an accident that the western politician who most mastered these arts, Lyndon Johnson, came from a poor home?) This might be one reason why Brexit has gone badly. Having spent his entire life thinking he could get what he wants simply by asking, Jacob Rees-Mogg has been disturbed to find that the EU doesn’t work like that.

[…]

3. The rich don’t appreciate just how important money is. For a poor family, an extra fiver at the end of the week can make the difference between relief and misery. This warps their political priorities. Whereas I regard economic growth and redistribution as the main political issues, the rich have others – Brexit if you are on the right, Palestine if on the left.

And so on.

Whilst we’re on the subject (kinda):

Looking for connections

As this video from Kurzgesagt explains, “We are living in the most connected time in human history, and yet an unprecedented number of us feel isolated.”

Loneliness
Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only few of us are aware how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

I mentioned last year the steps being taken by the government and others to tackle loneliness. Help might be at hand, though. Literally.

Loneliness is bad for your health. An app may help.
Little changed for those in either the control group or the one taught attention-only mindfulness. But the subjects whose training included acceptance and equanimity were measurably more sociable. Their daily routines, after using the app for two weeks, typically included several more interactions with people that lasted at least a few minutes, and their questionnaires showed a decline in their feelings of loneliness.

Because loneliness, like mindfulness, is a subjective state, it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions about why and how a focus on acceptance prompted greater sociability. But David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the study with the lead author, Emily Lindsay, believes that “the equanimity piece is key.” The poise it teaches, he says, may help people become less self-judgmental, less self-conscious, more amenable to interacting with others.

Here’s another write-up of the research, from Reuters this time.

Smartphone mindfulness app may help curb loneliness
“Perhaps by practicing monitoring and acceptance daily, even though for a short period of time, we can feel more at peace and free, more centered, and less affected by the possible negative thoughts and feelings generated in our mind,” Zhang said. “So we are closer to who we really are – we are social beings and we inherently need to connect to others.”

A theme which kicks off this stand-up routine from Simon Amstell, from 2010. This is how he starts, once the applause as he walks on stage dies down.

“Hello. Thank you. How are you? Are you all right? Well, this is fun, isn’t it? This is sort of a fun thing to be doing. This is fun, right? I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.”

Simon Amstell – Do Nothing Live

Don’t worry, though. He ends it on quite a positive, inspirational note. It’s all about letting go.

Stop, we want to get off

Shortly before he died in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote this slightly melancholic article about his fears for the future of a society so obsessed with “pee ring into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces”, oblivious to their surroundings.

I’m not sure why the New Yorker has published this now, four years later, but I must admit to sharing some of his concerns.

The Machine Stops, by Oliver Sacks
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing.

[…]

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

Out of curiosity, I took the option on the New Yorker webpage of having this article read to me. I enjoyed the irony of listening, right at the end, to an advert for an iPhone app.

No change

Another great find from Futility Closet.

Unquote
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 1980

I wonder why that quote, from 1980, made me think of this news item from just the other day, in 2019.

Why the attack on our cameraman was no surprise
President Trump interrupted his speech and checked that Ron was OK. But there was no condemnation. No statement that this was unacceptable. The Trump campaign issued a two-line statement on the incident, but equally did not condemn what happened. What conclusion should we draw from that? What message does it send to people who feel hostile towards the media?

Money – too much, not enough

Nicer problems to have.

Mind my Picasso… superyacht owners struggle to protect art
Pandora Mather-Lees, an Oxford-educated art historian and conservator, started giving lessons after a billionaire asked for help to restore a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting damaged not by sea spray, but by breakfast cereal. “His kids had thrown their cornflakes at it over breakfast on his yacht because they thought it was scary,” Mather-Lees said. “And the crew had made the damage worse by wiping them off the painting.”

[…]

Tilman Kriesel, founder of an art advisory firm, told the conference one client asked how to display a Rothko that was too tall for a yacht’s grand saloon. “We turned the piece by 90 degrees,” he said. “The artist would probably be turning in his grave, but we took a deep breath and said ‘it’s your painting, do what you like’.”

Another of Kriesel’s clients had a piece by the Japanese modern artist Takashi Murakami that he wanted to display in the “beach club” – the rear of superyachts where owners access jet skis and other water toys – but again it was the wrong size. “In the end we cut it up to make it fit,” he said.

Meanwhile.

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What it’s like to slash millions from Council budgets: Local Authority leaders speak out
Local authorities have already lost 60 per cent of their central government funding over the last decade, substantially more than any other area of government. And it is in the loss of valued frontline community services that the impact of this austerity drive is most keenly felt by communities across England.

Regardless of their political stripes, the council leaders each called on central government to invest in local government saying the cuts have now gone far enough. […] So acute are the financial challenges that even the most basic services – such as libraries, school lollipop patrols, street lighting, road repairs, cemetery maintenance, gritting – are now being considered for savings.

And that’s what makes all the time, energy and money wasted on Brexit so shameful.

I’ve never really thought about yachts before. They sound horrible.

The lonely life of a yacht influencer
“Nah, I’m nobody you’d know,” he assured me. “I’m here to take some pictures and post some video stories of the yacht, which a brokerage group is trying to sell. The watch is a loaner from a friend. I wear it, take a picture of my wrist and tag his company on my Instagram account. It’s just a small part of the hustle.”

Life and death on a superyacht: ‘If something goes wrong, they can just raise the anchor and leave’
While it is a dream job for some, other deckhands and chefs have horror stories of working punishing hours. Accidents, injuries and deaths are also commonplace, with union leaders believing working on superyachts to be more dangerous than life on oil rigs; over the past few years at least three young Brits have died while serving their billionaire bosses.

Money ≠ happiness

Wired’s review of a new book has a somewhat click-baity headline.

Social media has totally warped how you think about happiness
That higher-status jobs lead to more happiness is only one of the social narratives that Dolan’s book surgically dismantles. Happy Ever After may sound like a cheap self-improvement guide to positive thinking; in reality, it is a pragmatic inspection by an LSE-qualified behavioural scientist.

And it’s not just about securing a good job. Dolan also tears apart the myth of monogamous marriage and of long-lasting marriage; the myth of having children, of going to university or of earning a lot of money. Of owning your own property. Of donating to charity (and not bragging about it). Even of being healthy.

It may sound like a blow to what you have always been taught – but the link between all of these things and happiness is, according to research, extremely loose.

He’s done his research, so has the numbers to back that up, but he talks about social narratives being to blame for our unrealistic expectations and harsh judgements of ourselves and others, not social media. That’s just the mechanism by which these narratives are being magnified.

It all sounds a little Stoic.

China’s fear of losing control

This isn’t quite the brave new world we were hoping these new technologies would enable.

Davos: George Soros calls Xi Jinping a “dangerous opponent” of open societies
Soros said he wanted to “call attention to the mortal danger facing open societies from the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes.” Echoing recent concerns raised about China’s use of facial-recognition technology, Soros asked: “How can open societies be protected if these new technologies give authoritarian regimes a built-in advantage? That’s the question that preoccupies me. And it should also preoccupy all those who prefer to live in an open society.”

Tracing his critique of authoritarian governments to his own childhood under Nazi occupation in Hungary, Soros, who is now 88, urged the Trump administration to take a harder stance on China. “My present view is that instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world, the US should focus on China,” he said

The complicated truth about China’s social credit system
What’s troubling is when those private systems link up to the government rankings — which is already happening with some pilots, she says. “You’ll have sort of memorandum of understanding like arrangements between the city and, say, Alibaba and Tencent about data exchanges and including that in assessments of citizens,” Ohlberg adds. That’s a lot of data being collected with little protection, and no algorithmic transparency about how it’s analysed to spit out a score or ranking[.]

[…]

The criteria that go into a social credit ranking depends on where you are, notes Ohlberg. “It’s according to which place you’re in, because they have their own catalogs,” she says. It can range from not paying fines when you’re deemed fully able to, misbehaving on a train, standing up a taxi, or driving through a red light. One city, Rongcheng, gives all residents 1,000 points to start. Authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity.

Running a red light is one thing, but what if you’re a journalist investigating corruption and misconduct?

Chinese blacklist an early glimpse of sweeping new social-credit control
What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

In China, facial recognition tech is watching you
Megvii, meanwhile, supports the state’s nationwide surveillance program, which China, with troubling inferences, calls Skynet. Launched in 2005, Skynet aims to create a nationwide panopticon by blanketing the country with CCTV. Thanks to Face++, it now incorporates millions of A.I.-enhanced cameras that have been used to apprehend some 2,000 suspects since 2016, according to a Workers’ Daily report.

[…]

Jeffrey Ding, an Oxford University researcher focused on Chinese A.I., believes there is more pushback in the West against deploying facial recognition technology for security purposes. “There’s more willingness in China to adopt it,” he says, “or at least to trial it.”

But there’s also less freedom to oppose the onslaught. “The intention of these systems is to weave a tighter net of social control that makes it harder for people to plan action or push the government to reform,” explains Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The line from Soros about the danger from “the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes” chimes with what I’m reading in James Bridle’s new book, New Dark Age.

May we live in interesting times.

Less talk, more thinking

Two recent articles, from within different contexts but with the same unconventional conclusion: most political debates are pointless and serve just to reinforce division and animosity.

Against debate
The confident assertion of a clear statement beats caution and caveats. Experiments tell us that people often mistake overconfidence for competence thereby selecting for it and against actual ability. Debates favour articulate overconfident posh folk who in fact know nothing – which is why we got into this mess.

Resolved: Debate is stupid
People — yes, even you — do not make decisions on an entirely rational basis. An audience is more easily won over with a one-liner that inspires applause or laughter than a five-minute explanation of a complicated phenomenon. A false statistic repeated confidently will be more convincing than a truth stated haltingly by some guy you’ve never heard of.

And here’s another article that I think is related. It’s from Slate and wants to be about how Twitter is finally proving itself to be a useful, benevolent platform for debate, with historians acting as fact-checkers and context-providers. I’m not so sure.

Viral history Twitter threads: 2018 was the year historians embraced the platform.
Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

I’m growing more and more disillusioned with Twitter, and social media in general. Yes, these longer sets of tweets can provide ‘explanations of complicated phenomena’, and are interesting to read. But are we really saying that Twitter, with its average tweet length of about 50 characters, can overcome those problems with political debates, highlighted above? Or are they just preaching to the converted?

How many tweets have you seen that have included the words, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

A year of (mostly bad?) news

They say we all love bad news, which is all we ever get these days.

The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences
News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.

And so we have another something of the year article, this time a hundred news photographs from Reuters.

Pictures of the year 2018

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Lots of shouting, lots of people in dreadful situations, lots of heart-wrenching tragedies. None of it I really want to show here, to be honest.

It wasn’t all like that, though, thankfully. Remember these, for instance?

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And if you want more, there’s this year’s Atlantic In Focus series:

2018 in photos: How the first months unfolded

2018 in photos: A look at the middle months

2018 in photos: Wrapping up the year

Will 2019 look any different, I wonder.

Here’s looking at you

A very interesting essay in the Paris Review about the self, the self portrait, selfies and celebrity.

Toward a more radical selfie
But I don’t mean to bemoan social media (boring, it’s been done, everyone’s worried but no one will change). Really, I want to use that labyrinth to try to find a route back to an entirely different type of self-portraiture, one that offers an alternative (and more positive) interconnection between character, work, and the female subject.

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And by going all the way back to 1771, the author—the actor and filmmaker, India Ennenga—does indeed find that alternative.

A little robot round-up

I don’t know about you, but I find things to do with AI, robots and automation quite confusing. Will the impact of these technologies really be as widespread as envisaged by the futurists? And what will the consequences and implications really be? Is humanity at stake, even?

Here are a number of articles I’m working through, that will hopefully shed some light on it all. Let’s start with the robot uprising.

Social robots will become family members in the homes of the future
With fewer stay-at-home parents, social robots can serve as personalized practice partners to help with homework and reinforce what children have learned that day in school. Far beyond helping you find recipes and ordering groceries, they can be your personal sous-chef or even help you learn to cook. They can also act as personal health coaches to supplement nutrition and wellness programs recommended by doctors and specialists for an increasingly health-conscious population. As the number of aging-in-place boomers soars, social robots can provide a sense of companionship for retirees while also connecting seniors to the world and to their loved ones, as well as sending doctor-appointment and medication reminders.

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species
IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today’s fantastic species of robots. They’re cleverly organized into fun categories like “Robots You Can Hug,” “Robots That Can Dance,” “Space Robots,” and “Factory Workers.” If they keep it updated, it’ll be very helpful for the robot uprising.

We need to have a very serious chat about Pepper’s pointless parliamentary pantomime
Had the Committee summoned a robotic arm, or a burger-flipping frame they would have wound up with a worse PR stunt but a better idea of the dangers and opportunities of the robot revolution.

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Robots can look very cute, but it’s the implications of those faceless boxes housing the AIs that will be more important, I think.

Computer says no: why making AIs fair, accountable and transparent is crucial
Most AIs are made by private companies who do not let outsiders see how they work. Moreover, many AIs employ such complex neural networks that even their designers cannot explain how they arrive at answers. The decisions are delivered from a “black box” and must essentially be taken on trust. That may not matter if the AI is recommending the next series of Game of Thrones. But the stakes are higher if the AI is driving a car, diagnosing illness, or holding sway over a person’s job or prison sentence.

Last month, the AI Now Institute at New York University, which researches the social impact of AI, urged public agencies responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare and education, to ban black box AIs because their decisions cannot be explained.

Artificial intelligence has got some explaining to do
Most simply put, Explainable AI (also referred to as XAI) are artificial intelligence systems whose actions humans can understand. Historically, the most common approach to AI is the “black box” line of thinking: human input goes in, AI-made action comes out, and what happens in between can be studied, but never totally or accurately explained. Explainable AI might not be necessary for, say, understanding why Netflix or Amazon recommended that movie or that desk organizer for you (personally interesting, sure, but not necessary). But when it comes to deciphering answers about AI in fields like health care, personal finances, or the justice system, it becomes more important to understand an algorithm’s actions.

The only way is ethics.

Why teach drone pilots about ethics when it’s robots that will kill us?
For the most part, armies are keen to maintain that there will always be humans in charge when lethal decisions are taken. This is only partly window dressing. One automated system is dangerous only to its enemies; two are dangerous to each other, and out of anyone’s control. We have seen what happens on stock markets when automatic trading programs fall into a destructive pattern and cause “flash crashes”. In October 2016 the pound lost 6% of its value, with blame in part put down to algorithmic trading. If two hi-tech armies were in a standoff where hair-trigger algorithms faced each other on both sides, the potential for disaster might seem unlimited.

Nuclear war has been averted on at least one occasion by a heroic Russian officer overriding the judgment of computers that there was an incoming missile attack from the US. But he had 25 minutes to decide. Battlefield time is measured in seconds.

The Pentagon’s plans to program soldiers’ brains
DARPA has dreamed for decades of merging human beings and machines. Some years ago, when the prospect of mind-controlled weapons became a public-relations liability for the agency, officials resorted to characteristic ingenuity. They recast the stated purpose of their neurotechnology research to focus ostensibly on the narrow goal of healing injury and curing illness. The work wasn’t about weaponry or warfare, agency officials claimed. It was about therapy and health care. Who could object?

Let’s hope nothing goes wrong.

Machine learning confronts the elephant in the room
Then the researchers introduced something incongruous into the scene: an image of an elephant in semiprofile. The neural network started getting its pixels crossed. In some trials, the elephant led the neural network to misidentify the chair as a couch. In others, the system overlooked objects, like a row of books, that it had correctly detected in earlier trials. These errors occurred even when the elephant was far from the mistaken objects.

Snafus like those extrapolate in unsettling ways to autonomous driving. A computer can’t drive a car if it might go blind to a pedestrian just because a second earlier it passed a turkey on the side of the road.

So yes, things can go wrong. But AI and automation will all be good for jobs, right?

Artificial intelligence to create 58 million new jobs by 2022, says report
Machines and algorithms in the workplace are expected to create 133 million new roles, but cause 75 million jobs to be displaced by 2022 according to a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) called “The Future of Jobs 2018.” This means that the growth of artificial intelligence could create 58 million net new jobs in the next few years.

With this net positive job growth, there is expected to be a major shift in quality, location and permanency for the new roles. And companies are expected to expand the use of contractors doing specialized work and utilize remote staffing.

robot-round-up-2

AI may not be bad news for workers
Some jobs could be made a lot easier by AI. One example is lorry-driving. Some fear that truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. But manoeuvring a lorry around busy streets is far harder than driving down the motorway. So the driver could switch into automatic mode (and get some rest) when outside the big cities, and take over the wheel once again when nearing the destination. The obvious analogy is with jetliners, where the pilots handle take-off and landing but turn on the computer to cruise at 35,000 feet. Using AI may prevent tired drivers from causing accidents.

Ok, yes, I can see that. But then it goes on…

And the report argues that AI can produce better decision-making by offering a contrarian opinion so that teams can avoid the danger of groupthink. A program could analyse e-mails and meeting transcripts and issue alerts when potentially false assumptions are being made (rather like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who notices that the Emperor has no clothes). Or it can warn a team when it is getting distracted from the task in hand.

Really? That’s quite a jump from automated driving. Having a system read everything a company’s employees write to look for poor assumptions? I cannot see that happening. More over-selling.

But what else could AI do?

AI lie detector tests to get trial run at EU airports
Fliers will be asked a series of travel-related questions by a virtual border guard avatar, and artificial intelligence will monitor their faces to assess whether they are lying. The avatar will become “more skeptical” and change its tone of voice if it believes a person has lied, before referring suspect passengers to a human guard and allowing those believed to be honest to pass through, said Keeley Crockett of Manchester Metropolitan University in England, who was involved in the project.

AI anchors: Xinhua debuts digital doppelgangers for their journalists
The AI-powered news anchors, according to the outlet, will improve television reporting and be used to generate videos, especially for breaking news on its digital and social media platforms.

“I’m an English artificial intelligence anchor,” Zhang’s digital doppelganger said in introduction during his first news telecast, blinking his eyes and raising his eyebrows throughout the video. “This is my very first day in Xinhua News Agency … I will work tirelessly to keep you informed, as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted.”

 

This is what the world’s first AI newsreader looks and sounds like [via the Guardian]

But let’s not get too carried away here. We’re talking about people’s jobs, their livelihoods.

The automation charade
Since the dawn of market society, owners and bosses have revelled in telling workers they were replaceable. Robots lend this centuries-old dynamic a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A “jobless future” is inevitable, we are told, an irresistible outgrowth of innovation, the livelihood-devouring price of progress. …

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

That article goes on to introduce a new term to describe the overselling the workplace dynamic and the casualisation of low-skilled service work, “fauxtomation.”

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But maybe we should all loosen up, and stop being so serious.

Love in the time of AI: meet the people falling for scripted robots
“Obviously as the technology gets better and the interactivity increases we’re going to be able to form closer connections to characters in games,” Reed said. “They will operate with greater flexibility and ultimately seem more lifelike and easier to connect to.”

But for Wild Rose and many of the other dating sims enthusiasts I spoke to, making the characters more “human” wasn’t particularly exciting or even desired. Saeran didn’t need to be real for her to care about him.

The HAL 9000 Christmas ornament
Fans of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will want to bring home this special Christmas ornament that celebrates 50 years of the science-fiction masterpiece. Press the button to see the ornament light up as HAL says several memorable phrases.

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Hard work being lazy

Two articles on some recently published books which I thought worked well together.

What we do: The evolution of work
Much of Komlosy’s writing about the evolving understanding of labor is illustrated with excellent examples of linguistic differences. Across European languages, she points out, there exists a structural distinction roughly equivalent to what we’d recognize in English as that between “labor” and “work”—the former traditionally more toilsome, the latter signifying not just effort but also the redemption of a realized product. German makes the split between arbeit and werk; French, between travail and oeuvre. In one telling etymology, she points out that travail (and its Spanish and Portuguese cousins, trabajo and trabalho) comes from the Latin tripalium, a three-pronged stake used to torture slaves in ancient Rome. Oeuvre, on the other hand, along with the Latin opus and the Italian opera, speaks for itself.

Idleness as flourishing
It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.” This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time.

It’s ok to just be ok

Here’s a piece from the New York Times on what might be putting people off taking up hobbies — we might be a bit naff at them.

In praise of mediocrity
If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you? […]

Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

I enjoyed reading this, and found it personally quite encouraging. Photography is a hobby of mine, and I’ve enjoyed documenting family life for many years now. I like taking photos much more than I like looking at the photos I’ve taken, however. I’m often disappointed that they never quite match the ideas in my head. But that’s fine.

And I guess this blog is another hobby of mine that I enjoy doing but aren’t really that good at, judging by my blog stats. But you know what, that’s fine too.

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Unbalanced

It’s hard to stop rubbernecking the political car crash in the US at the moment, but I think this piece from The Economist is a perfect summary of the current state of politics here in the UK.

Britain’s equilibrium of incompetence
The country’s political parties are exactly as inept as each other.
It is common for one of Britain’s great parties to be in crisis while the other is in clover. Labour tore itself apart in the Thatcher era and the Tories did the same during the Blair years. But Britain is currently witnessing something unusual: both its main parties are in crisis at the same time, divided over their future direction, racked by factional fights and worried about leadership challenges.

What a mess.

That’s not the way to do it: Zoe Williams assesses the problems with questioning the Prime Minister in Parliament
In Punch and Judy Politics: An insider’s guide to Prime Minister’s questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, both of whom have prepared parliamentary Opposition leaders for the House of Commons’ weekly ritual, take an exhaustive look at the “joust”, concluding as they begin: “If you were starting from scratch, this isn’t the way you’d build it. But this is what it is. We think it works”. This is a relaxed, urbane, rather fatalistic assessment, in the tradition of “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms”.

It’s hard to be an optimist these days. But perhaps we don’t need to be.

We’re getting bigger and smaller

George Monbiot dispels some of the myths that try to explain why we’re so much fatter than we were in previous generations.

We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised
So what has happened? The light begins to dawn when you look at the nutrition figures in more detail. Yes, we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed. … In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed.

We can’t simply put this change in society’s shape down to a lack of willpower, there’s a whole industry out there working against us.

[F]ood companies have invested heavily in designing products that use sugar to bypass our natural appetite control mechanisms, and in packaging and promoting these products to break down what remains of our defences, including through the use of subliminal scents. They employ an army of food scientists and psychologists to trick us into eating more than we need, while their advertisers use the latest findings in neuroscience to overcome our resistance.

They hire biddable scientists and thinktanks to confuse us about the causes of obesity. Above all, just as the tobacco companies did with smoking, they promote the idea that weight is a question of “personal responsibility”. After spending billions on overriding our willpower, they blame us for failing to exercise it.

Whilst some people are getting larger, this piece argues that our culture, institutions and even our gadgets (“high-tech pacifiers”) are reducing us and treating us like children.

The infantilization of Western culture
While we might find it trivial or amusing, the infantilist ethos becomes especially seductive in times of social crises and fear. And its favoring of simple, easy and fast betrays natural affinities for certain political solutions over others.

And typically not intelligent ones.

Democratic policymaking requires debate, demands compromise and involves critical thinking. It entails considering different viewpoints, anticipating the future, and composing thoughtful legislation.

What’s a fast, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It’s not difficult to imagine an infantile society being attracted to authoritarian rule.

Indeed.

People are strange

The Cut, a style and culture website that’s part of the New York magazine, have a very odd set of articles tagged What it’s like, with titles such as What it’s like to be married to a very attractive man, What it’s like to crave amputation, What it’s like to be allergic to wi-fi, and What it’s like to date a horse.

It’s quite a collection, but don’t read too many at once, you’ll go mad.