Science

It can be incredibly frustrating when a virtual assistant repeatedly misunderstands what you’re saying. Soon, though, some of them might at least be able to hear the irritation in your voice, and offer an apology.

Amazon is working on significant updates to Alexa, the virtual helper that lives inside the company’s voice-controlled home appliance, called Amazon Echo. These will include better language skills and perhaps the ability to recognize the emotional tenor of your voice.

Researchers have long predicted that emotional cues could make machine interfaces much smarter, but so far such technology has not been incorporated into any consumer technology.

Rosalind Picard, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, says adding emotion sensing to personal electronics could improve them: “Yes, definitely, this is spot on.” In a 1997 book, Affective Computing, Picard first mentioned the idea of changing the voice of a virtual helper in response to a user’s emotional state. She notes that research has shown how matching a computer’s voice to that of a person can make communication more efficient and effective. “There are lots of ways it could help,” she says.

The software needed to detect the emotional state in a person’s voice exists already. For some time, telephone support companies have used such technology to detect when a customer is becoming irritated while dealing with an automated system. In recent years, new machine-learning techniques have improved the state of the art, making it possible to detect more emotional states with greater accuracy, although the approach is far from perfect.

Here is the full story.  Here is my recent New Yorker piece on how talking bots will affect us.

The robot administers a small pin prick at random to certain people of its choosing.

The tiny injury pierces the flesh and draws blood.

Mr Reben has nicknamed it ‘The First Law’ after a set of rules devised by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.

He created it to generate discussion around our fear of man made machines. He says his latest device shows we need to prepare for the worst

‘Obviously, a needle is a minimum amount of injury, however – now that this class of robot exists, it will have to be confronted,’ Mr Reben said on his website.

Here is more, with pictures of (slightly) injured humans, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

William W. Olney has a newly published paper on that topic, and it seems it helps a good deal:

This article investigates whether the global spread of the English language provides an inherent advantage to native English speakers. This question is studied within the context of the economics profession, where the impact of being a native English speaker on future publishing success is examined. English speakers may have an advantage because they are writing in their native language, the quality of writing is a crucial determinant of publishing success, and all the top economics journals are published in English. Using a ranking of the world’s top 2.5% of economists, this article confirms that native English speakers are ranked 100 spots higher (better) than similar non-native English speakers. A variety of extensions examine and dispel many other potential explanations.

“Similar” is a tricky word!  How similar can a Frenchman be?  I am not sure, but it does seem that growing up in the Anglo-American world may — language aside — be more conducive to patterns of thought which predict success in…the Anglo-American world.  Nonetheless this is an interesting investigation, even if I am not entirely convinced.  Note also that economics blogging is predominantly an Anglo-American enterprise, but I view that too as more about “mentality” than language per se.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Hermance

I am here to give a talk on randomized control trials, a public choice perspective.  Angus Deaton and Josh Angrist are among the other speakers, along with many people in the medical field.  The first question, not quite resulting from a controlled experiment, is whether this setting, on Lake Geneva, improves or worsens my mood…

A reader has been asking me this question, and my answer is…no!

Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is a stimulating and wonderful book.  And if you don’t believe me, here is The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Hanson’s book is comprehensive and not put-downable.

But it is best not read as a predictive text, much as Robin might disagree with that assessment.  Why not?  I have three main reasons, all of which are a sort of punting, nonetheless on topics outside one’s areas of expertise deference is very often the correct response.  Here goes:

1. I know a few people who have expertise in neuroscience, and they have never mentioned to me that things might turn out this way (brain scans uploaded into computers to create actual beings and furthermore as the dominant form of civilization).  Maybe they’re just holding back, but I don’t think so.  The neuroscience profession as a whole seems to be unconvinced and for the most part not even pondering this scenario.

2. The people who predict “the age of Em” claim expertise in a variety of fields surrounding neuroscience, including computer science and physics, and thus they might believe they are broader and thus superior experts.  But in general claiming expertise in “more” fields is not correlated with finding the truth, unless you can convince people in the connected specialized fields you are writing about.  I don’t see this happening, nor do I believe that neuroscience is somehow hopelessly corrupt or politicized.  What I do see the “Em partisans” sharing is an early love of science fiction, a very valuable enterprise I might add.

3. Robin seems to think the age of Em could come about reasonably soon (sorry, I am in Geneva and don’t have the book with me for an exact quotation).  Yet I don’t see any sign of such a radical transformation in market prices.  Even with positive discounting, I would expect backwards induction to mean that an eventual “Em scenario” would affect lots of prices now.  There are for instance a variety of 100-year bonds, but Em scenarios do not seem to be a factor in their pricing.

Robin himself believes that market prices are the best arbiter of truth.  But which market prices today show a realistic probability for an “Age of Em”?  Are there pending price bubbles in Em-producing firms, or energy companies, just as internet grocery delivery was the object of lots of speculation in 1999-2000?  I don’t see it.

The one market price that has changed is the “shadow value of Robin Hanson,” because he has finished and published a very good and very successful book.  And that pleases me greatly, no matter which version of Robin is hanging around fifty years hence.

Addendum: Robin Hanson responds.  I enjoyed this line: “Tyler has spent too much time around media pundits if he thinks he should be hearing a buzz about anything big that might happen in the next few centuries!”

From Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan:

The present research investigated whether digital and non-digital platforms activate differing default levels of cognitive construal. Two initial randomized experiments revealed that individuals who completed the same information processing task on a digital mobile device (a tablet or laptop computer) versus a non-digital platform (a physical print-out) exhibited a lower level of construal, one prioritizing immediate, concrete details over abstract, decontextualized interpretations. This pattern emerged both in digital platform participants’ greater preference for concrete versus abstract descriptions of behaviors as well as superior performance on detail-focused items (and inferior performance on inference-focused items) on a reading comprehension assessment. A pair of final studies found that the likelihood of correctly solving a problem-solving task requiring higher-level “gist” processing was: (1) higher for participants who processed the information for task on a non-digital versus digital platform and (2) heightened for digital platform participants who had first completed an activity activating an abstract mindset, compared to (equivalent) performance levels exhibited by participants who had either completed no prior activity or completed an activity activating a concrete mindset.

Here is also the press release, and for the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.

I have a short New Yorker piece on that question, here is one bit from it:

If Siri is sometimes sarcastic, could heavy users of the Siri of the future become a little more sarcastic, too?

For companies, there are risks associated with such widespread personification. For a time, consumers may be lulled by conversational products into increased intimacy and loyalty. But, later, they may feel especially betrayed by products they’ve come to think of as friends. Like politicians, who build up trust by acting like members of the family only to incur wrath when they are revealed to be careerist and self-interested, companies may find themselves on an emotional roller coaster. They’ll also have to deal with complicated subjects like politics. Recently, Tay, a chat bot from Microsoft, had to be disabled because it began issuing tweets with Nazi-like rhetoric. According to Elizabeth Dwoskin, in the Post, Cortana, another talking Microsoft bot, was carefully programmed not to express favoritism for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. A product’s apparent intelligence makes it likable, but also offers more of an opportunity to offend.

Here is another:

And there are ways in which just knowing that bots exist will change us. If the bots are good enough, we won’t be able to distinguish them from actual people over e-mail or text; when you get an e-mail, you won’t necessarily be certain it’s from a human being. When your best friend writes that she’s also “looking forward to seeing you at the baseball game tonight,” you’ll smile—then wonder if she’s busy and has asked her e-mail bot to send appropriate replies. Once everyone realizes that there might not be a person on the other end, peremptory behavior online may become more common. We’ll likely learn to treat bots more like people. But, in the process, we may end up treating people more like bots.

Do read the whole thing.

Maybe so, here is the latest:

Where witchcraft beliefs are widespread, American University Economics Professor Boris Gershman found high levels of mistrust exist among people. Gershman also found a negative relationship between witchcraft beliefs and other metrics of relied upon for a functioning society, including religious participation and charitable giving.

It’s long been argued that witchcraft beliefs impede economic progress and disrupt social relations, and Gershman’s statistical analysis supports that theory. From a policy perspective, Gershman’s results emphasize the importance of accounting for local culture when undertaking development projects, especially those that require communal effort and cooperation. Gershman and other social scientists believe that education can help foster improved trust and decrease the prevalence of witchcraft beliefs.

Furthermore:

Parents in witchcraft-believing societies inculcate antisocial traits in children.

Second-generation immigrants from witchcraft-believing nations are less trusting.

Here is the summary statement, here is the full article.  Here are related papers by Gershman.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

There are some people who are destined to become adjectives. Pick up a David Hume book you’ve never read before and it’s easy to recognize the ideas and style as Humean. Everything Tolkien wrote is Tolkienesque in a non-tautological sense. This isn’t meant to denounce either writer as boring. Quite the opposite. They produced a range of brilliant and diverse ideas. But there was a hard-to-define and very consistent ethos at the foundation of both. Both authors were very much like themselves.

Robin Hanson is more like himself than anybody else I know. He’s obviously brilliant – a PhD in economics, a masters in physics, work for DARPA, Lockheed, NASA, George Mason, and the Future of Humanity Institute. But his greatest aptitude is in being really, really Hansonian.

He really likes the book.

Here is an excerpt from a longer post, which also includes a summary:

Here are some of the most interesting ideas in the book:

1. Mind speeds: I had not previously spent much time thinking about how our brain’s hardware affects the speed at which we think. As it happens, our minds are spectacularly slow compared to what’s feasible with other materials! Better hardware, as well inequalities of hardware across individuals, will likely drive many parts of em society.

2. Death in the time of copies: An individual’s relationship to death is much different when you can make and store copies of yourself. Given how much of our current lives and societies are wrapped in who dies / how they die / when we die – a world where death is less central has major implications for identity, values, and relationships.

3. Security concerns are paramount: Theft (making copies of you without your permission) thus becomes almost more of an issue than death. As such, laws and cultural taboos will shift with security becoming more central to em value systems.

4. Less democratic: In a short period of a time, a well run non-democratic regime can outperform your average democracy. However, in the modern human world, these regimes often implode on themselves before they can dominate the rest of the world. But in the em world, things will move so fast (economic doubling rates are incredibly fast, every month or two!), that the rewards to short bursts of effective non-democratic regimes may be very high.

5. Religion: I tend not to think of robots as religious, but Robin makes the case that the utility of religion (nicer hard-working people) and the values of the em world (more farmer like) should lead to increased religiosity.

6. Increased utility: The sheer number of ems, coupled with their high mind speeds – as well as the likelihood that there lives will be ok in terms of meaning and happiness – suggests that the transition to an em world will be a positive utility move.

You can order the book here.  Here is my earlier review.

A study published (paywall) today (May 16) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that when we act unethically, we’re more likely to remember these actions less clearly. Researchers from Northwestern University and Harvard University coined the term “unethical amnesia” to describe this phenomenon, which they believe stems from the fact that memories of ourselves acting in ways we shouldn’t are uncomfortable.

“Unethical amnesia is driven by the desire to lower one’s distress that comes from acting unethically and to maintain a positive self-image as a moral individual,” the authors write in the paper.

To investigate, Maryam Kouchaki, a behavioral research specialist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and her colleague Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School conducted nine separate studies with over 2,100 participants. Over the course of their work, they found that people remember the times they acted ethically, like playing a game fairly, more clearly than the times they probably cheated.

“We speculated…that people are limiting the retrieval of memories that threaten their moral self-concept and that is the reason we see pervasive ordinary unethical behaviors,” Kouchaki wrote in an email.

Here is the full story.

Thinking about the Solow model and the limits of capital accumulation as a force for growth leads naturally to thinking about ideas and the institutions that create incentives to produce and use new ideas. Here is Patents, Prizes and Subsidies, the latest video from our Principles of Macroeconomics course at MRU–based, of course, on our textbook, Modern Principles.

My favorite part of this video is Tyler doing a cameo as an armchair economist.

cited

There is also this:

citations-figure-1

Here is the source, full text and explanation here.  There is much more of interest at that final link.

Dung beetles record a mental image of the positions of the Sun, the Moon and the stars and use the snapshot to navigate, according to researchers.

Scientists in Sweden found that the beetles capture the picture of the sky while dancing on a ball of manure.

As they roll away with their malodorous prize, the beetles compare the stored image with their current location.

The beetles’ navigational skills could aid the development of driverless vehicles, the researchers suggest.

Previous studies have shown that dung beetles have an amazing ability to navigate by the light of the Milky Way.

Here is the full story.

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