Who needs self-driving cars?

by on December 3, 2016 at 3:42 am in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

Nike Inc. this week begins selling a pricey sneaker with self-tying laces, a high-stakes test of the company’s technology investments and efforts to sell more products directly to consumers.

Since its founding, Nike has predominantly been a wholesaler. But as shopping shifts online, Nike is moving to lessen its reliance on retailers. It wants to double its direct sales to consumers to $16 billion by 2020, particularly as rivals Adidas AG and Under Armour Inc. have become more competitive in recent years.

That is where the self-lacing $720 HyperAdapt sneakers play a role. The company is offering the shoes exclusively on its relaunched Nike+ app and at a new retail store in New York City, beginning on Thursday. The idea is to hook consumers into buying via its app or visiting Nike stores for limited-edition sneaker releases, which to date has been a near-weekly phenomenon at Foot Locker and other retailers.

You might laugh, but this is actually an advance of real value, though ideally the price could come down a bit.  Here is one article, here is the WSJ, for pointers I thank the excellencies of Daniel Lippman and Samir Varma.

El Paquete is the underground Cuban Internet; a 1tb hard disk filled with US music, films, TV shows, magazines and smartphone apps, passed around by street dealers. You can copy what you like for $8 a week. “My friends assure me, El Paquete and chill is definitely a thing” [Wil Fulton]

That is from a longer Tom Whitwell post about 26 things learned in 2016, interesting throughout.

Here is a separate bit from that interview:

I’m interested in how animals are connected to the internet and how we might be able to see the world from an animal’s point of view. There’s something very interesting in someone else’s vantage point, which might have a truth to it. For instance, the tagging of cows for automatic milking machines, so that the cows can choose when to milk themselves. Cows went from being milked twice a day to being milked three to six times a day, which is great for the farm’s productivity and results in happier cows, but it’s also faintly disquieting that the technology makes clear to us the desires of cows – making them visible in ways they weren’t before. So what does one do with that knowledge? One of the unintended consequences of big data and the internet of things is that some things will become visible and compel us to confront them.

And on the main question at hand:

What we are seeing now isn’t an anxiety about artificial intelligence per se, it’s about what it says about us. That if you can make something like us, where does it leave us?

Here is the full interview with Genevieve Bell.

*The Great Convergence*

by on November 24, 2016 at 12:33 am in Books, Economics, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

The author is Richard Baldwin and the subtitle is Information Technology and the New Globalization.  The new globalization is the vertical geographic spread of the supply chain, as enabled by information technology.  Think iPhone, the components of which are made in a number of different countries.  (By the way, here is a very good Adam Minter piece on why an American-made iPhone would be very difficult to pull off.)  The important form of trade today is data flows, which enable the export of “how to” knowledge to an unprecedented degree.  Here is one excerpt:

Since so much globalization policy was crafted with the Old Globalization in mind, much of the policy response is misshaped or at least suboptimal.  To take a couple of obvious examples, economic institutions like labor unions tend to be organized by sectors and skill groups since that was the level at which the Old Globalization affected economies.  And national education strategies typically seek to train children for promising jobs in promising sectors since the Old Globalization cut a predictable path that defined sunrise and sunset sectors.  Likewise, governments around the world seek to dampen the pain of structural adjustment with policies linked to declines in particular sectors of particular geographic areas (often those that had specialized in sunset sectors).  Most of these policies are inappropriate for today’s globalization, which is more sudden in its impact, more individual in its effects, more uncontrollable for governments, and more unpredictable overall.

Ultimately, there can be no magic solutions to the changed nature of globalization.  The New Globalization makes life harder for governments.  But the intrinsic difficulty is multiplied by the fact that many governments and analysts are using the Old Globalization’s mental model to understand the New Globalization’s effects.

For Baldwin, the case against TPP, from a U.S. point of view, rests on the possibility that it would ease knowledge transfer abroad and thus erode American competitive advantages.  This focus on data flows, by the way, means that most traditional trade statistics are misleading if not outright wrong.  There is much in this book to ponder.

Summary: Across 33 rich countries, only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks.

That is from Jacob Nielsen, via Roman Hardgrave.

One of Japan’s largest casualty insurers is going to start offering internet and social media backlash insurance.

Here is the link, including to the original Japanese.

The NYT offers a variety of Facebook criticisms.  Probably you already have heard the latest:

Donald J. Trump’s supporters were probably heartened in September, when, according to an article shared nearly a million times on Facebook, the candidate received an endorsement from Pope Francis. Their opinions on Hillary Clinton may have soured even further after reading a Denver Guardian article that also spread widely on Facebook, which reported days before the election that an F.B.I. agent suspected of involvement in leaking Mrs. Clinton’s emails was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.

There is just one problem with these articles: They were completely fake.

Just to be clear, while I have a Facebook profile, I am not a user of the service.  The interface confuses me, and I don’t like how strictly information is filtered through the prism of sharing and social connections.  In this sense I take the criticisms to heart and they influenced my behavior long ago.

But I wish to suggest a simple comparison: how does Facebook compare in this regard to email and forwarded emails?  I haven’t seen formal numbers,  but I strongly suspect emails have been a far more important source of misinformation about Hillary Clinton (and Trump) than was Facebook.  (I do recall Matt Yglesias tweeting an estimate, and it sounded brutal for email.)  That is especially likely to hold for the elderly, who use email far more than Facebook and furthermore were more likely to support Trump.

How about comparing Facebook to what other people tell you?  What a load of crock they are.  People, pshaw.  Just think about their algorithms.  At least Facebook has access to The Washington Post.

By the way, the presidency aside, were all of the other electoral results so truly radical?  It doesn’t seem so.

In other words, we are holding Facebook to an especially high standard.  If doing so leads to improvements in Facebook (NYT), so much the better.  Still, for purposes of perspective it is probably welfare-improving if people get more of their news from current, non-improved Facebook, compared to the relevant alternatives for most people.

Now if you are going to compare Facebook to me and Alex…well, then you need to side with us.  So there is still a case for spending less time on Facebook.  That is, unless you’re going to share our content there.


Music apps are for the birds

by on November 14, 2016 at 12:47 pm in Music, Web/Tech | Permalink

Do birds prefer classical music, opera, or heavy metal? As with humans, it’s likely a matter of personal preference, and one art project is offering our feathered friends a chance to communicate their preferences to us.

PandoraBird: Identifying the Types of Music That May Be Favored by Our Avian Co-Inhabitants,” by artist Elizabeth Demaray in collaboration with computer scientist Ahmed Elgammal and Rutgers University’s Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, appears as a simple, blue bird feeder. It functions, however, like its eponymous music streaming and recommendation service: while it plays songs, a camera module connected to a Raspberry Pi computer photographs and identifies specific species, as well as tracks how long each bird stays. If a bird feeds until the end of a tune, the system will select another one with similar qualities such as rhythm and melody. Demaray is attempting to build a database of the songs preferred by our wild, feathered friends and eventually present a music-discovery service for birds.

That is from Claire Voon, writing about PandoraBird, currently found in Brooklyn.  The pointer is from Ted Gioia.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the introduction:

Each campaign season I ask myself what I have learned, and this cycle has brought more surprises than usual. Still, one theme encompasses many individual lessons, namely that the Internet as a technology has outraced our norms for using it, understanding it and controlling it, most of all in politics.

And later on:

The murkiness of these [internet and legal] issues to most voters makes it easier for the spinmeisters to turn this year’s debate into a fact-free zone. Even the participants in the election often didn’t understand what they were doing.


I am also seeing friends lose control of their moods, obsessively scanning social media for the latest news or maybe hitting “refresh” 20 times a day or more on the prediction markets. We’re not even good at regulating our own use of online media.

And coming into the stretch, who had expected such a strong fear of an electoral hack by Russia, or that more than 100 pro-Trump websites are being run out of one Macedonian town?

Do read the whole thing.

The first self-driving cars to be operated by ordinary British drivers will be left deliberately unmarked so that other drivers will not be tempted to “take them on”, a senior car industry executive has revealed.

One of the biggest fears of an ambitious project to lease the first autonomous vehicles to everyday motorists is that other road users might slam on their brakes or drive erratically in order to force the driverless cars into submission, he said.

This is why the first 100 self-driving 4×4 vehicles to be leased to motorists as part of a pilot scheme on busy main roads into London will look no different than other Volvos of the same model, said Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader at Volvo Cars. The scheme will start in 2018.

Americans wouldn’t talk this way:

One driver interviewed for the survey said: “I’ll be overtaking all the time because they’ll be sticking to the rules.”

Another said: “They are going to stop. So you’re going to mug them right off. They’re going to stop and you’re just going to nip around.”

Here is more, via Michelle Dawson.

Addendum: Via Anecdotal, here is an Australian perspective:

Well, I am here to tell you: that’s OK. We’ve all had it drummed into us from infancy that humans bullying cars = bad.

But we can’t let our bourgeois notions of propriety in auto-human interactions stop us from letting out our inner Johnny from Karate Kid.

We must, rather, get on with the vital and necessary work of bullying, haranguing and insulting these contraptions every chance we get. Because I cannot stress this enough: these cars must not be allowed to develop self-esteem.

From another corner of the world, I can tell you that Kiwis do not drive as politely as they talk.

What could go wrong?

by on October 28, 2016 at 11:11 am in Current Affairs, Web/Tech | Permalink

ARS Technica: Google Brain has created two artificial intelligences that evolved their own cryptographic algorithm to protect their messages from a third AI, which was trying to evolve its own method to crack the AI-generated crypto. The study was a success: the first two AIs learnt how to communicate securely from scratch.

Hat tip: Eli Dourado.

Though online technology has generated excitement about its potential to increase access to education, most research has focused on comparing student performance across online and in-person formats. We provide the first evidence that online education affects the number of people pursuing formal education. We study the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Online M.S. in Computer Science, the earliest model to combine the inexpensive nature of online education with a highly-ranked degree program. Regression discontinuity estimates exploiting an admissions threshold unknown to applicants show that access to this online option substantially increases overall enrollment in formal education, expanding the pool of students rather than substituting for existing educational options. Demand for the online option is driven by mid-career Americans. By satisfying large, previously unmet demand for mid-career training, this single program will boost annual production of American computer science master’s degrees by about seven percent. More generally, these results suggest that low-cost, high-quality online options may open opportunities for populations who would not otherwise pursue education.

That is from a new NBER paper by Joshua Goodman, Julia Melkers, and Amanda Pallais.  And here is a new NBER paper by Deming, Lovenheim, and Patterson: “Our results suggest that by increasing competitive pressure on local schools, online education can be an important driver of innovation and productivity in U.S. higher education.”

Even more inventive computer crooks have used online pornography as a reward for human web surfers who break the Captcha…

Here is the John Markoff NYT piece, very interesting throughout.  Imagine an evil AI agent that can mimic your voice and call your loved ones and…

The deal may “feel wrong” to a lot of people, but for the regulators it ought not to be a big deal:

AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner…is considered “vertical” because the two companies largely do not compete against each other but operate on the same supply chain.

This is the bottom line:

“By standard antitrust metrics, this deal should be O.K. in Washington,” said Paul Gallant, a technology, media and telecommunications policy analyst with Cowen & Company. “But the Democratic Party is moving left, and if Clinton wins, this could become an early test for her ‘tougher on business’ rhetoric.”

The negative arguments are speculative or quite a stretch:

AT&T could make it more expensive for its competitors to gain access to Time Warner’s content or give preferential treatment to its own programming, said John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group.

That is all from Leslie Picker and Cecilia Kang at the NYT.  I would stress that “entertainment” and “content” are sectors where choices have exploded more or less without precedent.  If the goal is to stop Time-Warner content from spreading to multiple sectors of the consumer media universe, I don’t see this one as a winner.

More generally, it is hard to see where the efficiencies from the deal are supposed to come from.  About the recent Bayer and Monsanto proposed merger I wrote:

There is a well-known academic literature, dating to the early 1990s, showing that acquiring firms usually decline in value after tender offers, especially after the biggest deals. Mergers do not seem to make companies more valuable or efficient.

Why then do so many mergers and acquisitions happen? Well, some of them do pay off (Google buying YouTube), but also many managers engage in empire-building by increasing the size of their companies, even at the expense of the shareholders. Another possibility is what economists call “winner’s curse,” namely that the winner of an auction or contest or bidding war tends to be the person or institution most optimistic, and in fact overly optimistic, about the value at stake.

So from a social point of view, I doubt if there is so much at stake here.

Addendum: Matt Yglesias comments.  And here is FT coverage.

Overall, our results suggest that investing in secure payments infrastructure can significantly enhance “state capacity” to implement welfare programs in developing countries.

That is from Muralidharan, Niehaus, and Sukhtankar in the latest American Economic Review.  Their main result is this:

We find that, while incompletely implemented, the new system delivered a faster, more predictable, and less corrupt NREGS payments process without adversely affecting program access.

Most of all there is lower leakage of benefits, and program participants strongly prefer the biometric arrangements and the accompanying direct cash transfers.  The measurements of this paper, by the way, are based on 19 million data points.

I believe the Indian biometric smartcard initiative remains under-discussed and underappreciated.  It is actually one of the greatest achievements of contemporary times, based upon the innovative mobilization of the labor of millions in a manner that probably only India could do and that at first sounded quite ridiculous.  Scan, record, and use the biometric information of over a billion people, and in a “backward” country at that.  Well, they haven’t finished but it is well on track to succeed.

I do worry about the privacy implications of the technology and the data collection, but as it stands today so many Indians don’t have that much privacy in any case.

Here are ungated versions of the paper.  Here is my earlier post on the paper and the technology.  I had written:

One broader lesson here is that developing nations are not merely copying and applying the inventions of the West, but innovating on their own.  But a lot of their innovations take labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive forms, and thus they do not always look like innovations to our sometimes ethnocentric eyes.

Still true.