Web/Tech

That is the theme of my latest column for The Upshot.  In Average is Over I offered a few sentences toward the end about how in the longer run technology might restore greater income equality. or at least greater consumption equality.  I thought I should turn that point into a column, here is one excerpt:

Another set of future gains, especially for lesser-skilled workers, may come as computers become easier to handle for people with rudimentary skill. Not everyone can work fruitfully with computers now. There is a generation gap when it comes to manipulating electronic devices, and many relevant tasks require knowledge of programming or, more ambitiously, the entrepreneurial skill of creating a start-up. That, in a nutshell, is how our dynamic sector has concentrated its gains among a relatively small number of employees, thus leading to more income inequality.

This particular type of inequality may very well change. As the previous generation retires from the work force, many more people will have grown up with intimate knowledge of computers. And over time, it may become easier to work with computers just by talking to them. As computer-human interfaces become simpler and easier to manage, that may raise the relative return to less-skilled labor.

Here is more:

A final set of forces to reverse growing inequality stem from the emerging economies, most of all China. Perhaps we are living in a temporary intermediate period when America and many other developed nations bear a lot of the costs of Chinese economic development without yet getting many of the potential benefits. For instance, China and other emerging nations are already rich enough to bid up commodity prices and large enough to drive down the wages of a lot of American middle-class workers, especially in manufacturing. Yet while these emerging economies are keeping down the costs of manufactured goods for American consumers, they are not yet innovative enough to send us many fantastic new products, the way that the United States sends a stream of new products to British or French consumers, to their benefit.

That state of affairs will probably end. Over the next few decades, we can expect China, India and other emerging nations to supply more innovations to the global economy, including to the United States.

Do read the whole thing.

Skype Translator is on the way

by on December 4, 2014 at 1:38 pm in Education, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

In May, Satya Nadella and Skype Corporate Vice President Gurdeep Singh Pall unveiled Skype Translator, Microsoft’s breakthrough in real-time speech translation at Re/code’s inaugural Code Conference. Since then, the engineering team has been hard at work to get the technology behind Skype Translator ready for a preview release. Starting today, we are rolling out a Skype Translator preview program sign-up page.

There is more here, the pointer is from Lotta Moberg.

There is no great stagnation

by on December 4, 2014 at 5:15 am in Sports, Television, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tekla Perry reports:

To feel the impact of the [hockey] hits at home, TV viewers will need to purchase the $300 ButtKicker (I kid you not), a gadget that attaches to a chair or couch and uses low-frequency audio signals (the company calls it a silent sub-woofer) to shake the furniture in perfect synchrony to the on-screen action.

There is more here, via David Price.

Callisto, an online sexual assault reporting system under development by a nonprofit called Sexual Health Innovations, aims to change this and provide better options for victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

The project builds on the idea of “information escrows” proposed by Ian Ayres and Cait Unkovic in a 2012 Michigan Law Review article. Mr. Ayres, an economist at Yale’s law school, and Ms. Unkovic, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, suggest that reporting of misbehavior that is difficult or costly for victims to disclose might be increased if people had the option to report that information to a third party who would make the disclosure only if others also reported misconduct by the same individual.

There is more here, from Brendan Nyhan.

Is SMS a form of net non-neutrality?

by on November 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm in Economics, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

People have wondered how an Internet without net neutrality would work. Net neutrality is more than just a debate, it’s not a hypothetical, and it’s real and alive today with SMS.

It is currently hypothetical that on an Internet without net neutrality, companies would need to “pay to play” and live by arbitrary, ISP-devised rules for accessing consumers who want and pay for their services. This is the so-called “fast lane.” While ISPs argue this is about network utilization and bandwidth costs, businesses worry that it’s far beyond that.

At stake is access to consumers, and ISPs monetizing their subscriber bases instead of providing the open pipe consumers pay for. While some companies think it’s just a problem for Netflix or other high-bandwidth applications like streaming video, it’s not. The very real potential is that if you don’t have the right relationships, abide by arbitrary rules or pay appropriately, your company doesn’t get slow access – it gets no access. We know because this is how SMS in the U.S. works today.

That is from Jeff Lawson, there is more here.  Here is Steven Pearlstein’s column on net neutrality.

That is the early “computer,” remember?:

Who made the famed Antikythera Mechanism, the astronomical calculator that was raised from an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901?

The complex clocklike assembly of bronze gears and display dials predates other known examples of similar technology by more than 1,000 years. It accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses, as well as solar, lunar and planetary positions.

For good measure, the mechanism also tracked the dates of the Olympic Games. Although it was not programmable in the modern sense, some have called it the first analog computer.

We now learn that the calendar of this mysterious device begins in 205 B.C.  The key point, in my view, is that we have discovered no other comparable machine from antiquity or any other era other than modern times.  It took us until 2006 to even understand what the device was supposed to do, using advanced tomography, and we had been holding it since 1901.

So what to infer?  The first option is that this device was a true outlier, standing sui generis above its time.  Cardiff University professor Michael Edmunds “described the device as “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind””.

As an artifact that is true, but is that so likely in terms of broader history?  It is pure luck that we fished this thing out of the Mediterranean in 1901.  (By the way, further dives are planned to search for more parts of it.)  The alternative possibility is that antiquity had many more such exotic devices, which have remained unreported, at least in the manuscripts which have come down to us.  That would imply, essentially, that we don’t have a very good idea of what antiquity was like.  In my view that is the more rational Bayesian conclusion.  It is more likely than thinking that we just lucked out to find this one unique, incredible device.  To put it another way, if you found some organic life on a traveling comet, you ought to conclude there is more of that life, or something related, somewhere else.

And to me, the Antikythera Mechanism does not sound like a “lone genius” kind of device: “The gear teeth were in the form of equilateral triangles with an average circular pitch of 1.6 mm, an average wheel thickness of 1.4 mm and an average air gap between gears of 1.2 mm.” (Wikipedia)  That suggests it was made by some kind of regular industrial process.  It also had some sophistications which modern Swiss watches do not.

Given this Bayesian conclusions, which other strange claims stand a decent chance of being true of antquity?  Which other surprises await us?

I find this an interesting passage: “the mysterious device was already pretty ancient by the time it went down some time around 85BC to 60BC with a ship carrying a bride and her dowry, io9 reports…”  You don’t find a lot of people carrying around a lot of ancient PCs today, so might there have been an Antikythera Great Stagnation way back when?  I think maybe so.

Here is a Lego model of the device.  Here is an introductory YouTube video.  Here is Wikipedia on the Antikythera Mechanism, a very good entry.

I owe thanks to Vic Sarjoo for pointers and Robin Hanson for a useful conversation on this topic.

Defining Diversity Down

by on November 18, 2014 at 7:11 am in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

Marc Andreessen make some excellent points about diversity in a wide-ranging interview:

The critique of Silicon Valley is also that it isn’t very diverse. At Twitter, for instance, 90 percent of the tech employees are male and more than 50 percent of them are white.

I think these discussions are totally valid. Now, I disagree with many of the specific points.

What’s your take?

Shall we? Let’s launch right into it. I think the critique that Silicon Valley companies are deliberately, systematically discriminatory is incorrect, and there are two reasons to believe that that’s the case. No. 1, these companies are like the United Nations internally. All the diversity studies say that the engineering population is like 70 percent white and Asian. Let’s dig into that for a second. First, apparently Asian doesn’t count as diverse. And then “white”: When you actually go in these companies, what you find is it’s American people, but it’s also Russians, and Eastern Europeans, and French, and German, and British. And then there are the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Indonesians, and Vietnamese. All these different countries, all these different cultures. To believe in a systematic pattern of discrimination, you’d have to believe that we’re discriminatory toward certain people without being discriminatory at all toward an extremely broad range of ethnicities and religions. Because of Pakistanis, we’re seeing a higher-than-ever proportion of Muslim employees in a lot of our companies.

No. 2, our companies are desperate for talent. Desperate. Our companies are dying for talent. They’re like lying on the beach gasping because they can’t get enough talented people in for these jobs. The motivation to go find talent wherever it is is unbelievably high.

He is also spot on about online education.

Hat tip: Newmark’s Door.

Smart phones and child injuries

by on November 15, 2014 at 2:17 pm in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

Looking at your smart phone may in fact be more interesting than watching your small child, at the margin at least.  It seems that some child injuries may be going up for this reason.  Here is a new paper (pdf) by Craig Palsson at Yale:

From 2005 to 2012, injuries to children under fi ve increased by 10%. Using the expansion of ATT’s 3G network, I find that smartphone adoption has a causal impact on child injuries. This eff ect is strongest amongst children ages 0-5, but not children ages 6-10, and in activities where parental supervision matters. I put this forward as indirect evidence that this increase is due to parents being distracted while supervising.

Here is Palsson’s other work, I hope he sends me a copy of his Haiti research once it is available.

There are many good bits, here is one of them:

…I have a slightly different cut on the Snowden revelations. I think it shows the NSA more as the Keystone Cops than as Big Brother. What is striking to me is how little James Bond-like stuff was going on and how little they did with all this information. That’s why I think, in some ways, the NSA is more in this anti-technological zone where they don’t know what to do with the data they find. So they just hoover up all the data, all over the world. I think it was news to Obama that he was tapping into [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s cell phone.

One way to think about this is that if the NSA bureaucracy actually knew what they were doing, they would probably need way less information. What’s shocking about Snowden is how much information they had and how little they did with it.

Read the whole thing.

A terrified window cleaner was rescued by a high-tech drone after the scaffolding he was on malfunctioned.

The man was cleaning windows close to the top of a high rise building in central Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, when the motorised scaffold stopped working and started tilting dangerously.

The Security Media Department sent a wireless remote-controlled drone to rescue the cleaner amid dramatic scenes yesterday.

From the Daily Mail, there is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

Online education continues to expand rapidly:

WASHINGTON—Saying the option is revolutionizing the way the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds prepare for the grade school years ahead, a Department of Education report released Thursday confirmed that an increasing number of U.S. toddlers are now attending online preschool. “We found that a growing number of American toddlers are eschewing the traditional brick-and-mortar preschools in favor of sitting down in front of a computer screen for four hours a day and furthering their early psychosocial development in a virtual environment,” said the report’s author, Dr. Stephen Forrest, who said that the affordability and flexibility characteristic of online pre-primary education are what make the option most appealing, allowing young children to learn their shapes and colors on a schedule that works best for them. “With access to their Show-And-Tell message boards, recess timers, and live webcams of class turtle tanks, most toddlers are finding that they can receive the same experience of traditional preschooling from the comfort of their parents’ living room or home office. In addition, most cited the ability to listen to their teacher’s recordings of story time at their own pace as a significant benefit of choosing an online nursery school.” Forrest added that, despite their increasing popularity, many parents remain unconvinced that online preschools provide the same academic benefits as actually hearing an instructor name farm animals and imitate their noises in person.

From America’s Finest News Source but do consider this.

Peer-to-peer file sharing of movies, television shows, music, books and other files over the Internet has grown rapidly worldwide as an alternative approach for people to get the digital content they want — often illicitly. But, unlike the users of Amazon, Netflix and other commercial providers, little is known about users of peer-to-peer (P2P) systems because data is lacking.

Now, armed with an unprecedented amount of data on users of BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing system, a Northwestern University research team has discovered two interesting behavior patterns: most BitTorrent users are content specialists — sharing music but not movies, for example; and users in countries with similar economies tend to download similar types of content — those living in poorer countries such as Lithuania and Spain, for example, download primarily large files, such as movies.

“Looking into this world of Internet traffic, we see a close interaction between computing systems and our everyday lives,” said Luís A. Nunes Amaral, a senior author of the study. “People in a given country display preferences for certain content — content that might not be readily available because of an authoritarian government or inferior communication infrastructure. This study can provide a great deal of insight into how things are working in a country.”

Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Fabián E. Bustamante, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, also at McCormick, co-led the interdisciplinary research team with colleagues from Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Spain.

Their study, published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…reports BitTorrent users in countries with a small gross domestic product (GDP) per capita were more likely to share large files, such as high-definition movies, than users in countries with a large GDP per capita, where small files such as music were shared.

Also, more than 50 percent of users’ downloaded content fell into their top two downloaded content types, putting them in the content specialist, not generalist, category.

The full article is here, the paper and data are here, and for the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.  Can you explain the rich-poor, music vs. movies difference using economic theory?

IBM on Tuesday revealed details of how several customers are putting Watson to work, showing that cognitive computing has garnered at least an initial interest among different sorts of businesses. Naming customers also helps other businesses feel more at ease about trying the new technology.

In Australia, the ANZ bank will allow its financial planners to use the Watson Engagement Advisor to help answer customer questions. The idea is that the bank can then better understand what questions are being asked, so they can be answered more quickly.

Also in Australia, Deakin University will use Watson to answer questions from the school’s 50,000 students, by way of Web and mobile interfaces. The questions might include queries about campus activities or where a particular building is located. The service will be drawn from a vast repository of school materials, such as presentations, brochures and online materials.

In Thailand, the Bumrungrad International Hospital will use a Watson service to let its doctors plan the most effective treatments for each cancer patient, based on the patient’s profile as well as on published research. The hospital will leverage research work IBM did with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to customize Watson for oncology research.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Metropolitan Health medical insurance company will be using Watson to help provide medical advice for the company’s 3 million customers.

Watson is also being used by IBM partners and startups as the basis for new services.

Using Watson, Travelocity co-founder Terry Jones has launched a new service called WayBlazer, which can offer travel advice via a natural language interface. The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau is testing the WayBlazer app to see if it can increase convention and hotel bookings.

Veterinarian service provider LifeLearn of Guelph, Canada, is using Watson as the basis of a new mobile app called LifeLearn Sofie, which provides a way for animal doctors to research different treatment options. The Animal Medical Center in New York is currently testing that app.

Watson is also being incorporated into other third-party apps serving retailers, IT security and help desk managers, nonprofit fund-raisers, and the health care industry.

There is more information here.

Google’s driverless car may still be a work in progress, but the potential for semiautonomous vehicles on American roads is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

By the end of the decade, a growing number of automakers aim to offer some form of hands-off-the-wheel, feet-off-the-pedals highway driving where a driver can sit back and let the car take control.

The very nature of driving, experts say, will be radically reshaped — and the biggest players in the auto industry are now vying to capture a slice of the revolutionary market they see coming within a matter of years.

From Aaron M. Kessler, there is more here.

Twitter’s science stars

by on October 7, 2014 at 9:48 am in Science, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Science picks a list of the top one hundred, I am flattered to have been selected.  Other designees from economics include Krugman (his bot actually), Sachs, Roubini, Florida, Goolsbee, Basu, Dambisa Moyo, Rodrik, Stiglitz, Wolfers, Jared Bernstein, Dean Baker, Mark Thoma, and Noah Smith.  “Science” is not quite the right word here, but “markers to science” might do, or in my own case perhaps “library science.”

The real news in the list is that economists are overrepresented and other scientists are, on the whole, underrepresented.  They don’t see the returns to it that we do, and if there is more room in our science for persuasion, you should slot that into your Bayesian estimates too.