Web/Tech

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no public event, podcast only.  Today by the way is his birthday, so send along some good questions as a birthday present to him, and a non-birthday present to me!

Garry’s forthcoming book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins is just superb, and the podcast will be released around the time of book publication in early May.

The Economist has two good pieces on India’s Aadhaar card. First, the bright side:

IT TAKES a little over 90 seconds. At the government-subsidised ration shop in Sargasan, a village in Gujarat, Chandana Prajapati places her thumb on a fingerprint scanner. A list of the staples she and her family are entitled to this month appears on the shopkeeper’s computer: 10kg of rice, 25kg of wheat, some cooking oil, salt and sugar. The 55-year-old housewife has no cash nor credit card, but no matter. By tapping in an identifying number and presenting her thumb one more time, Mrs Prajapati authorises a payment of 271 rupees ($4.20) straight from her bank account. It is technical wizardry worthy of Stockholm or New York; yet outside buffaloes graze, a pot of water is coming to the boil on a pile of firewood and children scamper between mud-brick houses.

Like most Indians, Mrs Prajapati would have struggled to identify herself to the authorities a few years ago, let alone to a faraway bank. But 99% of adults are now enrolled in Aadhaar, a scheme which has amassed the fingerprints and iris scans of over 1.1bn people since 2010. With her authorisation, any government body or private business can check whether her fingerprints or irises match those recorded against her unique 12-digit identifying number in its database. When it comes to identification, India has unexpectedly leapfrogged every country with the possible exception of Estonia, a tiddler with a penchant for innovation.

The Aadhaar system has cut corruption and cleaned the rolls of people with fake identities trying to scam fertilizer, food or some other subsidized good. But the government wants the mark of the beast Aadhaar system to be used for just about everything including paying taxes, getting school lunches, buying airline tickets or a cell phone and that makes some people worried:

In theory, the law on Aadhaar passed last year by Mr Modi’s government includes stringent protections against the sharing of information; its rules allowing exceptions on grounds of national security, although vaguely worded, appear well intended. Sweden has required all citizens to have a national ID number since 1947—the year of India’s birth—with little trouble. Most Swedes consider the scheme, which is linked to tax, school, medical and other records, an immense convenience.

But India is not a tidy Nordic kingdom. Mr Modi’s government, with its strident nationalism and occasional recklessness—such as last year’s abrupt voiding of most of the paper currency in circulation—does not always inspire confidence that it will respect citizens’ rights and legal niceties. By sneaking the linkage between Aadhaar and tax into a budget bill, it raises concerns about intent: will the government stalk tax evaders, or perhaps enemies of the state, using ostensibly “fire-walled” Aadhaar data? Many Indians will remember that, following sectarian riots in the past, ruling parties were accused of using voter rolls to target victims.

As the Economist wisely concludes:

…for Aadhaar to fulfil its potential, Indians must trust that it will not be misused. Adopting coercive regulations, ignoring the Supreme Court’s qualms and dismissing critics peremptorily will achieve the opposite.

Solve for the equilibrium

by on April 12, 2017 at 6:48 pm in Web/Tech | Permalink

In the latest example of marketers entering the living room, Burger King will release television commercials on Tuesday that are intended to prompt voice-activated smart speakers from Google into describing its burgers — after the 15-second spots end.

A video from one of the fast-food chain’s marketing agencies showed the stunt in action: “You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich,” the commercial’s actor says. He continues, “But I got an idea. O.K. Google, what is the Whopper burger?” Prompted by the phrase “O.K. Google,” the Google Home device next to the TV in the video lights up, runs a search and states its ingredients.

Here is the story, via the excellent Michael Rosenwald.

Patrick is co-founder and CEO of Stripe, based in San Francisco.  I recently told a reporter he was one of the five smartest people I have known; he is so smart, in fact, that he asked to interview me rather than vice versa, and so he and I created a new episode of Conversations with Tyler (transcript and podcast at that link, alas no video, and note that was recorded in January so on a few points the timeline may feel off).

We discuss whether macro is underrated, what makes Silicon Valley special, optimal immigration policy, whether Facebook is beneficial for society, whether I might ever vote for Donald Trump, how to start a new religion, Peter Thiel, Brian Eno, where I differ from Thomas Schelling, Michel Houllebecq, how to maintain your composure in an age of Trump, the origins of this blog, how I read so much, why Twitter is underrated, and the benefits of having a diverse monoculture, among many other topics.

Here is one bit:

COLLISON: …You’ve written a lot about how the study of economics has influenced your appreciation for the arts, and for literature, and for food, and all of the rest. You haven’t written as much about the influence in the reverse direction. How has your appreciation for and study of the arts influenced your study of economics? And is this a version of that?

COWEN: This is a version of that. Here would be a simple example: If you think about Renaissance Florence, at its peak, its population, arguably, was between 60,000 and 80,000 people. And there were surrounding areas; you could debate the number. But they had some really quite remarkable achievements that have stood the test of time and lasted, and today have very high market value. Now, in very naive theories of economics, that shouldn’t be possible. People in Renaissance Florence, they didn’t produce a refrigerator that we’re still using or a tech company that we still consult.

But there’s something different about, say, the visual arts, where that was possible, and it was done with small numbers. So there’s something about the inputs to some kinds of production we don’t understand. I would suggest if we’re trying to figure out, like what makes Silicon Valley work, actually, by studying how they did what they did in the Florentine Renaissance is highly important. You learn what are the missing inputs that make for other kinds of miracles.

Ireland and writing would be another example.

…COWEN: And I worry now that people in Ireland hear too much American English, too much English English, and that style of writing, talking, joking, limericks, is becoming somewhat less distinct. Still many wonderful writers from Ireland, but again, it’s like an optimal stock depletion problem, and maybe we’ve pressed on the button a little too hard.

COLLISON: The transaction costs should be higher?

And here is another:

COLLISON: Do we just need a sufficiently obfuscated version of the UBI and then we’re fine?

COWEN: We call it “disability insurance.”

And:

COWEN: Well, I voted on each of these hires. I voted for them. For a lot of them, I was on the hiring committee. Robin Hanson’s a good example. When we hired Robin, he was much older than a typical assistant professor would be. And of course, we don’t practice age discrimination, and neither does anyone else, but . . .

[laughter]

COWEN: Robin was going to have a tough time being hired. And I gave Robin some of my papers to read. He came in. He was a little, actually, obnoxious to me. Though he’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. He sent me back comments on my papers, that they were all wrong.

[laughter]

COWEN: There was no preliminary politeness: ‘I thought this was interesting, but…’ I thought this was great. So I thought, “We need to hire Robin. Robin is different.” And Robin wrote papers I thought were crazy, but he clearly also was a genius. I pushed very hard to hire Robin, and he made a good impression on a lot of other people. He’s been with us ever since.

COLLISON: Were the papers in fact all wrong?

COWEN: Robin’s criticisms were all good points.

[laughter]

COWEN: But they weren’t entirely wrong.

Self-recommending!

*Everybody Lies*

by on April 11, 2017 at 2:54 am in Books, Data Source, Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is the new and fascinating book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, with the subtitle Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.  Here is one of many interesting bits:

Urban areas tend to be well supplied with models of success.  To see the value of being near successful practitioners of a craft when young, compare New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles.  Among the three, new York City produces notable journalists at the highest rate; Boston produces notable scientists at the highest rate; and Los Angeles produces notable actors at the highest rate.  Remember, we are not talking about people who moved there.  And this holds true even after subtracting people with notable parents in that field.

Many of the results in the book are taken from Google data and Google searches.  I was a little chuffed to read this part:

A child born in New York City is 80 percent more likely to make it into Wikipedia than a kid born in Bergen County.

[Actually I was born in Hudson County, but grew up in Bergen.]  And this:

Of the trillions of Google searches during that time [2004-2011], what do you think turned out to be most tightly connected to unemployment?  You might imagine “unemployment office” — or something similar…The highest during the period I searched — and these terms do shift — was “Slutload.”  That’s right, the most frequent search was for a pornographic site.

Here is previous MR coverage of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

Recently I read was Peter Gaskell’s Artisans and Machinery, from 1836 (later reprinted).

So much of his discussion of handloom weavers could come out of an Atlantic Monthly article from 2015, albeit with different historical references.  However today’s stories typically claim that automation favors tech skills, whereas Gaskell argues power weaving put the skilled workers out of jobs and empowered the less skilled machine supervisors.

Just as Bill Gates called for the taxing of robots, back in the early 19th century many people called for the taxing of machinery.  Gaskell believes this would help labor in the short run but in the longer run actually stimulate more innovation — to avoid some of the tax by lowering capital costs — eventually making labor’s lot all the worse.

Gaskell dives into sociology and suggests that the earlier, less technology-intensive workers were more religious, more devout, and less likely to make political trouble.  Distinctions of rank were in fuller force, and children were less likely to be pressured to work outside the home.  Insofar as the man worked inside the cottage as a sole proprietor, this encouraged an ethic of individual responsibility.  Society was truly decentralized, and those were “the golden times” of manufactures.  The downside is that such individuals were less likely to be literate, and of course output was lower, including food output, and prices were higher.

Since women and children also could work the new power looms, that increased the supply of labor and put downward pressure on wages and on male wages in particular.  Collectively speaking, it would have been better to preserve division of labor within the household, and keep male wages relatively high, and female household production relatively high.

One of the more charming sections of this book was the chapter on how factories spur too much of the animal passions, as men and women are working together long hours and will eventually…dine with Mike Pence.  Furthermore, factory work leads to new norms where women can have premarital sex and still expect to marry someone else later on, without much fear of a reputational penalty.  Premarital sex then rises all the more, and then the looser norms are passed down to the children, worsening the problem all the more.  Eventually England will end up with the sexual norms found in the “warmer climates.”

Overall, Gaskell paints a picture of a world where there are positive social externalities from having individual males tied to pieces of land.  Along those lines, he offers a kind of Georgist critique of the countryside, where too much land has been tied up in speculative enclosures.

Given ongoing mechanization, only in the long run can a society find a “healthy and permanent tone” once again.  He is optimistic about the long run, but not about the transition.

I don’t exactly agree with all of these perspectives, but I was impressed by the intricacy and also clarity of the analysis in this book, which usually does not receive significant mention in the history of economic thought.

Here are various copies of the book.  Even Maxine Berg doesn’t cover Gaskell much.

The syringe slides in between the thumb and index finger. Then, with a click, a microchip is injected in the employee’s hand. Another “cyborg” is created.

What could pass for a dystopian vision of the workplace is almost routine at the Swedish startup hub Epicenter. The company offers to implant its workers and startup members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.

The injections have become so popular that workers at Epicenter hold parties for those willing to get implanted.

“The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” said Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter. As a demonstration, he unlocks a door by merely waving near it. “It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys.”

Here is more, via Samir Varma.  Personally, I would rather sponsor a few seats at that crucifixion in Manchester…or better yet sit next to the bishop.

New cars loaded with high-tech crash-prevention gear are having a perverse effect on car-insurance costs: They are soaring.

Safety features such as autonomous braking and systems to prevent drivers from drifting out of their lanes are increasingly available on vehicles rolling off assembly lines. Auto companies and third-party researchers say these features help prevent crashes and are building blocks to self-driving cars. But progress comes with a price.

Enabling the safety tech are cameras, sensors, microprocessors and other hardware whose repair costs can be more than five times that of conventional parts. And the equipment is often located in bumpers, fenders and external mirrors—the very spots that tend to get hit in a crash. Insurance companies, unwilling to shoulder all the pain, are passing some of the cost off to buyers.

Here is more from Christina Rogers and Leslie Scism at the WSJ.

Frictionlessness encourages bad habits. For those who resent the time suck of 1-click ordering, Domino’s has pioneered “zero-click” pizza-buying. Simply open the app and, after ten seconds, it automatically places a pre-set order. Domino’s competitors are working on a “direct-to-mouth” drone-delivery service that will send individual slices of pizza into your home via an electronic flap. Pizza experts are seeking ways around the “chewing bottleneck”.

Payments are also subject to facile externality. Three in five Britons say they spend more with a wave of the plastic than they would with cash. Ordering goods using Alexa, a voice-activated assistant, is as easy as saying its name. Tech firms are working on gesture-controlled devices that could enable payments with just a furtive glance of desire.

That is from The Economist, and the pointer is from Tyro.

Here is one bit, from the rapid fire back-and-forth:

Ezra Klein

The rationality community.

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

There is much more at the link, entertaining throughout, with links to the full podcast as well.

I am still seeing many misleading headlines and takes on the recent Congressional vote to “sell your internet privacy.”  Do read this thread to the bottom (link here):

MOFO March 29, 2017 at 9:27 am [edit]

Something is not quite adding up here. According to Ars Technica, this vote replaces a rule that hasnt even taken affect yet. :

https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2017/03/how-isps-can-sell-your-web-history-and-how-to-stop-them/

“So what has changed for Internet users? In one sense, nothing changed this week, because the requirement to obtain customer consent before sharing or selling data is not scheduled to take effect until at least December 4, 2017. ISPs didn’t have to follow the rules yesterday or the day before, and they won’t ever have to follow them if the rules are eliminated.”

Im not saying this vote is a good thing, but it sounds to me like all the things we fear are already possible.

Reply

11 Charles Guo March 29, 2017 at 10:34 am [edit]

12 MOFO March 29, 2017 at 10:53 am [edit]

The rules that are being changed went into effect january 4th? is that correct?

TC again: If you believe these claims to be wrong, by all means tell us and I will investigate the matter further.  But so far I think I am witnessing another case of “Trump exaggerated click-bait headlines” on this one.  It is fine if you think this change is a bad idea, but it is hard for me to see it as the internet privacy skies falling, especially if you already are using Google and Facebook.  It’s not exactly the case that our privacy birthright has been stolen from us…

Here is further useful perspective from The Washington Post.

Here is part of Ezra’s description:

I had a simple plan: ask Cowen for his thoughts on as many topics as possible. And I think it worked out pretty well. We discuss everything from New Jersey to high school sports to finding love to smoked trout to nootropics to Thomas Schelling to Ayn Rand to social media to speed reading strategies to happy relationships to the disadvantages of growing up in Manhattan. And believe me when I say that is a small sampling of the topics we cover.

We also talk about Tyler’s new book, “The Complacent Class,” which argues, in true Cowenian fashion, that everything we think we know about the present is wrong, and far from being an age of rapid change and constant risk, we have become a cautious, even stagnant, society.

This as information dense a discussion as I’ve hosted on this podcast. I took a lot away from it, and I think you will too.

Here is the link.

In light of these laws and institutions safeguarding user privacy, members of the House of Representatives need not fear that voting for the joint resolution to rescind the FCC’s privacy rule will mark the end of individual privacy on the Internet.

Here is the full piece by Ryan Radia, via Brent Skorup.  He also recommends this longer Georgia Tech paper of broader interest (pdf).

Wil Wade emails me some very interesting points:

As someone who has changed jobs a fair amount and recently, I thought I might be able to give some ideas on why better matching and results decreases mobility. Some of these might be fairly easy to set up tests for. (Note I am a programmer, someone with many job prospects in almost anywhere I could want, so salt as desired.)

1. You think you will find something. Everywhere has lots of jobs posted, so if feels like if you just wait until tomorrow, that job in your area will pop up. Why look at another city, when your city posts 100 new jobs a day (none of which will be good for you, but you don’t know that)

2. Perhaps especially in white collar jobs, you never get a job from a job posting. Never is a bit strong, but your network leads to most jobs. (of the 5 jobs I have had in the ~10 years since graduating, three of those were network based) The less mobile your network, the less mobile you can be.

3. Comparisons are really hard to make when cost of living varies so much. I do not know if the variance in cost of living has increased over the past 30 years, but I do know that it feels really high. As a programmer I easily could move to any of the large cities SF, LA, NYC. But the cost of living adjustment is really hard to make. And currently impossible to make at an I could move anywhere level.

Christina, an apparent MR reader, asked me whether it is really true that AI helps military defense more than military offense, as was previously argued by Eric Schmidt.  I can think of a few parallel cases:

1. In chess, AI clearly has helped the defense.  Top computer programs never play 32-move brilliant sacrifice victories against each other, a’ la Mikhail Tal.  Most games are drawn, and a victory tends to be long and protracted.  (Do note it is sometimes better to get the war over with and lose right away.)

2. In the NBA, analytics have helped offense more, for instance by showing that more attempted shots should be three-pointers.  Analytics of course is not AI, but you can consider it a more primitive form of using information technology to improve decisions.

3. It is interesting to ponder the differences between chess and the NBA as potential analogies.  In chess, the attack often “plays itself,” as the player with the initiative may be following fairly standard strategies of bringing the Queen and some lesser pieces in the neighborhood of the opposing King, or maybe just capturing material.  Finding the correct defense is often a more complex matter, and the higher quality of the chess-playing programs thus boosts defense more than offense.  Besides, under perfect information chess is almost certainly a draw, and the use of AI asymptotically approaches that outcome.

In professional basketball, the offense typically has more options and permutations, and given any offensive decisions, the defense often respond in fairly typical fashion, such as lunging at the player attempting a shot, or doubling Stephen Curry as he crosses the half-court line.  In those cases where the defense has more options, however, analytics conceivably could help basketball defense more than offense.  A (hypothetical) example of this would be using game tape and AI to see which kinds of tugs on the jersey best disrupt the shot or rhythm of the team’s leading scorer.  That said, most of the action seems to be in honing the options for the offense.

4. Is warfare more like chess or more like the NBA?

I believe the USA has more options in most of its conflicts, and thus AI will help the United States, at least at first.

In the Second World War the Nazis had more options than their opponents.  In the Civil War and American Revolution, however, the available offense was more static and predictable, and AI for those fighting forces might have helped the defense more.  In the Iran-Iraq war I suspect the defense had more options too.  Terror groups have more meaningful options than the forces defending against terror, and thus AI might help terror groups more than the defense, at least provided they had equal access to the data and to the technology (which is doubtful at this point, still as part of the exercise this is useful).

5. One important qualifier is that the chess and NBA examples already assume a game is on to be played.  A war, in contrast, is started as a matter of volition on at least one side.  If AI creates a new arms race of sorts, where one side at times opens up a decisive lead, that may provoke more decisions to engage and thus attack.  The mere fact that AI increases the variance in the power gap between the two sides may increase the number of attacks and thus wars.

So there is more to this question than meets the eye at first, and I have only begun to engage with it.

Addendum: AI is also spreading in the legal world, will this help defendants or plaintiffs more?