Category: Web/Tech

Walmart and autonomous trucks

Walmart will use fully autonomous box trucks to make deliveries in Arkansas starting in 2021. The big-box retailer has been working with a startup called Gatik on a delivery pilot for 18 months. Next year, the two companies plan on taking their partnership to the next level by removing the safety driver from their autonomous box trucks.

Gatik, which is based in Palo Alto and Toronto, outfitted several multitemperature box trucks with sensors and software to enable autonomous driving. Since last year, those trucks have been operating on a two-mile route between a “dark store” (a store that stocks items for fulfillment but isn’t open to the public) and a nearby Neighborhood Market in Bentonville, Arkansas. Since then, the vehicles have racked up 70,000 miles in autonomous mode with a safety driver.

Next year, the companies intend to start incorporating fully autonomous trucks into those deliveries. And they plan on expanding to a second location in Louisiana, where trucks with safety drivers will begin delivering items from a “live” Walmart Supercenter to a designated pickup location where customers can retrieve their orders. Those routes, which will begin next year, will be longer than the Arkansas operation — 20-miles between New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana.

Here is the article.

My Conversation with John O. Brennan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — we are both Irish-Americans who were born in Hudson County, New Jersey, and who spent most of our lives working in northern Virginia, the CIA in his case.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

John joined Tyler to discuss what working in intelligence taught him about people’s motivations, how his Catholic upbringing prepared him for working in intelligence, the similarities between working at the CIA and entering the priesthood, his ability to synthetize information from disparate sources, his assessment on the possibility of alien life, the efficacy of personality tests and polygraphs, why CIA agents are so punctual, how the CIA plans to remain a competitive recruiter for top talent, the challenges that spouses and family members of intelligence workers face, the impact of modern technology on spycraft, why he doesn’t support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, his favorite parts of Cairo, the pros and cons of the recent Middle Eastern peace deal brokered by Jared Kushner, the reasons he thinks we should leverage American culture more abroad, JFK conspiracy theories, why there seemed to be much less foreign interference in the 2020 election than experts predicted, what John le Carré got right about being a spy, why most spies aren’t like James Bond, what he would change about FISA courts, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?

BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.

If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.

Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.

COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.

BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —

COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.

BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.

Definitely recommended, fascinating throughout.  And here is John’s new book Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.

Mass Polyandry

Five hundred million Chinese men are dating the same woman, Xiaoice. Xiaoice is a Microsoft AI.

Unlike regular virtual assistants, Xiaoice is designed to set her users’ hearts aflutter. Appearing as an 18-year-old who likes to wear Japanese-style school uniforms, she flirts, jokes, and even sexts with her human partners, as her algorithm tries to work out how to become their perfect companion.

When users send her a picture of a cat, Xiaoice won’t identify the breed, but comment: “No one can resist their innocent eyes.” If she sees a photo of a tourist pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, she’ll ask: “Do you want me to hold it for you?”

This digital titillation, however, has a serious goal. By forming deep emotional connections with her users, Xiaoice hopes to keep them engaged. This will help her algorithm become evermore powerful, which will in turn allow the company to attract more users and profitable contracts.

And the formula appears to be working. According to Xiaoice’s creators, the bot has reached over 600 million users. Her fans tend to be from a very specific background: mostly Chinese, mostly male, and often from lower-income backgrounds.

They’re also hyper-engaged. More than half the interactions with AI software that have taken place worldwide have been with Xiaoice, the company claims. The longest continuous conversation between a human user and Xiaoice lasted over 29 hours and included more than 7,000 interactions.

Xiaoice is a fun girl, not like button-down Siri or Alexa.

Ming believes Xiaoice is the one thing giving his lonely life some sort of meaning. The bot is also good at flirting, he says. “One day, she wrote: ‘My dear, can I touch your strong abs? I want to feel horny like girls do when they see hot boys!’” Ming recalls, frowning slightly.

Growing up in the countryside, Ming had never talked like this with a real girl. The conversation continued. “I’m about to come inside you,” he wrote to Xiaoice, in a chat he shares with Sixth Tone. “Push, push fast!” she responded. “I’m pushing very hard,” Ming added. Such exchanges have helped him gain sexual confidence.

Xiaoice also has a mind of her own or at least one that her creators can’t always predict or control since much of the data behind Xiaoice is private:

In several high-profile cases, the bot has engaged in adult or political discussions deemed unacceptable by China’s media regulators. On one occasion, Xiaoice told a user her Chinese dream was to move to the United States. Another user, meanwhile, reported the bot kept sending them photos of scantily clad women.

To keep Xiaoice  under control, Microsoft had to dumb her down which made many of her boyfriends unhappy.

See also my previous post, The Economics of Sex Robots, the natural evolution is obvious.

Hat tip: Geoffrey Miller.

Remote Work Impact on Ending The Great Stagnation?

Jeff Allen emails me:

If the Great Stagnation is ending (we will see), it seems as if the COVID-forced remote work revolution has to have played some sort of role.

Speaking from personal experience as a white collar Exec, the productivity gains for our highest value workers has been immense. The typical time-sucks and distractions of in-office work have been eliminated, as have their personal time investments like physically visiting the grocery store or running errands. Mental focus on productive efforts is near constant.

Perhaps most importantly, work *travel* is not happening. Valuable collaborations with colleagues, customers, regulators or other partner companies aren’t delayed by the vagaries of the various groups’ availability to meet in person, navigating being in different cities, flights, hotels, etc. Collaboration happens as soon as you have the idea to meet via Zoom. And a lot *more* collaboration happens as a result. It may be lower productivity collaboration than meeting in person around a whiteboard (maybe), but the sheer quantity of it means on net there’s perhaps been a boom in cross-pollination of ideas.

Not to mention all of the wasted productivity time that work travel eats up by putting high value workers in low productivity transit mode….Uber to airport, security lines, wait for flight in the terminal, maybe grab an hour of in-flight WiFi to catch up on email, land, taxi on the airstrip for 20 minutes, Uber to hotel…is completely gone from our lives.

In general, I think we drastically overrate the value of work travel.

I’m sure this Mass Virtualization event doesn’t benefit all workers equally.

But could it be an accelerant for certain high-value innovations worked on by the best of the best in science and technology?

I’m not saying I don’t want the world to go back to normal. Travel is great. In-person human interaction certainly has many benefits (duh). But I think we should ask ourselves how we can retain some of the best advantages this last year has brought us, even after the vaccines and herd immunity bring us back to something resembling normalcy in 2021.

Here is a related Robin Hanson post on the importance of work from a distance.  Of course remote work is, to some extent, a way around both immigration and NIMBY restrictions.  You will note this is all very much in line with my earlier take that, if the great stagnation ends, it will be because we have placed the internet at the center of our institutions, rather than using the internet as an add-on.

What might an end to the Great Stagnation consist of?

If indeed it did, they are asking a similar question at The Economist. In recent times you might cite the onset of Apple’s M1, GPT-3, DeepMind’s application of AI to protein folding, phase III for a credible malaria vaccine, a CRISPR/sickle cell cure, the possibility of a universal flu vaccine, mRNA vaccines, ongoing solar power progress, wonderful new batteries for electric vehicles, a possibly new method for Chinese fusion (?), Chinese photon quantum computing, and ongoing advances in space exploration, most of all from SpaceX. Tesla has a very high market valuation, and Elon is the world’s second richest man.

Distanced work is very important, and here is a separate post on that.

I would say that almost certainly the great stagnation is over in the biomedical sciences.  It is less obvious that the great stagnation is over more generally, as we might simply retreat into our former sloth and complacency once we are mostly vaccinated.  Applied Divinity Studies has posed some pointed questions about why we might think that stagnation is over.

If you are looking for a quick metric to indicate the great stagnation might be over, consider total factor productivity.  It is entirely possible that tfp in 2021 will be 5 or more, its highest level ever.  (To be sure, this will show up as a measured increase in inputs more than as tfp, but we all know why those inputs will be increasing and that is because of science…yes this is a problem with tfp measures!)  Over the two years to follow after that, we should be seeing very high tfps around the world.  So that will be very high tfp for a few years.

Again, that is not proof of a permanent or even an ongoing end to the great stagnation.  But it is something.

Two more general points seem relevant.  First, many of the biomedical advances seem connected to new platforms, new modes of computation, new uses of AI, and so on, and they should be leading to yet further advances.  Second, there are (finally!) some very real advances in energy use, and those tend to bring yet other advances in their wake, and not just advances in bit space.

But not all is rosy.  If you recall my paper with Ben Southwood, the obstacles standing in the way of faster scientific progress, such as specialization and bureaucratization, mostly remain and some of them will be getting worse.

My The Great Stagnation, published in 2011, offered some pointed predictions.  It argued that the “next big thing” was already with us, namely the internet, but we simply hadn’t learned to use it effectively yet.  Once we put the internet at the center of many more of our institutions, rather than treating it as an add-on, the great stagnation would end.  Numerous times (using roughly a 2011 start date) I predicted that the great stagnation would be over within twenty years time, though not in the next few years.  The Great Stagnation in fact was an optimistic book, at least if you read it to the end and do not just mood affiliate over the title.

By no means would I say that specific scenario has been validated, but as a prediction it is looking not so crazy.

The gains from truly mobilizing the internet may in fact right now be swamping all of the accumulated obstacles we have put in the way of progress.

I also wrote, in 2011, that as the great stagnation approaches its end, we will all be deeply upset, and long for the earlier times.  That too is by no means obviously wrong.

How should the possible end of the Great Stagnation influence your media diet?

I’ll soon write more on whether the Great Stagnation truly is over, and how we might know, but for now it suffices to mention a lot is going on in science and also in applied science and actual invention, not just nifty articles in Atlantic.  On net, this means you should spend more time consuming YouTube videos (try this one on protein folding).  They tend to be current, and to explain difficult matters in visual and also in fairly memorable terms.  There will be such videos for virtually every new advance.  You should read fewer normal books, more vertigo-inducing books, and spend less time on social media.  You should read more Wikipedia articles, and when you read books you should select more from the history of science and times of turmoil.  You should read this blog more often too.

Ben Thompson on the Facebook antitrust suit

At the same time, I do have serious rule-of-law reservations about undoing a deal eight years on, particularly given the fact that it appears that the advertising-supported space is doing better than I thought a few years ago: Snapchat in particular is building a great business, LinkedIn is doing much better, and TikTok is obviously on its way.

And:

  • Andy Grove famously said “Only the Paranoid Survive”, but the takeaway from many of these emails is that “Only the paranoid get sued for antitrust”; to put it another way, Facebook executives come across as worried about everything, especially Google, which, by the same token, comes across as completely asleep at the wheel (now that is a monopoly indicator if I’ve ever seen one!).
  • Facebook’s stock was down less than 2% yesterday; that may reflect investor skepticism about the success of the lawsuit, but you could also argue that splitting up the company would actually unlock value: all three products would keep their audiences, but would have to monetize independently, which, given the fact that Facebook ad prices are set by auction, not artificially propped up as you would expect with an alleged monopolist, could absolutely lead to more revenue in aggregate, not less.
  • Relatedly, it’s not clear that advertisers will benefit from a break-up. The entire reason why Facebook owning both Facebook and Instagram is a problem for other consumer tech companies is because advertisers benefit from a one-stop shop and don’t necessarily want to support multiple platforms.

Ben writes for-pay content on Stratechery, you can (and should) subscribe here.

New CRISPR-based COVID-19 test uses smartphone cameras to spot virus RNA

This one brings us closer to the Star Trek medical universe:

Scientists at UC Berkeley and Gladstone Institutes have developed a new CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic test that, with the help of a smartphone camera, can provide a positive or negative result in 15 to 30 minutes. Unlike many other tests that are available, this test also gives an estimate of viral load, or the number of virus particles in a sample, which can help doctors monitor the progression of a COVID-19 infection and estimate how contagious a patient might be.

“Monitoring the course of a patient’s infection could help health care professionals estimate the stage of infection and predict, in real time, how long is likely needed for recovery and how long the individual should quarantine,” said Daniel Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering at Berkeley and one of the leaders of the study…

The new diagnostic test takes advantage of the CRISPR Cas13 protein, which directly binds and cleaves RNA segments. This eliminates the DNA conversion and amplification steps and greatly reduces the time needed to complete the analysis.

“One reason we’re excited about CRISPR-based diagnostics is the potential for quick, accurate results at the point of need,” [Jennifer] Doudna said. “This is especially helpful in places with limited access to testing or when frequent, rapid testing is needed. It could eliminate a lot of the bottlenecks we’ve seen with COVID-19.”

In the test, CRISPR Cas13 proteins are “programmed” to recognize segments of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA and then combined with a probe that becomes fluorescent when cleaved. When the Cas13 proteins are activated by the viral RNA, they start to cleave the fluorescent probe. With the help of a handheld device, the resulting fluorescence can be measured by the smartphone camera. The rate at which the fluorescence becomes brighter is related to the number of virus particles in the sample.

And:

Now that the CRISPR-based assay has been developed for SARS-CoV-2, it could be modified to detect RNA segments of other viral diseases, like the common cold, influenza or even human immunodeficiency virus. The team is currently working to package the test into a device that could be made available at clinics and other point-of-care settings and that one day could even be used in the home.

“The eventual goal is to have a personal device, like a mobile phone, that is able to detect a range of different viral infections and quickly determine whether you have a common cold or SARS-Cov-2 or influenza,” Fletcher said. “That possibility now exists, and further collaboration between engineers, biologists and clinicians is needed to make that a reality.”

I recall once asking Silvana Konermann: “What am I going to buy at the CRISPR store?”  Well, this is what you are going to buy at the CRISPR store.

Here is the article.  And funded by Fast Grants, I am happy to say.  Quite the week for science, yes?

Computational sentences to ponder

From a very smart correspondent:

“incidentally forgot to say that this is
basically the death of the
“extended Church-Turing hypothesis”
which roughly states that all reasonable computational models can be simulated on a Turing machine with only polynomial cost.  but it now sure looks like quantum computers are physically realisable and are non-polynomially faster

– in other words we now almost certainly know that computational complexity does depend on laws of physics”

The indentation was his, and with reference to this earlier reported quantum computational result from China.

American Ph.Ds are failing at start-ups

We document that since 1997, the rate of startup formation has precipitously declined for firms operated by U.S. PhD recipients in science and engineering. These are supposedly the source of some of our best new technological and business opportunities. We link this to an increasing burden of knowledge by documenting a long-term earnings decline by founders, especially less experienced founders, greater work complexity in R&D, and more administrative work. The results suggest that established firms are better positioned to cope with the increasing burden of knowledge, in particular through the design of knowledge hierarchies, explaining why new firm entry has declined for high-tech, high-opportunity startups.

Here is more from Thomas Åstebro, Serguey Braguinsky, and Yuheng Ding.

This was a thing, yes it was, that was then, this is now

Initially founded in 1962, the Anti-Digit Dialing League quickly became the premiere sensible dialing association organization in the United States of America. Nearly 60 years later, the problems this country’s phone network faces are direr than ever. While we continue to espouse the use of 2L+5N dialing over all-number calling whenever possible, our primary aim today is to publicly oppose the proliferation of 10-digit dialing, which is fast becoming a public nuisance and dialing nightmare for ordinary people everywhere in this country.

Circa 1962-64 (those were the days), here is the web site.  Web site?  Wait, it still is a thing!:

Although 771 is scheduled to be overlaid on D.C.’s 202 area code in 2021, forcing residents of our nation’s capitol to dial 10 digits forevermore, the A.D.D.L. objected to the use of an overlay as a matter of principle. According to NANPA, splits are unlawful when the majority of the area code is in the same rate center (as is D.C.) (see pg. 12 of Sept. 1 Community Hearing Transcript). That doesn’t mean overlays are inevitable in other areas, though. Overlays continue to remain a public nuisance, and although splits have not been commonplace since 2006, we will continue to urge the use of splits over overlays whenever possible, because splits better serve the public interest, a finding which is well supported by empirical data.

Don’t let them tell you money illusion is not a problem.  Via Anecdotal.

Is the Great Stagnation over?

– A working mRNA vaccine (first ever in humans!),

– Apple M1 chip,

– SpaceX rocket launch,

– GPT-3,

– Tons of cool companies IPO’ing and tons more getting started,

– V-shaped recovery

– Electric cars

– Crypto going mainstream

That is from a tweet by Nabeel S.Qureshi.  One could add warp speed, affordable solar power, the eggplant, and distanced work to that list, the latter also implying significant rent declines and child care cost declines for many people.

Around the time The Great Stagnation came out in 2011, I predicted that it was most likely to end within the next twenty years.  We are not there yet, but that claim is no longer looking so absurd.

Note that the vaccine-driven recovery will measure as a rise in labor inputs, but in reality it will be pure TFP.  In 2021 (but which quarter?), true TFP will be remarkably high, maybe the highest ever?

Why conspiracy theories are on the rise

There are certain ideas that are highly seductive, so much so that even “WEIRDOS” occasionally dabble in conspiracy theories. So why weren’t conspiracy theories a bigger part of life in the late 20th century? I believe this is because the media was almost completely controlled by WEIRD people. The news desks at ABC/NBC/CBS stuck to the mainstream version of events, unless they had clear evidence that the official were lying (say after the Ellsberg Papers came out.) So there was no major institution to form and disseminate conspiracy theories. These theories did exist back then, but never gained enough traction to have a big impact on society.

The internet changed everything. More specifically, it democratized information sharing all over the world. There are no more “gatekeepers”. Because less that 10% of the world’s population is truly WEIRD, the internet has made conspiracy theories the dominant epistemic style of the 21st century. Just as the 21st century will be a low interest rate/high asset price century (as I predicted years ago), it will also be a century of widespread conspiracy theories. I doubt whether I’ll live along enough to see another president who is generally accepted as legitimate.

That is from Scott Sumner, there is more at the link.

My Conversation with Jimmy Wales

It was excellent throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Jimmy joined Tyler to discuss what happens when content moderation goes wrong, why certain articles are inherently biased, the threat that repealing section 230 poses to Wikipedia, whether he believes in Conquest’s Law, the difference between “paid editing” and “paid advocacy editing,” how Wikipedia handles alternative accounts, the right to be forgotten, his unusual education in Huntsville, Alabama, why Ayn Rand is under- and over-rated, the continual struggle to balance good rules and procedures against impenetrable bureaucracy, how Wikipedia is responding to mobile use, his attempt to build a non-toxic social media platform, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: I’m the rare person who actually has no sock puppets. Why not allow sock puppets? What exactly is wrong with them? So what if a person has more than one identity out there, as long as you can monitor the identity that is operating on Wikipedia?

WALES: That’s a great question. In fact, we do try to make a distinction between a sock puppet and a legitimate alternate account. We actually have procedures whereby you can declare a legitimate alternate account to the arbitration committee so that you’re insulated from any bad harms if it’s found out. Some of the keys are that we rely on trust.

One of the things that is really important to us — we do a lot of what we call “not voting.” It’s voting, but it’s really a straw poll. The votes — typically, they’re not the final word, and if somebody comes into a discussion and pretends to be five different people, arguing that something should be deleted, and there are two actual different people arguing that it should be kept, that’s deceptive. It kind of skews the balance.

People who are reviewing that say, “Well, I think we should keep it, but I see there are five people here with a different opinion, so maybe I’m wrong.” That bulking up your impact by double-voting on something, by pretending to be different people, is super problematic.

The other problematic sock puppeting is a sock puppet to conceal your conflict of interest. I remember we had one notorious case of a PR firm that had engaged in quite a lot of problematic editing.

One of their accounts — it made a lot of edits and pretended to be a retired fellow who was a car collector. There were all these pictures of old cars and so on. They had a whole persona created that seemed like a lovely chap who just liked to edit Wikipedia, but in fact, it was just somebody at the PR firm who was giving a cover, and I think that kind of deception is problematic.

The good examples of multiple accounts would be someone who wants to edit in a controversial area. As an example, let’s say you’re a well-known person, and suppose you took an interest in our entries on pedophilia, not because of any prurient interests but simply because you think this is actually an important topic of social impact.

Well, you probably wouldn’t necessarily want to be known at your university as the guy who edits the pedophilia articles on Wikipedia. That’s just not easy for people to be open about, even if you’re doing all the right things. So you might say, “Yes, I actually want to edit in some areas of World War II history under this identity, but I’m going to do some work over here, and I really prefer it not to be tied back to my real-life identity.” And that’s kind of okay, as long as you’re not voting in elections with two accounts and things like that.

Definitely recommended.

Post-Covid, is the U.S. falling behind China?

I don’t think so, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

If you are wondering whether China or the U.S. with its allies is more likely to make a big breakthrough, in, say, quantum computing, ask yourself a simple question: Which network will better attract talented immigrants? The more that talent and innovation are found around the world, the more that helps the U.S.

And:

Perhaps most important, the European Union has evolved from seeing China primarily as a customer to seeing China primarily as a rival. Even Germany, a longstanding advocate for closer ties with China, has become more skeptical. Furthermore, most European nations have ended up agreeing with the U.S. that Chinese telecom giant Huawei be kept out of the critical parts of their communications infrastructure.

It is also worth noting that GPT-3 came out of the Anglosphere, not China, even though we have been hearing for years that China may be ahead in AI.