Category: Web/Tech

Can an Artificial Intelligence Write A Good Blog Post?

A blog post by an artificial intelligence that has just been taught to write about an artificial intelligence is still far from being a good blog post by any human being.

There are many reasons why a blog post by an artificial intelligence is unlikely to be a good blog post by any human being.

First, the post is still a huge piece of written material, so it will be a big task for the AI to read it all. This is similar to reading a huge, long book, which is a huge task for you as an author.

Second, it is likely that the AI will use its knowledge about writing to create a very bad, misleading, or otherwise nonsensical blog post. In this case, the AI will be writing a blog post about its own stupidity.

Third, even if the blog post is not written by a computer but rather by a human author, the human author will not understand it and will not be able to correct it. This is because the blog post will include very basic, incorrect, or outdated knowledge about writing,

Effort: The Unrecognized Contributor to US Income Inequality

That is a new paper by J. Rodrigo Fuentes and Edward E. Leamer:

This paper provides theory and evidence that worker effort has played an important role in the increase in income inequality in the United States between 1980 and 2016. The theory suggests that a worker needs to exert effort enough to pay the rental value of the physical and human capital, thus high effort and high pay for jobs operating expensive capital. With that as a foundation, we use data from the ACS surveys in 1980 and 2016 to estimate Mincer equations for six different education levels that explain wage incomes as a function of weekly hours worked and other worker features. One finding is a decline in annual income for high school graduates for all hours worked per week. We argue that the sharp decline in manufacturing jobs forces down wages of those with high school degrees who have precious few high-effort opportunities outside of manufacturing. Another finding is that incomes rose only for those with advanced degrees and with weekly hours in excess of 40. We attribute this to the natural talent needed to make a computer deliver exceptional value and to the relative ease with which long hours can be chosen when working over the Internet.

I like that last sentence in particular.

The fall of women’s share in computer science

“Engineering the gender gap: Fall of Women’s Share in Computer Science”

Download Job Market Paper (PDF)

No college major is inherently male or female. In this paper, I explore how gender traditions in the U.S influence women’s academic preferences today. I make two arguments. First, the scientific fields which involve more women today coincide with those science subjects included in home economics, an exclusively feminine field. Second, the percentage of women in computer science decreases when this major relocates to the Engineering School, a traditionally masculine domain. I argue that shaping computer science into an engineering subject has constrained women’s ability to reallocate their human capital in response to the technology shock brought by personal computers.

That is from Yiling Zhao, who is on the job market this year from Northwestern.

Facts about YouTube

From a new and very important paper by Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips from Penn State:

The most extreme branches of the AIN (the Alt-Right and Alt-Lite) have been in decline since mid-2017.

However, the Alt-Right’s remaining audience is more engaged than any other audience, in terms of likes and comments per view on their videos.

The bulk of the growth in terms of both video production and viewership over the past two years has come from the entry of mainstream conservatives into the YouTube marketplace.

…despite considerable energy, Ribeiro et al. (2019) fail to demonstrate that the algorithm has a noteworthy effect on the audience for Alt-Right content.  A random walk algorithm beginning at an Alt-Lite video and taking 5 steps randomly selecting one of the ten recommended videos will only be recommended a video from the Alt-Right approximately one out every 1,700 trips.  For a random walker beginning at a “control” video from the mainstream media, the probability is so small that it is difficult to see on the graph, but it is certainly no more common than one out of every 10,000 trips.

That authors suggest (p.24) that if anything the data suggest deradicalization as a more plausible baseline hypothesis.

Of course this is not the final word, but in the meantime so much of what you are reading about YouTube would appear to be wrong or at least off-base.

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.

And:

FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.

Finally:

FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.

Recommended!

The three percent digital tax

France among other nations has been calling for a three percent digital tax, for instance as might apply to Facebook revenue connected to France but booked say to Ireland, which has a lower corporate tax rate.  (The exact meaning of “connected to France” is indeed murky here, if you are wondering, but proponents might have in mind a simple France-to-France transaction, such as selling an ad to a French buyer for a French product; there are more complicated grey areas.)

As is so often the case, the debate is focusing on how little tax some of the major tech companies pay directly to the French treasury, rather than on tax incidence.  In reality, the major tech companies may already be bearing a quite significant tax burden.

Let’s say you believe that Facebook has significant market power over the advertising market in France.  That is not exactly my view, but let’s run with it — a competitiveness assumption will hardly boost the case for taxing Facebook.

At this point your mind already may be thinking that the monopolist in the supply chain will bear some significant portion of a tax, just as land bears tax burdens in a Georgian land monopolist model.

Let’s now say that France boosts its VAT — how will that impact Facebook?  Well, the short-run effect is that directly taxed good and services will tend to cost more.  That in turn will create pressures for them to advertise less, because their potential market size and potential profits are smaller.  If they advertise less, they are spending less money on Facebook ads.  Facebook profits go down (remember, Facebook is selling those ads above marginal cost), and thus Facebook bears some of the burden of the tax.

Do the same analysis in terms of levels rather than changes, and you will see that Facebook bears some of the burden of the current French VAT.

So the French VAT brings money into the French treasury, and some of that money comes from Facebook in an indirect form, in addition to whatever direct tax liabilities Facebook may bear under the current French VAT structure.  Furthermore, the net tax burden on Facebook is higher, the more monopolistic is Facebook in the ad market.

I should note that there are other ways you can play around with the assumptions.

A good rule of thumb is that you should place less weight on tax discussions that do not focus obsessively on tax incidence.

The new Flynn effect?

People can type almost as fast on a phone screen as they do on a computer keyboard, suggests a study.

Average typing speeds on mobiles are now 38 words per minute (wpm) compared to about 52 on a standard PC keyboard.

The gap was narrower among people aged 10-19 who averaged about 10wpm more than older users, it found.

The amount of time that people spend using their phones every day has honed typing skills, said the team that carried out the work…

The fastest phone typist hit a speed of 85wpm, the study found.

Oh, and this:

Phone speeds were helped by auto-correct systems but hindered by other aids that seek to predict what word a person had begun to type.

The time it took people to work out whether a predicted word was correct ended up slowing them down, it found.

By contrast, auto-correct systems that eliminated the need for a few thumb strokes helped people finish messages faster.

Here is the article, via Michelle Dawson.

Why firms stay private longer?

Yes, Sarbanes-Oxley is one well-known reason but there are more reasons, most of all stemming from a shift in the balance of power toward founders, boosting their ability to raise private capital:

One such notable deregulation event has been the National Securities Markets Improvement Act (NSMIA), passed in October 1996. NSMIA has made it easier for both private startups and the private funds investing in them to raise capital. First, NSMIA exempts private firms selling unregistered securities under Rule 506 of Regulation D from state securities regulations known as blue sky laws (Rule 506 is one of the exemptions firms can use to issue private shares not registered with the SEC). As a result, NSMIA has made it easier for startups to raise private capital from out-of-state investors by exempting private firms from complying with the blue sky laws of every new state where they issue securities (public firms have long been exempt from blue sky laws). Second, NSMIA has made it easier for private funds such as venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) funds to raise large amounts of capital by increasing the number of investors in a fund that force the fund to register under the Investment Company Act (ICA).2Registered funds have to regularly disclose their investment portfolio and face leverage and other restrictions, and so VC and PE funds tend to avoid having to register.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Michael Ewens and Joan Farre-Mensa.

Against central bank digital currencies

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, note that the idea would to some extent cut private banks out of the intermediation equation.  Here is one excerpt:

An alternative scenario is that the central bank decides to enter the commercial lending business, much as your current bank does. Will the central bank be a better lender than the private banks? Probably not. Central banks are conservative by nature, and have few “roots in the community” as the phrase is commonly understood. The end result would be more funds used to buy Treasury bonds and mortgage securities — highly institutionalized investments — and fewer loans to small and mid-sized local businesses.

And:

The problems run deeper yet. Financial regulation makes a relatively tight distinction between banks and non-banks. Banks have access to the payments system directly and enjoy other privileges, and in return their risk-taking is regulated more heavily (by not only the Fed but also other federal agencies and states). A fintech startup, in contrast, avoids most bank regulations, but it must work through banks to make payments. This division of responsibilities is imperfect, but it has allowed many parts of the U.S. economy to grow and innovate without facing all of the regulations imposed on banks.

This leads to my primary objection to an official government e-currency: It would, in effect, make many more economic institutions more like banks. Over time, those institutions would probably be regulated more like banks, too. For instance, if the Fed is directly transmitting payments made by a private company, it might be wary of credit risk and impose capital and reserve requirements on that company, much as it does on banks. Banks also might complain that they are facing unfair competition, and ask that consistent regulations be imposed. In any case, more of the economy likely will be subject to financial regulation, not just the relatively narrow core of the banking system.

Not all innovation is good innovation.

Who favors unbreakable commercial encryption?

Governments may be the main threat to big tech companies’ current approach to encryption, but there is another, more surprising threat: their own business interests. The techno-libertarians’ absolutist rejection of lawful access has never been tenable in a commercial context. Barr lambasted Silicon Valley for claiming that government access to consumer devices was never acceptable, even for a purpose as critical as stopping terror attacks, while insisting that its companies had to have access to all their customers’ devices for the purpose of sending them security updates (and, in Apple’s case, promotional copies of unwanted U2 albums). What’s more, Big Tech’s best customers—that is, businesses—don’t want unbreakable end-to-end communications direct to the end user. That encrypted pipe makes it impossible to find and stop malware as it comes in and stolen intellectual property as it goes out. It also thwarts a host of regulatory compliance mandates. So, pace the absolutists, tech companies have found ways to ensure that their business customers can compromise end-to-end security.

And there is this:

…I believe the tech companies are slowly losing the battle over encryption. They’ve been able to bottle up legislation in the United States, where the tech lobby represents a domestic industry producing millions of jobs and trillions in personal wealth. But they have not been strong enough to stop the Justice Department from campaigning for lawful access. And now the department is unabashedly encouraging other countries to keep circling the tech industry, biting off more and more in the form of law enforcement mandates. That’s a lot easier in countries where Silicon Valley is seen as an alien and often hostile force, casually destroying domestic industries and mores.

The Justice Department has learned from its time on the receiving end of such an indirect approach to tech regulation. It has struggled for 30 years against a European campaign to use privacy regulation to prevent tech companies from giving the U.S. government easy access to personal data. But as the tide of opinion turned against U.S. tech companies around the world, the EU was able to impose billions in fines on them in the name of privacy. Soon it really didn’t matter that these companies’ data practices weren’t regulated at home. They had to comply with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. And once they accepted that, their will to lobby against similar legislation in the United States was broken. That’s why California—and perhaps the federal government—is inching closer to enacting a privacy law that resembles Europe’s.

Here is the full Stewart Baker post, interesting throughout.

3G Internet and Confidence in Government

Evidence for the Gurri thesis:

How does the internet affect government approval? Using surveys of 840,537 individuals from 2,232 subnational regions in 116 countries in 2008-2017 from the Gallup World Poll and the global expansion of 3G networks, we show that an increase in internet access reduces government approval and increases the perception of corruption in government. This effect is present only when the internet is not censored and is stronger when traditional media is censored. Actual incidents of corruption translate into higher corruption perception only in places covered by 3G. In Europe, the expansion of mobile internet increased vote shares of anti-establishment populist parties.

That is from a new paper by Sergei Guriev, Nikita Melnikov, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, via the excellent Ilya Novak and Kevin Lewis.

Autonomous weapons need autonomous lawyers

With the arrival of autonomous weapons systems (AWS) on the 21st century battlefield, the nature of warfare is poised for dramatic change. Overseen by artificial intelligence (AI), fueled by terabytes of data and operating at lightning-fast speed, AWS will be the decisive feature of future military conflicts. Nonetheless, under the American way of war, AWS will operate within existing legal and policy guidelines that establish conditions and criteria for the application of force. Even as the Department of Defense (DoD) places limitations on when and how AWS may take action, the pace of new conflicts and adoption of AWS by peer competitors will ultimately push military leaders to empower AI-enabled weapons to make decisions with less and less human input. As such, timely, accurate, and context-specific legal advice during the planning and operation of AWS missions will be essential. In the face of digital-decision-making, mere human legal advisors will be challenged to keep up!

Here is more, by Colonel Walter “Frank” Coppersmith, via Air Genius Gary Leff.

p.s. What’s with the “Frank”?  How about just Frank?

p.p.s. Don’t ask about the judges.