Category: Web/Tech

Japan is not yet the land of robots

Japanese hotels and banks are, by global standards, heavily overstaffed despite the country’s demographic crunch. Most supermarkets have not embraced the automated checkouts common elsewhere, nor airlines self-service check-ins. The offices of Japan’s small and medium-sized enterprises are among the most inefficient in the developed world, chides McKinsey, a management consultancy.

Japan has an elaborate service culture, which machines struggle to replicate. Japanese customers, especially the elderly, strongly prefer people to machines, says Yoko Takeda of Mitsubishi Research Institute, a think-tank. Employment practices make it difficult to replace workers. And while gimmicky robots abound, Japan struggles to develop the software and artificial intelligence needed to enable them to perform useful tasks, says a report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the cockpit of Japan’s post-war miracle. So while the reception at the robot hotel is automated, seven human employees lurk out of sight to watch over customers and avoid glitches. Robots still cannot make beds, cook breakfast or deal with a drunken guest who will not pay his bill.

Here is more from The Economist.

My Conversation with Eric Schmidt

Self-recommending, here is the audio and video.  Here is the video, here is one excerpt from the dialogue:

COWEN: So you receive an offer to run Google. Why were you so skeptical about Google at first?

SCHMIDT: Well, I assumed that search wasn’t very important, and I assumed the ads didn’t work. I was so concerned about the ads that, after I accepted the offer — because it just seemed like it was interesting, and a lot of luck comes from doing things that are interesting, and sort of creating your own luck — I hauled the then–sales executive, whose name was Tim Armstrong, who you all know well, and I said, “Tim, prove to me that these ads work.”

So they showed me a set of ads, and they looked pretty foolish to me. So I said, “Well, let’s go find the finance person,” of which there was one, and the accounting system was done on QuickBooks. I said, “Prove to me that people are paying for these ads,” and they did.

We then did an ads conversion in the first year, which was called Project Drano, where we basically took three different ads databases, which were simple compared to today’s databases, and merged them into one. And I was terrified, absolutely terrified that the ruse that we had — because we had fixed pricing on our ads — that people would discover that our ads were not worth anything.

So I organized what I called the cash restriction period, where the only thing you could do if you wanted to spend money, is you could only spend money on Friday at 10 AM, and you had to come to me to justify it, which very much shuts down spending.

So we get to this conversion, we turn the thing over, and of course, we didn’t bother to build into the tools. We had no metrics. We didn’t know what was going on. I’m going, “Oh my God, the company is bankrupt. My first year, I’ve done a terrible job. What will the board think?” I did my best to notify everybody we were going to go kaput.

The auction produced a price that was three times higher than the previous prices. Very interesting. So much for the cash restriction period, and the rest is history.

And from Eric:

We did all sorts of things. My favorite example is that we would interview people to death. We interviewed this one gentleman sixteen times, and we couldn’t decide. So I picked a random number, which was half, and I said, “We should have a max of eight, and if we can’t decide after eight . . .” We’ve since done a statistical analysis, and the answer today is four to five interviews.

And here is my bit on Eric:

COWEN: Now early on, you were an intern at Bell Labs, and also PARC, which belonged to Xerox, and I think of those two institutions as stemming from earlier glory years of American science.

Is it fair to think of your career as in some sense, you’re the person who spans those two eras, the Bell Labs-PARC era of doing things, and then the tech era of manipulating information, and that your ability to bring expertise from those two areas together is what has made you a unique figure? Is that a fair assessment of how you fit into the picture?

And there is this bit:

COWEN: How did it influence you having a father who was a famous economist? He wrote on balance of payments crises. What did you draw from him? Did that have a role in using so much economics in Google?

SCHMIDT: Well, what’s interesting is, I asked my father, “If you’re such a good economist, why are we not rich?”

I very much enjoyed doing this event, which was for Village Global, a new venture capital firm.  Here is a Village Global post on lessons from the event.

China sentences of the day

With the Internet, too much information leaks out about the failings of governments. Thus, they are unable to “rule by persuasion” and are increasingly reduced to relying on sheer force. As a provocative example, Gurri believes that the Chinese government now is more dependent on force than it would be without the Internet.

That is from Arnold Kling reviewing Martin Gurri’s forthcoming The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

Will a low price actually prove good for crypto?

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

Now the time has come for crypto to go on a diet. No more easy money. No more thoughts about ICOs leading to quick riches. The rhetoric is shifting toward a more cautious or even apologetic tone. The corresponding reality can perhaps be one of greater focus and relevance.

We’re at the point where crypto finally has to prove its social worth. But what might that mean? Imagine using crypto as a medium of micropayments to pay for media on the internet. Or perhaps you’ll use the blockchain to verify your identity, rather than telling some stranger on the phone the last four digits of your Social Security number. Or how about a system for self-executing, zero-cost contracts? (For example: I will give $10,000 to a charity if 10 other people do.) Maybe the burgeoning field of virtual reality will rely on crypto to support some of its transactions, starting with virtual sex, which the major banks might stay away from. Alternatively, I might use crypto assets to send money to Mexico, avoiding the steep charges from current money transfer systems. In the more utopian visions, crypto leads to the rise of entirely self-governing systems, powered by the blockchain.

And this:

By the way, if you are confused by the terms “proof of stake” and “sharding” (and others), that is probably a good thing. As the tech guru Stewart Brand is reported to have said, the proliferation of terminology in crypto is a sign that new ideas and possibly important new technologies are afoot.

Stay tuned…

Amazon search is getting worse, especially for classic books

Just type in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and the first page will not show any editions you actually ought to buy.  And there are so many sponsored ads for mediocre, copyright-less editions.  If you type in “Gulliver’s Travels Penguin” you eventually will get to this, a plausible buy for the casual educated reader.  And wouldn’t it be nice if someone told you the $156.31 Cambridge University Press edition is by far the best choice? — full of marginal annotations!

MR sentences to ponder

Also, I finally had a chance to meet Tyler Cowen and tell him that his blog played a bit part in how I ended up dating my now-wife. Back when we were messaging on OKCupid (to clarify: my wife and I were messaging; I have not contacted Tyler Cowen on OKC), I wanted to establish my Internet-nerd bona fides, so I mentioned that I’d been linked by a prominent economics blog. She mentioned that she had been linked by a very prominent economics blog. It was Marginal Revolution, both times. (Her post: on taking oneself seriously. My post is lost to history, but I believe it was about the causes and consequences of onion futures being illegal.)

Since Cowen is an expert on many topics, it should come as no surprise that he’s an export on MR lore, so he informed me that at least one couple has gotten married on the site. One economic story you can tell about the last hundred or so years is that, as economies globalize, we compete head-to-head with more people, and need to define our domains ever more narrowly if we hope to be #1. Apparently “used Marginal Revolution to get married” was, in fact, far too broad a domain for me to have any hope of excelling.

That is from Byrne Hobart, with the essay mostly on his recent visit to Bloomberg and the Bloomberg AI panel.

Maybe echo chambers are evolving because they are efficient?

Our analysis reveals that segregation into small, homogeneous groups can be a rational choice that maximizes the amount of information available to an individual. In fact, homophilic segregation can be efficient and even Pareto-optimal for society. Why is that? Our argument builds on the idea that people have not only different information, but also different preferences. These differences in preferences can prevent successful communication, because people do not want to reveal their information to those who are different, and distrust the motives of those who speak to them. It then becomes easier to exchange information in segregated, homogeneous cliques than in large crowds. Echo chambers, though they may cut off potential communication with a great number of people, make actual communication possible, and are hence useful for society.

That is from a new paper by Ole Jann and Christoph Schottmüller.  I believe Jann is currently on the job market from Oxford this year.  Here is their other paper on the economics of privacy.  And from Schottmüller: “The quality of
advice can be highest if the adviser’s competence is uncertain.”

Education sentences to ponder

More than 75 percent of online students enroll at an institution within 100 miles of their homes, according to recent research from The Learning House (and consistent across past surveys over time). A majority of online students visit campus to access services and support, or to attend events and in-person courses, in a true blending of online and in-person.

Here is a good Sean Gallagher survey on the rise of on-line degrees.

Can Token Curated Registries Actually Work?

A Token Curated Registry (TCR) is a mechanism to incentivize the creation of high quality lists in a decentralized setting. TCRs are becoming popular in the token space. As part of advisory work on mechanism design for the startup Wireline, I wrote a research note on TCRs. I am not as enthused as many others. Here are some takeaways:

Token Curated Registries can work but there is no guarantee that voters will coordinate on the truth as a Schelling point so care needs to be taken in the design stage to imagine other Schelling points. The less focal or more costly it is to discover the truth, the more vulnerable the mechanism will be to biases and manipulation via coordination or collusion.

To understand whether a TCR will work in practice attention needs to be placed on the information environment. The key practical issues are the cost of acquiring high-quality information and the value to an applicant of getting on the registry. Put simply, TCRs are likely to work when high quality information is available at low cost. Vitalik Buterin’s examples of Schelling points were (wisely) all of this kind. Extensions of the Schelling point model to TCRs which are trying to surface information that is much more uncertain, variable and disputed need to recognize the limitations.

It will often be more important to put effort into lowering the cost of acquiring high quality information than it will be to modify the particulars of the mechanism. If high-quality, low-cost information is available many mechanisms will work tolerably well. If high-quality, low-cost information isn’t available, perhaps none will.

Read the whole thing at Medium.

And do check out Wireline. Wireline isn’t going to Mars but it is creating what could be a significant and very useful protocol to find and connect software services to quickly produce decentralized applications that can scale on demand.

There is no published research cited in this article

Nor are any criticisms of that research presented.  The title and subheader of the piece (NYT) are:

A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley

“I am convinced the devil lives in our phones.”

Doesn’t a consensus have to be…scientific?  The article does cite many tech people who are limiting the screen time of their children.  That may well be a good thing.  But tech people also may not have the best balanced understanding of the scientific issues involved, or of how tech is used outside of tech communities (and their children) themselves.

Literally speaking, the headline refers only to a consensus in Silicon Valley.  But I do not myself see such a consensus out there during my visits, and it is not obvious within the article what the views of the dissenters might be, or how prominent or numerous those dissenters are.  Or even whether they are dissenters or the mainstream.  Furthermore, most readers will take this piece to be referring to a broader scientific consensus, which does not in fact exist.  And yes I have read some of the published research indicating that tech damages people’s mental capacities and, while such claims may end up being true, I do not find the current research very convincing.  In any case, such research ought to have been considered, pro and con.

We have now reached the point where tech is one of the worst covered subject areas by the U.S. and also British media.

Hope is not lost

While some say wisdom comes with age, younger Americans are better than their elders at separating factual from opinion statements in the news, according to a new analysis from Pew Research Center.

And the gap is noticeable:

About a third of 18- to 49-year-olds (32%) correctly identified all five of the factual statements as factual, compared with two-in-ten among those ages 50 and older. A similar pattern emerges for the opinion statements. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, 44% correctly identified all five opinion statements as opinions, compared with 26% among those ages 50 and older.

When looking at the 10 statements individually, younger adults were not only better overall at correctly identifying factual and opinion news statements – they could do so regardless of the ideological appeal of the statements.

Maybe social media aren’t so terrible after all.  And maybe cable TV is less than perfect?

That is from Jeffrey Gottfried and Elizabeth Grieco, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Liveblogging the Bloomberg session on AI

Noah Feldman is moderator, Noah Smith and Justin Fox and Leonid Bershidsky and Shira Ovide and Dina Bass are presenting…you will find my live-blogging in the comments section of this post.  Just keep on refreshing for the updates.

Livestream is here:

My Conversation with Ben Thompson

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary opener:

Not only is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery frequently mentioned on MR, but such is Tyler’s fandom that the newsletter even made its way onto the reading list for one of his PhD courses. Ben’s based in Taiwan, so when he recently visited DC, Tyler quickly took advantage of the chance for an in-person dialogue.

In this conversation they talk about the business side of tech and more, including whether tech titans are good at PR, whether conglomerate synergies exist, Amazon’s foray into health care, why anyone needs an Apple Watch or an Alexa, growing up in small-town Wisconsin, his pragmatic book-reading style, whether MBAs are overrated, the prospects for the Milwaukee Bucks, NBA rule changes, the future of the tech industries in China and India, and why Taiwanese breakfast is the best breakfast.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why should I want a tech device in my home at all? Take Alexa — I don’t have one, I’m pretty happy, my life is simple. I don’t want anyone or anything listening to me. What does it do for me? I know I can tell it to play me a song or buy something on Amazon, but that’s one-click shopping anyway, could hardly be simpler. Why do devices in the home have any future at all?

THOMPSON: The reality is — particularly when it comes to consumer products — is that in the long run, convenience always wins. I think people will have them in their homes, and they’ll become more popular because it’s convenient.

You can be doing whatever you want; you can say something like, “Set a timer five minutes,” or “What temperature should I grill my steak to?” And you’ll get an answer with your hands busy, and altogether it’s going to be a more convenient answer than it would’ve been otherwise.

And:

COWEN: How bullish are you on India’s tech sector and software development?

THOMPSON: I’m bullish. You know, India — people want to put it in the same bucket as, “Oh, it’s the next China.” The countries are similar in that they’re both very large, but they’re so different.

Probably the most underrated event — I don’t want to say in human history, but in the last hundred years — is the Cultural Revolution in China. And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically. But the way it impacts culture, generally, and the way business is done.

Taiwan, I think, struggles from having thousands of years of Chinese bureaucracy behind it. Plus they were occupied by Japan for 50 years, so you’ve got that culture on top. Then you have this sclerotic corporate culture that the boss is always right, stay in the office until he goes home, and that sort of thing. It’s unhealthy.

Whereas China — it’s much more bare-knuckled competition and “Figure out the right answer, figure it out quickly.” The competition there is absolutely brutal. It’s brutal in a way I think is hard for people to really comprehend, from the West. And that makes China, makes these companies really something to deal with.

Whereas India did not have something like that. Yes, it had colonialism, but all that is still there, and the effects of that, and the long-term effects of India’s thousands of years of culture. So it makes it much more difficult to wrap things up, to get things done. And that’s always, I think, going to be the case. The way India develops, generally, because they didn’t have a clear-the-decks event like the Cultural Revolution, is always going to be fundamentally different.

And that is by no means a bad thing. I’m not wishing the Cultural Revolution on anyone. I’m just saying it makes the countries really fundamentally different.

Definitely recommended.

How streaming has changed song structures

From Martin Connor, here is a list of seven mechanisms, you can read the explanations at the link:

1. Streamings’ Data Collection Makes Songs Simpler

2. Streaming Sites’ Social Media Makes Songs Confessional

3. Small Streaming Profits Make Songs Shorter

4. Streaming’s Customizability Makes Songs Built To Order

5. Content Digitization Makes Songs More Diverse [TC: does that contradict some of the other general claims?]

6. Free Content Makes Songs More Collaborative [TC: and here’s the explanation for this one:]

Artistic competition is so fierce nowadays that artists need to constantly release music. One way to do this is to make songs shorter and simpler; another way is to get a producer to make the beat, a singer to make the chorus, and another rapper for the second verse. This leads to Migos member Offset, DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne all appearing on the same 2017 song, “I’m The One.” It also means that fans start to see credits like those from Cardi B’s new album “Invasion of Privacy”. The 13 tracks on the album features 104 total writing credits, meaning 8 people per track. Its single “Be Careful” has 17 alone.

7. Video’s Increasing Dominance Makes Songs Into Soundtracks

Via the excellent Samir Varma.