Category: Web/Tech

Suicide attackers, the drone wars, and self-driving vehicles

To remind you of the Tempe story:

Police say a video from the Uber self-driving car that struck and killed a woman on [the prior] Sunday shows her moving in front of it suddenly…”The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Moir said, referring to the backup driver who was behind the wheel but not operating the vehicle. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”

From other sources I have read, the chance this was an actual intentional suicide seems to be low.  But I wonder if that is an angle to self-driving cars which we haven’t thought through yet, namely they could become a target for suicidal Luddites, intent on changing the course of history (they don’t like cars or social control).  It may indeed be the case that only a small number of pedestrian deaths will significantly slow down the progress of these vehicles, and thus they may be targeted.  Let’s turn to the sunny state of California:

So far in 2018, there have been only six reported traffic incidents involving self-driving vehicles in California, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But of those six incidents, two involved angry, violent Californians going up to the futuristic cars on San Francisco streets and attacking.

This is just a speculative thought…

China simulated death markets in everything

Beijing’s biggest funeral parlor held an open day last Thursday that featured a virtual reality simulation of death, reported The Beijing News — though it left some wondering why you would want to experience death prematurely.

Visitors could don VR glasses and earphones to experience having a seizure at work, a failed paramedic rescue, and entrance into the afterlife. Funeral parlor employee Dong Ziyi told The Beijing News that the immersive experience “enables people to better cherish the beauty of life.”

In addition to the death experience, visitors can use VR to explore funeral services with a five-minute session that goes through corpse delivery and storage, mortuary preparations, the memorial service, and cremation — a tour that would take an hour in real life.

Here is more by Liang Chenyu from Sixth Tone, one of my favorite media outlets.

How economists use Twitter

When using Twitter, both economists and natural scientists communicate mostly with people outside their profession, but economists tweet less, mention fewer people and have fewer conversations with strangers than a comparable group of experts in the sciences. That is the central finding of research by Marina Della Giusta and colleagues, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference at the University of Sussex in Brighton in March 2018.

Their study also finds that economists use less accessible language with words that are more complex and more abbreviations. What’s more, their tone is more distant, less personal and less inclusive than that used by scientists.

The researchers reached these conclusions gathering data on tens of thousands of tweets from the Twitter accounts of both the top 25 economists and 25 scientists as identified by IDEAS and sciencemag. The top three economists are Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Erik Brynjolfsson; the top three scientists are Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins.

Here is further information, via Romesh Vaitilingam.  But I cannot find the original research paper on-line.  These are interesting results, but still I would like to see the shape of the entire distribution…

Testing the eggheads in the cryptocurrency market

Some of the world’s best-known economists on Thursday announced plans to create what could be described as the thinking person’s cryptocurrency. Saga aims to address many of the criticisms frequently thrown at bitcoin, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency, to position itself as an alternative digital currency that is more acceptable to the financial and political establishment.

It is being launched by a Swiss foundation with an advisory board featuring Jacob Frenkel, chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and former governor of the Bank of Israel; Myron Scholes, the Nobel Prize-winning economist; and Dan Galai, co-creator of the Vix volatility index. The Saga token aims to avoid the wild price swings of many cryptocurrencies by tethering itself to reserves deposited in a basket of fiat currencies at commercial banks. Holders of Saga will be able to claim their money back by cashing in the cryptocurrency.

The currency also aims to avoid the anonymity afforded by bitcoin, which has raised financial crime concerns with regulators and bankers. Saga will require owners to pass anti-money laundering checks and allow national authorities to check the identity of a holder when required.

Oh so respectable sounding!  They’re not doing an ICO, instead there is a variable fractional reserve system, and the ruling principle is that Saga, the asset, “entitles its investors to a rising number of Saga as usage of the cryptocurrency grows.”  It sounds like a bet on the notion that bootstrapping is central to crypto success.  But do investors really want “safe harbours from the raging volatility”?  Do investors want a currency at all?  By the way, this one is proof of stake, not proof of work.

Here is their web site, and here is the White Paper.  Here are other readings on the asset.  Here is the original FT article, FTAlphaville is less impressed.

Do the participants have too much skin in other games?  So far I don’t see the point of doing this one, as it doesn’t create an asset with a truly different risk profile than the others, not from what I can see.

My March 28 talk at MIT

What happens when a simulated system becomes more real than the system itself?  Will the internet become “more real” than the world of ideas it is mirroring? Do we academics live in a simulacra?  If the “alt right” exists mainly on the internet, does that make it more or less powerful?  Do all innovations improve system quality, and if so why is a lot of food worse than before and home design was better in 1910-1930?  How does the world of ideas fit into this picture?

Here are details on the lunch seminar.

What should I ask Balaji Srinivasan?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  Here is his home page, here is his bio:

Balaji S. Srinivasan is the CEO of Earn.com and a Board Partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Prior to taking the CEO role at Earn.com, Dr. Srinivasan was a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Before joining a16z, he was the cofounder and CTO of Founders Fund-backed Counsyl, where he won the Wall Street Journal Innovation Award for Medicine and was named to the MIT TR35.

Dr. Srinivasan holds a BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University. He also teaches the occasional class at Stanford, including an online MOOC in 2013 which reached 250,000+ students worldwide.

His latest Medium essay was on ICOs and tokens.  I thank you all in advance for your wise counsel.

China estimate of the day

But because of the way trade deficits are measured, almost all the value of those components is attributed to China, which exports the final product. Reuters reports that 61 million iPhones were shipped from China to the US in 2017 and suggests that just a single phone—the iPhone 7 model, released in 2016 and on sale for all of last year—accounted for $15.7 billion of the trade deficit, or 4.4%.

Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics research at Oxford Economics, told Reuters if trade deficits were measured to account for the complex nature of global supply chains like the ones used by sophisticated consumer products like smartphones, the US-China trade deficit would be about 36% lower, or $239 billion.

That is from Allison Schraeger.

In tech, we fear what we can’t control

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

Like drones, driverless cars possess some features of an especially potent scare story. They are a new and exciting technology, and so stories about them get a lot of clicks. We don’t actually know how safe they are, and that uncertainty will spook people above and beyond whatever is the particular level of risk. Most of all, driverless cars by definition involve humans not feeling in direct control. It resembles how a lot of people feel in greater danger when flying than driving a car, even though flying is usually safer. Driverless cars raise a lot of questions about driver control: Should you be allowed to sleep in the backseat? Or must you stay by the wheel? That focuses our minds and feelings on the issue of control all the more.

And:

The recent brouhaha over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (read here and here) reflects some similar issues. Could most Americans clearly and correctly articulate exactly what went wrong in this episode? Probably not, but people do know that when it comes to social networks, their personal data and algorithms, they don’t exactly feel in control. The murkiness of the events and legal obligations is in fact part of the problem.

When I see a new story or criticism about the tech world, I no longer ask whether the tech companies poll as being popular (they do). I instead wonder whether voters feel in control in a world with North Korean nuclear weapons, an erratic American president and algorithms everywhere. They don’t. Haven’t you wondered why articles about robots putting us all out of work are so popular during a time of full employment?

We are about to enter a new meta-narrative for American society, which I call “re-establishing the feeling of control.” Unfortunately, when you pursue the feeling rather than the actual control, you often end up with neither.

Do read the whole thing.

The wisdom of Ben (Stratechery) Thompson

It seems far more likely that Facebook will be directly regulated than Google; arguably this is already the case in Europe with the GDPR. What is worth noting, though, is that regulations like the GDPR entrench incumbents: protecting users from Facebook will, in all likelihood, lock in Facebook’s competitive position.

This episode is a perfect example: an unintended casualty of this weekend’s firestorm is the idea of data portability: I have argued that social networks like Facebook should make it trivial to export your network; it seems far more likely that most social networks will respond to this Cambridge Analytica scandal by locking down data even further. That may be good for privacy, but it’s not so good for competition. Everything is a trade-off.

Here is the link to the longer piece, to get them regularly you have to pay, definitely recommended, now more than ever.

Does fake news spread faster on Twitter?

You may recall last week a spate of stories and tweets claiming that fake news spreads further and faster on Twitter.  For instance, there is Steve Lohr at the NYT, who doesn’t quite get it right:

And people, the study’s authors also say, prefer false news.

As a result, false news travels faster, farther and deeper through the social network than true news.

That struck me as off-base, and you can find other offenders, so I went back and read the original paper by Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral.  And what did I find?:

1. The data focus solely on “rumor cascades.”  The paper does not establish the relative ratio of fake news to real news, for instance.  The main questions take the form of “within the data set of rumor cascades, what can we say about those cascades?”

2. It still may (or may not) be the case that real news has its major effects through non-cascade mechanisms.  Most people are convinced of 2 + 2 = 4, but probably not because they heard it through a rumor cascade.

3. Within the universe of rumor cascades, this paper measures average effects.  It does not mean that at the margin fake news is more powerful.  For instance, the rumor “Hillary Clinton is Satan” may have been quite powerful, but that does not mean a particular new rumor can achieve the same force.  2 + 2 = 5 won’t get you nearly as far in terms of retweets, I suspect.

4. Overall the results of this paper remind me of another problem/data issue.  At least in the old days, children’s movies used to earn more than films for adults, as stressed by Michael Medved.  That doesn’t mean you have a quick money-making formula by simply making more movies for kids.  It could be a few major kid’s movies, driven perhaps by peer effects, suck up most of the oxygen in the room and dominate the market.  And then, within the universe of cascade-driven movies, kid’s movies will look really strong and indeed be really strong.  That also doesn’t have to mean the kid’s movies have more cultural influence overall, even if they look dominant in the cascade-driven category.  In this analogy, the kid’s movies are like the fake news.

5. I am not sure how much the authors of the paper themselves are at fault for the misunderstandings.  They can defend themselves on the grounds of not being literally incorrect in their statements in the paper.  Still, they do not seem to be going out of their way to correct possible and indeed fairly likely misinterpretations.

6. The strongest argument for the coverage of the authors’ paper is perhaps the coverage of the authors’ paper itself.  The incorrect interpretations of the result did indeed spread faster and further than the correct interpretations.  I even delayed the publication of this post by a few days, if only to make its content less likely to be true.

Big Professor is watching you

At the University of Arizona, school officials know when students are going to drop out before they do.

The public college in Tucson has been quietly collecting data on its first-year students’ ID card swipes around campus for the last few years. The ID cards are given to every enrolled student and can be used at nearly 700 campus locations including vending machines, libraries, labs, residence halls, the student union center, and movie theaters.

They also have an embedded sensor that can be used to track geographic history whenever the card is swiped. These data are fed into an analytics system that finds “highly accurate indicators” of potential dropouts, according to a press release last week from the university. “By getting [student’s] digital traces, you can explore their patterns of movement, behavior and interactions, and that tells you a great deal about them,” Sudha Ram, a professor of management systems, and director of the program, said in the release. “It’s really not designed to track their social interactions, but you can, because you have a timestamp and location information,” Ram added.

That is from Amy X. Wang at Quartz.

Did Facebook depolarize America?

Based on selective exposure and reinforcing spirals model perspectives, we examined the reciprocal relationship between Facebook news use and polarization using national 3-wave panel data collected during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Over the course of the campaign, we found media use and attitudes remained relatively stable. Our results also showed that Facebook news use was related to a modest over-time spiral of depolarization. Furthermore, we found that people who use Facebook for news were more likely to view both pro- and counter-attitudinal news in each wave. Our results indicated that counter-attitudinal news exposure increased over time, which resulted in depolarization. We found no evidence of a parallel model, where pro-attitudinal exposure stemming from Facebook news use resulted in greater affective polarization.

That is from Beam, Hutchens, and Hmielowski.  I thank an anonymous correspondent for the pointer.