Moshe Vardi on Humans, Machines and Work

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of listening to Professor Moshe Vardi talk about the effects of automation on the workforce and the economy, and how the continued development of AI and machine learning-based technologies might further tip that balance. This post is based on the notes I took during that talk. Please read it as more of a high-level summary, rather than a transcript. The talk itself contained more links and references that I haven’t had the time to chase down, so any inaccuracies and misquotations are probably my own fault.

Professor Vardi is a professor at Rice University, and currently Editor-in-Chief of the Communications of the ACM, and the winner of numerous awards including the ACM Gödel Prize, and the EATCS Distinguished Achievements Award. He is also an excellent speaker and it was wonderful to see a coherent narrative formed out of many disparate threads.

The talk started with a brief mention of Turing’s thesis, which can be read as a compelling philosophical argument for thinking machines, and the related intellectual questions. The early history of artificial machines was characterized by unbridled optimism (expectations that general purpose AI would arrive within a generation), punctuated by several AI winters (1974-80 and 1987-93) where funding and support for AI research dried up. However, 1997 started a new era in AI research when a chess playing computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, defeated Garry Kasparov. More recently, DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated European Go champion Fan Hui. Crucially, AlphaGo combines machine learning techniques (including deep learning) with search space reduction, resulting in an approach that could be termed “intuition”.

With the resurgence of AI research, automated driving has been the holy grail for about a decade. Cars were one of the most important developments of the 20th century. The automobile shaped geography and changed history, and led to lots of infrastructure development. By some estimates, there are over 4 million truck drivers in the US, and 15 million jobs involving operating a vehicle. Today there are about 30 companies, working on self-driving vehicles, attacking an estimated market of $2 to $5 trillion a year. Experts predict that the main technical issues will be resolved in 5-15 years. While this will be a great technological achievement, it will produce profound business disruption. For starters, there is likely to be major industrial contraction (cares are idle 90% of the time), and a major loss of business for insurance, legal, medical fields, as automobile accidents are drastically reduced.

Unfortunately, this industrial disruption follows a trend that has already been in progress for a while now. The last 40 years has resulted in a harsh negative impact on middle & working class. For much of the 20th century there was a “Great Coupling”  between productivity, private employment, median income and GDP growth: they all followed a linked upward trend. However, since the 70s, this trend has “decoupled”, a fact observable from many dataset. In particular, there has been increasing inequality: a massive decline in the bottom 50% of earners, and a massive increase in the top 1% of earners. There is a declining chance that a person in their early 30s is going to be better off than their parents.

This in turned has resulted in an “Age of Precariousness”: half of Americans would have trouble affording $400 for an emergency, and two-thirds would have trouble dealing with a $1000 emergency. Labor force participation for men 25-54 has dropped from 97% to 88% and those with high school degrees or less were the hardest hit — almost 20% are not working.
Technology is eating jobs from the “inside out”. High-paying and low-paying jobs are both growing, but middle class jobs are declining. According to a Bloomberg 2016 report: as we move towards more automation, we need fewer people in manufacturing and more people go into the service sector, historically a low-wage sector.

All this paints a pretty bleak future, and from Prof. Vardi’s talk it’s unclear what the way forward is. Universal Basic Income seems like one idea to help offset this dangerous trend, but UBI is still a hotly contested topic. The following discussion raised some interesting questions, including asking what the role of “work” and employment is in a mostly-automated society, and questioning the role and responsibility of educational institutes in the near future.

Personally, I feel lucky to be in a field where jobs are currently booming. Most of my work is creative and non-routine, and thus not amenable to automation yet. At the same time, I am very concerned about a future where the majority of people hold poorly paid service sector jobs where they can barely eke out a living. I am also afraid that jobs that seem more secure today (administrators, doctors, lawyers, app developers) will also be gradually pushed into obsolescence as our machine learning techniques improve. Again, no good solution, but lots to think about, and hopefully work on in the near future. As the Chinese proverb goes, we live in interesting times.

Star Trek Beyond

Was very enjoyable. Spoilers follow.

The movie was a lot of fun, and managed to hit a good mix of serious and light-hearted. I liked it much more than I did Into Darkness, and it might just be my favorite of the the Abrams Star Trek movies.

As my favorite Star Trek blog calls it: it was a romp. It was a lot of fun and struck most of the themes that make Star Trek what it is—interesting characters, healthy optimism, underlying themes of unity, courage and friendship, and struggles both personal and epic. Take out the destruction of the Enterprise and squeeze it down to under an hour and the movie would have made a great TOS episode.

The visuals are of course simply beautiful (something true of the Abrams movies in general). The outfits, locales and effects in general are well done. The sequences of scenes showing life aboard the Enterprise and Starbase Yorktown are smooth, informative and impressive without being overwhelming. In fact, I would say that the scenes aboard Starbase Yorktown does one of the best jobs of showing off life in the Federation in any iteration of Star Trek.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of addressing Nimoy’s death (and the loss of the one of the main characters of both this, and previous iterations of the franchise). It’s not overly dramatic, but it is respectful, elegant and helps drive the rest of the story forward. And I absolutely love that one of the final shots of the movie is this photo of the original cast:


The movie wasn’t perfect: the action seemed choppy, some of the humor was unnecessarily forced, and some of the science was suspect. But it was a damn good Star Trek movie and a good movie in general. Would watch again.

Karl Popper on Intolerance

Intolerance and discrimination seems to be all over the news lately. Two examples that readily come to mind are the LambdaConf fiasco and North Carolina’s LGBT discrimation law. One question that often comes up when talking about discrimination is: how much should we tolerate intolerance? For example, is it acceptable to ban people with known discriminatory views and actions from gatherings, irrespective of their other qualifications? Is it morally acceptable (or maybe even mandatory) to boycott gatherings and events and places that invite such people?

In that context, I wanted to share the following interesting excerpt from Karl Popper’s, “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, posted by one of my former coworkers. I wouldn’t say it answers once and for all questions of fighting intolerance, but it is a solid foundation from which to consider and answer such questions.

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any restraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. This idea is, in a slightly different form, and with a different tendency, clearly expressed by Plato.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression should be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz was a programmer, entrepreneur and Internet activist who left his mark on both the Internet and the world at large. He was involved in the development of the RSS and Markdown formats as well as the Creative Commons. He was also the founder of Demand Progress which was involved in the effort to stop SOPA/PIPA.

Just over two years ago Aaron killed himself in the middle of a federal prosecution. If he had lived, Aaron would probably have become one of the leading technologists or political figures of our generation. Unfortunately, two years after his death, there is too much pain and suffering in the world today for the media (or the Internet in general) to remember his suicide. The only article about his death that caught my eye was a Boing Boing piece entitled “How to honor Aaron Swartz’s life”. The piece is written by one of Aaron’s friends and is best summarized as a short guide to honoring Aaron life by living your own better.

To summarize the summary:

  1. Stay curious
  2. Don’t accept things as they are, or assume they’re that way for a good reason
  3. Become good at something. And then use it to make a difference.
  4. Ask yourself what you could do to make the biggest difference in the world.
  5. Stay alive.

For me, one of the best lessons from the article was the ending paragraph:

Don’t be surprised if at some point in your life, maybe at many points, you find yourself submerged in a darkness that seems infinite and eternal. It might seem to you like it’s always been that way, it will be always be that way and there’s only one way out. You’re wrong. It will get better. But it will only get better if you find some way to survive.

Aaron might be gone, but much of his work is still with us, in terms of code, organizations, and words. His website is still online (hopefully it will stay that way indefinitely) and so is his writing. I remember reading much of his writing around the time of his death and found it both interesting and a joy to read. His series on thinking and living better — Raw Nerve — is a good place to start.

Google wants your endorsements

Google’s updates to its Terms of Service have been made the rounds of the Internet last week. The particular bit that caught people’s attention was about something called “Shared Endorsements”. What are shared endorsements? From Google’s announcement:

Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising. For example, your friends might see that you rated an album 4 stars on the band’s Google Play page. And the +1 you gave your favorite local bakery could be included in an ad that the bakery runs through Google. We call these recommendations shared endorsements and you can learn more about them here.

Essentially, if you +1 a particular product, or write a review, then Google can use your name and picture when it displays ads related to that product. This move has understandably ruffled some feathers and merited a piece in the New York Times. John Gruber says that he is “looking forward to hearing from Google fans how this is acceptable” (as if Apple would do anything different if they had a social network).

Personally, I don’t consider this to be a violation of privacy. I consider social networks to essentially be public spaces. For me, that means I rarely upload personal photos and whatever text I post I would be willing to put on a public blog. Now, I would be peeved if Google took a negative review I wrote about a product and turned it into an endorsement. The examples show that Google shows a snippet of whatever review I write and a star rating. I would prefer there be some textual analysis happening to make sure that reviews are actually positive before using them as an endorsement. Since I don’t see any sign of that happening, I’ve decided to opt out. To be clear, my objection is not to Google using my reviews to sell products — I simply want to know that they use them accurately.

I do wish that we had an enforceable expectation of privacy in social networks, but by and large, we don’t. As users of Facebook, Google+ or any other social network we should be aware that their purpose is to make money for their shareholders. Without a payment option, it would be naive of us to expect that our data would not be monetized in every conceivable fashion.

For what it’s worth, I think Google has handled this move in the proper way. They made a public announcement and detailed in clear, unambiguous language what their plans were. They also provide a clear option to turn off Shared Endorsements. The opt-out page reiterates what Shared Endorsements are and provides a single clear checkbox. In contrast, Facebook has been doing essentially the same form of endorsement for a long time now and I don’t remember seeing a public announcement when they started. Their privacy settings are also infamous for being confusing and hard to navigate.

I would love for there to be a social network that’s free of advertisements and whose goal isn’t to data-mine and sell my data the first chance they get. In absence of such a network, it’s up to us, the users, to make the best of what’s available. I do like the utility that these services provide and I am willing to let them have certain information in order to continue providing that service. However I also make sure that I opt out of measures that I don’t want to be a part of. I don’t think Google+ has done the best job of building a social network (see the debacles relating to real names and identities), but this particular move has been better handled than most.

Not so Svbtle

A few weeks ago I got an invitation to Dustin Curtis’ hip new(ish) blogging platform called Svbtle. The original announcement created a bit of a stir around the Intertubes. It was supposed to be both a clean, minimalist writing environment and a fresh new platform for vetted, competent writing. Here’s a relevant excerpt (emphasis mine):

I wrote this engine entirely for myself, without the intention of opening it up to other people. But since realizing that it has improved the way I think and write, I’ve decided to open it up to a small number of vetted bloggers. At least at first. The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

If it sounds provocative, that’s probably because it was meant to be. The emphasized line in particular, is fighting words, as they say. It’s been about a year and half since that post (at least that’s how long I think it’s been, Svbtle posts don’t seem to have visible timestamps). Now that I have an invite, I thought it would be interesting to see how things have held up. Is Svbtle really all that Mr. Curtis cracks it up to be?

At face value, the original claim seems to have fallen flat. The idea for a minimalist writing platform was copied and open-sourced almost immediately and there’s also a Svbtle-like WordPress theme. Given that Svbtle will let you use your own domain name, it’s hard to tell that you’re reading a Svbtle post unless you care to look. So much for seeing and recognizing the Svbtle design. But what about the rest of the claim? Are we really guaranteed that the content is great?

Svbtle currently positions itself as a “new kind of magazine”. The current About page reads as follows:

We’re a network of great people mixed with a platform that takes the best things from traditional publishing and combines them with the best parts of the web. We want to make it easier for people to share and discover new ideas.

The Svbtle blog announced that they received an undisclosed amount of VC money (good for them). They currently have over 200 writers and hope to build “the future of journalism”. Svbtle is building us up to expect not only good writing, but great writing and journalism. The current state of Svbtle doesn’t give me much confidence. As of this writing, many of the posts on the Svbtle front page would probably only be of interest to a certain section of Silicon Valley resident.s Posts like “The 3 competitive Defenses of Enduring SaaS Companies” and “The Single Best Content Marketing Channel for your Startup” make me think that Svbtle is more a thinly veiled mirror of Hacker News than a magazine devoted to ground-breaking journalism.

To me at least, Svbtle is not so much subtle as confusing. Who are these 200 writers? Why did they get invitations? They claim to span “at least eight disciplines” and journalism doesn’t seem to one of them. If Svbtle is supposed to take the best things from traditional publishing, then where are the editors and expert photographers? If Svbtle is going to be “an important place for the sharing of ideas” then where are the comments and where do I send Letters to the Editor?

Furthermore, this confusion isn’t just on the outward, public face of the endeavor. As a writer, it’s not clear to me what I get from publishing on Svbtle. A group of 200 writers is not exactly exclusive, especially when I have no idea what the invitation criteria are. I don’t see any Terms of Service, or an Export button for that matter. The invitation email claims “One of our main goals is to help members become better writers”, but there’s no mention of how that’s supposed to happen. Is there a peer review or editorial process? If there is, what are the qualifications of the editors and reviewers? I just wrote and published a short post and there doesn’t seem to be any of those things. Can I be kicked out and my posts deleted at a moment’s notice?

I suppose that for people dissatisfied with their current blogging platform Svbtle might be an interesting alternative. But it’s not for me. I’m perfectly content with WordPress when it comes to actual writing and Tumblr when it comes to everything else. I’ve never been distracted from my writing by the various controls and buttons and Svbtle lacks too much of what I’d consider essentials for a modern blogging platform.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that I simply don’t get it and that Mr. Curtis has some grand scheme that I don’t grasp. For the time being, though, it seems like Svbtle is simply just yet another blogging platform. It’s a different flavor than WordPress, Tumblr, or Medium, and some will be drawn to it for that reason. At this point, someone will no doubt point out that I won’t get it unless I try it. While I’m skeptical of that line of reasoning, I would like to give Svbtle a fair chance. Maybe the writing experience really is that much better. If I can think of something that needs publishing and isn’t relevant to The ByteBaker, then my Svbtle blog is where it will go.

(As an aside, I’ve been thinking of starting a research blog, along the lines of Lindsey Kuper’s,. I’d use Svbtle for that, but there seems to be no support for inserting syntax-highlighted code snippets.)

In the meantime, if you’re looking for modern, journalistic writing that covers a variety of topics, I recommend a publication like New Republic.

To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.