(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them”*…

 

Food revolution

 

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time…

Scientists are replacing crops and livestock with food made from microbes and water. It may save humanity’s bacon: “Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet.”

* French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

###

As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1943 that an official of the Meats Division of the wartime Office of Price Administration (OPA) announced that, for the duration of World War II, frankfurters (or ‘hot dogs’) would be replaced with “Victory Sausages,” in which a substantial proportion of the meat in those sausages would itself be replaced with “an unspecified amount of soybean meal or some other substitute.”

Victory was achieved; but it was not, in this dimension in any case, sweet.

meat-340x499 source

 

“[TV commercials] are about products in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales”*…

 

Mikhail-Gorbachev-Pizza-Hut-commercial-James-Fosdike-homepage

 

Since his involuntary retirement, Mikhail Gorbachev has raised money for worthy causes, attempted to make a comeback in Russian politics, and, notoriously, made an advertisement for Pizza Hut.

The ad would have become a footnote were it not for its long second life online, where it’s rediscovered every few years. There’s an undeniable voyeuristic frisson of seeing a man who once commanded a superpower hawking pizza.

Each time it repeats, it leaves behind a new flood of clickbait—Time listing it among the “Top 10 Embarrassing Celebrity Commercials” in 2010, Mental Floss using Gorbachev’s birthday as a hook to link to it in 2012, Thrillist naming it the sixth-most bizarre celebrity endorsement of all time. Most of the facts dredged up in these deluges are recycled from a 1997 New York Times article.

More serious authors treat the commercial as a free-floating signifier to prove whatever thesis they are peddling, as when Jacobin cites it as another data point showing that Gorbachev was a sellout or David Foster Wallace uses it to prove the vacuity of popular culture.

But the conventional stories don’t really hold up. Gorbachev isn’t actually the star of the commercial. He doesn’t even speak. He’s a bystander to the commercial’s central drama, a fight over Gorbachev’s legacy between a fiery, pro-reform young man and a dour, anti-Gorbachev middle-aged man—possibly father and son. The two exchange charges and defenses of Gorbachev’s record—“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” “Because of him, we have opportunity!” “Complete chaos!” “Hope!”—before an older woman settles the argument: “Because of him, we have many things … like Pizza Hut!”

In a lot of ways, it’s a beautiful short film and a very weird advertisement: Who would have thought that a bunch of Muscovites bickering about the end of communism would be a natural pitch for pizza?

For the people who created the ad—the executives, the agents, the creatives—it was a professional landmark. But for Gorbachev himself, the story of the ad is a tragedy: one man’s attempt to find—and to fund—a place in a country that wanted nothing more to do with him…

Finally, the full (sad) story of the Pizza Hut ad that became a meme: “Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut Thanksgiving Miracle.”

* Neil Postman

###

As we grab for a slice, we might recall that this is an important date in broadcast history.  On this date in 1896, Guglielmo Marconi introduced “radio”: he amazed a group at Toynbee Hall in East London with a demonstration of wireless communication across a room.  Every time Marconi hit a key beside him at the podium, a bell would ring from a box being carried around the room by William Henry Preece.

Then exactly five years later, on this date in 1901, Marconi confounded those who believed that the curvature of the earth would limit the effective range of radio waves when he broadcast a signal from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland, Canada– over 2,100 miles– and in so doing, demonstrated the viability of worldwide wireless communication.

 

 

Written by LW

December 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”*…

 

Facial recognition

China’s facial recognition technology identifies visitors in a display at the Digital China Exhibition in Fuzhou, Fujian province, earlier this year

 

Collective wisdom is that China is becoming a kind of all-efficient Technocratic Leviathan thanks to the combination of machine learning and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has always been plagued with problems of gathering and collating information and of being sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs to remain stable. Now, the story goes, a combination of massive data gathering and machine learning will solve the basic authoritarian dilemma. When every transaction that a citizen engages in is recorded by tiny automatons riding on the devices they carry in their hip pockets, when cameras on every corner collect data on who is going where, who is talking to whom, and uses facial recognition technology to distinguish ethnicity and identify enemies of the state, a new and far more powerful form of authoritarianism will emerge. Authoritarianism then, can emerge as a more efficient competitor that can beat democracy at its home game (some fear this; some welcome it).

The theory behind this is one of strength reinforcing strength – the strengths of ubiquitous data gathering and analysis reinforcing the strengths of authoritarian repression to create an unstoppable juggernaut of nearly perfectly efficient oppression. Yet there is another story to be told – of weakness reinforcing weakness. Authoritarian states were always particularly prone to the deficiencies identified in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State – the desire to make citizens and their doings legible to the state, by standardizing and categorizing them, and reorganizing collective life in simplified ways, for example by remaking cities so that they were not organic structures that emerged from the doings of their citizens, but instead grand chessboards with ordered squares and boulevards, reducing all complexities to a square of planed wood. The grand state bureaucracies that were built to carry out these operations were responsible for multitudes of horrors, but also for the crumbling of the Stalinist state into a Brezhnevian desuetude, where everyone pretended to be carrying on as normal because everyone else was carrying on too. The deficiencies of state action, and its need to reduce the world into something simpler that it could comprehend and act upon created a kind of feedback loop, in which imperfections of vision and action repeatedly reinforced each other.

So what might a similar analysis say about the marriage of authoritarianism and machine learning? Something like the following, I think. There are two notable problems with machine learning. One – that while it can do many extraordinary things, it is not nearly as universally effective as the mythology suggests. The other is that it can serve as a magnifier for already existing biases in the data. The patterns that it identifies may be the product of the problematic data that goes in, which is (to the extent that it is accurate) often the product of biased social processes. When this data is then used to make decisions that may plausibly reinforce those processes (by singling e.g. particular groups that are regarded as problematic out for particular police attention, leading them to be more liable to be arrested and so on), the bias may feed upon itself.

This is a substantial problem in democratic societies, but it is a problem where there are at least some counteracting tendencies. The great advantage of democracy is its openness to contrary opinions and divergent perspectives. This opens up democracy to a specific set of destabilizing attacks but it also means that there are countervailing tendencies to self-reinforcing biases. When there are groups that are victimized by such biases, they may mobilize against it (although they will find it harder to mobilize against algorithms than overt discrimination). When there are obvious inefficiencies or social, political or economic problems that result from biases, then there will be ways for people to point out these inefficiencies or problems.

These correction tendencies will be weaker in authoritarian societies; in extreme versions of authoritarianism, they may barely even exist…

In short, there is a very plausible set of mechanisms under which machine learning and related techniques may turn out to be a disaster for authoritarianism, reinforcing its weaknesses rather than its strengths, by increasing its tendency to bad decision making, and reducing further the possibility of negative feedback that could help correct against errors. This disaster would unfold in two ways. The first will involve enormous human costs: self-reinforcing bias will likely increase discrimination against out-groups, of the sort that we are seeing against the Uighur today. The second will involve more ordinary self-ramifying errors, that may lead to widespread planning disasters, which will differ from those described in Scott’s account of High Modernism in that they are not as immediately visible, but that may also be more pernicious, and more damaging to the political health and viability of the regime for just that reason.

So in short, this conjecture would suggest that  the conjunction of AI and authoritarianism (has someone coined the term ‘aithoritarianism’ yet? I’d really prefer not to take the blame), will have more or less the opposite effects of what people expect. It will not be Singapore writ large, and perhaps more brutal. Instead, it will be both more radically monstrous and more radically unstable…

Henry Farrell (@henryfarrell) makes that case that the “automation of authoritarianism” may backfire on China (and on the regimes to which it is exporting it’s surveillance technology): “Seeing Like a Finite State Machine.”

See also: “China Government Spreads Uyghur Analytics Across China.”

* Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

###

As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1769 that the first patent was issued (in London, to John Bevan) for Venetian blinds.  Invented centuries before in Persia, then brought back to Venice through trade, they became popular in Europe, then the U.S. as both a manager of outside light and as an early privacy technology.

venetian blinds source

 

Written by LW

December 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A great library contains the diary of the human race”*…

 

180714-mcnearney-lost-masterpiece-hero_lxmbyx

 

In 48 BCE, embroiled in a campaign against his rival Pompey, Julius Caesar laid siege to the Egyptian city of Alexandria…

The Roman ruler laid siege to the city and decided there was only one way to break the stalemate and maintain military control of the harbor — he lit his docked fleet on fire.

The ensuing blaze quickly spread through the city as fires were wont to do in the days of wooden ships and nonexistent fire departments. The flames soon reached the beloved Library of Alexandria. It is believed that nearly 10 percent of the building went up in flames that day, although the specifics of what was burned and the extent of the damage are unknown.

It was the first time the library — a grand church of universal knowledge and scholarship the likes of which the world had never seen — was attacked. It wouldn’t be the last… [source]

But what if things had unfolded differently?

Julius Caesar’s Egyptian excursion almost ended in catastrophe. Battles broke out in Alexandria, and from the burning ships, the flames moved to the structure of the great, famous library. Already a good 200 years old, it contained the entirety of ancient knowledge and culture. It’s frightening just to think what dark ages would have fallen on the Earth if we had lost this invaluable collection of books.

We owe the rescue of this treasure to Julius Caesar himself. It was he, seeing that the building with tens of thousands of books was threatened, who ordered the Roman soldiers to halt their attack, and threw himself into the battle against the flames. While putting out the fire he was severely burned, losing his left thumb. It was then that he said the famous words: “When books are burning, it’s time to lay down the sword.” Ever since that moment, the divine Julius has been sculpted and painted without his left thumb. And the Roman salute – the left hand raised, with the thumb hidden – gained popularity as a sign of people who are educated and hungry for wisdom….

In this engaging alternative history, the literature preserved in the library, notably Greek writings about steam power, are enough to kick-start an industrial revolution in ancient Rome.  Roman steamships cross the Atlantic and discover America.  The great historic event of 1492 was the first Moon landing.  Contemplate it in its entirety: “Empire of the Alexandrinas: An alternative literary history.”  [Via The Browser]

For more on the actual history of Alexandria’s amazing library, see “The Library of Alexandria Is Long-Gone – And All Around Us.”

* George Mercer Dawson

###

As we explore the road not taken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1520 that Martin Luther burned his copy of the papal bull Exsurge Domine outside Wittenberg’s Elster Gate.  The Bull had been published the prior June, in response to Luther’s teachings (which, of course, opposed the views of the Church).  It censured forty one propositions extracted from Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and subsequent writings, and threatened him with excommunication unless he recanted.  Luther refused and responded instead by composing polemical tracts lashing out at the papacy– and by publicly torching a copy of the bull.  As a result, Luther was indeed excommunicated in 1521.

220px-BullExurgeDomine

Title page of the first printed edition of Exsurge Domine

source

 

 

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”*…

 

cloud-computing

 

Here’s a curious thought experiment. Imagine a cloud of quantum particles that are entangled—in other words, they share the same quantum existence. The behavior of these particles is chaotic. The goal of this experiment is to send a quantum message across this set of particles. So the message has to be sent into one side of the cloud and then extracted from the other.

The first step, then, is to divide the cloud down the middle so that the particles on the left can be controlled separately from those on the right. The next step is to inject the message into the left-hand part of the cloud, where the chaotic behavior of the particles quickly scrambles it.

Can such a message ever be unscrambled?

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Adam Brown at Google in California and a number of colleagues, including Leonard Susskind at Stanford University, the “father of string theory.” This team shows exactly how such a message can be made to surprisingly reappear.

“The surprise is what happens next,” they say. After a period in which the message seems thoroughly scrambled, it abruptly unscrambles and recoheres at a point far away from where it was originally inserted. “The signal has unexpectedly refocused, without it being at all obvious what it was that acted as the lens,” they say.

But their really extraordinary claim is that such an experiment throws light on one of the deepest mysteries of the universe: the quantum nature of gravity and spacetime…

Quantum entanglement, and what it might tell us about quantum gravity– the fascinating story in full: “How a tabletop experiment could test the bedrock of reality.”

[The arXiv paper on which this article reports, “Quantum Gravity in the Lab: Teleportation by Size and Traversable Wormholes,” is here.]

* John Lennon

###

As we contemplate connection, we might spare a thought for George Boole; the philosopher and mathematician died on this date in 1864.  Boole helped establish modern symbolic logic– he created symbols to stand for logical operations– and an algebra of logic (that is now called “Boolean algebra”).  Boole made important contributions to the study of differential equations and other aspects of math; his algebra has found important applications in topology, measure theory, probability, and statistics.  But it’s for the foundational contribution that his symbolic logic has made to computer science– from circuit design to programming– that he’s probably best remembered.

source

Happy Birthday (1894), James Thurber!!

 

“Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”*…

 

770px-Diagram_of_the_Federal_Government_and_American_Union_edit

Diagram of U.S. governance, 1862 [source and larger version]

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently…

Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I’m looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow…

Critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist Eliot Peper (@eliotpeper) argues for regular maintenance and upgrades: “Government is a technology, so fix it like one.”

* John F. Kennedy

###

As we undertake an upgrade, we might spare a thought for Marcus Tullius Cicero; he died on this date in 43 BCE.  A  Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.  His influence on the Latin language was immense: it has been said that subsequent prose was either a reaction against or a return to his style, not only in Latin but also (after Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s work) in European languages up to the 19th century.

A champion of Republican government in Rome, he spoke against the second Catilinarian conspiracy, against  Julius Caesar, then– even more eloquently– against Mark Antony.  He was executed in 43 BCE (his head and hands were amputated and displayed to the public) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Antony and calling (again) for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor?

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

 

Written by LW

December 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…

 

Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall

 

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey

###

As we deliberate on direction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

 source

 

 

Written by LW

December 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: