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Posts Tagged ‘unintended consequences

“Any solution is all too likely to become the next problem”*…

 

Miami_traffic_jam2C_I-95_North_rush_hour

 

One of today’s defining paradoxes is the contrast between the massive abundance of everything digital and the relative stasis, or even decline, of so much else. Software hasn’t meaningfully improved the world’s physical infrastructure even as it builds increasingly refined interfaces, networks, and marketplaces on top of that infrastructure. I currently have a thousand lifetimes worth of (effectively free) entertainment at my fingertips, but getting to the airport still takes as long as it would have thirty years ago.

Information seems infinite relative to more tangible resources, but it’s not. Digital scarcity is less visible than the physical kind, but no less real. James Bridle observes in his book New Dark Age that while computation contributes to climate change, on one hand—data centers consume a growing percentage of the world’s energy—computation itself is also constrained by a warming planet: The strength of wireless transmission will actually decline as atmospheric temperatures rise, while much of the internet’s supporting hardware—subterranean fiberoptic tubes and undersea cable landing sites—is vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels. In a way, exponential information growth is threatening its own future.

A century ago, driving felt as boundless as computation does now. As a result, we built the whole world around cars, and have since struggled to unwind that effort now that we know better. It’s possible we’re making a similar mistake today, unable to imagine a less abundant future, with digital traffic jams just around the corner…

Drew Austin, editor of the urban transportation newsletter Kneeling Bus. in a edition of another wonderful newsletter, The Prepared.

[image above: source]

* your correspondent

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As we rein in our enthusiasms, we might recall that it was on this date in 455 that the Vandals entered Rome, which they plundered for the next two weeks.  It was, as sackings went (this was Rome’s third, of four altogether), relatively “light”:  while the Vandals (who had destroyed all of Rome’s aqueducts on their approach) looted Roman treasure and sold many Romans into slavery, their leader Genseric acceded to Pope Leo’s plea that he refrain from the wholesale slaughter of Rome’s population and destruction of the Eternal City’s historic buildings.

300px-Genseric_sacking_rome_456

Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov

source

 

Written by LW

June 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“How about a little magic?”*…

 

sorcerers apprentice

 

Once upon a time (bear with me if you’ve heard this one), there was a company which made a significant advance in artificial intelligence. Given their incredibly sophisticated new system, they started to put it to ever-wider uses, asking it to optimize their business for everything from the lofty to the mundane.

And one day, the CEO wanted to grab a paperclip to hold some papers together, and found there weren’t any in the tray by the printer. “Alice!” he cried (for Alice was the name of his machine learning lead) “Can you tell the damned AI to make sure we don’t run out of paperclips again?”…

What could possibly go wrong?

[As you’ll read in the full and fascinating article, a great deal…]

Computer scientists tell the story of the Paperclip Maximizer as a sort of cross between the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Matrix; a reminder of why it’s crucially important to tell your system not just what its goals are, but how it should balance those goals against costs. It frequently comes with a warning that it’s easy to forget a cost somewhere, and so you should always check your models carefully to make sure they aren’t accidentally turning in to Paperclip Maximizers…

But this parable is not just about computer science. Replace the paper clips in the story above with money, and you will see the rise of finance…

Yonatan Zunger tells a powerful story that’s not (only) about AI: “The Parable of the Paperclip Maximizer.”

* Mickey Mouse, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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As we’re careful what we wish for (and how we wish for it), we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that the Puritans in the recently-chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony issued a General Court Ordinance that banned gambling: “whatsoever that have cards, dice or tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.”

Mass gambling source

 

Written by LW

March 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The law of unintended consequences pushes us ceaselessly through the years”*…

 

Much has been said about the ways we expect our oncoming fleet of driverless cars to change the way we live—remaking us all into passengers, rewiring our economy, retooling our views of ownership, and reshaping our cities and roads.

They will also change the way we die. As technology takes the wheel, road deaths due to driver error will begin to diminish. It’s a transformative advancement, but one that comes with consequences in an unexpected place: organ donation…

* Richard Schickel

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As we get to the heart of the matter, we might spare a thought for a wicked bender of English words, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce; he died on this date in 1941.  A poet and novelist best known for Ulysses, he was the preeminent figure in the Modernist avant-garde, and a formative influence on writers as various as (Joyce’s protege) Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salmon Rushdie, and Joesph Campbell.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, and Finnegans Wake No. 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  The next year, Time Magazine named Joyce one of its 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, observing that “Joyce … revolutionized 20th century fiction.”  And illustrating that Joyce’s influence was not confined to the arts: physicist Murray Gell-Mann used the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) as source for the elementary particle he was naming– the quark.

A portrait of the artist as a 38 year old man: the image of Joyce included in a printed subscription order form for the 1921 Paris edition of Ulysses. The image itself dates from 1918,

source

 

Written by LW

January 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The street finds its own uses for things”*…

 

“Along with the heroin, cash, weapons and other stuff you would expect, we kept finding these tiny McDonald’s spoons they give out for stirring tea and coffee.” — A Scotland narcotics detective, 1998

In the 1970s, every McDonald’s coffee came with a special stirring spoon. It was a glorious, elegant utensil — long, thin handle, tiny scooper on the end, each pridefully topped with the golden arches. It was a spoon specially designed to stir steaming brews, a spoon with no bad intentions.

It was also a spoon that lived in a dangerous era for spoons. Cocaine use was rampant and crafty dealers were constantly on the prowl for inconspicuous tools with which to measure and ingest the white powder. In the thralls of an anti-drug initiative, the innocent spoon soon found itself at the center of controversy, prompting McDonald’s to  redesign it. In the years since, the irreproachable contraption has tirelessly haunted the fast food chain.

This is the story of how the “Mcspoon” became the unlikely scapegoat of the War on Drugs…

The whole truth and nothing but the truth at “The McDonald’s Cocaine Spoon Fiasco.”

* William Gibson

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As we appreciate unintended consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that the final Mouseketeer chosen for The Mickey Mouse Club (the original series), Annette Funicello, made her first appearance on the show.  She had been discovered by Walt Disney himself as she performed in Swan Lake at a dance recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank.  By the end of The Mickey Mouse Club‘s first season, Annette was receiving 6,000 fan letters a month.

 source

 

Written by LW

October 7, 2014 at 1:01 am

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