Best Layman’s Overview of AI

April 10, 2019

The infographics that are the raison d’etre of Visual Capitalist rarely fail to please. And one of this week’s infographics, an overview of the history and potential of Artificial Intelligence, allows a layman like me to make some sense of something important that is going on around me.

I definitely learned a lot.


Changes To Internet Copyright Laws

April 5, 2019

The European Parliament has voted in favour of new copyright laws that contain sections strenuously opposed by some creators. This important story is impeccably told in an article by Zachary Small at Hyperallergic.

“Two weeks ago, thousands of protesters marched across Germany in staunch opposition to the Copyright Directive and its controversial section called Article 13, which makes online platforms like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter liable for user-generated content that may violate existing copyrights. Another portion of the law, called Article 11, could make sites like Google News responsible for paying publishers for using snippets of their content.  Critics have characterized the bill as far overreaching …

Tech companies have warned that Article 13 will force the implementation of expensive “upload filters” on user-generated content … [I]nternet activists say these measures would turn large social media companies into censors and damage freedom of expression …

“The European Union’s fair dealing laws are [already] much more restrictive than America’s fair use laws. Things like parody and satire are still accepted, but nothing is foolproof.”

But the proposed legislation does have its supporters.

“Record labels, artists, and some media companies have also come to the law’s defense, saying that the updated copyright protections will ensure that they are fairly paid for their content …

“It provides artists with more data, more opportunities for remuneration, and more chances that their work will not be misappropriated or used without their knowledge,” [Columbia Law School’s Philippa] Loengard said.

Personally, I am with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia:

“The free and open internet is being quickly handed over to corporate giants at the expense of ordinary people. This is not about helping artists, it is about empowering monopolistic practices.”

This battle is being fought in Europe, but business practices make it likely that the repercussions will be global.

““If you are a large ISP and you have branches in Europe and the United States, it may be wise to implement changes worldwide,” explained Loengard.

This might all seem to some like a parochial business confrontation, but given the dominance that the internet and its myriad associated services has become in our lives, such a potentially significant lessening of available competitive content is sure to affect everyone sooner rather than later.

How Many Lightbulbs …

March 14, 2019

The evolution of the US light bulb market has been nothing short of spectacular.  The share of the market held by the incandescent bulbs we all grew up with fell from 68% in 2010 to less than 6% just six years later.

Image: New York Times

Now, the experts predict that increasingly inexpensive LED lights will soon sweep the market and change everything once again.

These changes in basic household lighting have brought about enormous changes in energy usage. For the first time in decades, household demand for electricity has fallen.

Image: New York Times

The next phase of the lighting efficiency rules are supposed to kick in next year after which only compact fluorescents and LEDs will qualify.  However, the industry has appealed the ruling and the anti-regulation Trump administration will probably delay the change.


Robotics and Ageing

March 7, 2019

The Economist has an interesting take on the future of automation and specifically robotics.

“At the moment, the robotics market is dominated by industrial machines, the sort used to assemble cars or electrical equipment. Sales of industrial-robotics systems were $48bn in 2017 … As demographic change speeds up, service robots will become more important … [T]hey will enable old people to live alone and stay mobile for longer. Robots will help assuage loneliness and mitigate the effects of dementia. They will make it easier to look after people in nursing homes and enable older workers who want to stay employed to keep up with the physical demands of labour. These robots will also be fundamentally different from industrial ones, which usually replace human activity —fitting a car windscreen, for example. By contrast, service robots extend it. For example, if an exoskeleton helps someone lift something heavy, the person still has to be there …

in January 2018. Japan’s government reckons that 8% of nursing homes now have lifting robots, and its national robot strategy (every country should have one) calls for four-fifths of the elderly receiving care to have some care provided by a robot by 2020.”

The change from industrial to service robots is advancing rapidly:

“A third of robot companies are less than six years old and make service robots. The costs of research and development are coming down and investment is rising. Within a decade, [Gill] Pratt [head of the Toyota Research Institute] reckons, domestic robots will help people cook at home and car-guidance systems will keep them mobile for longer.”

Demographics are driving this change:

“Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University show that, between 1993 and 2014, the countries that invested the most in robotics were those that were ageing the fastest—measured as a rise in the ratio of people over 56 compared with those aged 26-55 …

This year, there will be more people over 65 than under five for the first time in human history. By 2060, the number of Americans over 65 will double, to 98m, while in Japan, 40% of the population will be 65 or older. There will not be enough younger people to look after so many, unless robots help (and probably an influx of migrants is permitted, too) …”

I won’t be around to witness the full potential of this change (for good or ill), so I have to trust that my kids and their kids learn to control this development.

Visualising Workforce Changes

February 24, 2019

For an historian like me who chooses to specialise in social and retail topics, visualisations such as the following are a useful tool.

Select the image for a closer view.  The image is from a marvelous short article in Visual Capitalist that provides much of the detail.

The most obvious change is the precipitous decline in agricultural employment, falling from 60% of the workforce in 1850 to just 3% today; much of that decline occurring since the end of the Second World War.  Manufacturing jobs also seem to be disappearing at a rapid rate.  Conversely, the increases in “education” and “healthcare” sectors are noticeable.

In discussing the changes to employment that Artificial Intelligence software may bring, the article provides a cheering spin:

“In the timeframe of 1850 to 2015, it’s clear that new technologies came in and disrupted the prevailing industries. Many jobs were lost in key sectors like manufacturing and farming, but they’ve been replaced (so far) with new jobs in other sectors.”

That may be so, but personally I suspect that increased leisure time (or idleness to some) and a guaranteed income are more likely futures.

Who’s Health Is It?

February 18, 2019

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I have written about State and corporate surveillance quite often in the past. My distaste for our lack of personal privacy — or, rather, the rapacious way in which our personal information is collected for other people’s use — is the reason I have never had a cell or smart phone, and is one of the reasons I don’t have a car, preferring the anonymity of public transit, cabs for cash, and walking.

Now we have another example of employers and health care corporations tracking, quite literally every breath you take.

“Welcome to a rapidly growing phenomenon in the workplace: constant health surveillance … Devices worn on employees’ bodies are an increasingly valuable source of workforce health intelligence for employers and insurance companies. It’s fueling a boom in the use of wrist-borne health and fitness monitors such as those made by Fitbit, Garmin and Apple … The ever-more-sophisticated devices are measuring not just steps and distance walked but also the hours a worker spends in a sedentary state, 24/7 heart rate, and sleep duration and quality …

But the volume of highly sensitive health data scooped up from individual employees is … raising privacy concerns and adding a new dimension to the relationship of workers and their employers. Often the information is not covered by federal rules that protect health records from disclosure. And when it’s combined with data such as credit scores, employees are giving up more insights about themselves than they realize …

[P]rivacy and workforce specialists warn the data could be abused to favor the healthiest employees while punishing or stigmatizing those who are less healthy, or who show signs of unhealthy behavior such as heavy drinking or drug use.” [emphasis added]

I’m certainly not the only one concerned about this:

““The Fitbit or Apple Watch applications . . . may yield clues to things about you that you are not even aware of, or not ready for other people to know,’’ said Electronic Frontier’s [Lee] Tien. “Individuals and consumers who are buying these devices don’t understand that is a potential consequence.’’


Remembering A Lost Opportunity

February 13, 2019

It is with immense sadness that we contemplate the death of the Mars rover Opportunity.

Sent to the red planet in January 2004 with an anticipated lifetime of just 90 days, Opportunity found ways to survive, to keep moving, and to keep sending us vital scientific information until last summer.  In the course of its life, it traversed more than 28 miles of the planet’s surface.

In June 2018, the rover was covered by a massive dust storm, clogging her solar panels, and cutting her off from communication with earth. NASA engineers have tried to contact the rover but, finally, have had to give up the attempt.

Opportunity has given us more than a decade of extraordinary learning; she will be missed.