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AI isn’t funny This week in MIT Technology Review there’s an interview with Douglas Eck, a research scientist at Google Brain working on Magenta which is an attempt to produce art and music using artificial intelligence. Eck talks about a few examples of areas where they have had success and a few areas where they are still struggling. One thing that Magenta has proven good at is creating the type of quick, improvised sketches people produce when playing Pictionary. The sketches do have a very human looseness and approximate quality to them, while effectively communicating the intended subject. However, Eck points out that Magenta struggles to produce songs and jokes. It’s possible to listen to music produced by Magenta and it resembles improvisation – there is no real start or end, no themes emerge and melody is nonexistent. It resembles contemporary classical music created by someone with some skill, but intense contempt for contemporary classical music. The jokes are even worse. Eck produces an example of a joke produced by Magenta: “The magician was so angry she pulled her hare out.” This is a joke that’s possible to “get” without producing any enjoyment. Why does this matter? I’m going to be honest, if one of the soulless, technological behemoths like Facebook, Apple or Amazon is going to take over the world and force us all to labor for long hours in salt mines to earn our protein-rich slurry, I hope it’s Google. What I like about Google is that even when they are intensely wrong and deluded, they are wrong and deluded for very interesting reasons. Magenta will not produce good songs or good jokes purely through artificial intelligence. Because songs and jokes are essentially narrative forms. And narratives rely on human empathy in order to land properly. I may not be a teenager falling in love for the first time, but I can empathize my way into that feeling for the length of a song. Narratives are not a form that can be recognized through the aggregation and plotting of millions of narratives. They depend on our ability to look at another person and imagine their experience. Good jokes are even more complicated than music because they can’t hide behind the illusion of technical virtuosity. For an example of how a great joke is constructed and delivered, watch this dissection of Louis CK by the Nerdwriter. Comedy and music are fundamentally human and Google Brain has paradoxically proven the point by trying to disprove it. In a nutshell: How many neural networks does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Four. Read More Lyft is more than just "not Uber" Uber has an aggressive culture. It’s kind of a turnoff for many consumers who see the way their aggressive culture is willing to sacrifice employees, customers and social niceties in pursuit of their business goals. But Uber’s culture is the logical manifestation of a company trying to dominate the ride-sharing industry over the next twenty years. Uber is looking towards a future where customers use the Uber app to book an Uber-owned vehicle running Uber-developed self-driving software. There’s not a lot of room for compromise if that is your goal – ride-sharing companies, automakers and software companies are all threats to total ownership of the experience. In this way, Uber resembles Apple, a company that runs their own platforms on their own software on their own hardware. But every Apple creates the conditions for an Android to flourish. Android (developed by Google) is a mobile operating system that can be customized by all smartphone device makers. Google builds their own hardware (I have a Pixel), but they have come to dominate mobile computing by consciously trying not to own the entire experience. Lyft, as Timothy B. Lee points out in Ars Technica is very much in the Android model. They have made alliances with other companies across the industry, from to GM to Waymo. Their belief is that partnerships and licensing will make them part of ride-sharing, regardless of how the industry evolves and changes. Why does this matter? Watch children playing in a sandbox and you can spot the exact moment when it occurs to them that they would be having much more fun if all the other kids just went away. I’ve seen my daughters glance covetously at another child’s shovel and wonder how to eliminate the interloper and gain total control. They need lebensraum! Most technology companies are temperamentally like toddlers. Playing nice with other companies’ software, hardware, or platforms is intolerable inefficiency when they could just do it all so much better themselves. Ironically, having the sandbox to yourself only works for a brief period of time. Apple lost mobile computing (they have lost it, BTW) because they tried to hold on too tight and control everything. AOL lost the web because they tried to hold on too tight and control everything. Now we have Amazon, Facebook and Uber, three dominate companies trying to control everything in their respective industries. Let’s see how that works for them. In a nutshell: Despite Uber’s present advantages, Lyft has the more promising approach. Read More Equifax is the trend Credit score company Equifax has been hacked, compromising the full names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, and home addresses from 143 million Americans. Josh Constine, writing for TechCrunch points out that such massive hacks are fast becoming the norm and that neither companies nor the regulations are fully prepared to combat it. As he points out “all companies are tech companies” but most of them are really, really bad at it. Most companies look at technology as a way to increase profitability by eliminating redundancies and staff. It does not occur to these companies that they need to make a substantial outlay in terms of security and network structure in order to eliminate the downside risk of these changes. Further, governments have failed to protect consumers by demanding timely disclosure of hacks. This creates an incentive for companies to hide the reality of their exposure, at a huge potential cost to their customers. Why does this matter? I consult for companies across a huge range of industries and the only vertical where I see proper security procedures is in the healthcare sector. And this is only because the government mandates that patient data be protected. Somehow, when those same patients are transformed into “customers” by switching industries, they cease to be afforded any protections. I hate to argue against the predominant libertarian ethos in technology (the hate mail is tiresome), but this is a situation that calls for strong government action. We have one industry (healthcare) where strong regulation and consumer protections has been proven effective and every other industry where weak regulation and nonexistent consumer protections have proved to be disastrous. Enough already. In a nutshell: The government needs to mandate data security based on an implied right to privacy. Read More

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