Why moth’s learn so much faster than machines


Technology Review reports:

One of the curious features of the deep neural networks behind machine learning is that they are surprisingly different from the neural networks in biological systems. While there are similarities, some critical machine-learning mechanisms have no analogue in the natural world, where learning seems to occur in a different way.

These differences probably account for why machine-learning systems lag so far behind natural ones in some aspects of performance. Insects, for example, can recognize odors after just a handful of exposures. Machines, on the other hand, need huge training data sets to learn. Computer scientists hope that understanding more about natural forms of learning will help them close the gap.

Enter Charles Delahunt and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle, who have created an artificial neural network that mimics the structure and behavior of the olfactory learning system in Manduca sexta moths. They say their system provides some important insights into the way natural networks learn, with potential implications for machines. [Continue reading…]

Google Chrome now blocks ads in order to promote advertising

The New York Times reports:

Google did not become the creator of the world’s most popular browser and a dominant advertising force by running its business in a manner that did not serve its own interests.

With the Chrome update, the company hopes to come out ahead by lessening the temptation of web users to install more comprehensive ad-blocking software. In other words, Google is betting that ridding the web of especially intrusive ads will render it more hospitable to advertising in general — and more profitable for advertisers and Google itself.

The new filter will be rolled out gradually to the browser’s hundreds of millions of users. Website operators had a few months before the launch to become compliant; going forward, those who violate the standards will be given 30 days to get in line. If they don’t, Google will demonstrate its leverage not by simply removing offending ads from a noncompliant site, but by disabling all of its ads. Revenue to the offending websites would presumably plummet as a result.

Utilizing Chrome’s popularity in this way is yet another example of Google’s singular position in the modern web. [Continue reading…]

Amazon behaves like a planned economy

Malcolm Harris writes:

Although they attempt to grow in a single direction, planned economies always destroy as well as build. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union compelled the collectivization of kulaks, or prosperous peasants. Small farms were incorporated into a larger collective agricultural system. Depending on who you ask, dekulakization was literal genocide, comparable to the Holocaust, and/or it catapulted what had been a continent-sized expanse of peasants into a modern superpower. Amazon’s decimation of small businesses (bookstores in particular) is a similar sort of collectivization, purging small proprietors or driving them onto Amazon platforms. The process is decentralized and executed by the market rather than the state, but don’t get confused: Whether or not Bezos is banging on his desk, demanding the extermination of independent booksellers — though he probably is — these are top-down decisions to eliminate particular ways of life.

Now, with the purchase of Whole Foods, Bezos and Co. seem likely to apply the same pattern to food. Responding to reports that Amazon will begin offering free two-hour Whole Foods delivery for Prime customers, BuzzFeed’s Tom Gara tweeted, “Stuff like this suggests Amazon is going to remove every cent of profit from the grocery industry.” Free two-hour grocery delivery is ludicrously convenient, perhaps the most convenient thing Amazon has come up with yet. And why should we consumers pay for huge dividends to Kroger shareholders? Fuck ’em; if Bezos has the discipline to stick to the growth plan instead of stuffing shareholder pockets every quarter, then let him eat their lunch. Despite a business model based on eliminating competition, Amazon has avoided attention from antitrust authorities because prices are down. If consumers are better off, who cares if it’s a monopoly? American antitrust law doesn’t exist to protect kulaks, whether they’re selling books or groceries.

Amazon has succeeded in large part because of the company’s uncommon drive to invest in growth. And today, not only are other companies slow to spend, so are governments. Austerity politics and decades of privatization put Amazon in a place to take over state functions. If localities can’t or won’t invest in jobs, then Bezos can get them to forgo tax dollars (and dignity) to host HQ2. There’s no reason governments couldn’t offer on-demand cloud computing services as a public utility, but instead the feds pay Amazon Web Services to host their sites. And if the government outsources health care for its population to insurers who insist on making profits, well, stay tuned. There’s no near-term natural end to Amazon’s growth, and by next year the company’s annual revenue should surpass the GDP of Vietnam. I don’t see any reason why Amazon won’t start building its own cities in the near future. [Continue reading…]

 

Zeynep Tufekci: We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads

 

How New Zealand became a new Ararat for Silicon Valley’s misanthropic billionaires

Mark O’Connell writes:

Early last summer, just as my interests in the topics of civilisational collapse and Peter Thiel were beginning to converge into a single obsession, I received out of the blue an email from a New Zealand art critic named Anthony Byrt. If I wanted to understand the extreme ideology that underpinned Thiel’s attraction to New Zealand, he insisted, I needed to understand an obscure libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. It was published in 1997, and in recent years something of a minor cult has grown up around it in the tech world, largely as a result of Thiel’s citing it as the book he is most influenced by. (Other prominent boosters include Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Balaji Srinivasan, the entrepreneur best known for advocating Silicon Valley’s complete secession from the US to form its own corporate city-state.)

The Sovereign Individual’s co-authors are James Dale Davidson, a private investor who specialises in advising the rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe, and the late William Rees-Mogg, long-serving editor of the Times. (One other notable aspect of Lord Rees-Mogg’s varied legacy is his own son, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – a hastily sketched caricature of an Old Etonian, who is as beloved of Britain’s ultra-reactionary pro-Brexit right as he is loathed by the left.)

I was intrigued by Byrt’s description of the book as a kind of master key to the relationship between New Zealand and the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley. Reluctant to enrich Davidson or the Rees-Mogg estate any further, I bought a used edition online, the musty pages of which were here and there smeared with the desiccated snot of whatever nose-picking libertarian preceded me.

It presents a bleak vista of a post-democratic future. Amid a thicket of analogies to the medieval collapse of feudal power structures, the book also managed, a decade before the invention of bitcoin, to make some impressively accurate predictions about the advent of online economies and cryptocurrencies. [Continue reading…]

Quinn Norton and how anti-fascists are helping bring fascism to America

How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.

I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.

The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.

These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.

Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!

It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society.

We are now creating a society where disqualifications seem to carry more weight than qualifications — a guarantee that conformity and mediocrity can run endemic.

In old-fashioned authoritarian states, conformity was imposed through institutionalized brutality, but we are now conjuring a form of grassroots authoritarianism where the oppressors are mostly gleeful volunteers, herded by commercially-driven algorithms.

In order to appreciate Quinn Norton you don’t need to agree with everything she’s written or everything she’s done, but to get a flavor of her sharp mind and keen wit, watch this short talk she gave a few years ago:

 

In explaining why she accepted the job offer from the New York Times, Norton wrote:

Some people want to spend their careers covering events as they break. Others, as beat reporters, and investigators, using stories to hold power accountable. I’d done those things — and they were fun — but I found they weren’t where my heart was. I was happiest when I was writing long explainers and open-ended stories about what people hope for. What I’d wanted, more than anything, wasn’t to hold abusers accountable, but to help the world understand itself well enough to stop the abuse before it started.

Anyone who has the time and interest to hunt down tweets that can be weaponized, probably doesn’t have much interest in or capacity to help the world understand itself. On the contrary, they are participating in a kind of behavior that is shaping our world in a profoundly unreflective way.

Now that the Times has dumped Norton as lead opinion writer on the power, culture and consequences of technology, who’s going to take her place? Someone who writes clickbait for Gizmodo?

No one can write about culture while also being a slave to conformity.

I don’t care what color anyone’s uniform is; the problem is in the uniformity, not the color.

In the conclusion of her essay on John Rabe (which is well worth reading) that (among other reasons) got her branded as a “Nazi sympathizer,” Norton writes:

For me there is only this in the story of John Rabe: there are no clear bad guys or good guys in humanity. There is just an uncomfortable pause, where you can let history crowd in on you. The best you can do is be quiet in the face of the terrible contradictions, and try to figure out what the next right thing is.

Let’s just imagine social media and online journalism if it was drained of sanctimony, hyperbole, and hypocrisy, and instead opened more space for nuance and deliciously long pauses.

Imagine a platform on which quiet reflection won more attention than loud mouths.

What am I imagining? Maybe a world without the internet…

I guess another Carrington Event would do more harm than good, but I’m not altogether sure.

Paleolithic parenting and animated GIFs

The creation of the moving image represents a technical advance in the arts comparable with the invention of the steam engine during the industrial revolution.

The transition from static to moving imagery was a watershed event in human history, through which people discovered a new way of capturing the visible world — or so it seemed.

It turns out, however, that long before the advent of civilization, our Paleolithic forebears figured out that movement seen in living creatures around them could, by cunning means, be captured in crafted illusions of movement.


Let’s run with the hypothesis that this 14,000 year old artifact is indeed a toy. What does this tell us about its creator and the children for whom it was made?

Before people started congregating in large settlements and forming highly stratified societies, they weren’t enmeshed in a struggle for survival where daily life was all about finding the next meal without becoming one. On the contrary, the conditions of life were congenial to the pursuit of crafts that helped cultivate the imagination and promote delight of the young ones.

While in our world, animation may most often be used for surrogate parenting — a way of giving kids a blind watcher that frees up parental hands for more pressing matters (like sending and receiving text messages) — I doubt that this was how our ancestors used toys.

For one thing, the contemporary challenges of time management are stunningly contemporary. We have accomplished an extraordinary feat: figured out how to live longer than ever while also having a sense that we have less time than ever.

Did the Paleolithic dad say: Watch the running deer while I skin this rabbit and mom grinds those acorns?

I don’t think so. Much more likely was the age-old bonding experience of shared delight as a child’s face lights up and finds pleasure in near-endless repetition. Paleolithic parents had plenty of time to play with their children.

These weren’t over-worked parents looking for ways to occupy neglected children. They were parents whose own lives were inseparable from those of their offspring. This was an epoch in which life was not partitioned into the discrete segments that define our own.

These were toys that came straight from the hands of the toy maker. They didn’t have to stand up to comparison with newer, better, more expensive toys; nor were they at risk of getting lost in mountains of discarded toys.

Again, a lesson in values: that those who have less, generally have a capacity to appreciate more.

Do I belong to what Melvin Konner called:

… a long line of credulous people … who seem to believe that we have left something behind that is better in every way than what we have now and that the most apt way to solve our problems is to go backward as quickly as possible[?]

I don’t think so.

It’s easy for Konner and others to dismiss this kind of interest in human origins as being driven by a naive conception of an idyllic natural state, but who if anyone is actually proposing the impossible: a return to a mythical Eden?

The issue here isn’t whether we might by some means recreate or return to our Paleolithic past, but rather, how an understanding of that past might better inform the way we perceive the present.

We live under the spell of many beguiling technological false promises, none more pernicious than the notion that doing things faster, frees time. The promise of the future is always that it’s going to be better.

When it turns out that human beings cracked the code of animation 14 to 20,000 years ago, this should give us pause to consider not merely the significance of this event as a technological breakthrough. We can also reflect on the differences between then and now in terms of how this facility in representation gets utilized in human culture.

Thanks to the invention of and portability of the animated GIF, it’s now possible for humans en masse to catch a glimpse of a prehistoric precursor of the very same technology: still images conjured to create the illusion of movement.

What is not the same is the way human minds are typically engaging with the technology.

I would argue that the Paleolithic human mind, operating in its relatively uncluttered world, would, with delight and with relatively undistracted attention appreciate the full effect. The moving deer would not only be captivating but perhaps also magical.

While the motion might rely on a way of tricking the eye, the toy might thereby be infused with the spirit of the deer. While the child was entertained he was perhaps also receiving an early initiation in the art of hunting.

For the audience of the animated GIF, however, the most common effect is at most to prompt a momentary muscle-flex — a retweet — perhaps accompanied with an audible reaction — “cool” — as within a second or two attention turns elsewhere.

Never has humanity been so well-fed while also experiencing so much growing hunger. Our restless attention forever longs for more when the present never seems to provide enough.

As we go forward, we also go backward, and not in a good way.

With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies.

Any time I walk down the concourse in a busy airport (a place in which it’s possible and reasonable to start making generalizations about the current condition of the human body), I’m struck and shocked by the fact that, at least in the United States, the majority of people have impaired walking abilities. The causes are obvious: obesity and/or lack of exercise.

The technology that allowed Americans to have the greatest mobility of any population in human history has created people who have less capacity to mobilize themselves than ever.

Pandemic chronic disease largely resulting from physical neglect (which itself mostly results from mass distribution of the most addictive drug ever created: convenience) along with an atmosphere dangerously over-burdened by carbon, are both direct consequences of our lethal dependence on technology.

Picture the world that’s just around the corner in which we will move around in self-driving cars, permanently attached to mobile devices, shopping in stores where we don’t need to talk to anyone or staying at home where virtually anything can now be delivered.

Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, would have you believe that this world of maximized convenience will be some kind of utopia. But have no doubt: this is how humanity is digging its own grave.

The problem of externalizing human skills was anticipated long ago by Socrates when he warned about the impact of the first social medium and most widely replicated piece of technology: the written word.

Socrates warned that writing:

will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering [the purported inventor of writing, Theuth, was advised], but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

But if Socrates couldn’t dissuade Plato from diligently writing down this warning about the danger of writing, it’s hardly surprising that concerns about the risks involved in the externalization of memory (and other externalized human skills) have never exerted much influence in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, an organization has come together with the aim of “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”

A quixotic ambition?

Maybe, but at least the Center for Humane Technology has been created by industry insiders who have an intimate understanding of the technologies and business practices they are challenging.

When people like Tristan Harris warn that “our society is being hijacked by technology,” don’t mistake this as sniping from some anti-technology curmudgeon.

Harris and his cohorts were until recently active participants in the hijacking. They understand exactly how this operation has been conceived, implemented, and is having its intended effects.