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EV#127 The Internet & civil society; sexism; creative AI.
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The state of cryptocurrency. AI tools are making progress in creative domains. What about the IP issues? Dealing with sexism in tech. What to look out for when Silicon Valley hits the classroom. What role do tech firms have in regulating societal norms? Outsourcing starts to reverse. Breakthrough in peanut allergies. Indonesian reflections.
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Supported by SVB, Silicon Valley Bank.

DEPT OF THE NEAR FUTURE

🛡️ “Technology is the solution to human problems, and we won't run out of work till we run out of problems”, says Tim O’Reilly as he argues that automation, which allows firms to cut costs, can allow them to improve the customer experience resulting in net job creation. It’s a fascinating argument but I think Tim leaves out three things (1) human wellness and community cohesion isn’t about the number of jobs in toto; it’s also about those who lose jobs during the transition (2) that many new jobs may have lower security, pay, dignity or training than older jobs (3) we’re only at the start of a transition and we can’t predict how quickly automation will impact employment patterns: the faster, the more disruptive.

  The new hotspot for outsourcing is... The United States. Firms are starting to re-shore as salaries rise in traditional offshoring spots and the value of geographical, linguistic, temporal and cultural proximity is recognised. Reshoring also seems to be taking hold in manufacturing sectors, aided by robotisation which allows for more efficient factories manned by fewer, higher skilled local employees.

 The Economist: The email Larry Page should have sent the author of the anti-diversity memo is a must read. Anti-woman behaviour in the Chinese tech industry is eye-popping. Also, Justin Wolfers on the toxic environment for female economists.

 Audrey Watters: Silicon Valley behaviourism enters the classroom.

“Correct behavior,” that is, as defined by school administrators and software makers. What does it mean to give these companies—their engineers, their designers—this power to determine “correct behavior”? How might corporate culture, particularly Silicon Valley culture, clash with & civil schools’ culture and values?


 The state of cryptocurrency in 2017. An accessible overview of the state of cryptocurrency. Also, Muneeb Ali on how the tech industry will change with decentralized computing. For a deeper dive, read Balaji Srinivasan on evaluating the level of decentralisation in a distributed system. Neither bitcoin nor ether score particularly well, in my view, but it’s useful to have a start of a consistent metric for this key property.

DEPT OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

AI is creating building blocks to reshape music and art.

  If an AI creates a piece of art, who owns the intellectual property? A case involving a monkey may throw some light on the question.

There will be 67m voice-powered devices in US homes in two years. Brand marketers are getting excited by the possibility.

The GDPR is a personal data protection regulation coming online in the EU next year. 
It poses some fascinating challenges for developers of AI products, argues Rand Hindi.

Monica Rogati on the data science hierarchy of needs and what you need in place in order to build AI systems.

Gartner Group, a research outfit, releases its 2017 hype cycle. Deep learning appears for the first time, teleporting in to the peak of the hype curve. (Gartner appears to be a bit late to this call as it didn’t include deep learning in 2016’s hype cycle.)

DEPT OF DOMINANT INTERNET FIRMS & CIVIL SOCIETY

That’s a mouthful. Because it really is a mouthful. It’s become clear that our large digital firms have become significant actors in civil society. Facebook reaches 2bn people each month. Apple’s $250bn+ cash horde is larger than the gold reserves of every nation barring the US. (And Apple’s is within touching distance of Fort Knox.)

Apple denounced ‘neo-Nazis’ and started a programme to match employee donations to human rights groups. Spotify clamped down on ‘hate bands’ identified by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. Google and GoDaddy cut the domain support for the Daily Stormer. Several payment firms have also cut ties.

  And Matthew Prince, founder of Cloudflare, a service which ensures website reliability, evicted the Daily Stormer from the network. It’s worth reading Prince’s rationale here, where he points out our increasing dependence on a few giant networks:

In a not-so-distant future, if we're not there already, it may be that if you're going to put content on the Internet you'll need to use a company with a giant network like Cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, or Alibaba.

For context, Cloudflare currently handles around 10% of Internet requests.

Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online.

Silicon Valley has long been born of two political spirits: hippiedom (stick it to the man) and libertarianism. Neither naturally align themselves with playing an engaged role in the polity. Both are a heady mix, predominantly socially liberally and economically conservative. This, together with avoiding the legal inconvenience of being responsible for content or behaviour on their platforms, lead to a positioning as ‘platform not publisher’, notions of the ‘neutral point of view’ (of Wikipedia) and generally a hands-off approach to what users and customers did on their networks (unless it upset advertisers).

As I wrote in EV#70:

Layer on a solution-oriented engineering culture that by and large has not studied nearly enough philosophy, political theory or history and you can understand why these platforms take the stance they take.

For many years, this has raised alarm, argues Alexis Madrigal:

[s]cholars who study the internet’s dynamics have been saying that the public sphere—the place where civic society is supposed to play out, the place “free speech” advocates desire to see preserved—has been privatized by Facebook, Google, and the other big internet companies. Most on the left saw this privatization as part of a larger conservative ...movement that was sapping the strength of the government-secured commons.

Madrigal’s essay is worth reading.

I welcome the arrival, awakening of these firms to their power, whether that power was sought or not, and the discomfort and hard thinking they need to do about their role and responsibility in the world. And I welcome them stepping in at the time when some political leaders have failed to.

But should they be the final arbiters of what is appropriate or not? The recognition that they can’t simply cry “neutral platform” and absolve themselves of responsibilities to society is a good first step. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a libertarian-leaning organisation that has done a great deal to campaign for the open internet and personal freedoms does ring an alarm bell over actions of the large tech firms.) 

And, yes, I can hear the cries of “but decentralised ledgers will be immune to such interference”. They may well be, which makes it all the more important to establish a clearer framework for content regulation now.

🌡️  Proving how complex this is to navigate, YouTube recently reinstated videos purporting to show war crimes in Syria’s civil war which it’s content flagging processes had previously removed. Apple has also removed VPN apps from the Chinese app store. These apps allow users to circumvent the Great Firewall of China. (Cambridge University Press, an old economy company, has also bowed to Chinese pressure.)

LinkedIn is on the receiving end of an injunction preventing its site being scraped. The promise of Web 2.0 was a participatory web where neutral platforms facilitated a new commons based around individuals and our networked contributions to that commons. In the early days, de facto terms of service of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn allowed widespread scraping and data portability. In recent years, these platforms have locked down 3rd party access to the data of their users because that data is too valuable (and often drives the business models of those platforms). The HiQ-LinkedIn case will be interesting to follow.


 Apple is mulling a movie rental service aligned to theatre release windows.

Google may pay Apple $3bn a year to be the default search engine on the iPhone.

How Facebook’s Onavo subsidiary helps it predict new breakout consumer behaviour (and partly explains why they are so good at copying).

  EV reader, Diane Coyle, argues in the FT that we need new economic tools for regulating dominant internet firms.  (Excellent piece.)


SHORT MORSELS TO APPEAR SMART AT DINNER PARTIES

🏿 The soap dispenser that won’t dispense to dark skin. On the importance of diversity in tech.

Why upgrade to an old MacBook Pro?

 White nationalists in America are flocking to DNA tests. They don’t always like the results.

Musical with machine learning plot and music to debut in London.

Book review of Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization. (A wonderful book I read on vacation.)

The taxonomy of humans according to Twitter’s ad targeting engine.

 Venus flytraps count to avoid trapping raindrops instead of flies.

Jupiter is about as big as a planet can get.

🛰️ NASA’s plan to save Earth from a supervolcano. Also, 3D printing in space is at arm’s reach.

🥜 Peanut allergy cured in kids using immunotherapy and... probiotics (!)

First full-body cryonic procedure in China.

END NOTE

I’m back from a long family trip to Indonesia where we explored Bali and Lombok, two of the more eastern islands. As we ventured inland into more remote and less well-served areas, I reflected on technology, development and infrastructure. GDP per capita in real terms is less than $5k per annum in Lombok and about double that in Bali. There is a lot of development still to come, aided by government-provided education to the age of 15.

While tourism is driving a great deal of this, agriculture is still sub-scale multi-use farms, often below 1 hectare according to locals with whom we spoke. The work, tending to rice paddies, peanut crops, banana, coconut, remains manual, wet and back-breaking.

Physical infrastructure, like roads, is poor outside (and occasionally inside) the main cities. Telecom coverage is patchy. A combination of the volcanic topography, thick jungle canopy and high humidity does radio signals no favours.

The primary means of transport is the Honda-powered motorbike. Petrol infrastructure is thin. Most petrol seems to be sold via kiosks with hand-powered pumps. In more remote areas, petrol or benzene is sold in reusable 1-litre glass bottles (I saw some old vodka containers put to use for this). The price of a litre is 9000IdR in those remote areas, the equivalent of 60p ($1 or so) or so.
The roads are small, winding, in ill repair and hazardous. Total electricity generation in Bali runs to about 650Mw.

The serpentine roads and more dynamic driving style are far from the open freeways of Northern California. With poor cell coverage, strained electrical infrastructure and challenging roads, the Western notion of automated transport-as-a-service seems decades, not years away.

Both islands are wonderful destinations which I can commend.

I’m looking out for sponsors for the next few months of Exponential View. please do email Marija Gavrilov if your firm is interested in supporting us.

Cheers,
Azeem



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This week's issue is brought to you with support from our partner, Silicon Valley Bank
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Carefully curated by Azeem Azhar: The Exponential View.

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