Archive for the 'Technology' Category

The death of individuality

I’m working on my next article for acid logic and it’s essentially a list of modern day fears that I think could be exploited by horror movies creators. One fear is fairly esoteric: a fear of the loss of identity brought about by the hyper-connectedness of the age. In essence, we are so hooked in to each other that when a subject comes up we immediately know what everyone else thinks about it and tailor our opinions and ideas to match the group we want to associate with. (Political tribes are an obvious example of these groups.)

The fear is not so much about this process but the crisis of self it could bring about. If you wake up one day and find that your opinions totally match some subset of the masses, would you start to wonder whether you really exist on a meaningful level? Would you conceive of yourself as merely a vessel for popular opinion?

Robo-sales

It seems like all I ever do around here is comment on the increased use of robots and A.I. software in the workforce. (But I sure look good doing it!) I’ll try and keep it in check. Nonetheless, this little tidbit caught my eye. It’s from an article in the April 3, 2014 New York Times Book Review called “The Programmed Prospect Before Us.”

Recently, Michael Scherer, a Time magazine bureau chief, received a call from a young lady, Samatha West, asking him if he wanted a deal on health insurance. After she responded to a number of his queries in what sounded like a prerecorded fashion, he asked her point blank whether she was a robot, to which he got the reply, “I am human.” When he repeated the question, the connection was cut off. Samantha West turned out to be a system of recorded messages that were part of a computer program created by the brokers of health insurance.

If this is true, this is such a clumsy application of computer intelligence that it makes me think we have nothing to worry about. Nobody likes talking to robo-software, much less robo-software that claims to be human. It seems these sorts of efforts are designed simply to annoy people. (Note: Read update below for more details on Samantha West.)

Of course, maybe there a kind of spam-mindset going on. “We annoy 100,000 people with bullshit robo-calls but 10 of them actually buy the insurance and we clear our margins.”

The article continues.

The point is not that humans were not involved, but that experts had worked out that far fewer of them needed to be involved to sell a given quantity of health insurance. Orthodox economics tells us that automating such transactions, by lowering the cost of health insurance, will enable many more policies to be sold, or release money for other kinds of spending, thus replacing the jobs lost. But orthodox economics never had to deal with competition between humans and machines.

I’m not sure that final sentence is exactly correct, as a rumination on the tale of John Henry should illustrate, but I get the gist and it’s thought provoking.

Update!
I was intrigued by Samatha West to look up details. It turns out they are a little cloudier than stated above though the concerns raised are legitimate.

Robot-denying telemarketing robot may not actually be a robot.

As Time is now reporting, the telemarketing robot is actually a computer program used by telemarketers outside the United States. According to John Rasman of U.S.-based Premier Health, the system allows English speaking telemarketers with thick non-American accents to sort through leads to find real prospective buyers before passing them off to agents back in the United States. “We’re just contacting people in a way they’re not familiar with,” said Rasman. The human agents who trigger Samantha West’s responses act as brokers for health insurance companies inside the U.S.

So it’s not robots stealing our jobs, it’s those damn foreigners!

Robo-milking

I frequently talk about the robotization of the workforce. Today’s NY Times has an article that caught my eye. “With Farm Robotics, the Cows Decide When It’s Milking Time.

In essence, robotic devices are now available to milk cows. It frees humans from a disagreeable task and…

The cows seem to like it, too.

Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past.

With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.

For some reason I’m reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon my dad often recollects. A farmer is milking a cow and the cow looks back at him and says, “Gently, please. It’s Mother’s Day.”

The rise of goop

An interesting idea dawned on me recently. Many people have commented that the advent of 3D printing means that it is really the design of objects, rather than the objects themselves, that has value. The day may arrive when if you need a new thing—say, a coffee cup—you just use the design to print one off.

Of course, it’s not merely the design of the object that has value there; the raw materials used to make the thing—likely plastics and metals—have value. Maybe we’ll all have a pile of goop that we use to make new things. And if we run out of goop we’ll simply melt down some existing objects back to their goop form. “We’re out of scissors? Melt down the old television and use that!”

The movie industry bloodbath has begun

I’m often rather loudly complaining around here about the devaluation of entertainment products brought about by the internet. This is partly because the internet engenders piracy, but also because piracy itself engenders creators to offer their work for free (because it’s probably going to end up available for free anyway.) The result is the destructions of big chunks of the entertainment industry.

We’ve primarily seen this in the music business. But it stands to reason that as movies become more downloadable, the same thing could happen there. According to this excerpt from a book by screenwriter Lynda Obst, it is.

I leaned back a little on Peter’s comfortable couch, and he sat forward to say, “People will look back and say that probably, from a financial point of view, 1995 through 2005 was the golden age of this generation of the movie business. You had big growth internationally, and you had big growth with DVDs.” He paused to allow a gallows laugh. “That golden age appears to be over.”

“The DVD business represented fifty percent of their profits,” he went on. “Fifty percent. The decline of that business means their entire profit could come down between forty and fifty percent for new movies.”

For those of you like me who are not good at math, let me make Peter’s statement even simpler. If a studio’s margin of profit was only 10 percent in the Old Abnormal, now with the collapsing DVD market that profit margin was hovering around 6 percent. The loss of profit on those little silver discs had nearly halved our profit margin.

This was, literally, a Great Contraction. Something drastic had happened to our industry, and this was it. Surely there were other factors: Young males were disappearing into video games; there were hundreds of home entertainment choices available for nesting families; the Net. But slicing a huge chunk of reliable profits right out of the bottom line forever?

There it was. Technology had destroyed the DVD. When Peter referred to the “transition of the DVD market,” and technology destroying the DVD, he was talking about the implications of the fact that our movies were now proliferating for free—not just on the streets of Beijing and Hong Kong and Rio. And even legitimate users, as Peter pointed out, who would never pirate, were going for $3 or $4 video-on-demand (VOD) rentals instead of $15 DVD purchases.

Frankly, I never understood why people paid 15 bucks to own a DVD movie but I guess they’ve come to their senses on that one. Netflix is probably a big reason for that as you can essentially buy a huge streaming dvd collection for 7 bucks a month.

So what does this collapse mean in terms of movie quality? I think Obst’s article ties into an article I wrote a while back about the noticeable decline in the quality of current film’s stories. I used the blockbuster “WWZ” as an example.

On top of that, “World War Z” was just poorly written. There’s was no sense of ratcheting tension, no sense of real danger. The hallmark of the great horror films is that some of the characters—sometimes characters you really love—get killed. (Even “Shaun of the Dead,” which was something of a horror satire, got this.) Nobody you like in “WWZ” dies. (This is partly because you don’t like any of the characters but that’s another complaint.) And unlike the book, the movie “WWZ” is devoid of clever plot twists. The main conceit of the film—the means by which Pitt formulates a way of stopping the zombies—barely generates a “meh.”

“World War Z” had the sense of being written by committee. When a story is written this way, any interesting proposed plot twist (say, killing a key character, or having a likeable character betray the group) is bound to upset someone in the room. If everyone working on the story is granted veto power, all life gets sucked of a tale.

To quote Obst:

[The studios are] frozen, so the gut is frozen, the heart is frozen, and even the bottom-line spreadsheet is frozen. It was like a cold shower in hard numbers. There was none of the extra cash that fueled competitive commerce, gut calls, or real movies, the extra spec script purchase, the pitch culture, the grease that fueled the Old Abnormal: the way things had always been done. We were running on empty, searching for sources of new revenue. The only reliable entry on the P&L was international. That’s where the moolah was coming from, so that’s what decisions would be based on.

Gut calls are part of what lead to interesting, innovative movies. And deference to the international market means you have to dumb content down for non-English speakers and those who may not get the nuances of certain kinds of storytelling.

As I mention in my article, I think cheap horror flicks are still willing to take risks, as they always have. But I’m curious as to whether they are making any money.

Sharing stuff

Author Jeremy Rifkin has an interesting op-ed in the LA Times titled “The Sharing Economy.” It discusses the rise of companies like AirBnB (the online service that allows people to rent bedrooms in other’s houses, bypassing hotels.)

Nestled in the article is this point:

Hundreds of millions of people are already transferring parts of their economic lives to this new business model. They are making and sharing their own information, entertainment, green energy and 3D-printed products at near zero marginal cost.

This is a point I made not long ago. If we can share 3d printer schematics then we can share a lot physical objects. And this seriously affects the marketplace for stuff leading to a loss of jobs related to making a transporting stuff. To quote myself:

And what about piracy? When we are printing objects, it’s no longer the objects themselves that have value, it’s the designs of the objects. With 3D printers, the design is held in a downloadable computer file. If mp3s and digital movies can be pirated, there’s little reason to think schematic files will not. I suspect that when it becomes easy and free to download and print stuff, we can expect profound ramifications for the economy. (Ignoring the issue of piracy, it also seems likely that schematics for many useful and entertaining objects will simply be offered for free by charitable or anarchistic designers.)

Here come the robots!

The Economist has a new story on a topic I like to comment on: the rise of the robots. The article take special note of how robots could replace parts of the human work force.

As consumers and citizens, people will benefit greatly from the rise of the robots. Whether they will as workers is less clear, for the robots’ growing competence may make some human labour redundant. Aetheon’s Tugs, for instance, which take hospital trolleys where they are needed, are ready to take over much of the work that porters do today. Kiva’s warehouse robots make it possible for Amazon to send out more parcels with fewer workers. Driverless cars could displace the millions of people employed behind the wheel today. Just as employment in agriculture, which used to provide almost all the jobs in the pre-modern era, now accounts for only 2% of rich-world employment so jobs in today’s manufacturing and services industries may be forced to retreat before the march of the robots. Whether humanity will find new ways of using its labour, or the future will be given over to forced leisure, is a matter of much worried debate among economists. Either way, robots will probably get the credit or blame.

Also note that Google is poised to get into the robot game. (A premise I parodied in my short story “The Dance of the Quarks.”)

The biggest robot news of 2013 was that Google bought eight promising robot startups. Rich and well led (by Andy Rubin, who masterminded the Android operating system) and with access to world-beating expertise in cloud computing and artificial intelligence, both highly relevant, Google’s robot programme promises the possibility of something spectacular—though no one outside the company knows what that might be.

The article has some great, cartoon robot art too!

Is this what they mean by ‘sexting’?

I’ve certainly complained about the intrusions of social media into our lives, but even I didn’t see this one, er, coming.

Facebook use during sex? Many seem to ‘like’ it

A more formal national study found young Britons having less sex today than in the past, with social media perhaps partly to blame.

[The survey] also found that 12 percent had answered a phone call during sex and 10 percent had read a text in the midst of the act.

I don’t consider myself a guru in the fields of either sex or social media, but I am confident enough to say that combining the two probably means you’re doing one of them wrong.

I DO consider myself a sex guru and I agree!

Are we wiring ourselves to death?

The New Yorker notes that we are in the midst of a suicide epidemic. While I’m always wary of the term epidemic, it’s worth noting that American suicide rates rose about 30% from 1999 to 2010.

The article posits that suicide’s main sponsor—depression—is an illness, not a deficit or character weakness. While I agree with gist of that, one has to question, “Why then has this illness only recently increased so dramatically?”

I’m often arguing that technology has substantially changed our lives over the past 15+ years. I talk about my total frustration with the intrusions of modern media (endless email messages, Facebook alerts, the incessant fucking phone, etc.) Part of what is so annoying about all this stuff is that it gives you this sense of losing control over your life. You want to just lie down and take a nap, or sit in the yard and stare into space but there’s a half dozen electronic devices poised to ruin your reverie. I wonder if all this contributes to the rise in self-immolation.

Obviously this argument is so speculative it doesn’t even deserve the term “fanciful.” But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And there’s another way I think technology, particularly the web, has unsettled our psychology. In the pre-internet era, people could (somewhat) comfortably settle into various tribal distinctions, often but not exclusively based on the music they listened to. Punks, Metal-heads, hippies, hip-hoppers, yuppies etc. This allowed a certain sense of self-definition and self-worth. “I’m a cool, rebellious punk rock type!” one could think. But I think the web, for a variety of reasons has weakened these tribal self-definitions making us more like interchangeable members of the digital citizenry. And this has weakened our sense of ourselves… we find ourselves, in some hard to define way, asking ourselves “what am I?”

Big data and pop music

I’ve talked a bit about the work of computer scientist David Cope who has developed several software tools that compose music. The exact methodology he uses is complex (he’s written several books about it) but his programs have ably output hours of music in the style of various classical masters.

In one of his books, Cope comments that he has not used his software to write pop music. This is partly because he isn’t interested in pop music and partly because he concedes pop music is about a lot more that just the notes on a page (which is what his software is fundamentally creating.) Pop is also about the tone of instruments, their hip factor, and a lot of contextual baggage the performing artists bring to the song (their personal history, persona etc.)

Nonetheless, I think it’s inescapable that computers will be composing pop song in the future. Or more likely, computers will be helping humans compose pops songs.

But, then what? Cope’s software can generate thousands of variations on a basic tune. Say someone does the same with a pop song. You have 10,000 versions of a certain melody in A minor. Obviously nobody wants to listen to all of them to find the “best one.”

But what if you could look through a data pool of what listeners were listening to and spot upcoming trends? For example, two years ago you could have noted, “Gee, it looks like people are really digging music with these wonky low end gurgles… I bet dub-step will be popular.” Basically, you would note what properties of music seemed to be getting popular and aim the computer composed music towards those styles.

But where would you get this data? This recent NY Times piece, noting that music analysis company Echo Nest has been bought by Spotify, may offer clues.

The Echo Nest is one of a handful of companies specializing in the arcane but valuable science of music data, examining what songs are being listened to by whom, and how. It makes this information available to its clients, including major media companies like Sirius XM, Clear Channel and Univision, which use the data primarily for music-related apps.

“Analyzing music preferences is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” Jim Lucchese, chief executive of the Echo Nest, said in a joint interview with Mr. Ek. “But being directly wired in, and sitting alongside the Spotify team, will give us the ability to push products a lot faster and learn a lot faster than we could before.”

I suspect Echo Nest is, right now, just analyzing “big picture” music trends, like “people are digging hip-hop country songs.” I think eventually they could move towards more granular observations like “major scale melodies that climb high over three bars and then fall down in a giant octave leap in the fourth bar are getting popular,” or “Synth timbres that sound like a theremin and glockenspiel are getting big.” That data could then be used to power the computer aided composition of pop music.

I’m not saying this is a good thing; it worries me. It could certainly lead to an arms race of musical ideas that would result in fads burning out faster and faster. But I think it’s the future.