Thursday, June 28, 2018

Friday Thinking 29 June 2018

Hello all – Friday Thinking is a humble curation of my foraging in the digital environment. My purpose is to pick interesting pieces, based on my own curiosity (and the curiosity of the many interesting people I follow), about developments in some key domains (work, organization, social-economy, intelligence, domestication of DNA, energy, etc.)  that suggest we are in the midst of a change in the conditions of change - a phase-transition. That tomorrow will be radically unlike yesterday.

Many thanks to those who enjoy this.

In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.

Jobs are dying - Work is just beginning. Work that engages our whole self becomes play that works. Techne = Knowledge-as-Know-How :: Technology = Embodied Know-How  

“Be careful what you ‘insta-google-tweet-face’”
Woody Harrelson - Triple 9



Deeply specific talent. At present, progress in machine learning is very sensitive to a talent pool that is microscopically small compared to the world’s population. There are perhaps 700 people in the world who can contribute to the leading edge of AI research, perhaps 70,000 who can understand their work and participate actively in commercialising it and 7 billion people who will be impacted by it. There are parallels with nuclear weapons, where the pool of scientists like Fermi, Szilard, Segre, Hahn, Frisch, Heisenberg capable of designing an atomic bomb was incredibly small compared to the consequences of their work. This suggests that specific talent could be a huge determiner in any AI arms race. China certainly thinks so. In this regard, some smaller countries--notably the UK and Canada--punch massively above their weight.

AI Nationalism

When we think about the future, most of us try to predict it by extrapolating from a wide range of assumptions that we make about today. But most predictions tend to be wrong, from the automobile being written off as a "fad" in 1903 to a 1977 article querying why anyone would want a computer in their home.

A context of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity only exacerbates the likelihood of error.

We propose a different way to explore the future, using the concept of critical uncertainty. This allows us to consider a few plausible futures and become more resilient to the challenges they hold. It reduces the risk of blind spots and unwelcome surprises. It can also help us identify ways in which we can proactively shaping the future.

Scale, scope and type of AI adoption

Reallocation of power and the ability to collaborate
After the Second World War, we moved from being 'subjects' to 'consumers'. Now we seem to be moving from 'consumers' to 'citizens'. People are taking a much more active role in shaping society.

Which different directions could these critical uncertainties take? What could be the implications for individuals, organizations, regions and the world?

The two big uncertainties shaping our future

If one of the challenges set by Coase was to explain where the boundary between firms and markets lies, another was for economic analysis not to cease once it reached the factory gate or office lobby. A key issue is how agreements are structured. Why, for instance, do employment contracts have so few formal obligations? One insight from the literature is that a tightly specified contract can have perverse outcomes. If teachers are paid according to test results, they will “teach to the test” and pay less regard to other tasks, such as inspiring pupils to think independently. If chief executives are paid to boost the firm’s short-term share price, they will cut investment projects that may benefit shareholders in the long run.

where important tasks are hard to monitor, and where a balance of activities is needed, then a contract should shun strong incentives tied to any one task. The best approach is to pay a fixed salary and to leave the balance of tasks unspecified. A related idea developed by Mr Hart and John Moore is of a job contract as a “reference point” rather than as a detailed map. Another insight is that deferred forms of pay, such as company pension schemes and promotions based on seniority, help cement long-term ties with employees and reward them for investing in skills specific to the relationship.

Coase noted in 1937 that the degree to which the mechanism of price is superseded by the firm varies with the circumstances. Eighty years on, the boundary between the two might appear to be dissolving altogether. The share of self-employed contractors in the labour force has risen. The “gig economy” exemplified by Uber drivers is mushrooming.

Yet firms are unlikely to wither away. Prior to Uber, most taxi drivers were already self-employed. Spot-like job contracts are becoming more common, but flexibility comes at a cost. Workers have little incentive to invest in firm-specific skills, so productivity suffers.

Coase’s theory of the firm - The Economist

EBay is a platform that connects buyers and sellers. It does not itself sell goods; it lists and sorts and processes, providing shelves for its users’ inventory and aisles for their prospective customers. It mediates as little as possible, and it takes a cut. Its problems, in the early days, felt new, at least at eBay’s scale: managing disputes among significant numbers of users, dealing with bad actors of various sorts, addressing scams and fakes, establishing not just a framework for mass human interaction but systems through which to codify trust and resolve conflict.

To its credit, eBay has ameliorated many of its problems, through public trial and error, over the course of nearly two decades. “All the linchpins on which modern platforms rely, at least at a very high level, eBay pioneered,” says Andrei Hagiu, a visiting associate professor at M.I.T. and a longtime researcher of online platforms. “We use it in almost every paper we do.” EBay, in obvious and subtle ways, has served as a model well beyond the world of commerce, inspiring the systems that play host to discourse, media, culture and communication online. It was among the first true megaplatforms — the sort that establishes itself as something like online infrastructure. And it may be, to date, the last one we truly understand.

Want to Understand What Ails the Modern Internet? Look at eBay

There’s just not enough time. You’re busy, hurried, harassed by What’s Next and by What Else. As you struggle to keep up, you vacillate between subscribing to more life hacking and throwing your hands up when faced with what you ironically call “the futility of life.” The nervous laughter you expend when you hear such a grand expression come out of your mouth does little to alleviate the burden you so achingly carry.

Sometimes you dream of getting off this treadmill of tasks, but you fear that, if you did, you’d be passed by and summarily forgotten.

Welcome to our “time famine.”
Time is, in our modern society, a scarcity, a “precious resource,” and the unspoken enemy that must be subdued. But this was not always so. At other moments in history, time was abundant. So what changed? How did time turn against us?

Why you never have enough time, a history

She used her winner’s speech to attack publishers’ fixation on accessible language, which she called “a euphemism for something desperate”.

“Most of its tyrannies are brought to bear on younger books right now. But blink twice and today’s junior school readers will be in secondary school, armed only with a pocketful of single-syllable words, and with brains far less receptive to the acquisition of vocabulary than when they were three or seven or nine,” she said. “Since when has one generation ever doubted and pitied the next so much that it decides not to burden them with the full package of the English language but to feed them only a restricted diet, like poorly patients, of simple words?”

Words are mastered, said McCaughrean, by meeting them, not by avoiding them, and young readers “should be bombarded with words like gamma rays, steeped in words like pot plants stood in water, pelted with them like confetti, fed on them like Alphabetti spaghetti, given Hamlet’s last resort: ‘Words. Words. Words.’”

Carnegie medal winner slams children’s book publishers for ‘accessible’ prose

While China is making social credit explicit and ubiquitous - many of the components have been in place everywhere but not as visible to us.

The odd reality of life under China's all-seeing credit score system

Looking for love? In China, a good credit score could get you access to exclusive singles
In the UK, credit scores are mostly used to determine whether people can get a credit card or loan. But in China, the government is developing a much broader “social credit” system partly based on people’s routine behaviours with the ultimate goal of determining the “trustworthiness” of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens.

It might sound like a futuristic dystopian nightmare but the system is already a reality. Social credit is preventing people from buying airline and train tickets, stopping social gatherings from happening, and blocking people from going on certain dating websites. Meanwhile, those viewed kindly are rewarded with discounted energy bills and similar perks.

China's social credit system was launched in 2014 and is supposed to be nationwide by 2020. As well as tracking and rating individuals, it also encompasses businesses and government officials. When it is complete, every Chinese citizen will have a searchable file of amalgamated data from public and private sources tracking their social credit. Currently, the system is still under development and authorities are trying to centralise local databases.

Given the Chinese government's authoritarian nature, some portray the system as a single, all-knowing Orwellian surveillance machine that will ensure every single citizen’s strict loyalty to the Communist Party. But for now, that's not quite the case. Rogier Creemers, a researcher in the law and governance of China at Leiden University, has described the social credit setup as an "ecosystem" of fragmented initiatives. The main goal, he says, is not stifling dissent – something the Chinese state already has many tools for at its disposal – but better managing social order while leaving the Party firmly in charge.

This is a very interesting signal of not only the blockchain - distributed ledger technologies - but also of new economic concepts that integrate social fabric, value creation and exchange with the concept of currencies. There is a 28 min video as well.
“We have seen the crypto world generate roughly $400 billion for new currencies, and we believe the same mechanics can be applied to help communities create wealth on a local level through the use of blockchain-based community currencies that fill regional trade gaps, enable basic income and food security, and promote thriving local and interconnected global markets,” Bancor cofounder Galia Benartzi said in a statement.

Bancor launches blockchain platform in Kenya to enable community currencies

Cryptocurrency platform Bancor announced today that it will launch a new blockchain service in Kenya as part of a financial system designed to help alleviate poverty.

The service will facilitate the creation of “community currencies” to boost local commerce and peer-to-peer collaboration. A community currency is a kind of alternative financial system that a group can use to encourage the creation and purchase of goods and services within a certain geographic region.

While some communities actually create physical money for such systems, the Bancor system will let Kenyan communities use tokens on a blockchain.

This is a great 25 min video - at about 11 min a very interesting demonstration of how 'interesting bearing credit systems' creates economic inequality - unleashing power-law distributions of elite & rabble

Documentary on Will Ruddick and Kenyan Community Currencies

A personal look at Community Currencies in Kenya and Will Ruddick.
Originally aired on CANVAS TV Belgium - (HD) Version

This is an important signal from the UK - but relevant for most developed nations where population and economic demographics are undergoing an unprecedented phase transition. This is also anticipating the emergence of the smart city.

The UK's rapid return to city centre living

A generation ago many UK city centres were dreary and dilapidated places, with a reputation for crime. Now, they are among the most desirable areas of the country to live. What's changed?
Take a walk through the centre of cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham and you will see smart new high-rise apartments, office blocks and the ever-present cranes building still more.

At street level are cafes, bars, restaurants and gyms serving their often young and affluent customers - the people who increasingly define these areas.

Only 30 years ago inner city populations that had grown rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries had dwindled - the residents leaving cramped, urban housing for more spacious suburbs and new towns.

The reversal that has taken place - especially in the north of England and the Midlands - demonstrates a dramatic urban renaissance and a shift in how people want to live.

As Facebook’s stock exceeds its pre-Cambridge Analytica value - a counter trend seems to be happening.

Teens are ditching Facebook like mad

Pew has posted the results of its first new “Teens, Social Media & Technology” survey in three years and the results of the survey show that the social media services teens find most important in 2018 are widely different from what they found important in 2015.

Here are the platforms teens say they use the most in 2018:
YouTube: 85% of teens use the platform
Instagram: 72%
Snapchat: 69%
Facebook: 51%
Twitter: 32%
Reddit: 7%
None of the above: 3%

Compare that with the platforms teens said they used the most in 2015:
Facebook: 71%
Instagram: 52%
Snapchat: 41%
Twitter: 33%
Google +: 33%
Vine: 24%
Tumblr: 14%
As you can see, since 2015, Facebook has become decidedly less important to teens, while both Instagram (owned by Facebook) and Snapchat have surged. Twitter has remained stable, but platforms like Google+, Vine, and Tumblr no longer even register. Makes you wonder how different the landscape will be in only another three years.

This is a great signal of the capabilities of AI to create rich images from less rich images - and may even enhance our capacity to progress 3D printing.

An AI learns to predict a scene from just one image

A machine learning system from Google's DeepMind can collect snapshots of a 3D scene taken from different angles and then predict what that environment will look like from a viewpoint it hasn't seen before, according to research published in Science.

The big picture: Researchers want to create AIs that can build models of the world from data they've seen and then use those models to function in new environments. That capability could take an AI from the realm of learning about a space to understanding it — much the same way humans do — and is key to developing machines that can move autonomously through the world. (Think: driverless cars.)

The context: Computer vision — spurred by the availability of data and increased computing power — has rapidly advanced in the past six years. Many of the underlying algorithms largely learn via supervision: an algorithm is given a large dataset that is labeled with information (for example, about the object in a scene) and uses it to predict an output.

The brain-mind-environment interface is advancing at an accelerating pace. There is a 2 min video demonstrating the technology.

MIT uses brain signals and hand gestures to control robots

The machine adapts to the user, not the other way around.
Robotic technology has a staggering range of applications, but getting it to perform adequately can be a challenge, requiring specific programming based around the way humans communicate with language. But now, researchers from MIT have developed a way to control robots more intuitively, using hand gestures and brainwaves.

The team harnessed the power of brain signals called "error-related potentials" (ErrPs), which naturally occur when people notice a mistake. The system monitors the brain activity of a person observing robotic work, and if an ErrP occurs -- because the robot has made an error -- the robot pauses its activity so the user can correct it. This happens via an interface that measures muscle activity -- the person makes hand gestures to select the correct option for the robot.

One more signal of the emerging quantum computational paradigm.

Quantum transfer at the push of a button

Data transmission is the backbone of the modern information society, on both the large and small scale. On the internet, data are exchanged between computers all over the world, most often using fibre optic cables. Inside a computer, on the other hand, information has to be shuttled back and forth between different processors. A reliable exchange of data is also of great importance for the new quantum information technologies that are currently being developed -- but at the same time it is also fiendishly difficult. At the ETH in Zurich, a team of physicists led by Andreas Wallraff of the Laboratory for Solid State Physics has now succeeded in transmitting quantum information, at the push of button and with high fidelity, between two quantum bits roughly a metre apart. Their results are published in the scientific journal Nature.

An important signal about fundamental new science and the emerging domain of Quantum Biology.

Quantum photosynthesis

Experiments confirm super-positions occur in light-harvesting bacteria.
Biological systems exhibit the same quantum effects as non-biological ones, according to scientists who identified superpositions in molecules inside light-harvesting green sulfur bacteria.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Chemistry, simultaneously rule out an earlier claimed quantum-mechanical discovery in another species of bacteria while establishing for the first time that at one level photosynthesis is a quantum process.

A team of researchers, led by Thomas la Cour Jansen from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, used light polarisations to examine the behaviour of seven light-sensitive molecules that comprise the photsynthetic apparatus inside the bacteria.

The interface between human and machine may be mediated by other life forms.
Synthetic biologists have developed numerous biosensors that sense and report on gut changes in animal models, but it hasn’t been easy to transmit that biological information out of the body, says Lu. To overcome that issue, his team married a biological sensor—a strain of probiotic bacteria genetically engineered to detect blood in the gut—to an electronic sensor and wireless transmission platform.

Synthetic Bacteria Drive New Ingestible Gut Sensor

An ingestible capsule pairs bacteria with electronics to monitor blood in the GI tract
In the latest edition of “What would you be willing to swallow?”, researchers at MIT today unveiled an ingestible sensor that combines engineered bacteria with ultra-low-power microelectronics to sense changes in the gut.

The sensor, roughly the size of a large pen cap, needs to undergo miniaturization and further study before it can be used in humans, but the team hopes to begin a clinical trial within a year or two, said senior author and MIT bioengineer Timothy Lu at a press conference this week.

The prototype, described in the journal Science, successfully detected signs of excessive bleeding in the gut of pigs. Bleeding in the gut can be indicative of a serious health condition, including a gastric ulcer or colorectal cancer.

This is still a weak signal - but one to watch for anyone who wears glasses or other eye wear prosthetics.

Using “Nanodrops” to Repair Corneas Could Ultimately Replace Glasses

"Nanodrops," a new eye drop developed by Israeli ophthalmologists, has successfully fixed corneas in pig eyes, and could potentially do the same for people.
New eye drops developed by researchers from the Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Bar-Ilan University in Israel can improve both nearsightedness and farsightedness, the inventors claim. However, so far the “nanodrops” have only been successfully tested on pigs’ corneas.

The eye drops are “a new concept for correcting refractory problems,” said David Smadja, one of the ophthalmologists who worked on the eye drops, at Shaare Zedek’s research day on Feb. 21, as reported by The Jerusalem Post. The patented drops use nanotechnology to improve vision.

While a promising development, Smadja didn’t say how often the eye drops need to be applied in order to fix a person’s corneas or ultimately replace glasses. Furthermore, what additional work needs to be done before moving on to human trials was not discussed. One factor that may need to be determined is whether the eye drop solution is toxic to humans, and another is how much of the solution is needed per application in order to make an impact.

Here is an amazing signal of the progress of our emerging domestication of DNA - and if 23andMe is to be believed - I’m 2.6% Neanderthal.
“It's still a long haul to get from organoids to real brains, but if the technique can be developed enough to give us more information about normal tissue structure, then you've got something that's probably very useful.”
Muotri focused on one of approximately 200 protein-coding genes that differ between Neanderthals and modern humans.
Conveniently, just one DNA base pair differs between the Neanderthal gene and the modern human one

Neanderthal ‘minibrains’ grown in dish

Alysson Muotri’s lab grew these brain organoids from human stem cells that had a developmental gene edited into the version once possessed by Neanderthals
Until now, researchers wanting to understand the Neanderthal brain and how it differed from our own had to study a void. The best insights into the neurology of our mysterious, extinct relatives came from analyzing the shape and volume of the spaces inside their fossilized skulls.

But a recent marriage of three hot fields—ancient DNA, the genome editor CRISPR, and "organoids" built from stem cells—offers a provocative, if very preliminary, new option. At least two research teams are engineering stem cells to include Neanderthal genes and growing them into "minibrains" that reflect the influence of that ancient DNA.

None of this work has been published, but Alysson Muotri, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, described his group's Neanderthal organoids for the first time this month at a UCSD conference called Imagination and Human Evolution. His team has coaxed stem cells endowed with Neanderthal DNA into pea-size masses that mimic the cortex, the outer layer of real brains. Compared with cortical minibrains made with typical human cells, the Neanderthal organoids have a different shape and differences in their neuronal networks, including some that may have influenced the species's ability to socialize. "We're trying to recreate Neanderthal minds," Muotri says.

Another signal of the rise of renewables and the fall of fossil fuels - the phase transition in energy geopolitics - it maybe a conservative estimate.

World on track for 50% renewables by 2050, says Bloomberg energy outlook

A new analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts a global electricity supply mostly fueled by carbon-free sources by 2050, with a "chilling" outlook for fossil fuel generators and little hope for a nuclear resurgence with today's technology.

The New Energy Outlook report concludes a "dramatic shift" to "50 by 50" is being driven by cheap renewables generation and falling battery costs. Solar and wind costs are expected to drop 71% and 58%, respectively, by 2050.

Worldwide, the report predicts $548 billion will be invested in battery capacity by 2050, with two-thirds of that at the grid level and the remaining third installed behind-the-meter.

The accelerating emergence of autonomous transportation - the image of building a wall against ‘others’ meets to near term emergence of flying autonomous taxis - where others can simply call ‘air-uber-lyft-whatever’ to landed wherever.

Waymo’s early rider program, one year in

Ariel rides after school. Neha hops to the grocery store. Barbara and Jim zip around town while kicking back.

They’re all part of the Waymo early rider program we launched last April. Today, over 400 riders with diverse transportation needs use Waymo every day, at any time, to ride all around the Phoenix area. Their feedback helps us understand how fully self driving cars fit into their daily lives.

One year in, our early rider program and our extensive on-road testing is helping us build the world’s most experienced driver. In fact, our fleet of cars across the U.S. is now driving more than 24,000 miles daily; that’s the equivalent of an around the world road trip! Here’s a quick report on how our riders use Waymo, what we’ve learned, and what’s next.

And those ‘insects’?
“I can imagine applying this chip to low-energy robotics, like flapping-wing vehicles the size of your fingernail, or lighter-than-air vehicles like weather balloons that have to go for months on one battery,” Karaman said. “Or imagine medical devices like a little pill you swallow, that can navigate in an intelligent way on very little battery so it doesn’t overheat in your body. The chips we are building can help with all of these.”

MIT researchers design a tiny computer chip for drones as small as a fingernail

Drones as small as a fingernail may one day buzz overhead, thanks to research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A team in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science designed a 20 square millimeter computer chip that can process inertial and camera images — two critical components of drone flight — in real time.

It isn’t the team’s first microchip rodeo. Last year, it used a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), a type of highly configurable integrated circuit, to develop a drone control chip that required just 2 watts of power and 2GB of memory. But shrinking the design wasn’t easy.

“In traditional robotics, we take existing off-the-shelf computers and implement [state estimation] algorithms on them, because we don’t usually have to worry about power consumption,” Sertac Karaman, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and the lead researcher on the project, told MIT News. “But in every project that requires us to miniaturize low-power applications, we have to now think about the challenges of programming in a very different way.”

The metabolic economy - where every output or every waste product finds itself as an input into another process. The transformation of end-cycle matter is the key to continual growth of living systems.

Fungii Turn Rice And Glass Waste Into An Eco-friendly Building Material

Making buildings out of fungus-based materials might sound like the sort of thing that’s best left to floppy-hatted little blue creatures. There’s a team of human scientists that have proven otherwise.

Australian researchers have developed a clever new mycelium composite and it’s quite the amazing material. The composite is lightweight and can be formed into just about any shape you can imagine.

It’s also very eco-friendly. First, there’s the ingredient list: rice hulls and glass fines. The hulls are left behind after individual grains of rice are removed. Glass fines are small bits of glass that are produced during the glassmaking or recycling process. Fines can sometimes be used as a replacement for sand when making concrete, but they’re often just incinerated — as are rice hulls.

To bind the two materials together they enlisted the aid of Trametes versicolor, a fungus commonly known as turkey tail. Once the fungii have done their thing, it’s on to a low-temperature often where the composite can be baked into bricks, slabs, or planks.

The process is much less energy-intensive than the ones currently used to produce materials like plastic-based composite lumber. In addition to being an energy-efficient process, it’s also a zero-carbon one.