Bulletin 22 February 2019. Fake letters from cyberspace. Oh and AI.

Working on it

Okay, I admit it, I have failed. In the first ever of these bulletins I let hubris get the better of me and suggested they might reflect Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America, which would report on the happenings of the day and add a little observation… whereas I have tended to lead with observation, and occasionally throw in a note of happening. It’s a fair cop. 

As I flick though my weekly browsing history, I find a number of themes emerge. First, that people using computers still seem to be beset with the same old problems. One of my friends’ hard drives died without them taking a backup, while another was struggling to rescue data from a defunct Macbook. Which makes me wonder just how much we have advanced. 

Speaking of advancing, we’re not that different to how we were according to a Register article entitled “Secret mic in Nest gear wasn’t supposed to be a secret, says Google, we just forgot to tell anyone.” So, yes, a Nest device incorporated a microphone. As the article notes, “A decade ago, Google “mistakenly” put Wi-Fi sniffing into its Google Street View cars, which slurped data from people’s home networks as the cars drove past. The “accident” had been patented earlier.”

I’ve also been reading a fair amount of world news. I confess to having become one of those people who opens his news app every morning, just in case something cataclysmic has happened… but usually finding that it’s pretty much the same minor (relative to full scale war), yet notable sequence of steps on the road to catastrophe we seem to be on. Not with a bang but a whimper, eh? I remain optimistic about the future, but pretty flummoxed about the present. 

Flummoxed, indeed, by nature of the discourse about how technology and society are interacting right now. We’ve somehow arrived at a point where a singular group of voices can have a massive impact, it’s happening on all sides of that political spectrum and beyond. Some see it as the arrival of online mob rule (and I learned a new word: ochlocracy) but that doesn’t seem to capture it somehow. 

Given how the nature of discourse has changed, it clearly has a bearing. To this outsider it appears that many online articles available today are written by people with an agenda, which (when coupled with the kinds of echo chambers we have created) go through a period of self-reinforcement until what emerges is an evangelist. Personally, I feel very strongly about my uncertainty faced with the complexity of life, and I don’t want it undermined by having to take a position.  

Funnily enough this reminds me of way, way back, when I was a programmer for Philips and was reading up about how much we were abusing our food chain — specifically factory farming and hormones applied to meat. I chose (and I still choose) to avoid such food products; back in the day, I was questioned about this to such an extent, “Why don’t you just become vegetarian then?” that in the end, and for over a decade, I did succumb to this strange kind of inverse peer pressure. It’s perhaps not that different to the take-a-position-if-we-want-to-or-not environment we find ourselves in today. 

The result is that it is never enough to take anything that is written on face value. To whit, whilst googling about echo chambers, I found something called the Echo Chamber Club, which had the intention (as far as I can make out) of providing a forum for discussing controversial topics. The ECC wrapped this time last year, as its editor Alice Thwaite was doing her masters. She’s still writing — here’s a piece on the mutual recognition — as far as I can tell on the notion of building bridges and finding common ground. 

Which seems like a good place to start. I also picked up on some threads by Jason Gots about the nature of radicalism, in this case on the left but I don’t believe the principle is party political. And meanwhile, I was pointed to Frank Furedi’s article about modern anti-Semitism. Furedi doesn’t mince his ‘radical democrat’ position, which if I’m not mistaken tends more to the right. 

So, what have I learned? Somewhere in all of that is tech, in its role as amplifier and instigator uncontrolled and unharnessed. As a final read, I can recommend CB Insights’ article “How AI Will Go Out Of Control According To 52 Experts” — which does a good job of bringing together multiple positions so that the reader can boil it all down and make their own mind up. Or maybe just cherry-pick the views that reflect their own: it was ever thus. 

Believe it or not, I am trying to make sense of it all, but the answers as yet elude me. 

Smart Shift: An algorithm without a cause

Interviewing Augustin Huret was one of the most surprising experiences of my career, not least because the interview was punctuated by him taking me from La Defense to the Eurostar terminal at (what felt like) high speed. You know that scene in the Matrix, right? Anyway, Augustin’s claim to fame was to bring his father’s machine learning algorithms to market, through both enhancing them and simply being there when the cost of compute fell to a low enough point to make them viable. So, what if we could process any quantity of data in so-called ‘real time’? This section takes a look. 


Thanks for reading as ever, Jon

Also published on Medium.

Bulletin 22 February 2019. Fake letters from cyberspace. Oh and AI.

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