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.
“Be careful what you ‘insta-google-tweet-face’”
Woody Harrelson - Triple 9
Articles:First Gene Drive in Mammals Could Aid Vast New Zealand Eradication Plan
At its height back in 2000, the U.S. cash equities trading desk at Goldman Sachs’s New York headquarters employed 600 traders, buying and selling stock on the orders of the investment bank’s large clients. Today there are just two equity traders left.
Automated trading programs have taken over the rest of the work, supported by 200 computer engineers. Marty Chavez, the company’s deputy chief financial officer and former chief information officer, explained all this to attendees at a symposium on computing’s impact on economic activity held by Harvard’s Institute for Applied Computational Science last month.
The experience of its New York traders is just one early example of a transformation of Goldman Sachs, and increasingly other Wall Street firms, that began with the rise in computerized trading, but has accelerated over the past five years, moving into more fields of finance that humans once dominated. Chavez, who will become chief financial officer in April, says areas of trading like currencies and even parts of business lines like investment banking are moving in the same automated direction that equities have already traveled.
Today, nearly 45 percent of trading is done electronically, according to Coalition, a U.K. firm that tracks the industry. In addition to back-office clerical workers, on Wall Street machines are replacing a lot of highly paid people, too.
Goldman Sachs has already begun to automate currency trading, and has found consistently that four traders can be replaced by one computer engineer, Chavez said at the Harvard conference. Some 9,000 people, about one-third of Goldman’s staff, are computer engineers.
...the emergence of low-cost computers and networking appeared to augur a peer-to-peer, fluid, and more open economic landscape, one where we all step off the industrial-age, punch-the-clock treadmill and work in our own time, collaboratively, on creative pursuits, from home, in our underwear. Instead, we’re getting an exacerbation of some of extractive corporatism’s worst effects: joblessness, disenfranchisement, wealth disparity, corporate lethargy, artificial growth, and financialization.
Why aren’t we getting new, digitally enabled forms of community currency, worker-owned businesses, networked cooperatives, and peer-to-peer marketplaces? It turns out it is not because they don’t work; it’s simply because there are entrenched powers and limited visions preventing their rise. They find it hard to see digital technology as anything other than an investment opportunity. A company is not a provider of goods or services, but a “disruptor” capable of overturning an existing marketplace and generating 100x returns to the early shareholders. It doesn’t matter what the company does, if anything, after that.
The rules of capitalism were invented by human beings, at particular moments in history, with particular goals and agendas. It’s like a computer program, with accumulated lines of code written by developers throughout history with specific functions in mind. By refusing to acknowledge this, we end up incapable of getting beneath the surface. We end up transacting, and living, at the mercy of a system—of a medium, really.
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Attention Merchants, says it's as though Facebook were an industrial park. Users started setting up offices in the park, using the roads to travel, treating it like a public utility. But legally, it's private. So when Facebook shuts off the road that goes to your shop, or puts in a new toll, he says, "That's it, you're done."
Two very different people — one is a meme-maker in Florida, the other an investigative journalist from Zimbabwe — got stopped in their tracks as they were doing their work on Facebook, because of the company's decisions and refusal to talk, human-to-human. That caused them tangible harm. Their stories illustrate how much Facebook controls people's access to the online world, and how opaque the company is about this power.
Unfortunately, whether they are running corporations or foreign ministries or central banks, some of the best minds of our era are still in thrall to an older way of seeing and thinking. They are making repeated misjudgments about the world. In a way, it’s hard to blame them. Mostly they grew up at a time when the global order could largely be understood in simpler terms, when only nations really mattered, when you could think there was a predictable relationship between what you wanted and what you got. They came of age as part of a tradition that believed all international crises had beginnings and, if managed well, ends.
This is an important distinction: the idea that we need to be gardeners instead of craftsmen. When we are merely creating something we have a sense of control; we have a plan and an end state. When the shelf is built, it's built.
Being a gardener is different. You have to prepare the environment; you have to nurture the plants and know when to leave them alone. You have to make sure the environment is hospitable to everything you want to grow (different plants have different needs), and after the harvest you aren’t done. You need to turn the earth and, in essence, start again. There is no end state if you want something to grow.
When the history of the 21st century is written, we’ll see that by 2017 the inflection point in the global energy rebuild had already occurred. We’ll see the new energy economy was just the next stage of the the larger technology transformation obviously well underway.
We’ll see that the energy revolution of the next 20 years looked a lot like the Internet revolution of the last 20 years.
This is an exciting signal of the potential re-imagining of a 20th century organization into a 21st century institution - a civil liberties watchdog for the digital environment.
Still: a 97-year-old nonprofit corporation doing inside a startup factory? It’s a move that has raised eyebrows among some ACLU supporters, who worry that the organization’s embrace of Silicon Valley could warp its values. “I wish I was excited [about] this,” tweeted Laura Weidman Powers, CEO of Code 2040, a nonprofit that seeks to create opportunities for black and Latino workers in the tech industry. “But I’m nervous [because] principles of tech growth have not historically been inclusive or benefitted all.”
The 97-year-old organization just joined the incubator that gave us Airbnb and Dropbox. Now what?
In the wake of President Donald Trump banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, the American Civil Liberties Union recorded $24 million in online donations over a single weekend.
Silicon Valley has historically been wary of politics, but Trump’s executive order spurred a series of large donations. Lyft donated $1 million. Twitter employees donated $1.59 million. Googlers raised $4 million to be divided among the ACLU and three nonprofits that support immigrants and refugees. Google Ventures made a separate donation of undisclosed size. “It’s the most important investment we’ll make all year,” David Krane, the firm’s managing partner, told portfolio companies at a private dinner last week.
At more than 750,000 members, the ACLU is hardly a fringe group. Founded in 1920, it first came to fame during the Scopes Trial, in which the group defended a Tennessee high school teacher who was prosecuted for teaching human evolution. It prominently opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and racial segregation in public schools during the civil rights movement.
In some ways, ACLU will be like any other nonprofit in Y Combinator. According to the ACLU, it’s getting a $200,000 donation. It will also get access to Y Combinator’s alumni network, which is lining up to offer its support, Altman said. “One of the cool things has been that many big YC companies have said whatever we can do — free services, discounts — multiply that by 10, [and that’s] what we’ll do for the ACLU,” Altman said. “Payments processing, [web] hosting, help with designing the payments flow and donations flow. We want to do that.”
In other ways, though, it will be different. The ACLU isn’t sending representatives to Silicon Valley to live and work with the other startups in the batch. Instead, Y Combinator will send advisers to the organization’s headquarters in New York City, Altman said — an unusual arrangement for the incubator, but not the first time it has worked with a remote organization.
Other details are still being worked out — what metric the ACLU might try to improve during its time in the accelerator, for instance.
This is another landmark in a long history of human relationship with night - from domesticating fire, to electricity, to television and now the Internet.
More surprising is that it takes about 16 years on average for Internet use to saturate in any given country. That’s significantly faster than other technologies that have revolutionized societies, such as steam power, which took about 100 years, and electrification, which took about 60 years.
The way we use the Internet is beginning to reveal human behavior patterns on a previously unimaginable scale.
In 1995, some 40 million people all over the world were connected to the Internet. By 2000 that had grown to around 400 million, and by 2016 it reached 3.5 billion. That means almost half the global population is connected to a single technology.
That’s an extraordinary statistic and one that raises an interesting possibility. With so many people connected in this way, it should become possible to use this technology as a kind of demographic sensor that measures human behavior on an almost unimaginable scale.
Today, Klaus Ackermann at the University of Chicago and a couple of pals say they have done just this by studying how devices connected to, and disconnected from, the Internet between 2006 and 2013. They have done this on a global scale at a time resolution of every 15 minutes to produce a truly mind-boggling number of observations—one trillion of them.
So what does this enormous data set reveal about humanity?
This is not yet proven nor ready for primetime - but it may well be worth watching - disrupting again - the speed of our wifi networks.
What are called the 5G or fifth-generation mobile networks are set to become available by 2020, with promises of improved connections and faster data transfer rates. But, what if we could get speeds faster than 5G before 2020? That’s the subject of a paper that was delivered this week at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) held in San Francisco, California.
The paper talks about a terahertz (THz) transmitter developed by the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, Panasonic Corporation, and Hiroshima University. This transmitter operates using a frequency range from 290 GHz to 315 GHz and is capable of transmitting digital data at a rate of 105 gigabits per second — which is a communication speed that’s at least 10 times as fast as 5G networks. The transmitter uses a frequency that falls within a currently unallocated range of 275 GHz to 450 GHz. Its use will be covered in the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) under the International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Section (ITU-R).
The researchers were able to reach the speed levels described in the paper by using quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), which enhances the speed of a wireless link in the 300GHz band. These researchers managed to, for the first time, reach speeds exceeding 100 gigabits per second with an integrated circuit-based transmitter.
One of the most popular science fiction themes is the rise of AI against humanity. It has become a salient meme in many conversations about the future. This article is the result of a conference with the aim of creating a set of guiding principles. The conference attendees include many of the who’s who in the AI world.
These principles were developed in conjunction with the 2017 Asilomar conference
Artificial intelligence has already provided beneficial tools that are used everyday by people around the world. Its continued development, guided by the following principles, will offer amazing opportunities to help and empower people in the decades and centuries ahead. The 23 principles are divided into three categories: Research Issues; Ethics and Values; Longer-term Issues
This is interesting - for work that humans will still engage in, AI may become their coach and mentors - maybe our personal AI-ssistant will be more like Batman’s Alfred - butler and mentor.
call centers do not want to replace phone workers, but they are keen to improve the way they operate. “Humans are social beings,” he says. “We engage with each other for emotional reasons, and we want somebody to help us, to counsel us.”
Feast founded Cogito, in 2007, with Sandy Pentland, a professor in the MIT Media Lab who specializes in studying human dynamics. The company originally developed its technology with funding from DARPA as a way to detect a person’s mental state using his or her speech.
Customer-service reps are getting real-time coaching from software that has learned to detect problems in a conversation.
Some call-center workers are now receiving real-time coaching from software that analyzes their speech and the nature of their dialogue interactions with customers. As they are talking to someone the software might recommend that they talk more slowly or interrupt less often, or warn that the person on the other end of the line seems upset.
This gives us a fascinating glimpse of how AI and humans might increasingly work together in the future. Plenty of routine work is becoming automated in call centers and other back office settings, but real human interaction seems likely to resist automation for a long while yet. Even so, AI software may change the way people interact with customers by serving in an advisory capacity.
The call-center software is supplied by Cogito, a company based in Boston. Its software automatically assesses the dynamics of a conversation, and has been trained to recognize certain pertinent characteristics. Rather than the substance of a conversation, it analyzes the raw audio. “Conversation is like a dance,” says Josh Feast, CEO of Cogito. “You can tell whether people are in sync, and it turns out this is a much better measure than language.”
The Internet-of-Things is getting closer - the visual on this page is worth the view. What is misdirected with the term ‘Internet-of-Things’ is an evocation of ‘things’ - a focus on nodes - rather than the emergence of a digital cloud or atmosphere through which we must navigate or wayfind.
At the conference, they described micro mote designs that use only a few nanowatts of power to perform tasks such as distinguish the sound of a passing car and measuring temperature and light levels. They showed off a compact radio that can send data from the small computers to receivers 20 meters away
Computer scientist David Blaauw pulls a small plastic box from his bag. He carefully uses his fingernail to pick up the tiny black speck inside and place it on the hotel café table. At one cubic millimeter, this is one of a line of the world’s smallest computers. I had to be careful not to cough or sneeze lest it blow away and be swept into the trash.
Blaauw and his colleague Dennis Sylvester, both IEEE Fellows and computer scientists at the University of Michigan, were in San Francisco this week to present ten papers related to these “micro mote” computers at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC). They’ve been presenting different variations on the tiny devices for a few years.
Their broader goal is to make smarter, smaller sensors for medical devices and the internet of things—sensors that can do more with less energy. Many of the microphones, cameras, and other sensors that make up eyes and ears of smart devices are always on alert, and frequently beam personal data into the cloud because they can’t analyze it themselves. Some have predicted that by 2035, there will be 1 trillion such devices. “If you’ve got a trillion devices producing readings constantly, we’re going to drown in data,” says Blaauw. By developing tiny, energy efficient computing sensors that can do analysis on board, Blaauw and Sylvester hope to make these devices more secure, while also saving energy.
Another micro mote they presented at the ISSCC incorporates a deep-learning processor that can operate a neural network while using just 288 microwatts.
This is definitely a signal that more such plants are on their way.
396 Powerpacks can power 15,000 homes for four hours
An enormous Tesla-installed power storage facility is up and running at Southern California Edison’s Mira Loma substation in Ontario, California. The facility, announced last fall, holds enough energy to power 15,000 homes for four hours — 80 megawatt hours of electricity with a peak output of 20 megawatts.
It’s designed to reduce the need for “peaker plants” — electricity generation facilities that run when electricity demands are particularly high, such as on a hot afternoon when air conditioners are running full tilt. They’re expensive to install and maintain, especially when in some areas they might only be used for a few hours a day — or even a year.
The 396 Powerpacks that Tesla installed (it acted as its own general contractor) for SCE were all assembled at the company’s Gigafactory in Nevada. Though 80 megawatt hours of batteries might seem like a lot, it’s the same amount of battery capacity that the company puts into its cars in just three or four days of production.
The SCE facility at Mira Loma has 396 Powerpacks, each with 16 pods of batteries inside. Each pod has 12 bricks of cells, and each brick has 85 battery cells. Add ‘em all up and it’s 6,462,720 individual “2170” battery cells, so named because they’re 21 x 70mm cylinders.
Here’s another weak signal of potentially looming battery disruptions - once energy storage is inexpensive - then zero-marginal cost energy will accelerate even more.
Researchers have discovered a way to make the promising flow battery much more practical. Flow batteries store energy in liquid-filled tanks. Prior to this most recent discovery, flow batteries, after a number of charge-discharge cycles, would suffer from rapid storage capacity degradation.
In order to overcome the degradation hurdle, the researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) modified the structure of molecules in the solution to make them water soluble. This allowed for the electrolytes to be dissolved in neutral water, creating a battery that only loses one percent of its storage capacity every 1000 cycles. According to the official press release, the battery is able to run for ten years with only a minimum amount of upkeep.
Unlike other battery liquids, the solution in this new flow battery is both non-toxic as well as non-corrosive. Spilling it on skin or on the floor causes no injury or property damage.
This is ready for primetime - but it’s another signal of the rapid development of all sorts of robotics. Some of the images are worth the view.
Bipedal robots have been a tough ask for engineers. Creating a bot that’s steady, self-balancing, and able to adapt to uneven terrain (one of the main advantages of going bipedal in the first place!) is a tough ask. But, as this newly unveiled bot from Agility Robotics proves, we’re getting good at it.
The bot’s name is Cassie, and, as reported by IEEE Spectrum, it comes from a fine lineage of bipedal robots. Agility Robotics is a spinoff company from Oregon State University, and the firm’s researchers previously created the ATRIAS robot. (You may remember ATRIAS from a video of it playing a slightly one-sided game of dodgeball.)
“ATRIAS was the first machine to demonstrate human-like gait dynamics and implement spring-mass walking, but it was not a practical machine for any use other than science demonstration.” Agility Robotics co-founder Jonathan Hurst told Spectrum. (“Spring-mass walking” basically uses the elasticity of springs to create a passive mechanism mimicking human muscles.)
The self-driving car, the autonomous drone and soon to a harbor near you maybe a self-driving ship.
"The development will start in a few countries, and these flag states will give the vessel permission to operate before we have international regulations in place."
A spokesman for the international maritime union Nautilus said: "The pace of change is a challenge to safety and there are also many unanswered questions about the legal implications of the way in which operational and management responsibilities are being taken away from ships’ staff.
International shipping expert Jonathan Moss, from law firm DWF, said: "The maritime industry as a whole may suffer in terms of employment levels.
Tugboats and ferries are being developed first, with international cargo ships expected to follow later.
The engineering giant is working with government-backed groups across northern Europe on the autonomous vessels.
The company estimates that the move could cut sea transport costs by as much as 20%.
Rolls-Royce vice president of innovation Oskar Levander said tugboats and ferries will be developed first, ahead of cargo vessels which will sail across international waters.
The self-driving car becomes the key enabler of the future we’ve all grown up with - the flying car.
“They just need to press a button and then it vertically takes off, flies from point A to point B, and lands.”
When the ruling family decrees that a quarter of all journeys in a city state will be autonomous by 2030, someone somewhere is obliged to make that start happening as soon as possible.
In Dubai, that person is Mattar Al Tayer, chairman of the city’s Road and Transport Authority. He said Monday that he hopes Dubai will have autonomous taxi drones zipping around its skyline this summer. Actual drones that people can sit inside without fearing for their lives.
The flying taxis are being manufactured by Chinese drone-making firm EHang and can carry a person weighing up to 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds) along with a small suitcase. Passengers don’t need to learn how to fly the drones, EHang's co-founder Derrick Xiong told FORBES staff writer Aaron Tilley in an interview this time last year.
Somehow, I’m a bit skeptical of Ford’s strategy - seems a retreat into an old business model than a step into the 21st Century. While is supports the looming emergence of a change in the conditions of change as far as transportation and mass transit - it seems to be wanting to compete with a closed proprietary model rather than embracing a more robust open-source model that could make all AI and transportation safer, more agile and evolvable faster.
Ford announced an investment in artificial-intelligence company Argo AI to foster development of its self-driving car technology.
Ford announced today a $1 billion investment in machine-learning startup Argo AI. Through the agreement, Argo AI will work exclusively for Ford on the software brains to enable self-driving.
Ford previously announced it will offer a self-driving car by 2021, although it would likely be limited to urban environments and be used by ride-hailing services as a kind of robo-taxi.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Argo AI is a new company dedicated to developing a software system to guide self-driving cars. CEO Bryan Salesky said of the investment that it would allow Argo AI to recruit the kind of talent needed to develop these systems.
Ford CEO Mark Fields said, "For accounting purposes, Argo AI will be a subsidiary of Ford, but have a lot of independence. Its sole focus over the next five years will be developing self-driving software for Ford vehicles."
Here’s a fascinating experiment bringing AI and robotics together - this could transform the popular reality show - Robot Wars.
Unsurprisingly, they do both
What happens if one AI’s aims conflict with another’s? Will they fight, or work together?
Google’s AI subsidiary DeepMind has been exploring this problem in a new study published today. The company’s researchers decided to test how AI agents interacted with one another in a series of “social dilemmas.” This is a rather generic term for situations in which individuals can profit from being selfish — but where everyone loses if everyone is selfish. The most famous example of this is the prisoner’s dilemma, where two individuals can choose to betray one another for a prize, but lose out if both choose this option.
As explained in a blog post from DeepMind, the company’s researchers tested how AI agents would perform in these sorts of situations, by dropping them into a pair of very basic video games.
This article is interesting on several levels - even with cars become electric - they still will rely on fossil fuels to make tires. Except this innovation can transform that. Also this is important in understanding how harnessing microbial agents we may transform how we manufacture many things.
"Our team created a new chemical process to make isoprene, the key molecule in car tires, from natural products like trees, grasses, or corn," said Paul Dauenhauer, a University of Minnesota associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and lead researcher of the study. "This research could have a major impact on the multi-billion dollar automobile tires industry."
A team of researchers, led by the University of Minnesota, has invented a new technology to produce automobile tires from trees and grasses in a process that could shift the tire production industry toward using renewable resources found right in our backyards.
Conventional car tires are viewed as environmentally unfriendly because they are predominately made from fossil fuels. The car tires produced from biomass that includes trees and grasses would be identical to existing car tires with the same chemical makeup, color, shape, and performance.
The technology has been patented by the University of Minnesota and is available for licensing through the University of Minnesota Office of Technology Commercialization.
The new study is published by the American Chemical Society's ACS Catalysis, a leading journal in the chemical and catalysis sciences. Authors of the study, include researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the Center for Sustainable Polymers, a National Science Foundation-funded center at the University of Minnesota.
Bringing healthcare to the world involves the ability to diagnose problems - here’s a significant leap forward toward an essentially costless diagnostic method.
"Enabling early detection of diseases is one of the greatest opportunities we have for developing effective treatments," Esfandyarpour said. "Maybe $1 in the U.S. doesn't count that much, but somewhere in the developing world, it's a lot of money."
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed a way to produce a cheap and reusable diagnostic "lab on a chip" with the help of an ordinary inkjet printer.
At a production cost of as little as 1 cent per chip, the new technology could usher in a medical diagnostics revolution like the kind brought on by low-cost genome sequencing, said Ron Davis, PhD, professor of biochemistry and of genetics and director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center.
A study describing the technology will be published online Feb. 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Davis is the senior author. The lead author is Rahim Esfandyarpour, PhD, an engineering research associate at the genome center.
The inexpensive lab-on-a-chip technology has the potential to enhance diagnostic capabilities around the world, especially in developing countries. Due to inferior access to early diagnostics, the survival rate of breast cancer patients is only 40 percent in low-income nations—half the rate of such patients in developed nations. Other lethal diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, also have high incidence and bad patient outcomes in developing countries. Better access to cheap diagnostics could help turn this around, especially as most such equipment costs thousands of dollars.
The gene drive technology derived from CRISPR has been a controversial news item for a while - Here’s another signal of its immanent deployment.
Evolution-warping technology applied to mice is a step toward “synthetic” species conservation.
Scientists working in coördination with a U.S. conservation group say they’ve established an evolution-warping technology called a “gene drive” in mammals for the first time and could use it to stamp out invasive rodents ravaging seabirds on islands.
Gene-drive technology, so far demonstrated only in insects and yeast, is a powerful way of biasing the inheritance of DNA such that wild animals can be genetically altered as they reproduce, including to cause a population crash.
Now two scientific teams—one in Australia and one in Texas—say they’ve genetically engineered the house mouse, Mus musculus, so that its genome also harbors genetic surprises that could be unleashed on wild populations. The modified rodents were born in the last two months and the results are still preliminary.
The effort to establish gene drives in mammals is being coördinated by Island Conservation, a hard-charging conservation group based in Santa Cruz, California, whose specialty is bombing small islands with rat poison in order to save endangered seabirds. Its motto is “preventing extinctions.”
But poison doesn’t work to extirpate rodents on larger islands or heavily populated ones. That’s why the group thinks gene drives could be the “transformative technology” that allows it to extend its campaign to thousands more islands it says are infested. “We were looking for something really out of the box,” says Karl Campbell, a program director at the nonprofit, which has plans to spent about $7 million a year to speed the technique toward an initial test on a remote island surrounded by miles of ocean, if authorities allow it.