Bringing Up Machine Baby


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Matthew Hurst | Flickr

If you’ve been reading all year about “machine learning” but still feel you only have a fuzzy grasp of what it is, relax. Having a fuzzy grasp of what something is turns out to be exactly what machine learning is all about. You can glean that and much more from Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s epic artificial-intelligence narrative in The New York Times Magazine, which tells how Google sharpened its translation skills by plugging in a new machine learning engine.

As he traces the trail of Google’s researchers and engineers, Lewis-Kraus also provides a beautiful summary of how machine learning evolved from a renegade strain of artificial-intelligence theory into a practical tool for delivering useful services — and a powerful harbinger of socioeconomic disruption.

One key point: The neural networks that underly today’s machine learning develop their skills by learning from data sets, the bigger the better. In other words, they aren’t programmed — they’re raised, on a diet of information that humans have assembled and labeled. “The greatest danger,” Lewis-Kraus writes, “is that the information we’re feeding them is biased in the first place.”

How responsibly will we raise our AI children? If you want to dig deeper, the IEEE has published a draft of a guide to ethical AI design (TechCrunch). Think of it as a sort Dr. Spock parenting manual for the machine-learning era.

Happy NewCo Holidays

This is the last NewCo Daily for 2016 — we’ll be back on Monday, Jan. 2. Congratulations! We made it to the end of a tough year, and we’re still here — whether your “we” is yourself, your organization, your community, or the whole planet.

Today we’re stepping back from the news flow to suggest some longer reads you might want to tackle on your break, if you’re lucky enough to get one. You can also check out our review of NewCo Shift’s most popular stories of the year — from “Here’s What Happens When You Give $1,000 to Someone in Extreme Poverty” to “What $50 Buys You at Huaqiangbei, the World’s Most Fascinating Electronic Market.

Tech Giants Are Now the Incumbents

Forget fake news: Facebook turned out to be a central player in the 2016 election less because of its role in distributing fraudulent stories than for the way it supplanted the traditional power centers of political communications, like TV and the political parties.

That’s just one of the many insights you’ll encounter, and may want to argue with, in Ben Thompson’s yearend review essay (Stratechery). Facebook, Thompson says, has accelerated the internet’s transformation of media by “monetizing confirmation bias.” Today, “The likelihood any particular message will ‘break out’ is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it.”

That explains how, in Thompson’s view, Donald Trump is like Dollar Shave Club: “Both began by targeting niches and leveraging social media, but more importantly, the companies and institutions most invested in stopping them found themselves powerless to do so because their point of leverage had been circumvented by the internet.” That kind of change is scary and puts a lot of things we value at risk, but it also opens up a ton of new opportunities.

The danger for Silicon Valley as Thompson sees it is that the industry is now “the incumbents”: “We have a stake in keeping things exactly as they are, and we build products for ourselves — we’re our own best customers. That, though, cedes the future to the powerless — those with nothing to lose under the current system will by sheer necessity build the new.”

That might be bad for the tech giants’ long-term bottom line but good for the world. In Thompson’s words: “We need more companies that work for everyone,” rather than just for early adopters and novelty addicts.

If Hyper-Nationalism Replaces Hyper-Globalism, Look Out

With Brexit, Trump, and a looming tariff war, 2016 marked sundown forthe Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal world order. If you want to understand why and how that happened, spend some time with the data and charts William Janeway has assembled for his elegant essay on “The Retreat From Hyper-Globalization” (The WTF Economy).

Janeway begins with the “trilemma” outlined by economist Dani Rodrik: In the new post-globalization world, we are forced to choose among “national autonomy, representative political institutions or deep economic and financial integration.” Pick any two — you can’t have all three.

The internet’s rise, the industrialization of China, and the Great Recession all paved the road to this troubling spot, but the single most important cause is the acceleration of cross-border flows of money and people. “Unrestricted flows of trade, people and capital both exemplify extreme globalization and generate economic crisis and the consequent political backlash,” Janeway writes. Hostility to immigration kicks in when change in local communities happens faster than people (or economies) can easily adjust.

If we want to ease the pain of a “trilemma” world, Janeway says, two remedies are strengthening our system’s “buffers” (like more robust bank reserves) and reducing inequality. If we fail to cushion people from the speed of change, we could quickly find ourselves in another era like the early 20th century, which capped a Victorian century of (mostly) peace and progress with decades of global brutality.

In case it is not crystal clear, I will put this in bold: We should labor mightily to avoid anything remotely resembling that round of totalitarianism, depression, and war.

Code Dependent

Need still more holiday reading? It’s never a bad time to go back to Paul Ford’s magnificent 2015 mega-essay from BusinessWeek, “What Is Code?

It’s an entertaining and wise introduction to the nature of software — which, now more than ever, shapes our future. Whatever 2017 has in store for us, you’re more likely to understand it better with this piece under your belt.

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