Random finds (2016, week 36) — On the hype of Artificial Intelligence, beautiful and happy cities, and flawed ideas

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Le Corbusier’s Radiant city.

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking.

On AI, Watson and The Ethics of Invention

In The Hype — and Hope — of Artificial Intelligence, Om Malik writs that “much like ‘the cloud,’ ‘big data,’ and ‘machine learning’ before it, the term ‘artificial intelligence’ has been hijacked by marketers and advertising copywriters. A lot of what people are calling ‘artificial intelligence’ is really data analytics — in other words, business as usual. If the hype leaves you asking ‘What is AI, really?,’ don’t worry, you’re not alone. I asked various experts to define the term and got different answers. The only thing they all seem to agree on is that artificial intelligence is a set of technologies that try to imitate or augment human intelligence. To me, the emphasis is on augmentation, in which intelligent software helps us interact and deal with the increasingly digital world we live in.”

“Michelle Zhou spent over a decade and a half at I.B.M. Research and I.B.M. Watson Group before leaving to become a co-founder of Juji, a sentiment-analysis startup,” writes Malik. “An expert in a field where artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction intersect, Zhou breaks down AI into three stages. The first is recognition intelligence, in which algorithms running on ever more powerful computers can recognize patterns and glean topics from blocks of text, or perhaps even derive the meaning of a whole document from a few sentences. The second stage is cognitive intelligence, in which machines can go beyond pattern recognition and start making inferences from data. The third stage will be reached only when we can create virtual human beings, who can think, act, and behave as humans do.”

“Using Zhou’s three stages as a yardstick, we are only in the ‘recognition intelligence’ phase — today’s computers use deep learning to discover patterns faster and better. It’s true, however, that some companies are working on technologies that can be used for inferring meanings, which would be the next step.”

But according to Zhou it does not matter whether we will end up at stage 3. “I’m still a big fan of man-machine symbiosis, where computers do the best they can (that is being consistent, objective, precise), and humans do our best (creative, imprecise but adaptive),” she says. For a few more decades, at least, humans will continue to train computers to mimic us. And, in the meantime, we’re going to have to deal with the hyperbole surrounding AI.

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Illustration: v_alex/iStock.

“Like any precocious young prodigy, Watson now needs to find its place in the world,” Greg Satell writes in How IBM Is Building A Business Around Watson. “It cannot, as many suspect, replace the role of human professionals. There are certain things that machines will probably never be able to do, like show the genuine empathy required to understand, interact and build effective working relationships with people.”

Having said that, Satell believes Watson’s potential is undeniable. “Think about how much more effective an ordinary doctor can be with Watson as an assistant. First, even before the patient enters the room, it can analyze their personal medical history, which often runs to hundreds of pages. Then, it can compare the case history with the 700,000 academic papers published every year as well as potentially millions of other patient records. All of this is, of course, beyond the capabilities of human doctors, who typically only get a few minutes to prepare for each examination. So being able to consult with Watson will be enormously helpful. At the same time, as doctors provide feedback as to which of Watson’s recommendations are helpful, the system continues to learn as it now also does with travelers, shoppers and others.”

So while robots are unlikely to become our overlords, they do have the potential to become immensely valuable collaborators. According to Eric Brown, who worked on the Jeopardy Grand Challenge project and is currently a Director within the Watson division, “one of the ongoing goals of the system is to overcome human biases. So Watson is not only giving answers it is also, in some cases, posing questions to human conventional wisdom.”

“The potential for this collaboration is enormous,” says Satell. “A doctor that can consult with a system that, for all intents and purposes, can make all of human medical knowledge available in an instant, will be able to spend more time actually caring for patients. They can become healers once again, rather than merely technicians. I, for one, welcome our new robot collaborators.”

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Illustration: v_alex/iStock.

Mother Jones’ Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn interviewed Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the author of The Ethics of Invention that delves into how we should approach a world increasingly governed by tech.

“Jasanoff believes we don’t sufficiently acknowledge how much power we’ve handed over to technology, which, she writes, ‘rules us as much as laws do.’ What we need, she says, is far more reflection on the role that tech plays in our lives now and what role we want it to play in the future. One of her hopes in writing this book was to explore the “’need to strengthen our deliberative institutions to rethink things,” so that “people will recognize that this is a democratic obligation every bit as much as elections.’ She sees that putting ‘a technology into place [is] like putting a political leader into place, and we should take political responsibility for the consequences of technology in the same way that we at least try to take political responsibility for who we elect.’”

Vongkiatkajorn talked to Jasanoff about the different ways we should approach tech, whether we can rightly predict what will happen in the future, and if there’s hope for us before we all become controlled by robots or a version of the rolling, chubby humans in Wall-E. When asked how technology or how we think about technology will progress in the next few years or decades, Jasanoff replies:

“I think that we’ve made a lot of really fundamental discoveries and I think that frontiers we didn’t think we were going to be able to crack are, in different ways, in view. I don’t think we’re quite at the threshold of immortality yet, but we have to ask ourselves what we want out of immortality. Does it mean that the generation that achieves immortality just sits there forever, and we never propagate anymore or there’s nothing new that ever happens to the world ever again? One has to allow oneself a little time to reflect on those kinds of things. I don’t see the technological frontier as receding. I don’t see science as stopping, nor would I want it to — it’s a kind of creativity that I’m totally in favor of. But I also think that with all of that comes a huge potential for scaling things up too fast or heedlessly, not even because we failed to predict it. Climate change is there as a reminder that we can get richer and safer societies that are also consuming more and more to the point where the stability of Earth’s systems is being challenged at potentially catastrophic levels. I don’t think we can stop that. Just the very same worries I have about prediction on the positive progressive side — I mean, predictions that say we’ll be great, we’ll be fine — also apply to predictions that are too catastrophic. I’m not sure we get those predictions right either.”

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Illustration: v_alex/iStock.

“What I’ve advocated is just a more humble and self-aware approach to the ways in which we use technology, a wider diffusion of responsibility. Scientists not saying, ‘Oh, all we’re doing is the science and the regulators will pick it up’; lawyers not saying, ‘Oh the scientists will tell us the facts and we will make the decisions on the basis of those facts.’ But a more widely shared burden on the part of society to keep asking, ‘What are our collective values, what kind of world do we want to bequeath to our children, and to what extent are these particular technological developments helping us go in those directions?’ I think that corporations, every bit as much as governments, social movements, and universities — we all have a role to play in asking those questions. I don’t think anybody should have a monopoly on that responsibility.”

On beautiful and happy cities

“What makes a city beautiful? It’s not its parks and architecture, decorative though they may be. It’s not the mannequins dressed in high fashion, or the creative window displays. A city’s beauty comes from its life, from how its structures keep people teeming on the sidewalks and arterials — pulsing like blood through a body. A city’s beauty comes about the same way all beauty comes about in nature: through the unity of apparently opposing phenomena,” writes Troy Camplin, an independent scholar and the author of Diaphysics, in The Beautiful City on Foundation for Economic Education.

“’Neighborhood accommodations for fixed, bodiless, statistical people are accommodations for instability,’ wrote the great observer of cities, Jane Jacobs. In order for a neighborhood to have staying power, Jacobs thought, the people in it must constantly change. A city only becomes stable through ‘a seeming paradox.’ That is, to get a critical mass of people to stay put, a city has to have ‘fluidity and mobility of use.’ And so the neighborhood itself must change and reorganize itself in order to keep its people there. Fixedness and change. Healthy cities exemplify such paradoxes.”

One apparent contradiction lies in a city’s ability to reconcile the dweller’s desire for both the private and the social. A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.

“These public places foster weaker social bonds and, thus, create the conditions for a public life,’ Camplin writes. “Weak bonds are the social forces created by private citizens who shuffle and cluster on the neighborhood street. It’s the morning nod to the Bangladeshi man who minds his newsstand each day. It’s thirty seconds of sports banter with the doorman at work. We end up being far more social when our weak bonds dominate our more clannish instincts — such as the bonds that hold together street gangs or let whole nations tolerate ethnic cleansing. Of course family and friendship bonds are strong, but it’s not clear it’s healthy to extend these to the wider society. Because we ultimately choose our bonds, a healthy mix of weak and strong bonds will originate in all the choices cities can provide. And such bonds will change with one’s needs.”

“From the time of the ancient Greeks when beauty was associated with the golden ratio, to Hutcheson’s unity of variety, to contemporary thinkers, such as Frederick Turner, whose non-poetic works all deal with beauty, we see a recurrent theme: Beauty emerges from paradox. And the more paradoxes something has, the more beautiful it is. In the balance between strong and weak bonds, competition and cooperation, the individual and the social, ethnic and mixed communities, attraction and repulsion, in all of this variety within the city itself, we find beauty. This might very well be why we humans, beauty-seekers ourselves, are increasingly seeking out life in the city.”

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A renovated victorian house in South Yarra, Melbourne, Australia.

In the Guardian, Tamsin Rutter writes about Charles Montgomery, who works at Happy City, a Canadian organisation named after Montgomery’s 2013 book, which makes the case for retrofitting cities for happiness and argues that streets, parks, shopping centres, housing estates — indeed most urban infrastructure — can be designed to make people feel happier, behave better and be kinder. “If we give a damn about human wellbeing in cities, we need to study the emotional effects of spaces and systems,” says Montgomery. “We need to use evidence to help fix the horrific mistakes we’ve made over the last century.”

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Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery.

When Montgomery first started talking about urban happiness, people laughed at him. But over the last three years, he has seen an “explosion of interest in the field” of happiness and urban planning — and not just from Scandinavian countries. “I’m especially thrilled to see that property developers are embracing the wellbeing agenda,” he says.

One thing the Happy City team is really passionate about is making the business case for happiness. “Building healthier, happier places is not more expensive. In fact, these places save society money in the long run,” Montgomery says. And he can point to the proof. People who are socially connected are more resilient and more productive at work. Cities that encourage social interaction foster greater levels of creativity and trust, both of which correlate with GDP growth.

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People are nicer to each other when they move more slowly.

Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl has spent decades making sure cities work for people, not the other way around. In an article on Fast.CoDesign, Gehl shares his five rules for designing great cities.

“What we have to address now is making livable, healthy, safe, and sustainable cities,” Gehl says. It’s a topic he’s written about in his books Cities for People and Life Between Buildings, and spoken about in The Human Scale, a documentary about his life’s work. His research and theories have inspired a generation of planners and urbanists who are intent on reclaiming cities for people. On the heels of a recent lecture he gave at the Van Alen Institute in New York, Fast.CoDesign asked him about the most pressing urbanism problems of today and what he thinks the path forward should be.

“We were created as a walking animal, and our senses have developed for slow movement at about three miles an hour,” Gehl says speaking to our range of vision and hearing. “A good city is something built around the human body and the human senses so you can have maximum use of your ability to move and your ability to experience. That is a very important issue. For many years, we have broken all the rules to make automobiles happy. If you want to point to a place where there are people walking, and it’s a great sensation, where the senses can be used extremely well, look at Venice. And if you want the other experience, go to Brasilia.”

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Brasilia, a sprawling city built for cars in the 1950s as a reflection of modernity and progress — the pinnacle of technological innovation at the time.

Also in the Guardian, The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’ by Steven Poole, the author of, amongst others, Rethink. “The smart city is, to many urban thinkers, just a buzzphrase that has outlived its usefulness: ‘the wrong idea pitched in the wrong way to the wrong people’. “So why did that happen — and what’s coming in its place?,” Poole asks.

According to Dan Hill, an urban innovators the Future Cities Catapult, “the smart city […] never answered the question: ‘How is it tangibly, materially going to affect the way people live, work, and play?’” His own work includes Cities Unlocked, an innovative smartphone audio interface that can help visually impaired people navigate the streets. Hill is currently involved with Manchester’s current smart city initiative, which includes apparently unglamorous things like overhauling the Oxford Road corridor — a bit of “horrible urban fabric.” This “smart stuff,” he says, “is no longer just IT — or rather IT is too important to be called IT any more. It’s so important you can’t really ghettoise it in an IT city. A smart city might be a low-carbon city, or a city that’s easy to move around, or a city with jobs and housing.”

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Inside Rio de Janeiro’s centre of operations: ‘a high-precision control panel for the entire city’. Photograph: David Levene.

“Perhaps the smartest of smart city projects needn’t depend exclusively — or even at all — on sensors and computers,” Poole writes. “At Future Cities, Julia Alexander of Siemens nominated as one of the ‘smartest’ cities in the world the once-notorious Medellin in Colombia, site of innumerable gang murders a few decades ago. Its problem favelas were reintegrated into the city not with smartphones but with publicly funded sports facilities and a cable car connecting them to the city. ‘All of a sudden,’ Alexander said, ‘you’ve got communities interacting’ in a way they never had before. Last year, Medellin — now the oft-cited poster child for ‘social urbanism’ — was named the most innovative city in the world by the Urban Land Institute.”

“One sceptical observer of many presentations at the Re.Work Future Cities Summit, Jonathan Rez of the University of New South Wales, suggests that ‘a smarter way’ to build cities ‘might be for architects and urban planners to have psychologists and ethnographers on the team.’ That would certainly be one way to acquire a better understanding of what technologists call the ‘end user’ — in this case, the citizen. After all, as one of the tribunes asks the crowd in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: ‘What is the city but the people?’”

A bit more …

Much of what you believe to be true probably isn’t, thanks to a mental shortcut your brain takes without you realizing it,” writes Bob Nease in How Your Brain Keeps You Believing Crap That Isn’t True on FastCompany.

In response to a question about whether the Bush administration had adequate evidence showing Iraq was providing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said: “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

“Something similar can be said about our beliefs. There are ‘true truths’ — things we believe are true and genuinely are: The world is (roughly) round, not flat. Losing weight requires that we exercise more and eat fewer calories. Smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. There are also true lies — things that we believe to be false and actually are. The existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and perpetual motion machines fall into this category. So far, so good.”

“But many other times, we’re tricked by false truths — things we think are true but aren’t. Drinking eight glasses of water a day seems like a good idea, but it doesn’t do a bit of good for your health. Many people believe that Napoleon was short, but there’s good reason to believe he was actually a bit taller than the average Frenchman of his day. Reducing salt intake has never been shown to prevent heart attacks or strokes, and there’s no such thing as an allergy to MSG. How do these false truths come to be so widely believed? The answer lies in a powerful shortcut that our brains use every day: Information that’s easier to process is viewed positively in almost every way. Cognitive scientists refer to this ease as ‘processing fluency,’ and it’s why your knowledge base is probably more full of flawed ideas than you’d like to believe.”

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Cognitive Bias Codex 2016 (source: Cognitive bias cheat sheet by Buster Bensen).

Technology is not destroying creativity, but democratising the tools of creation. This is a good thing, even if the results aren’t always art, say John Davies and Juan Mateos-Garcia, who both work at Nesta on the Creative Economy team, in The creation myth.

“One of the reasons why it might look as if digital content is killing creativity is just that it is harder to identify genuinely innovative work. This is because we are exposed to more creative content than ever before owing to the democratisation of tools and the decline in distribution costs: there is more path-breaking creative content than before, but there’s much more content too, making it harder to stand out than before. The differences with past creative eras is stark. Perhaps one of the reasons why figures from history, artistic or scientific, often seem larger than contemporaries is that the world was simpler back then: there was just less competition, and the wisdom of hindsight has highlighted a few central individuals. In the midst of the digital melée of ever more content, it is harder to see what the key works are, but this is likely to be clearer in retrospect.”

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Illustration by Alexander Mostov for TheLong+Short.

The Atlantic published an interview with the Economist columnist Ryan Avent on his new book, The Wealth of Humans, about how technology will change the labor force.

Derek Thompson: “I think that too often work is defined in these conversations as a narrow exchange: employee labor for employer money. But as you write — not only in this book, but also in your essay on hard work — a job is so much more than that. It’s a social network, it’s a distraction, it’s a way to fill the day, it’s a source of status and pride and ownership. Even if the number of salaried jobs as a share of the labor force declines, this is something we really don’t want to lose.”

Ryan Avent: “People enjoy work. Even those who don’t enjoy what they do enjoy the feeling of agency and being able to provide for others. For a world to work where a universal basic income accounts for the bulk of the consumer spending for many people, something else needs to account for the social side of work. It is disappointing to think that we’d have to create make-work for people, but it may be the hard truth. […] We’re a long way away from that world. What comes next would be higher wage subsidies and in-kind benefits, like tuition-free college or subsidized health care. But it’s coming, and the debate will be: If we’re going to pay people to do work that isn’t necessary, who do we let into the system? Who is allowed to benefit?”

“But here comes the unfakeable part. You must go into that interview not just with a tie from Ede & Ravenscroft and shoes from Lobb. You must go in believing that it is the duty of high finance to avoid tax, rewrite the law of sovereign states, enrich dictators, boost inequality and — in return — voluntarily clean up litter in Haringey on the annual away day,” Paul Mason writes in How to blag a job in finance: buy some black shoes and ​talk like an aristocrat on the Guardian.

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Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian.

“Above all, you must subscribe to the efficient-markets hypothesis so unequivocally that it becomes your religion. This says it’s the job of the financial market to allocate capital efficiently. Centuries of good practice show that capital can only be allocated efficiently when the participants in the deal played rugby with each other at the age of 12.”

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“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!” — Mark Rothko in Conversations with Artists.

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Mark Rothko, №5/№22, oil on canvas (1949–1950).

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