Random finds (2017, week 2) — On AI’s prompters, the future of work, and the need for pattern recognition

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The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s newly opened concert hall by Herzog and De Meuron.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

On AI’s prompters

In The Humans Working Behind the AI Curtain, Mary L. Gray en Siddharth Suri ask how artificial Artificial Intelligence actually is.

“Facebook created a PR firestorm last summer when reporters discovered a human “editorial team” — rather than just unbiased algorithms — selecting stories for its trending topics section. The revelation highlighted an elephant in the room of our tech world: companies selling the magical speed, omnipotence, and neutrality of artificial intelligence (AI) often can’t make good on their promises without keeping people in the loop, often working invisibly in the background.”

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So who are the people behind the AI curtain? As it turns out, they are “everyday people, typically paid a low, flat rate, working independently or through temp agencies, many operating outside the United States.”

It isn’t widely known that the bulk of content moderation is outsourced to contract workers around the globe with little transparency about their training, work environments, or protocols for making editorial decisions.

Just as we need companies to be accountable for the labor practices that produce our food, clothes, and computers, so, too, do we need accountability to both consumers and workers producing and shaping digital content.

Gray en Suri believe “we need to think seriously about the human labor in the loop driving AI. […] The first step is to require more transparency from tech companies that have been selling AI as devoid of human labor. […] We should know there’s human labor in the loop because we want to have both the capacity to recognize the value of their work, and also to have a chance to understand the training and support that informed their decision-making, especially if their work touches on the public interest.”

On the future of work

Two-thirds of Americans believe robots will soon perform most of the work done by humans but 80% also believe their jobs will be unaffected. Time to think again.

According to a recent report, says Dan Shewan, a journalist and nonfiction writer based in New England, USA, writes in Robots will destroy our jobs — and we’re not ready for it, the World Economic Forum predicted that robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than 5 million jobs across 15 developed nations by 2020.

“Advocates for robotic automation routinely point to the fact that, for the most part, robots cannot service or program themselves — yet. In theory, this will create new, high-skilled jobs for technicians, programmers and other newly essential roles. However, for every job created by robotic automation, several more will be eliminated entirely. At scale, this disruption will have a devastating impact on our workforce.”

A newly opened robot-staffed store where robots welcome customers looking to buy a mobile phone. (Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA)

“With millions of jobs at risk and a worldwide employment crisis looming, it is only logical that we should turn to education as a way to understand and prepare for the robotic workforce of tomorrow. […] During the past eight years, science and technology took center stage both at the White House and in the public forum. Stem education was a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s administration.” Under Trump’s presidency, could very well be in jeopardy.

Enter Silicon Valley: no need for a degree any more?

“Graduates struggling to find jobs aren’t unemployed,” Shewan writes, “they are daring entrepreneurs and future captains of industry, boldly seizing their destinies by chasing bottomless venture capital financing.” […] ‘Hustle’ has become the latest buzzword du jour, and it seems as though everybody is working on an app. […] Developing a new iOS app may be more interesting than navigating the comparatively dreary worlds of logistics infrastructure, manufacturing protocols, and supply chain efficiencies, but America doesn’t need any more messaging or food delivery apps — it needs engineers.”

Humanoid robots work side by side with employees in the assembly line at a factory in Kazo, Japan. (Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters)

“It is indeed difficult to predict how the gradual automation of the American workforce will take shape under Trump’s presidency. One certainty, however, is that the interests of those Americans at greatest risk of professional obsolescence will continue to be sacrificed in favor of serving, protecting and benefiting wealthy, white conservatives — a trend we are likely to see across virtually every aspect of life in Trump’s America. […] the most urgent question we must answer is not one of robots’ role in the workforce of 21st-century America, but rather one of inclusion — and whether turning our backs on those who need our help the most is acceptable to us as a nation.”

If history is any precedent, Shewan believes we already know the answer.

What determines vulnerability to automation is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar but whether or not it is routine.

Also The Economist writes about the impact of automation on jobs. In a widely noted study published in 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and found that 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation. Frey and Osborne concluded that “recent developments in machine learning will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future.”

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Subsequent studies put the equivalent figure at 35% for the UK (where more people work in creative fields less susceptible to automation) and 49% for Japan.

“Predictions that automation will make humans redundant have been made before, however, going back to the Industrial Revolution, when textile workers, most famously the Luddites, protested that machines and steam engines would destroy their livelihoods. […] Yet in the past technology has always ended up creating more jobs than it destroys. That is because of the way automation works in practice, explains David Autor, an economist at MIT. Automating a particular task, so that it can be done more quickly or cheaply, increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated.

[…]

And while it is easy to see fields in which automation might do away with the need for human labour, it is less obvious where technology might create new jobs. ‘We can’t predict what jobs will be created in the future, but it’s always been like that,’ says Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University. Imagine trying to tell someone a century ago that her great-grandchildren would be video-game designers or cybersecurity specialists, he suggests. ‘These are jobs that nobody in the past would have predicted.’”

But couldn’t this time be different?

As Martin Ford points out in Rise of the Robots, the impact of automation this time around is broader-based: not every industry was affected two centuries ago, but every industry uses computers today. During previous waves of automation, workers could switch from one kind of routine work to another, but this time many workers will have to switch from routine, unskilled jobs to non-routine, skilled jobs to stay ahead of automation. This makes it more important than ever to help workers acquire new skills quickly. David Autor, on the other hand, says there is “zero evidence” that AI is having a new and significantly different impact on employment. And while everyone worries about AI, far more labour is being replaced by cheap workers overseas, says Joel Mokyr.

“So who is right,” The Economist asks, “the pessimists (many of them techie types), who say this time is different and machines really will take all the jobs, or the optimists (mostly economists and historians), who insist that in the end technology always creates more jobs than it destroys?”

A worker in Peru will be able to clean a hotel room in Manhattan without actually being there.” — Richard Baldwn in Forget A.I. ‘Remote Intelligence’ Will Be Much More Disruptive.

“The truth probably lies somewhere in between. AI will not cause mass unemployment, but it will speed up the existing trend of computer-related automation, disrupting labour markets just as technological change has done before, and requiring workers to learn new skills more quickly than in the past. […] But despite the wide range of views expressed, pretty much everyone agrees on the prescription: that companies and governments will need to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills and switch jobs as needed. That would provide the best defence in the event that the pessimists are right and the impact of artificial intelligence proves to be more rapid and more dramatic than the optimists expect.”

A bit more …

“The future of a complex system is emerging through perpetual creation,” Esko Kilpi argues in The essential skill of pattern recognition.

“Complexity is a movement in time that is both knowable and unknowable. Uncertainty is a basic feature. It is a dynamic in time that is called paradoxically stable instability or unstable stability. Although the specific paths are unpredictable, there is a pattern. The pattern is never exactly the same, but there is always some similarity to what has happened earlier.

In the end it is about the combination and interaction of the elements that are present and how all of them participate in co-creating what is happening. The big new idea is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings these relationships into the center. The task today is to see action within these connections and interdependencies. We need to move towards temporality, to understand what is happening in time. An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. An organization, or a country, is a continuously developing or stagnating, context specific, pattern in time.”

“Situations present in all ranges, but the ones that we’re most fascinated by are ‘unknown problem, unknown solution.’ Where you get a call from a leadership team that says, ‘We’re facing challenges, we don’t fully know how we want to address them yet and we don’t really know what the solution is because we don’t see anyone out there who solved the problem this way.’” — Keith Yamashita in The Change Whisperer by John Battelle.

Nestled in the heart of Copenhagen’s meatpacking district lies Space10 — a research hub and exhibition space operated by Rebel Agency to explore and design innovative and responsible business models for the future that enables a more meaningful and sustainable life for the many people. Inter IKEA Systems B.V. has made Space10 possible, which in a very short time, has resulted in a number of interesting projects.

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IKEA’s Space10 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“Space10 invites people from the worlds of art, design, and technology on different research projects that result in a range of prototypes, exhibitions, events and workshops,” Joanna Le Pluart writes in Secret Innovation Lab Revealed. “The innovation lab started out as a 1,000-square-metre lobster tank. Turning it into a world-class innovation lab was the first of many Space10 transformations, but by no means the last. Since its launch in 2015, the lab has generated an astonishing number of new ideas.”

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Do you fancy tasting a 3D-printed meatball? That was just one of several futuristic food solutions examined by the hub in a project called ‘Tomorrow’s Meatball.’

According to Göran Nilsson, IKEA Concept Innovation Manager, “IKEA co-workers have always enjoyed the freedom to address big issues creatively in its own business practices. Together with a global network of contributors, Space10 works with the same spirit, enabling them to explore food security, the pace of urbanisation, health and wellness, and other macro-trends in a fearless way. We already do a lot to improve the lives of the many people, and with Space10 we hope to take this vision even further. It’s about exploring news ways to enable a better and more sustainable life for the many people.”

According to Will Schwalbe in The things we can really learn from books, asking someone what they are reading isn’t a simple question when asked with genuine curiosity; it’s really a way of finding out, “Who are you now and who are you becoming?”

“There is a proud tradition of extracting lines from poetry and songs and using them in this way. But not everyone is a fan of cherry-picking odd passages from random books and using them to direct your life. Some people argue that lines from novels and plays are dependent on the context that surrounds them — that it’s unseemly and self-serving to grab the odd line here and there.

I don’t buy this. It ignores the way that your brain collects, refracts, sorts and combines information. We can find meaning in everything — and everything is fair game. So I spend my life collecting books and sentences from them.”

What happens when algorithms design a concert hall? The Elbphilharmoni, answers Liz Stinson in WIRED.

The most interesting thing about the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s newly opened concert hall by Herzog and De Meuron, is the central auditorium, a gleaming ivory cave built from 10,000 unique acoustic panels that line the ceiling, walls, and balustrades. The room looks organic — like a rippling, monochromatic coral reef — but bringing it to life was a technological feat.

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The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s newly opened concert hall by Herzog and De Meuron.

“To design the 10,000 unique acoustic panels, Herzog and De Meuron worked with famed acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, who created an optimal sound map for the auditorium. […] Using these requirements as parameters, Benjamin Koren [the founder of One to One that worked with Herzog and De Meuron to design and fabricate the panels] developed an algorithm that produced 10,000 panels, each with a unique shape and pattern, mapped to clear aesthetic and acoustic specifications. ‘That’s the power of parametric design,’ he says. ‘Once all of that is in place, I hit play and it creates a million cells, all different and all based on these parameters. I have 100 percent control over setting up the algorithm, and then I have no more control.’”

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The 10,000 panels have a total of 1 million cells.

This month, the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, or the Beaubourg, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, celebrates its 40th birthday with well over 50 exhibitions, concerts and performances in 40 different cities.

“It has claims to be the most significant single building since the war,” writes Rowan Moore, the Observer’s architecture critic, in Pompidou Centre: a 70s French radical that’s never gone out of fashion. “It is both a late blossoming of the 1960s and a precursor of the city-boosting ‘iconic’ architecture of the decades since. It is a palace for a media-soaked age, as bright in its reds and blues as colour TV and colour supplements.” And with the passage of time it only stands out more, he claims.

“Every single bolt of the building, I have a sense of why it’s there. And when I see it now I wonder how they could ever have allowed us to do something like that.” — Renzo Piano

“Up to and including its opening on 31 January 1977, the Pompidou received the critical response traditional for buildings that go on to be much-loved landmarks: the Guardian’s art critic wanted this ‘hideous’ object covered with Virginia creeper. ‘Paris has its own monster,’ said Le Figaro, ‘just like Loch Ness.’ In its defence however, Rogers pointed to the hostility the Eiffel Tower provoked when it was new. ‘Making change is not easy,’ says Piano.”

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The Pompidou’s glass and metal construction ran into opposition from people who disliked the idea of an ‘oil refinery’ in the historic Beaubourg district.

“But it was a popular success. Crowds and impromptu street entertainers gathered in the piazza. Visitor numbers were five times predictions. The escalators were a hit. Because of the uniform roof heights of most of Paris’s buildings, and the fact that the Pompidou Centre rises above its neighbours, sweeping views unfolded as you rode to the top. It enabled citizens to take possession of their city. ‘It was necessary,’ believes Piano, to create a building of this type at this time, ‘and because it was necessary it became accepted.’”

The Pompidou seen from across the city. (Photograph: © Centre Pompidou)

Brutal London is a collection illustrated of paper cut-out models representing brutalist architecture of London from 60s and 70s. Originally released in February 2015, the collection has been translated into the new book, BRUTAL LONDON: Construct Your Own Concrete Capital, by Zupagrafika.

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The ‘raw concrete’ London tour begins with iconic tower blocks (Balfron Tower, Barbican, Space House), leads through council estates doomed to premature demolition (Robin Hood Gardens and Aylesbury Estate) and concludes with a classic prefab panel block (Ledbury Estate).

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“I am not an original thinker. What I am probably best at doing is synthesizing.” — David Bowie in the documentary The Last Five Years.

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