Random finds (2017, week 41) — On AI (and mistaken predictions), curiosity, and the lost art of invention

“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, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

Well, not so weekly lately. But after four weeks of absence and an experimental visual “posy of other men’s flowers” in week 35-36, Random finds returns. Not with a vengeance but again with words and, of course, visuals.

On AI (and mistaken predictions), curiosity, and the lost art of invention

In MIT Technology Review, Rodney Brooks debunks the The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions. These mistaken extrapolations, limited imagination, and other common mistakes distract us from thinking more productively about the future, he writes. ‘Exponentialism’ is one of these sins.

“Many people are suffering from a severe case of ‘exponentialism,’” Brooks writes. “When people are suffering from exponentialism, they may think that the exponentials they use to justify an argument are going to continue apace. But Moore’s Law and other seemingly exponential laws can fail because they were not truly exponential in the first place.”

Illustrations by Dutch cartoonist and graphic designer Joost Swarte for MIT Technology Review.

“[W]e have seen a sudden increase in performance of AI systems thanks to the success of deep learning. Many people seem to think that means we will continue to see AI performance increase by equal multiples on a regular basis. But the deep-learning success was 30 years in the making, and it was an isolated event.

That does not mean there will not be more isolated events, where work from the backwaters of AI research suddenly fuels a rapid-step increase in the performance of many AI applications. But there is no ‘law’ that says how often they will happen.”

According to Brooks, “A lot of AI researchers and pundits imagine that the world is already digital, and that simply introducing new AI systems will immediately trickle down to operational changes in the field, in the supply chain, on the factory floor, in the design of products.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all innovations in robotics and AI take far, far, longer to be really widely deployed than people in the field and outside the field imagine.”

Turing has been joined by Hawking and others claiming computers could overtake humanity. Yet no computer is yet able to even identify as simple an object as a banana. Will machines soon match their makers? Or is it hype and real AI remains elusive because we have misunderstood the nature of both thought and machines?

Philosophers David Chalmers and Kate Devlin join Closure theorist Hilary Lawson to consider the threat of intelligent machines. What follows is an interesting panel discussion worth watching.

“From the moment we humans first imagined having mechanical servants at our beck and call, we’ve assumed they would be constructed in our own image. Outfitted with arms and legs, heads and torsos, they would perform everyday tasks that we’d otherwise have to do ourselves. Like the indefatigable maid Rosie on ‘The Jetsons,’ the officious droid C-3PO in ‘Star Wars’ and the tortured host Dolores Abernathy in ‘Westworld,’ the robotic helpmates of popular culture have been humanoid in form and function.”

But it’s time to rethink our assumptions, says Nicholoas Carr in These Are Not the Robots We Were Promised. “A robot invasion of our homes is underway, but the machines — so-called smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home and the forthcoming Apple HomePod — look nothing like what we expected. Small, squat and stationary, they resemble vases or cat food tins more than they do people.”

Illustration by John Lisle for The New York Times.

“Whether real or fictional, robots hold a mirror up to society. If Rosie and her kin embodied a 20th-century yearning for domestic order and familial bliss, smart speakers symbolize our own, more self-absorbed time.

It seems apt that as we come to live more of our lives virtually, through social networks and other simulations, our robots should take the form of disembodied avatars dedicated to keeping us comfortable in our media cocoons. Even as they spy on us, the devices offer sanctuary from the unruliness of reality, with all its frictions and strains. They place us in a virtual world meticulously arranged to suit our bents and biases, a world that understands us and shapes itself to our desires. Amazon’s decision to draw on classical mythology in naming its smart speaker was a masterstroke. Every Narcissus deserves an Echo.”

From artificial intelligence to cheap smartphones, Google is on the frontline of technological development. But is it growing too big and moving too fast? In a rare interview with Jemima Kiss, Google CEO Sundar Picha says he doesn’t know “whether humans want change that fast.”

“Many developments in [Google’s] services — tailoring ads according to personal data, using someone’s location to present local information — are viewed as invasions of privacy. The company has been the target of intense scrutiny on this score, particularly since 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and MI5 had been accessing personal information via technology companies.

With the application of AI, those concerns move into a whole new realm. In 2013, Google bought DeepMind, the powerful UK-founded AI company, with the aim of developing its capabilities further; but there are profound questions around the safety and ethics of creating machines that can think and act for themselves. Does Pichai acknowledge these concerns? ‘I recognise that, in the Valley, people are obsessed with the pace of technological change,’ he says. ‘It’s tough to get that part right… We rush sometimes, and can misfire for an average person. As humans, I don’t know whether we want change that fast — I don’t think we do.’

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“This generation of kids needs to deal with a new world.” — Sundar Picha (Photograph by John Lee for the Guardian)

“When I [Jemima Kiss] ask how it feels to be in charge of Google, Pichai pauses and looks determinedly at the floor, then out of the window. ‘History shows that the opposite of what people were worrying about is typically true. Go back 10 years and look at the largest market cap companies: the bigger you are, the more you may be at a disadvantage.’ He talks of the importance of creating small teams with limited resources, even within a company with 66,000 employees and a market value of $642bn. ‘As a big company, you are constantly trying to foolproof yourself against being big, because you see the advantage of being small, nimble and entrepreneurial. Pretty much every great thing gets started by a small team.’

It’s not lost on him that Google’s greatest threat could be its own success. And it is also revealing to have it confirmed that when you reach the top the biggest thing you worry about is sliding back down again. ‘You always think there is someone in the Valley, working on something in a garage — something that will be better.’”

Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. Everyone is curious, but the object and degree of that curiosity is different depending on the person and the situation.

Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio was so curious about curiosity that he wrote a book about it, titled Why? What Makes Us Curious. In a recent talk with Knowledge@Wharton, Livio explained what he learned in the course of writing.

“Curiosity has several kinds or flavors, and they are not driven by the same things. There is something that has been dubbed perceptual curiosity. That’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when something doesn’t quite agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state, as an adversity state. It’s a bit like an itch that we need to scratch. That’s why we try to find out the information in order to relieve that type of curiosity.”

“What I have is a malevolent curiosity. That’s what drives my need to write and what probably leads me to look at things a little askew. I do tend to take a different perspective from most people.” — David Bowie

“The other thing is that what the internet allows us to do is to satisfy what has been dubbed specific curiosity, namely you want to know a very particular detail. Who wrote this or that book? What was the name of the actor in that film? The digital age allows you to find the answer very quickly. That’s actually good because you don’t want to spend all your time trying to answer a question like that. I don’t know how you feel, but I sometimes can be really obsessed by not knowing the answer to something very, very simple like that.

[…]

In that sense, the digital age helps us because we can find that information, and that may drive us to look for something else about this. And that would drive perhaps epistemic curiosity, which is this love of knowledge and wanting to learn new things.”

In an intriguing long read for The Atlantic, titled Google X and the Science of Radical Creativity, Derek Thomson explores how this secretive Silicon Valley lab, headed by ‘captain of moonshots’ Astro Teller, is trying to resurrect the lost art of invention.

“I’d expected the team at X to sketch some floating houses on a whiteboard, or discuss ways to connect an ocean suburb to a city center, or just inform me that the idea was terrible. I was wrong,” Thomson writes. “The table never once mentioned the words floating or ocean. My pitch merely inspired an inquiry into the purpose of housing and the shortfalls of U.S. infrastructure. It was my first lesson in radical creativity. Moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers. They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.”

Obi Felten leads Foundry, a division of X tasked with turning scientific breakthroughs into marketable products. (Photograph by Justin Kaneps for The Atlantic)

“X is perhaps the only company on the planet where regular investigation into the absurd is encouraged, and even required,” says Thomson. “X has quietly looked into space elevators and cold fusion. It has tried, and abandoned, projects to design hoverboards with magnetic levitation and to make affordable fuel from seawater. It has tried — and succeeded, in varying measures — to build self-driving cars, make drones that deliver aerodynamic packages, and design contact lenses that measure glucose levels in a diabetic person’s tears.

These ideas might sound too random to contain a unifying principle. But they do. Each X idea adheres to a simple three-part formula. First, it must address a huge problem; second, it must propose a radical solution; third, it must employ a relatively feasible technology. In other words, any idea can be a moonshot — unless it’s frivolous, small-bore, or impossible.

The purpose of X is not to solve Google’s problems; thousands of people are already doing that. Nor is its mission philanthropic. Instead X exists, ultimately, to create world-changing companies that could eventually become the next Google.”

Rich DeVaul, a co-founder of Project Loon, which seeks to provide internet access to remote places using a fleet of balloons. (Photograph by Justin Kaneps for The Atlantic)

“Breakthrough technology results from two distinct activities that generally require different environments — invention and innovation. Invention is typically the work of scientists and researchers in laboratories, like the transistor, developed at Bell Laboratories in the 1940s. Innovation is an invention put to commercial use, like the transistor radio, sold by Texas Instruments in the 1950s. Seldom do the two activities occur successfully under the same roof. They tend to thrive in opposite conditions; while competition and consumer choice encourage innovation, invention has historically prospered in labs that are insulated from the pressure to generate profit.

[…]

No one at X would claim that it is on the verge of unleashing the next platform technology, like electricity or the internet — an invention that could lift an entire economy. Nor is the company’s specialty the kind of basic science that typically thrives at research universities. But what X is attempting is nonetheless audacious. It is investing in both invention and innovation. Its founders hope to demystify and routinize the entire process of making a technological breakthrough — to nurture each moonshot, from question to idea to discovery to product — and, in so doing, to write an operator’s manual for radical creativity.”

And also this…

“It’s not just the cruise ships and popcorn. Comfort is the organising principle of modern life. So great is our need for comfort — to be comfortable — that the most popular products are based around things fulfilling this need and have internalised within their very engineering the fulfilment of our need for comfort,” writes Brigid Delaney in Our sickly-sweet obsession with comfort will end up killing us.

“What is Netflix and on-demand TV, chocolate-covered popcorn, business class and premium economy, cruise ships, athleisure wear, our social media echo chambers, our online shopping and UberEats — other than things that sate our desire to be comfortable?”

“The main attraction was not the museums or churches but a popcorn shop.” (Illustration by Jon Helgason for Alamy)

“The New York Times columnist David Brooks has written about the millennial generation weaned on praise and constant booster shots of self esteem — every participant gets a prize! But our desire for comfort to be physically and psychically comfortable — to live within an inarticulatable but deeply felt and precise bandwidth of ease that includes everything from how a food feels in your mouth, to how socks rub on your feet, to how a phone sits in your hand, to how a drink or a movie or a computer game calms you — can be traced back to baby boomers. The children of those who lived without comfort through rationing, wars and depression came of age in a time of unprecedented prosperity. Their birthright was the quarter-acre block, mass production of household appliances and time-saving devices, television, fast food, breakfast cereals and affordable airline travel.

We are taught as consumers that if we are not comfortable, if the temperature is too hot or cold, or if the music is too loud or if the meal is not right, we can complain and things will be adjusted for us.

[…]

One complaint from a woman who used her air conditioner was typical and went along the lines of: ‘I’m not switching my air conditioner off on a hot day, I don’t want to be uncomfortable.’ Of course you don’t.

But increasingly we are living in uncomfortable times. The sugary comfort food is killing us. The comfortable temperatures are killing the planet. Tehching Hsieh — an outsider, a sailor who jumped ship, with little English — sought discomfort and turned it into art. This discomfort now seems prescient. A warning of a time to come, where discomfort is no longer about choice, but about survival.”

In A Shimmery Cube, Paul Goldberger writes about Sarah Goldhagen latest book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, in which she explores the science behind how we experience architecture.

Among the many examples provided in Welcome to Your World, Goldhagen cites a pair of temporary pavilions built in 2010 that she believes are particularly instructive. One is in London’s Hyde Park, by the architect Jean Nouvel; the other is on the grounds of the Shanghai World Expo, by the designer and architect Thomas Heatherwick. Nouvel’s pavilion was that year’s iteration of an annual project by the Serpentine Gallery in which a prominent architect who has never constructed a building in Britain is invited to design a summer pavilion in the park. What Nouvel came up with was starkly angular and bright red, an abstraction of diagonal, slanted walls intended, the architect said, to evoke the setting summer sun. Heatherwick’s design, a shimmering cube made up of 60,000 extruded Plexiglas rods, looked even less like a conventional building and more like a glowing porcupine. Heatherwick wanted it to conjure Britain’s rich array of green spaces, and so he placed a different kind of seed from the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank in each rod and called his structure the Seed Cathedral.”

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2010 in London’s Hyde Park by French architect Jean Nouvel.

“Goldhagen tells us that she responded in very different ways to the two pavilions. Nouvel’s, she tells us, brought forth a wave of anxiety. ‘An all-red environment shifts the human pituitary gland into high gear, raising blood pressure and pulse rate, increasing muscular tension, and stimulating sweat glands. Such a place can energize and excite us, to be sure, but it’s the kind of excitement that’s coupled with agitated tension and can easily slip into anger and aggression.’ The Heatherwick design, on the other hand, she found more soothing. ‘Each individual rod also held a tiny light source, so that at night, the feathery Seed Cathedral displayed literally 60,000 points of light, softly swaying in the wind.’ The result, she concluded, ‘inspired gentle delight.’”

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The UK Pavilion for Shanghai World Expo 2010 by British designer and architect Thomas Heatherwick.

Goldhagen uses science to back up her conclusions, Goldberger writes. But so far, science hasn’t, and possibly can’t explain why we still don’t agree on what we like. Even if we hold in common the desire to build and live in comfortable structures.

“Some people find sharp angles exciting and energizing, not hostile and off-putting. All of us have had different experiences with architecture and carry different memories: Surely the house and the street where you grew up has shaped you as much as anything instinctive to human psychology. Nature counts for a lot, but so does nurture. And for all that we respond to in works of architecture, there is also such a thing as learned knowledge, which also influences how you experience buildings. Your high-school history teacher was right: Whether it’s the Chartres Cathedral or -Fallingwater or the Pyramids, when you know the backstory to these buildings, the experience of being there is enriched — it is not simply a matter of innate response.

And, finally, there is something else about architecture — or about any art — that science has not, thus far, helped us to understand. You can dissect Louis Kahn or Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright to the end of time, and Sarah Goldhagen does as well as anyone in explaining their excellence, and in separating the good from the bad. But there is something else, something that we cannot explain, that causes one building to be merely good and another to be awe-inspiring. What makes the Parthenon or the Salk Institute or the Amiens Cathedral or Wright’s Unity Temple a masterpiece? Why is it that elements put together in one way make a building good, and put together in a slightly different way make it magic? One thing that science hasn’t revealed yet is what creates the sublime.”

And finally, some beautiful architecture by Canadian architect Omar Gandhi on the island of Cape Breton, at the eastern end of Nova Scotia. “The house is clad in locally sourced wood, and features a gabled roof that allows it to shed snow and rainwater,” Dan Howarth writes on Dezeen.

Rabbit Snare Corge by Canadian architect Omar Gandhi. (Photography by Doublespace)

“It is worth remembering that many unfashionable large businesses create value in ways that are often under-appreciated. No one will ever write gushingly about McDonald’s or Starbucks […]. But what these large chains do is valuable, even if you never use them. They effectively raise what I call the ‘threshold of crappiness’ in the sectors in which they operate. To operate successfully as a coffee shop or a sandwich bar or hotel (or a minicab firm), you have to be at least as good as a chain or else you fail. This raises the bar for everyone. You can get better coffee in a truckstop now than at Claridge’s in 1990.” — Rory Sutherland in The value of raising the threshold of crappiness

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