Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Future (page 1 of 24)

Vision and the movement of fish from water to land

Specimens at the California Academy of Sciences
Not a land-dwelling fish, by the way. Just a cool picture.

Ed Yong in The Atlantic writes about new research on the relationship between the evolution of vision and the movement of fish from water to land. Scientists have long known that some species of fish started hanging out near the shore, then venturing on land, and eventually living on land full-time, starting about 385 million years ago. During this process, Yong writes, “their flattened fins gradually transformed into sturdy legs, ending in feet and digits. Rather than paddling through water, they started striding over solid ground.”

Naturally the evolution of legs has gotten lots of attention among paleontologists, but in a new article, a team led by Northwestern University professor Malcolm MacIver argues that changes in vision played a very significant role in the transition, too. Continue reading

How to make Silicon Valley the enemy (it wouldn’t be that hard)

Two articles on Silicon Valley’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump caught my eye this morning. Christopher Mims writes in the Wall Street Journal about how “Tuesday’s election by Donald Trump was an expression of voter angst that heralded a new type of populism. For Silicon Valley, it also marked the ascension of a vision starkly at odds with its own.” In The Guardian, meanwhile, Julie Carrie Wong has a piece about the Valley’s cautious reaction to Trump, and their weighing the prospect of the ascension of “decidedly pro-business ideas” against immigration restrictions and other policies that could hurt the Valley. Together, they make for some very interesting reading.

As Mims notes, some of the difference is cultural and political: the Valley and Bay Area are famously cosmopolitan, left-leaning outliers. Some of it is policy: the Valley’s chieftains have been enthusiastic about open borders, generous immigration policy, and generally the whole neoliberal agenda. And more generally, there’s a suspicion that for all his business bona fides, Trump doesn’t really quite understand high tech. Wong, meanwhile, notes the unease of immigrants over Trump’s embrace of xenophobia.

Both pieces touch on two other things that I think could lead to the Valley being demonized if the miraculous job comeback that Trump has promised doesn’t materialize.

First, there’s the industry’s attitude toward labor and automation. Wong has this great bit:

Still, other Trump promises might create new markets ripe for Silicon Valley’s favorite form of disruptive innovation, such as his plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, some of whom form the bulk of the country’s agricultural labor force. That might create opportunity for the “agtech” sector, [venture capitalist Tim] Wilson said.

“If they really are serious and farm labor gets threatened, then anything that automates labor is something that is going to uptrend,” he said.

As Mims writes,

The populist wave Mr. Trump rode appears to be on a collision course with the fruits of technology and the people who build it.

Uber Technologies Inc. and others are testing self-driving trucks. That augurs trouble for the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., who hold some of the best-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence are beginning to consume white-collar jobs in fields such as medicine and finance, shifting the debate over the impact of technology.

I’m not sure when it happened, but Silicon Valley has come to treat the destruction of other people’s work and jobs as an opportunity for itself. “Disrupt” doesn’t just mean make supply chains more efficient, or give consumers more choice. It also means take away people’s livelihoods.

It’s especially striking when you juxtapose this attitude against the simultaneous rise of design thinking and ethnography and HCI and human-centered computing (not to mention the enthusiasm for chatbots and conversational computing).

When thinking about interfaces and smartphones and wearables, it’s critical to pay attention to people and their needs. When we’re thinking about automating their jobs or making it possible for employers to undercut workers’ autonomy and power, that empathy vanishes.

The ride-sharing app absolutely has to have an easy-to-use interface.

The fact that it’s the front end of a system that’s destroying your ability to feed your family?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(Though no one should be surprised if Valley companies don’t think about the lives of workers in Pennsylvania or North Dakota, since it often seems we barely think about the lives of working-class people in East Palo Alto or Hayward.)

The second thing that the Mims and Wong pieces touch on is a sense that, well, Silicon Valley really isn’t part of America. It’s part of the future, and so all your rage and resistance against what the Valley brings is just futile. We’ve already beta tested the future. It just hasn’t reached you yet.

The Valley also isn’t part of America in the sense that some of those who do well in it see themselves as citizens of the world. They could be anywhere, and if things get bad, they always have the option to decamp for friendlier locations (taking their unicorn companies and great ideas with them).

This has made living here exciting, but I wonder if it’s an attitude that could create some problems in the future. Mims has this illuminating exchange:

To many in Silicon Valley, this [automation and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs] is just part of inexorable progress. Electing Mr. Trump won’t shield his supporters from the reality that they are now competing with every other worker on Earth, says Balaji Srinivasan, a board partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and CEO of bitcoin startup 21 Inc.

Mr. Srinivasan views the collision between tech culture and Mr. Trump’s populist movement as inevitable, and potentially so divisive that tech’s global elites should effectively secede from their respective countries, an idea he calls “the ultimate exit.”

Already, he says, elites in Silicon Valley are more connected to one another and to their counterparts around the globe than to non-techies in their midst or nearby. “My Stanford network connects to Harvard and Beijing more than [California’s] Central Valley,” says Mr. Srinivasan. Eventually, he argues, “there will be a recognition that if we don’t have control of the nation state, we should reduce the nation state’s power over us.”

(Inevitability is another way of saying, “I’m profiting from this but I’m not responsible for it.”)

The idea that credentials and networks and wealth not only make us the future but give us the ability to opt out of the nation should we so choose could become raw meat for populists.

If I were an ambitious politician, I could have a field day with this stuff. If my policies tank, the jobs don’t come back, or high-tech companies balk at the idea of relocating their factories from Shenzhen to Youngstown, I could pin the blame on a wealthy, cosmopolitan, rootless elite that sees itself as part of a global order opposed to the nation-state, that is actively seeking to destroy America by draining its wealth and destroying its jobs.

Here’s what I’d say. “Our efforts to bring American back are failing not because we lack heart or vision or soul, but because we are being subverted by an elite that has relentlessly aimed to sap our might.

“First this elite took factories and shipped them to China, and used that money to enrich and empower a nation that now challenges us on the world stage.

“Now they’re automating the jobs they couldn’t offshore.

“They’re replacing hard-working truck drivers with self-driving trucks.

“They’re replacing coal miners with robots.

“They’re replacing nurses with chatbots and automated ‘wellness stations.’

“They’re intentionally replacing stable jobs with temporary labor.

“They use foreign-made smartphones and toys to distract you while they siphon our wealth into cryptocurrencies beloved mainly by drug dealers.

“They gleefully destroy your livelihoods in order to enrich themselves, and call it progress.

“And they declare themselves ‘citizens of the world’ who aren’t beholden to our laws, who have no loyalty to the United States, who care only about themselves and their ‘networks’.

“These are the people who are keeping you down. Give me the freedom to take them on, and the good times will finally return.”

And there’d be just enough reality mixed into the lie to make it stick. I couldn’t ask for a better enemy.

“Nobody knows anything”

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” (William Goldman, screenwriter)

Sums up my feelings this morning.

Via The Reformed Banker

“nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards”

Britain cannot leave Europe any more than Piccadilly Circus can leave London. Europe is where we are, and where we will remain. Britain has always been a European country, its fate inextricably intertwined with that of the continent, and it always will be. But it is leaving the European Union. Why?

A universal truth: nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards. If just 3% of the more than 33 million Brits who voted in this referendum had gone the other way, you would now be reading endless articles explaining how it was, after all, “the economy, stupid”, how British pragmatism finally won through, etc. So beware the illusions of retrospective determinism.

Source: As a lifelong English European, this is the biggest defeat of my political life | Timothy Garton Ash | Politics | The Guardian

“The rise of long-term robots may be upon us”

We all know that computerized and automated trading has had a huge impact on short-term trading, simply by exploiting the speed of computers to react to market changes faster than humans can (or other, slightly slower computers); but could artificial intelligence have an effect on long-term trading?

AIs offer a new form of investment technology that, for the first time in 4,000 years, could give investors a truly game-changing edge that doesn’t rely so heavily on speed.

AIs will be able to consider — just as AlphaGo did for Go — deeper risks and even uncertainties of future markets, future growth and future scenarios and, in turn, provide investors with tools that can dramatically increase long-term returns. Looking out over a longer time horizon, an AI could learn to unearth factors that are truly material for an underlying company or asset and then base investment recommendations on the performance of those characteristics. It may take time for these performances to be realized, but that’s not a problem for long-term investors.

Imagine then that these inferential tools become so powerful that asset managers stop relying on trading technologies for their edge and begin to rely on inferential technologies that extend the average holding periods of investments. Crazy? Well, as my postdoc at Stanford, Dane Rook, occasionally reminds me, we are surely nearing a hard limit in the speed of data transmission: Data can’t travel faster than the speed of light. However, is there any such equivalent upper bound to the inferential depth that is possible? It’s hard to say, but with enough data it may not be so!

The rise of long-term robots may be upon us, and that could be a catalyst for investment time horizons to reverse their current downward trend. That’d be a very good thing for the future of finance and, indeed, capitalism.

Source: Rise, Long-Term Robots. Rise! | Institutional Investor

Apple and Microsoft are betting on TV, Amazon and Google on ambient

Business Insider dissects the contrasting strategies Apple and Microsoft, and Google and Amazon, are taking with the smart home:

Microsoft and Apple see the television as the most desired real estate in the home. And if people want a voice-powered home assistant that can control their connected home appliances, that’s where they will deliver it….

With the Amazon Echo and the recently announced Google Home assistant, these relatively newer companies are betting on something a little more ambient — a gadget that is always on and standing by, unlike a television, and that can be comfortably stashed anywhere with a power outlet.

Source: Apple TV vs. Microsoft Xbox One – Business Insider

The Coming Crisis: we’re not in Kansas any more | SPERI

In the surreal world of post-2008 financial markets and monetary policy ‘black swan’ events shouldn’t surprise us any more…. Over the past six years financial markets have already been producing what would have hitherto been regarded as ‘black swan’ events.  ‘Flash crashes’ and trading surges of such size that should be extraordinarily low probability occurrences according to all existing modelling of financial markets are becoming an increasingly frequent feature of financial markets.

Source: The Coming Crisis: we’re not in Kansas any more | SPERI

Days in Los Angeles

I spent a couple days last week in Los Angeles. The main reason for the trip was an event at the Getty Center, where I was part of a discussion about the future of public space in the digital age. I then spent the next couple days doing interviews for my next book.

The Getty event was a great time. It was cosponsored by Zocalo Public Forum, which does lots of roundtable events, and seems to be quite the cultural touchstone in Los Angeles now. (They have a writeup of the evening.) Afterward the event there was a reception at the Getty, so we got to watch the sun go down and lights come up on the complex.

If you’ve never been there, the Getty Center is just amazing. For one thing, it’s vast: it makes the British Museum look like a doll’s house. And it’s a fabulously well-designed set of buildings.

This kind of sleek modern is easy to do poorly, but Richard Meier (I’m pretty sure he was the architect) did a great job.

I was staying at the Luxe Sunset, which was a fascinating cultural experience. It’s literally in the shadow of the Getty Center, at the base of the hill that the Getty sits atop, and as you might guess from the name and address, it’s a rather nice place.

A number of the other guests were from other countries, but they weren’t German or English or Chinese, as many tourists are. Somehow, this hotel has developed a following among people whose languages are only spoken in the United States by two groups of people. The first group is guys who are working the night shift at the Gas-n-Sip. The second group is a bit more complex. The men own natural gas pipeline franchises in former Soviet republics. Their daughter does suspiciously well in their country’s Eurovision song competitions despite being completely tone-deaf. Their son is a professional sungasses wearer. Their wife recently had a day of the week renamed after her.

Anyway, the hotel itself was cool. Not so architecturally distinctive from the outside, but the decor was awesome, that version of open plan spa with lots of marble flooring, comfortable wicker furniture with overstuffed cushions, and water features. You could imagine holding a yoga class anywhere in the hotel.

The day after the Getty I spent the morning at gym (which was filled with people who I can only describe as possessing a kind of weaponized beauty), and the pool reading articles and doing interviews.

Every now and then I thought to myself that it was silly of me to stay in the hotel, rather than getting out and exploring the city; but I always got over it quickly.

Sill, I ended up giving myself a slight case of sunstroke, which hit me that night. A perfect metaphor for the seductive dangers of Southern California.

Friday morning I was at USC at the Brain and Creativity Institute, doing some work for the new rest project. BCI is a great place– it’s almost literally a temple to science, a somewhat pyramid-shaped building whose ground floor has a world-class auditorium and an adjacent fMRI machine– and I found the visit very stimulating.

I confess I was kind of underwhelmed by USC’s campus. It’s not that it’s an unpleasant place, but rather I’m too East Coast and old school: I still think that parking structures shouldn’t be more prominent than the libraries.

After my visit to USC I went back to LAX, returned the rental car (it was one of those trips where I almost spent more on parking than on the car itself), and spent a couple hours at the airport. Better that than rush to make my flight….

Maybe at some point in the future I’ll get to know Los Angeles better. I never fail to be struck by how different it is from the Bay Area: to me, the two areas feel different in a way that, say, Philadelphia and Boston and New York, despite all their differences, do not. Certainly Moby’s description of LA as having “both invented and perfected that strange balance between the suburban and the apocalyptic” captures something about it; but I suspect it’s a mix worth getting to know.

A profession as bad off as academia: Protestant clergy

At least that’s the impression I get from this Atlantic piece by David Wheeler, which describes issues facing new clergy that would sound very familiar at the AHA: older pastors are retiring but not being replaced with full-time positions, the amount of time for contemplation is down, and high levels of personal debt are a way of life.

This in particular jumped out at me:

Working two jobs has become so common for clergy members, in fact, that churches and seminaries have a euphemistic term for it: bi-vocational ministry.

Working multiple jobs is nothing new to pastors of small, rural congregations. But many of those pastors never went to seminary and never expected to have a full-time ministerial job in the first place. What’s new is the across-the-board increase in bi-vocational ministry in Protestant denominations both large and small, which has effectively shut down one pathway to a stable—if humble—middle-class career….

Sometimes evangelical pastors, especially those planting a new church in an economically disadvantaged area, intentionally choose a bi-vocational life. Fredrickson says these pastors often “sense that they will be able to serve their neighborhood better if they are engaged on a regular basis in their community.” One example of a deliberately bi-vocational church is Love Chapel Hill in North Carolina, where five co-pastors share the workload of the church and work other jobs on the side.

“We are reaching an eclectic group of people,” says Mat LeRoy, one of the five co-pastors. “We have a growing core of young families and professionals, a large collection of college and grad students from [the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] and a beautiful group of local homeless friends. With this type of socioeconomic diversity, bi-vocational ministry is currently a strategic necessity for a sustainable outreach.” He adds, “This is not an easy choice for us, but it is worth it to continue our mission in our community.”

As someone who’s done a lot of thinking about (and experiments around) the viability of being a scholar outside the traditional academic track, a lot of this sounds familiar. The sense that there are advantages to this kind of foot-in-two-worlds situation that can outweigh the disadvantages; the problem that if it’s not what you expect and train for, it can be a rude shock when you graduate; and the structural factors that make this not a crisis but something more like a state of exile.

But he did know how to drum the Confederacy into submission

Ulysses S. Grant on his musical ability: “I know only two tunes. One of them is Yankee Doodle. The other isn’t.”

Source: Sally Reis, “Ten thousand hours of practice, musical aptitude and inner fire: developing musical talent in young people,” Gifted Education International 25 (2009), 217-236.

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