Things 128: No spoilers, Beethoven played correctly, automation vs humans

Puzzle – Do Spoilers Matter?
Research looking into the enjoyment of short stories found that reading a ‘spoiler’ beforehand tended to increase enjoyment. That seems quite possible, but the strangest part is that it holds even for mystery or ironic-twist stories. They even have a chart with error bars, which looks pretty compelling (click for big):

So, you’ll generally enjoy all stories you read (or presumably consume in any medium) more if you read about the ending first.

The question, then: how can you justify not doing this?

Video – Omlette
Here’s a really lovely short (2’30”) animation about a dog and an omlette. If you’re having a hard day, I particularly recommend it.

Audio – Beethoven wants you to play faster
When Beethoven eventually got his hands on a metronome, he marked up symphonies with tempos that nobody can quite believe he really meant, and which are pretty much entirely disregarded. This excellent Radiolab podcast investigates. (The forced conversational ‘style’ gets a little irritating, but the demonstration at the end is fantastic).

Links – Race Against The Machine
Our old friend the Invisible Hand guides us to make work more efficient with technology: robots replace humans on production lines, computer work becomes automated, cars and vacuum cleaners operate themselves, and productivity increases. Brilliant.

From the Luddites on, people have been fighting this change to defend their old jobs, but with hindsight we can say they were mistaken, as prosperity has increased, every time, and will continue to do so.

Or will it?!

Despite the apparent historic benefits, it’s still hard to imagine this trend continuing indefinitely and remaining benevolent.

Now, one can imagine some sort of desirable end point, in which (say) solar power becomes incredibly cheap:

… and robots / algorithms are able to do everything humans don’t want to do, and everything is wonderful and everyone is happy.

Of course, quite how you would run such a society isn’t entirely clear, and as Voltaire points out, work isn’t only about earning money:

Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need

But of more concern right now is how we organise society as we transition towards that end-point. In particular, it seems reasonable to suggest that automation of jobs will tend to increase inequality, as (in a simplistic model), the few that own the robots / server farms reap all the rewards of that automated labour while everyone else loses their jobs.

In case you need reminding, inequality is bad for almost everyone. By the way, a concise point on this topic made by Nick Hanauer in 2011:

If the average American family still got the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would have an astounding $13,000 more in their pockets a year. It’s worth pausing to consider what our economy would be like today if middle-class consumers had that additional income to spend.

Here’s a fun sequence of slides putting the current economic situation (in the US) in 50 years of context (brought together by Business Insider):

Corporate profits as a % of GDP at all time high:

% of Americans with jobs is significantly down:

(Something interesting is happening here, because the more common measure of “unemployment rate” doesn’t look as bad)

Wages as a % of GDP at an all-time low:

(Side-note: these were extracted from a longer chart-based argument to do with wages and debt, which is quite interesting but somewhat disingenuously suggests that just “looking at the data” is some non-political process that can reveal answers, and doesn’t consider the fact that over the same time period the % of retired persons in the US increased from 8% to 13% and could reach 20% in the next 30 years. Still worth a look, though.)

Now, there are many other drivers of inequality (including the feedback loop of lobbying, which The Onion satirises perfectly), and while automation may not have been the biggest contributor so far, it’s worrying that we’re not in a good position just as automation is starting to look like a credible threat to prosperity.

There’s a book on this which characterises the problem in its title: “Race Against the Machine“. I haven’t read it, but apparently the authors make an interesting case and then fail to offer any realistic solutions. The absence of solutions and the seemingly inevitable progress along this line is why I consider this one of the major problems we need to solve (after climate change).

Finally, a really important sci-fi story on this topic: Manna by Marshall Brain, which demonstrates a method by which automation can creep into jobs without replacing them entirely, but the consequences are just as dire. Chapter 1 gives you the gist, but it’s worth continuing to see how he plays out the trend. (At the end he appears to suggest a solution, and unfortunately it appears to be much less realistic than the problem).

-Transmission finally ends


Things 125: Fun Club, Robot Books, Mirror Spider, Frog Fractions

Tim Link
As noted last time (which was, admittedly, a while ago), Octopus Fruitbat put on Competitive Sandwich Making at the Hide & Seek Weekender games event, with help from Phil and Deb. I wrote about it here, and it looked a bit like this:

Thing I Bought And Would Recommend: Fun Club
The webcomic “Cat and Girl” was originally recommended by me in Things 1, which I wrote so long ago the obscure Japanese game show video I linked to in the same edition has already spawned a UK version that in itself is now old news.

Cat and Girl is written by Dorothy Gambrell, who I’ve also mentioned in earlier Things as the author of Very Small Array, a sort of hybrid blog of data visualisation and cultural-critique.

What I’m trying to say is that Dorothy Gambrell is awesome, so when she makes a thing called Fun Club in which you buy a year-long subscription to receive monthly random things she makes, you should probably check it out. 2012 was the first year it ran, and included a diary for the year with complete-it-yourself personal data visualisations, a set of useful stickers that say ‘Bad Decision’ in large block capitals, and some postcards featuring combination bread/sausage creations she baked in the style of the electrical standards of various countries:

So if you like that sort of thing, you should probably sign up for the 2013 edition.

Video: The Spider
Here we see the fascinating results of confronting a spider with the Mirror Test. If you’re scared of spiders, you may find it worth gritting your teeth through to around 46s when the spider completely freaks itself out [note, the audio is not essential, but is quite apt]:

Link: Books by Robots?
I’m assuming that it’s some combination of things like Amazon Mechanical Turk and the recent developments in economical on-demand book printing that mean you can now buy this amazingly specific book on Amazon:

Imagine you were an aspiring bagel maker. How could you possibly resist such a perfectly titled book?

Well, you might be suspicious. If there’s a book like this for bagel-makers, how many other careers have they covered? Do a bit of searching, and you find further unlikely  variations on the theme, including books on how to land ‘Top-Paying’ jobs as a Binding Worker, Conservation Scientist, or Roughneck.

At this point, you might assume they are all essentially the same book with generally applicable advice on careers, interviews and the like, just with different covers.

But no!

Each book has a different author (so must be different), and thanks to the ‘look inside’ feature, we can see that the bagel book includes information specific to the baking industry:

We can’t be certain how much of this content was harvested automatically, but based on current trends I expect to see robots of the future writing arbitrarily many of books in this vein, and whole ecosystems of robot arbitrage emerging in the second-hand market for those books. Don’t let anyone tell you the future isn’t bright.

Game: Frog Fractions (via Dom)
This is a really fascinating flash game which you should definitely play if you like… games. I don’t want to say too much about it, but be advised that there is more to it than first meets the eye. Much more.

Set aside some time to improve your life by playing Frog Fractions.

-Transmission Ends


Things 107: Transmedia Hardware, Rorschmap, Cyborgs vs Robots

Here’s a cute data analysis puzzle, which I’m amazed I didn’t encounter sooner in my line of work.

You run a website that sells guns and banjos, and one day you notice from your web analytics data that the conversion rate of your site (orders divided by visits) is steadily declining over time.

Realising that you essentially cater to two quite different needs, you look at the performance of your two main site sections: the gun section and the banjo section. There is no significant overlap between the people visiting these sections.

Here’s the problem. The conversion rates in both the gun and banjo sections of the site are going up over the same period that overall conversion is going down. How is this possible?

Some serious puppetry:

Charlie Gower realised he could get old iPod shuffles cheaply on eBay and dedicate each one to a single artist. Generalising, he asks, “How does the (almost) free hardware affect the delivery of the (almost) free media?

I’ll let the name of the idea do the talking: Rorschmap.

Puzzle AnswerCyborgs beat Robots
In the last Things I invited you to guess who would win in a chess match in which humans and computers could team up in any combination.

I recently read of an empirical answer here, which makes the excellent point that there are actually three criteria at work in any team: the chess skill of the computer(s), the chess skill of the human(s), and the friction in the way they work together as a team.

Some may be surprised to learn the most basic observation from the event: that a team of human + computer is much stronger than even an extremely powerful chess-playing computer. As Kasparov puts it: “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.” Humans are useful!

More impressively, the winner of the tournament was a team of two amateur players working with three computers. The lack of friction in their system of working together beat the raw power of chess-playing supercomputers and the strategic brilliance of grandmasters.

This has some serious implications, too. Most simply, since mediocre computers and mediocre humans are more common than highly skilled ones, and since systems can be invented once and then used by all, there is in some general sense much more potential to solve hard problems than we might otherwise have expected in the world.

More extremely, anyone worried about a technological singularity in which we invent AI that is smarter than us (leading to runaway self-improvement of the AI and a very dangerous 4 hours for humanity) can rest assured that human-AI combinations will probably be smarter than pure AI.

Short version: cyborgs are smarter than robots.