AI learns to write crappy text, and I fail to be alarmed (yet)

One wonders how much of this is media-friendly hype versus actual scary breakthroughs in artificial intelligence:

The creators of a revolutionary AI system that can write news stories and works of fiction – dubbed “deepfakes for text” – have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research publicly, for fear of potential misuse.

OpenAI, an nonprofit research company backed by Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, and others, says its new AI model, called GPT2 is so good and the risk of malicious use so high that it is breaking from its normal practice of releasing the full research to the public in order to allow more time to discuss the ramifications of the technological breakthrough.

At its core, GPT2 is a text generator. The AI system is fed text, anything from a few words to a whole page, and asked to write the next few sentences based on its predictions of what should come next. The system is pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible, both in terms of the quality of the output, and the wide variety of potential uses.

Here’s what the program wrote after being fed the first line of 1984:

 “I was in my car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of science.”

Ugh.

Reminds me of the alarmist and mostly fake stories about how Facebook panicked and “shut down” an experiment in which two bots started to talk to each other in an incomprehensible language. It wasn’t exactly Skynet becoming self-aware, but the headlines tended to make you think that.

Granted, I’m probably not doing the OpenAI research justice here. I’m just very skeptical of AI-related stories that contain words like “fear” and “dangerous” in the headline and lead.

Rail of fail

Nearly 420 million people are reported to have used China’s high-speed rail system during the annual Spring Festival holiday that has just wrapped up. Late last year, China opened the Vibrant Express, Hong Kong’s first bullet train, which zips passengers from the Special Administrative Region to Guangzhou in 48 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the US:

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday he’s abandoning a plan to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a project with an estimated cost that has ballooned to $77 billion.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

The idea long championed by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, is years behind schedule. The latest estimate for completion is 2033.

Newsom, though, said he wants to finish construction that’s already underway on a segment of the high-speed train through California’s Central Valley, arguing it will revitalize the economically depressed region. He’s also replacing Brown’s head of the state board that oversees the project and pledged more accountability for contractors that run over on costs.

One can’t really blame the new governor for this, as the promise of an LA-to-SF bullet train, which California voters approved in 2008, has always been a huge scam:

When California voters approved construction of a bullet train in 2008, they had a legal promise that passengers would be able to speed from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes.

But over the next decade, the state rail authority made a series of political and financial compromises that slowed speeds on long stretches of the track.

The authority says it can still meet its trip time commitments, though not by much.

Computer simulations conducted earlier this year by the authority, obtained by The Times under a public records act request, show the bullet train is three minutes and 10 seconds inside the legal mandate.

Such a tight margin of error has some disputing whether the rail network will regularly hit that two-hour-40 minute time, in part because the assumptions that went into those simulations are highly optimistic and unproven. The premise hinges on trains operating at higher speeds than virtually all the systems in Asia and Europe; human train operators consistently performing with the precision of a computer model; favorable deals on the use of tracks that the state doesn’t even own; and amicable decisions by federal safety regulators.

And let’s not even get started on the New York City subway.

Actually, let’s.

Paralyzed people in Japan controlling robot waiters with their eyes

A brilliant and inventive use of robots gives disabled people a new form of gainful employment in Japan:

On 26 November, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held in the Nippon Foundation Building in Akasaka, Tokyo for a very special kind of cafe.

Called Dawn ver.β, it’s staffed entirely with robot waiters. While these days that’s hardly something new, these aren’t mere robots.

Developed by Ory, a startup that specializes in robotics for disabled people, the OriHime-D is a 120 cm (4-foot) tall robot that can be operated remotely from a paralyzed person’s home. Even if the operator only has control of their eyes, they can command OriHime-D to move, look around, speak with people, and handle objects.

Very cool. All we need now are remote-controlled robots that stand around all day drinking coffee and reminding their employees that they’re gonna need those TPS reports, mmmkay?

The Internet of Incredibly Scary Things

If you are thinking about getting one of those wifi-enabled home security cameras, you might want to think again. At the very least, if you do get one, please create a password for it that you have not used elsewhere.

Otherwise, your fancy “Internet of Things” device might get hijacked by a hacker and start barking nuclear missile warnings at you or talking to your children in a deep, scary voice – which are actual things that happened to families in California. The hackers might also mess with your thermostat while they’re at it.

I take a dim view of the “Internet of Things.” It seems like a total scam to me. I do not see how our lives are materially improved by connecting our devices to the Internet, especially when you factor in the time-wasting complexities of managing these devices and the opportunities for hacking and massive privacy violations that they create.

If you have to get one of these cheap security camera systems that require a stable internet connection to function, for Pete’s sake choose a unique login password:

Nest’s parent company, Google, said in a statement that Nest’s system was not breached. Google said the recent incidents stem from customers “using compromised passwords … exposed through breaches on other websites.”

I recommend using the open-source password manager KeePass – you can download it here. It will store all your passwords in a file that is controlled by a single master password. KeePass will even generate unique random passwords for you every time you create a new entry. Whenever you need to log in to an online account, just copy and paste the password from KeePass.

So this is weird (Nevada nuke site mayhem)

Nevada National Security Site

It’s only February – January when this story came out – and we may already be reaching Peak 2019. This headline, which as far as I can tell is real, reads like a perfect cold open for a particularly engaging sci-fi series:

Man holding mysterious ‘cylindrical object’ shot dead by police after car chase at secret nuclear test site

A man who approached police holding a mysterious “cylindrical object” has been shot dead following a car chase through a top secret nuclear test site.

The unnamed man burst past a security checkpoint at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, late on Monday afternoon, prompting private security contractors and local police to give chase.

The pursuit lasted around eight miles, the Department of Energy said in a statement, before the man pulled over, got out of the car, and approached the officers while holding a “cylindrical object”.

After failing to listen to police orders, he was shot and died at the scene.

Of course, this story would not be complete without a reference to a far more infamous site:

The NNSS is located around 30 miles west of the far more notorious site, Area 51 – a remote military testing facility subject to countless UFO-based conspiracy theories.

I’m telling you, I have a bad feeling about Nevada.

The ultimate road/rail trip

Trans-Siberian road map

Source: CNN

It would have be the fanciful, proposed railway and superhighway connecting New York to London via the Bering Strait. With high-speed rail, I reckon that you could hurtle from one city to the other in about three days (read to the end for how I calculate that).

From the article:

At a Russian Academy of Science meeting in March, Vladimir Yakunin, the 66-year-old head of Russian Railways, unveiled detailed plans for what may seem like an impossible infrastructure project. Yakunin proposed engineers could build a high-speed railway through the entirety of Siberia, dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR)—the final destination of which would be the mouth of an underwater tunnel crossing the Bering Strait. Highway, too, could be constructed adjacent to the tracks, effectively making ground transportation possible from Anchorage to Moscow—or for that matter, New York to Paris. Or, if we’re going to go there, Miami to Johannesburg.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” The Siberian Times reported Yakunin saying at the meeting. “It should be an alternative to the current [neo-liberal] model, which has caused a systemic crisis,” by which he means an economy based on investing in derivatives and stock buybacks and, in consulting engineer and infrastructure expert Dr. Hal Cooper’s words “things that are easy to do on your computer, but which don’t benefit the real world.” The idea is to instead focus on reviving economic forces that revolve around building something—and in this case a very big, maybe impossibly ambitious something—in the physical world.

Impossible? Of course not. But very, very expensive:

Of course, in order to do this, approximately 12,500 miles of road and new railway would have to be built starting at Russia’s eastern border—which would include the 520 miles between the frigid shores of Nome, Alaska, and Fairbanks, the northernmost point of the Alaskan Highway. And then there’s that 55-mile Bering Strait tunnel itself, which has been priced at somewhere between $25 billion and $50 billion. And what Dr. Hal Cooper calls the “Worldwide Railroad Network” in a 2007 report could range from between one and $1.5 trillion which, Cooper notes, “will be the equivalent of what the United States will spend in total on the Iraq War, for which there will be no measureable benefit to anyone.”

Estimated cost of the US “war on terror” through FY 2019: $5.9 trillion, or about four Worldwide Railroad Networks.

Interestingly, the idea has a long history:

Dreams of bridging the East and West across the Bering Strait have been percolating since the 19th century. Cooper told me that as early as 1846, then-Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin invested in a study to build railway up to northern Alaskan shores. And, it turns out, even decades after being ousted from office, Gilpin was still publishing plans for the “Cosmopolitan Railway” which would fuse together all continents chiefly via the Bering Strait.

The real problem is organizing the resources and manpower to get it done, which requires both political will and a population that is able and motivated to work together on difficult projects. This is becoming more rare. The last man walked on the Moon in 1972, and the Concorde supersonic flights that zipped passengers across the Atlantic in three and a half hours were discontinued in 2003.

The next question, then—which has been on the table now for 150 years—is whether anyone would be willing to invest in a project that could collectively cost trillions of dollars and whose anticipated economic yields would be a generation away.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations by CNN, the proposed superhighway from New York to London would stretch about 12,910 miles. Assuming high-speed rail could be built along this entire length, with trains running at the average speed of the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train service (181.4 mph), then we’re talking about a rail trip of 71.2 hours, or just under three days.

If the trains could run at the top speed of the Shanghai Maglev Train, or 268 mph, then you could expect to blast from New York to London in just over 48 hours. Now, would that not be the world’s most awesome trip?

UPDATE: China is also mulling a high-speed rail project across the Bering Strait. Of course!

Mediacide

The job market for wordsmiths appears to be taking a turn for the worse. From Mike Rosenberg of the Seattle Times:

Mike Rosenberg @ByRosenberg

Media cuts in last 2 weeks
*BuzzFeed: 15% of staff laid off (215 people)
*McClatchy (Miami Herald, KC Star, etc): 10% of staff offered buyouts
*Gannett newspaper chain: 400 layoffs
*Verizon (HuffPost, TechCrunch, etc): 7% laid off (800 people)
*Vice laying off 10% (250 people)

11:06 AM – 1 Feb 2019

(That’s over 1,665 people.)

Mike Rosenberg @ByRosenberg

These journalism cuts come despite record readership at a lot of places – but the digital ad money goes mostly to Google and Facebook and is so puny it can’t support news orgs. That’s why you see paywalls everywhere now – subscriptions are the only sustainable revenue source

Here’s a good overview of what’s going on that gives a more nuanced picture than the usual explanations that lay all the blame on Google and Facebook.

Venezuela heats up

Things are getting dicey – will it end in the use of force, as some fear?

Venezuela’s Supreme Court has barred opposition leader Juan Guaido from leaving the country as international pressure mounts against the government led by President Nicolas Maduro.

The move comes hours after chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab asked the government-stacked high court to restrict Guaido’s movements and freeze any assets.

Saab said a criminal probe into Guaido’s anti-government activities has been launched but did not announce any specific charges against him.

Both Saab and the Supreme Court are aligned with the embattled Maduro.

But Maduro is weakening:

More than a week into a standoff with the opposition, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Wednesday that he is willing to negotiate.

Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after opposition leader Juan Guaido during a major opposition rally in Caracas declared that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

On Tuesday, Guaido urged Venezuelans to step outside their homes and workplaces for two hours on Wednesday in the first mass mobilization since last week’s big protests.

Maduro, who previously rejected calls for negotiations, said in an in an interview with Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that he was open to talks with the opposition.

May have something to do with this:

A British minister on Monday suggested that the Bank of England should decline to release £1 billion of gold to Venezuela’s dictator after the opposition leader wrote to Theresa May.

Juan Guaido, who last week declared himself the country’s legitimate ruler and was recognised as such by the US, has written to Mark Carney, the Bank’s governor, to ask him not to hand over the gold to Nicolas Maduro. He also sent the letter to Theresa May, the Prime Minister.

[…]

Mr Maduro has been attempting to repatriate the gold from the vaults since last year. The bullion in London makes up 15 per cent of Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves.

And Bolton brings the mayhem:

The Pentagon has refused to rule out military intervention on Venezuela’s border, a day after John Bolton, the US national security adviser, was photographed carrying a notepad that read: “5,000 troops to Colombia”.

Patrick Shanahan, the acting defence secretary, was asked repeatedly whether Mr Bolton’s notes indicated a deployment.

“I’m not commenting on it,” he said. “I haven’t discussed that with Secretary Bolton.”

Mr Bolton on Monday would not rule out the use of US troops in Venezuela.

Meantime, Defense Blog reports:

Residents of Eastern Venezuela have posted footages of heavy artillery systems, main battle tanks and military equipment moving towards the Colombian border.

Twitter account Already Happened‏ also has release video showing military convoy, included recently ordered Russin-made 2S19 MSTA-S heavy artillery systems, at the route to the Colombian border.

President Maduro fears a foreign military intervention in Venezuela and is ramping up its armored forces along the Colombia border.

A source in Caracas said that Maduro feared that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan and Syria, they could be well-suited for redeployment in a Colombia-based conflict with Venezuela.

But the Colombian Defense Ministry reported that the Colombian government is not going to provide the United States will military bases so that the latter could launch a possible military invasion in Venezuela.

Is an invasion in the works?