Google fails to not be evil

Google devil

“Google” by William Blake

Now we know why Google has scrubbed almost all mention of “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct:

Google bosses have forced employees to delete a confidential memo circulating inside the company that revealed explosive details about a plan to launch a censored search engine in China, The Intercept has learned.

The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, codenamed Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data. […]

The memo identifies at least 215 employees who appear to have been tasked with working full-time on Dragonfly, a number it says is “larger than many Google projects.” It says that source code associated with the project dates back to May 2017, and “many infrastructure parts predate” that. Moreover, screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state,” the memo declares.

Most of the details about the project “have been secret from the start,” the memo says, adding that “after the existence of Dragonfly leaked, engineers working on the project were also quick to hide all of their code.”

It’s pretty simple, if you want to operate in China you have to play by the CPC’s rules. There is no way for Google to do that while successfully upholding the values it pretends to care about. Hence the secrecy.

The Internet of Dumbass Things (IoDT)

Big Brother Alexa is watching you

Writing in Forbes (a few years ago), Theo Priestley threw cold water on the “Internet of Things” craze:

This time last year Gartner said that by 2022 a typical family home, in a mature affluent market, could contain several hundred smart objects by 2022. Several hundred. […]

But if we examine the market as it is today apathy is rife because the current trend by OEM companies is to “stick a chip in it” in order to connect it to the internet, without any real value to the consumer. In fact, the only ones getting excited by the Internet of Things are the vendors.

Take Samsung’s offerings at the recent IFA exhibition. Samsung now have a new SmartThings hub to connect the many devices in your home. There were examples like;

  • The smart oven that waited for you to be on your way home before starting to heat your dinner.
  • The home that switched on lights as you approached.
  • Samsung also added a touch of personality to their SmartThings platform; you can start the morning by texting the app “good morning”, and your house will bid you farewell as you leave.

The immediate response to these was – Why ? (especially the last one!)

What software and hardware vendors fail to answer is why is their connected device necessary for a consumer to own and what value does it ultimately bring ? Consider the ‘smart oven’ above. It won’t actually prepare the food for you the night before. You have to do that. So the convenience is…. ?

I know of a family that has a cutting-edge Samsung microwave/oven combo that cannot even display the clock for more than 60 minutes at a time. Apparently, this is because the screen is actually a tablet computer that needs to sleep. In their disgust, the family has not even bothered to set the clock to the correct time. Also, as far as they can tell, the Wi-Fi connectivity is completely useless and adds no value to their cooking experience. In effect, then, their lavishly priced “smart” appliance is arguably rather stupid.

I thought of this when reading of Amazon’s latest efforts to create an omni-connected happy digital republic:

Amazon is using a surprise hardware event in Seattle today to introduce a bunch of new devices with its Alexa voice assistant built in.

Why it matters: Amazon is in a race with Google (and to a lesser degree Microsoft and Apple) to make its assistant as ubiquitous as possible.

So far, the company has announced, per CNBC:

  • Amazon Basic Microwave, which will cost $59.99.
  • Echo Wall Clock, at $30, to set timers and such.

[Etc…]

  • New Alexa capabilities. She’ll be able to tell when you’re whispering — and she’ll whisper back. She’ll also act on “hunches,” so if you tell her “good night,” she might turn off your lights and check if your doors are locked.

Creepy! More to the point, how does this invasive consumer technology actually benefit humanity? Are we really better off being able to whisper to our devices, or to control our kitchen lights from 100 miles away?

Entropy

The total entropy of an isolated system, such as the universe, can never decrease over time. This has some unfortunate consequences. For example, cleaning my room will decrease the level of disorder locally, but only by producing large amounts of waste heat that will increase the overall level of entropy (unavailable thermodynamic energy) in the universe.

Therefore, I have decided to help keep entropy at bay by sitting around today and doing nothing at all.

By my calculations, I have prolonged the life of the universe by approximately one googolth of a second.

You’re welcome.

*

PS: I thought this was my own idea, but here’s a good article exploring it in more depth.

Training

Every age has its rituals. In the Age of Google, we have the Ritual of the reCAPTCHA, a compulsory visual test that requires a carbon-based organism to prove its sentience to a computer by selecting squares that seem to contain grainy images of a specified object. The organism must do this correctly in order to demonstrate to the computer’s satisfaction that it (the organism) possesses the mental faculties of invariant recognition, segmentation, and parsing, in which attributes humans tend to excel over computers. If the organism passes the test, it is permitted to continue with its intended task on the website.

That problem is that many human beings who are more or less sentient find the average reCAPTCHA to be hard and frustrating, owing to the intentionally crappy quality of the images, poor visibility of the objects, as well as certain definitional problems that the average internet user is ill-equipped to deal with. For example, should the user, tasked with identifying “street signs,” click on a square that contains part of a sign post? Then there are questions of process. Does the user click Verify immediately after clicking all the relevant squares, or wait for new images to materialize in the squares that have been clicked? None of this is clear, none of it is explained. The user twists in a fog of doubt and confusion, and frequently fails the test.

Google reCAPTCHA evil

Choose wisely (Source)

The reCAPTCHA is the reductio ad absurdum of modern life, a grudging surrender of countless man-hours of labor (over 100 million reCAPTCHAs are displayed every day) to feed the ravenous maw of an emerging artificial superintelligence. Because, of course, by completing these image recognition tasks, the human user is training Google’s vast machine learning datasets. TechRadar thanks you for your service in helping develop self-driving cars.

But while we are training Google’s neural networks, the machines are simultaneously training us — teaching us to be more compliant, more deferential to the machines, and more conversant in machine logic… in short, remaking humanity in their own image. The future is a slouched hominid clicking on a fuzzy image of a taco shop — forever.

“These people are complete narcissists”

Google leadership seminar

Google leadership seminar (source)

I enjoyed this rant against Big Tech, which besides being funny, also contains the kernel of a very interesting idea for how to address the growing crisis around data privacy and ownership:

Bannon also added this gem about Tesla:

I do not have a dog in this fight, but Musk seems increasingly unhinged to me, and the little stunt he pulled with his abandoned buyout plan was undeniably shady. But… are you not entertained?

Hubble strikes again

Hubble GOODS-South

Part of the Hubble panorama

Hubble delivers another spectacular glimpse of the cosmos with a new composite photo:

These new mosaic images provide a panoramic view of around 15,000 galaxies, in the center of the fields observed by The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS). About 12,000 of these galaxies are in the star-formation stage, with some of the most distant spots (the reddest ones) dating back 11 billion years.

The images were born out of a program called the Hubble Deep Ultraviolet (HDUV) Legacy Survey, and covers 14 times more sky than a similar image released back in 2014.

And you can’t miss the absolutely incredible images of local galaxies released a few months ago:

Hubble Messier 66

Hubble image of Messier 66

Survival of the laziest

Science says that laziness, or as I prefer to call it, economy of effort, could be a fantastic survival strategy:

A new large-data study of fossil and extant bivalves and gastropods in the Atlantic Ocean suggests laziness might be a fruitful strategy for survival of individuals, species and even communities of species. The results have just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B by a research team based at the University of Kansas.

Looking at a period of roughly 5 million years from the mid-Pliocene to the present, the researchers analyzed 299 species’ metabolic rates—or, the amount of energy the organisms need to live their daily lives—and found higher metabolic rates were a reliable predictor of extinction likelihood.

“We wondered, ‘Could you look at the probability of extinction of a species based on energy uptake by an organism?'” said Luke Strotz, postdoctoral researcher at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum and lead author of the paper. “We found a difference for mollusk species that have gone extinct over the past 5 million years and ones that are still around today. Those that have gone extinct tend to have higher metabolic rates than those that are still living. Those that have lower energy maintenance requirements seem more likely to survive than those organisms with higher metabolic rates.”

I’m not sure whether this is related, but many of us have had the experience of working with high-energy, high-stress people who scurry around in a whirlwind of activity and give every indication of being extremely busy, and yet are strangely unproductive (and sometimes actively destructive) within the organization. Do they have elevated metabolic rates and if so, are they less “fit” to survive?

“Maybe in the long term the best evolutionary strategy for animals is to be lassitudinous and sluggish—the lower the metabolic rate, the more likely the species you belong to will survive,” Lieberman said. “Instead of ‘survival of the fittest,’ maybe a better metaphor for the history of life is ‘survival of the laziest’ or at least ‘survival of the sluggish.'”

The most successful leaders often have a laconic, hands-off management style, and it’s astounding what a truly great leader can accomplish by just hiring the right people, saying a few words and then heading out for a round of golf. The less perceptive might see this approach as leisurely or even “lazy,” but it’s actually just extremely efficient.

I close with an anecdote from historian Paul Johnson about a 1946 encounter with Winston Churchill:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.

Daily links: Movies, Mars, and ancient nematodes

Steel Rain movie

Steel Rain

A large underground lake of liquid water is discovered on Mars.

Two Russian nematodes are brought back to life after being frozen for nearly 42,000 years, making them the oldest living animals currently on earth.

European astronomers track a star travelling through the gravitational field of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and it exhibits gravitational redshift, confirming Einstein’s predictions.

Massive, brutal vivisection of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, via a series of YouTube videos deconstructing the film’s appalling writing. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The franchise will never recover from this.

Review of the South Korean spy thriller Steel Rain. I watched this on a flight from Seoul to New York. It’s good.

David Goldman challenges American complacency about China’s rise.

Russia liquidates more than 84% of its US Treasury holdings in the two months through May 31, leaving experts puzzled.

Tech superpower? Moi?

China seems to be realizing that not all publicity is good publicity, at least when it comes to technological advances:

China is fooling only itself if it thinks it will soon overtake the United States as a world leader in science and technology, according to the boss of a state-owned publication dedicated to the subject.

With the world’s two largest economies embroiled in an escalating trade dispute, the comments made by Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, which comes under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology, were unexpected.

“The large gap in science and technology between China and developed countries in the West, including the US, should be common knowledge, and not a problem.” Liu said.

“But it became problematic when the people who hype [China’s achievements] … fooled the leadership, the public and even themselves.”

On the one hand, it’s definitely true that China has sometimes oversold its achievements:

One example of the “hype” to which Liu was referring is an article by Xinhua that was widely circulated last autumn hailing China’s “four new great inventions”, namely high-speed rail, electronic payments, bike sharing and online shopping – even though none of them actually originated in the country.

See also here.

On the other hand, I don’t find it altogether persuasive that China is lagging far behind the US. In fact, China has already surpassed the US in at least one crucial area, as David Goldman noted more than a year ago:

For the first time, China has demonstrated that it is far ahead of the United States in a critical new technology, namely quantum communications. A Chinese satellite succeeded in transmitting so-called entangled photons to earth stations. […]

China has the world’s fast supercomputers built entirely out of Chinese components. It has the world’s largest radio telescope. It has thousands of surface-to-ship missiles that can hail down on American aircraft carriers from the stratosphere, and it has ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines that can lurk on battery power for weeks. It has satellite killer missiles. China might spend barely over $1,000 to equip foot soldiers, about 1/100th of what America spends, but it has invested massively in high-tech defense.

Does the US have the overall edge in science/tech? Yes. Could that change sooner than most people think? I believe so.

Deng Xiaoping was fond of saying that the country should hide its strength and bide its time. It appears China is starting to worry that its much-vaunted progress is attracting the wrong kind of attention from the US, and is toggling back to “hide” mode.

Stepping back from the brink?

The economic dispute between the US and China is heating up:

Chinese officials are warning that they are prepared not only for trade war, but for financial, diplomatic and limited military confrontation with the United States, in response to American demands for fundamental changes in Chinese economic policy.

The dispute between the world’s two largest economies has moved beyond narrow issues of trade or specific areas of prospective conflict: Washington now views China’s technologically-focused economic strategy as a challenge to America’s world position, and China views Washington’s demands on China as the equivalent of a “new Opium War,” as a senior Chinese official told Asia Times last week.

Helped along by the US Senate’s torpedoing of a carefully crafted agreement with telecom giant ZTE:

A critical turning point was the Commerce Department’s ban on sales of American chips to power ZTE’s mobile handsets, sourced mainly from the American semiconductor giant Qualcomm. ZTE had violated sanctions on sales of high technology to Iran and North Korea. China’s President Xi Jinping intervened personally with President Trump to rescind the decision. Trump’s Commerce Department negotiated an unprecedented $1.9 billion fine as well as direct American controls over ZTE management, only to have the US Senate vote to reinstate the crippling ban on chip purchases. Trump’s Republican opponents united with Senate Democrats to embarrass the US President. The Chinese official commented, “That is Trump’s problem, not our problem.”

Thanks guys!

The US needs to address any Chinese trade abuses. But no amount of punitive trade actions will save the US economy from corkscrewing into irrelevance, if America does not launch its own “technologically-focused economic strategy,” rather than trying to somehow shut down China’s.

Goldman has some suggestions:

First, do what the Eisenhower administration did in 1957 – shift federal resources toward science and technology and starve the universities of all other forms of aid, including student loans.

Second, restore federal R&D spending to the levels of the Reagan years (when we spent 1.3% of GDP on basic R&D vs. about 0.7% now).

Third, begin Manhattan Project-style programs under the aegis of the Defense Department to force breakthroughs in critical technologies: quantum computing, semiconductor manufacturing, drone technology, artificial intelligence, missile defense (including space-based systems), and anti-submarine warfare to start.

Fourth, as I noted above. organize a brain drain out of China: Identify and recruit their most inventive and creative tech people.

Fifth, get together with the Japanese and organize an alternative to China’s One Belt, One Road program. The fulcrum of this program is the 600 million people of Southeast Asia, most of whom would welcome an alternative to Chinese dominance.