Perhaps you haven’t noticed the investor class getting all gung-ho these days over Artificial Intelligence (AI). Only a couple of decades ago, these same people dismissed AI because it wasn’t very useful yet. But that’s all changed due to advances in machine vision and learning, and now VCs, hedge funds, and most of the rest of the usual big-money suspects are salivating over prospects of automating most of the rest of the economy, even including agriculture.
Thanks to its clot of institutions of higher learning, Boston—my fair city—is littered with tech startups and factories that churn them out. They and the Hub’s cloud of serial investors have created a knot of compressed energy, the nexus of which one can find at a suite in Kendall Square—epicenter of Boston’s tech scene, featuring outposts of Google, Oracle, Facebook and Amazon, pharma firms like Merck and Novartis and a host of biotechy startups fed by MIT’s biomedical research complex, augmented by its AI and Media Labs—where every Thursday evening prime movers get together for suds and savvy strategizing at private oasis called Venture Café. Continue reading “A.I. Enablers Gear Up to Assault Intellect”
An excerpt from a work in progress, a book called The Silica Papers: Who Technology Is and What She Wants, a set of essays that looks into what we can expect from this strange brave new world.
Our addictions to technology, especially of the digital sort and especially among the young, are manifest, but they aren’t entirely technology’s fault. Nor are they just the result of falling unto temptation, although practicing a bit more mindfulness and self-discipline wouldn’t hurt. Few of us ever asked for this stuff. We got it whether we wanted it or not, dreamed up by inventors and shoveled at us by the marketplace, packaged to titillate. And even what we think of as the good stuff often has a seamy underside that tries to hook us and then takes what it wants from us while we’re mesmerized. Technology won’t be denied, but the particular shapes it takes are fabricated by other forces that may not have our best interests at heart. Here are two stories of how our economy shapes the tech scene that in turn shapes us.
The Water Cooler Has Ears
For starters, you might not know that online social media is older than the personal computer. Forty years back, you only needed a computer terminal, a modem, and a telephone to participate in collaborative messaging apps called electronic bulletin board systems (BBS). They ran on minicomputers, were noncommercial, and staffed by volunteers (called SysOps). Some relics of that era still exist, but as the Net unfolded, BBS’s begat Usenet, then Reddit, Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. piled on, demonstrating that computer users crave real-time online contact—the core social media value proposition. But sooner or later, almost all proprietary social media platforms succumb to Wall Street discipline to monetize our personal data, relentlessly upgrade, piling on features we never wanted or needed, and stalk us wherever we roam.
Today we celebrate the release by Sony Pictures of “The Emoji Movie,” rated PG (for saucy language). Rush to see it before it sinks without a trace. One look at the animation’s trailer told me it’s everything I hoped it wouldn’t be. Okay, the characters look authentic and are well voiced by prominent actors, but finding Patrick Stewart reduced to playing a pile of poop was particularly depressing. Basically the entire film is a promo for the eponymous app plus others for Google, Facebook, YouTube and DropBox. It is meant for children, of course, but the the protagonist is pathetic and the plot is a downer. Critics were sad-faced, to say the least, with reactions ranging from to to . Writing for rogerebert.com, critic Peter Sobczynski ended his review with
“The Emoji Movie” may be as depressing of a film experience as anything to come out this year but if the [lack of positive] reaction of the kids that I saw it with is any indication, there may be hope for the future after all.
We can hope against hope. The very fact that an emoji movie exists alarms me, but that it’s propaganda for big Internet brands hardly comes as a surprise. I guess I should get used to seeing more of that.
Stories allow us to untangle experience, make sense of our lives, and find meaning. They are containers for wisdom and lifeboats for memory — helping us not to forget, and then later, not to be forgotten. ~ Jonathan Harris
Imagine you’re a 19th-century novelist whose supply of paper has just run out and more can’t be found anywhere. Well, something like that recently happened to more than 10,000 writers when their electrons ran out.
They all belonged to a community called Cowbird that flourished on the Net for about five years. Late last winter its founder pulled the plug, perhaps bored with the site’s upkeep but saying he wanted us all to make more of a mark on the real world. What he told the Cowbird community at the time was:
Over the past five years, we’ve told nearly 100,000 stories — stories about birth, youth, sex, love, work, war, faith, death, grief, grace, and countless other topics. Together, we created a public library of human experience, so our knowledge and wisdom could live on in the commons, as a resource for others to look to for guidance. We found beloved community here, forging deep and lasting connections.
He went on to explain what had changed his thinking about shepherding this community:
For close to five years I have been a member of an online community of writers called for no compelling reason cowbird.com, which grew to encompass 14,000+ writers who put out almost 90,000 stories, all tagged and organized, most with images, some with audio. Members could love and comment on stories and privately message one another. It was a happening place for authors and visual artists
Yesterday, Cowbird turned to stone. The writers and the stories will remain, but authors and readers can no longer interact and no new stories can be posted. Instead of being a living “library of human experience” it’s become the library’s archives. Continue reading “A Cowbird Walks out of a Bar…”
Have you ever reacted badly to a newscast on radio or TV and shouted at your set things like “Why not admit our wars in the Middle East caused all this chaos!” or “Ask him how much he was paid to mouth that b.s!” or “I’m sick and tired of hearing those stupid stump speeches!” whenever they fail to get to the bottom of things. Happens to me a lot.
Right now, one of my local NPR radio stations (WBUR, from Boston University) is surveying listeners to find out how we think they’re doing. I normally skip such polls, but given that I listen to it most days and occasionally answer phones for them I decided to pitch in and ended up at SurveyMonkey. As I had hoped, beyond the usual demographic data and how/when/where/why I listen or browse their site, they actually wanted reactions to their programming, so I belted some out. Continue reading “Talking Back to my Radio”