Participating in the online symposium “Coding Freedom”

I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in the online symposium on Gabriella Coleman’s excellent book Coding Freedom. My first post in the symposium was published yesterday:

The title of the book, Coding Freedom, seems to imply that the hacker culture is positively correlated with the increase of freedom in our societies, but in fact it seems as a critical reader could argue the opposite is true. Are we more or less free today than we were at the beginning of the hacker revolution? It does really seem possible to argue that the rise of hacker culture coincides with the rise of state surveillance, filtering and the proliferation of control across the networks. Let us leave aside, for the moment, if that is statistically accurate or not and see if there are any explanations in Coleman’s analysis that would help explain such an seemingly contradictory correlation.

The book is a great read, and I hope to post one more post before the week-long symposium is over.


Management advice from Marcus Aurelius

In my last post on this subject, a little more than two years ago, I went on about how management literature often leaves you wishing for more substance or depth, and I recommended a number of books that I thought were good alternatives, or perhaps complements, to reading management literature.

Well. It has been several years, and I have managed and enjoyed it, but I must admit that the best advice I have gotten is advice not found in glossy management books, but rather the advice found in Marcus Aurelius Meditations. Since I did not mention that the last time I thought I would share a few examples:

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Cleverbot and being somewhat human…or a unicorn

Cleverbot is an interesting project that just recently crossed my radarscreen. I like the online interface, and it has also brought an interesting instance of the Turing test to my attention. In this case it is rapid fire Turing tests, where the participants rate “how human” something is on a scale from 0-100 percent. Cleverbot, in one of its incarnations, got to 42.1% human.

This highlights a weakness of the Turing test, I think. The notion that something can be somewhat human is clearly wrong, a misuse of the concept humanity. Or is it? Worrying examples from human history indicate that we think this way about enemies, other tribes and other races to an extent that is awful. We dehumanize that which we think we need to destroy, or that which threatens us, for scares us. But would any racist say that another race is just 42.1% percent human? No, probably not. It doesn’t work that way. We would probably agree with them being human or we would define them as something else. Being human might actually be far more binary than we think.

In one way, however, cleverbot is a great example of the limitations of the Turing test. But it has also produced some great humor. Witness this fantastic video on cleverbot talking to another instance of itself, to see how language sounds when it, truly, runs on empty.

My favorite comment. “I am not a robot. I am a unicorn”.

An interesting aside. Their discussion sounds very much like an old married couple arguing in parts. Myabe that is also language running on empty…

But I may be a “meanie”.


Understanding prejudice and racism online through search data

In a recent paper by Seth I. Stephens-Davidowitz Google Search Data is used to assess how much racist-sentiment affected the 2008 vote. The method is interesting, and the outcome nothing short of sensational:

The results imply that, relative to the areas in the United States with the lowest racial animus, racial animus cost Obama between 3.1 percentage points and 5.0 percentage points of the national popular vote. This implies racial animus gave Obama’s opponent roughly the equivalent of a home-state advantage country-wide. The cost of racial animus was not decisive in the 2008 election. But a four percentage point loss by the winning candidate would have changed the popular vote winner in the majority of post-war presidential elections.

Now, read the paper for yourself and determine if you agree with the methodology or not, but it does look interesting. Ultimately it becomes a correlation/causation issue to some extent, but still – interesting.

The notion that we could track prejudice and racist sentiment like this seems to open for new ways to track the dark sides of society and perhaps bring our creativity to bear on the problem of how to counter the fear and ignorance that underpins the memes involved.

Dunbar on social signatures

Robin Dunbar’s research on the social brain hypothesis is interesting. The way he describes the hypothesis it states:

The social brain hypothesis has suggested that social network size (and structure) is constrained by a combination of cognitive processes and the time required to service social relationships.

He has now examined this in a data set of mobile phone calls, and he does indeed find evidence to support the hypothesis. One report about this research has hit the news since it seems to show that women care about men until they get grand-kids, and then they care about their daughters or daughters-in-law. Dunbar even suggests it shows that Matriarchy is on the rise. I don’t know about the validity of that conclusion, but more interesting to me is the question of what the limits are. And if there are different limits to different networks. I think we may be making a mistake when we speak of one kind of social network. The social brain hypothesis may be too simple, since it seems to say that there is only one kind of social network, or at least could be seen to say exactly that. Maybe speaking of social network size is a bit like speaking of animal size. We probably should expect social networks to exist in as wide a variety as animals.

Interestingly it seems as if the more consistent element is how we engage. In fact, Dunbar has found that people exhibit distinct social signatures:

Thus, individuals appear to have a ”social signature” in that they allocate roughly the same amount of time to their alters depending on their rank, independent of who these alters are. Such signature patterns show variation between participants but appear persistent over time for each participant. This provides the first direct evidence for the claim [1, 4] that social networks are constrained in some way either by cognition or by the time individuals have available for social interaction, or both: when new relationships are acquired, old ones are inevitably downgraded.

Social networks are different, but our engagement with them consistent and produces a social signature. And social networks are zero sum. Gain a friend, lose a friend. Interesting, and somewhat thought-provoking.

Teachings of a Toymaker

Today I listened into a talk that founder Hayes Raffle gave to all the kids that gathered at Google. Besides demonstrating some really awesome toys — see the video at the end of this post — he also said something to the kids that I found interesting. His advice was this:

If you want to be a happy adult you should try to do what made you happy when you were about seven years old.

I like the notion that we never really change at heart, and I like to think that what I loved then could translate into what I love doing now. It was a bit of a reminder to always ask myself every day if I am doing enough of what I really love, of what I really care about. The mirror test that Jobs is said to have applied is a version of this, I guess. What other tricks are there out there for ensuring that you are really living the life you want? And they can be controversial. Back in 2006 I travelled in the US and met with DC Dennett who I have enormous respect for, and his recipe was the opposite. Take what you are really good at and do it. That will give you recognition, and that is what makes people happy. Don’t waste time asking what you “love” – implicitly – because ultimately you love that in yourself which others recognize you for. Reminds me of one of the more bitter epigrammes of Nietzsche: “it is not enough to have talent, is it, my friends? one has to have your approval for the talent as well.”

I think I end up on the side of the Toymaker. Here are some of his toys:


Examining persuasion: internet advertising as linguistic research tool

In “Ecological Evaluation of Persuasive Messages Using Google AdWords” the authors show how internet advertising systems can be used to test and explore the mechanism of persuasion in different ways, for example for exploring natural language processing.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in crowdsourcing methodologies to be used in experimental research for NLP tasks. In particular, evaluation of systems and theories about persuasion is difficult to accommodate within existing frameworks. In this paper we present a new cheap and fast methodology that allows fast experiment building and evaluation with fully-automated analysis at a low cost. The central idea is exploiting existing commercial tools for advertising on the web, such as Google AdWords, to measure message impact in an ecological setting. The paper includes a description of the approach, tips for how to use AdWords for scientific research, and results of pilot experiments on the impact of affective text variations which confirm the effectiveness of the approach.

A similar approach is described in the book Supercrunchers and has been used by political consultants to do message testing in a fast and relatively cheap way. As we proceed down the road I think secondary research uses can be found for a lot of the services online. The secondary uses of data allow for a wide variety of creative uses that explore language, social structures and economics. The data shadow of the web is the next frontier for many of these empirical sciences.

Besides exploring the theoretical notion the authors provide a great hands-on description of how to set up your experiment. Very intriguing.

(Full disclosure – I work at Google, but write here in a private capacity. The study was done in cooperation with Google and was funded by our research programme Google Research Awards to a part. I still think it is really, really interesting – but of course you should know those two things when reading this post!)

Thiel redux

Betsy Masiello, a colleague, disagrees interestingly with Thiel. Her main argument, which I think is sound, is that competition is not one thing. She writes:

The other thing Thiel mixes up in all this is that he sort of suggests that competition does not drive innovation when he says maybe “competition isn’t as good as we’re told it is.” I think that’s wrong, competition is every bit as good as we’re told it is. Take Thiel’s own example—one could argue that losing a competition is the thing that prompted a creative spark. Without competition, he would not have experienced loss (of not getting the clerkship), and he would not have been forced to go through a coping process, through which he wound up starting PayPal. Any seasoned athlete knows why competition in games is a great metaphor for life: “the great accomplishment is not in never failing, but in rising again after you fall.” Thiel got back up when he lost. He just decided the next time to play a different game.

I think this is right, and it high-lights an important corrigendum to Thiel’s piece. There is a difference between competition in a game and competition about what game to play. Both are very difficult but for different reasons, and the difficulties are slightly different too.

I still think Thiel’s point holds for competition in a pre-defined and well-established game, but the more interesting issue is how we compete around what game we are playing, how we set rules for our (albeit metaphorical) games. The other point is that losing in the first kind of competition spurs this second type of competition where you seek other games to play. I think that is right too.

That said, there is a lot of truth in the notion that we focus too much on playing one single game, defined by others. This is evidenced not least by Thiel first having to lose that game before he engaged in secondary competition, or game selection competition. Competition in a game is not all it is cut out to be. (Also vaguely related to his discussion around how we choose market-definitions, I think).

All in all a very interesting question. On the war metaphor I whole-heartedly agree.

A note on the social role of companies #SIF12

There is a curious view of companies that state that companies should do only one thing: maximize shareholder value. This view is sometimes thought of as a hardline, capitalist view and it views companies as value-neutral, value-agnostic. And there is a subtext of this being the “pure” nature of the corporation, all else a dilution of the essence of what it is to be a company.

But consider the following case. Assume that persons A, B and C get together to start a company, the purpose of which is to usher in artificial intelligence into the world, and that they believe that AI as a general purpose technology will be the savior of our sadly tribal, biologically rooted existence (note that I am not saying I share their analysis). They produce consumer AI and with that they make a lot of money that they funnel back into the company and they start setting up foundations for AIs that will enable their software to evolve and grow forever. They offer shares on an open market, but split the share so that they retain the vote (many companies in SIlicon Valley do this) — share holders know this, and are aware of the company’s objectives.

In one sense this company is optimizing the value of the share holders, but those values are non-monetary. In another this company seems like a strange hybrid thing in the eyes of the reductio-capitalists who want to see only monetary value optimized.

So, how does this work? One observation would be that historically companies have always been enmeshed in society. If we, with Ferdinand Tonnies, analyze the old forms of social organization like the Gemeinshaft of the old village, any commercial enterprise was a part of the social institutional framework in the village. It is first with the growth of the city that monetary values start acquiring more weight. Maybe companies have always been social, always have been geared towards optimizing a basket of values that go beyond the monetary?

The Stockholm Internet Forum made me think about these things a lot. I do believe that the last couple of years have seen citizens expect to be treated by their governments as consumers, but as Alistair Campbell said in a talk I recently heard this evolution has been mirrored by one in which consumers increasingly want to be treated as citizens of the corporations they interact with. We have understood the first, but not the second of these trends.

In essence then: what if the notion of corporate social responsibility is nothing but a pleonasm? An unnecessary statement of the obvious: that companies are value-laden parts of society that need to acts as such and express values too? That means that the leadership of a company should be able to defend the values expressed by the company as a whole, not only separate CSR programmes, and it seems to me that would be an interesting development.

All in all I believe that corporations would benefit from being treated as integral parts of society, not merely profit mechanisms. The really difficult thing to sort is where companies do better for society by producing profit than by doing what a vocal set of people believe is right. In many – but not all – cases the focus on profit will be the same as the best thing for society, and that is what causes the confusion, I believe.

This thought needs to be developed more.

Thiel on the confusion of capitalism and competition, difficult and valuable

Peter Thiel is turning out to be a very, very original thinker. In today’s New York Times David Brooks mentions a lecture he gave at Stanford on starting up a company. Thiel’s main point is subtle and incredibly interesting: he says that people are confused when they think capitalism is about competition. In fact, with perfect competition there is no profit and you are forced to reinvest all the money you make to stay in place. Capitalism is about doing something in a large market where there is very little competition, and thus making huge profits. And then he adds that this is a consequence of many people confusing what is hard with what is valuable. There is so much sheer insight in these lecture notes that Blake Masters have put up that there is no excuse not to read them. Favorite quotes below:

The usual narrative is that capitalism and perfect competition are synonyms. No one is a monopoly. Firms compete and profits are competed away. But that’s a curious narrative. A better one frames capitalism and perfect competition as opposites; capitalism is about the accumulation of capital, whereas the world of perfect competition is one in which you can’t make any money.

On value and difficulty as a proxy for value

Intense competition makes things hard because you just beat heads with other people. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. Henry Kissinger’s anti-academic line aptly describes the conflation of difficulty and value: in academia at least, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

That seems true, but it also seems odd. If the stakes are so small, why don’t people stop fighting so hard and do something else instead? We can only speculate. Maybe those people just don’t know how to tell what’s valuable. Maybe all they can understand is the difficulty proxy. Maybe they’ve bought into the romanticization of competition. But it’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your life trajectory towards monopoly.

On why life is not war

The perfect illustration of competition writ large is war. Everyone just kills everyone. There are always rationalizations for war. Often it’s been romanticized, though perhaps not so much anymore. But it makes sense: if life really is war, you should spend all your time either getting ready for it or doing it. That’s the Harvard mindset.

But what if life isn’t just war? Perhaps there’s more to it than that. Maybe you should sometimes run away. Maybe you should sheath the sword and figure out something else to do. Maybe “life is war” is just a strange lie we’re told, and competition isn’t actually as good as we assume it is.

On AI:

Artificial Intelligence is probably an underrated field. People are burned out on it, largely because it has been overrated and overstated for many decades. Few people think AI is or will soon be real at this point. But progress is increasingly relentless. AI performance in chess is increasing. Computers will probably beat humans in Go in 4 or 5 years. AI is probably a good place to look on the tech frontier. The challenge is that no one knows how far it will go.

The fascinating thing with Thiel’s argument is that it contains a tip on how to live your life as well on how to start your business. And maybe the trick is not viewing your life as very different from an investment in a startup. And realizing that life is not war, difficulty is not a good proxy for value and competition is opposed to capitalism.