The Great AI Altercation

There’s an ongoing argument in the tech community regarding whether advancements in AI are likely to be beneficial or harmful to humanity. Although they’ve previously staked out positions on the matter, in the past few days this has boiled over into a public spat between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

While some commentators have said that this is simply a matter of the two protecting their personal brands, I don’t believe their argument is a conscious matter of marketing, and I don’t think it’s a fair evaluation of either of their points. Rather, I suspect that they’re simply looking at two sides of the same coin, through the filter of their personal experience.

From where Zuckerberg is sitting, AI is already used to make Facebook work better: to better match up content to users, to better allocate data centre resources. Every new technological advancement leads to him hiring more recent PhD graduates, better service, more efficient use of resources.  He has also made a valid point with regards to self-driving cars saving lives (an aspect of the discussion where it is likely that he and Musk agree).

From where Musk is sitting, AI is likely going to take over vast additional areas of manufacturing, ultimately finishing off the process that automation and off-shoring started. He may personally gain in the short-term from the reduced costs of building product, but he knows he also has to sell to somebody – and if that person doesn’t have a job, they’re likely not going to be buying a luxury car (or a trip to Mars, for that matter).

The take-away will be no surprise to most readers: AI is disruptive. It will (and is already) benefiting some people, while causing obvious (hopefully, but not necessarily, short-term) harm others. It is impossible to determine right now whether there will be a net benefit on the far side of whatever societal disruption occurs. Opinion of public figures with regards to AI likely rests on whether they will personally benefit (whether they realize this consciously or not), and it is probably worthwhile to interpret their remarks that way.

Bitcoin Fork: A modest proposal

There’s a lot of talk in the Bitcoin community about the possibility of a hard fork in the blockchain at some point.

The underlying issue has to do with the size limit of transaction blocks, which result in limits to the time it takes to process a Bitcoin transaction. There’s a good article on the philosophy of the two sides on QZ (link), which is worth reading if you need a primer.

Essentially, one side wants to double the size of a block from 1mb to 2mb, and the other side wants blocks to be unlimited in size. Both options have drawbacks (both technical and philosophical) that I won’t get into here.

I’d like to propose a compromise between the two options. Continue reading

Just a quick thought: If shipping containers had a long door down one side, instead of a smaller door at the back, then it would be possible to load/unload them faster, and also to more readily access particular pallets inside them. This wouldn’t work for all purposes (for one thing, loading bays often aren’t designed to accommodate this), but for a company that relies heavily on rapid shipping (i.e. Amazon, Walmart, FedEx etc), it could be a useful improvement.

Improved escalator handrails

I’ve been told that there isn’t currently a market for this idea (large construction projects that feature escalators are currently highly price sensitive). Perhaps somebody can find a use for it though.

We live in a world where is seems like every available space already features advertising. In many cases, people have learned to tune it out, to the extent that ad-tech companies constantly have to adjust their methodology in order to find new ways to attract the attention of viewers.

There’s one place where people are potentially a captive market for up to a minute at a time – while riding up and down an escalator (elevators already frequently feature advertising). The beginning and end plates of escalators occasionally feature ads, and I’ve seen inserts in the folding portion of the steps on a few occasions. Typically though, the handrails are left alone, due to the expense of updating adverts (i.e. the rail would have to be transparent, and the entire escalator would likely need to be disassembled in order to insert or remove ads).

The gradual improvement in bendable e-paper type screens could lend itself to this application though; if the entire handrail was formed from a transparent plastic, with a screen underneath it, it could be a cost effective and attractive forum for advertising, particular of a highly localized nature.

Some possibilities that come to mind:

  • Stores within a mall could, for example, show coupons (possibly with a QR code, for people to scan on their phones).
  • The railing could be touch sensitive, to allow interaction with people riding the escalator – for instance, displaying a hand-shape, in order to get a person to hold onto the railing; when touched, a “screen” area could be displayed. This could be gamified in a variety of ways.
  • News, time of day, mall events, and other pieces of information could also be displayed.

I have a variety of tangentially-related ideas (i.e. for how to construct the system, as well as other applications for it), if anyone is interested.

 

Why is productivity growth stalling?

There’s been a flurry of press about stalling productivity growth in the West over the past few years. The usual explanations from economists tend to revolve around low levels of capital investment, poor measurement of certain new forms of innovation, or simply stalling levels of innovation.

I’d like to point out a few more possibilities that have received less coverage. The actuality is likely some combination of many of these factors. Continue reading

Improving Car Security

I’m not sure if this is an original idea, but sharing just in case.

Many modern cars have push-button starters that do not require a key to start the ignition. Usually, the proximity of the owner’s fob is sufficient to start the car. The problem, of course, is that the code to open the car is the same, and (by design) it needs to work from a distance. This provides ample opportunity for hackers to intercept the code (and either open, or steal the car), even with various techniques that try to obscure the code.

It occurs to me that the process of opening and of starting the car do not need to be combined.

The fob could contain two transmitters, with different coding schemes. One of them would be used for remote entry, as in current designs. The other, which would be extremely low-powered, and only operate from a range of two or three feet, would be used to enable the ignition.

The “spin-tar” – a new musical instrument

What has more strings than a Rock Ock, spins around like a whirling dervish, and sounds like a cross between a steel drum and an electric violin? Why, a spin-tar, of course.

Somebody stop me if this actually exists. There are a lot of obscure musical instruments in the world, and I’m not an expert. Continue reading

The Millennial Warning Problem

I was thinking about the old problem of how to warn people not to dig open a nuclear waste repository that may be unsafe for an extremely extended period of time. There’s an article on Slate from 2014 here. The problem has been discussed for years though. I remember reading about it when I was a kid.

International radiation warning symbol. Click to view other related symbols on Wikipedia.

In the past, governments have tried crowd-sourcing a solution for a warning sign that will still be understood thousands, or tens of thousands of years in the future.

The problem specifically is that a sign, whether it consists of iconography or text, may not be understandable even after a few generations.

I can’t think of a specific example right now, but I’ve encountered examples of iconography from less than a hundred years ago that I had to look up. That obviously wouldn’t do for a sign warning of imminent danger. There’s worse things than accidentally entering the wrong washroom, after all.

What if, instead of crowd-sourcing the solution, we instead extended the resolution out over time? Time-sourcing it, if you will. Continue reading

Blue Bird Got Da Blues

Blue bird...In case you haven’t heard yet, Dick Costolo is out as CEO at Twitter. I’m an outsider, so I have no idea whether this is deserved or not, but when analysts question a CEO’s tenure publicly, it can easily undermine their stature to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this case, it wasn’t unexpected.

Twitter isn’t profitable, and has lately shown signs of stalling growth. Whoever takes over the reins there (Jack Dorsey is stepping in as interim CEO) is going to be under pressure to “fix” whatever is ailing the company, and fast.

The problems may only have manifested since the IPO, but they aren’t really new though. Here’s something I wrote (I was talking about a spate of Twitter-imitators at the time) four years ago:

I always wonder about sites that are focused on Twitter-like feeds though. To my mind, that functionality basically forms the same purpose as RSS feeds. Its just crying out to be aggregated, and then where does that leave the feed sites, or the individual content creators?

Continue reading

Reducing Exposure to Galactic Cosmic Rays

In case you haven’t seen this posted, NASA has a NASA cosmic ray challenge (with $29,000 prize) posted on Innocentive for ways to reduce the impact of cosmic rays on astronauts on extended space missions outside of Low Earth Orbit. This is a serious health concern for Mars missions, and traditional methods of radiation shielding (i.e. lots of lead) are too heavy for current mission parameters.

I’m not a material scientist, so the precise details are beyond me, but here’s roughly what I think the solution will ultimately look like (don’t worry, I’ve submitted this already!). Continue reading