Looking and Seeing, Hauntings, and Algorithmic Serendipity.

Thoughtful Net #44. Interesting links from the past few weeks.

Lately I’ve been consumed with thoughts about computer vision — using machine learning to understand the content of photos and videos. The camera as an eye. It made me think of this quote from the artist David Hockney, subject of an exhibition at the Tate in London, when asked what he would like people to feel when they look at his work:

Some joy. Maybe you can see the world a bit differently now, and enjoy it. Actually enjoy it. I do enjoy looking.

I believe that the world becomes richer and more enjoyable the more we understand it, and we understand by looking.

The Best

The meaning of life in a world without work. Yuval Noah Harari, author of the remarkable Sapiens, writes an excellent piece of provocation on what the ‘useless class’ might do in a post-automation world.

Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions”.

Real Life

I have three articles from Real Life magazine saved in my bookmarks for this edition, so it made sense to me to group them all together. Real Life publish consistently brilliant pieces about technology, society, and humanity.

Eyes Without a Face, by Rahel Aima, is about computer vision, art, and ways of seeing.

Machine vision has the potential to do more than merely to confirm what humans see. It is learning to see something different that doesn’t reproduce human biases and uncover emotional timbres that are machinic.

Spooky Action, by Linda Besner, is about technology, superstition, magic, and hauntings.

In recognizing the language of technology as the language of the mysterious, it seems as though we are also recognizing a limit on our ability to understand our evolving world in purely rational terms.

The Apophenic Machine, by Molly Sauter, looks at how the hyperlinked, connected nature of the web is the ideal environment for conspiracy theories.

As networks and capital burrow through the borders between states, perforating the demarcations between power structures and between people, tales of conspiracies pop up, pulling back against that diffusion like a contracting fist.

Artificial Intelligence

In Melinda Gates and Fei-Fei Li Want to Liberate AI from “Guys With Hoodies”, Jessi Hempel interviews two female technologists’ quest to diversify the machine learning field.

AI [is] going to carry the values that matter to our lives, be it the ethics, the bias, the justice, or the access. If we don’t have the representative technologists of humanity sitting at the table, the technology is inevitably not going to represent all of us.

The Mozart in the Machine, by Yuval Noah Harari (again), looks at how algorithmically generated music could be a better match to our emotions than that made by humans.

Emotions are not some mystical phenomenon — they are a biochemical process. Hence, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, it might be possible to hack love, hate, boredom and joy.

Physiognomy’s New Clothes, by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, Margaret Mitchell and Alexander Todorov, is a long, fascinating essay on the awful racist history of classifying humans by physical traits, and the dangers posed by machine learning approaches to the same.

Deep learning can’t extract information that isn’t there, and we should be suspicious of claims that it can reliably extract hidden meaning from images that eludes human judges.

New Technology

Why Silicon Valley is all wrong about Amazon’s Echo Show, by Chris Messina, offers a counterpoint to prevailing reaction against Amazon’s new product.

The Echo Show is interesting not because it’s novel, but because it’s unremarkable and fits a familiar invisible technology pattern.

Mixed reality, computer vision, and brain–machine interfaces: Here’s the future The New York Times’ reborn R&D lab sees, by Ricardo Bilton. ’Nuff said, as Stan Lee would put it.

We’re trying to start with the problems we see inside and outside the building — and ideally not just today’s problems, but the ones tomorrow that we can anticipate. Then it’s figuring out how various emerging technologies can be solutions to those problems

Other Stuff

Notes From An Emergency is by Maciej Cegłowski, which is a mark of quality in itself. This is a call to arms for Europe to help fight against the ‘feudal internet’ owned by five major companies.

Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate.

Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, looks at how what we share publicly bears little relation to our actual lives.

On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase “My husband is …” are “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.” On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also “amazing.” So that checks out. The other four: “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”

The Thoughtful Net is an occasional (less than weekly, more than monthly) publication collecting great writing about the internet and technology, culture, information, soci­ety, science, and philo­sophy. If you prefer to receive it in your inbox you can follow this publication or subscribe to the email newsletter.