Author Archives: Nick

The master and the machine: on AI and chess

“A Brutal Intelligence: AI, Chess, and the Human Mind,” my review of Garry Kasparov’s new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, appears today in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here’s a bit:

The contingency of human intelligence, the way it shifts with health, mood, and circumstance, is at the center of Kasparov’s account of his historic duel with Deep Blue. Having beaten the machine in a celebrated match a year earlier, the champion enters the 1997 competition confident that he will again come out the victor. His confidence swells when he wins the first game decisively. But in the fateful second game, Deep Blue makes a series of strong moves, putting Kasparov on the defensive. Rattled, he makes a calamitous mental error. He resigns the game in frustration after the computer launches an aggressive and seemingly lethal attack on his queen. Only later does he realize that his position had not been hopeless; he could have forced the machine into a draw. The loss leaves Kasparov “confused and in agony,” unable to regain his emotional bearings. Though the next three games end in draws, Deep Blue crushes him in the sixth and final game to win the match.

One of Kasparov’s strengths as a champion had always been his ability to read the minds of his adversaries and hence anticipate their strategies. But with Deep Blue, there was no mind to read. The machine’s lack of personality, its implacable blankness, turned out to be one of its greatest advantages. It disoriented Kasparov, breeding doubts in his mind and eating away at his self-confidence. “I didn’t know my opponent at all,” he recalls. “This intense confusion left my mind to wander to darker places.” The irony is that the machine’s victory was as much a matter of psychology as of skill.

Read on.

Photo: Elyktra.

Should Uber’s next CEO be a robot?

A little more than two years ago, I suggested in a post that “the killer business app for artificial intelligence may turn out to be the algorithmic CEO.” I was picking up on a point that Frank Pasquale had made in a review of The Second Machine Age:

[Thiel Fellow and Ethereum developer Vitalik Buterin] has stated that automation of the top management functions at firms like Uber and AirBnB would be “trivially easy.” Automating the automators may sound like a fantasy, but it is a natural outgrowth of mantras (e.g., “maximize shareholder value”) that are commonplaces among the corporate elite.

Now that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has resigned, completing a meltdown of the company’s top management ranks, Uber and its investors have a perfect opportunity to disrupt the executive suite, and indeed the entire history of management, by using software to run the company. Let’s face it: Kalanick’s great failing was that he was not quite robotic enough. His flaws were not analytical but human. He was a victim of his own meat.

A fundamentally numerical company, constituted mainly of software, Uber is the perfect test bed for the robot CEO. And since its staff includes exceptionally talented programmers, it already has the skill needed to gin up the algorithms necessary to do the work Kalanick and his lieutenants did (without the attendant buffoonery).* A two-day hackathon should be more than sufficient to create a robot able to translate spreadsheet data into resource-allocation plans and use machine learning to compose forward-leaning messages that inspire staffers, drivers, and venture capitalists. And to have Uber’s robot CEO sit next to Cook, Nadella, Bezos, et al., at the next White House photo-op would be a huge PR coup.

Not only is Uber the right company for a robot CEO, but now is the right time for one. Just two months ago, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma predicted that “in thirty years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time Magazine as the best CEO.”** As the financier Martin Hutchinson pointed out, there’s no reason to wait that long. “Human CEOs have amassed an especially dire track record in the last two decades,” he wrote. “Whereas their compensation has soared far faster than overall U.S. output, productivity growth in U.S. businesses has notably lagged, indicating their failure to invest optimally.” If there were ever a job to be automated, it’s that of the underperforming, overpaid modern CEO.

Even at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the case for a robot CEO was laid out in compelling terms:

There are some distinct advantages to having a robot as your company’s CEO. Firstly, they might be able to make better, more responsible, decisions. … Robots don’t face the unpredictability we humans face, so their decisions are more likely to be consistent, based on facts. … Robots can work all day, every day. They don’t need sleep, weekends or holidays. No mere humans can say the same, however hard they may try to cultivate that impression. … And if you’ve created one CEO robot, why not create a few more? It’s not as if he or she has a unique personality. Technology allows them to interact wherever your customers are, further cutting down travel costs and helping the environment.

We may look back on Kalanick’s resignation as the most transformative act of his eventful career. He has opened the door for a robot CEO. The question now is whether the Uber board will welcome the future or resist it.


*On further thought, Uber’s coders probably have better things to do than write simple CEO algorithms. What’s really needed are cloud-based virtual CEOs. Yes: CEO-as-a-Service. Are you listening, Marc Benioff?

**Ma’s assumption that Time will still be around, with its cover intact, thirty years from now makes me question his futurist cred. But I’m going to assume he was speaking figuratively.

The robot paradox

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” remarked MIT economist Robert Solow in a 1987 book review. The quip became famous. It crystallized what had come to be called the productivity paradox — the mysterious softness in industrial productivity despite years of big corporate investments in putatively labor-saving information technology.

I think the time has come to start talking about the robot paradox. So let me offer a new twist on Solow’s words:

You can see the robot age everywhere but in the labor statistics.

In an echo of the hype surrounding IT in the 1970s and 1980s, we’ve heard over the last decade a stream of predictions about how robots, algorithms, and other automation technologies are about to unleash an unemployment crisis. Not only will most factory jobs be handed over to automatons, but the ranks of white-collar workers will be decimated by artificial intelligence programs powered by Big Data. The end of work is nigh.

In the wake of the Great Recession, when hiring stayed stagnant for years, such predictions seemed reasonable. But recent economic statistics flat-out belie the claims. As Grep Ip, the Wall Street Journal economics columnist, wrote last week, predictions of an impending job apocalypse “would be more plausible if the evidence weren’t moving in exactly the opposite direction.” Business employment has been going up for 86 straight months, pushing the U.S. unemployment rate down to just 4.4 percent, a level many economists see as representing full employment. It’s true that a lot of workers have dropped out of the labor force, but the sustained, robust job growth makes it awfully hard to argue that advances in computer automation, which have been accelerating for a long time, are poised to create an unemployment explosion.

Even more telling is the persistently weak growth in productivity. As Ip explained: “If automation were rapidly displacing workers, the productivity of the remaining workers ought to be growing rapidly. Instead, growth in productivity — worker output per hour — has been dismal in almost every sector, including manufacturing.” You can argue that our methods of measuring productivity are imperfect, but if computers were going to obliterate workers, you should by now be seeing a strong upswing in productivity. And it’s just not there.

I’m convinced that computer automation is changing the way people work, often in profound ways, and I think it’s likely that automation is playing an important role in restraining wage growth by, among other things, deskilling certain occupations, shifting employees to more contingent positions, and reducing the bargaining power of workers. But the argument that computers are going to bring extreme unemployment in coming decades — an argument that was also popular in the 1950s, the 1960s, and again in the 1990s, it’s worth remembering — sounds increasingly dubious. It runs counter to the facts. Anyone making the argument today needs to provide a lucid and rational explanation of why, despite years of rapid advances in robotics, computer power, network connectivity, and artificial intelligence techniques, we have yet to see any sign of a broad loss of jobs in the economy.

Image: DARPA.

The digital-industrial complex

Exactly fifty years after the hippies gathered in San Francisco, another summer of love seems set to blossom. This time it’s not the flower children who are holding hands and sharing beds. It’s the titans of Big Internet.

Just this week, at its Build conference, Microsoft gave a hug to former adversaries Apple and Alphabet. “Windows PCs heart iOS and Android devices” was one of the big themes of the event — yes, the heart symbol was on display — and Microsoft announced that Apple’s iTunes app is coming to the Windows Store. Microsoft also formed a partnership with Facebook to incorporate an ad-tracking tool into Excel. Meanwhile, Apple and Amazon were engaged in their own public display of affection. They let word leak out that Amazon’s Prime Video app would soon be available on Apple TV. The once fierce rivals appear to have “reached a truce,” reported Recode.

Thanks to their technical and marketing prowess, combined with the winner-take-all dynamics of the internet, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft have emerged as the dominant companies of the consumer net (Farhad Manjoo dubs them the “frightful five”), with a combined market cap of a zillion dollars, give or take. Each now operates something of a perpetual-motion money-printing machine powered by the dollars and data that flow in such massive quantities through the net. The companies still face threats, of course, but, even as they sow disruption in other industries, their own market positions now look pretty stable and secure. They’re the winners.

While the boundaryless nature of online business means that each of the five companies competes with each of the others on many fronts, there is also now a symbiosis among them — and that symbiosis is getting stronger. Each of the five makes its profits in different ways, with Apple focusing on hardware, Google on web ads, Facebook on social-media ads, Amazon on retailing, and Microsoft on software sales and subscriptions. Their businesses overlap, but they are also complementary. And, as is often true with complementary products and services, gains by one company often help rather than hurt the businesses of the others. Each of the five is focused on expanding consumers’ dependency on the net, and as the net pie expands so does each of the five slices. At this point, being friends rather than enemies makes sense.

When it comes to business, in other words, the net is a centralizing force, not a decentralizing one as once assumed. The frightful five together form a digital-industrial complex, a nascent oligopoly set to skim the lion’s share of the profits from the consumer web for the foreseeable future. Five big pieces, loosely joined.

On Monday, the venture capitalist Jeremy Philips wrote a column intended as a rejoinder to Manjoo’s warnings about the power of the titans. Philips argued against the idea that, as he put it, “the five leading tech behemoths have turned into dangerous monopolies that stifle innovation and harm consumers.” Their businesses, he wrote, are “all converging — therefore competing — with one another.” His timing was unfortunate, as immediately after the column appeared we got the news of the new partnerships among the companies.

Philips’s argument would have sounded compelling just a few years ago. Back then, the five’s positions were not as well-established as they are now, and their relationships were defined by their skirmishes. That’s no longer the case. Yes, the businesses of the five have converged, but it’s now becoming clear that their interests have converged as well. For Big Internet, this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Image: Actors portraying hippies in “Hair.”

A smaller, nastier world

I have an essay in the Boston Globe‘s Ideas section that takes a hard look at the popular notion that communication networks make the world a better place.

Here’s a taste:

If our assumption that communications technology brings people together were true, we should today be seeing a planetary outbreak of peace, love, and understanding. Thanks to the Internet and cellular networks, humanity is more connected than ever. Of the world’s 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to a mobile phone. Nearly 2 billion are on Facebook, more than a billion upload and download YouTube videos, and billions more converse through messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat. With smartphone in hand, everyone becomes a media hub, transmitting and receiving ceaselessly.

Yet we live in a fractious time, defined not by concord but by conflict. Xenophobia is on the rise. Political and social fissures are widening. From the White House down, public discourse is characterized by vitriol and insult. We probably shouldn’t be surprised.

For years now, psychological and sociological studies have been casting doubt on the idea that communication dissolves differences. The research suggests that the opposite is true: free-flowing information makes personal and cultural differences more salient, turning people against one another instead of bringing them together. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is one of the gloomiest of proverbs. It is also, the evidence says, one of the truest.

Read on.

On Robert Pollard: August by Cake

[No. 03 in a Series]

A circus barker’s come-on. A brassy fanfare. The curtain rises, and the show begins with “5° on the Inside,” a thumping, rubber-jointed rocker that sounds utterly joyous, at least until the lyrics hit you.

The sweet spot bled out
to stain your life.

August by Cake is the most approachable Guided by Voices record since 2001’s Isolation Drills, the most relaxed since 1995’s Alien Lanes, and the most topical ever. Robert Pollard once divided humanity into two camps: Sad Clowns and Happy Motherfuckers. He was, he confessed, in the former category, but he envied those in the latter. August by Cake is a Happy Motherfucker record, but it’s shot through with a Sad Clown sensibility.

The release is being promoted as Pollard’s 100th studio record, a claim I’m not inclined to fact-check, but what really sets it apart is that it’s GBV’s first double album. Its 32 songs are parceled out evenly across the two disks, eight a side, and all that sonic real estate gives the album an unhurried quality, and an expansiveness, that’s unusual in the GBV catalog. The extended format also gives Pollard an excuse to share songwriting and singing duties with the four other current members of the band — drummer Kevin March, bassist Mark Shue, and guitar players Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. Each of them contributes two songs, with Shue also supplying a magnificently grimy instrumental called “Chew the Sand.” While Pollard’s erstwhile collaborator Tobin Sprout was always allowed a few songs on Guided by Voices albums when he was a member, August by Cake is by far the most democratic of the band’s records.

What’s remarkable, particularly given that Pollard reportedly gave his bandmates only a day or two to come up with their tracks, is how uniformly good all their songs are. They include some of the album’s standouts, notably March’s jingle-jangle earworm “Overloaded” and Shue’s thunderous “Sudden Fiction.” Even more surprising, they also include the two songs that sound the most like classic GBV numbers. Bare’s offhand “High Five Hall of Famers,” a tribute to the current lineup, would have fit right in on King Shit and the Golden Boys, and March’s “Sentimental Wars” has the brittle sweetness of a Sprout tune.

Still, it’s Pollard’s band and Pollard’s record. His 23 songs are varied and surprising, packing subtle chord and melody changes into their two-minute spans. If you’re looking for punky thrills like “Motor Away” or “Planet Score,” you’re not going to find them on this record. Pollard’s work here is more in a post-punk vein, catchy but aloof, open yet wary. Some of the best of his songs are the slow-burners, the ones that would be anthemic if they weren’t so undeceived. There’s the poised “What Begins on New Year’s Day,” the melancholic “Warm Up to Religion,” the tender “Amusement Park Is Over,” and, best of all, the stark, unsettling “We Liken the Sun.”

Arriving in the middle of the first side, “We Liken the Sun” takes a place among Pollard’s most striking compositions. In typically abstract-expressionist fashion, Pollard offers a meditation on metaphor against a backdrop of sullen, viperish guitars. He begins by portraying the sun as a symbol of life and inspiration — “the wheel of hands, a lasting thing” — but halfway through, the music deepens, enters a harsher climate, and the metaphor darkens. The song ends with an eerily apocalyptic refrain, the life-giving force transformed into a dealer of death:

Burn your face
with your gun,
light your head,
liken the sun.

Pollard, as an artist, is a formalist, and that’s true not only of his songs but of his albums. He takes a dramatist’s interest in the sequencing and segueing of tracks, and in the way the two sides of a vinyl record constitute different acts and can express different moods. That’s exactly what makes a double album such a tricky undertaking. Not only do you have to hold the listener’s interest for an unusually long time, but you have to work through four acts instead of just two. For most bands that have had the temerity to attempt one, the double album has represented a triumph of ambition over talent.

Wisely, Pollard keeps things simple. He steers clear of pretentiousness, keeps the songs in the foreground. (The model would seem to be the Beatles’ White Album, a record Pollard worships.) But there is a carefully worked out architecture to August by Cake, and it gives the album a heft and coherency that it wouldn’t have if it were just a big collection of songs.

The first side begins as something of an overture, giving a sense of the album’s many styles and themes. Then, starting with “Liken the Sun,” it turns ominous. One of the crucial tracks on any double album is the last song of the first side — it’s where the Stones put “Tumbling Dice” on Exile on Main Street — and Pollard picks for that spot the coldest, most abrasive song on the album: “Packing the Dead Zone.” It seems a strange choice at first, but the song brings to the surface an undercurrent of foreboding that runs throughout August by Cake. The album arrives in a world that gives every appearance of coming apart at its poorly sewn seams, and Pollard produces a bill of indictment that captures the absurdity of the times:

Music in boxes,
nail heads,
hat companies,
well-worn fools,
a room full of dolls,
idol hands,
confident knives,
psychopath timecard,
philosophical zombies,
gymnasium rats,
negative twitters,
Earth politicians
and ozone sneakers:
packing the dead zone.

The mood brightens on Side B, where the band indulges its garage-rock and glam-rock leanings. With nods to forerunners ranging from the Kinks to T Rex to Wire, not to mention 1990s-era GBV, the side is where this new version of Guided by Voices establishes its own identity, as a band able to work within a rich tradition without feeling constrained by it. It’s the most self-contained and confident of the sides, and it ends giddily, with the group charging through three of the album’s most upbeat, straightforward rock songs.

The third side is a different beast. It begins with the same riff that closes the second, but it heads in a contrary direction, inspired by Pollard’s fascination with prog and psychedelia. The most experimental, and the darkest, of the sides, it feels at times like a playlist for a road trip through dystopia. We’re back in the dead zone. In addition to Shue’s “Chew the Sand,” there’s Pollard’s creepy sci-fi mini-opera “Substitute 11,” Gillard’s piercing Silicon Valley kiss-off “Deflect/Project” (“evil things have come to light”), and Bare’s surreal, despairing “Upon the Circus Bus”:

And as we abandon all those who defended us
we all know what is waiting for us
on the circus bus, upon the circus bus.

Diehard fans will appreciate the jarring “amp drop” that Bare slips in near the close of the song — a winking tribute to a GBV tradition and a fitting exclamation point for Side C.

The final side strikes me as the least cohesive of the four — less a summing up than a sweeping up. But maybe that’s by design: a set of tunes to usher the crowd out of the tent and into the night. The album slows with a couple of ramshackle Pollard-alone-with-his-guitar songs (“Whole Tomatoes,” “Golden Doors”), but then closes with its most propulsive, exuberant number, “Escape to Phoenix.”

Grand destinies,
new hot topics,
the escape scene.

Pollard is the circus barker again, making a sprint for the town line, propelled by hand claps and chugging guitars. The tune feels like the missing link between the Velvet Underground and the Bay City Rollers. I’m not sure it was a link that needed to be discovered, but it does end this fun and satisfying album with a rush.

Watching eternity,
the people demand an answer.

They’re not going to get one, but, for the moment anyway, the Happy Motherfuckers are outrunning the Sad Clowns.

Image: Detail from “All the Way to Happy” by Robert Pollard.