AI Algorithms Use Massive Data to Do “Narrow Tasks”

(p. B2) A funny thing happens among engineers and researchers who build artificial intelligence once they attain a deep level of expertise in their field. Some of them—especially those who understand what actual, biological intelligences are capable of—conclude that there’s nothing “intelligent” about AI at all.

. . .

. . . the muddle that the term AI creates fuels a tech-industry drive to claim that every system involving the least bit of machine learning qualifies as AI, and is therefore potentially revolutionary. Calling these piles of complicated math with narrow and limited utility “intelligent” also contributes to wild claims that our “AI” will soon reach human-level intelligence. These claims can spur big rounds of investment and mislead the public and policy makers who must decide how to prepare national economies for new innovations.

. . .

The tendency for CEOs and researchers alike to say that their system “understands” a given input—whether it’s gigabytes of text, images or audio—or that it can “think” about those inputs, or that it has any intention at all, are examples of what Drew McDermott, a computer scientist at Yale, once called “wishful mnemonics.” That he coined this phrase in 1976 makes it no less applicable to the present day.

“I think AI is somewhat of a misnomer,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research on AI’s economic impacts requires a precise definition of the term. What we now call AI doesn’t fulfill the early dreams of the field’s founders—either to create a system that can reason as a person does, or to create tools that can augment our abilities. “Instead, it uses massive amounts of data to turn very, very narrow tasks into prediction problems,” he says.

When AI researchers say that their algorithms are good at “narrow” tasks, what they mean is that, with enough data, it’s possible to “train” their algorithms to, say, identify a cat. But unlike a human toddler, these algorithms tend not to be very adaptable. For example, if they haven’t seen cats in unusual circumstances—say, swimming—they might not be able to identify them in that context. And training an algorithm to identify cats generally doesn’t also increase its ability to identify any other kind of animal or object. Identifying dogs means more or less starting from scratch.

For the full commentary, see:

Christopher Mims. “AI’s Big Chill.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 31, 2021): B2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 30, 2021, and has the title “Artificial Intelligence’s Big Chill.” When you click on the title in the search list internal to the WSJ, you get a different title on the page of the article itself: “Why Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Intelligent.”)

Musk Pushed Hard to Achieve Sustainable Scale at Tesla

(p. B1) This was Mr. Hunter’s big moment: His team had scheduled 1,700 people to pick up their Model 3s in the coming days—a record—and he was proud to announce the achievement. The compact Model 3 was Mr. Musk’s bet-the-company shot at transforming Tesla into a mainstream auto maker and ushering in a new era of electric vehicles—and at that moment, Tesla needed to move thousands of them to stay afloat.

Mr. Hunter had set a record, but Mr. Musk wasn’t happy. The Tesla chief executive ordered Mr. Hunter to more than double the number the next day or else he’d personally take over.

There was more. Mr. Musk said he’d heard that Mr. Hunter’s team had been relying on phone calls to schedule car pickups. That stopped now. Nobody likes talking on (p. B6) the phone, Mr. Musk said; it takes up too much time. Text customers instead. That would be faster. If he heard about any calls being made the next day, Mr. Hunter was fired.

Mr. Hunter’s wife and children had only recently joined him in Las Vegas; they had just finished unpacking their boxes. Now Mr. Musk was threatening to fire him if he didn’t do the impossible in 24 hours.

Tesla was 15 years old, and it was running out of time and money.

. . .

The sales organization didn’t have hundreds of company cellphones that Mr. Hunter’s sales team could use to send text messages, as Mr. Musk demanded, and they didn’t want their employees using their own personal phones.

Overnight, Mr. Hunter and other managers pieced together a solution, employing software that allowed his team to text from their computers. They stopped the practice of walking customers through the reams of sales paperwork that would eventually need to be completed and signed. If Mr. Musk’s goal was to have people in a queue to pick up their cars, then that’s what they would do. They’d just start assigning pickup times for customers: Can you come in at 4 p.m. on Friday to get your new Model 3?

Often, Mr. Hunter didn’t even wait for any response before putting a customer on the list for pickup. If the customer couldn’t make it, she might be told she would lose her spot in line for a car that quarter. Customers became more motivated to complete the tedious paperwork needed to complete a sale when there was a Model 3 dangled in front of them. Mr. Hunter’s team began telling customers to have it all completed 48 hours before delivery.

The team raced through their list of customers, assigning times at pickup centers around the U.S. By 6 p.m. the next day, they had reached 5,000 appointments. Mr. Hunter gathered the team to thank them for their work. He fought back tears. He hadn’t told them that his job was on the line; all they knew was that it was super-important to schedule a bunch of deliveries. That night on the call, Mr. Hunter reported the results to Mr. Musk.

“Wow,” Mr. Musk said.

. . .

As the clock ticked down to the end of September [2020] and Tesla’s outrageous sales goal seemed out of reach, Mr. Musk turned to Twitter to make an unusual request to his loyal customers: Help us deliver vehicles.

Longtime owners showed up at stores around the country. They focused on showing customers how to operate their new cars, and explained life with an electric vehicle, freeing up paid staff to handle the overflow of paperwork. Mr. Musk and his new girlfriend, pop musician Grimes, worked at the Fremont delivery center, joined by board member Antonio Gracias. Mr. Musk’s brother, Kimbal, also a member of the board, showed up at a store in Colorado. It was truly an all-hands-on-deck moment. Surrounded by friends and kin, Musk seemed at his happiest, one manager recalled: “It was like a big family event…. He likes that—he likes loyalty.”

The company was ready to tabulate the quarter’s final delivery results. It was close. Deliveries reached 83,500—a record that exceeded Wall Street’s expectations but that was more than 15% shy of the internal goal of 100,000. (It was also uncannily close to the estimate by the head of customer experience, who had seemingly been ousted for suggesting it.) Almost 12,000 vehicles were still en route to customers, missing the deadline for the third quarter.

For the full essay, see:

Tim Higgins. “The Race to Rescue Tesla.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 31, 2021): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date July 30, 2021, and has the title “Elon Musk’s ‘Delivery Hell’.”)

The essay quoted above is based on Higgins’s book:

Higgins, Tim. Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century. New York: Doubleday, 2021.

Air Conditioning as a “Powerful Solution” to Global Warming

(p. A11) SEATTLE — For two decades, Becky Lichenstein embraced a custom of the Seattle area: doing without air-conditioning. . . .

But summers in the Pacific Northwest aren’t what they once were. With more regular bouts of soaring temperatures, Ms. Lichenstein a few years ago surrendered and bought a portable air-conditioning unit. This year, considering a changing climate and how it’s hitting home, she decided to turn to a more powerful solution — a permanent system installed just this week.

“I’m very grateful that I’m getting it done,” said Ms. Lichenstein, as workers finalized the installation at her split-level home in Tacoma, south of Seattle.

. . .

. . . , like many parts of the country where air-conditioning was once considered an afterthought or a luxury, the region’s relationship with air-conditioning has started to change. In 2013, just 31 percent of households in the Seattle metro area had some sort of air-conditioning, according to data in the federal government’s American Housing Survey. Just six years later, that had risen to 44 percent, accounting for hundreds of thousands of new units.

For the full story, see:

Mike Baker. “Once for ‘Weaklings,’ Air-Conditioning Wins Over a Baking Seattle.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 26, 2021): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 30, 2021 and has the title “Air-Conditioning Was Once Taboo in Seattle. Not Anymore.”)

Nanosatellites May Be a General Purpose Technology

(p. B4) Scientists who track the health of Adélie penguins on the ice-covered wastes of Antarctica are managing their cameras from thousands of miles away—via tiny satellites orbiting above our heads.

Energy companies are exploring using the same technology for monitoring hard-to-reach wind farms; logistics companies for tracking shipping containers; and agribusiness companies for minding cattle. It even helped National Geographic track a discarded plastic bottle from Bangladesh to the Indian Ocean.

In the near future, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine this evolving satellite technology could put a distress beacon in every automobile, allow remote monitoring of wildlife in any environment on earth, and track your Amazon shipment—not just when it’s on a truck, but backward, all the way to the factory that produced it. And it could be done at a fraction of the cost of earlier satellite tracking systems.

These novel networks of nanosats—aka cubesats—are a result of a number of factors.

First, the satellites themselves are smaller, cheaper and more capable than ever. The smartphone industry has miniaturized all electronics, benefiting everything from cars to drones. Then there are falling launch costs, due to companies like SpaceX, active national space programs like India’s, and an array of new launch technologies, from reusable boosters to 3-D-printed engines.

Just as important, there’s the rollout and adoption of new long-distance, low-power wireless communication standards that can work just as well in outer space as they do on the ground.

Like so many innovations in their early days, from the internet to the smartphone, no one is quite sure what low-cost, low-power data relays from space will enable—or whether there will be enough demand to sustain the many companies jostling to provide it. In the next year, hundreds of satellites from more than a dozen companies are set to launch.

For the full commentary, see:

Christopher Mims. “A March of Penguins and Progress.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021): B4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 8, 2021, and has the title “The Tiny Satellites That Will Connect Cows, Cars and Shipping Containers to the Internet.”)

“Legions of Good People” Are Willing to Pay a Price “to Speak the Truth”

(p. A9) . . . in February 1986 . . . a presidential commission was investigating the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed all seven crew members a few weeks earlier.

Mr. McDonald was an engineer for the maker of the solid-fuel booster rockets. During a hearing, he believed an official of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was glossing over a prelaunch debate on whether to proceed despite unusually cold temperatures in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Seated in the background, Mr. McDonald waved his hands for attention and then stood up. He told the commission that he and other engineers had warned that low temperatures might cause a failure of synthetic rubber O-ring seals in the rocket’s joints. The commission later found that such a failure was responsible for the explosion and that NASA had brushed aside a warning that could have saved the astronauts.

. . .

Mr. McDonald’s uninvited testimony was a shock to the commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan. In his memoir, “Truth, Lies and O-Rings,” the engineer recalled the reaction from William P. Rogers, chairman of the commission:

“Who in the hell are you?”

. . .

Mr. Rogers thanked Mr. McDonald and other engineers for giving their side of the story.

. . .

At work, however, Mr. McDonald was at times ostracized by colleagues who accused him of undermining the company’s aerospace business. Morton Thiokol moved him out of his space shuttle duties in what he considered a demotion.

. . .

“I never considered myself a hero for doing my job in the best manner that I knew how and telling the truth about it,” he wrote, adding that “there are legions of good people out there every day defending their professional opinions and willing to speak the truth at some risk to their own job security. They just haven’t been involved in such a high-profile news making event like me.”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Engineer Exposed Space Shuttle Risks.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 3, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 30, 2021, and has the title “Rocket Engineer Blew the Whistle on NASA After the Challenger Disaster.”)

The McDonald memoir mentioned above is:

McDonald, Allan J., and James R. Hansen. Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2018..


Biden Plan “Lurches Into” the “Quagmire” of Government Picking Tech Winners and Losers

(p. A23) The Biden administration has put forward the biggest, boldest, most expensive expansion of government in at least a half-century.

. . .

The Biden plan doesn’t just tiptoe around the quagmire of the government picking winners and losers, or what has been termed “industrial policy” — it lurches into it. Hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested by government agencies, whose record of success with direct involvement in the commercial world is, at best, mixed.

A recent case in point: the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, at $787 billion, was much, much smaller than the more than $4 trillion sum of the two Biden plans put forward thus far. While the 2009 stimulus did put much-needed dollars into the economy without fraud or abuse (as Mr. Biden likes to remind us), it didn’t achieve another of its goals: a swifter transition to clean energy.

As a 2015 Congressional Research Service report reviewing stimulus projects further noted, “Solyndra declared bankruptcy in late 2011 and defaulted on its $535 million loan, Abound Solar received about $70 million of its $400 million loan before shuttering its solar panel operation and filing for bankruptcy in 2012, and SoloPower never met the requirements to initiate its $197 million loan guarantee.”

None of this should be too surprising. Going all the way back to the creation of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation in 1980, which I covered as a New York Times correspondent, the federal government’s recurring efforts at directing energy transitions have mostly struggled.

. . .

No one should want the Biden plan to fall short. But given its vast sweep — I conservatively counted more than five dozen initiatives — the administration should increase its chances of success by leaning more heavily on private models for help and using tax incentives to a greater extent for efficiency.

For the full commentary, see:

Steven Rattner. “Handle Big Government With Care.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Biden’s Big Government Should Be Handled With Care.”)

Many Chinese Have “Desperate Need” to “Hear Different View Points”

(p. A1) One by one, the chatroom participants took the digital microphone as thousands quietly listened in.

A Chinese man said he did not know whether to believe the widespread reports of concentration camps for Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang. Then a Uighur woman spoke up, calmly explaining that she was certain of the camps’ existence because her relatives had been among those interned. A man from Taiwan chimed in to urge understanding on all sides, while another from Hong Kong praised the woman for her courage in coming forward.

It was a rare moment of cross-border dialogue with people on the mainland of China, who are usually separated from the rest of the online world by the Great Firewall. For a short time, they found an open forum on the social media app, Clubhouse, to discuss con-(p. A10)tentious topics, free from the usual constraints of the country’s tightly controlled internet.

By Monday [Feb. 8, 2021] evening, the inevitable happened: The Chinese censors moved in. Many mainland users reported receiving error messages when they tried to use the platform. Some said they could only access the app by tunneling through the digital border using a VPN, or virtual private network. Within hours, more than a thousand users had tuned in to hear a discussion about the ban in a chatroom titled “Walled off, so now what?” Searches for “Clubhouse” on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo were blocked.

To many users in mainland China, it was a brief window into an unfettered social media. Under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, the government has been ramping up its efforts to assert near-total digital control over what its citizens read and say online.

. . .

“Clubhouse is exactly what Chinese censors don’t want to see in online communication — a massive, freewheeling conversation in which people are talking openly,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls. “It’s also a reminder that when there is an opportunity, many Chinese have a desperate need to talk to each other and to hear different view points.”

For the full story, see:

Amy Chang Chien and Amy Qin. “A Virtual Space for Chinese Debate Disappears.” The New York Times (Tues., February 9, 2021): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 25, 2021, and has the title “In China, an App Offered Space for Debate. Then the Censors Came.”)

Chinese People Yearn for Freedom of Speech

(p. B1) For years, the Chinese government has prevented its 1.4 billion people from speaking freely online. A digital wall separated them from the rest of the world.

Then, for a precious few days, that wall was breached.

Clubhouse, a new social media app that emerged faster than the censors could block it, became a place for Mandarin Chinese speakers from the mainland and anywhere else to speak their minds. They had a lot to say.

. . .

The Chinese government blocked the app Monday [Feb. 8, 2021] afternoon. I knew it was coming, and yet I still didn’t expect to feel so dismayed.

For that brief moment, people in China proved that they are as creative and well spoken as (p. B6) people who enjoy the freedom to express themselves. They lined up, sometimes for hours, to wait for their turns to speak. They argued for the rights of the government loyalists to speak despite their disagreements. They held many honest, sincere conversations, sometimes with tears and sometimes with laughter.

Those conversations helped illuminate why the Chinese government blocks free speech online in the first place. Those free-flowing exchanges threaten to debunk the caricatures that the state-controlled media often foists upon the Chinese people. The state media dismisses people like the Tiananmen protesters, pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong or those in Taiwan who want the island to take a different path from the mainland.

Likewise, mainlanders got a chance to prove that they aren’t brainwashed drones. People who had been demonized got a chance to speak out and be humanized.

Over the past two decades, Beijing has developed the most sophisticated online censorship system in the world. Big online platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were blocked long ago. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, a growing number of topics have become off limits on the Chinese internet. Clubhouse gave mainland Chinese users a chance to flock to chatrooms focused on those taboos.

. . .

Several chatrooms were devoted to the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square, a heavily censored topic on the Chinese internet. Cai Chongguo, a student leader during the protests, talked for about four hours, sharing his stories and answering questions from thousands of people.

. . .

Even during the freewheeling conversation, censorship was on the minds of many. On Monday afternoon, one room that reached Clubhouse’s maximum of 5,000 users featured speakers sharing their concerns over whether they would be questioned by the authorities for speaking out on the app.

. . .

A few hours later, mainland users began to report that the app had been blocked. Several rooms were set up immediately for people to chat it over. I joined a room for people to mourn the blocking.

The title of the room featured three candle emoticons. People lined up to share their most memorable experience. A few speakers cried.

. . .

Ms. Sun, who lives in Germany, had never talked about such politically sensitive topics with strangers. Then, on Saturday, she had waited more than two hours to speak in a chatroom about those very topics with thousands of people from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the world.

Someday, she said in an interview, Chinese people would be able to talk freely. Many Eastern Germans didn’t expect the Berlin Wall to fall in 1989, she added, but it happened.

“Nobody can predict the future,” Ms. Sun said. “We should believe in humanity and humanity’s yearning for freedom.”

For the full commentary, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; China’s Spirit Shines Behind Firewall.” The New York Times (Wednesday, February 10, 2021): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 9, 2021, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; The Great Firewall Cracked, Briefly. A People Shined Through.”)

Oppenheim Recommends Diamond’s “Well-Researched,” “Well-Written,” and “Fascinating” Openness to Creative Destruction

Charles Oppenheim is an Information Science expert whose recent focus has been intellectual property. He is currently a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. (I do not remember ever meeting him.) Oppenheim has written a gracious, though mixed, review of my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. Although mixed, what he likes outweighs what he dislikes. Below I quote his first and his final paragraphs.

(p. 82) The author is a well-known professor of economics in the United States. In this book, well researched and supported by numerous references, his philosophy of life is made clear – and a rather worrying philosophy it is, as we shall see. The book addresses the question of how to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in an advanced economy such as that of the United States.

. . .

(p. 83) This is a well-written book with an easy style that will appeal to economists, students and perhaps the general public. It is supported by a large number of references, as well as figures and tables. It has an exemplary index. Diamond covers interesting ground and provides some fascinating histories of the development of many of the inventions we now take for granted. Such a pity that Diamond’s argument is so one-sided, and that he fails to take into account moral, ethical and environmental concerns in his optimistic vision of how innovation can make economies thrive. The book is recommended, but treat its contents with caution.

For the full review, see:

Oppenheim, Charles. “Openness to Creative Destruction, Arthur M. Diamond Jr. (2019), Oxford University Press.” Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation 36, no. 1 (March 2020): 82-83.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

My book, reviewed by Oppenheim, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Jim Pethokoukis Asks Art Diamond How to Increase Innovative Dynamism

Jim Pethokoukis recently posted an abbreviated transcript of our conversation on his Political Economy podcast about my Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism book.

Posted by Arthur Diamond on Thursday, August 6, 2020

Entrepreneurially Nimble Amish Pivot to Make Face Masks

(p. A9) SUGARCREEK, Ohio — On April 1, John Miller, a manufacturer here with deep connections to the close-knit Amish community of Central Ohio, got a call from Cleveland Clinic. The hospital system was struggling to find protective face masks for its 55,000 employees, plus visitors. Could his team sew 12,000 masks in two days?

He appealed to Abe Troyer with Keim, a local lumber mill and home goods business and a leader in the Amish community: “Abe, make a sewing frolic.” A frolic, Mr. Miller explained, “is a colloquial term here that means, ‘Get a bunch of people. Throw a bunch of people at this.’”

A day later, Mr. Troyer had signed up 60 Amish home seamstresses, and the Cleveland Clinic sewing frolic was on.

. . .

Almost overnight, a group of local industry, community and church leaders has mobilized to sustain Amish households by pivoting to work crafting thousands of face masks and shields, surgical gowns and protective garments from medical-grade materials. When those run scarce, they switch to using gaily printed quilting fabric and waterproof Tyvek house wrap.

For the full story, see:

Elizabeth Williamson. “In Ohio, Amish Families Pivot to Make Medical Gear.” The New York Times (Friday, April 10, 2020): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 16, 2020, and has the title “In Ohio, the Amish Take On the Coronavirus.”)