r/pics February 2014 part 2

Could you kill a robot?

Could you? Not if you had to because it was running amok, but just because…for no real reason. How about maiming one? Is there a moral issue involved? Or is it a daft question considering that a robot has no consciousness or sentience.

Is destroying a robot the same as killing it? Which word generates the stronger emotional reaction?

boston dynamics robot

These might seem like irrelevant questions but actually they are important considerations as we prepare ourselves for the coming tide of robotics. Much is written about what will happen to the job market, and that is important too of course, but there are also big issues of a more personal nature. What will it mean to live in a society where artificial or fake sentience is commonplace? What will happen to our definitions of humanity if artificial life can evoke the same responses from humans as real biological life does.

Wikipedia defines sentience like this…

Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive, or to experience subjectivity

The overarching question is whether or not the appearance of sentience will affect our societal codes, both legislated and social, and if so, how?

To kick off this brief (very brief) inquiry have a quick look at this clip from the Graham Norton show. Graham is showing Gary Oldman, Toni Collette and Nick Frost a £12,000 mini robot, who quite frankly is very sweet, for want of a less cloying term.

That robot certainly has an uncanny ability to generate real empathy from the human audience.

At the point that it lifts its hand, like a child, to walk with Norton there is a sincere and substantial ‘aww’ from the audience, it is palpably emotive. When it falls and says ‘help me’, few people hear it (they are laughing at something else), but if you re-watch the clip and try to hear ‘help me’, it is strangely affecting.

There are other surprises too, when the technology is being stretched, the humanity disappears. At the point that it performs Gangnam style, I feel the empathy goes totally AWOL, its impressive, I guess, but in a different way, it is no longer pulling on the heartstrings, it’s talking to a different part of me.

Language is important

It would seem that the markers of human discourse, or at least a certain type of human discourse, are more subtle and less grand. In the biological realm it’s long been understood that there is a particular class of ‘linguistic tool’ in normal human speech called discourse markers, that when used facilitate a more courteous exchange. These are the small utterances that appear as, often self-deprecating filler, when humans talk to each other. For example people often say ‘probably’ , ‘I think’ , ‘maybe’ even though they harbour no such doubts about what they are saying. I did it, without realising, in the previous paragraph when I wrote, “its impressive, I guess, but in a different way”

android and human

This article argues that mastering such ‘simplicities’ of language (the language is humanly simple, the mastery of it in a technical architecture anything but) will be a major feature of effective human – robot communication.

For my money this idea seems to infer that the replication of human idioms within robotic architectures can generate sincere human responses. If the robots act, in certain ways, like humans then it seems that our autonomous thinking systems (which is most of our thinking apparatus), will treat them like humans.

They made videos of an “amateur baker” making cupcakes with a helper giving advice—in some videos the helper was a person, and in some videos the helper was a robot. Sometimes the helpers used hedges or discourse markers, and sometimes they didn’t.

You can probably already guess that the humans and robots that used hedges and discourse markers were described in more positive terms by the subjects who watched the videos. It’s somewhat more surprising to hear that the robots that hedged their speech came out better [than] the humans who did.

The author credits the novelty of robots as teachers, for their superior performance in this experiment. That makes some sense, and is testable too, as robotic interaction becomes commonplace. But for the moment I am more intrigued about understanding the action of our supposedly  autonomous brains, largely because if autonomous sub-conscious reactions are driving these empathetic feelings then once novelty wanes we can expect an even more seamless set of autonomic interactions with our robot compatriots. This line of thought suggests that the division between human – human interactions and human –robot interactions will become more, not less, opaque.

There are other confounding ideas to consider.

Recently a Washington Post journalist was called by a telemarketer selling health insurance, seemingly a pleasant, bright young woman. Something, however, felt a little off, he thought she was a robot. The call was recorded.

He, in my opinion is slightly aggressive, as he tests his inkling by repeatedly asking if she is a robot, to which she repeatedly answers “I am a real person”. You can see why he became suspicious, she does sound as though she could be a robot. But here’s the thing. So does he. Some of his challenges have a strangely artificial hue as well. My conjecture is that as a result of believing that he is talking to a robot his use of discourse markers is reduced, this would also explain why his conversation comes across as unduly aggressive.

As it turns out she wasn’t a robot. Well, not quite. She was a program used by call operators with weak English, or strong accents. So, there is in fact a human triggering the interactions, which explains the pauses and the repeated phrasings, clearly the operators have a ‘script’ of some kind, managed by the software which limits the conversational creativity that can be brought to bear. It also demonstrates quite clearly that our perceptions in the realm of human – robot interactions are not 100% effective.

At one level we now have 3 choices to consider (human – human, human – robot, human – hybrid), on a more challenging level we need to consider the pitfalls and troubles that these complications could cause if our perceptions fail us and we get our sub-conscious analysis wrong.

Being rude, to a real person, which is what happened here, is just one such problem.

However, to take it to the extreme, if you can’t distinguish between artificial and human communication in a world where faceless communication is increasingly becoming the norm, then what is the nature of humanity in this faceless future? Is there a meaningful division at all?

robot bar tender

So, back to killing a robot….it’s really not so cut and dry as it might have seemed. Robots have the ability to play with your emotions and you might be utterly unprepared for that.

Kate Darling is a researcher who is looking at robot ethics (hooray). Alongside safety, liability and privacy Kate also spends time looking at the social side of human – robot interaction.

She recently ran a popular session at Harvard. She tackles the killing question head on.

“….she encouraged participants to bond with these robots, then to destroy one. Participants were horrified, and it took threats to destroy all robots to get the group to destroy one of the six. She observes that we respond to social cues from lifelike machines, even if we know they are not real”

There are some interesting times up ahead for us all. I’m glad that people like Kate are sufficiently forward thinking to start the dialogue now. It’s almost guaranteed that we won’t be ready, but at least we won’t be totally unaware.

Facebook and Upworthy

Never Build Your House on Someone Else’s Land

I’ve kept a gentle eye on Upworthy since they published this deck on Slideshare, “How to make that one thing go viral” . I didn’t expect to be impressed, largely because I think it is incredibly difficult to plan for viral behaviour with any certainty. However, on reading it I realised that they did actually understand some of the mechanics involved and they were refreshingly honest, admitting that only 5 of their posts had achieved over 1 million views (that number might be larger today, the deck was published in December 2012). Mostly though they hammered down the need to write 25 headlines. Repeatedly. This wasn’t the magic sauce that creative studios were looking for, it was instead a pragmatic slightly cynical approach, that, well, worked.

Upworthy editorial 25 headlinesUpworthy is not my personal cup of tea (i’m not in the target demographic), but I was impressed that they had a good understanding of what was going on with ‘viral’.

Their second ‘secret’ was to concentrate on getting their content pushed through Facebook’s network. They had an intelligent and focused data tested approach to their UX, the overarching take out being…

upworthy ux likes facebook

So, hats off, they got some big things right and grew at an impressive rate. Until recently.

Bloomberg are reporting that things are no longer so rosy, and that since Facebook updated their algorithm in December 2013 Upworthy has lost 46% of its traffic, falling to 48 million a month from a peak of nearly 90. That’s a huge hit in just 2 months and I am curious as to how they will respond. Time will tell.

What I find most interesting, however, is something more fundamental than Upworthy’s fortunes….Facebook’s fortunes.

Firstly they now join a group of just 2, themselves and Google, whose traffic generating algorithms are so important that they can chop up the health of significant, large businesses with a simple change in the maths. Kudos.

Secondly, and perversely, this highlights the core fragility at the heart of Facebook’s business model. That might seem like an odd conclusion but there is something to it. Facebook announced that the December algorithm update was all about improving the user experience, while the observing masses were of the opinion that it was a deliberate move to hit the link bait farms such as Upworthy, in an attempt to force them to purchase their Facebook traffic. I think there is a 3rd dynamic at play as well.

Facebook’s stickiness was built around the connectivity of real people to other real people. As such I always felt they were in a tricky spot with monetisation as every increase in advertising content in the newsfeed meant less personal content. Less news about family and friends = less stickiness.

Upworthy and the like were taking up a chunk of the newsfeed oxygen, and there was already a critical competition for that oxygen between the raw material of the product (the friends and family content) and the advertiser content that needed to be accommodated. Bye bye Upworthy, for now at least.

Facebook has been pushing good revenue figures for a while now, having got a grip with their mobile product (so goes accepted wisdom), and are pushing their news app, paper (a standalone, an interesting diversification) at the moment, so this isn’t a post predicting the imminent death of Facebook, just some observations.

As a quick addendum this isn’t the only Facebook revenue story in the news this week. It seems remiss not to include this here. No commentary from me, the video does a great job of explaining the situation.

Videos – music videos

 I don’t want to throw away any sacred things. What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.  –  Kurt Vonnegut

That’s from Vonnegut’s book “Breakfast of Champions” which was published in 1973. I’ve always liked the quote and although I never felt the need to question it, as it just felt true to me, I was delighted when I watched this video with Bobby McFerrin and I was reminded of Vonnegut’s opinion.

Music is essentially about connection, anyone who has stood in a room listening to a band or a soloist who manages to get ‘there’ (whatever and wherever there is), knows this. Whether you are with 50 or 50,000 other people it is unfathomable that the experience could have been superior if you were on your own.

This video, at a conference on neurology goes someway to demonstrating the visceral human connectivity that is music. This is a delight, the sort of thing to watch if you need a quick lift.


Second up is a video from Primus who I am mostly aware of as the guys who wrote and sing the theme song from Southpark. The song called “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” is good, but I really love the video. For some reason, and its rare for me, the video makes this what it is.


Finally an example of the craft that is Stevie Ray Vaughan, and in this clip, more particularly the craft of a great roadie. He loses a string, but if you couldn’t see what happened you wouldn’t know.



Money, maps and mystery – 3 links

I’m pretty uncomfortable with the recent developments in the field of genetically engineered crops. I haven’t done due diligence and investigated properly, so for the moment I will refrain from judgement even while I acknowledge my discomfort.

That said I do have a problem with the fact that, in the name of intellectual property protection, these companies have severed the ability for GE crops to produce their owns seeds, bringing even deeper commercial dependency into the agricultural world. That just strikes me as a deeply stupid thing to do, regardless of, or perhaps because of, the profit motive. This article is broadly in favour of GE developments in agriculture while also wishing to find a way for the intellectual property landscape, in this case patents, to become more serviceable to the world at large and not just the large global entities that have the resource and knowledge to exploit the system in their favour.

The chief protagonist, Richard Jefferson, uses the frankly wonderful story of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten to make an interesting point about how monopolies on knowledge stymie innovation and development. Linschoten, in the 16th century, copied the maps that had been the basis of the Portuguese and Spanish domination of world trade. They were a closely guarded secret that held real value. When he returned to his native Holland he didn’t sell the maps for profit he published them to freely spread the knowledge wide and far.

Jefferson’s point is that the patent system needs mapping in order to democratise it for, among others, developing world farmers. I can see the value in that but still feel that there are elements of shuffling deckchairs on the titanic in such an approach. Surely the anecdote casts doubts on the whole concept of patents, not simply their accessibility?



The second link today is an anonymous screed from an American investment manager. His firm’s clients are firmly in the top 1% with net worth in excess of $5m and annual incomes above $300,000. The whole piece is very much worth reading, if only to discover that roughly $5m is required to secure a 30 year retirement income in the category that most of us would categorise as rich. That has certainly influenced the investment strategy that I will be adopting once I win the lottery (it has incidentally focused me almost exclusively on the Euromillions lottery which has potential wins above $10m, after all what is the point in taking such a ludicrous punt if I can’t even be financially secure for life as a result).

Truth be told there is little in here to find humour in. Instead it is a quantified look inside the finances of the super wealthy in America and what can be bought in return.

Unlike those in the lower half of the top 1%, those in the top half and, particularly, top 0.1%, can often borrow for almost nothing, keep profits and production overseas, hold personal assets in tax havens, ride out down markets and economies, and influence legislation in the U.S. They have access to the very best in accounting firms, tax and other attorneys, numerous consultants, private wealth managers, a network of other wealthy and powerful friends, lucrative business opportunities, and many other benefits. Most of those in the bottom half of the top 1% lack power and global flexibility and are essentially well-compensated workhorses for the top 0.5%, just like the bottom 99%.



Finally something of a more friendly hue, Cicada 3301. For 2 years or so a nameless organisation has been posing a series of brain numbingly difficult puzzles and problems, originally seeded in locations on the open web. It, quite frankly, reads like something from a William Gibson novel, which is probably no accident.

A certain level of progress (the clues seemed to lead to more clues) delivered a telephone number and the message “call us”, which in turn after another act of deciphering led to a website and a countdown. The countdown revealed real world locations and a whole new angle opened up. There is much more to the story, best recounted by the article linked below rather than me just regurgitating it for you.




r/pics February 2014