Friday, June 14, 2019

redecentralization 2.0

It has been a core thee of a lot of my work & interests. decentralized systems are just more interesting than centralized ones. they may be inherently more resilient (but not always), and they may be more complex (but not always).

the internet is largely decentralized in its lower layers (the tubes - the routers and links, and routing algorithms). that was always intended, from baran's report for rand onwards.
society and eco-systems are often decentralized (sure there are governments (but more than 1) and bee hives (but more than one) - but coordination happens peer-to-peer (a term which first arose in magna carta, but an idea which predates that by a billion years).

decentralized, infrastructureless networks are an interesting point in the design space - hence community mesh wireless networks, and opportunistic, delay and disruption tolerant networks work merely using users' devices and construct communication out of thin air. in this extreme environment, we are challenged to think of how we provide information about identity or trustworthiness, but in fact, on close examination, a central provision of those properties has many problems too - DNS certificates can be bogus or expired, source IP addresses do not have to refer to where the packet came from, an application layer user identifier (email address, facebook identity etc) is no more a true name than the Prince of Serendip.

so really, everything should be decentralized, as it forces us to confront the true problems and come up with decent solutions, instead of using the prop of underserved respectability of a centre.

That's why we founding the centre for redecentralization. :-)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

future of work & AI

so techno-optimists paint a rosy future image with AI freeing us up from toil to have a life of infinite leisure.

lets go back to the victorian times and the industrial revolution - what happened? machines (steam engines etc) meant that food (and transport) no longer required most people to grow what they eat, or feed the horses - so most people should have been able to get free food or travel to the seaside for a dip. what happened? most people moved from fairly pleasant rural existence farming to working in the dark satanic mills - i.e. became urban factory workers with longer hours and shorter, less pleasant lives.

lets go back to when people stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled down to farming. could have been nice to stop worrying about the days when you stop being predator and become prey from time to time. but what happened? people built nation states and priesthoods and aristocracies and invented serfs/slavery.

so techno-pessimists paint a dystopic future picture with AIs enslaving us (or just disposing of us).
That's nonsense too.

So how will things play out? what of all this "makework" that mot of us in the developed world engage in that is trivially automatable (actually, doesn't need doing)?

I have no idea, but we better figure it out soon.

[1] homework

Friday, June 07, 2019

Rashomon sets as a metaphor for why interpretability is hard

So this  arxiv paper by  cynthia rudin  about why we should stop explaining black box AIs contains a beautiful metaphor, the idea of a Rashomon Set. For people who don't know, Rashomon is a classic film made by the Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Its plot is about an incident in the woods, told from multiple viewpoints, and as each one unfurls, you realize the previous one was not "true" for a different reason, until the "end" when you cease to be sure of what actually happened. Kurosawa made quite a few films that are not only classic, but slightly influential - for example, his series of lone samurai hero movies (sanjuro, Yojimbo) were remade by Sergio Leone into great spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood's early career (a fist full of dollars and for a few dollars more) as well as the Seven Samurai (the magnificent Seven etc) . Kurosawa also made fine japanese versions of european classic plays (Throne of Blood == Macbeth, and Ran == King Lear). Of course, one of his slightly lesser (but still wonderful) films, The Hidden Fortress got a thinly disguised makeover by one George Lucas as the first (and pretty much all the successor) Star Wars films. Kurosawa often cast Toshiro Mifune, who had some success in Hollywood movies - usually as a tough soldier, but rarely capturing the humorous element that was part of his subtle signature in his home country films. The only thing where I think the japan<>western translations of film didn't work was a US remake of Rashomon (sadly, as it should be possible to do) - many of the others are great (in my personal opinion) in either take, whether shakespeare, or sci fi, samurai or gunslinger. If you see and like Kurosawa films, you will likely also enjoy books by Haruki Murakami, although don't blame me if you don't. Rashomon Sets - what a totally super idea! almost as good as explaining algorithms through Hungarian folk dance....

Monday, June 03, 2019

counterfactual reasoning example

spent a while yesterday trying to get additional car insurance on a 20+yr old subaru for member of family who has very recently passed driving test.

so go online on compare market and on several insurance company specific web sites and provide following info as input to their decision system:

1. car registration

2. existing insurance info

3. new driver license info

from the above, most (not all) the companies used the DVLA to verify car model/miles per year (via MOT at DVLA) and status of insurance and correct info about new driver...

so all ok (can obviously try making up other cars, but hard to fake driver:)

so outputs were mostly no - including existing insurance company, who said would add new driver after 6 months, but due to car's engine size (leaking quite a lot of info) they couldn't add a recently passed driver this is slightly weird as the car we got was bought because it ranked as safest car n class by AA and others:) - they and two other outfits said no problem if we got a smaller car (suggesting less safe vehicles:(

tried various other types of insurance - e.g. car-sharing (borrow) allegedly targetted at students coming home in vacation borrowing parents car - and pay-as-you-drive - all said no

so then ran a compare market on new driver insurance from sratch and got a couple of genuine offers- in fact, not completely mad prices either, if we're prepared to do a whole year  (we are) ...(still with fact insured party isn't car owner or keeper, but is in the family)

so the range of prices is probably a proxy for the risk level the insurance companies will tolerate (I assume they all have pretty much the same actuarial data on accident/theft rate with age, gender, car model/age, location, use of car,and other stuff they obviously gather....

privacy tech/statements from most of the website/forms/companies was pretty decent...


Saturday, June 01, 2019

Putting the n in Ethics - i.e. where's the ethnic diversity in our discussions of this import topic?

There's been a trend in recent years to suggest that when you're asked to be on a panel (as a bloke), you should decline unless there is a plausible gender balance policy.

There's been another trend in recent years to talk a lot about ethics and AI.
Both of these trends seem like a good idea.

It is my observation that the trends should be combined in  another way -

The vast majority of people I see talking about ethics and AI are weird, in a technical sense. while there is a better gender balance in ethics panel discussions than pure tech, but I think they fail in general terms to represent diversity. As I wrote this, I did see one discussion of a new direction from an interesting part of the world, namely China.  I am sure there are discussions in many other places, but I don't think they are showing up in the 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

the hype of incomprehensibility

I've been looking at various techs for a few years now and watch the lifecycle  - it doesn't always involve hype - sometimes, things just seep into everyday life (the internet kind of did this over a couple of decades - even mobile phones kind of did) - so looking at things that don't make it, or have to go through some massive transformation to stand any kind of chance, one of the tells is that the tech is very badly explained, often hidden behind some simplistic banner-phrases like "blockchain" or "quantum computing" or "deep learning" - when you look at the swathes and tranches of literature, what is striking is a lack of straightforward examples.

Sometimes, this can be simply because the tech is actually rather subtle and also might involve understanding several other things first (quantum computing seems to fit in this category, Bayes methods like MCMC might be another) - other times, it is that smart people that make it their business to explain important new stuff in really straight-speaking ways (e.g. The Morning Paper ) stick to stuff that is worth explaining.

So if you see a huge pile of gray-publications about something, and there isn't anything on one of the classier blogs or oped in a leading place, be suspicious (e.g. cold fusion, brexit, DLT, etc).

Friday, May 24, 2019

data is the new snake oil

we hear a lot hot air about data is the new oil - implying there's a rush of innovation and profits as with a gold rush (there's money in them there data hills etc)-

this is so baly broken a metaphor, we need to unpick (deconstruct) it further

1. data is free to copy (nearly), i.e. data is in some sense renewable, while oil gets used up (its nearly 50% gone now).
2. using oil does as much harm (or possibly more) as good
3. using data can do harm or good
4. AI/ML is compute intensive- deep learning in particular is massively inefficient, and data centers (like power stations, in close proximity to which they are sometimes built) burn %ages of globally generated electricity - not always renewable energy
5. data can increase in value as you have more of it, up to some point (sampling more about a population of people or things)
6. privacy could be modelled as efficiency (what's relevant/pertinent and what is none-of-your-business) in space and time (why do you still want to know that out-of-date thing about me or about that?).
7. much personal data collected by cloud providers is treated as if free, though some lawyers now are starting to point out that if you have a business model based on this, it is possibly a form of payment - so while facebook/zuckerberg might claim we are the product, if this legal position is true, we are customers, and he's working for us....
8. this mission creep really implies data could be the new fur (or indeed as john naughton has said, the new tobacco)
9. the models (e.g. face recognition, recommender networks etc) are often surprisingly bad - occasional successes of GANs&deep learning are relatively rare compared with a plethora of rather shoddy systems&applications.
10. perhaps data is the new oil after all, but its rapeseed or snake oil that would be a more precise metaphor.

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misery me, there is a floccipaucinihilipilification (*) of chronsynclastic infundibuli in these parts and I must therefore refer you to frank zappa instead, and go home