Babbage: When AI meets reality

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Babbage Byline:  economist.com Main image:  20160730_mma902_107.jpg Rubric:  How can artificial intelligence leave the lab and get down to business? Kenneth Cukier explores an innovative method with Tractable founder Alexandre Dalyac. Also, a new way to measure ancient oxygen is changing our understanding of evolution, and we crunch the numbers to reveal the long-term risks of air pollution   Published:  20160727 Source:  Online extra Enabled

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The Economist explains: Why artificial intelligence is enjoying a renaissance

THE TERM “artificial intelligence” has been associated with hubris and disappointment since its earliest days. It was coined in a research proposal from 1956, which imagined that significant progress could be made in getting machines to “solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans…if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer”. That proved to be rather optimistic, to say the least, and despite occasional bursts of progress and enthusiasm in the decades that followed, AI research became notorious for promising much more than it could deliver. Researchers mostly ended up avoiding the term altogether, preferring to talk instead about “expert systems” or “neural networks”. But in the past couple of years there has been a dramatic turnaround. Suddenly AI systems are achieving impressive results in a range of tasks, and people are once again using the term without embarrassment. What changed?The current boom is based on an old idea, with a modern twist: so-called artificial neural networks (ANNs), modelled on the architecture of the human brain. A biological brain consists of interconnected cells called neurons, each of which can be triggered by other neurons, and which can then trigger other neurons in turn. A simple ANN has an input layer of neurons where data can be fed into the network, an output layer where results come out, and a few ...

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When science goes wrong (I): Computer says: oops

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Maytime Fly Title:  When science goes wrong (I) Main image:  20160716_STP002_0.jpg Rubric:  Two studies, one on neuroscience and one on palaeoclimatology, cast doubt on established results. First, neuroscience and the reliability of brain scanning NOBODY knows how the brain works. But researchers are trying to find out. One of the most eye-catching weapons in their arsenal is functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI). In this, MRI scanners normally employed for diagnosis are used to study volunteers for the purposes of research. By watching people’s brains as they carry out certain tasks, neuroscientists hope to get some idea of which bits of the brain specialise in doing what. The results look impressive. Thousands of papers have been published, from workmanlike investigations of the role of certain brain regions in, say, recalling directions or reading the emotions of others, to spectacular treatises extolling the use of fMRI to ...

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Schumpeter: Be nice to nerds

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Maytime Fly Title:  Schumpeter Main image:  20160716_WBD000_0.jpg Rubric:  Forget the cool kids. Geeks are now shaping new products and services FIVE years ago Zach Sims, a sprightly, striving 21-year-old, launched Codeacademy, a startup, to offer online courses about how to write software. He remembers pitching his idea to prospective investors only to hear a “chorus of no”. At the time, the naysayers thought coding was a weird, fringe activity for computer-science geeks. They were wrong. Since 2011, more than 25m people have signed up for Codeacademy. Meanwhile, in-person crash courses that teach computer programming, called coding boot-camps, have spread worldwide, as more people aspire to tech jobs or running their own startup. This year tuition fees at these boot-camps will reach around $200m in America alone. “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you may end up working for them,” wrote Charles Sykes, author of the book “50 Rules Kids Won’t ...

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Geolocation: Addressing the world

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Anarchy in the UK Fly Title:  Geolocation Main image:  20160702_STP003_0.jpg Rubric:  How to find anywhere on the planet LAST year, a brush fire threatened the home of Ganhuyag Chuluun Hutagt, who lives in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. Instead of giving the fire brigade his address, though, Mr Ganhuyag had to guide them to the blaze by describing a series of landmarks along the way. That was because, like most buildings in Mongolia, his house does not have an address. Road names and building numbers are so sparse there that fewer than 1% of Mongolians do. But Mr Ganhuyag, who is on the board of the country’s post office, Mongol Post, proposes to do something about it. Thanks to his urging, Mongol Post is adopting an ingenious new system of addresses that can locate any place in the country—and, indeed, in the world. Instead of house number, street name, town, province and so on, or the unwieldy co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, ...

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Technology: From not working to neural networking

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The return of the machinery question Fly Title:  Technology Main image:  20160625_SRD002_0.jpg Rubric:  The artificial-intelligence boom is based on an old idea, but with a modern twist HOW HAS ARTIFICIAL intelligence, associated with hubris and disappointment since its earliest days, suddenly become the hottest field in technology? The term was coined in a research proposal written in 1956 which suggested that significant progress could be made in getting machines to “solve the kinds of problems now reserved for humans…if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer”. That proved to be wildly overoptimistic, to say the least, and despite occasional bursts of progress, AI became known for promising much more than it could deliver. Researchers mostly ended up avoiding the term, preferring to talk instead about “expert systems” or “neural networks”. The rehabilitation of “AI”, and the current excitement about the ...

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Education and policy: Re-educating Rita

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The return of the machinery question Fly Title:  Education and policy Main image:  20160625_SRD004_0.jpg Rubric:  Artificial intelligence will have implications for policymakers in education, welfare and geopolitics IN JULY 2011 Sebastian Thrun, who among other things is a professor at Stanford, posted a short video on YouTube, announcing that he and a colleague, Peter Norvig, were making their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course available free online. By the time the course began in October, 160,000 people in 190 countries had signed up for it. At the same time Andrew Ng, also a Stanford professor, made one of his courses, on machine learning, available free online, for which 100,000 people enrolled. Both courses ran for ten weeks. Mr Thrun’s was completed by 23,000 people; Mr Ng’s by 13,000. Such online courses, with short video lectures, discussion boards for students and systems to grade their coursework automatically, ...

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Ethics: Frankenstein’s paperclips

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The return of the machinery question Fly Title:  Ethics Main image:  20160625_SRD005_0.jpg Rubric:  Techies do not believe that artificial intelligence will run out of control, but there are other ethical worries AS DOOMSDAY SCENARIOS go, it does not sound terribly frightening. The “paperclip maximiser” is a thought experiment proposed by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University. Imagine an artificial intelligence, he says, which decides to amass as many paperclips as possible. It devotes all its energy to acquiring paperclips, and to improving itself so that it can get paperclips in new ways, while resisting any attempt to divert it from this goal. Eventually it “starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities”. This apparently silly scenario is intended to make the serious point that AIs need not have human-like motives or psyches. They might be able to avoid ...

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Artificial intelligence: March of the machines

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  March of the machines Fly Title:  Artificial intelligence Main image:  20160625_LDD001_0.jpg Rubric:  What history tells us about the future of artificial intelligence—and how society should respond EXPERTS warn that “the substitution of machinery for human labour” may “render the population redundant”. They worry that “the discovery of this mighty power” has come “before we knew how to employ it rightly”. Such fears are expressed today by those who worry that advances in artificial intelligence (AI) could destroy millions of jobs and pose a “Terminator”-style threat to humanity. But these are in fact the words of commentators discussing mechanisation and steam power two centuries ago. Back then the controversy over the dangers posed by machines was known as the “machinery question”. Now a very similar debate is under way. After many false dawns, AI has made extraordinary progress in the past few years, thanks to a versatile technique ...

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Babbage: What history might tell us about AI

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Babbage Byline:  Economist.com Main image:  20160625_mma902_107.jpg Rubric:  Concerns abound about the impact of artificial intelligence, but could history suggest a brighter future? A new algorithm is designed to hunt down hateful videos on the Internet. And we hear from two scientists, Mauro Costa-Mattioli and Shelly Buffington, whose new study links obesity to autism. Hosted by Kenneth Cukier Published:  20160622 Source:  Online extra Enabled

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Artificial intelligence: The return of the machinery question

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The return of the machinery question Fly Title:  Artificial intelligence Main image:  20160625_SRD001_0.jpg Rubric:  After many false starts, artificial intelligence has taken off. Will it cause mass unemployment or even destroy mankind? History can provide some helpful clues, says Tom Standage THERE IS SOMETHING familiar about fears that new machines will take everyone’s jobs, benefiting only a select few and upending society. Such concerns sparked furious arguments two centuries ago as industrialisation took hold in Britain. People at the time did not talk of an “industrial revolution” but of the “machinery question”. First posed by the economist David Ricardo in 1821, it concerned the “influence of machinery on the interests of the different classes of society”, and in particular the “opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests”. Thomas Carlyle, writing in ...

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Watergate II: The Donald’s dirty linen

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Divided we fall Fly Title:  Watergate II Location:  WASHINGTON, DC Main image:  Washington’s most interesting book club Rubric:  Russian hackers infiltrate the Democratic Party’s computer system Washington’s most interesting book club DONALD TRUMP says he would “get along very well” with Vladimir Putin. He must now be hoping the Russian government hackers who appear to be in possession of some of his most embarrassing secrets will reciprocate that good will. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) revealed on June 14th that two groups of Russian hackers had infiltrated its computer systems and snooped on its communications for almost a year. One had stolen an “opposition file”, containing research on Mr Trump’s vulnerabilities going back many years. Given that Mr Trump has so far been accused, with varying degrees of certainty, of hiring illegal immigrants, paying no tax, ...

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Babbage: Escaping black holes

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Babbage Byline:  Economist.com Main image:  20160604_mma902_107.jpg Rubric:  Stephen Hawking revises his theory of black holes and argues that everything may not be lost at the "event horizon" after all. And new sensors made by inkjet printers can tell when a new layer of sunscreen is needed to prevent sunburns. Hosted by Kenneth Cukier Published:  20160601 Source:  Online extra Enabled

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Difference engine: Why upgrade to Windows 10?

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Difference engine Location:  LOS ANGELES Main image:  20160521_stp501.jpg Rubric:  Microsoft’s free upgrade to its latest operating system is about to expire TIME is running out for PC users who have delayed taking advantage of Microsoft’s free offer to upgrade their computers from Windows 7 or 8.1 to the latest all-singing-and-dancing version of the Redmond company's operating system. Doughty souls who have stuck with Windows 8 will first have to upgrade to Windows 8.1 before being able to participate in the deal. However, come July 29th, anyone wishing to upgrade to Windows 10 will have to pay upwards of $119 for the privilege. To avoid the expense, registered users of Windows 7 or 8.1 (Windows XP or Vista do not qualify) should download a free copy of Windows 10 from microsoftstore.com before the cut-off date. Alternatively, they can finally respond to the pop-up message that has been nagging recalcitrant users to do so for the ...

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The Economist explains: What APIs are

A FEDERAL jury has handed Google a huge victory in its long-running battle with a rival, Oracle, over Google’s Android software. The two software giants have been at legal loggerheads for years over Oracle’s allegation that Google illegally copied parts of its software—specifically, 37 “Java APIs”—in its Android phones. Oracle has already announced it plans to appeal. But what is an API?An API (short for “Application Program Interface”) is a standard way for programmers to work with code written by others—a bit like a postbox is a standard way for sending letters. To use a postbox, you drop your addressed, stamped envelope into it, and expect the post office to take care of the rest. The addresses and stamps are standard. You don’t mind how the letter gets from the postbox to its destination, only that it does so. The system saves you the trouble of figuring out how to get the letter there yourself. APIs perform much the same function: they let programmers perform common tasks. APIs generally perform a group of related tasks: for example, the “java.io” API, one of those at issue in Oracle’s suit, has pieces to read and write files, and to perform other file-related tasks.APIs are important because without them developers would have to write a lot of routine code on their own. Java programmers would each have to write (or find) their own script to read and write files. ...

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Product design: The replicator

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  A nuclear nightmare Fly Title:  Product design Location:  LANCASTER Main image:  20160528_stp501.jpg Rubric:  Designing in the digital and physical worlds at the same time WHEN great designs are turned into products compromises are made. The beautifully sculpted “concept” cars that regularly appear at motor shows never get built, at least not in the form they left the design studio, because they are inevitably too difficult and expensive to engineer for mass production. For decades this has meant products have had to be “designed for manufacture”, which essentially means their components must incorporate features that can be readily shaped by machines in order to be glued, screwed or welded together by people or robots. Now a combination of powerful computer-aided design (CAD) software and new manufacturing methods is changing the game. Instead of being created with ...

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Cash in, cash out: Google could face billion-dollar fines in two court cases

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Cash in, cash out Main image:  20160528_wbd002.jpg Rubric:  Other online giants will be watching closely, too THIS spring may go down as the most expensive season in Google’s history. On May 24th French prosecutors raided the firm’s Paris office to collect evidence as part of an investigation in pursuit of an estimated €1.6 billion ($1.8 billion) in back taxes. (The firm says it is co-operating fully.) The tech giant also faces two other, more costly legal imbroglios. As The Economist went to press, a jury in California was deliberating whether Google had used copyrighted material in Android, its mobile operating system, without a licence from the owner, Oracle. If guilty, Google may have to pay the software-maker up to $8 billion in compensation. And the European Commission will shortly announce its decision on whether the firm harms consumers by using its dominance in online search to steer them away from rival shopping-comparison services and towards its own. The commission may hit Google with a ...

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Office communication: The Slack generation

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The war within Fly Title:  Office communication Location:  SAN FRANCISCO Main image:  20160514_WBD001_0.jpg Rubric:  How workplace messaging could replace other missives STEWART BUTTERFIELD, the boss of Slack, a messaging company, has been wonderfully unlucky in certain ventures. In 2002 he and a band of colleagues created an online-video game called “Game Neverending”. It never took off, but the tools they used to design it turned into Flickr, the web’s first popular photo-sharing website. Yahoo bought it in 2005 for a reported $35m. Four years later Mr Butterfield tried to create another online game, called Glitch. It flopped as well. But Mr Butterfield and his team developed an internal messaging system to collaborate on it, which became the basis for Slack. In Silicon Valley, such a change in strategy is called a “pivot”; anywhere else it is called good fortune. Today ...

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Quantum computing: Now try this

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Trump’s triumph Fly Title:  Quantum computing Main image:  A handful of qubits Rubric:  IBM is making a quantum computer available for anyone to play with A handful of qubits USING the rules of quantum mechanics to carry out computations far faster than any conventional machine can manage is an idea that goes back decades. It was proposed in the early 1980s, but was confined to the blackboards of theoreticians until the late 1990s, when experimentalists gave it life by building simple machines which proved that the equations on those blackboards worked in practice. Now it has bloomed into a corporate project. Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and IBM each have dedicated quantum-computing research groups. What quantum computing has not done, though, is make much impact on the outside world. And in some part that is because those quantum computers which do exist are still confined to laboratories. Only researchers have been able to tinker ...

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Babbage: Will your surgeon be a robot?

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Babbage Byline:  Economist.com Main image:  20160507_mma902_107.jpg Rubric:  Surgical operations become more akin to driverless cars. And users try out IBM's quantum computer Published:  20160504 Source:  Online extra Enabled

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Difference engine: The great computer stick-up

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Difference engine Location:  LOS ANGELES Rubric:  Why ransomware is now the biggest online threat of all BE WARNED. Cybercrooks are changing their modus operandi and widening their nets for snagging the unwary. Now that banks, retailers and online services generally have started taking extra precautions to protect their customers’ data, online thieves have been focusing less on breaking into computer networks to pilfer credit-card details and the like. The most pernicious malware today immobilises an infected computer, encrypts its files and then demands a ransom to release them. If not paid within 12 hours or so, the computer’s content gets obliterated. To make sure the hapless victim gets the message, a bright red clock begins the count down. In America, the demand often appears to come from the Department of Justice (DoJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or some other official body, claiming the computer has been used for an illicit activity, and a “fine” has to be paid to avoid ...

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Car emissions: Exhaustive analysis

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  How to measure prosperity Fly Title:  Car emissions Main image:  20160430_wbp504.jpg Rubric:  The gulf between test results and the real world widens CARMAKERS have two methods for dealing with the gases that belch from exhaust pipes. One is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide (NOx) and other nasties by spending heavily to develop cleaner engines. Another is to devise methods to game emissions-testing systems but keep polluting the atmosphere on the road. Volkswagen and Mitsubishi opted for the second method, using means illegal in some countries. But many other carmarkers bend the rules: after VW’s deception came to light, for instance, independent tests showed that across the board, official NOx figures in Europe were a far cry from expectations. This persistent gap between test results and what can be achieved in practice undercuts limits imposed by governments to curtail greenhouse gases and air pollution. Enforcement ...

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The case against Google: Tie breaker

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Can she fix it? Fly Title:  The case against Google Rubric:  The EU’s case that Google has abused its dominance in mobile operating systems has merit TECH moguls look upon the European Commission with as much enthusiasm as does the average Tory MP from the English shires. Europe has no successful technology companies of its own, they whisper, which is why Eurocrats spend their time hassling American tech giants instead. Not for the first time Google finds itself in the commission’s crosshairs. This week, the head of the EU’s trustbusting division, Margrethe Vestager, issued charges against the internet-search firm (see article). Its “preliminary view” is that Google is guilty of unfairly using its control of Android, the operating system that powers over 80% of the world’s smartphones, as a means to get its apps and services preferred over those offered by rivals. Europe trying to protect its own? Perhaps. Nevertheless, Google has a case to answer. The commission’s claim has echoes of antitrust battles ...

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Europe v Google: Android attack

Print section UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Can she fix it? Fly Title:  Europe v Google Main image:  20160423_wbd001.jpg Rubric:  The European Commission is going after Google again—this time with a better chance of success IN 2001—aeons ago in internet time—the European Commission sent a sternly worded missive to Microsoft. It accused the software maker of having illegally extended its dominance in operating systems for personal computers (PCs) into adjacent markets, for instance by tying Windows to programs that play music and videos. The legal action lasted more than a decade and took many turns, but Microsoft eventually had to unbundle its Windows monopoly from other software, in particular by giving consumers the choice of which web browser they want to use. On April 20th the commission presented Google, one of the brightest stars in the modern tech firmament, with a similar “statement of objections”, as the charge sheet in European Union (EU) antitrust cases is called. ...

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The Economist explains: The difference between virtual and augmented reality

IF COMPUTING companies have their way, then 2016 will be the year in which virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)—two closely-related but very different technologies—become widely popular. Firms such as Facebook, Sony and Microsoft are getting ready to launch a raft of high-tech headsets designed either to layer computerised information on top of the real world, or to replace it entirely with a simulated, computer-generated alternative. What is the difference?Start with a film analogy. If virtual reality is "The Matrix", then augmented reality is "The Terminator". As the name suggests, the point of VR is to persuade users that they have entered an entirely new reality. The headsets—such as Sony's Morpheus, or Facebook's Oculus Rift—block out the surrounding world and, making use of an old trick called stereoscopy, show slightly different images of each to a user's eyes. That fools his brain into creating an illusion of depth, transforming the pair of images into a single experience of a fully three-dimensional world. Motion trackers, either mounted on the headset or externally, keep track of the users head, updating the view as he moves it around; optional hand controllers allow him to interact with virtual objects. The result is a reasonably convincing illusion of being somewhere else entirely. Augmented reality, by contrast, does not dispense with the real ...

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