Moore's Law vs. Moral Hazard

"...the health care system has long had trouble keeping up with Moore’s Law, the principle that computing power rapidly increases even as costs fall sharply."

That's from today's NYT: Insurers Fight Speech-Impairment Remedy And here's the nub: Given recent advances in speech-synthesis technology,

"...people with speech disabilities have a choice: pay for a cheaper product from their own pockets, try to borrow one from a private assistance group or spend their insurer’s money on a specialty device from a company like DynaVox Mayer-Johnson or Prentke Romich."

Expect more and more stories following pretty this same pattern, I'd say, since it's not only computing technology that seems to follow Moore-like patterns of development. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if someone were to offer a glucometer add-on for the iPhone any day now.

Though, by the same token, Moore's law-type effects start out in a race against diseconomies of scale and the story of Dean Kamen's iBot shows that what happens when, alas, the diseconomies win.

Norman Borlaug Dies at 95

A way back when, I used to use a quotation from Gulliver's Travels in my .sig:

And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.

Surely if ever there was person who deserved Swift's compliment, it is Norman Borlaug.

While I'm quite sensitive to the claims offered by some critics of 'green revolution' technologies--that they create dependency on the use of chemicals in agriculture, that they deliberately violate natural constraints and are ultimately unsustainable--I note that Borlaug himself was not sanguine in the face of these criticisms. Instead, he faced them with a rare and remarkable intellectual honesty.

And who could want a greater tribute to their life's work than this?:
By Mr. Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.

RTFM Moment: Mic vs. Aspergillum

[Via Fail Blog]

Microsoft Ordered to Stop Selling Word in U.S.

Holy cow. [Globe & Mail]

A U.S. judge issued a permanent injunction preventing Microsoft Corp. from selling its flagship “Word” software in the United States, agreeing with a jury verdict that the company willfully violated a patent held by a small Toronto firm...The injunction will bar Microsoft from selling its word-processing software that handles documents in a form known a “custom XML.” This category includes the company's Word 2003 and Word 2007 products, as well as any future versions using the same technology in question.

Of course
Microsoft plans to appeal. And, I note, at least so far no big change in Microsoft's share price (which, I suppose, suggests that 'the market' either believes that that appeal will be successful or, more likely, that they will be able to settle with i4i, the company whose patents Microsoft has been found to have infringed.

It's unlikely, in other words, that Microsoft won't ultimately get it's way on this (it usually does, if only because money talks and, well, that particular company has a lot to say). Still, it's always nice to see the big supposed bully taken down in the headlines.

GamelaTron: The Robot Gamelan Orchestra

This is, I have to admit, pretty cool [hat tip to Marginal Revolution]. Here's more on the actual workings of the thing, complete with audio and video streaming.

What Zemi17 and LEMUR (the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots) have achieved is a great piece of installation art and I like the actual music a great deal. As longtime fan of Balinese gamelan (and a lot of the Western art music is has inspired), however, I find Gamelatron, well... a bit too clean. Unlike, say, Conlon Nancarrow's works for player piano, Gamelatron doesn't really seem to exploit the fact that it is a machine performance. Instead, its aesthetic is more like that of a traditional mechanical music box: A smooth, pretty emulation of traditional performance.

Gamelan played by human beings, by contrast, is first and foremost a collective, communal art form: A 'warts and all' aesthetic that suppresses egoistic virtuosity. So, I suppose, what's missing from Gamelatron is precisely what I most value about gamelan. What a Luddite thing to say...

AI Out of Control?

To date there has been a only surprisingly small handful of cases where serious collective reflection about the hazards of a new technology--and attempts to regulate it--have actually preceded the development of that technology. Nuclear technology is one (debatable) example. Recombinant DNA technology is another (though, of course, rDNA is a broad term covering not just one but a number of different technologies). One of the storied events in the history of biotechnology is an example of this sort of reflection-in-advance: The 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. At the time, rDNA research was brand new. The first use of restriction enzymes to cut specific DNA sites had been demonstrated barely two years before. Stanley Cohen of Stanford and Herbert Boyer of UC San Francisco (who would later go on to found Genetech) had just applied for a patent on basic techniques of rDNA technology. The Asilomar conference was intended to draw up guidelines for the safe containment of rDNA experiments, to curtail certain lines of potentially harmful research and to raise public public awareness about the risks and benefits of genetic biotechnology. While it did to give rise to any changes in law (at least not directly), it was direct impetus behind the NIH "Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules" that, with occasional amendments, has effectively regulated academic biotechnology research in the U.S. ever since. And, certainly, it succeed in raising public awareness.

Recently the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence has, it seems, tried to follow in the footsteps of the 1975 conference by staging another conference at Asilomar, this one devoted to the dangers of autnomous technological systems powered by AI (such as predator drones, medical robosts that intereact directly with patients, etc.). Chief among those dangers is the possibility that, precisely because they are designed to act autonomously, such systems may escpape human control and so any damage that they might inflict might become extremely difficult to stop. Some the specific exmaples discussed in the NYT piece--such as the use of AI in data mining and the use of speech synethesis to impersonate and defraud--really do seem to me to be quite significant. Especialy so since the relevant technologies are already pretty highly developed and widely diffused.

We'll see what becomes of "Asilomar II" when the report from the conference is released later this year. Perhaps, like the orginal, it will motivate reseach funding agencies to adopt new guidelines. (Though, frankly, I wouldn't bet on it.)

[BTW, for people who are into this sort of thing, AI Topics hosts a really pretty useful collection articles on AI ethics. Very much worth a look]

Assorted Links

U.S National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Witheld Data on Driving and Cell Phone Use -- The supposed rationale seems much more bizarre now than it may have done under the Bush administration. [NYT]

Microsoft Embraces Open Source ?!? -- Less than meets the eye. But still. [The Register]

Lars Ulrich: "Being right about Napster doesn't mean that much to me. I don't find any particular glory in being proved right about it" -- Sure. That explains why you spent so much time, money and effort on killing it. [The Register]

Economic Value of the Space Program: "From 1962 to 1972, when the last Apollo mission landed on the moon, space-related activities got 59% of [U.S.] nondefense government R&D spending." [OBM, via Marginal Revolution]

The use/mention distinction at work: Judge Finds for Google In British Libel Case [NYT]

A Quaint, But Ultimately Ridiculous, Technology Story

As the New York Times reports today, state governments in Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey and elsewhere have begun to distribute terminals to farmers who sell at farmers markets, finally enabling people to make purchases there (of, let's assume, healthier, better for the environment, etc. food) using Food Stamp debits.

Great. Really. But, at least to my mind, this really shows the advantages of the (historically) Canadian solution to the poverty problem: Give disadvantaged people money. That's accepted everywhere without any need for wireless terminals or additional government programs.

Yes, I know. One of the main supposed virtues of the U.S. Food Stamps program is that it prevents people from taking state support that could have gone to food and diverting it instead to cigarettes, drugs, booze, lottery tickets and other bad things. (And, of course, viewed from the other side, it helps to insure low-income people against the necessity of having to choose other living costs, like rent, over nutrition.) But, while I really am happy that some U.S. citizens will now be able to use Food Stamps at farmers markets, I can't help but note that all of the expenditure for these sexy new technology programs could have instead been used to increase Food Stamps benefits. Just saying...

Film Piracy and Mobile Phones

Cory Doctrow writes in The Guardian this week about how some movie theatres have begun to confiscate mobile phones from their patrons, supposedly as a way to combat piracy. Doctrow's main focus is on the terrible threat to privacy posed by this practice: Who knows what's happening to your phone while it's in the custody of the theatre owners? Some theatre employee could be going through your contact list, viewing your photos, looking through your data, listening to your voice mail, or even (and this is fairly plausible, given the available online market) cloning your phone's SIM.

While I've yet to see any theatres doing this myself, these are all very real privacy risks, especially given that theatre owners apparently haven't yet developed any policies about how they will secure confiscated phones. If the practice continues, no doubt some guidelines sooner or later will be supplied by case law. But still, I can't seriously see myself surrendering my phone to some teenage usher at the local cineplex. If this became the norm, it simply would provide me with with one more reason not to bother going to the movies.

So far so good. But the other main focus of Doctorow's piece (and some of the online discussion that it has generated) strikes me as pretty much completely specious. In a nutshell, the claim is that cam recording of feature films isn't really that big of a deal and that cam recording using cell phones is essentially a non-existent problem. According to Doctrow, the real action, the real threat to the movie industry, comes from screeners and other illegal pre-release distribution of films.

Well, yes and no. If you go onto a typical bitorrent site, I reckon that the majority of titles you'll see are DVD rips--that's to say, copies ripped from commercial DVDs. Amongst the pre-release or 'in theatres now' content, there is, it's true, a pretty obvious preference hierarchy. The best quality (and so most desirable) torrents are screeners. But there are still plenty of 'cam' (i.e., recording on camcorder) titles. And, I'd submit, there always will be so long as the cultural logic of Hollywood holds sway. Having seen the latest blockbuster is a positional good: It's value at least partly consists in having been the first person you know to have seen the film. (Of course, the same goes for having seen the latest cool independent release or art house film, probably even more so.) So, as long as 'seeing it while it's hot' (or as Roland Barthes might have said, while it's 'receivable') remains part of a film's value, there will be a pretty straightforward algorithm driving the behavious of file sharers: Is a screener copy available? If yes, grab that. If not, then there will be at least some demand for a cam copy. And, inevitably, almost ineluctably, someone will fill that demand.

Out of Work Robots

Well, of course. (Hat Tip to Devin) What else would you expect in the midst of a general economic downturn? At least they don't claim unemployment insurance. Though, on the other hand, being, well...robots, presumably it's not the case that they are all that upset about being unemployed.

Despite the gloom in the article, however, I'm pretty confident that this is, at most, a temporary setback. The Japanese, being seemingly culturally obsessed with all things robotic, may have over-invested. But I still reckon we'll be, um, welcoming robots into our lives soon enough.

China to Crack Down on Virtual Currency

...and, while I'm reading today's NYT, this too has some pretty interesting implications...

The Times piece focuses on the threat that this will pose to China's notorious gold farming industry. But I think the effects will be even more severe for China's underground economy and, maybe also, for political dissidents within the PRC. Which is, of course, pretty clearly among the Chinese government's aims. But the rest of world also has reason to watch this carefully.

In my experience (never mind what experience) all sorts of legally sub-rosa online businesses operate off servers located in China (though, of course, the people running such businesses may not be, and typically are not, actually located there themselves). And it's easy to understand why. At least to date, regulations governing internet hosting have been pretty slack and, of course, corruption among Chinese regulators has been demonstrated again and again. So long as you are not selling porn or trafficking in criticism of the Chinese government, China has been probably been one of the safest well-wired jurisdictions from which to run a legally questionable online business.

But virtual currency is the weak link. From the scofflaw (or, if you like, libertarian) perspective, the real deal is not so much MMORPG gold, but serious money-moving ventures like e-gold. Without a way to reliably realize profits in a real, spendable currency...well, crime doesn't pay does it?

Politically and legally today's news can be read as just one more instance of an authoritarian government at work. But given the sheer volume of virtual currency that passes through China, this may well mark (another) beginning of an end. In this case, the end of the Friedmanian dream of a 'strong privacy' digital economy beyond the reach of governments.

The Beginning of the End, Part 1

The New York Times reports today that the small Swedish software company Global Gaming Factory X has purchased the Pirate Bay. The price? US$ 7.8 million (60 million kronor). Considering the sheer name recognition of the Pirate Bay brand, that strikes me as a bargain (though of course Global Gaming is also buying a raft of legal liabilities along with the brand).

But that's not what makes this interesting, at least from the perspective of the typical Pirate Bay fan. Global Gaming Factory says that "the Pirate Bay needs a new business model that satisfies the needs and conditions of all parties." I think it's fair to translate that as "no more copyright violations."But, at least to date,, no one (see Napster, Kazaa, etc.) has yet managed to make a viable business out of weening users from a piracy free for all onto paid downloads. If I was a betting man, I'd put my money on the Pirate Bay having disappeared (or having dwindled to nothing in traffic) within the year.

And if I was a copyright scofflaw (ahem), I'd queue up a raft of torrents to run from now until the changes start coming in August.

It will be interesting to see how the Pirate Party reacts to this. Stay tuned.

Nobody's Sequestered in the Age of the Blackberry

The New York Times reports today on how the omnipresence of Blackberries, iPhones, and other wireless communication devices is increasingly playing havoc in jury trials :

Mistrial by iPhone: Juries’ Web Research Upends Trials

These days jurors, like the rest of us, carry these devices. And, just like the rest of us, they look to the internet as their first stop for information. The NYT story describes a recent case in Florida where jurors were found to be researching online the case that they deliberating. Defense counsel in the case, Peter Raben, says that he was "stunned" to learn this. Frankly, I'm suprised this hasn't come up already.

This might seem to be just another example from the "dangers of the wireless world" genre that we've all been hearing for years now. Yet I think that there are actually several different ethical intuitions at play here.

On the one hand, it's no surprise that the judge in the case, William J. Zloch, believed he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. In legal systems that allow for jury trials (which, in practice, is fewer than you might think) juries are sequestered 1) to prevent them from being directly influenced by counsel, agents of the defendant or outside parties (via threats, bribes, etc.), but also 2) to prevent prejudice and allow juries to keep an 'open mind'. Once upon time, the obvious threat to the "open mind" rationale was the news media. No one who cares about justice wants cases to be decided in advance in the editorial pages of the local paper (or, worse, by some pundit on talk radio). Which is why, at least in some jurisdictions, jurors are supposedly kept out of contact with the media during their deliberation.

But jury trials also have another rationale, namely, allowing ordinary citizens to judge the truth of the evidence presented to them. In adversarial systems, supposedly all that jurors are supposed to know about 'the facts' is what is entered into evidence at trial. Yet, when it comes to expert testimony, for instance, I think there might actually be quite a lot of wisdom in allowing juries to double check factual, scientific and technical assertions made by lawyers.

Call it a "right to Google" (or a "right to check what was just said against Wikipedia"). Of course juries must be sequestered--if only for their own protection. And we probably do need rules requiring jurors to surrender their Blackberries for the duration of a trial. But allowing information technology into the courtroom--at the request of the jury, with counsel given the right to object, and so on--might actually be a great boon to justice. In fact, it could be thought of as a technologically up to date version of the inquisitorial powers given to juries in some civil code proceedings.