Tag Archives: A.I.

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The Impermanence of Our Best Efforts

We are going to need some novel words in English to express the empty feeling of seeing our careful efforts depart for wherever pixels go to die.

Slate writer Julie Lee recently wrote a piece with the useful but troubling reminder that, in her words, “our digital lives are too fragile.”  Like all of us, she has noticed that digital platforms are slippery. They constantly change and expect that we will adapt. Lee arrived at this conclusion after a free-access internet site that she used to save her work suddenly put up a full paywall. That meant that she would need to pay to have her pieces held in Evernote’s archive. Lee saw the implications, wondering if it was within her rights to retrieve her work using the site’s prior terms.

On a more prosaic level, I set up a new mobile phone several months ago, only to have it malfunction recently, requiring the service provider to force a complete restart, wiping it clean of all the apps, contacts, and settings I had arranged. These experiences are not unlike discovering that a frequently used organization has suddenly experienced a kind of brain freeze, with the surprising result that they can find no record of any prior contact. If  log-ons fail, a person’s account may go into a limbo made worse because organizations typically reject any effort to set up a new account because “someone else” has your name. If we needed reminders—and we don’t—the capricious digital world can change the terms of service at any time.

We have extended ourselves into this electronic ether perhaps forgetting that organizations eventually want to monetize our use of them. The idea of paying for media access is hardly new. Our grandparents duly paid to receive a morning paper or the most recent issue of Time Magazine. But our implicit contract with a given platform is usually less stable. Platforms in the informational world often start with the tempting bait of free access, usually in exchange for exposure to a modest number of advertisements. But these same sources can easily devolve into a “pay to play” policy, as Lee found out. Even the vital news source of the Associated Press is now asking for donations to support their website, which remains pleasantly packed with accessible content. Will that change in the future if they move stories behind their own paywall?

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Lee’s concerns extend further to creative work that we release into the world in outlets curated by others, and subject to terms of service that may include the withdrawal of access to material that we thought was ours. As digital journalists who have seen their companies vanish can tell us, nothing that enters our world using pixels is necessarily permanent. As I have noted in earlier essays, Apple software usually does not give users or other tech companies anything close to full access.

If the idea was not already with us, we would have had to invent the concept of a library that can function as a long-term repository for ideas and images. There is some comfort in knowing that a hardcopy book launched into the world will have a small chance at permanence on a bookshelf. Libraries eagerly purging their paper documents should think again.

Everybody is Now I.T. Person.  And Most of Us Aren’t Very Good at it.

Those of us who live extensively in the digital realm can be impressively productive. But it is also the case that the amount of time we must take to simply maintain access can be excessive. My gloomy effort at phone recovery took a half day, not unlike the previous day’s similarly futile effort to convince Adobe that I should be able to make a minor change on a homegrown PDF file. It turns out that I needed to pay more for that basic editing privilege.

Notwithstanding the library model, perhaps we are evolving to a new norm of cultural impermanence, where most current content or personal data will be lost or unavailable.  A.I. probably makes this shift more likely, where only the ill-fitting skeletons of borrowed tropes will be thrown into “new” messages to live another day.

Even so, we are going to need some new and novel words to express the empty feeling of seeing our careful efforts depart for wherever pixels go to die. For my part, in this new year I vow to not allow the digital demons to devour hours that could be used more productively.

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When a Mechanical Mr. Bean Does the News


At the BBC, the approximate equivalent of going to the wrong door to greet a visitor is not that unusual.  Such as the nature of setting up newscasts using “Smart” A.I.

Those fearing what will happen when artificial intelligence takes over more complex human functions can look to a lot of evidence to see that humans will still matter.  Advanced A.I. technology offers astounding opportunities to pass off fakes as real. For example, film scenes are now often composed by putting actors against a green screen in an empty studio and electronically inserting a digital background from virtually anywhere. These kinds of economies used to be obvious in films using rear screen projections. Somehow even the great Hitchcock didn’t see how hackneyed they looked. But it can now be hard to tell if an actor is indeed gazing over a spectacular view of the Golden Gate, or just clutching a hand rail mock-up in Culver City.

Most of us already deal with corporate A.I. on almost a daily basis. But their synthetic nature of chatbots are pretty easily revealed in their inabilities to listen, and their laughable indifference to the complex human cues of our “otherness.”  (“Press 1 to hear these choices again” is often about as good as it gets.)

Computer Code Calling the Shots

In both funny and interesting ways, nothing so easily represents the increased chaos that awaits us all than the “smart” cameras that have been used by BBC television news. These key devices occasionally go rogue, leaving confusion in their wake. To be sure, there are still news readers trying their best in the relatively new spaces within London’s Broadcasting House. But the management of what is arguably the world’s best broadcast news organization has remained committed to producing daily newscasts with software that manages most sound and video on their news sets: first, in the large circular space of what was Studio E, and more recently, in a newer version of it on a lower level. The original set encircled a news reader in a ring of automated  cameras  on rails, with sometimes funny outcomes.  Without planning it, BBC World News occasionally runs its own version of “The Show that Goes Wrong.” Certainly not all the time, but still often enough to be enshrined in any number of YouTube clips.


The most obvious problem was that the cameras-on-tracks would leave news presenters to chase down a place in front which ever one was “live” at the time.  Sometimes a presenter was only partly in the frame.  At other times a rogue camera crossed into a shot, leaving viewers puzzled and presenters apologizing for the unwanted intrusion.  Not infrequently, a news presenter was the last to know that where a camera was aimed and if their mic was on.  As one cheerfully noted while trying to run to another part of the set, “You can pretend that you haven’t noticed.” Others complained of “gremlins” running the show.  When things do not go as planned, the results can be the approximate equivalent of going to the wrong door to greet a visitor. Interestingly, the current group of automated cameras from the Norwegian company Electric Friends even have a face-reading capability.

Luckily, the BBC’s computer bugs are usually self-revealing, and a useful a reminder that our intelligence is reasonably quick in detecting situations that lack veracity.

We are well into in an era when idiot computers have made a hash of some routine functions.  The real danger is when their presence is not easily detectable. A new vocabulary will need to be developed to communicate our displeasure at the appearance of misrepresentations and robots passed off as the real thing. Given its nature, electronic fakes can be obvious or harmless, but they can also be another form of wire fraud passed on by human originators as they real thing.

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