Artificial Intelligence Revolution

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You say you want a revolution? Ready or not, a revolution is coming. It’s coming for you and me. It’s coming soon. You might want to try to hold onto your job. And your dignity. But good luck with that.

“The real battles that lie ahead will lack the apocalyptic drama of Hollywood blockbusters, but they will disrupt the structure of our economic and political systems all the same. Looming before us in the coming decades is an AI-driven crisis of jobs, inequality and meaning. The new technology will wipe out a huge portion of work as we’ve known it, dramatically widening the wealth gap and posing a challenge to the human dignity of us all.”

AI stands for Artificial Intelligence. If you want to be cool and appear in the know, you can begin dropping the AI acronym into your conversation or writing whenever possible.

The above quote is from a long piece written by Kai-Fu Lee in the Sept. 15-16 weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal. (I’m not in the habit of reading the WSJ, because I own no stocks and no bonds. But I sometimes pick it up if Publix is sold out of the NYT. Maybe I should read the WSJ more often? But I digress.) The article is entitled “The Human Promise Of The AI Revolution.” (See, I didn’t make up the “revolution” part.) Here’s another chilling quote from the WSJ article:

“This unprecedented disruption requires no new scientific breakthrough in AI, just the application of existing technology to new problems. It will hit many white-collar professionals just as hard as it hits blue-collar factory workers.”

Gosh, I’ve been focusing my worry on global warming, climate change, and the rising sea level. (And Donald Trump, of course. But I promise not to digress in that direction.) Now I have to worry about artificial intelligence as well? No problem. I have a nearly unlimited capacity for Worry, with a capital “W.”

Global Warming and Artificial Intelligence

After reading the aforementioned article, I can see similarities between Global Warming and Artificial Intelligence. Both sound like science fiction with hints of apocalypse.

Both promise unprecedented change with astonishing but uncertain consequences. Many people hope and believe that humans will be able to exert some degree of control over both global warming and artificial intelligence. (This is the “It might not be too late” school of optimism.)

Most folks have heard about global warming, but hope its most dangerous consequences are way off in the future. Many folks have not heard about artificial intelligence. Yet. But  if they have, they assume it is way off in the future.

Many people are aware that global warming has probably been happening for some time. Many acknowledge that we are already experiencing the first effects of global warming and climate change, manifesting as annoying shifts in weather patterns and apparent increase in the size and frequency of catastrophic storms.

However, it hasn’t dawned on many folks that artificial intelligence, like global warming, is already happening. Both global warming and artificial intelligence are HERE, NOW.

A Glacier And A Locomotive

I think I can get away with one more quote from the Kai-Fu Lee article in the WSJ. After all, I’m going to give him free publicity for his forthcoming book.

“The AI revolution will be of the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution — but probably larger and definitely faster. Where the steam engine only took over physical labor, AI can perform both intellectual and physical labor. And where the Industrial Revolution took centuries to spread beyond Europe and the U.S., AI applications are already being adopted simultaneously all across the world.”

Larger and faster than the Industrial Revolution!!!

Here’s my interpretation: Global warming is moving — not as slowly as a glacier, perhaps — but slowly, in terms of human years.

Global warming can make big changes in the lifetime of one human.

Artificial Intelligence, meanwhile, is moving more like a speeding locomotive — more like dog years than human years.

Artificial intelligence can make big changes in the lifetime of one dog.

And what about that Kai-Fu Lee book? It is “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.” There’s a title to strike fear into the heart. The book is scheduled to be published next week, Sept. 25, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. So says the WSJ.

And who is this guy Kai-Fu Lee? Never heard of him. He appears to have serious credentials in the brave new world of AI. You could Google him.

— John Hayden

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End Of The Civil War

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“Being on the wrong side of history carries consequences. V lives that truth every day. If you’ve done terrible things, lived a terrible way, profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge, then guilt and loss accrue. Redemption becomes an abstract idea receding before you. Even if your sin — like dirt farmers in Sherman’s path — had been simply to live in the wrong place, you suffered. Didn’t matter whether you  owned slaves or which way you voted or how good your intentions had been. Or how bad. You might suffer as much as the family of a great plantation, which was maybe not completely just. But if you were the family with the great plantation, you had it coming. Those were times that required choosing a side — and then, sooner or later, history asks, which side were you on?”

— Charles Frazier, writing in “VARINA”

End Of The Civil War

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“A part of her believed this one moment — Carolina woods, a wagonload of children, lights of heaven blazing on a clear spring night — was sufficient. An eternity in itself. A perfect instant if you erased guilt of the past and dread of the future.”

— Charles Frazier writing in “VARINA”

God Has A Tiger By The Tail, Reading List

Here are three recent books, any one of which might give you nightmares. They’re a follow-up on my first post of 2016, “God Has A Tiger By The Tail.”

  • “Flash Points: The Emerging Crisis in Europe,” by George Friedman, published 2015.
  • “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” by Ted Koppel, published 2015.
  • “This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate,” by Naomi Klein, which was included in the New York Times Book Review list of 100 Notable Books of 2014.

The subtitles above are self-explanatory. The authors need no introduction. Continue reading

No Time For Boring Books

Once I started reading a book, I didn’t want to quit. I wanted to see it through to the end.

Not anymore! Not at age 67.

In recent years, I’ve set aside books half-read. I know there’s a good possibility I might be missing something worthwhile toward the end, but . . .

I’ve reached the point where time waits for no book.

Recently, I’ve come to have limited patience even with a favorite author, when a new book doesn’t measure up to standards.

For example: I enjoyed “The Good Luck Of Right Now” and “The Silver Linings Playbook,” two novels with surprising stories, unique characters and positive messages. Both “Good Luck” and “Silver Linings” are by Matthew Quick.

But I lost interest in his new novel, “Love May Fail.” This one also has interesting characters and a compelling storyline. But it felt like Quick  was reusing a tried and true formula that worked so well when it was fresh in the two earlier books. Been there, done that. Boring.

Since I didn’t read it all the way through, I can’t pass judgment on “Love May Fail.” I’m painfully aware that I’m possibly missing something great in the second half of the book.

Too late now. “Flash Points, The Emerging Crisis in Europe,” by George Friedman, has captured my attention.

— John Hayden

Promising Books By Ta-Nehisi Coates, Thomas Piketty, And Anne Tyler

NEHISI COATES (via Wikipedia)

TA-NEHISI COATES (via Wikipedia)

The world is full of troubles, no doubt about it. I cannot sugarcoat the facts to turn bad news into good. I think nearly every great religion holds to a basic premise that good will triumph over evil in the end. What we can do is point out some of the positive thoughts and actions along the way. With luck, the accretion of positive thoughts and actions will lead us in the right direction.

Good books are harbingers of hope and progress. My reading list never lacks for worthy books, and more are published constantly. I’ll never catch up. Here are three that I urgently need to read.

I   “Between The World And Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is the most recent addition to the reading list, thanks to a review by Carlos Lozada in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. Coates is America’s “foremost intellectual,” and also “liberal America’s conscience on race,” according to Lozada. If you’re interested in understanding America’s struggles with “racism, white privilege, institutional violence and structural inequality,” this would appear to be the book to read. The Washington Post book review is here.

II   “Capital In The Twenty-First Century,” by Thomas Piketty, the renowned French economist. It’s a treatise on wealth concentration and distribution over the past 250 years. The author proposes a progressive global tax on wealth, according to Wikipedia. The Economist review in four paragraphs.

III   “A Spool Of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. “Blue Thread” is a study of a fictional Baltimore family. I think I can promise that this one will be easier going and more comforting than Piketty’s “Capital,” but it’s sure to be a good read. I’ve read all of Tyler’s previous novels, and they all provide more psychological insight than your average novel. Tyler is one of America’s greatest contemporary novelists. The NPR book review is here.

By coincidence, for my Maryland readers, both Coates and Tyler are Baltimoreans.

I can’t personally recommend books that I haven’t yet read. I’m trusting that all three will live up to their advance press. If anyone here has read one of the books, your thoughts are welcome. If you haven’t read a book this year, your thoughts are still welcome.

(Note: Ta-Nehisi Coates is the correct spelling of the author’s name. I apologize for getting it wrong in the original posting.)

— John Hayden

Can You Walk Ten Thousand Steps A Day, Every Day?

I’ve been hearing the latest health edict for quite a while.

“Sitting is the new smoking!”

The human body was made to move, not sit. Get up and walk. Just do it.

OK, I sprang for a book. “This Is Your Do-Over: The 7 Secrets to Losing Weight, Living Longer, and Getting a Second Chance at the Life You Want,” by Michael F. Roizen, M.D. It’s 358 pages hardback, including index and a forward by Dr. Oz. Yep, that Dr. Oz. Continue reading

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, a book review

“STATE OF WONDER,” is a 21st century fairy tale. The Ann Patchett novel explores, among many things, the potential for human excellence, the power and consequence of romantic love, the implications of paternal presence and absence. Perhaps most importantly, the story reveals our willingness to deceive, disappoint, and betray one another. But also our ability to persevere and survive.

Read State of Wonder twice. It’s that good. I missed most of the message on first reading. I’m planning to give it a third go, a few years hence. I can’t wait to see how the story stands the test of time. After two readings, I think it has “classic” stamped all over it.

State of WonderOne reader called State of Wonder “A life-changing experience.” For anyone paying attention, it is a life-informing experience, at least.

As a story, State of Wonder is a tale of grand adventure, bordering on science fiction, in a faraway and dangerous place.

The journey takes us from frozen Minnesota to steaming Amazon jungle. It’s the archetypical plot of ancient and modern literature. To wit: The hero leaves home; the hero returns home.

First the hero, Dr. Anders Eckman, departs on a great quest, which includes birdwatching and searching for a disappeared mad scientist. Dr. Eckman contracts a tropical fever and perishes.

Now comes the heroine, Dr. Marina Singh, an unwilling volunteer on a mission. The heroine departs partly because she’s guilt-tripped into it, and partly because she’s in love with the anti-hero, a CEO named Mr. Fox. He stays home, at least for now. What a man! Mr. Fox must remain behind to keep the ship from sinking. In this case, the ship is a corporation. But never mind.

Is the brilliant (mad?) scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, seemingly lost in the jungle without even a telephone, the true heroine? Or is she the villain? Whatever, Dr. Swenson understands the hard truth, when it finally slaps her in the face.

I don’t know another story to match this,” says she.

Correct. There is no story to match this, at least not since Homer. Or maybe Adam and Eve. Forgive my hyperbole.

The icy Dr. Swenson inspires unwavering loyalty, admiration, and fear. She’s a central character here, but not THE central character.

The central character is our overeducated and slightly naive heroine, Dr. Singh.  All the leading characters seem to be doctors, if you don’t count the endearing little boy, named Easter, who happens to be deaf.

Marina Singh is a humble but daring protagonist. She wanders alone in a sweltering, alien city, braving deadly insects and malaria day and night. She travels by small boat down unknown tropical rivers, deep into the dense Amazon jungle.

Our heroine is fearful, but overcomes all fears. She battles a fire-breathing dragon. And slays it with a machete.

(Time out for truth in book reviewing: OK, it’s NOT a fire-breathing dragon. It’s ONLY a poison-spitting boa constrictor, powerful enough to squeeze the life out of a child, and possibly also devour a grown man. This snake is a creature of mythic proportions, a perfectly good stand-in for the archetypical dragon.)

Dr. Marina Singh performs life-and-death surgeries under primitive conditions. She ingests the bark of the tree of eternal fertility, but eschews the hallucinogenic blue mushrooms.

Most importantly, Marina discovers a great truth (I’m not giving it away!) and uncovers a great deception (read the book!).

After all these labors, Marina finds and rescues our original lost hero (Dr. Birdwatcher) and returns him home at last to his family in Minnesota, where it is now springtime.

Ann Patchett has written five other novels and a couple of non-fiction memoirs. She’s only of a certain age, so probably she will write many more books. State of Wonder is, I believe, her masterwork. My review of Ann Patchett’s novel “Run” is here.

I’m tempted to nominate State of Wonder to be a Great American Novel, except that most of the story takes place in the Amazon jungle.

Tell me, have you read State of Wonder? Or Run? What did you think of Ann Patchett’s work?

— John Hayden

Amazon, Books, And Publishing, Read All About It

If you love books, please do not read “CHEAP WORDS: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?”

books headerDon’t read it, because it will break your heart. If you love economic competition or American culture, the article about Amazon.com will also break your heart. If you’re an aspiring author, writing your e-book to sell via Kindle, Nook, or Apple, you probably have a conflicted love-hate relationship with Amazon.

For the fearless reader, the scary, in-depth report by George Packer about Amazon.com may be found in the Feb. 17, 2014, issue of The New Yorker, filed under “Reporter At Large.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

On the positive side, if you own stock in Amazon, Mr. Packer’s comprehensive report might make you fall in love all over again:

“The combination of ceaseless innovation and low-wage drudgery makes Amazon the epitome of a successful New Economy company.”

You could credit Amazon with creating jobs. But in the not-too-distant future, most of those warehouse picking and shipping workers will likely be replaced by robots. And whether we believe it or not, in the long run Amazon just might deliver books, and other merchandise, by drone. (Books are now a small part of the company’s business. Amazon is a digital general store, selling nearly everything under the sun.)

Wikicommons photo

Wikicommons photo

I’m not going to give away the whole Amazon love-hate story, which is too long for most of us to read on a computer screen. I printed it out, and it came to 25 letter-sized pages. It’s a must-read for everyone who’s interested in books and/or the publishing industry, so long as you can handle the heartbreak. I’ll give you a taste of Mr. Packer’s judgement:

“Lately, digital titles have leveled off at about thirty per cent of book sales. Whatever the temporary fluctuations in publishers’ profits, the long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to — they are too busy doing other things with their devices — but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces. The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich.”

And now I’ll localize the story a bit, which is an editor’s oldest trick on a slow news day. Here in the metro Washington, D.C. area, the newspaper many of us rely on for our news, The Washington Post, has been purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Will the sale lead to the newspaper’s salvation or its continued demise?

— John Hayden

Doctorow’s ‘Andrew’s Brain’ (But On Second Thought . . .)

Got the hot new book, published this month, ink’s still wet. E.L. Doctorow’s “Andrew’s Brain.”

It’s a pretty weird book. At least it’s not long. Even as a short novel, I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish it.

Continue reading