Corporations Are “Bad AI”

Tim Maly writes:

One of my favourite recurring tropes of AI speculation/singulatarian deep time thinking is mediations on how an evil AI or similar might destroy us. […]

And all I can think is: we already have one of those. It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that 1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world 2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans 3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.

I don’t think that it’s all that far fetched to suggest that maybe they’re getting better and better at ensuring their needs are met. Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.

Full Story: Quiet Babylon: The Singularity Already Happened; We Got Corporations

See also: Yes, There is a Sub-Reddit Dedicated to Preventing SkyNet

The Portland Food Truck Incubator

Portland is known for its food truck scene (we call ’em “carts” here though), and that culture has spread to other cities like San Francisco and New York. Now we’ve also got an “incubator,” a concept I’ve usually seen attached to tech startups, for food vendors:

Montiel is in the first class of Hacienda Community Development Corp.’s Latino Food Vendor Incubator. The class includes four would-be tamaleros, or tamale vendors, and one Colombian who makes arepas, flat corncakes that are often filled. The participants will prepare food in a shared commercial kitchen and sell it at Portland-area farmers markets this summer. Next year, they’ll learn the catering business, and the third year work on a soft launch of their own businesses. […]

“I need to know everything,” Montiel says through an interpreter. She feels a responsibility to share the cuisine she grew up with in Puebla, but before she’s ready to set out on her own she needs to expand her English fluency, figure out financing options, establish relationships with organic food providers, get comfortable with restaurant technology and learn sustainable business practices.

Oregon Live: Vendor incubator nurtures dreams of Latino entrepreneurs

Deadline Pressures Are Bad for Creativity

Ever think that deadlines pressures help you find creative solutions to problems? According to a Harvard Business School study, that’s not the case. From an interview with the researcher behind the study:

My research team and I investigated time pressure and creativity as part of a multi-year research program in which we had a large number of organizational employees—238 individuals on 26 project teams in 7 companies in 3 industries—fill out a brief electronic diary every day during the entire course of a creative project they were doing in their jobs. […]

As the HBR article points out, the results suggest that, overall, very high levels of time pressure should be avoided if you want to foster creativity on a consistent basis. However, if a time crunch is absolutely unavoidable, managers can try to preserve creativity by protecting people from fragmentation of their work and distractions; they should also give people a sense of being “on a mission,” doing something difficult but important. I don’t think, though, that most people can function effectively in that mode for long periods of time without getting burned out.

At the other end of the spectrum, very low time pressure might lull people into inaction; under those conditions, top-management encouragement to be creative—to do something radically new—might stimulate creativity. But, frankly, I don’t think there’s much danger of too little time pressure in most organizations I’ve studied.

Harvard Business School: Time Pressure and Creativity: Why Time is Not on Your Side

(via Alex Pang)

See also: Overtime Kills Productivity)

Nomad Economics and E-Commerce

My old friend Abe Burmeister was interviewed about the philosophy behind his company Outlier by Dan Gould for PSFK:

A few hundred years ago most products were sold directly from the maker to the user. If you wanted forks and knives you went to a silversmith. To get shoes you went to a shoemaker. The industrial revolution exploded all that, and gradually layer upon layer of wholesalers, distributors, buyers and salespeople have been added into the purchasing process. In the end you often find dozens of people separating the designers from the end users.

The internet has the potential to explode this game, but perhaps more importantly it also provides an economic incentive to. Most of those layers separating the designer from the user are layers that raise the price of the product and reduce the profit margins of the manufacturer. Gut out the layers of wholesalers and distributors and you wind up reducing the price of products and making more money at the same time. But to do this requires boldly throwing out the old business model. Of the established companies, Apple is close to the only large one confident enough to do it.

One of the craziest things about selling design on the internet is that there are no sales people. Not only can you eliminate layers of middlemen between the designer and the user, but you also eliminate the persuader at the end of the line. All of a sudden the product basically needs to sell itself, and anyone who knows how to google can turn themselves into an expert in hours. It’s a new environment and one in which the designer takes a much more important role in selling the product than they have in the past.

PSFK: The Internet Has Changed the Way We Make Products

This is an application of theory that Abe wrote about in his master’s thesis Nomad Economics. Abe’s very seldom updated blog Abstract Dynamics was one of the best blogs of the early to mid 00s and he’s still one of the most interesting people I follow on Twitter.

Do Entrepreneurs Really Create Jobs?

Barry Ritholtz has an iconoclastic take on entrepreneurs and job creation:

BI is a digital media property. The print industry (aka dead trees) has been fighting a losing battle versus online competition for years. The print news industry itself is shrinking, while the online industry is growing — but online’s gains are not nearly as large as offline’s losses.

Those 75 jobs Henry mentioned? Twenty-five years ago, they would have been 250 jobs at various newspapers and magazines. Writers, copy editors, artists, printers (Humans, not HPs), etc. The enormous gains in productivity allow far fewer people to do the work formerly employing far more people. This is the inevitable path of technology. Ever since the first human sharpened a stick to hunt, that curve has been the accomplishment of more production with fewer people.

What entrepreneurs actually do is facilitate moving workers from one firm to another — from the less productive business model to the more productive one — as they battle it out in the marketplace.

Economonitor: On Job Creation, Creative Destruction and Technology

(Note: It sounds from Ritholtz’s piece that Blodget is claiming that BI created jobs, but Blodget actually does not claim this. The original piece is here)

I do think that in some cases entrepreneurs create economic opportunity where none existed before – this would especially seem to be the case in the “shadow economy” that thrives in squatter settlements all over the world. But many enterprises now are in the business of destroying jobs through technology. Many more jobs now exist for computer programmers. I benefit from the IT revolution as a journalist in that I rather doubt there would be nearly as many people employed as technology journalists otherwise. But the companies that employ these people, the companies that I cover, are upending entire industries, such as legal services and travel agencies.

In the past we could assume the luddite fallacy was indeed a fallacy. However, reading Race Against the Machine or Slate’s Robot Invasion series it appears that concept may soon need to be renamed the luddite principle.

It doesn’t matter when you were born, we’re all a part of generation sell now. But are we about to turn a corner?

Most Students Don’t Learn Much in College Researchers Say

Academically Adrift

[This post refers to a study with a large sample, but which has not been replicated]

One of the arguments in favor of college is that, regardless of whether you learn practical content in college or whether it helps you find a better job, at least it teaches you to “learn how to learn” and enriches you with knowledge. Unfortunately, according to research presented in the book Academically Adrift, colleges aren’t doing a very good job of this. The authors used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures skills like critical thinking and analytic reasoning to assess 2,300 students enrolled in several different colleges.

According to Inside Higher Education, the authors found:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.

Inside Higher Education: Academically Adrift

There are various causes for this lack of learning, but low expectations from professors is allegedly the biggest cause. Students are getting by with less and less work and being rewarded for it. But what’s causing the grade inflation? The demand to keep enrollment up may be one cause, exacerbated by professors desire to reduce the amount of work they must grade. This avoidance assigning more work may itself be caused by budget cutting at universities, and by professors’ focus on their own research instead of teaching.

Another interesting finding is that business, education and social work majors learn less than those in other majors. This lengthy New York Times piece looks at the sorry state of undergraduate business education, and notes that my own major (communications) was among the worst as well.

This study has not, to my knowledge, been replicated. But according to New York Times higher education blogger Jacques Steinberg, it is consistent with the finds of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which found that students spend relatively little time studying.

Brand Fanaticism Lights Up Same Part of the Brain as Religion


Curt Hopkins compares the discovery that a company’s logo lights up the same brain regions in fans of that company that religious iconographic lights up in followers of the religion.

Anyway, the public (well, at least the free, male, moneyed public) that took such a hands-on role in shaping the policy of the Republic was displaced by an Imperial government that consolidated power in one man, whose will was carried out by a bureaucracy. When that happened, the formerly most influential elements of the society turned away from public life to “mystery religions”: Mithraism, the worship of Isis and of course Christianity.

In the same way, it feels that we’ve lost something in turn. I’m not sure what it is – religious faith, political will, tribal affiliation? – but I can feel it. With the loss of that thing, people have turned to brands, particularly to tech brands, with their promise of connection, amplification, justification, belonging. The promise of salvation and relevance.

ReadWriteWeb: Thou Shalt Have No Other Jobs Before Me: Geek Fanatacism Lights Up Same Part of the Brain as Religion

Also check out what Douglas Rushkoff has to say about the future of branding in social media.

An Education in For-Profit Education

Via that panel on comics as journalism, here’s a great comic/infographic on for-profit education by Susie Cagle for Campus Progress.

An Education in For-Profit Education

See also: Earn 45% of Credits Towards a Bachelor’s Degree by Working at Wal-Mart

What’s The Difference Between Game Mechanics in the Enterprise and Good Management?

A follow-up to my last article on the gamification of work:

And to some extent, “pointsification” is just quantification – something enterprises should be doing anyway. In fact, most the principals of a good game should apply in the workplace.:

  • Quantification: Tracking sales, average customer support response time, server uptime and other metrics that identify success.
    Recognition and Reward: Raises, bonuses, promotions.
    Autonomy: Robertson notes that for a game to be truly engaging players must be able to make decisions that “meaningfully impact on the world of the game.” Autonomy has been identified by Daniel Pink and others as a requirement for motivation and job satisfaction.
    Challenge: I think this should be self-explanatory.
  • Looked at this way, is there any difference between “gamification” and “good management”?

    3 Best University Majors According to Microsoft

    Artificial intelligence

    These are the areas of concentration Microsoft is most in need of right now, according to its jobs blog:

    Data Mining/Machine Learning/AI/Natural Language Processing

    Business Intelligence/Competitive Intelligence

    Analytics/Statistics – specifically Web Analytics, A/B Testing and statistical analysis

    Microsoft Careers Jobs Blog: The Top Three hottest new majors for a career in technology

    No surprises there. See “The Coming Data Explosion” for more on the subject of big data.

    (via Don)

    Update: See also: The Big Data Explosion and the Demand for the Statistical Tools to Analyze It “If The Graduate were remade today, the advice to young Benjamin Braddock might be ‘just one word… statistics.'”

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