Sep 21, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: The upside of humans

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As work on artificial intelligence plods along, an advanced form of crowdsourcing is emerging as an accelerated way to surpass human thinking.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports: Specially organized groups of people could "get to superhuman intelligence first," said Daniel Weld, a computer science professor at the University of Washington.

Collective intelligence — the knowledge of an organized group that goes beyond that of any individual member — is already present inside every organization, community, company, and government.

  • But anyone who’s ever attended a meeting or followed a controversial bill through Congress knows that hurdles prevent perfect coordination.
  • Popular crowdsourcing platforms like Mechanical Turk suffer from accuracy problems, not to mention very difficult working conditions.

More advanced technology can help reduce the friction that holds back better group decision-making, said Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder of New York University’s Governance Lab.

  • An early standout: Foldit, a scientific inquiry masquerading as a video game. A UW team released the web game, in which players experiment with and fold virtual proteins, in 2008. Tens of thousands participated and within ten days discovered the structure of a key enzyme that helps HIV replicate.

Now, a platform built by a company called Unanimous surpasses both expert forecasts and purely AI-generated predictions in sports and Oscar betting.

  • The system, called Swarm AI, arranges potential answers on a computer screen. Participants pull a bubble toward their preferred option, using a light or hard touch based on their confidence. An algorithm mediates the aggregate force used by the players, settling on an answer.
  • This model outperforms traditional voting systems, said Unanimous CEO Louis Rosenberg, because it maximizes what he calls "collective confidence": the answer that the group as a whole most strongly feels is accurate.

In a recent experiment with the Stanford University School of Medicine, eight expert radiologists assessed whether 50 chest x-rays show signs of pneumonia.

  • The group’s predictions, moderated by Swarm AI, were 33% more accurate than the individuals on their own, and 22% better than Stanford’s own AI system, CheXNet.
  • Matthew Lungren, a Stanford radiology professor who was involved in the study, called Swarm AI a "very powerful tool," but said it should be reserved for difficult decision-making, because it’s cumbersome to use on every easy case.

"This is an example of how new technology allows democracy to work better," said Thomas Malone, director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence — meaning any democratic decision-making.

  • The system allows for instant, anonymous sharing of each participant's opinion, and a continually repeated opportunity to vote, he said — "things that are completely unfeasible if you had to vote on paper."
  • But it’s unlikely Unanimous is ideal for every type of collective decision-making, Weld said.
We need to figure out the principles by which we build these things. Through the process of doing this over and over again, we'll come up with those principles.
— Daniel Weld, professor of computer science at the University of Washington

The big picture: Collective intelligence displays a number of human traits lacking in today’s artificial intelligence.

  • Unlike most AI systems, humans can explain their reasoning, a transparency making it possible to excise bias.
  • Where AI sometimes parrots its designers' perspective — like facial recognition systems that perform better on white men than on women of color — collective intelligence can reflect a broader range of human experience, Verhulst said.
  • "These superminds run our world," said MIT's Malone.

Go deeper: How AI will make us think harder (Axios)

2. The underside of autonomy

Before the deluge. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Autonomous driving enthusiasts have captured minds with a splendrous picture of our future — of carefree, kicked-back drives, liberation from the stress of the road, and newly green, walkable cities, shorn of now-unrequired parking garages.

But the reality may be less utopian — much more crowded, less green, and further in the future. Axios' Alison Snyder and Kaveh Waddell write:

  • To fulfill their ultimate promise of transforming how we build cities and move people and goods — saving lives in the process — autonomous vehicles will have to be even better drivers than people. But for now — and, it appears quite a while to come — humans are still a lot smarter than even the smartest cars.
  • "Driving is the most complex activity that most adults engage in on a regular basis," says Carnegie Mellon University's Raj Rajkumar, a pioneer in self-driving development. "Just because we do it doesn't mean we can teach computers to easily do it. It will be many more years for full automation."

When the cars do arrive, they will not mean clear sailing to work, either, as many people think, nor a greener city when they get there.

Look at San Francisco, for instance, writes UC Berkeley's Gordon Bauer in Axios Expert Voices. As Bay Area housing prices have skyrocketed, more people have moved to peripheral cities and seen their commutes lengthen: Between 2005 and 2016, those commuting more than 90 minutes a day increased 113%.

  • Once self-driving cars come to market, this problem will only be worse. As spending time in a car becomes less onerous, the tradeoff of moving a few hours away to save money on rent will look increasingly favorable. Hence, more cars on the road, only this time driving themselves.
  • Even as electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles proliferate, California will still have to contend with this central issue: More sprawl equals more miles traveled, and more miles traveled equals more emissions.
  • And, aside from its environmental impact, this shift could also lead to increased income inequality: Recent studies have uncovered an inverse relationship between time spent commuting and economic mobility.
3. What you may have missed this week

Photo: William Lovelace/Getty

You were too busy to check your emails. No worries. Here are the top stories at Future this week:

1. Machines will do half our labor in 8 years: Automation is accelerating.

2. The forever trade war: The conflict is happening independent of Trump.

3. Inside the quiet AI revolution: It's transforming work now.

4. U.S. could face prolonged era of anti-immigrant fever: Backlash to the second big wave of newcomers.

4. Worthy of your time
Expand chart
Adapted from Jalal et al., 2018, “Changing dynamics of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States from 1979 through 2016”; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Four decades of opioid deaths (Eileen Drage O'Reilly - Axios)

How to pull Europe into the AI race (Economist)

The past and present of the name Heather (Dan Kopf - Quartz)

Wang Qishan, philosopher king (Tom Mitchell - FT)

5. 1 fun thing: Cheap filmmaking

From Jon Chu's short film. Screengrab: Wired on Twitter.

When Wired decided to test Apple's new top-of-the-line iPhone, it recruited Jon Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, to shoot a short film with it. Spoiler: It came out pretty well.

Axios' Erica Pandey writes: Compare that to the story of Kevin Smith, who made the 1994 cult classic Clerks. Smith signed up for a cooking class just to get a student discount on Kodak movie film, tweeted Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz.

  • Software has quickly erased the need for lots of expensive, bulky filmmaking equipment.
  • Yes, but: Production costs have also skyrocketed because audiences expect perfect picture quality and top-notch special effects that can offset the dollars saved on old-school gear, said Anders Hofseth, a journalist at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.
Bryan Walsh