Feb 6, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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What are we not covering that you'd like to see? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com. Kaveh Waddell is at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

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1 big thing: Chess schmess. AI tries Pictionary

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

For several years, computers have made short work of human champions in Go and chess. Now, artificial intelligence researchers are attempting an improbable path even closer to human capability: Pictionary, a guessing game requiring not strategy but the confoundingly hard-to-duplicate quality of common sense.

  • Kaveh writes: The effort to play with humans — rather than against them — is a step toward an optimistic future of work in which AI cooperates with people to complete tasks, rather than wiping out workers in large numbers.

What's happening: Researchers at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence have developed an AI program that can play either side side of Pictionary, a game in which one player draws a picture to represent a word or phrase for the other player to guess.

The big picture: Pictionary only seems straightforward. Like so many tasks that come naturally to children, it's a challenge for even the most advanced AI.

  • That's because it requires a grasp of nebulous concepts that are common sense to humans, but that no one has figured out how to easily teach computers.
  • Try the game here.

The AI player is impressively good, but it doesn't quite feel like a grandmaster yet. If the Allen researchers can make the leap from where they are now to mastering common sense, they will have accomplished a lot: Common sense is hard to define precisely, yet it's an underestimated and central human quality, essential for communication.

  • An important point: It's also a key stepping stone to machine intelligence that matches or surpasses human capabilities.

What they did: The Allen researchers' AI watched humans play 100,000 games. It was also taught how to find words that have characteristics in common — like bread, fruit and food.

Kaveh had a couple of experts play the game:

  • Stefaan Verhulst, who researches human-computer interaction at New York University, said the AI reasons its way to a guess like a human would. That's something that would be useful, say, where a computer is missing important information and has to fill in the blanks, he said.
  • But, but, but: Dileep George, co-founder of the AI company Vicarious, said the player is still far from exhibiting genuine common sense. He likened it to the auto-complete feature on smartphones — a system that can guess what a user intends to type, but doesn't have a deep understanding of the world.

Watching the computer tells us something about people, too. Since the AI trained by watching humans play, it has absorbed some human biases.

  • In one game, Kaveh was assigned the phrase "couple buying a car." He drew two men, a dollar bill and a car, but the system couldn't guess the phrase. He added a wedding ring between the men, but it still didn't understand.
  • When he changed one of the men to a women, the AI immediately guessed correctly.
  • This type of mistake — where AI reflects the narrow point of view of the humans it learns from — is a common problem. When AI systems are in charge of hiring, doling out loans or evaluating parole applications, the danger of creeping bias is far greater.
2. Fear quotient: Monopolists vs. China

At the the Frankfurt-Hoechst station. Photo: Arne Dedert/AFP/Getty

A tension has surfaced in Europe between a fear of China effectively buying up whole industries and local companies becoming too large: Public officials are uncertain which dynamic is more pernicious.

Driving the news: In a decision tomorrow, the European Commission is expected to veto the railroad merger of Germany's giant Siemens and France's Alstom.

  • The merger's advocates say the blockbuster combination is needed to meet the threat of China's state-owned CRCC rail gargantuan.
  • But critics say that CRCC shows no sign of operating anytime soon in Europe and the Siemens-Alstom combination will be so big that it will be able to force up prices almost at will.
  • In this case, the latter fear appears to have prevailed.

"The merger decision has broader political significance because it can either vindicate or try to stop the more statist interests in the economy that have been brewing for many years," says Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

The bottom line: There has been a profound shift in European sentiment about big and growing private companies, which until recently have been championed by the U.K. and Germany against more state-led impulses of France, Kirkegaard tells Axios.

  • Now, Brexit and a political shift in Germany have led to new scrutiny of big companies.
3. Big Tech: Scorned but ultra-profitable
Expand chart
Reproduced from Charlie Biello; Chart: Axios Visuals

Big Tech is on an earnings tear. While under enormous scrutiny over their concentration of market power and control of data, the big American technology companies are reporting an enormous surge in earnings (see chart).

An ironic exception: Apple, which has very publicly set itself up as a critic of the data and financial practices of its Big Tech brethren, had the only revenue loss of the big six companies.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech is splitting the U.S. workforce (Eduardo Porter — NYT)

America's economic data divergence (Courtenay Brown — Axios)

Alibaba is playing catch-up on cloud businesses (Naoki Matsuda, Mariko Hirano — Nikkei Asian Review)

Brexit and higher education (Andrew Jack — FT)

Ridding the Earth of Garbage Island (Carolyn Kormann — New Yorker)

5. 1 fun thing: A futuristic Lunar New Year

In Indonesia. Photo: Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu/Getty

Today marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig. As part of its Chinese New Year celebration, CCTV, the state broadcasting network, runs a hugely popular variety show — viewed by nearly 1 billion people and featuring grand acts and celebrity masters of ceremony.

This year, there was a futuristic twist, Erica writes.

  • Alongside the four hosts of the gala were four digital twins, designed by ObEN Inc., who could talk and sing just like their human counterparts.
  • ObEN CEO Nikhil Jain told Forbes the idea of creating digital copies of humans came to him as a way to keep his kids from missing him while he's away on business.

Erica's thought bubble: A nice idea, but I think I'd prefer the occasional video chat.

Bryan Walsh