Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code

The death of a woman hit by a self-driving car highlights an unfolding technological crisis, as code piled on code creates ‘a universe no one fully understands’

The Guardian has a good essay by Andrew Smith about Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code. The essay starts with the obvious problems of biased algorithms like those documented by Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction. It then goes further to talk about cases where algorithms are learning on the fly or are so complex that their behaviour becomes unpredictable. An example is high-frequency trading algorithms that trade on the stock market. These algorithmic traders try to outwit each other and learn which leads to unpredictable “flash crashes” when they go rogue.

The problem, he (George Dyson) tells me, is that we’re building systems that are beyond our intellectual means to control. We believe that if a system is deterministic (acting according to fixed rules, this being the definition of an algorithm) it is predictable – and that what is predictable can be controlled. Both assumptions turn out to be wrong.

The good news is that, according to one of the experts consulted this could lead to “a golden age for philosophy” as we try to sort out the ethics of these autonomous systems.

Replaying Japan 2018

The last few days I have been in Nottingham, land of Robin Hood, at Replaying Japan 2018 (PDF) conference in the National Videogame Arcade. You can see my conference notes on Replaying Japan 2018 here. The quality of the papers was excellent. The community is gelling and the research is getting more and more interesting. Some highlights:

  • The theme was music and we had a number of excellent papers on Japanese game music. We now have a Replaying Japan journal, thanks to Ritsumeikan. I’m the English editor so stay tuned for a CFP.
  • As per tradition, Keiji Amano and I gave a paper on pachinko. This time we talked about the line between gambling and gaming.
  • The keynotes were fabulous. The first was Masaya Matsuura who developed PaRappa the Rapper and other music games. He reflected philosophically about music, play and sound. The second was David Wise who has composed music for games including Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country series.

It struck a number of us that the community is becoming sufficiently developed that it may be time to form an association in order to properly involve people. Until now it has been loosely organized by a network of us. It may be time to formalize.

EaaSI | The Software Preservation Network

I just learned about a new project called EaaSI | The Software Preservation Network. Stanford will be one of the nodes. They are looking at how to provide emulation as a service. They are using technology from Freiburg called bwFLA Emulation as Service.

Emulation as a strategy for digital preservation is about to become an accepted technology for memory institutions as a method for coping a large variety of complex digital objects. Hence, the demand for ready-made and especially easy-to-use emulation services will grow. In order to provide user-friendly emulation services a scalable, distributed system model is required to be run on heterogeneous Grid or Cluster infrastructure.

The Emulation-as-a-Service architecture simplifies access to preserved digital assets allowing end users to interact with the original environments running on different emulators. Ready-made emulation components provide a flexible web service API allowing for development of individual and tailored digital preservation workflows.

Emulation is going to be important to game preservation. Already the Internet Archive is making games and other software available with emulation. There is also the MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) project that is a community project that has traditionally allowed people to play older games right from the bit sequence off cartridges.

Home – DIGRA 2018 Conference

Last week I was at the DIGRA 2018 Conference in Turin, Italy. The conference was well organized and the quality of papers was high. As always, I kept conference notes here.

I was struck how game studies is less and less about games. Of course, games are the subject of research, but game studies is less about the appreciation of games and more and more about what we can learn about other things through games. Games, like literature, have become a lens for looking at other things making the field richer and better aligned with other fields like media studies or literary criticism.

Next year the conference will be held in Japan and linked up with Replaying Japan. I look forward to the encounter between these different game studies cultures.

Writing with the machine

“…it’s like writing with a deranged but very well-read parrot on your shoulder.”

Robin Sloan of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore fame, has been talking about Writing with the machine. He was inspired by presentations like Adrej Karpathy’s blog post on The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Recurrent Neural Networks and Bowman et al’s Generating Sentences from a Continuous Space to try developing a neural net that could generate text. He used as a training corpus a collection of early science-fiction from the Internet Archive and created different text generation tools like the short video of that which you can see above and hear explained in this Eyeo video.

One of the points he emphasizes is that he didn’t do this just for the fun of seeing strange phrases generated, but wants to use it seriously as a writing aide.

I can’t help wondering if this could be used philosophically. Could we generate philosophical or ethical phrases in response to questions?

Kompu Gacha: Banning Loot Boxes

I’ve been meaning to write for while about Kompu Gacha (or Complete Gacha), a game mechanic that was popular in Japanese mobile games until it was banned in 2012 (see this story too). Kompu gacha is an extreme (or complete) form of the gacha game mechanic which was in turn inspired by the ubiquitous gachapon vending machines you find in Japan where for a couple of coins you get a small loot box (sphere) with a random gift in some theme or series. Children collect items by buying the loot boxes with the hopes of getting new trinkets in series that they collect and trade. Mobile games in Japan borrowed this well known play mode and began to include virtual loot boxes that you could buy in-game. Developers fine tuned the system to the point where millions of yen were being spent on vanishingly rare items. This led to a public controversy after there were cases of youth spending thousands of dollars that then led to banning the loot boxes.

There are a number of reasons why this mechanic and its banning are interesting:

  • It is an example of the grey area between gaming and gambling. In fact, Belgium has also outlawed video game loot boxes as gambling.
  • Gacha mechanics in general are economically important to Japanese mobile/social game design.
  • They are an interesting mechanic in and of themselves and show how an element of randomness that has consequences can be fun. Philosophers and historians of gambling have noted the importance of the element of real risk to the intesity of gambling. It gives everyone a chance to be heroic.

I should mention that it was Mark Johnson and Tom Brock who drew my attention to loot boxes. They have been doing important research on loot boxes and giving papers on the subject.

Torn Apart: Nimble Digital Humanities

Torn Apart is a curation and visualization of publicly available data concerning ICE, CBP facilities, and usages. Also lists of allied and pro-immigrant facilities.

At DH 2018 I heard Roopika Risam speak about the impressive critical digital humanities Torn Apart / Separados project she is part of. (See my conference notes here.) The project is rightly getting attention. For example, the Inside Higher Ed has a story on Digital Humanities for Social Good. This story presents Torn Apart / Separados as an answer to critiques about the digital humanities that they are not critical enough and/or lack interpretative value. (See Stanley Fish’s Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities.) The Inside Higher Ed article rightly points out that there have been socially engaged digital humanities projects for some time.

What I find impressive and think is truly important is how nimble the project is. This project was imagined and implemented in “real” time – ie. it was developed in response to events unfolding in the news. It was also developed without a grant and by a distributed team of volunteers. Thats what computing in the humanities should be – a way to think through issues critically not a way to get funding.

The Truth About ‘Video Game Addiction’


Recently the World Health Organization included “gaming disorder” in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) 11.

Gaming disorder is defined in the draft 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.

Needless to say, this has raised hackles in the gaming world. One balanced article in The Truth About ‘Video Game Addiction’ in Kotaku.

Digital Humanities 2018, Mexico City

Digital Humanities 2018 is coming to a close. This conference was the first in the Global South and had two women keynotes. It was an example of a conference that really supported multilingualism. For the keynotes they had simultaneous translation. They had a mix of English and Spanish talks and many who spoke in one language had slides in the other.

As I often do, I kept conference notes here. These hardly capture the richness of a conference with parallel sessions.

CHCI 2018: Humanities Informatics

Last week I was at the conference of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI 2018) at the University of Virginia. I kept conference notes here. Before the conference proper, we had a day for the Public Engagement network. We heard about Humanities Festivals like the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival. Another neat example is the Dwell in Other Futures festival held in St. Louis.

We also heard about graduate education and community engagement. One example was the Humanities Without Walls summer workshop at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.

Finally we talked about the need for ways of assessing public engagement work. How can academics get credit for public engagement? Is is scholarship?