Why Uber’s business model is doomed

Like other ridesharing companies, it made a big bet on an automated future that has failed to materialise, says Aaron Benanav, a researcher at Humboldt University

Aaron Benanav has an important opinion piece in The Guardian about Why Uber’s business model is doomed. Benanav argues that Uber and Lyft’s business model is to capture market share and then ditch the drivers they have employed for self-driving cars as they become reliable. In other words they are first disrupting the human taxi services so as to capitalize on driverless technology when it comes. Their current business is losing money as they feast on venture capital to get market share and if they can’t make the switch to driverless it is likely they go bankrupt.

This raises the question of whether we will see driverless technology good enough to oust the human drivers? I suspect that we will see it for certain geo-fenced zones where Uber and Lyft can pressure local governments to discipline the streets so as to be safe for driverless. In countries with chaotic and hard to accurately map streets (think medieval Italian towns) it may never work well enough.

All of this raises the deeper ethical issue of how driverless vehicles in particular and AI in general are being imagined and implemented. While there may be nothing unethical about driverless cars per se, there IS something unethical about a company deliberately bypassing government regulations, sucking up capital, driving out the small human taxi businesses, all in order to monopolize a market that they can then profit on by firing the drivers that got them there for driverless cars. Why is this the way AI is being commercialized rather than trying to create better public transit systems or better systems for helping people with disabilities? Who do we hold responsible for the decisions or lack of decisions that sees driverless AI technology implemented in a particularly brutal and illegal fashion. (See Benanav on the illegality of what Uber and Lyft are doing by forcing drivers to be self-employed contractors despite rulings to the contrary.)

It is this deeper set of issues around the imagination, implementation, and commercialization of AI that needs to be addressed. I imagine most developers won’t intentionally create unethical AIs, but many will create cool technologies that are commercialized by someone else in brutal and disruptive ways. Those commercializing and their financial backers (which are often all of us and our pension plans) will also feel no moral responsibility because we are just benefiting from (mostly) legal innovative businesses. Corporate social responsibility is a myth. At most corporate ethics is conceived of as a mix of public relations and legal constraints. Everything else is just fair game and the inevitable disruptions in the marketplace. Those who suffer are losers.

This then raises the issue of the ethics of anticipation. What is missing is imagination, anticipation and planning. If the corporate sector is rewarded for finding ways to use new technologies to game the system, then who is rewarded for planning for the disruption and, at a minimum, lessening the impact on the rest of us? Governments have planning units like city planning units, but in every city I’ve lived in these units are bypassed by real money from developers unless there is that rare thing – a citizen’s revolt. Look at our cities and their spread – despite all sorts of research and a history of spread, there is still very little discipline or planning to constrain the developers. In an age when government is seen as essentially untrustworthy planning departments start from a deficit of trust. Companies, entrepreneurs, innovation and yes, even disruption, are blessed with innocence as if, like children, they just do their thing and can’t be expected to anticipate the consequences or have to pick up after their play. We therefore wait for some disaster to remind everyone of the importance of planning and systems of resilience.

Now … how can teach this form of deeper ethics without sliding into political thought?

The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut

Brad Parscale used social media to sway the 2016 election. He’s poised to do it again.

I just finished reading important reporting about The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut in the March 9th, 2020 issue of the New Yorker. The long article suggests that it wasn’t Cambridge Analytica or the Russians who swung the 2016 election. If anything had an impact it was the extensive use of social media, especially Facebook, by the Trump digital campaign under the leadership of Brad Parscale. The Clinton campaign focused on TV spots and believed they were going to win. The Trump campaign gathered lots of data, constantly tried new things, and drew on their Facebook “embed” to improve their game.

If each variation is counted as a distinct ad, then the Trump campaign, all told, ran 5.9 million Facebook ads. The Clinton campaign ran sixty-six thousand. “The Hillary campaign thought they had it in the bag, so they tried to play it safe, which meant not doing much that was new or unorthodox, especially online,” a progressive digital strategist told me. “Trump’s people knew they didn’t have it in the bag, and they never gave a shit about being safe anyway.” (p. 49)

One interesting service Facebook offered was “Lookalike Audiences” where you could upload a spotty list of information about people and Facebook would first fill it out from their data and then find you more people who are similar. This lets you expand your list of people to microtarget (and Facebook gets you paying for more targeted ads.)

The end of the article gets depressing as it recounts how little the Democrats are doing to counter or match the social media campaign for Trump which was essentially underway right after the 2016 election. One worries, by the end, that we will see a repeat.

Marantz, Andrew. (2020, March 9). “#WINNING: Brad Parscale used social media to sway the 2016 election. He’s posed to do it again.” New Yorker. Pages 44-55.

Philosophers On GPT-3

GPT-3 raises many philosophical questions. Some are ethical. Should we develop and deploy GPT-3, given that it has many biases from its training, it may displace human workers, it can be used for deception, and it could lead to AGI? I’ll focus on some issues in the philosophy of mind. Is GPT-3 really intelligent, and in what sense? Is it conscious? Is it an agent? Does it understand?

On the Daily Nous (news by and for philosophers) there is a great collection of short essays on OpenAI‘s recently released API to GPT-3, see Philosophers On GPT-3 (updated with replies by GPT-3). And … there is a response from GPT-3. Some of the issues raised include:

Ethics: David Chalmers raises the inevitable ethics issues. Remember that GPT-2 was considered so good as to be dangerous. I don’t know if it is brilliant marketing or genuine concern, but OpenAI continuing to treat this technology as something to be careful about. Here is Chalmers on ethics,

GPT-3 raises many philosophical questions. Some are ethical. Should we develop and deploy GPT-3, given that it has many biases from its training, it may displace human workers, it can be used for deception, and it could lead to AGI? I’ll focus on some issues in the philosophy of mind. Is GPT-3 really intelligent, and in what sense? Is it conscious? Is it an agent? Does it understand?

Annette Zimmerman in her essay makes an important point about the larger justice context of tools like GPT-3. It is not just a matter of ironing out the biases in the language generated (or used in training.) It is not a matter of finding a techno-fix that makes bias go away. It is about care.

Not all uses of AI, of course, are inherently objectionable, or automatically unjust—the point is simply that much like we can do things with words, we can dothings with algorithms and machine learning models. This is not purely a tangibly material distributive justice concern: especially in the context of language models like GPT-3, paying attention to other facets of injustice—relational, communicative, representational, ontological—is essential.

She also makes an important and deep point that any AI application will have to make use of concepts from the application domain and all of these concepts will be contested. There are no simple concepts just as there are no concepts that don’t change over time.

Finally, Shannon Vallor has an essay that revisits Hubert Dreyfus’s critique of AI as not really understanding.

Understanding is beyond GPT-3’s reach because understanding cannot occur in an isolated behavior, no matter how clever. Understanding is not an act but a labor.

 

The International Review of Information Ethics

The International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE) has just published Volume 28 which collects papers on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics and Society. This issue comes from the AI, Ethics and Society conference that the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) organized.

This issue of the IRIE also marks the first issue published on the PKP platform managed by the University of Alberta Library. KIAS is supporting the transition of the journal over to the new platform as part of its focus on AI, Ethics and Society in partnership with the AI for Society signature area.

We are still ironing out all the bugs and missing links, so bear with us, but the platform is solid and the IRIE is now positioned to sustainably publish original research in this interdisciplinary area.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. 

Harper’s has published A Letter on Justice and Open Debate that is signed by all sorts of important people from Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood to J.K. Rowling. The letter is critical of what might be called “cancel culture.”

The letter itself has been critiqued for coming from privileged writers who don’t experience the daily silencing of racism or other forms of prejudice. See the Guardian Is free speech under threat from ‘cancel culture’? Four writers respond for different responses to the letter, both critical and supportive.

This issue doesn’t seem to me that new. We have been struggling for some time with issues around the tolerance of intolerance. There is a broad range of what is considered tolerable speech and, I think, everyone would agree that there is also intolerable speech that doesn’t merit airing and countering. The problem is knowing where the line is.

That which is missing on the internet is a sense of dialogue. Those who speechify (including me in blog posts like this) do so without entering into dialogue with anyone. We are all broadcasters; many without much of an audience. Entering into dialogue, by contrast, carries commitments to continue the dialogue, to listen, to respect and to work for resolution. In the broadcast chaos all you can do is pick the stations you will listen to and cancel the others.

Call for Papers for Replaying Japan Journal, Issue 3

The Replaying Japan Journal has issued a call for papers for Issue 3 with a deadline of September 30th, 2020. See the Current Call for Papers – Replaying Japan. The RJJ publishes original research papers on Japanese videogames, game culture and related media. We also publish translations, research notes, and reviews.

The RJJ is available online and in print, published by the Ritsumeikan (University) Center for Game Studies (See the RCGS English Pamphlet too). Inaba, Mitsuyuki is the Editor in Chief and Fukuda, Kazafumi is the Associate Editor. I and Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon are the English Editors.

Articles in either Japanese or English are accepted. The Japanese Call for Papers is here.

Sexism in the Gaming Industry

Once again we are reading about sexism in the video game industry. The New York Times has a story from June 23rd on how Dozens of Women in Gaming Speak Out About Sexism and Harassment. We have heard these stories regularly since GamerGate though many of these focus on behaviour of Twitch stars. One hopes there will be some change.

Kenzie Gordon, who is doing a PhD here at the U of Alberta described why we have this persistent sexism in gaming,

The gaming industry is particularly conducive to a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment, Ms. Gordon said, because straight white men have “created the identity of the gamer as this exclusive property.” When women, people of color or L.G.B.T.Q. people try to break into the industry, she said, the “toxic geek masculinity” pushes back in ways that often lead to sexual abuse and bullying.

One positive change is happening at Ubisoft. Endgaget has a story on how the Ubisoft CEO lays out a plan to change the company’s toxic culture. This is after complaints including an extensive post by Chelsea O’Hara on Breaking My Silence at Ubisoft Toronto.

These concrete developments at companies like Ubisoft are in contrast with what happened a year before in 2019 when there was a backlash against victims who called out their harassers after indie developer Alec Holowka committed suicide. As the Wired article by Laurie Penny Gaming’s #MeToo Moment and the Tyranny of Male Fragility points out, the trolls attacked the victims using the logic that they should have known Holowka was fragile and let him be.

The message is clear: Men’s mental health matters more than women’s. Men’s suffering and self-loathing is treated as a public concern, because men are permitted to be real people whose inner lives and dreams matter. Who cares, then, how many women they destroy along the way?

What is the TikTok subculture Dark Academia?

School may be out indefinitely, but on social media there’s a thriving subculture devoted to the aesthetic of all things scholarly.

The New York Times has an article answering the question, What is the TikTok subculture Dark Academia? It describes a subculture that started on tumblr and evolved on TikTok and Instagram that values a tweedy academic aesthetic. Sort of Hogwarts meets humanism. Alas, just as the aesthetics of humanities academic culture becomes a thing, it gets superseded by Goblincore or does it just fade like a pressed flower.

Now we need to start a retro Humanities Computing aesthetic.

Internet Archive closes the National Emergency Library

Within a few days of the announcement that libraries, schools and colleges across the nation would be closing due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, we launched the temporary National Emergency Library to provide books to support emergency remote teaching, research activities, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation during the closures.  […]

According to the Internet Archive blog the Temporary National Emergency Library to close 2 weeks early, returning to traditional controlled digital lending. The National Emergency Library (NEL) was open to anyone in the world during a time when physical libraries were closed. It made books the IA had digitized available to read online. It was supposed to close at the end of June because four commercial publishers decided to sue. 

The blog entry points to what the HathiTrust is doing as part of their Emergency Temporary Access Service which lets libraries that are members (and the U of Alberta Library is one) provide access to digital copies of books they have corresponding physical copies of. This is only available to “member libraries that have experienced unexpected or involuntary, temporary disruption to normal operations, requiring it to be closed to the public”. 

It is a pity the IS NEL was discontinued, for a moment there it looked like large public service digital libraries might become normal. Instead it looks like we will have a mix of commercial e-book services and Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) offered by libraries that have the physical books and the digital resources to organize it. The IA blog entry goes on to note that even CDL is under attack. Here is a story from Plagiarism Today:

Though the National Emergency Library may have been what provoked the lawsuit, the complaint itself is much broader. Ultimately, it targets the entirety of the IA’s digital lending practices, including the scanning of physical books to create digital books to lend.

The IA has long held that its practices are covered under the concept of controlled digital lending (CDL). However, as the complaint notes, the idea has not been codified by a court and is, at best, very controversial. According to the complaint, the practice of scanning a physical book for digital lending, even when the number of copies is controlled, is an infringement.

Introducing the AI4Society Signature Area

AI4Society will provide institutional leadership in this exciting area of teaching, research, and scholarship.

The Quad has a story Introducing the AI4Society Signature Area. Artificial Intelligence for Society is a University of Alberta Signature Area that brings together researchers and instructors from both the sciences and the arts. AI4S looks at how AI can be imagined, designed, and tested so that it serves society. I’m lucky to contribute to this Area as the Associate Director, working with the Director, Eleni Stroulia from Computing Science.