Efficiency Isn’t Everything

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Silicon Valley has given us a lot – and taken away a lot. We seem to be dividing into those who embrace technology and those who fear it.

That’s why I was taken by Gal Beckerkan’s recent piece, “Kicking the Geeks Where it Hurts.” The subtitle, “Why Silicon Valley Should Embrace Inefficiency,” says a lot. Here’s how it starts:

Hypocrisy thrives at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley. This is where Google executives send their children to learn how to knit, write with chalk on blackboards, practice new words by playing catch with a beanbag and fractions by cutting up quesadillas and apples. There are no screens — not a single piece of interactive, multimedia, educational content. The kids don’t even take standardized tests.

While Silicon Valley’s raison d’être is making platforms, apps and algorithms to create maximum efficiency in life and work (a “friction-free” world, as Bill Gates once put it), when it comes to their own families (and developing their own businesses, too), the new masters of the universe have a different sense of what it takes to learn and innovate — it’s a slow, indirect process, meandering not running, allowing for failure and serendipity, even boredom.

Back in 1911, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” By that metric, Uber and Google and Amazon Prime have given us a whole lot of civilization. And there’s no doubt our lives are better for it. (Ordering Chinese takeout in 30 seconds on an app might not be up there with Shakespeare or the incandescent light bulb, but it’s pretty great.) This unrelenting drive for efficiency has, however, blotted out a few things we all know intuitively but seem to be forgetting.

To create a product or service that is truly efficient often involves a lot of inefficiency — more like learning to knit than pressing a button. Likewise, gadgets built with a single-minded focus on efficiency can often backfire, subverting their purpose. Algorithms designed to dish up the news and information we most prefer end up blinkering us to all but a narrow slice of political and social reality. Our smartphones untether us from the office, saving us energy on travel, but also allow our lives to be interrupted nearly 24 hours a day, chewing up any productive idle time.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Orbits in our Future?

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Last week, I teed up the distant horizon point of view of “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress,” and talked about how our world will look if the “Islands,” scenario plays out in the future.

That is only one of three options. Another one is ORBITS. Here’s how that scenarios would play out and what our future would look like:

The ORBITS scenario explores a future of tensions created by competing major powers seeking their own spheres of influence while attempting to maintain stability at home. It examines how the trends of rising nationalism, changing conflict patterns, emerging disruptive technologies, and decreasing global cooperation might converge to increase the risk of interstate conflict. This scenario emphasizes policy choices that would reinforce stability and peace or exacerbate tensions. The story of this scenario is told from the perspective of a national security advisor reflecting on his assessment of the international environment in his memoirs written sometime in the future.

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here:

https://www.dni.gov/files/images/globalTrends/documents/GT-Main-Report.pdf

Easy Self Control

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Who doesn’t want more self-control? Talk about and easy question.

While there isn’t an easy answer to gaining the degree of self-control we all seem to want, Tim Herrera recently teed up some good ideas. Appropriately, his piece features a plate of delicious-looking chocolate brownies. Here’s how he begins:

Picture this: You’re staring down a plate of fresh brownies during your 2 p.m. lull. You had an early lunch so your stomach is grumbling, and dinner feels a lifetime away. What happens next?

You’re probably eating those brownies, friend-o. (And I am, ahem, definitely not pulling this story from personal experience.)

Self-control in the face of temptation is a tricky thing. We tend to view it in black-and-white, almost moralistic terms: Anyone who succumbs to temptation, in whatever form, clearly must be weak willed. A stronger person would never eat that brownie, fall into a 90-minute YouTube spiral or watch another three episodes of “Billions” instead of writing his weekly newsletter.

But the science behind self-control tells a different story.

A 2011 study that examined how people deal with self-control found that those of us who are best at it aren’t more strong-willed or dedicated: They simply experience temptation less.

In fact, the very idea that we can improve our self-control is in question: A 2016 study found that “training self-control through repeated practice does not result in generalized improvements in self-control.”

In other words, don’t beat yourself up over a lack of self-control: We’re wired to be bad at it. But that’s not the end of the story.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Battling Moguls – Killer Robots

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Earlier this month I posted a blog entry regarding one of the most controversial issues at the nexus of technology and national security is concerns regarding the “militarization” of artificial intelligence – AI.

Initially an issue consigned to just a few defense-related publications and websites, it has now moved front and center. Some of what is said is shrill, but some if far less so.

That’s why I was taken by a piece in the New York Times entitled:

Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and the Feud Over Killer Robots

with the subtitle

As the tech moguls disagree over the risks presented by something that doesn’t exist yet, all of Silicon Valley is learning about unintended consequences of A.I.

Here’s how it begins:

Mark Zuckerberg thought his fellow Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk was behaving like an alarmist.

Mr. Musk, the entrepreneur behind SpaceX and the electric-car maker Tesla, had taken it upon himself to warn the world that artificial intelligence was “potentially more dangerous than nukes” in television interviews and on social media

So, on Nov. 19, 2014, Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, invited Mr. Musk to dinner at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. Two top researchers from Facebook’s new artificial intelligence lab and two other Facebook executives joined them.

As they ate, the Facebook contingent tried to convince Mr. Musk that he was wrong. But he wasn’t budging. “I genuinely believe this is dangerous,” Mr. Musk told the table, according to one of the dinner’s attendees, Yann LeCun, the researcher who led Facebook’s A.I. lab.

Mr. Musk’s fears of A.I., distilled to their essence, were simple: If we create machines that are smarter than humans, they could turn against us. (See: “The Terminator,” “The Matrix,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Let’s for once, he was saying to the rest of the tech industry, consider the unintended consequences of what we are creating before we unleash it on the world.

Neither Mr. Musk nor Mr. Zuckerberg would talk in detail about the dinner, which has not been reported before, or their long-running A.I. debate.

The creation of “superintelligence” — the name for the supersmart technological breakthrough that takes A.I. to the next level and creates machines that not only perform narrow tasks that typically require human intelligence (like self-driving cars) but can actually outthink humans — still feels like science fiction. But the fight over the future of A.I. has spread across the tech industry.

You can read the full article here

Islands in our Future?

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve teed up the distant horizon point of view of “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress,” as well as three plausible scenarios for what kind of world we’ll find ourselves in decades hence. How these scenarios, Islands, Orbits, and Communities, play out will dominate how our world will be shaped in the future.

The three scenarios—”Islands,” “Orbits,” and “Communities“—explore how critical trends and choices might intersect to create different paths to the future. These scenarios postulate alternative responses to near-term volatility—at the national (Islands), regional (Orbits), and sub-state and transnational (Communities) levels. The names of the three Global Trends: Paradox of Progress scenarios: Islands, Orbits, and Communities are intriguing and bear a bit of explanation.

Here’s a look at ISLANDS, and how it might play out: This scenario investigates the issues surrounding a restructuring of the global economy that leads to long periods of slow or no growth, challenging the assumption that traditional models of economic prosperity and expanding globalization will continue in the future. The scenario emphasizes the difficulties for governance in meeting future societal demands for economic and physical security as popular pushback to globalization increases, emerging technologies transform work and trade, and political instability grows. This scenario underscores the choices governments will face in adjusting to changing economic and technological conditions that might lead some to turn inward, reduce support for multilateral cooperation, and adopt protectionist policies and others to find ways to leverage new sources of economic growth and productivity. The story of this scenario is told from the perspective of an economist reflecting on the twenty years since the 2008 global financial crisis.

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here

Our Vets – and More

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Memorial Day has come and gone, and with it, for many, a focus on our veterans. That’s why I was strike by the piece by Army Veteran Allison Jaslow. Here’s how the article begins:

If you’ve worn the uniform of our armed forces, you’ve put your life on the line for our country. This Memorial Day, we’ll remind ourselves that some men and women made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live free in this great nation.

It’s not surprising, then, that many Americans are looking to veterans to help us out of these dark and divisive times. Political parties are recruiting veteran candidates as their “secret weapons” in the midterm elections, and advocates for causes ranging from gun rights to gun control to helping undocumented immigrants are elevating veteran voices to advance their agendas.

But is electing more veterans the solution to our nation’s problems? I wish that were all it took.

As a veteran myself, I appreciate that many Americans hold us in high esteem. But the rush to promote veteran candidates is evidence that we expect more out of our elected leaders than we do of ourselves. And that’s what really ails America.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Change the World

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As the old saw goes, the guy (or gal) who invented the wheel was in inventor, the person who took four wheels and put them on a wagon was an innovator.

We are taken by innovations and innovators, they help define our future and then make it possible. That’s what drew me to Kerry Hannon’s piece, “The Courage to Change the World.” Here’s how she begins:

Call them what you will: change makers, innovators, thought leaders, visionaries.

In ways large and small, they fight. They disrupt. They take risks. They push boundaries to change the way we see the world, or live in it. Some create new enterprises, while others develop their groundbreaking ideas within an existing one.

From Archimedes to Zeppelin, the accomplishments of great visionaries over the centuries have filled history books. More currently, from Jeff Bezos of Amazon to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, they are the objects of endless media fascination — and increasingly intense public scrutiny.

Although centuries stretch between them, experts who have studied the nature of innovators across all areas of expertise largely agree that they have important attributes in common, from innovative thinking to an ability to build trust among those who follow them to utter confidence and a stubborn devotion to their dream.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Islands, or Orbits, or Communities

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Last week, I teed up the distant horizon point of view of “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress,” as well as three plausible scenarios for what kind of world we’ll find ourselves in decades hence. How these scenarios, Islands, Orbits, and Communities, play out will dominate how our world will be shaped in the future.

“Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” sets up its analysis by describes the factors that will lead to one or the other of the three suggested scenarios. Those factors include: dynamics within countries, dynamics between countries, and long-term, short-term tradeoffs. It is easy to see how the interplay between these broad categories can result in completely divergent scenarios.

The three scenarios—”Islands,” “Orbits,” and “Communities“—explore how critical trends and choices might intersect to create different paths to the future. These scenarios postulate alternative responses to near-term volatility—at the national (Islands), regional (Orbits), and sub-state and transnational (Communities) levels. The names of the three Global Trends: Paradox of Progress scenarios: Islands, Orbits, and Communities are intriguing and bear a bit of explanation.

More on “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” in my next National Security blog post.

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here:

https://www.dni.gov/files/images/globalTrends/documents/GT-Main-Report.pdf

 

Compliments

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As President Harry Truman famously said, “Everybody likes a compliment.” That was true when he said it over a half-century ago, and perhaps even more true now as anything that gives us pause in our fast-paced lives is – and should be – a good thing. The question becomes, if we receive a compliment, what do we do?

I’ve always struggled with that question, that’s why I was intrigued Carolyn Bucoir’s piece, “How to Accept a Compliment.” Here’s how she begins:

Alone in my office one afternoon, I unpeeled the wrapper from a square of chocolate with a deliberate curiosity not associated with office snacking. As the minty candy dissolved in my mouth, I read the words printed inside the wrapper: “Accept a compliment.”

I would normally not say yes to suggestions from strangers who work in what I assume is the marketing department of Dove Chocolate, Promises Division. But they aren’t alone in their advice. “Ladies, why the heck can’t we take a compliment?” a Prevention writer asked in a January headline. The message: C’mon women. Quit being apologists. Fully accept the compliments you deserve — without any self-deprecation or changing of the subject.

Until this point, I would have responded to a compliment — say, on my hair — with half acknowledgment and half distraction. “Thanks, but [acknowledge recent struggle with hair or hairdresser]. Ha ha ha.” Doing so restored order. But while a simple “Thank you” was not my style, I decided to try it.

Walking home from work, I approached a neighbor on a ribbon of sidewalk that passes for Main Street in our Wisconsin town. I smiled and waved as we neared each other. Caren smiled and waved back and when I was within earshot, she shouted, “I like your dress!”

I assumed this was an easy audition for the New and Improved Way to Accept Compliments and simply said, “Thank you.”

A short pause followed. It was so deeply still and awkward that had our entire exchange been filmed and replayed, a viewer might reasonably think the video had paused.

When we reanimated, Caren’s eyes acquired a hard look. “It’s appropriate,” she said. “I like when people dress appropriately.”

“Oh. Ummm. Ugh,” I sputtered and continued my walk home, embarrassed. What had I missed by failing to add a remark about how old or inexpensive my dress was?

Want more? You can read the full article here

AI and National Security

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One of the most controversial issues at the nexus of technology and national security is concerns regarding the “militarization” of artificial intelligence – AI.

While this has been an issue for some time, it recently grabbed banner headlines regarding the issue of Google’s support for a Pentagon initiative called “Project Maven.”

The company’s relationship with the Defense Department since it won a share of the contract for the Maven program, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, has touched off an existential crisis, according to emails and documents reviewed by The Times as well as interviews with about a dozen current and former Google employees.

Google, hoping to head off a rebellion by employees upset that the technology they were working on could be used for lethal purposes, will not renew a contract with the Pentagon for artificial intelligence work when a current deal expires next year.

But it is not unusual for Silicon Valley’s big companies to have deep military ties. And the internal dissent over Maven stands in contrast to Google’s biggest competitors for selling cloud-computing services — Amazon.com and Microsoft — which have aggressively pursued Pentagon contracts without pushback from their employees.

Expect this issue to remain controversial as the U.S. military faces increasingly capable foes and as AI and machine learning offer ways to help our warfighters prevail.

You can read these two articles here and here