Artificial Intelligence: A Guide For Thinking Humans – Melanie Mitchell

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René Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician and scientist in elucidating his famous theory of dualism, expounded that there exist two kinds of foundation: mental and physical. While the mental can exist outside of the body, and the body cannot think. Popularly known as mind-body dualism or Cartesian Duality (after the theory’s proponent), the central tenet of this philosophy is that the immaterial mind and the material body, while being ontologically distinct substances, causally interact. British philosopher Gilbert Ryle‘s in describing René Descartes’ mind-body dualism, introduced the now immortal phrase, “ghost in the machine” to highlight the view of Descartes and others that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously but separately.

Ray Kurzweil, the high priest of futurism and Director of Engineering at Google, takes Cartesian Duality to a higher plane with his public advocacy of concepts such as Technological Singularity and radical life extension. Kurzweil argues that with giant leaps in the domain of Artificial Intelligence, mankind will experience a radical life extension by 2045. Skeptics on the other hand bristle at this very notion, claiming such “Kurzweilian” aspirations to be mere fantasies putting to shame even the most ludicrous of pipe dreams.

The advances in the field of AI have spawned a seminal debate that has a vertical cleave. On one side of the chasm are the undying optimists such as Ray Kurzweil predicting a new epoch in the history of mankind, while on the other side of the divide are placed pessimists and naysayers such as Nick Bostrom, James Barrat and even the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking who advocate extreme caution and warn about existential risks. So what is the actual fact? Melanie Mitchell, a computer science professor at Portland State University takes this conundrum head on in her eminently readable book, ““Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans.” A measured book, that abhors mind numbing technicalities and arcane elaborations, Ms. Mitchell’s work embodies a matter-of-fact narrative that seeks to demystify the future of both AI and its users.

The book begins with a meeting organized by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a computer scientist leading Google’s foray into machine intelligence. In the meeting, the genius AI pioneer and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid” (or just “gee-ee-bee’), Douglas Hofstadter expresses downright alarm at the principle of Singularity being touted by Kurzweil. “If this actually happens, “we will be superseded. We will be relics. We will be left in the dust.” A former research assistant of Hofstadter, Ms. Mitchell is surprised to hear such an exclamation from her mentor. This spurs her on to assess the impact of AI, in an unbiased vein.

Tracing the modest trajectory of the beginning of AI, Ms. Mitchell informs her reader about a small workshop in Dartmouth in 1956 where the seeds of AI were first sown. John McCarthy, universally acknowledged as the father of AI and the inventor of the term itself, persuaded Marvin Minsky, a fellow student at Princeton, Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory and Nathaniel Rochester, a pioneering electrical engineer, to help him organize “a 2 month, 10-man study of artificial intelligence to be carried out during the summer of 1956.” What began as a muted endeavor has now morphed into a creature that is both revered and reviled, in equal measure. Ms. Mitchell lends a technical element to the book by dwelling on concepts such as symbolic and sub-symbolic AI. Ms. Mitchell, however lends a fascinating insight into the myriad ways in which various intrepid pioneers and computer experts attempted to distill the element of “learning” into a computer thereby bestowing it with immense scalability and computational skills.

For example, using a technique termed, back-propagation, errors are taken away at the output units and to “propagate” the blame for that error backward so as to assign proper blame to each of the weights in the network. This allows back-propagation to determine how much to change each weight in order to reduce the error. The beauty of Ms. Mitchell’s explanations lies in its simplicity. She breaks down seemingly esoteric concepts into small chunks of ‘learnable’ elements.

It is these kind of techniques that have enabled IBM’s Watson to defeat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, and trump over Jeopardy! Champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. So with such stupendous advances, is the time where Artificial Intelligence surpasses human intelligence already upon us? Ms. Mitchell does not think so. Taking recourse to the views of Alan Turing’s “argument from consciousness,” Ms. Mitchell brings to our attention, Turing’s summary of the neurologist Geoffrey Jefferson’s quote:

“Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain—that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants.”

Ms. Mitchell also highlights – in a somewhat metaphysical manner – the inherent limitations of a computer to gainfully engage in the attributes of abstraction and analogy. In the words of her own mentor Hofstadter and his coauthor, the psychologist Emmanuel Sander, “Without concepts there can be no thought, and without analogies there can be no concepts.” If computers are bereft of common sense, it is not for the want of their users trying to ‘embed’ some into them. A famous case in point being Douglas Lenat’s Cyc project which ultimately turned out to be a bold, albeit futile exercise.

A computer’s inherent limitation in thinking like a human being was also demonstrated by The Winograd schemas. These were schemas designed precisely to be easy for humans but tricky for computers. Hector Levesque, Ernest Davis, and Leora Morgenstern three AI researchers, “proposed using a large set of Winograd schemas as an alternative to the Turing test. The authors argued that, unlike the Turing test, a test that consists of Winograd schemas forestalls the possibility of a machine giving the correct answer without actually understanding anything about the sentence. The three researchers hypothesized (in notably cautious language) that “with a very high probability, anything that answers correctly is engaging in behaviour that we would say shows thinking in people.”

Finally, Ms. Mitchell concludes by declaring that machines are as yet incapable of generalizing, understanding cause and effect, or transferring knowledge from situation to situation – skills human beings begin to develop in infancy. Thus while computers won’t dethrone man anytime soon, goading them on to bring such an endeavor to fruition might not be a wise idea, after all.

Pattern Recognition

“Flower”, the screen of the sleek notebook lit up with the answer. Ray, with a degree of unrestrained exuberance coursing through his veins, typed, “Specific response required.” Within seconds, the screen glowed yet again. “Sunflower.” Hardly able to contain his excitement, Ray dragged back his chair, almost knocking it over in the process and bounded out of the room to call the University.

The research grant forked out, after being initially mired in skepticism and apprehension was now worth every penny. Reinforced learning, or Q-learning or deep learning (the nomenclature doesn’t matter) had reached its apogee. The machine could now, taking as its input, a series of disparate ‘test images’ ‘spit’ out as output the exact nature and content of the images.

Melanie, a while later ambled into the study. There was just a low hum, a murmur coming from the open laptop. A series of words were making a random pattern of lattice work against a dull and drab background:

“Knife”, “Stab”, “Ray”; “Kill”; ‘Suicide”; Robots”; “WIN”

Melanie did not comprehend this seemingly mad babble. If she had, she would have called Ray and informed him that these words were never a part of the set of ‘test images!’

(Word Count: 200)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Donna McNicol . For more details visit HERE

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, click HERE

Raised In Captivity – Chuck Klosterman

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In a Where-Murakami-meets-Ogden Nash menagerie, Chuck Klosterman, in his book “Raised In Captivity”, whips up a cascade of stories that prima facie, look like an obeisance to absurdity. Bewildering, Puzzling, and irrational, these cryptic tales come careening at the reader, each one more powerful than its immediate predecessor in both velocity and bafflement.  Albert Camus, once said, ‘basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.’

Yet, maybe it is in this very absurdity that Mr. Klosterman eggs us on to find lucidity. Perhaps it is his way of trying to rend asunder our moorings to the stereotypical and obsession with the banal. Mr. Klosterman also succeeds in elevating irony to the pedestal that it deserves, a pinnacle which finds itself relegated to mere nostalgia in our current world. Opaque, convoluted and dense, Mr. Klosterman’s collection is more a haphazard and random entwining than an intricate and pattern obeying latticework. A husband and wife duo spend a majority of their lives in an attic, forming part of a Russian Bar. Accessible only via a rope-ladder, the claustrophobic confine is a peculiar haven for a doubly peculiar activity. The couple, employing an algorithm, keep permanently deleting entries forming part of Wikipedia. In another short story, there is a death by stereo. A man is bludgeoned to death by using a sound system as an uncommon weapon. A singularly unique medical procedure permits pregnant women to transfer their natal pain to their spouses/partners. A stunning sight of a lightning, striking a huge whale alters both the perception and life of an accidental witness, who happens to be wandering around in a state of rumination, if not contemplation. A man – in a mind numbing fashion finds himself a confidant of a confirmed sex addict.

Then there is the puma in the toilet of an aircraft in motion, and a woman who hires a hitman to kill her husband, only to find that her choice is a stickler, not only for perfection, but methodologies too, because of which the proposed time to make the hit is a whopping four years! In story titled “If Something Is Free The Product Is You”, the reader gets to read seven and a half pages about a screw driver and nothing else!

This collection of thirty four asymmetric stories, confuse and confound in equal measure. But they are also in a queer manner, a construct of the times we found ourselves in and potentially existential crises for which we have to brace ourselves if we keep going about things the way in which we are right now.


Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt

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Theresa Reintke, a German politician and member of the European Parliament, while waxing eloquent at the conclusion of the European Council meeting held on the 17th and 18th October, 2019, over the current shambolic state of affairs in the United Kingdom, said, “The EU is not tired of the UK. The EU is not tired of the British people. We are simply tired of Prime Ministers who don’t understand that if they don’t get their deal through Parliament they should put it back to the people.”  The latest Prime Minister to have the metaphorical egg slapped on his face is the intransigent and remorseless Boris Johnson, whose party failed to defeat an amendment, to delay approval of the UK Prime Minister’s departure deal from the European Union. Popularly known as the Letwin Amendment – named after Sir Oliver Letwin, a British politician who has served as the Member of Parliament for West Dorset since 1997 – this amendment was passed 322 – 306. As a consequence, the confusion surrounding the entire Brexit charade has become even more confounding. A vacuous and uncertain future has gripped the people of United Kingdom in a vice like grip. “What happens next” is the universal conundrum escaping the lips of millions of hapless and helpless souls, who are being held ransom to the self-serving interests of a band of obnoxious politicians.

The question of what happens after Brexit was in fact answered in a brilliantly lucid fashion by Ian Dunt, the editor of in his marvelous book, “Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?” The reference to the word hell in the title of Mr. Dunt’s book could have been neither aberration nor accident. For as he assiduously points out, by voting to leave the European Union in a referendum initiated by a complacent and, to an extent, naive David Cameron, the United Kingdom has chosen a hellacious path to tread. On the 23 June 2016, voters in the UK were posed the existential question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union.’ The results were: Remain 16,141,241 (48.1%) Leave 17,410,742 (51.9%). While the Brexiters, of the likes of Liam Fox, David Davis, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg were besides themselves with glee at the stupefying decision made by the voters, the Leave campaigners, “misunderstood the EU, misunderstood Article 50, misunderstood the WTO, misunderstood the economy and misunderstood the legal framework in which they must now operate.”

As Mr. Dunt articulates, the very edifice of the Leave campaign was based on a farrago of fictitious provocation, masquerading as justifiable truths. A bus campaign where a misleading slogan, ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’, was painted on its sides; rhetorical jeremiads for a points-based system of immigration, and similar preposterous stuff jousted with a lackadaisical opposition which was astonishingly bereft of ideas. Echo chambers were thus perpetuated and information bubbles manufactured which ultimately led to people placing emotion over reason.

Mr. Dunt, in his extremely readable book, takes unsuspecting readers through the Gordian Knot of Brexit and solves the seemingly intractable puzzle, all the while employing language that is simple, easy to understand and most critically, retain. So here are a few key takeaways from Mr. Dunt’s exemplary book:


Theresa May activated Article 50 – the European Union rule that must be invoked by any country wishing to leave – on 29 March 2017. Article 50 is very short. As Mr. Dunt illustrates in a chilling fashion, the creator of the Article, the former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato exclaimed after the Brexit referendum, ‘I wrote Article 50, so I know it well. My intention was that it should be a classic safety valve that was there but never used.’ Choosing to be flamboyantly colloquial, Mr. Amato added for good measure, that if another leader ‘is as mad as Cameron’ and offers a referendum on leaving the EU, Amato warned, they should know that: ‘When it comes to the economy, they have to lose.’ As Mr. Dunt points out, the United Kingdom must comply with administrative, legal and trade Brexits to extricate itself fully from the European Union. A task easier said than done.


 At the heart of the European Union, lies the quintessential philosophy of a Single   Market, within whose confines is enshrined the principles of freedom of movement,   goods, services and people. Devoid of the bane of tariffs, these principles provide an element of certainty for the members of the Union in so far as trade is concerned. In one fell swoop, UK has deprived itself of the benefits conferred by the Single Market. Further, as Mr. Dunt, elucidates, “It is likely to lose it with many of the countries that trade with Europe. The EU has these agreements with Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, the United States and Switzerland. When Brexiters say that they want to leave Europe to trade with the rest of the world, they fail to realise that leaving Europe is an obstacle to trading with the rest of the world.”


The Brexiteers while nursing a grouse against the Freedom of Movement, seem to possess enough alacrity to still long for the Single Market benefits. However as could be expected, the EU is vehement in its assertion that there will be no compromise on freedom of movement. Jean-Claude Juncker said there would be no ‘nuances’ for the UK. A statement released by the 27 remaining European leaders stressed that access to the single market ‘requires acceptance of all four freedoms’. Angela Merkel told the German parliament: ‘If you wish to have free access to the single market then you have to accept the fundamental European rights.’ The then French President Francois Hollande stated: ‘There cannot be freedom of movement of goods, free movement of capital, free movement of services if there isn’t a free movement of people.’


Even though not a member of the EU, Norway, along with Lichtenstein, and Iceland are members of a wider European Economic Area (“EEA”), that enables them to enjoy the benefits of free trade. If the UK is looking to emulate the Norway Model, it needs to understand the nuances that separate Norway from itself. Using a clever set of tactics, “Norway goes above the head of the EU, to the global regulatory plane and influences standards there. These standards then float down to the EU level. A classic example is the Fish and Fisheries Product Committee of the Codex Alimentarius, whose Chairman is Bjorn Knudtsen, a Norwegian. The UK however enjoys no such privileges.


As Mr. Dunt illustrates, ‘Raoul Ruparel, who was hired by David Davis to provide expertise on the Brexit process, has admitted that leaving the customs union would reduce GDP by between 1 and 1.2% in the long term and cost the UK economy £25 billion a year. Other studies expect the hit to GDP to reach 4.5% by 2030. This is because leaving the customs union opens a Pandora’s Box of bureaucratic horror.’


 It needs to be reiterated in no uncertain terms that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by 62% and 55% respectively to stay in the EU. With such a resounding and decisive mandate, it is ambiguous as to whether the existing constitutional arrangements binding the two countries with the UK can survive contact with the EU machine.


Once the UK manages to successfully extricate itself from the EU, it may find itself making the proverbial transition from the frying pan, into the fire. The WTO can be a raging cauldron where as Mr. Dunt informs his readers, ‘each and every member can trigger a trade dispute against you. To join it, Britain must conduct some of the most technical, complicated and unprecedented trade negotiations in history.’


The transitional period since the triggering of Article 50 has been mired in confusion, shrouded by deception and characterized by an absolute lack of cohesiveness and purpose. This unfortunate fact is illustrated superbly by Mr. Dunt. ‘The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox started by promising to obtain trade deals with the rest of the world while his colleagues secured an agreement with the EU. In July 2016, he told The Sunday Times that ‘about a dozen free trade deals outside the EU’ would be ‘ready for when we leave’. There was, of course, a problem: Britain could not negotiate or sign a trade deal while a member of the EU. Even if this hadn’t been illegal, it would have been illogical. Potential trading partners didn’t want to negotiate a trade deal with the UK until they could see what its relationship would be with the single market.’ An absolute farce!


The vicious spiel concocted by the advocates for Leaving on the subject of immigration, has led to a virtual paranoia, which partly was responsible for the Brexit verdict. Mr. Dunt hits the nail on the head when he argues that for the development of the economy, immigration is an absolute key. ‘Immigrants are useful in two respects, economically speaking. Firstly, in general someone else has already paid for their education and training. Those who arrived between 2001 and 2011, for instance, endowed the UK with productive human capital that would have cost it £6.8 billion in education spending. Secondly, they often leave to go back home when they’ve finished working, meaning even later life costs are sometimes avoided.’ Alas, when everything looks like a nail, the viewer has to go about his work with a hammer.


The EU is an incredibly smooth machine whose working is lubricated by the grease of structured components. Every Regulatory Function has its own agency manned by people possessing the requisite expertise. Britain, once it is out of the EU must endeavor to replicate the same set of supremely efficient regulatory systems. The almost insurmountable nature of this exercise is revealed by Mr. Dunt, when he sets out an illustrative list of agencies whose workings would need to be mirrored:

One element, of which Britain finds itself absolutely shorn of, is time. With a jaw dropping string of legal, administrative and trade compliance, matched by a disproportionate lack of expertise, Britain finds itself at the cross roads. With a united and unrelenting EU refusing to either accord or accommodate, the UK finds itself in a bind. At the time of this writing, the policy mavens have issued a dense ‘Withdrawal Amendment Bill’ that is couched in extraordinarily complex language and adorned by the calisthenics of a convoluted and complex language.

The only way out for the UK perhaps might not be either the Single Market or the Customs Union or even the European Economic Area, but Theresa Reitke’s Second Referendum.

9 Lessons in Brexit – Ivan Rogers

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On the 19th of October, 2019, England took on Australia in the Quarterfinals of the ongoing Rugby World Cup in Japan. However, rugby was not the only encounter that had gripped the English imagination that day – and night. The Boris Johnson Government which was accumulating incremental degrees of transience every passing day, was facing what arguably was its sternest test. It found itself wrestling to nullify an amendment that provided parliament for withholding approval of the prime minister’s deal until the withdrawal bill implementing Brexit has been passed. But the events leading upto the voting on the bill have been, if anything, a medley of absolute cacophony. Manufactured concoctions of lies, figments of phantasmagorical imagination and an abject disregard for transparency have all contributed in equal measure to the unenviable position, Britain finds itself today – between the Devil and the Deep Sea.

No one can be more qualified or credible to hold forth on this mayhem than Mr. Ivan Rogers. A former senior civil servant, who was also Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Mr. Rogers resigned from his post in January 2017. He has been a beacon of clarity in demystifying the maze that is Brexit and separating the wheat from the chaff. In his wonderful book, “9 Lessons in Brexit”, he lays out in an unsparing manner, the elemental facets that the political mavens need to equip themselves with, if Brexit needs a closure that is timely, expedient and sans any catastrophe.

With no consideration for either niceties or bromides, “9 Lessons” is an essential polemic that details in a stark fashion the ludicrousness and banalities of self-serving politicians who, in an attempt to shamelessly propel their interests and ideologies, use an unsuspecting and unwitting populace as convenient pawns. So here is an attempt to present an informed summary of the intricate latticework of wisdom that Mr. Rogers offers:


Mr. Roger’s basically tries to remind the “Leave” campaigners that one cannot have the cake and possibly consume it too. In other words, once the momentous or inglorious (as may be appropriate) decision has been made to exit the European Union, you cannot ” from just outside the fence, achieve all the benefits you got when just inside it.” Britain also needs to be prepared for the fact that the concept of a ‘frictionless trade’ would be nothing other than a pipe dream, once it moves outside both the Customs Union and the Single Market.


The European Union would not bend over backwards to either accommodate or accord privileges to a departing United Kingdom. Whether it be the cumbersome situation of being hemmed and hawed in by the onerous General Data Protection Regulations (“GDPR”); or the Schroedinger’s Customs Union Facilitated Customs Arrangement proposal, whereby UK derived all the necessary benefits only by staying in a Customs Union with the EU whilst leaving it to have a fully sovereign trade policy, Mr. Rogers emphatically asserts that “the public will soon conclude that much of the supposed control they won back was just a simulacrum of sovereignty for some empty suits in Westminster, with the real decisions about their lives still taken elsewhere.”


As Mr. Rogers puts it with flair and flamboyance, the people advocating for Brexit, three years ago, “had not the slightest fag packet plan on what they were going to try and do and in which order.” The sheer complexity and intricacies underpinning the Brexit negotiations – and stretching into a domain of intractability – would be overwhelming for the English, but not for Brussels, which is a veritable master of negotiations.


The shallow and straw-man arguments forming the premise of both the “No Deal” Right and Downing Street attempting to lend authenticity and credibility to their views whilst actively seeking to de-legitimize opposing views only exacerbates the simmering melting pot of issues instead of cooling it.


As Mr. Rogers painstakingly argues, this is yet another classic case of “cakeism.” “If moving beyond WTO terms with major markets represents a major step forward in liberalising trade, then deliberately moving back to WTO terms from an existing deep preferential agreement – which is what the Single Market is – represents a major step backward to less free trade. You really can’t have it both ways.”


Services sectors represent over three quarters of the British economy. The future prospects of this burgeoning industry is alarmingly proposed to be sacrificed at the altar of the primary goal of ending the freedom of movement. This defenestration of a 90 billion pound per annum industry, as Mr. Rogers highlights, is a ploy that is neither logical nor desirable.


As a famous saying goes, ‘comparison is the thief of joy.’ The Leave campaigners seem to be squarely falling into the trap of comparison by digging a grave with “pluses” carved out as epitaphs. There have mushroomed countries serving as ‘comparability templates’ for spurring a No-Deal Brexit.  While it was “Canada +++” or “Super-Canada”, as it was termed by the former Foreign Secretary, Norway has now joined the club. As Mr. Rogers, with a trace of inimitably dry British humour puts it, “we have Norway +, which used to be “Norway-then-Canada” then became “Norway-for-now” and then became “Norway + forever”. And now even “No deal +”, which also makes appearances as “Managed no deal” and “No deal minideals”.


Mr Rogers informs his readers that till now, the United Kingdom has been totally nontransparent in all its negotiations with the European Union. Bringing in elements of secrecy and opaqueness to the table, the British government, in the words of Mr. Rogers has been left, “permanently divided against itself and,therefore, largely unable to articulate any agreed, coherent position, has floundered in its wake.”


The last takeaway from Mr Rogers’ book is perhaps the most important as well. Possessing a direct and inextricable linkage with the 8th lesson, this principle argues for ‘real honesty with the public.’ This according to Mr. Rogers “is the best – the only – policy if we are to get to the other side of Brexit with a healthy democracy, a reasonably unified country and a strong economy.” One cannot but unequivocally concur with this proposal.

By the time the lights at the Oita Stadium were switched off, England had handed The Wallabies a convincing, and surprising thumping, winning the game 40-16, and in the process, guaranteeing themselves a berth in the Semi Finals. However, the same could not be said for Boris Johnson and Co. The former Tory minister Oliver Letwin’s amendment passed 322 to 306. The verdict now means that Mr. Johnson is deprived of passing through his Brexit deal, which in turn means that an extension is in the offing. At least now, we fervently hope that all the parties involved pay heed to the invaluable and precocious lessons handed out by Mr. Rogers that will culminate in a Brexit that is in the general interests of not just the United Kingdom, but also the European Union and global trade relationships.

Red Pill or the Blue Pill?


(Photo Credit: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields)

Life literally had come full circle. A stupefying victory for Machine Learning was a humiliating loss of dignity and self esteem for humanity. Neo at least had the luxury of choosing between red and blue pills. Here the only option was submission. Surrender. Succumb.  Every white circle – visible only to the man manipulating the cursor – was a personal pad. Every person walking across the pavement had his/her own pod.  Gay or straight; Left or Right; Democrat or Republican; Jew or Buddhist. This wasn’t just information. It was fodder for influence. All at the click of a mouse.

(Word Count: 100)

This story was written as part of the FRIDAY FICTIONEERS challenge, more about which may be found HERE

For more stories based on the above prompt, click HERE 


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On the 7th of October, 2019, the United States Commerce Department took the extraordinary decision to place 28 Chinese public security bureaus and companies, on  a  trade blacklist. The reason behind this move was touted to be Beijing’s treatment (or mistreatment) of Uighur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities. The companies blacklisted include some of China’s leading artificial intelligence firms such as SenseTime Group Ltd,  Megvii Technology LtdHikvision, formally known as Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd,  Zhejiang Dahua Technology, IFLYTEK Co, Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Co , and Yixin Science and Technology Co.

At a time when China is making great strides in the domain if Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) challenging the undisputed hegemony of the United States, this move by the United States might prove regressive to the future prospects of the Asian behemoth in the sphere of AI.  But, notwithstanding, America’s punitive action, is China an actual challenger encroaching upon the hallowed turf of the United States.?

Nina Xiang, the founder of China Money Network and an expert on the Chinese venture capital and technology sector takes this precise question head on in her interesting and thought provoking book, “Red AI.”  Ms. Xiang, in evaluating the trajectory of the Chinese progress in the realms of AI, employs an ingenious formula which she terms, 4S + 3L. While 4S stands for scale, speed, state support, and social indifference; 3L denotes: late, lag, and long time.

Using a whole horde of live examples, Ms. Xiang, illustrates both the advantages enjoyed and challenges faced by the Chinese entities operating in the AI Industry. While an assured Government backing that also ensures and unending funnel of funding provides the necessary financial backing, this measure is also a double edged sword. The Government constantly hovering over the shoulders of the Board in a Company and dictating policies, is a Damocles Sword putting the entire future of the entity at risk. This fact is illustrated in an exemplary manner by Ms. Xiang with reference to the autonomous automobile industry. As of October 2018, there were sixteen autonomous driving pilot zones in China. A pilot zone in Beijing aims to open up 200 kilometers of roads to allow 1,000 test vehicles by 2020. However, this enthusiastic ambition is nuetralised by a sobering perspective.

Waymo’s autonomous vehicles in the United States, for example, experienced just one intervention by a human driver for every 5,596 miles clocked by its self-driving systems. In comparison, Baidu’s cars required one intervention for every 41 miles driven. According to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, Baidu’s vehicles drove a total of 1,972 miles between October 2016 and November 2017, and had 48 human interventions, compared to Waymo’s 65 human interventions for 352,545 miles driven. Further, California 180,800 miles (or 290,969 kilometers) of public roads in 2016, while Nevada had 42,582 miles (or 68,529 kilometers) of public roads in 2016.12 In comparison, the most promising among the 16 Chinese autonomous driving pilot zones plans to have 500 kilometers of roads ready by 2020.

As Ms. Xiang, in her meticulous research points out, burgeoning government subsidies have also made Chinese industrial robot companies heavily reliant on the State. According to a China Merchant Securities report, four publicly listed Chinese robotics and automation companies— Siasun Robot, Estun Automation, Guangdong Topstar Technology, and Shanghai STEP Electric Corporation—derived as much as 30 percent of their net profits from government subsidies in 2016. Shenzhen Inovance Technology received government subsidies of RMB47 million (US$7 million) in 2017, and Shanghai STEP Electric received US$44 million (US$6.6 million) in subsidies during the same year. Siasun Robot received the most in subsidies that year, in total RMB171 million (US$25 million). Between 2013 and 2017, Siasun Robot, which is 25-percent owned by the Shenyang Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Science, received a total of RMB560 million (US$87 million), according to its annual reports.

Another daunting spoke in the wheel of China’s AI ambitions is an absolute dependence on imports in so far as Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is concerned. As Ms. Xiang elucidates,  if the United States was to curb or stop exports of GPU to China, it could wipe out the entire Chinese AI industry.

While the prospects for China in AI shine bright in the sectors of Finance, Security, Healthcare and automotives, the country still has a long way to go in terms of overcoming obstacles that are both intransigent and inimitable.