Thought pieces Showerthoughts to researched opinion. May display signs of intelligence.

Mammals and dinosaurs

A light analysis of the current state of the publishing industry, including the ripple effects that indie publishing can have on traditional models. Featuring big indie collaborations, warring states, James Patterson, and more.

The Wild West of indie publishing is settling down. Here’s a glimpse of [what I think] is the future. Thoughts distilled over multiple conversations with R.R. Virdi, a great friend and occasional writing partner.

Firstly, a brief primer: there are five big companies that own much of traditional publishing (TradPub) today[4]. Regardless of what imprint you see on a cover, the book in your hands is most likely from Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, McMillan or Hachette. They are megacorps. Here, for example, is HarperCollins, which publishes my work.

From Al Almossawi’s excellent overview of Big Five subsidiaries (https://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/)

And then there is indie publishing. While articulate naysayers still exist[1] (most recently with regard to Maroc Koskas’ Renaudot-longlisted novel[2]), indie publishing not a tradition new to literature – Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf all self-published their work[3]. Let us therefore burn snobbery at the stake and read. I’ll lump two types of indies into one umbrella: small indie presses that go after particular styles and genres[5], and indie authors themselves.

It’s very difficult to achieve fame and fortune with physical books in the indie space – one needs to invest in printing, shipping, warehousing and all manner of capital-intensive projects, not to mention breaking into the distribution channels traditionally owned by TradPub. These are meatspace[6] problems.

With the rise of Amazon and other storefronts, these problems have been largely solved for a sizeable number of readers. This is what I think of as the Amazon model:

1. A successful digital marketplace for authors and readers to sell and buy books (Kindle + Store)

2. Free tooling provided by the marketplace host so that the author can take a manuscript into publication-ready form (KDP)

3. Discovery functionality provided by the marketplace host at no visible cost to either seller or producer (Search)

4. A publishing model where the author makes the bulk of the royalty revenue (70%) and the marketplace host (Amazon) keeps a smaller sum. This is in marked contrast to the the traditional publishing model, where the author makes an average 7.5% on royalties.

Various services can hook into different parts of this ecosystem (Draft2Digital, Reedsy, Vellum, Mailchimp et al) to provide superior functionality; however, the basics exist and an author can finish a manuscript, neatly evade the meatspace basics, and be read from Colombo to Columbia in under a minute. Thanks to the higher royalties, said author can earn far more per reader than a traditionally published author.

Thanks to this Amazon model, self-published authors like Hugh Howey, Mark Dawson[7], LJ Ross and others became extremely financially successful[8].

As of late, traditional authors have begun to make inroads into this world. One of them is Brandon Sanderson, the living juggernaut of epic fantasy. Myke Cole was thinking about it as far back as 2013. Mark Dawson, a former trad-pubbed author who is now a key figure in the thriller genre, argues that trad publishing could be the new form of vanity publishing. There are many others, and not enough space to list them all.

Why this switch?

This 2018 piece from the New Statesman[9] provides a great summary of the situation: 

“…a dramatic report published by Arts Council England (ACE) in December has raised the spectre of the highbrow novelist as an endangered species – and started a combative debate about how, if at all, writers should be funded.

The study claims falling book prices, sales and advances mean that literary authors are struggling more than ever to make a living from their fiction. In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013. To avoid novel-writing becoming a pursuit reserved for those with independent means, ACE suggests emergency intervention: direct grants for authors and better funding for independent publishers and other organisations.

Simply put, it takes a certain amount of financial security to be able to put one’s feet up and keep the pen on paper. Traditional publishing no longer provides this surety.

It’s easy to picture such indie publishing as a sort of digital Wild West, then, where lone authors venture forth into the desert heat, keyboards blazing, and claimed their fortunes, eager to defy the trope of the famous but starving bohemian artiste.[10]  

Franchises are the endgame

However, indie publishing has evolved beyond being just an avenue where one can publish anything and earn a living. The Kindle Gold Rush, if it ever happened, is an event of the past.

Game industry consultant Christian Fennesbach, in a fine opinion piece, observed that in video games, franchises – and the franchise potential of intellectual property – are key to longevity[11]. He posits four key elements required for an intellectual property to become a franchise:

1. Characters that are interesting and memorable

2. A fictional universe big enough for more than one story

3. A recognisable visual style

4. Different, but not too different

This is wisdom that has long been circulating in the publishing community in some form or the other (including the phrase you have to write a series). In the indie space, from my observation, this franchising happens along a more organic route:

Often an author creates a popular, genre-focused Intellectual Property (often in the form of a fictional universe with strong characters). The reader demand for it outstrips the supply. This is, in effect, a franchise with potential.

The author then goes on to collaborate with multiple co-authors to produce a series of novels, with the founding author playing the role of publisher and chief creative. They provide the vision and/or story outline, does a smaller percentage of the writing and the co-author takes on the larger share of the work.

Today, the indie publishing space seems to be trending towards such collaborative publishers (CoPubs). CoPubs function a bit like medieval foundries – a master smith at the center, aided by a number of lesser-known apprentices. The business model is often structured so that partners generally have long-term skin in the game: advances are rare and small when existent; profits are derived from royalties, split along much more equitable models than traditional publishers. I’ve seen contracts that go anywhere from 30% to 50% – large figures compared to the 7% of trad pub.

Elven smiths reforging the shards of Narsil into Anduril.

Less often there are equal partners in the enterprise – two smiths hammering away in a collaborative fashion, sharing half the workload and half the profits.

A key advantage of this model is speed and continuity. Fans benefit from the extremely rapid rapid release cycles possible with this method, and the CoPub itself can pivot quickly to add, expand or modify stories with sales potential. As the CoPub earns, it invests in advertising – primarily digital – to push its books.

In a sense this is similar to James Patterson’s business model[12], the fan-service of Charles Dickens[13] and, more recently, the business models behind Robert Ludlum or K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs[14].

The most successful CoPubs perfectly marry Fennesbach’s’s four elements to speed. Just as Patterson outsells Stephen King and John Grisham combined, CoPubs can outsell solo operations with less effort. Few single authors can compete with the prodigious output of work in a franchise that fans ardently love.

The most known within indie circles is perhaps LMBPN Publishing,[15] which operates Michael Anderle’s Kurtherian Gambit universe. Sterling and Stone[16], WaterHouse Press[17], the Nick Cole-and-Jason Anspach Galaxy’s Edge and Chris Kennedy’s Four Horsemen – co-created with Mark Wandrey – are others.

The Warring States

A light analysis would suggest that CoPubs become the new traditional publishers. More authors gravitate to CoPubs, profit accumulates, imprints acquire capital. The CoPubs cast down the Big Five of TradPub, diversify outside the digital book space and start shaking hands with airport bookshops and film executives, and in a generation or two there are the new megacorps- the Fat Six, or the Magnificent Seven, et cetera, et cetera.

This state of affairs continues until some upstart indie wordslingers figure out a new model, and the Wild West begins and ends all over again.

Possible. It’s a perpetual David-vs-Goliath story, and we love those stories.

But we happen to think there’s another future.

Firstly, CoPubs are smart. At present CoPubs are small fiefdoms that compete whose chief creative direction seems to stem from one person in the middle – aka one master smith. Dunbar’s number suggests a limit to the number of relationships that can be maintained by one person[18], and there is presumably a size at which a fast corporation becomes a slow, lumbering giant, so this suggests that there is a peak size at which a CoPub operation will halt, if only to preserve its agility.

Secondly, trad pub authors should be factored in terms of the attention economy[19]. The difficulty of forging a full-time career through trad pub alone[20] appears to be forcing midlist authors to contemplate indie.

Traditionally published wordslingers who sell well sometimes set up their own publishing imprint to manage affairs – the Tolkien Estate, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore or Brandon Sanderson’s DragonSteel Entertainment are two examples. Our sample space is terribly limited, but imagine top authors handling the publication aspect for favored authors and giving them a push by slapping “JK Rowling presents” or “Brandon Sanderson presents” on top. That would mobilize a legion of fans, and said legion many be large enough to sell as many copies as a CoPub. There’s plenty of precedent for this in anthologies.

Thus, we think we’ll end up with a state of affairs where the fastest authors lump themselves into one set of operations, the bestsellers and their proteges/peers lump themselves into a slower set of operations, and everyone competes for attention in the market. All operations are structured feudally around one author or two authors as the master smiths. There may be grander unity and divisions between them all – the CoPub and the trad-turned-NewPub. Periodically an operation collapses, or wordslingers cross from one side to the other – much like the Sengoku Period or the current personality politics of Japan.[21]

Logic suggests that both these types of fiefdoms – will use the Amazon model and work similar to record labels founded by rappers[22] and Led Zeppelin.[23] The CoPubs are likely to have an advantage in terms of speed, which plays a significant role in the algorithms of the Amazon model. The NewPubs will have an advantage in advertising due to sheer brand power. Both will stay relatively small and agile.

The elephants in the room

What of ghostwriters? Ghostwriting is significant business. Growing up, I first became aware of it in K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series – I later learned that the author had a very structured process where they outlined books and had ghostwriters do the work.[24] I later realized the same thing held true for Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, produced by the Stratmeyer Syndicate in the 1930s.[25]

Aragorn, author of the Gondor 2.0, faces his army of ghostwriters

Obviously this exists and might last as long as markets exist. But we have no way of identifying them[26], and so have chosen not to talk about them in the analysis. It’s my guess that they’ll mimic the structure of CoPubs.

What of the TradPub model? We believe mid-sized TradPub will suffer, but the Big Five may be “too big to fail”[27]. The allure of the mainstream publishing contract is a powerful thing. After all, not all authors are profit-driven, and in the model of the attention economy there are other ways we reap satisfaction from our work – prizes, honors, awards and such prestige are social capital and thus will likely always be largely tied to Big Five publishing.

In an optimistic future competition forces them to give their authors a larger share of the royalties and focus more on digital.  

We don’t know if this will happen. Big Five publishers appear to diversifying their operations by investing in smaller presses.[28] The authors still make pennies, but this provides an excellent feeder network where editors with taste and niche knowledge carefully curate massive quantities of books, and something eventually goes viral, at which point the Big Five’s marketing budgets kick in and a new star is born. Moreover, it makes it easier to shut-down non-performing presses. TradPub may be taking lessons from the mammals, but we’ll have to see if benefits trickle down to the authors.

Meanwhile: bring on the fiefdoms. More competition is a good thing. Even if one doesn’t want to set up a franchise, the fact that these avenues now exist is great for all authors.

If there is a counter-narrative to these trends I’ve highlighted, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. The more data we have, the better.

Lastly, if you’ve read this far, and want to support our work, a novellete we’ve co-written has been nominated for the Nebula Awards. We’d like to ask you to read it, and if you think it’s worthy, spread the word. You can read it at https://www.sfwa.org/forum/reading/work/3270-messenger/

 


[1]https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/mar/21/for-me-traditional-publishing-means-poverty-but-self-publish-no-way

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/15/french-bookshops-revolt-after-prize-selects-novel-self-published-on-amazon

[3] https://www.pw.org/content/notable_moments_in_selfpublishing_history_a_timeline

[4] https://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/

[5] https://electricliterature.com/how-indie-presses-are-elevating-the-publishing-world-deb06dc11c8a

[6] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-is-meatspace

[7]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/15/self-published-authors-hollywood-andy-weir-the-martian-el-james

[8]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/08/buying-houses-in-cash-and-selling-millions-meet-self-publishings-hidden-authors

[9]https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/01/slow-death-literary-novel-sales-crisis-afflicting-fiction

[10] Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1851; Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900–1939

[11] https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-01-14-franchises-are-the-endgame-opinion

[12]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10711191/James-Patterson-how-the-bestseller-factory-works.html

[13] http://blog.tavbooks.com/?p=226

[14] https://www.avclub.com/pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain-7-ficti-1798239907

[15] https://lmbpn.com/

[16] https://sterlingandstone.net/about-sterling-and-stone/

[17] http://www.waterhousepress.com/

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

[19] “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” – Herbert Simon, 1971

[20] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/11/traditional-publishing-fair-sustainable-society-of-authors

[21] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2001/08/personality-politics-conquers-japan/377730/

[22] http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2016/08/rappers-record-labels/

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Song_Records

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animorphs#Ghostwriters

[25] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/05/hardy-boys-nancy-drew-ghostwriters/394022/

[26] To confound the analysis, many people write under pen names in the industry – from Bella Forrest (who nobody seems to know) to James SA Corey of Expanse fame, who are actually Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham.

[27] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Too_big_to_fail

[28] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/21/covers-story-why-are-there-so-many-new-publishing-imprints

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Civilization: resilience

A wonderful writers’ group I’m part of recently started discussing civilization. There were many sub-discussions, but one thing struck my interest: someone pointed out that our civilization, unlike any that has gone before is global, networked across the entire planet. And thus, how it might fall cannot be predicted from studying past empires, which were just isolated pockets without the network effects.

A wonderful writers’ group I’m part of recently started discussing civilization. There were many sub-discussions, but one thing struck my interest: someone pointed out that our civilization, unlike any that has gone before is global, networked across the entire planet. And thus, how it might fall cannot be predicted from studying past empires, which were just isolated pockets without the network effects.
Secondly, they pointed out that we’re extremely reliant on advanced technology – from mining resources to everything else – and were this state of affairs to collapse, we’d have little hope of recovery.
 
In short: if this goes south, we’d be fucked.
 
My understanding is different. From what I’ve read, empires past were pretty global. The Silk Roads connected five immense chunks – China, the Mongol empire, India, the Persian empires in the middle, and the Roman empire, with ancillary kingdoms feeding into this vast trunk network. They were definitely not isolated and their economies were as intricately interlinked as ours were. Along the Road spread humans, capital, and ideas – including the Abrahamic faiths.
 
The only thing that has changed is the speed at which we communicate. So definitely not a unique scenario, and definitely one that can be understood by studying past empires.
 
Technology is a more nuanced problem – it took many generations to recover technology once that trunk network of the Silk Road fell, but it was done anyway. Most of our base technology today was built in the last hundred years or so. If civilization does fall, it’ll take us much faster to recover, because the research is already done and the knowledge wil be lying around.
 
Today’s civilization is actually remarkably resilient in that regard – or at least what Nassim Taleb terms ‘antifragile’. Knowledge is distributed at a far more even rate that anything in times past. (Almost) the sum total of human knowledge can be cached in every country in the world. Humans are also healthier, live almost twice as long as they used to, and thus will be able to work on longer projects. Should a Black Swan event occur, barring something like nuclear winter, we’d bounce right back up in a different shape.
Anyway, an incomplete thought pattern. I need to follow this to its conclusion.

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Artificial Intelligence then, now, tomorrow

(A speech given at the Arthur C Clarke Centennial on the 16th of December, 2017, Colombo)


BOWMAN
Hal, give me manual hibernation
control.

HAL
Have you decided to revive the
rest of the crew, Dave?

PAUSE.

BOWMAN
Yes, I have.

HAL
I suppose it's because you've
been under a lot of stress, but
have you forgotten that they're
not supposed to be revived for
another three months.

BOWMAN
The antenna has to be replaced.

HAL
Repairing the antenna is a pretty
dangerous operation.

HAL
If you're determined to revive
the crew now, I can handle the
whole thing myself. There's no
need for you to trouble.

BOWMAN
I'm going to do this myself, Hal.
Let me have the control, please.

HAL
Look, Dave you've probably got
a lot to do. I suggest you leave
it to me.

That’s HAL 9000, from Arthur C Clarke’s most famous novel: 2001 – A Space Odyssey. I’ve actually taken it from the script, because it’s easier to speak it out loud.

 

The novel explains that HAL is unable to resolve a conflict between his general mission to relay information accurately and orders specific to the mission requiring that HAL withhold from Bowman and Poole the true purpose of the mission. With the crew dead, HAL reasons, he would not need to be lying to them. HAL fabricates the failure of a communicator unit so that their deaths would like accidents.

 

Back then, when Sir Arthur wrote these words, the world was on the verge of a new scientific dawn. AI. The thinking machine.

 

In 1950 Alan Turing published a landmark paper in which he speculated about the possibility of creating machines that think.[31] He noted that “thinking” is difficult to define and devised his famous Turing Test. If a machine could carry on a conversation (over a teleprinter) that was indistinguishable from a conversation with a human being, then it was reasonable to say that the machine was “thinking”. This simplified version of the problem allowed Turing to argue convincingly that a “thinking machine” was at least plausible and the paper answered all the most common objections to the proposition.

 

And this hope continued: in the 1956’s Dartmouth conference, computer scientists like Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy,  Claude Shannon and Nathan Rochester,  Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon, people who would go on to become experts in this field, were really hopeful that we’d very soon have computers sitting down and having conversations with us.

 

And Clarke’s depiction of HAL 9000 may have seemed pessimistic in the context of those times.

The concept of humans being trapped or enslaved by their own technology, however, is not recent, especially if you abstract it one level.   We’ve always had, in mythology, the story of the Creators ultimately being toppled by the Created. Cronos versus Zeus. Gods against mortals. Humans versus the technology that we created.

 

As the interest in AI rapidly died – because it turned out building AI was a hell of a lot more difficult than they imagined – the Creator versus Created story took over. Skynet. The Matrix. Many others.

 

This is a story.

 

I love stories. I’m a writer. But let’s step away from the story a bit and consider what we really have in the world right now.

 

The dream of thinking machines died in the 70’s. It was so much work, and so much of the theory had yet to be perfected, and even if the theory was there, the hardware wasn’t.

 

But in 1997, Gary Kasparov, the world’s reigning chess champion, was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue. Kasparov was absolutely the best, by the way. Many computers had tried to defeat him – twelve years ago, he played against 36 computers simultaneously and won each game – but in Kasparov’s own words, nobody remembers the people who failed to climb Mount Everest: all we remember is the first man to do it.

 

Kasparov was Everest. And Deep Blue reached the summit. And the world exploded. Headlines called it THE BRAIN’S LAST STAND. And immediately, everyone picked up on that dream again.

 

But if you look at Deep Blue – Deep Blue wasn’t a person. Was it intelligent? In the context of a chess grandmaster, yes. But you couldn’t have a conversation with it. It couldn’t discuss hopes and dreams. It couldn’t think outside of chess.

 

And if you look at the world today, that’s true for every single AI system we have right now. Experts call this NARROW AI: machine systems that are optimized to do one task, often better than a human can – but outside of that one task, they’re useless. They’re specialized. Machine learning techniques have improved how we build these AI – we’ve gone from writing rule systems to setting goals and letting artificial software brains figure out how to get to those goals – but they’re largely Deep Blues.

 

Your self-driving taxi is not at a state where it can have a conversation about life, bitch about Parliament, and grumble about guys in BMWs. Siri and Cortana are just chatbots with search engines. They are far better at that one task than humans, but they’re one-task creatures with set limits.

 

The ultimate goal, of course, is still the Big one – WIDE AI – general purpose intelligence. But the fact of the matter is right now, if you want a general purpose intelligence, it’s still cheaper and faster to have a baby.

 

Now here’s the thing. The Creator versus Created story is even more powerful now within these narrow domains. Drivers losing jobs, robosurgeons taking over hospitals, drones instead of human pilots – in each narrow domain, barring a few, we are going to see robots that are far better at that than a human is.

 

But what is a human? What makes us special?

 

We’re general purpose.

 

Think about it. We’re not the fastest animal, or the most durable, or have good vision, or hearing. But what we do is we make tools. We give ourselves specializations that we can swap out at will. A sabretooth tiger will kill an early human, but a human with ten thousand years of civilization, research and a machine gun will kill any number of tigers. We make tools that let us fly higher and faster and further than birds, dig deeper than moles – you get the picture.

 

And in AI right now, what we have is a tool. I don’t see a future where we let our tools run away from us. We might launch a self-driving hive mind that can pilot every single car in the country, but we’re not going to let it run for President. HAL 9000 will pilot that spacecraft, but we are not going to put it in a command position now where it can think of killing off humans.

 

So the best way to look at how AI is going to affect us is to disregard the story and look at what happened in chess. Gary Kasparov, after being beaten, thought: if I play WITH a computer instead of AGAINST a computer, would that be the most perfect game of chess ever played? So he launched a sport called Advanced Chess, where humans can use computers to aid them.

 

In 2005, a free-for-all chess tournament was held, worldwide. Many chess engines and grandmasters participated, but the winners were a pair amateur chess played from the US who used three PCs running chess engines. Together, the human-machine combo was better than both the best machines and the best humans. Human insight, machine crunching power.

 

So that’s what the future is going to look like. Amateur human plus professional AI is going to be better than a professional AI or professional human by themselves. We’ll have doctors who can do better surgery with less training; taxi drivers who’ll drive better from day one; even spaceship pilots. Especially spaceship pilots. If we do end up creating general-purpose AI – a new form of life – I don’t think we will give it enough power to kill off the human race. The actual process might look closer to integration than to two sides fighting.

 

This is not to say that AI cannot cause damage. Damage will be done by accident. Training data gone wrong. Self-driving systems deciding – do we make a choice to kill one person, or continue and have an accident that might kill five? This will happen. Part of our work at Lirneasia is trying to figure out how, why, and how we might slow that damage a little bit.

 

And in our future of human plus machine, it won’t be human versus machine: it will be human plus machine versus human plus machine. Imagine Donald Trump paired an AI wartime general against whoever’s running ISIS right now, with their own AI. AI will be the new machine gun.

 

That’s a terrifying thought. And it will likely happen.

 

Now I spoke to CD Athuraliya, a friend and colleague of mine who runs an AI startup, and meets AI folks from Google and IBM and they discuss the hard tech. That’s his thing. CD’s view is that at some point, machines will replace humans.

 

I’m a little more optimistic. I think we will see machine plus human; and we will have close and close integration of narrow AI and general purpose human minds until we look back and we’re substantially different from homo sapiens. We’ll have a choice at that point: are we a new type of AI, or are we a new type of human?

 

Technological obsoletion is going to happen. That’s inevitable. This is not going to stop.

 

But that’s a question for the far future. And I believe that we will solve it when we get there. I don’t think humans will let ourselves be written out that easily: I believe that at some point we’ll realise we can’t beat em, and we’ll just join em.

 

Kasparov himself points out a fantastic example: an African American folk hero called John Henry. John Henry was a steel-driving man – hammering a steel drill into rock so you could put the explosives in it and blast it. Henry was the best. As the story goes, Henry was challenged to win against a steam-powered hammer; John Henry won, but died out of exhaustion with the hammer still in his arms.

 

Kasparov, who is the John Henry of our times, didn’t die. He got beaten by a machine, and instead joined machine intelligence to human. So the question I put to you is: are you John Henry, or are you Kasparov? Because the future is coming. It might not be HAL 9000 or Skynet, but it will happen.

 

And at that moment, you have a choice: you can either die because of the steam hammer, or be the one with the steam hammer.

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Big Data + Big Brother: when China moves to rate its citizens

Image by Kevin Hong for Wired – used under fair use. All copyrights belong to Wired / Kevin Hong.

Hi.

My apologies for the long spell of incommunicado. My day job is as a Big Data researcher, and I’ve been working on a new novel; between the two, I haven’t really had much time to do any of the other things that I’m supposed to do, like writing emails and blogposts.

My boss from work recently shared an email titled ‘Numbercaste in the real world’, pointing to a new article by Wired. The article’s here: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/chinese-government-social-credit-score-privacy-invasion

It describes China’s ‘Social Score’ – a rating for every single one of it’s billion+ citizens, taking into account their economics (credit) and their political alignment.

This is a bit of an I-told-you-so moment. This is precisely what Numbercaste is about: the creation of markets and states that crunch, score and make visible everything about the people, even what they deem most private.

I’m nowhere near as smug as to suggest that China is ripping off Numbercaste – this particular project was under way as a far back as 2010, and [I believe] it was the Beijing Times that compared this to the ‘good citizen’ cards handed out by Japanese troops to the Chinese during the invasion of Manchuria.

Is this the future?


My belief is that this is not just the future, but the present. Every day, we upload our thoughts, our locations, scenes from our life – sometimes the most intimate; we tag the people we hang out with, we explain how we’re feeling. That data is already ripe for crunching, and it is naive to believe that the likes of Facebook do not already use it.

We’ve all been in that situation where we search for something on Amazon or Google and then start seeing ads for it on Facebook. These are services that rely on tailoring their newsfeeds to our tastes and the likes and dislikes of people in our social circles. This is practically George Orwell’s wet dream.

As for economics, that’s practically old hat. Target’s marketing system was predicting pregnancies way back in 2012: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/

And as anyone who’s come across credit risk knows, the likes of Equifax and Experian crunch more data than we can ever imagine – not just spending and earning patterns, but even how that fits in the context of where you live.

This is the present. The only difference is, unlike China, we’re going about it in a more decentralized approach. Julius Common from Numbercaste builds the Number as something that hooks into every service a consume can access. China’s government forces participation from a top-down perspective.

This is actually an old dilemma: that of the state versus the anarchist. A state, or in this context, a company, must know about who it serves in order to serve them better. It follows that the more information a state has, the better it can serve its citizenry (or its citizenry made to serve it).

The anarchist, on the other hand – think V – refuses to participate in this process: refuses to share information: and such a person cannot expect to be served by a state, since it knows nothing about them.

The question is, where do we draw the line?

Food for thought.

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A Few Thoughts on OpenAi, Dota2, and AI versus humans

“It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move. So beautiful. So beautiful.”

Two articles caught my attention today when I woke up. One was the list of 2017 Hugo Award winners (we’ll talk about that some other time). The other was an article from the Verge:

The world’s best Dota 2 players just got destroyed by a killer AI from Elon Musk’s startup

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Sottek doesn’t go into much detail, so let me add some context. The OpenAi bot beat  SumaiL, Arteezy, Pajkatt, Fogged and CCnC, and then took on Dendi in a limited 1-1 matchup. These are almost universally recognized as the best players in Dota2 right now. They’re smart, their reaction times are insane, and they’re pros at a game that even Musk acknowledges is tougher than chess or Go.

This is one of those landmark moments. Kasparov being beaten by Deep Blue. Lee Sidol being beaten by AlphaGo. Add this to the list. Granted, it was a limited matchup, but this is important, because the OpenAI bot did all of this with just two weeks of training.


This is an interesting area for me right now. I’m writing a short story for an anthology called the Expanding Universe, and I’m trying to imagine AI-controlled starships at war with humans. Naturally, I’ve been looking up the Kasparov and Sidol games.

There’s something that sticks very strongly in the mind. Fan Hui, the first human master to challenge AlphaGo, watches the game between Lee Sidol and the Ai. At the 37th move, he remarks: “It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move. So beautiful. So beautiful.”

“It feels a little bit like a human, but at the same time it’s something else, says the Dota2 player Dendi recently, talking about OpenAI’s bot.

What interests me is how similar the feedback of the Dota2 players is to that of the defeated Go champions. The Ai played (and I paraphrase) like a human . . . but not like a human.

The more I read, and the more I understand, the more I realize that a human can’t accurately imagine what the AI would do. While a battle scenario and the reactions on both sides might seem completely to us humans, to AI it would be a completely different thing. After all, these are not minds that have to deal with stress, or anxiety, or adrenaline, or all of the things we humans have to deal with in competitive situations.

Surface verdict: classic Terminator 2 – AI versus humans, especially in warfare, is going to go very badly. For the humans.

But AI versus humans is going to be an unlikely scenario. AI is a tool. We don’t ditch our tools that easily.

Consider chess, which has had a long time to adapt to computing. Today, the best chess players are not Ai, nor humans, but human-Ai hybrids – flesh-and-blood players who run a combination of chess engines in the background and select plays out of their calculations for the best possible moves. The field is called Advanced Chess.

It’s really not hard to imagine this use case naturally extending to every other thing where there’s a vital advantage to winning. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where there’s one Skynet on the other side and nothing on this side: I think we’ll end up with various AI-plus-human combinations versus each other – that might even be a more potent mix.

It’s still right for Elon Musk et al to be cautious of AI. If we’re heading into a future where human-AI combinations rule the roost, a a lot depends on what kind of human you have with the AI. Pick the wrong human, and that’s like giving a monkey the key to the banana plantation.


What next? I believe the next game / frontier will be the god of all complex multiplayer games – Starcraft II. Google Deepmind is already being trained to take on the SCII scene.

Once Deepmind masters Starcraft, we will need to terms with the fact that Ai are better than we humans will ever be at competition – specifically, at strategy and war. They will think in ways we never thought possible, and they will win. I wonder how long it’ll be before a general sits with his advisors, who are all AI of a screen, and all the human has to do is pick the best possible option.

 

 

 

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