mfioretti: algorithms*

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  1. That idea of efficiency through speed brought by the tech industry has consequences for society. First, the immediacy of the communications creates moments of intense information overload and distractions. Like other moments of major revolution in information technology, people are racing behind to adapt to the increasing pace of information exchange. In the Big Now, the pool of instantaneous information has dramatically increased, however the pool of available understanding of what that information means has not. People and organizations are still seeking new practices and means to filter, categorize and prioritize information in a world obsessed with the production and consumption of the freshest data points (see Social media at human pace). Doing so, they animate almost uniquely their capacity to fast-check status updates and leave their ability for reflection unstimulated (see, in French, L’écologie de l’attention). The Big Now is not designed for people to step back and understand information in a bigger context (e.g. poor debates in the recent US elections, inability to foresee the 2008 economic crisis). It is only recently that alternatives have started to emerge. For example, the recent strategic changes at Medium proposes to reverse the tendency:

    “We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention”.

    Secondly, the asynchronous Internet diminished the frontiers between work, family and leisure. In response, the tech world proposes to ‘hack’ time and to remove frictions (e.g. Soylent diet) to free up time. The flourishing personal productivity books and apps promise peace of mind with time-management advice tailored to the era of connected devices (see The global village and its discomfort). However, like building bigger roads make traffic worse, many of these solutions only provide a quick fix that induces even busier and more stressed lifestyles (see Why time management is ruining our lives). In the Big Now and its cybernetic loops, the more efficient we get at doing things and the more data we generate, the faster the Internet gets back to us, keeps us busy and grabs our limited amount of attention. Besides the promises of time-compression technologies to save us valuable time and free us for life’s important things, in the past half-century, leisure time has remained overall about the same (see Fast-world values).

    Try to imagine another version of the Internet in which the sense of simultaneity that Adam Greenfield described moves to the background of our lives and leaves stage for temporal depth and quality. Connecting people to share and collaborate has been a wonderful thing. Today, I believe that giving us the time to think will be even better (see The collaboration curse). As an illustration, regardless of current methodological trends, creativity rarely emerges rapidly. Many ideas need time to mature, they need different contexts or mindsets to get stronger. This does not often happen when teams are in ‘sprints’ or a young start-up feels under the gun in its ‘incubator’. I participated in ‘start-up accelerator’ mentoring sessions in which I advised young entrepreneurs to step back and consider if their objectives were about speed and scale. Many of them were lured by that Silicon Valley’s unicorn fantasy. Not surprisingly, the first startup decelerator program has now been created, and socratic design workshops are becoming a thing for tech executives to reconsider what’s important.
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  2. Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data. By contrast, decades of social-science research shows that most of us simply prefer stuff that feels true to our worldview even if it isn’t true at all and that the mining of all those preference signals is likely to lead us deeper into bubbles rather than out of them.

    What’s needed, he argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity.

    This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society. A minor problem with his mission is that it drips with megalomania, albeit of a particularly sincere sort. With his wife, Priscilla Chan, Zuckerberg has pledged to give away nearly all of his wealth to a variety of charitable causes, including a long-term medical-research project to cure all disease. His desire to take on global social problems through digital connectivity, and specifically through Facebook, feels like part of the same impulse.

    Yet Zuckerberg is often blasé about the messiness of the transition between the world we’re in and the one he wants to create through software. Building new “social infrastructure” usually involves tearing older infrastructure down. If you manage the demolition poorly, you might undermine what comes next.
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  3. At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of the media, computing and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally happening. 2 » Once again, capitalism’s relentless drive to diversify and intensify the creative powers of human labour is on the verge of qualitatively transforming the way in which we work, play and live together. By integrating different technologies around common protocols, something is being created which is more than the sum of its parts. When the ability to produce and receive unlimited amounts of information in any form is combined with the reach of the global telephone networks, existing forms of work and leisure can be fundamentally transformed. New industries will be born and current stock market favourites will swept away. At such moments of profound social change, anyone who can offer a simple explanation of what is happening will be listened to with great interest. At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age: the Californian Ideology.

    This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, TV programmes, websites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich. Not surprisingly, this optimistic vision of the future has been enthusiastically embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, innovative capitalists, social activists, trendy academics, futurist bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians across the USA. As usual, Europeans have not been slow in copying the latest fad from America. While a recent EU Commission report recommends following the Californian free market model for building the information superhighway, cutting-edge artists and academics eagerly imitate the post human philosophers of the West Coast’s Extropian cult. 3 » With no obvious rivals, the triumph of the Californian Ideology appears to be complete.

    The widespread appeal of these West Coast ideologues isn’t simply the result of their infectious optimism. Above all, they are passionate advocates of what appears to be an impeccably libertarian form of politics – they want information technologies to be used to create a new ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ where all individuals will be able to express themselves freely within cyberspace. 4 » However, by championing this seemingly admirable ideal, these techno-boosters are at the same time reproducing some of the most atavistic features of American society, especially those derived from the bitter legacy of slavery. Their utopian vision of California depends upon a wilful blindness towards the other – much less positive – features of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental degradation. 5 » Ironically, in the not too distant past, the intellectuals and artists of the Bay Area were passionately concerned about these issues.
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  4. this time around, Walmart’s renewed focus on its “Everyday Low Price” promise coincides with Amazon’s increased aggressiveness in its own pricing of the packaged goods that are found on supermarket shelves and are core to Walmart’s success, industry executives and consultants say.

    The result in recent months has been a high-stakes race to the bottom between Walmart and Amazon that seems great for shoppers, but has consumer packaged goods brands feeling the pressure.

    The pricing crackdown also comes in the wake of Walmart’s $3 billion acquisition of and its CEO Marc Lore. Lore now runs and has said one of his mandates is to create new ways for the retailer to beat everyone else on price, including Amazon.

    The pricing pressure has ignited intense wargaming inside the largest CPG companies, according to people familiar with discussions at Procter & Gamble, Unilever, PepsiCo, Mondelez and Kimberly-Clark. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

    “It’s dominating the conversation every week,” said an executive at one of these companies.

    Representatives for these companies either declined to comment or failed to respond to requests for comment. Executives inside these companies would only speak on a condition of anonymity because negotiations with retailers are confidential.

    An Amazon spokesperson said in an email: “At Amazon we protect low prices for our customers, every single day — nothing has changed in terms of our focus or how we operate.”

    Walmart did not provide a comment.

    One piece of the battle, executives say, is an Amazon algorithm that works to match or beat prices from other websites and stores. Former Amazon employees say it finds the lowest price per unit or per ounce for a given product — even if it’s in a huge bulk-size pack at Costco — and applies it across the same type of good on Amazon, even when the pack size is much smaller.

    So let’s imagine Costco is selling a pack of 10 bags of Doritos for $10 — or $1 per bag. Amazon’s algorithm notes that one bag is $1 at Costco and, in turn, lowers the price on Amazon of a single bag of Doritos to $1.

    That is a great deal for customers — something that is likely driving the decision at Amazon, where an obsession with customer value dominates its strategy.

    But now, Amazon is selling individual items at Costco prices while not getting the same wholesale price that Costco enjoys. In short, it’s going to be really hard for Amazon to turn a profit on those goods.

    When Walmart sees this, it freaks out on the supplier, industry executives say. And it doesn’t matter to Walmart that Amazon may not be getting the same wholesale price that retailers like Costco or other membership clubs receive. In other words, even if Amazon isn’t profiting from its extremely low prices, Walmart is still demanding the same bulk-rate discount applied to individual items.

    “Walmart has had it explained to them by myself and others,” said one industry insider who asked for anonymity talking about private discussions. “My conclusion has been that they beat all suppliers up regardless because they need it to be a problem at the senior levels of these companies.”
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  5. Look at some of the key themes at MWC this year…. 5G for example. Many people see it as just another iteration in the 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G where what matters is the additional bandwidth for the end user. But behind the scenes a drastic redesign of the telco mobile network is underway where fixed function networking equipment laid out in a static / predefined architecture is being replaced by mini-data centres of generic servers whose function is responsive to the needs of the network. 5G is really about the software-defined telco network.

    Another key theme is IoT (Internet of Things). Many believe M2M (the ancestor of IoT) has been part of MWC since times immemorial, so why make a fuss about it all of a sudden? Once again the answer is software. M2M was simple with unidirectional exchanges of data, reflecting the simple nature of the software being run on M2M devices – images were sent down to a digital signage box and telemetry data was sent from an industrial gateway to a monitoring server. But today things are very different. The software run by all these devices has evolved drastically which has changed the very simple nature of these exchanges. For example, as well as displaying advertisements, a digital signage screen might be count the people that pass it or act as a wifi hotspot. IoT is reall about software-defined smart devices.

    Autonomous cars, another big theme this year, is yet another example of the software-defined nature of things to come.
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  6. In the digital age, algorithms are a source not only of wealth but of power. The decoupling of the generation of news (by journalists) from the means of its distribution (social networks) is a major shift in information power. What a Facebook user sees is an interplay between strategies set by humans, algorithms which they design and the information which the software accumulates about an individual user’s preferences. So the distribution of power in ths new relationship is subtle, but it is still power. Networks have power which other institutions and organisations don’t. The giants of Silicon Valley have, simply by virtue of their scale, informational power which is unprecedented. Digital technology re-routes information at a speed and on a scale previously unknown. We are only just getting a handle on where and how power has been shifted by those opportunities. Private companies rarely admit their power, but to write – as Zuckerberg does – as if Facebook was a benign, self-governing collective with no decisions about how to use its power is to deny a reality plain to see
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  7. Notato? “E assicuratori”.

    Quello che i giornali italiani a marzo 2016 non dicono è che lo sbarco di Ibm nell’area Expo – buco nero a cui da un paio d’anni si fatica a trovare un futuro – è subordinato alla consegna a Ibm dei dati sanitari degli abitanti della Lombardia, una delle regioni più ricche d’Europa. Sono le cosiddette “Protected Health Information”, che includono “i dati dell’assistenza sanitaria”, le “cartelle cliniche personali”, le “informazioni fiscali nominative o anonimizzate”. Cedendo all’azienda americana i “diritti all’uso per la memorizzazione ed elaborazione di tali dati a fini progettuali, nonché per l’utilizzo dei dati anonimizzati anche per finalità ulteriori a quelle progettuali”. Insomma: è in arrivo il Grande Fratello della Sanità che avrà a disposizione tutti i nostri dati sanitari.

    Nel documento “confidenziale” Ibm che il Fatto quotidiano ha potuto vedere, si legge: “Come presupposto per realizzare il Programma ed effettuare l’investimento, Ibm (incluse le società controllanti, controllate, affiliate o collegate, ove necessario) si aspetta di poter avere accesso – in modalità da definire – al trattamento dei dati sanitari dei circa 61 milioni di cittadini italiani (intesi come dati sanitari storici, presenti e futuri) in forma anonima e identificata, per specifici ambiti progettuali, ivi incluso il diritto all’utilizzo secondario dei predetti dati sanitari per finalità ulteriori rispetto ai progetti”.

    La sanità pubblica italiana consegnata tutta nelle sapienti mani di una multinazionale americana. “A titolo esemplificativo ma non esaustivo”, continua il documento confidenziale, “si ritiene cruciale avere accesso a dati dei pazienti, ai dati farmacologici, ai dati del registro dei tumori, ai dati genomici, dati delle cure, dati regionali o Agenas, dati Aifa sui farmaci, sugli studi clinici attivi, dati di iscrizione e demografici, diagnosi mediche storiche, rimborsi e costi di utilizzo, condizioni e procedure mediche, prescizioni ambulatoriali, trattamenti farmacologici con relativi costi, visite di pronto soccorso, schede di dimissioni ospedaliere (sdo), informazioni sugli appuntamenti, orari e presenze, e altri dati sanitari”. Ogni nostro respiro, ogni nostro battito, ogni nostro bacillo, ogni nostro pagamento per la sanità entrerà nei computer Watson Ibm per alimentare la loro capacità di apprendimento e sviluppare la loro intelligenza artificiale. I risultati che saranno via via raggiunti, gli algoritmi che saranno messi a punto grazie ai nostri dati resteranno privati. Ibm potrà venderli alle industrie sanitarie o alle compagnie d’assicurazione.

    Ora la parola è passata alla Regione Lombardia, la prima d’Italia a essere coinvolta. Essendo stata bocciata la riforma costituzionale che toglieva i poteri alle Regioni, dovrà dare il suo ok. Viene qualche dubbio sul fatto che uno dei grandi mercati del futuro, quello della salute, sia di fatto regalato a una azienda privata, senza chiedere nulla in cambio, ma soddisfatti soltanto dalla promessa che questa apra un centro sui tribolati terreni Expo.

    I dati saranno “anonimizzati”, promette qua e là il documento. Ma ormai si stanno affinando sistemi in grado di rendere “reversibili” i dati anonimi, rinominandoli. Chissà se il Garante della privacy, così sensibile ad altre battaglie, avrà tempo per dire la sua anche su questo progetto. Comunque, anche anonimi, i dati sanitari della Lombardia sono un bene preziosissimo: perché passarli a un’impresa privata, esautorando del tutto il sistema sanitario pubblico? E, se proprio bisogna darli ai privati, perché senza gara? Perché a Ibm-Watson e non, per esempio, a Google-Deep Mind o Amazon? E perché, infine, concederli gratis? L’investimento previsto di 150 milioni di dollari per un centro privato è nulla rispetto al valore dell’immensa mole di dati sanitari promessi, che sul deep web oggi vengono venduti a 10-15 dollari a record (50 volte più dei codici di una carta di credito).
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  8. Which brings us back to Buterin and the hard fork of The DAO. What made this event significant was not just what it demonstrated about the foibles of technology or the hubris of 20-something computer scientists. What it really exposed was the extent to which trust defines what it is to be human. Trust is about more than making sure I get my orange juice on time. Trust is what makes all relationships meaningful. Yes, we get burned by people we rely on, and this makes us disinclined to trust others. But when our faith is rewarded, it helps us forge closer relationships with others, be they our business partners or BFFs. Risk is a critical component to this bonding process. In a risk-free world, we wouldn’t find anything resembling intimacy, friendship, solidarity or alliance, because nothing would be at stake.

    Perhaps we ought to reconsider the desire to expunge trust, and instead focus on what should be done to strengthen it. One way to support trust is to hold institutions accountable when they betray it. When the US Department of Justice, for example, elected not to prosecute any of the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial collapse, the net effect was to undermine confidence in the system. They debased the principle of trust by showing that violating the public’s faith could be cost-free.

    Much of our system of trust is invisible to us – but it would be helpful if we could be more aware and appreciative all the same

    Second, trusting relationships should be celebrated, not scorned. When we believe in someone and they betray us, our friends might call us a sucker, an easy mark, a loser. But shouldn’t we celebrate these efforts to trust others – just as entrepreneurs talk up the value of failure on the road to innovation? Isn’t the correct response along the lines of: ‘I see why you trusted them, but isn’t it is terrible that they let you down?’

    Third, we should appreciate the trusting relations we engage in, and are rewarded by, every day. We’re constantly relying on others to help us with something or look after our financial affairs, and much of the time we simply take it for granted. In part, that’s because much of our system of trust is invisible to us – but it would be helpful if we could be more aware and appreciative all the same.

    Finally, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves with the idea that a technological fix can replace the human dimension of trust. Automation of trust is illusory. Rather than disparaging and cloaking human trust, we should face the brutal truth: we can’t escape the need to rely on other people, as fallible and imperfect as they might be. We need to nurture and nourish trust – not throw it away, like so much debased and worthless currency.
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  9. Il M5S è pura quantità. Quando dicono Uno vale Uno è vero. Per loro le persone, inclusi gli aderenti e gli stessi dirigenti, sono numeri. Uno vale l’altro. I grillini sono monadi intercambiabili. Non ce n’è uno più bravo e uno meno. Chi sgarra viene fatto fuori e basta.

    Il mondo dei grillini è il futuro orwelliano delle cellule di Matrix. La loro classe dirigente è mediocre perché non è selezionata sulla base del merito, ma a caso. I loro contenuti e le loro politiche sono erratici perché non sono il frutto di un ragionamento, ma di un algoritmo. I loro principi sono vuoti – e le relazioni umane che intrattengono tra loro, come si è visto nel caso di Roma, feroci – perché non sono basati su affinità e su valori, ma su dati (per quanto big…).

    Di fronte alla sfida della quantità, il PD dovrebbe diventare il partito della Qualità.

    Non solo la Qualità di una classe dirigente che va selezionata sul serio, a partire dai territori e fino al vertice. Ma soprattutto il partito della Qualità nelle politiche e negli obiettivi delle politiche. Facile a dirsi, certo, si tratta di un lavoro immane: per chi pensava di essere arrivato alla fine della storia si può dire che siamo passati da Fukuyama a Sisifo.

    Alternative però non ce ne sono. E la posta in gioco va ben al di là delle sorti del Partito Democratico. O la classe dirigente, in Italia come all’estero, a sinistra come a destra, dimostra di essere in grado di produrre qualità, non solo per se stessa ma per la società nel suo insieme, oppure sarà spazzata via dalla rivoluzione degli uomini qualunque.

    Quando l’ideologo di Trump, Steve Bannon, dice che i democratici avevano perso il senso della realtà perché parlavano con i fondatori di startup che capitalizzano nove miliardi di dollari l’una e danno lavoro a nove persone ciascuna pensando che quello fosse il futuro, esagera ma pone un problema vero, al quale la campagna di Hillary non ha dato alcuna risposta.

    Tra l’innovazione e il progresso esiste una differenza fondamentale che abbiamo perso di vista un po’ troppo spesso, presi com’eravamo dall’ossessione di rimanere indietro, dalla paura di essere tagliati fuori. E’ la qualità, la differenza tra l’innovazione e il progresso. La qualità della vita, la qualità delle relazioni umane, la qualità del futuro che stiamo costruendo per i nostri figli.

    E’ per aver perso di vista questa differenza cruciale che ci ritroviamo oggi nella condizione di Sisifo, condannati a ricominciare da capo le opere che pensavamo di aver completato: l’integrazione europea, l’apertura delle frontiere, la fine del protezionismo e del nazionalismo. Credevamo che fossero processi irreversibili, ma Trump, Farage, Le Pen e Grillo stanno dimostrando che non è così.

    Dietro la loro ascesa c’è una verità fondamentale: negli ultimi anni le nostre società sono cambiate in modo strutturale, senza che nessuno abbia davvero chiesto alla gente cosa ne pensasse. Buona parte della rabbia nasce da qui.

    La globalizzazione dell’economia, l’integrazione europea, l’immigrazione di massa: ciascuno di questi processi ha profondamente modificato la nostra vite. Non in modo astratto, ma concretamente: il lavoro che facciamo (o non facciamo), le cose che mangiamo, la gente che incontriamo per strada, i compagni di scuola dei nostri figli.

    Ciascuno di questi processi è stato presentato come ineluttabile. Perfino nei paesi, come la Gran Bretagna, la Germania e la Francia che, per la loro storia e le loro dimensioni erano abituati a determinare il corso della storia, anziché semplicemente adattarvisi.

    Ora i nuovi nazionalisti dimostrano il contrario.

    No, la globalizzazione, l’apertura delle frontiere, la costruzione europea e la società della tolleranza non sono dati di fatto. Sono scelte. Scelte che abbiamo compiuto implicitamente, nella migliore delle ipotesi con il silenzio-assenso dei popoli, e che loro hanno intenzione di revocare, come i doppi passaporti che Marine ha già annunciato di voler cancellare.

    Di fronte a questo, non basta più fare finta di nulla. Scuotere la testa con condiscendenza spiegando che “non è possibile”. Non è possibile uscire dall’euro, non è possibile chiudere le frontiere, non è possibile tornare indietro sui diritti civili. Ci piacerebbe, forse, che fosse così, ma non è vero. La verità è che si può uscire dall’euro e perfino dall’Unione Europea (Brexit docet), che si possono chiudere le frontiere e reintrodurre il protezionismo (Trump docet), che si possono rimettere in discussione i diritti delle minoranze, dei gay, delle donne (Putin docet).

    Smettiamo di dire che non si può fare e cerchiamo di dimostrare che non è una buona idea farlo.
    Tags: , , , , by M. Fioretti (2017-02-14)
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  10. With increased political polarization, amplified by homophily — our preference to connect to people like us — and algorithmic recommender systems, we’re effectively constructing our own realities.

    Two years ago I wrote about how social networks helped Israelis and Palestinians build a form of personalized propaganda during the last Israel-Gaza war. The shape of conversations and responses to events typically looked something like the graph below, where one frame of the story tends to stay on only one side of the graph, while a completely different take spreads on the other.
    Typical Polarized Social Networked Space for Information Spreading about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

    In the cases that I was investigating, neither side of the graph’s frame was false per se. Rather, each carefully crafted story on either side omitted important detail and context. When this happens constantly, on a daily basis, it systematically and deeply affects people’s perception of what is real.
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