21 January 2023

Foreign Affairs: “Why India can’t replace China”

Start with the structural advantages. Commanding a territory that is nine times larger than Germany and a population that will soon overtake China’s as the world’s largest, India is one of the few countries that is big enough to house many large-scale industries, producing initially for global markets and ultimately for the burgeoning domestic market. Moreover, it is an established democracy with a long legal tradition and a notably young, talented, and English-speaking work force. And India also has some considerable achievements to its credit: its physical infrastructure has improved dramatically in recent years, while its digital infrastructure—particularly its financial payments system—has in some ways surpassed that of the United States.

If India really is the promised land, however, these examples should be joined by many others. International firms should be lining up to shift their production to the subcontinent, while domestic firms boost their investments to cash in on the boom. Yet there is little sign that either of these things is happening. By many measures, the economy is still struggling to regain its pre-pandemic footing.

Take India’s GDP. It is true—as enthusiastic commentators never cease to point out—that growth over the past two years has been exceptionally rapid, higher than any other major country. But this is largely a statistical illusion. Left out is that during the first year of the pandemic, India suffered the worst contraction in output of any large developing country. Measured relative to 2019, GDP today is just 7.6 percent larger, compared with 13.1 percent in China and 4.6 percent in the slow-growing United States. In effect, India’s annual growth rate over the past three years has been just two and a half percent, far short of the seven percent annual rate that the country considers to be its growth potential. The performance of the industrial sector has been weaker still.

Arvind Subramanian & Josh Felman

The article presents a range of valid points, from the uneven playing field, where the government may change existing policies or enforce them selectively to favor “national champions”, to large income inequality, dampening domestic demand. But I would argue there’s a more straightforward reason for the reluctance to replace China with India: having been reliant on Chinese manufacturing for decades – and now being caught in the crossfire between rising Chinese ambitions and American sanctions – companies are not keen to repeat the experience in India. While the country may be a democracy on paper, its institutions are increasingly leaning autocratic, internal religious tensions are rising, and its foreign policy strives for a kind of vocal non-alignment that won’t win India any long-term friends.

17 January 2023

Wired: “Machine Learning could create the Perfect Game Bosses”

Romain Trachel and Alexandre Peyrot, machine-learning specialists at Eidos-Sherbrooke, demonstrated the game I just described at Unreal Fest 2022. It combines machine learning with an Unreal Engine feature called the Environment Query System (EQS), which lets developers use spatial data to inform AI decisions.

Normally, this is handled through behavior trees that layer variables and branching possibilities. But in this demo, the AI behavior is driven by a machine-learning model. Unreal EQS acts as the AI’s eyes and ears, providing information about its environment, while the machine-learning model becomes its brain and decides how it should respond.

The game is not as frightful as I made it sound, mostly because of its top-down presentation and placeholder visuals, but its gameplay is a classic cat-and-mouse chase that tasks players with collecting orbs strewn across a map. It’s Pac-Man, basically—but the ghost’s behaviors are no longer scripted.

Machine learning can be used to create a brutal foe. IBM’s Deep Blue and Google’s DeepMind AlphaStar have proven that. However, that isn’t always the desirable—not only because it raises the difficulty, but also because the AI’s specific tactics may run counter to enjoyable gameplay.

Trachel and Peyrot tried using AI for several game modes, including a “multi-output model” that learned to predict the player’s score (earned by collecting orbs) and cut them off. But in this game mode, the enemy tended to camp on the orbs’ positions. It wasn’t fun and engaging to play against, so we didn’t show these results.

Matthew Smith

The topic of employing AI to improve the gaming experience in single-player mode comes up regularly in discussions related to Civilization, each time with the same conclusion: a full machine learning model would likely make AI opponents much harder to defeat. But this in turn would make the game less enjoyable for the majority of casual players who don’t go up to the highest difficulties – I myself have never gone beyond Emperor difficulty in Civ 6. The benefits would thus be limited to the small set of players who seek to challenge themselves with a Deity level capable of out-strategizing humans – with the considerable downsides of vastly increased computation costs to train and deploy the machine learning model. Another case of ‘not quite there yet’ for the adoption of AI.

14 January 2023

The Local: “‘They are squatters’: Are Paris cafés right to clamp down on laptop users?”

I’m not against laptops, but I am against the minority of users who will sit down for four or five hours, with the cheapest drink. That’s not respectful to the space, so the decision came about because of those few who do that. We call them squatters, he says.

We make less revenue at the end of the month, because the business costs are higher, Jeff says, adding that Fringe is not a co-working space.

The Dancing Goat’s policy is to allow laptops during the week, but not on the weekends. Aaricia, a barista and the head of The Dancing Goat’s social media presence, said that this comes down to the energy of the place.

On the weekends, we want to be able to welcome families, children and grandparents she said.

Aaricia sees the no-laptops-on-the-weekends rule to be a fair middle ground – allowing the many people who work remotely a place to come on the weekdays, while offering a more “energetic” and inclusive space on the weekends.

Genevieve Mansfield

The growing popularity of remote work is causing interesting social changes, some more obvious, some less expected. And naturally some are also pushing back against these new behaviors. In this particular case I tend to side with the owners who seek to restrict remote work in their shops, since it makes little business sense for them to allow people to occupy a spot for hours, when they could instead have dozens of customers in the same time span. One might reorganize things to be more accommodating for remote workers, but that would probably require a shift in the business model, perhaps an extra charge for renting a seat for a certain amount of hours, access to faster Wi-Fi, and so on.

13 January 2023

The Verge: “Check out BMW’s color-changing concept car in action”

For this year’s CES, BMW showed off the i Vision Dee, an electric sports sedan concept that previewed a whole raft of technologies we could see in the immediate future, like AI-powered virtual assistants and full-windshield heads-up displays. But it also included a full-color version of the E Ink technology seen on last year’s concept for the first time ever.

This means that the i Vision Dee — which looks like a kind of cross between a vintage BMW and a Tesla — can change colors on command. Instead of just black, white, and gray, 32 colors are now available. Not only that but the i Vision Dee is made up of 240 E Ink e-paper segments, all of which can be controlled individually. This means the i Vision Dee can shift to one solid color or put on one hell of a light show.

This allows an almost infinite variety of patterns to be generated and varied within seconds, BMW said in a statement.

Patrick George

A cool concept that could cause unfortunate side effects on the roads. A car changing colors while driving could prove distracting to other drivers and people on the road. The effect could be even more perilous at night: electric cars already produce less noise that combustion engines; imagine a silent vehicle adopting a dark color on the streets. With the headlights off it would be nearly impossible to spot for pedestrians. And a full-windshield heads-up display, bombarding the driver with notifications or – gasp! – running ads! seems like an accident waiting to happen too.

10 January 2023

The Guardian: “Death of the narrator? Apple unveils suite of AI-voiced audiobooks”

Apple has quietly launched a catalogue of books narrated by artificial intelligence in a move that may mark the beginning of the end for human narrators. The strategy marks an attempt to upend the lucrative and fast-growing audiobook market – but it also promises to intensify scrutiny over allegations of Apple’s anti-competitive behaviour.

The popularity of the audiobook market has exploded in recent years, with technology companies scrambling to gain a foothold. Sales last year jumped 25%, bringing in more than $1.5bn. Industry insiders believe the global market could be worth more than $35bn by 2030.

Before the launch, one Canadian literary agent told the Guardian she did not see the value from both a literary or customer perspective.

Companies see the audiobooks market and that there’s money to be made. They want to make content. But that’s all it is. It’s not what customers want to listen to. There’s so much value in the narration and the storytelling, said Carly Watters.

Leyland Cecco

Interesting tactic by Apple to attack Amazon’s market dominance in audiobooks through Audible. There is growing discontent against Audible’s terms, so perhaps Apple can convince some authors to move their titles to Apple Books. Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time Apple tried to shake Amazon’s stronghold on book distribution – and utterly failed because of their blatant collusion with book publishers. More recently, Spotify has also been investing in audiobooks as an additional pillar of its streaming service, and immediately clashed with Apple over its App Store commissions.

09 January 2023

9to5Mac: “MKBHD claims that post-processing is ruining iPhone photos”

As pointed out by MKBHD, most phones handle well in favorable scenarios, such as a clear sky or a subject in front of a clear background. But when you have different colors and textures in the same scene, the post-processing must be smart enough to understand what will be the best setting for all these elements.

But the thing is, while companies like Google are doing it the right way, Apple is definitely not. As shown by the YouTuber, the iPhone 14 Pro always tries to lighten the shadows, especially on people’s faces, making the photo look very artificial. The iPhone also exaggerates the sharpness of the photos compared to other smartphones. MKBHD even complains that his skin tone looks quite different on the iPhone camera.

In the iPhone 14 Pro camera review by Sebastiaan de With, developer of the popular camera app Halide, he also pointed out multiple flaws in Smart HDR. For example, every time there’s a very bright background, the iPhone also tries to boost the brightness of the people in the photo, making them look very white. I have honestly never seen it make for a better photo. The result is simply jarring, he said.

Filipe Espósito

It feels somewhat inappropriate to comment on this topic since I haven’t owned an iPhone in more than four years – nor do I have any intention of returning to Apple’s ecosystem – but the iPhone photos from Marques’ video are blatantly worse. Attempting to level shadows over an entire face in postprocessing is a terrible choice; in real-world situations it’s common that certain areas are lit more intensely than others, and a photo should properly reflect that, not invent some ideal scenario where the light source is dead-center and smooth. On top of that, the iPhone photos have a sickly yellow tone, an obvious case of incorrect color temperature. It’s possible that I picked up on these glaring flaws during the blind smartphone camera test, hence the iPhone dropped to the lower half of my rankings for the portrait section.

05 January 2023

Rodney Brooks: “Predictions Scorecard, 2023 January 01”

The first stage is massive, with 37 Raptor engines that are a generation later than the Merlins used on Falcon 9. So far it has not flown, nor has it successfully lit as many as 30 of its engines in a ground test.

Over US Thanksgiving in 2021 the CEO of SpaceX urged his workers to abandon their families and come in to work to boost the production rate of these engines. In his email he said:

What it comes down to is that we face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.

“Next year” would be 2022. There have been zero test flights of either the second stage or the first stage and it is the end of 2022. The first stage has never flown at all. Not even powered up all its engines. The first stage is much more complex than any previous booster ever built. It is not flying once every two weeks. Does that mean SpaceX is in danger of bankruptcy? Or was the SpaceX CEO using hyperbole to extract work from his employees?

I am concerned that Starship will not be ready for the proposed 2025 Lunar Landing of astronauts and that will really delay humankind’s return to the Moon.

Rodney Brooks

I’ve consumed the article for his expert opinion on ChatGPT – which doesn’t disappoint and pours a good bit of cold water on the recent hype – but ended up discovering a completely unrelated troubling fact: SpaceX’s next generation Starship had zero launches for the entire year! At this point, NASA should be having serious second thoughts about gambling the entire Artemis program on a single, highly erratic partner.

02 January 2023

Analytics at Meta: “Notifications: why less is more”

We had a hunch that such a trade-off should be avoidable: if users are more satisfied with their experience, we believe this would be reflected in usage gains too. We decided to keep the experiment of sending only a few notifications running for a year. And lo and behold: little by little Facebook usage started inching back up! After a year we saw that in the fewer notifications experience, users were using Facebook moreit just took a long time for user behavior to shift and less disruption led to high organic usage, which increased both user satisfaction and app usage. We wrote this blogpost to socialize this finding as we believe other data science teams outside Facebook could benefit from the same lessons we learnt:

  1. Experiments in the very long-run can show different results than in the short run.
  2. Sending only a few notifications and the most relevant ones (e.g. those predicted to receive a 5/5 rating in the survey mentioned above) can improve user sentiment and usage too in the long run.
Weijun C., Yan Q., Yuwen Z., Christina B., Akos L.

Seems a rather obvious insight that people become frustrated with high volumes of notifications, and after a short period of increased engagement they start to pay less attention to them. This is especially true as people tend to add more friends and follow more sources over time, and Facebook crams new features into the feed, both contributing to even more notifications. But it’s nice to see this confirmed with actual research and, as far as I understand from this post, implemented into real product changes at Facebook.

01 January 2023

The New York Times: “Highbrow Films aimed at Winning Oscars are Losing Audiences”

Ever since Oscar-oriented films began showing up on streaming services in the late 2010s, Hollywood has worried that such movies would someday vanish from multiplexes. The diminishing importance of big screens was accentuated in March, when, for the first time, a streaming film, “CODA” from Apple TV+, won the Academy Award for best picture.

This is about more than money: Hollywood sees the shift as an affront to its identity. Film power players have long clung to the fantasy that the cultural world revolves around them, as if it were 1940. But that delusion is hard to sustain when their lone measuring stick — bodies in seats — reveals that the masses can’t be bothered to come watch the films that they prize most. Hollywood equates this with cultural irrelevancy.

People like to call it escape, but that’s not actually what it is, Jeanine Basinger, the film scholar, said. It’s entertainment. It can be a serious topic, by the way. But when films are too introspective, as many of these Oscar ones now are, the audience gets forgotten about.

Give us a laugh or two in there! When I think about going out to see misery and degradation and racism and all the other things that are wrong with our lives, I’m too depressed to put on my coat, continued Ms. Basinger, whose latest book, “Hollywood: The Oral History”, co-written with Sam Wasson, arrived last month.

Brooks Barnes

I feel there’s no need to theorize about the shrinking audiences of Oscar-aspiring movies beyond this simple reason: the audience seeks entertainment. And these days there’s no shortage of competing sources of entertainment, starting with streaming services and their seemingly endless supply of content, some of which can undoubtedly rival Oscar-awarded productions.