An Indictment Of The Digital Age

Nicholas Carr’s Theses in tweetform (fourth series) reads like an amusing, and also serious, indictment of the digital age. So much can be said of technology’s capacity to influence our lives —perhaps equal parts empowerment and disillusionment with a dash of the absurd.

Here are a few gems:

  • In the material world, doing is knowing; in media, the opposite is often true.
  • Facebook’s profitability is directly tied to the shallowness of its members: hence its strategy.
  • The album cover turned out to be indispensable to popular music.
  • The pursuit of followers on Twitter is an occupation of the bourgeoisie.
  • Abundance of information breeds delusions of knowledge among the unwary.
  • Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like.
  • Personalized ads provide a running critique of artificial intelligence.
  • YouTube fan videos are the living fossils of the original web.
  • Tools extend us; technology confines us.

Algorithms That Write

The New York Times published an intriguing quiz demonstrating how far computer algorithms have progressed, or failed depending on your POV, in the area of writing. You’re asked to read 8 separate passages of text and decide if each was written by a computer or a human. Sounds easy right? I did pretty good, scoring 7 out of 8 correct! Give it a try and see how you do.

It’s surprising, and perhaps a little disconcerting, to think more of what we’re reading online can and will be generated by algorithms rather than humans.
Type “robo-news” into your favorite search engine and you’ll quickly find The Associated Press among a growing number of big news organizations that have begun using robots to write stories.
But it’s not just texts being reproduced by computers. If you’ve been on Youtube lately you’ve probably come across the odd press release or news clip accompanied by a crude artificial sounding voice —robotic-like, hence the name robo-journalism or robo-news, created presumably without human intervention.

Kristian Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science, a company producing software that translates data into “narratives”, estimates that 90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated (that is, automated) by the mid-2020s.

While this all sounds a tad dystopian let’s imagine disgraced new anchor Brian Williams as a candidate for algorithmic replacement in light of his foggy memory regarding details of the Iraq War. Curiously Mr. Williams hasn’t Tweeted anything in 5 years fueling speculation that he is not a real person but in fact a malfunctioning prototype created by NBC through a joint venture with ILM and Google’s Ray Kurzweil. Well I suppose the cat’s finally out of the bag and it’s back to the drawing board to fix Williams’ faulty memory chip.
But seriously, here’s an interesting question: would a robotic news anchor be more or less prone to making errors similar to Mr. Williams’ gross embellishment of the facts? Should Wolf Blitzer and Scott Pelley start looking for new gigs? Perhaps not just yet.

Though if this trend continues it’s not far-fetched to think journalists, and certainly many other professions, could be partially or completely displaced by advances in computer automation technology. Just as manufacturing jobs have been gradually eliminated over the years, so too writers performing repetitive work could be vulnerable to algorithms that will gladly churn out formulaic written pieces (e.g. think sports scores and financial earnings reports) faster and cheaper than most willing humans.

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Where Are All The Electric Bikes?

Harley-Davidson-Livewire-Age-Of-UltronSunday afternoon I braved the cold and headed down to the annual winter Toronto Motorcycle Show with one of my riding buddies. If you live north of the 44th (north) parallel and you love riding you know exactly what we’re going through this time of the year waiting patiently for temperatures to rise.

It was great to see the new 2015 bike models up close and under one roof. Though I couldn’t help but wonder, where are all the electric bike offerings from the major manufacturers?

Just like all the celebrities and reporters who were dumbfounded by Lady Gaga’s performance at the Oscars last Sunday night I found it strange to note the lack of electric motorcycle technologies on display.

Some of the most anticipated motorcycles coming to market this year have stuck with surprisingly old engine tech, yet have been jammed full of electronic gizmos. In the sport bike category KTM was showing-off their much anticipated RC390 (powered by a 1-cylinder 4-stroke engine), Kawasaki their pricey Ninja H2 (powered by an in-line 4-cylinder engine), and Yamaha their YZF R-1 (powered by an in-line 4-cylinder engine) billed as the closest thing to a MotoGP bike Yamaha has ever produced, though I’m not too sure about the front LED headlight placement and design —otherwise a visceral statement of Yamaha’s racing prowess.
2015 Yamaha YZF-R1

Yes, these new motorcycles are all really exciting for sport performance junkies like myself, but it’s long overdue consumers be given viable alternatives to the old gasoline powered bikes that still saturate the market. Sadly the motorcycle industry, like the automotive industry, seems painfully slow to embrace change.

The one notable exception at this year’s show was Harley Davidson. Shocking, yes I know! Their new project Livewire electric concept was on display and caught my eye. Hmm… this is the same bike shown for a split-second in the latest Avengers: Age Of Ultron trailer.
It might be just a prototype, and HD have yet to say if they’re serious about putting the Livewire or any other electrics into production, but hats off to you anyway for at least taking the first step.

Jay Leno did a piece on the HD Livewire and a brief history of electric motorcycles on his YouTube channel noting the first electric bike was patented back in 1897. So EVs aren’t exactly new, rather abandonned technology (for 100 years no less!), as gasoline powered cars and motorcycles took over the market.
Interestingly Jay also pointed out some of the earliest electric bike designs (circa 1911) were claiming a range of 75 to 100 miles (120 to 160 kms) on a single battery charge, citing an old Popular Mechanics advertisment. Well, perhaps a trifle exaggeration of the day when you learn the HD Livewire prototype gets just 53 miles (85kms) on a single charge. Nevertheless, Triumph, Ducati, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, Suzuki, KTM, and all the other major motorcycle manufacturers, isn’t it about time you stepped up to the plate?