Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Life-Lessons (Shadow side of greatness), Media (After Autoplay: "Interactive, Personalized & Immersive" Entertainment), Environment (A second life for digital debris), Health (What does air pollution do to our bodies?), and Technology (Smart talking: Are our devices threatening our privacy and AI disaster will be creepier).

Published: Apr 6, 2019

g_114457_bg_shutterstock_591185666_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Life-Lessons (Shadow side of greatness), Media (After Autoplay: "Interactive, Personalized & Immersive" Entertainment), Environment (A second life for digital debris), Health (What does air pollution do to our bodies?), and Technology (Smart talking: Are our devices threatening our privacy and AI disaster will be creepier).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended April 05, 2019.

1) The shadow side of greatness – When success leads to failure [Source: jamesclear.com]
Everybody dreams of achieving success in their respective careers and make a name for themselves. Everybody wants people to know them through their work and appreciate it. But, gaining success comes with its share of downsides or like the author of this piece likes to call it, the shadow side. Many of the qualities that make people great have shadow sides as well. The two examples that this article throws light on are Picasso and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Picasso is globally revered for his paintings, but very few know that he almost created an art every single day of his life! Besides the impeccable artist that he was, his life was full of controversies. He was known to have involved in a relationships while being already married. His romantic life was a revolving door of affairs and infidelity.

The idea that strengths have tradeoffs, especially extreme versions of strengths, holds true in nearly every field. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is widely considered to be one of the greatest boxers of all time. His career record is 49-0. He has earned more than $1.3 billion over the course of his career. But, he also has serious anger management issues. The qualities that make him a once-in-a-lifetime boxer—his unbridled anger and lack of impulse control—also lead him to be violent in normal situations. This combination makes him unbeatable in the ring and unbearable in the rest of life.

You might say that you don’t necessarily need to be involved in so many relationships or cheat your spouse. These are some extreme examples, but every strength has a shadow side. Some shadows are darker than others, but all paths to success have a cost. Every strength comes with tradeoffs. We love to praise people for becoming famous, for winning championships, and for making tons of money, but we rarely discuss the costs of success. Did the beauty of Picasso’s art add more joy to the world than the pain he caused through a series of broken relationships? People often talk about the success they aspire to in life, but as author Mark Manson writes in his popular book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, the most important question to ask yourself is not, “What kind of success do I want?”, but rather, “What kind of pain do I want?”  

2) After Autoplay: "Interactive, Personalized & Immersive" Entertainment [Source: redef.com]
The most fascinating aspect of new distribution technologies in media is how they transform content, rather than just content delivery. Unfortunately, digital-era innovation to date has primarily focused on the latter: on-demand viewing, ad-free experiences, binge releases (or at least binge consumption), recommendation-based discovery, auto-play next and skip credits, etc. This isn’t to say these changes haven’t impacted the content itself. In truth, they’ve enabled considerable advances in narrative complexity and long-form storytelling. It’s without question that new delivery capabilities have changed and improved television and filmed content. But at the same time, this content would not be very different if they were released on a 1960s CRT TV.

Storytellers can create experiences that are more immersive, emotional and personal than ever before. And in doing so, they will be able to enhance the most foundational element of storytelling: the suspension of disbelief. The potential here is enormous – and far exceeds that provided by simply avoiding ads and watching the next episodes without delay. To date, however, the suspension of disbelief has actually been an impediment to interactive storytelling.

With OTT, you not only have a business case, you can economically support myriad versions and distribute them via personalization. Do you want violence on or off? Cursing? Sex scenes? More than a decade since the launch of Netflix’s SVOD service, we’ve yet to see a fundamental rethinking of how content is conceived, produced or maintained. Almost all content – to the tune of nearly $100B per year – it is made the same way. The advances made have been almost exclusively in technical delivery. The next decade will – or at least, should – see much of this change. The idea of “locked” content is likely to dissipate, and with it the idea of single–release versions of a title. Beyond that, the fundamental structures of content will change – when is it made, who does it focus on, what is the experience versus the packaging, who designs it, how does it evolve over time, when does it start or stop. This is all newly possible.

3) AI disaster won’t look like the Terminator. It’ll be creepier. [Source: vox.com]
With the rising use of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) in our lives, many think that these could lead to dooms day. Just like the Terminator movie. But, in this piece, Paul Christiano, computer scientist who works on AI safety at OpenAI throws light on how AI can dominate our lives by giving two scenarios. While it is difficult to imagine or visualize the outcome, Christiano’s categories make it a little bit easier, though. He divides potential disasters into two broad categories.

1) Going out with a whimper: Human institutions are, already, better at maximizing easy-to-measure outcomes than hard-to-measure outcomes. It’s easier to cut reported robberies than it is to prevent actual robberies. Machine-learning algorithms share this flaw, and exaggerate it in some ways. They are incredibly good at figuring out through trial and error how to achieve a human-specified quantitative goal. But humans aren’t always good at specifying those goals, and AIs are not good at distinguishing between reasonable interpretations of human instructions and unreasonable interpretations. Humans may just accept ceding more and more decision-making authority to algorithms until much of human life appears to consist of humans implementing the recommendations of AI systems they believe to be smarter.

2) Going out with a bang: Christiano’s first scenario doesn’t precisely envision human extinction. It envisions human irrelevance, as we become agents of machines we created. Often, he notes, the best way to achieve a given goal is to obtain influence over other people who can help you achieve that goal. If you are trying to launch a startup, you need to influence investors to give you money and engineers to come work for you. If you’re trying to pass a law, you need to influence advocacy groups and members of Congress. That means that machine-learning algorithms will probably, over time, produce programs that are extremely good at influencing people. And it’s dangerous to have machines that are extremely good at influencing people. Naturally, both of Christiano’s scenarios are fairly theoretical. But we can already see what increased reliance on AI looks like in our daily lives.

4) Why India's rich don't give their money away [Source: BBC]
Azim Premji, an Indian business tycoon, investor and philanthropist, was recently in the news for pledging $7.5bn. Mr. Premji's total philanthropic contribution now stands at some Rs1.45tn ($21bn; £15.8bn). This puts him in the same league of givers, as philanthropists are called, as Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet. In 2013, the 73-year-old software tycoon became the first Indian billionaire to sign the Giving Pledge, an initiative by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s an initiative that encourages wealthy individuals to pledge half their fortunes to philanthropy. News of his pledge came in a dry press statement issued by the Azim Premji Foundation and included no personal statement. According to one newspaper, he even asked "what's all the fuss about" when he was told that the pledge was generating headlines and buzz on social media.

Mr. Premji is not entirely alone in his generosity. IT billionaires Nandan and Rohini Nilekani have pledged 50% of their wealth to philanthropy; Biocon's Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw committed 75% of hers; and many other families fund hospitals, schools, community kitchens, the arts and scientific research. All of them, like Mr. Premji, are pledging their personal wealth, largely earned in their own lifetimes. "Premji's grant for the nation matches only what Jamsetji Tata and Dorabji Tata have done from a historical perspective," Amit Chandra, managing director, Bain Capital said. Mr. Premji accounted for 80% of the money given away by ultra-rich donors in India in the 2018 financial year, according to a recent philanthropy report co-authored by Dasra, a strategic philanthropic firm, and Bain.

Private philanthropy in India grew at a rate of 15% per year between 2014 and 2018. The Dasra report sees this as "particularly problematic" since ultra-rich households have grown at a rate of 12% over the past five years and are expected to double in both volume and wealth by 2022. So what’s stopping these ultra-rich? "There is a great fear of the taxman," says Ingrid Srinath, director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Delhi's Ashoka University. "They [the rich] don't want to end up on any radar or become the subject of more appeals for money." Ms. Srinath says philanthropists could be influenced by many things, from parents to community to faith. But generosity as a trait, she adds, is inexorably linked to a way of seeing the world and your role in it. "It certainly has nothing to do with how much money you have."

5) Smart talking: are our devices threatening our privacy? [Source: The Guardian]
Gone are the days when only humans were regarded as smart. Today, mostly everything around us is tagged as smart. Smart phone, smart watch, smart TV, and other smart home products are being developed by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft. But, with these smart devices, privacy has become an issue. As the writer Adam Clark Estes put it: “By buying a smart speaker, you’re effectively paying money to let a huge tech company surveil you.” Tech companies insist they are not spying on their customers via virtual assistants and home gadgets, and that they only ever listen when expressly commanded to do so. These claims, as least as far as they can be externally verified, appear to be true. But this doesn’t mean no listening is happening, or couldn’t happen, in ways that challenge traditional notions of privacy.

There are a number of ways in which home devices could be used that challenge our ideas of privacy. One is eavesdropping to improve quality. Once you say ‘OK, Goggle’ or wake up Alexa, what happens next? The data that is fed in the device is not deleted. Virtually all other botmakers, from hobbyists to the AI wizards at big tech companies, review at least some of the transcripts of people’s interactions with their creations. The goal is to see what went well, what needs to be improved and what users are interested in discussing or accomplishing. Also, conversations on Google Home and Google Assistant are saved until the user chooses to delete them.

For law enforcement agencies to obtain recordings or data that are stored only locally (i.e., on your phone, computer or smart home device), they need to obtain a search warrant. But privacy protection is considerably weaker after your voice has been transmitted to the cloud. Joel Reidenberg, director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School in New York, says “the legal standard of ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ is eviscerated. Under the fourth amendment, if you have installed a device that’s listening and is transmitting to a third party, then you’ve waived your privacy rights.” If you aren’t doing anything illegal, you don’t need to worry about your voice data. But, when companies warehouse all your recordings, a hacker could hear all the requests you made in the privacy of your home if he has your account login and password. The uses of AI surveillance make clear that you should scrutinise each one of these technologies you allow into your life. Also, don’t forget to delete critical information that you don’t want to share with anybody.

6) A second life for digital debris [Source: Livemint]
Every household today has a digital device/accessory. And we have developed a habit of updating these devices every few months. So what’s the result? E-waste. According to a report titled Global E-waste Monitor 2017, a collaborative effort of the United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Solid Waste Association, the total e-waste generated in Asia in 2016 was 18.2 million tonnes (mt). India’s share of this was around 2mt. The report adds that India generates a tremendous amount of e-waste and even imports it from developed countries. The Monitor says over “one million poor people in India are involved in manual recycling operations". Multiple studies and reports have estimated that almost 90% of the electronic waste in India is collected and processed by the informal sector.

Despite global rules seeking to regulate the export and import of e-waste, a new World Economic Forum (WEF) report released in January suggests that large amounts are still shipped illegally. For instance, e-waste generated in Western Europe makes its way to China and India, among other countries. India has become one of the biggest dumping grounds. But there are a few companies that are taking positive steps to stop this. Chinese mobile maker Xiaomi has a “Take-back & Recycling Programme" that adheres to the 2016 rules. The programme allows users to fill up an e-waste recycling form after logging into their Mi account. An authorized recycler then picks up the e-waste. “We have partnered with Karo Sambhav to set up over 1,100 e-waste collection points at Mi Homes and Mi authorized service centres in over 500 cities across India... We have collected over 60,000kg of overall e-waste in 2018 alone," says Muralikrishnan B., chief operating officer, Xiaomi India.

Even Apple, which recorded global iPhone sales of 64.5 million units in the fourth quarter of 2018 (September-December) according to Gartner research data, has a “GiveBack" programme that allows users to ship their old devices to a recycling partner. Worldwide, 67 countries have legislation in place to deal with e-waste, according to the WEF report. Also, organizations are starting to recognize e-waste’s hidden economic value and reusability. Take, for instance, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo—all the medals will be made from precious metals collected from recycled e-waste. More than five million used phones were collected from among 47,488 tonnes of discarded electronic devices, after a nationwide scheme was launched across Japan by the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee in April 2017. In Delhi, the Prakriti Metro Park near the Shastri Park Metro station is another example of how junk, including e-waste, can be recycled and put to good use. The park features 12 sculptures made from 20-25 tonnes of waste by artists from across India.

7) Why smart people are more likely to believe fake news [Source: The Guardian]
In this digital world, it’s become easy to create and pass around fake news. One click on WhatsApp and within minutes it will be circulating beyond the boundaries of countries. Psychological research shows that misinformation is cleverly designed to bypass careful analytical reasoning, meaning that it can easily slip under the radar of even the most intelligent and educated people. Indeed, there is now evidence that smarter people may sometimes be even more vulnerable to certain ideas, since their greater brainpower simply allows them to rationalise their (incorrect) beliefs. Perhaps the most potent way of spreading misinformation is simple repetition; the more you hear an idea, the more likely you are to believe it to be true.

Repetition is just one of several ways of spreading misinformation. In these ways, we can begin to see how misinformation can be engineered to bypass logical thinking and critical questioning. But do intelligence and education protect us against false claims? The latest research shows it partly depends on your thinking style. Some people are “cognitive misers”, for instance: they may have a lot of brainpower that allows them to perform well in exams, but they don’t always apply it, using intuition and gut instinct rather than reflective, analytical thinking. This thinking style is commonly measured with a tool known as the “cognitive reflection test” using questions such as: “If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?” The correct answer is five, but many otherwise intelligent people say 100 – the more intuitive response.

Studies from the US have revealed that people who score badly on these kinds of questions tend to be more susceptible to fake news, conspiracy theories and paranormal thinking. Those who score better, in contrast, tend to be less gullible, because they use their intelligence to analyse claims rather than relying on their gut feelings. Given the sheer prevalence of misinformation around us, the author of this piece feels that ways of identifying misinformation, combined with critical thinking, should now be taught in every school. After all, it’s not just the fake political news that we need to avoid, but health scams and financial fraud.

8) What does air pollution do to our bodies? [Source: BBC]
Thousands of drivers would face paying a new charge to enter central London soon. The aim is to deter the dirtiest vehicles in an effort to reduce diseases and premature deaths. The initiative comes as scientists say the impacts of air pollution are more serious than previously thought. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, told the BBC the threat of air pollution, which is mostly invisible to the naked eye, was "a public health emergency". The most obvious effects are on our breathing - anyone suffering from asthma, for example, is more likely to be at risk, because dirty air can cause chronic problems and also trigger an attack.

"I had to stay up one night because my chest was really bad because [of] all the polluted air," 10-year-old Alfie said. "I couldn't go to sleep and my mum had to stay awake." A pupil at Haimo Primary School in Eltham, close to London's busy South Circular Road, Alfie is one of 300 children across the capital taking part in unique research. The project involves each child wearing an air-monitoring backpack, specially built by Dyson and fitted with instruments to measure nitrogen dioxide and the smallest particles, called PM2.5. Research has shown that children growing up in heavily polluted streets have smaller lung capacity than those in cleaner areas - on average by 5% according to a study in London - a limitation that cannot be reversed. It's been established that PM2.5 particles are small enough to make that transition as well, entering the cardiovascular system and circulating throughout the body.

One new area of research is the hunt for an explanation for why babies in the most polluted areas tend to be born more prematurely and underweight compared with those born elsewhere. A small study, still under way, is investigating placentas and has found black dots that look similar to pollution particles spotted in lung cells. One of the researchers involved in the work, Norrice Liu, also at Queen Mary University, said the placenta would be expected to provide a sterile environment so the sight of black dots was a surprise. Their presence does not prove a link with premature birth or lower birth weight but it does suggest a possible mechanism.

9) This man says the mind has no depths [Source: Nautilus]
There are many books published on brain, but the author of this piece was intrigued by British behavioural scientist, Nick Chater’s “The Mind is Flat”. Mr. Chater argues that our brain is a storyteller, and not a reporter from an inner world. Emotions are not pre-formed feelings waiting to burst forth, Chater writes, they are momentary improvisations to bodily reactions. Our brains are jazz players, he tells, cooking up the best thoughts and behaviours for the moment. But the author had a few questions and he got a chance to chat with Mr. Chater. He began by asking about psychotherapy because if there is one pillar of thought that Chater seeks to topple it’s the idea that voyaging into the unconscious can set us free.

When asked whether he believed in the value of psychotherapy, Mr. Chater said that he does and he thinks a reasonable goal should be to help a person understand the world in a more coherent, consistent, integrated way. This is a tremendously creative act on the patient’s part. If Mr. Chater was a psychotherapist, he says he would start by saying that how we interpret the people of the world around us, and the behavioural and mental habits that shape us, can crucially affect how we feel about our lives, and how well we can cope with them. So one aim of therapy is to help people construct new thoughts and patterns of behaviour that can help them move forward. He defines thought as the stuff of conscious experience: the pains, prods, shapes, movements, noises, and scraps of language that flow through our conscious mind.

Finally, he reveals what are the benefits of thinking our minds are flat. It’s about focusing on the creative project of understanding one’s own life, rather than trying to unpick one’s own psyche. How do we live our lives more happily and better? How do we think more coherently and better? How do we solve problems going forward? Sometimes solving problems requires going backward, like when you’re trying to write a novel or produce a proof in mathematics. Sometimes you need to go back and think, Wait a minute, I made a mistake here, I did the wrong character development, I made a calculation error. But it’s important to think of the project as going forward, rather than thinking that I and everyone else are in the grip of a mysterious force that’s controlling us and we need to voyage inward to find it. A forward-looking approach to our lives is the positive benefit. 

10) Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’ [Source: NY Times]
What if you’re given a Beef Whooper that isn’t actually made from beef? Would you have it? In the testing, at least, people couldn’t differentiate between them. And the company that’s making these is Impossible Foods. Pat Brown founded this company with a goal of decreasing the world’s reliance on animal agriculture. The Impossible Whopper creates an interesting alliance between a fast-food chain that promotes its devotion to beef on every Whopper wrapper (“100% Beef With No Fillers”) and a start-up that is committed to getting people to stop eating beef. Impossible’s biggest innovation has come from its use of heme, an iron-rich protein that the company believes is responsible for much of the distinctive taste of meat. Impossible found a way to cultivate heme from the roots of soybean plants and mass-produce it using yeast. The heme is blended with a combination of other vegetarian ingredients that are intended to have the slightly nutty texture of ground beef.

Impossible Foods and its competitors in Silicon Valley have already had some mainstream success. The vegetarian burger made by Beyond Meat has been available at over a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January and the company is now moving toward an initial public offering. Burger King’s chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado, said that in the company’s testing so far, customers and even employees had not been able to tell the difference between the old meaty Whopper and the new one. “People on my team who know the Whopper inside and out, they try it and they struggle to differentiate which one is which,” Mr. Machado said.

The company’s success has not been without controversy. A small but vocal group of environmentalists has said Impossible rushed its novel ingredients to market without adequate testing. At the same time, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals slammed Impossible for testing its product on rats. But Impossible has broadly delivered on Mr. Brown’s desire to create an environmentally conscious alternative to meat. On the health side, the Burger King version of the Impossible burger will have about the same amount of protein as the regular Whopper, with 15% less fat and 90% less cholesterol. At Burger King, the Impossible Whopper will be prepared in exactly the same way as the traditional Whopper, with the sesame-seed bun and delivered in a white wrapper with the Impossible branding on it. If it tastes like beef, yet healthy, then why not have it!

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