Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Culture (Moral repercussions of falling in love with your robot), Investment (Saving investors from themselves), Business (Online ad hype — no, google and Amazon aren't hacking your brain), Management (Humans 'time travel' to make decisions, Challenging consultancy 'high priests', Would punishment make good HR policy?), History (East India Company — Anarchy or Empire-building?), Genetic engineering (The great hope of organ regeneration) and Entrepreneurship (Combining incredible patience and explosi

Published: Dec 14, 2019 08:12:21 AM IST
Updated: Dec 13, 2019 02:20:17 PM IST

g_124973_bg_reading_shutterstock_1587062950_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: Culture (Moral repercussions of falling in love with your robot), Investment (Saving investors from themselves), Business (Online ad hype – no, google and Amazon aren’t hacking your brain), Management (Humans ‘time travel’ to make decisions, Challenging consultancy ‘high priests’, Would punishment make good HR policy?), History (East India Company – Anarchy or Empire-building?), Genetic engineering (The great hope of organ regeneration) and Entrepreneurship (Combining incredible patience and explosive speed).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended December 13, 2019.

1) Do humans ‘time travel’ to make decisions? [Source: nature.com]
This scholarly paper in nature argues that humans prolifically engage in mental time travel. We dwell on past actions and experience satisfaction or regret. These recollections endow us with a computationally important ability to link actions and consequences, which helps address the problem of long-term credit assignment: the question of how to evaluate the utility of actions within a long-duration behavioral sequence. Existing approaches to credit assignment in AI cannot solve tasks with long delays between actions and consequences.

It goes on to say, “In AI research, the problem of evaluating the utility of individual actions within a long sequence is known as the credit assignment problem 5, 6, 7. This evaluation can rate past actions or planned future actions8. To address credit assignment, deep learning has been combined with reinforcement learning (RL) to provide a class of architectures and algorithms that can be used to estimate the utility of courses of action for behaving, sensorimotor agents.”

2) The new dotcom bubble seems to have arrived – Online advertising [Source: thecorrespondent.com]
For more than a century, advertising was an art not science. Hard data didn’t exist. Advertising gurus said "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons". Advertisers could only hope it was true. You put your commercials on the air, you put your brand in the paper, and you started praying. Would anyone see the ad? Would anyone act on it? Nobody knew. In the early 1990s, the internet sounded the death knell for that era of advertising. Today, we no longer live in the age of Mad Men, but of Math Men.

Google and Facebook are adept at the game - looking for customers, clicks, conversions. “With unprecedented precision, these data giants will get the right message delivered to the right people at the right time. Unassuming internet users are lured into online shops, undecided voters are informed about the evils of US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, and cars zip by on the screens of potential buyers – a test drive is only a click away.” The most fundamental question - in the end, what is there really to know in advertising? Can advertisers ever know exactly what their ad brings in? Read to find out…

3) Humankind’s great hope of organ regeneration [Source: aeon.co]
Like earthbound immortals, salamanders regenerate. If you cut off a salamander’s tail, or its arm, or its leg, or portions of any of these, it will not form a stump or a scar but will instead replace the lost appendage with a perfect new one, an intricacy of muscle, nerve, bone and the rest. It will sprout like a sapling. Science has been chopping up salamanders for more than 200 years with the aim of simply understanding the mechanics of their marvels, but more recently with the additional aim of someday replicating those marvels in ourselves. Might salamanders be the great hope of regenerative medicine?

After a long effort by an international consortium, the axolotl genome – 10 times the length of the human genome – was finally sequenced! In 2019, it was mapped onto chromosomes. Jessica Whited, who heads an axolotl lab at Harvard Medical School, told the author that, for those who hope to someday make regeneration available to human medicine, the axolotl is a perfect instruction manual. Its language simply needs decoding!

4) Anarchy or Empire-building? You decide [Source: The Guardian]
Patriotic myths are exploded in this vivid page-turner by William Dalrymple, The Anarchy, which considers the Company as a forerunner of modern multinationals, ‘too big to fail’. It is a “graphic retelling of the East India Company’s “relentless rise” from provincial trading company to the pre-eminent military and political power in all of India. The company’s transition from trade to conquest has preoccupied historians ever since Edmund Burke famously attacked it as a “state in the disguise of a merchant”. Building on foundational research by CA Bayly, K N Chaudhuri and PJ Marshall among others, a new cohort of scholars writing in the wake of the financial crisis (Emily Erikson, Rupali Mishra, Philip Stern, James Vaughn) have studied the company as a forerunner of modern multinationals, intertwined with the modern state and too big to fail”.

Dalrymple denunciates corporate rapacity and governments that enable it. This story needs to be told because imperialism persists though it is not apparent how a nation state can protect itself and citizens from corporate excess. The book is important to remove the imperial nostalgia gaining ground distorted histories trafficked by nationalists. It needs to be read because with constitutional norms under threat in both countries, the defences seem more fragile than ever.

5) The management high priests are being challenged [Source: economist.com]
When businessmen talk to partners of McKinsey, the high priests of management consultancy, it is like Catholics going to confession, says the author. They open up completely and expect confidentiality. “And whether or not it changes behaviour, the act itself is good for the soul,” he says. In an era of corporate unease, over everything from the next recession to climate change, executives are lining up at the confessional. But the consultancy giants too have some soul-searching to do. Its industry, estimated to be worth $300bn, is, like those of its clients, being transformed. And as its most revered—and hermetic—standard bearer, it is under more scrutiny than ever before.

The forces driving change are huge and varied. Disruptive technology, rise of new business models and pressures of intense global competition are transforming the marketplace. This incisive piece attempts to understand the major issues occupying firms and what that means for the industry at large. Increased competition, changes in how buyers purchase services, price pressure and skill upgrades are forcing consolidation in the consulting industry, and new technologies threaten to commoditize lucrative bread-and-butter services. Firms that aren’t part of these trends are feeling anxious about the future!

6) India’s renewables engine needs fresh ‘water batteries’ [Source: The Print]
According to the Central Electricity Authority, India has a potential 96 gigawatts of PHES capacity, just 2.6 gigawatts of which is currently operational. PHES, in principle, can operate without fossil fuels, and pumped hydro systems have a longer service life than coal and gas plants, making them an ideal partner technology for India’s push for wind and solar.

Progress in energy storage is crucial for energy security for India as it races ahead with large renewable power commitments. Already fifth in the world in renewables, India now says it will exceed its 2022 target of 175 gigawatts of installed renewable capacity. Speaking at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed his nation to more than doubling that target, to 450 gigawatts. However, India hasn’t moved as swiftly on storage as it has on generation, which could threaten its lofty green commitments.

7) Saving investors from themselves [Source: jasonzweig.com]
Legendary investment writer Jason Zweig was once asked how he defined his job. “My job is to write the exact same thing between 50 and 100 times a year in such a way that neither my editors nor my readers will ever think I am repeating myself,” he said. That’s because good advice rarely changes, while markets change constantly. The temptation to pander is irresistible and while people need good advice, what they really want is advice that ‘sounds good’. Advice that sounds the best in the short run is always the most dangerous in the long run – Zweig warns.

Humans perceive reality in short bursts, making a long-term perspective almost impossible to sustain – and making most people prone to believing that every blip is the beginning of a durable opportunity, he says. The best advisors role, therefore, would be to bet on regression to the mean even as most investors bet against it. “My role is to remind them constantly that knowing what not to do is much more important than what to do. Approximately 99% of the time, the single most important thing investors should do is absolutely nothing,” Zweig observes. No individual can assist or save the age. He can only express that it is lost, once said a great philosopher. “He’s right. But that’s exactly why you must try to assist and save the age,” Zweig’s father sagely told him! Now to save the investors from their own prejudices, from themselves…

8) Entrepreneurship - Combining Incredible Patience and Explosive Speed [Source: Linkedin]
Her debut collection was based out of a Manhattan kitchen—into more than 250 boutiques worldwide knows a thing or two about ambition. In addition to that, her charitable organization was built to empower aspiring female entrepreneurs. The much-awarded entrepreneur and toast of audiences worldwide, Tory Burch has this to say about business – Have your eye on the prize without apology and learn to accept ‘no’. “When I was first launching the company, I presented my business plan to a group of men; they were the investors. I told them I was going to build a business that focused on purpose. They very concretely said to never mention the words business and social responsibility in the same sentence,” Burch said in her speech. “Of course, that only furthered my resolve. What they called charity work, I called a business plan.”

Successful entrepreneurs have to find a way to combine both incredible patience and explosive speed. Sounds paradoxical? Perhaps, but that same, seemingly conflicting combination has powered the success of fashion designer Tory Burch. In this episode of Masters of Scale, you’ll hear how Tory’s remarkable story combines patience and speed. You’ll hear how Tory went from a tomboy who hadn’t worn a dress until prom, to cold-calling a New York fashion designer after graduation and getting hired sight unseen. You’ll learn why she ignored the conventional wisdom about fashion and opened her own store from Day One, and how she was in such a hurry that she opened her metaphorical doors even though her literal, physical store doors didn’t arrive in time for her Fashion Week launch event!

9) Would punishment make good HR policy? [Source: Aeon.co]
It’s also costly to give someone their just deserts. When an adult confiscates a child’s toy for bad behaviour, both are in for a rough afternoon. Which raises the question: why do we punish in the first place? The author argues that ‘punishment evolved to promote the greater good and prevent tragedies of the commons. This is the altruistic approach. Yes, punishment might be costly for the punisher, but (so the theory goes) it generates downstream benefits for others – stabilising cooperation, enforcing just rules, deterring freeriders’. It may be essential for enforcing rules but its origins go back to a time before robust societies, even before there was language to articulate the rules. Perhaps punishment preceded the benefits it generates?

The author cites a well-studied scenario - the ultimatum game. “Two players must decide how to divide a resource. One gets to propose a split, the other can accept the offer or reject it. If the offer is accepted, each gets his share specified by the proposal. If the offer is rejected, both parties receive nothing. The economically rational solution to this game is to offer as little as possible, and accept any offers that are made. When humans play this game, however, they frequently make offers that are more equitable and often reject those that are unfair. Such rejections are often interpreted as punishment aimed at enforcing fairness.” Societies, companies etc. tend to punish even if the economic returns aren’t significant, he argues. So does punishment have its origins in plain spite…?

10) Deus Sex Machina: The Ethics of Robot Love [Source: The Wire]
Malaysia recently cancelled a conference called Love and Sex with Robots for being “illegal” and “ridiculous”. “There is nothing scientific about sex with robots,” said the police. But researchers world over believe there are many interesting and important aspects of intimate robot partners that are worth researching and discussing. There is a lot of science in the sexually capable robots in the movie Ex Machina. Is a moral clampdown justified when it comes to intimacy with a robot? An organization called Campaign to Stop Sex Robots argues it would reinforce gender inequality, linking it to similar arguments made against pornography and prostitution.

A more important concern: what would happen if everyone did it? What would be the trajectory? Where would humanity end up if these devices proliferated? “Perhaps we’d be in much the same place as we are now. The invention of toys has not stopped people getting married and having babies. Slippery slope arguments are intuitively tempting but they need strong gravity and weak friction,” argues the writer. Proponents such as David Levy say robots are a lesser evil than human prostitutes. It doesn’t stop there… a more tractable moral issue is what Matthias Scheutz, Director of the Human Robot Interaction Lab at Tufts University, calls “unidirectional emotional bonds” - falling in love with a robot – imagine bomb disposal specialists “begging the Baghdad robot hospital to fix their beloved blown-up robots because they have gone through hell together”.

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