Category Archives: Media

Updates from Chicago Booth

A.I. is only human
By Jeff Cockrell – If you applied for a mortgage, would you be comfortable with a computer using a collection of data about you to assess how likely you are to default on the loan?

If you applied for a job, would you be comfortable with the company’s human-resources department running your information through software that will determine how likely it is that you will, say, steal from the company, or leave the job within two years?

If you were arrested for a crime, would you be comfortable with the court plugging your personal data into an algorithm-based tool, which will then advise your judge on whether you should await trial in jail or at home? If you were convicted, would you be comfortable with the same tool weighing in on your sentencing?

Much of the hand-wringing about advances in artificial intelligence has been concerned with AI’s effects on the labor market. “AI will gradually invade almost all employment sectors, requiring a shift away from human labor that computers are able to take over,” reads a report of the 2015 study panel of Stanford’s One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence. But whether AI ultimately creates massive unemployment or inspires new, as-yet-unknown professional fields, its perils and promises extend beyond the job market. By replacing human decision-making with automated processes, we can make businesses and public institutions more effective and efficient—or further entrench systemic biases, institutionalize discrimination, and exacerbate inequalities.

It’s an axiom of computing that results are dependent on inputs: garbage in, garbage out.

What if companies’ machine-learning projects come up with analyses that, while logical and algorithmically based, are premised on faulty assumptions or mismeasured data?

What if these analyses lead to bad or ethically questionable decisions—either among business leaders or among policy makers and public authorities? more>

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The Surveillance Threat Is Not What Orwell Imagined

By Shoshana Zuboff – George Orwell repeatedly delayed crucial medical care to complete 1984, the book still synonymous with our worst fears of a totalitarian future — published 70 years ago this month.

Since 1984’s publication, we have assumed with Orwell that the dangers of mass surveillance and social control could only originate in the state. We were wrong. This error has left us unprotected from an equally pernicious but profoundly different threat to freedom and democracy.

For 19 years, private companies practicing an unprecedented economic logic that I call surveillance capitalism have hijacked the Internet and its digital technologies. Invented at Google beginning in 2000, this new economics covertly claims private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Some data are used to improve services, but the rest are turned into computational products that predict your behavior.

These predictions are traded in a new futures market, where surveillance capitalists sell certainty to businesses determined to know what we will do next. This logic was first applied to finding which ads online will attract our interest, but similar practices now reside in nearly every sector — insurance, retail, health, education, finance and more — where personal experience is secretly captured and computed for behavioral predictions. By now it is no exaggeration to say that the Internet is owned and operated by private surveillance capital.

In the competition for certainty, surveillance capitalists learned that the most predictive data come not just from monitoring but also from modifying and directing behavior. more>

How Adam Smith became a (surprising) hero to conservative economists

By Glory M Liu – People like to fight over Adam Smith. To some, the Scottish philosopher is the patron saint of capitalism who wrote that great bible of economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Its doctrine, his followers claim, is that unfettered markets lead to economic growth, making everyone better off. In Smith’s now-iconic phrase, it’s the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, not the heavy hand of government, that provides us with freedom, security and prosperity.

To others, such as the Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Smith is the embodiment of a ‘neoliberal fantasy’ that needs to be put to rest, or at least revised. They question whether economic growth should be the most important goal, point to the problems of inequality, and argue that Smith’s system would not have enabled massive accumulations of wealth in the first place. Whatever your political leanings, one thing is clear: Smith speaks on both sides of a longstanding debate about the fundamental values of modern market-oriented society.

But these arguments over Smith’s ideas and identity are not new. His complicated reputation today is the consequence of a long history of fighting to claim his intellectual authority.

Smith’s first biographer, Dugald Stewart, deliberately portrayed him in the 1790s as an introverted, awkward genius whose magnum opus was an apolitical handbook of sorts. Stewart downplayed Smith’s more politically subversive moments, such as his blistering criticism of merchants, his hostility towards established religion, and his contempt for ‘national prejudice’, or nationalism. Instead, Stewart shined a spotlight on what he believed was one of ‘the most important opinions in The Wealth of Nations’: that ‘Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.’

Stewart’s biography (first delivered as an eulogy in 1793, then published in 1794 and 1795) appeared in the wake of major events that terrified British audiences: the French Revolution of 1789, the Reign of Terror that followed and the sedition trials that followed in both England and Scotland. As the British historian Emma Rothschild has shown, Stewart’s depiction of Smith’s ideas cherrypicked in order to imbue political economy with scientific authority. She writes that he wanted to portray political economy as ‘an innocuous, technical sort of subject’, to help construct a politically ‘safe’ legacy for Smith during politically dangerous times. Stewart’s effort marked the beginning of Smith’s association with ‘conservative economics’.

Smith would soon earn a reputation as the father of the science of political economy – what we now know as economics. more>

Climate change is becoming a defining issue of 2020

Democratic voters actually care about climate change. 2020 candidates are responding.
By Ella Nilsen – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks former Vice President Joe Biden’s $5 trillion climate plan — one of the first major policies his campaign has released — is a “start,” albeit one that needs to be scaled up dramatically.

“I think what that has shown is a dramatic shift in the right direction, but we need to keep pushing for a plan that is at the scale of the problem,” Ocasio-Cortez, progressive superstar and co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, told reporters on Tuesday. (For the record, she thinks the plan that gets closest is Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s, which she called the “gold standard.”)

But the very fact that Biden felt the need to release a climate plan near the start of his policy rollout shows the influence and success of Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the climate movement.

Five candidates, including Biden, Inslee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former Reps. Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney have all released massive plans to combat climate change, ranging from $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion in federal investment over a decade. Candidates are factoring in the spur of private investments as well, hence the jump to $5 trillion in Biden’s plan.

“It’s a recognition of where the electorate is,” Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray told Vox. “This popped out from the very beginning. Climate change and the environment in general was the No. 2 issue after health care for Democratic voters.

“I think it’s just becoming a zeitgeist for Democrats,” Murray added.

Over the past eight months, climate change has shot up as a core Democratic issue in polls. more>

Welcome to GAFA land—where the winner takes it all

By Susanne Wixforth – Amazon symbolizes the four platform giants, also known as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon). The company is Europe’s largest platform retailer and its turnover is twice as high as that of its 20 largest competitors. While Amazon´s chief executive earned 2.16 million dollars per hour in 2017, its workers must be grateful if they receive the statutory minimum wage, which in the EU varies between €1.42 and €11.27 per hour.

In 2018, Amazon generated a turnover of about 210 billion euro worldwide, an increase of over 30 per cent on the previous year’s. The company has more than 600,000 employees across the globe. With a market capitalization of more than 730 billion euro, it is one of the most valuable listed companies. Its operating profit amounts to around 11 billion euro. Nevertheless, thanks to a ruling it had agreed on in advance with the tax authorities of Luxembourg, Amazon did not pay taxes on 75 per cent of its turnover between 2003 and 2014.

In the long run, the platform economy not only poses a risk to the stability and budgets of countries where the corporations earn their money but do not pay taxes—it also undermines social cohesion.

Amazon generates its turnover mainly through four channels: as one of the biggest online retailers, as the operator of by far the largest online marketplace for third-party suppliers, as one of the largest providers of online services and as the distributor of the ordered products.

Because of its large market power in some trading segments, independent traders depend on Amazon to reach their customers. There is evidence that Amazon is trying to force traders out through its sheer market power, for instance through copying products and undercutting prices. more>

How European telcos are monitoring our online activity

The security and privacy of personal data are being jeopardized as Deep Packet Inspection is deployed by internet service providers.
By Katherine Barnett – Europe has not escaped the global move towards ‘surveillance capitalism’. Numerous pieces of legislation are under consideration which put online freedoms and privacy at risk—the UK’s Online Harms white paper is just one example.

The European Digital Rights (EDRi) organization recently discovered that European telcos were monitoring internet connections and traffic through a technique known as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI).

European telcos have so far escaped penalization for their use of DPI, on the grounds that it counts as ‘traffic management’. Under current net-neutrality law, it is technically allowed for purposes of network optimization—but its use for commercial or surveillance purposes is banned.

In January, however, the EDRi produced a report, outlining how as many as 186 European ISPs had been violating this constraint, using DPI to affect the pricing of certain data packages and to slow down internet services running over-capacity. Alongside 45 other NGOs and academics, it is pushing for the use of DPI to be terminated, having sent an open letter to EU authorities warning of the dangers.

Deep Packet Inspection is a method of inspecting traffic sent across a user’s network. It allows an ISP to see the contents of unencrypted data packets and grants it the ability to reroute or block traffic.

Data packets sent over a network are conventionally filtered by examining the ‘header’ of each packet, meaning the content of data traveling over the network remains private. They work like letters, with simple packet filtering allowing ISPs to see only the ‘address’ on the envelope but not the contents.

DPI however gives ISPs the ability to ‘open the envelope’ and view the contents of data packets. It can also be used to block or completely reroute data.

Regulators have so far turned a blind eye to this blatant disregard for net-neutrality law and telcos are pushing for DPI to be fully legalized.

This sparks major concerns about user privacy and security, as DPI renders visible all unencrypted data sent across a user’s connection, allowing ISPs to see browsing activity. more>

Why no-platforming is sometimes a justifiable position

By Neil Levy – The discussion over no-platforming is often presented as a debate between proponents of free speech, who think that the only appropriate response to bad speech is more speech, and those who think that speech can be harmful. I think this way of framing the debate is only half-right. Advocates of open speech emphasize evidence, but they overlook the ways in which the provision of a platform itself provides evidence.

No-platforming is when a person is prevented from contributing to a public debate, either through policy or protest, on the grounds that their beliefs are dangerous or unacceptable.

Open-speech advocates highlight what we might call first-order evidence: evidence for and against the arguments that the speakers make. But they overlook higher-order evidence.

Higher-order evidence is evidence about how beliefs were formed. We often moderate our confidence in our beliefs in the light of higher-order evidence. For instance, you might find the arguments in favor Continue reading

Socialism: A short primer

By E.J. Dionne, Jr. and William A. Galston – Something new is happening in American politics.

Although most Americans continue to oppose socialism, it has reentered electoral politics and is enjoying an upsurge in public support unseen since the days of Eugene V. Debs.

The three questions we will be focusing on are: Why has this happened? What does today’s “democratic socialism” mean in contrast with past versions? And what are the political implications?

It’s worth recalling how important socialism once was at the ballot box to understand that this tradition has deeper roots in our history than many imagine. In the 1912 presidential election, Debs secured six percent of the popular vote, and Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, their ranks including 79 mayors.

The crash of 2008, rising inequality, and an intensifying critique of how contemporary capitalism works has brought socialism back into the mainstream—in some ways even more powerfully than in Debs’ time, since those who use the label have become an influential force in the Democratic Party.

Running as a democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders received 45 percent of the Democratic primary vote in 2016, and in the 2018 mid-term elections, members of Democratic Socialists of America were among the prominent Democratic victors. Their ranks included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who quickly became one of the country’s best-known politicians.

The economic and financial collapse of 2008-2009 undermined the claim that the economy had entered a new era of stability and moderation. Experts who had preached the virtues of self-regulation were forced to recant. The slow recovery from the Great Recession left many Americans wondering whether they would ever regain the income and wealth they had lost. more>

What’s Great Power Competition? No One Really Knows

By Katie Bo Williams – More than a year since the new National Defense Strategy refocused the U.S. military away from counterinsurgency and back towards the country’s greatest strategic competitors, some policy and strategy experts say the Pentagon hasn’t yet figured out how to “compete” with Russia and China.

In fact, it hasn’t even settled on a definition for the “competition” in “great power competition.”

The uncertainty has left former officials scratching their heads about how, specifically, the Defense Department plans to counter China and Russia beneath the threshold of armed conflict. It also appears to be pulling the Pentagon’s policy planners beyond their traditional purview of fighting and winning wars.

“The NDS has two pieces to it: it says you have to compete with China and Russia and prepare for conflict with China and Russia,” said Mara Karlin, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for strategy and force development. “Those are different. The way you would manage and develop your force is different depending on which one you are biasing towards.” more>

How to Avoid a Fascist Future

BOOK REVIEW

Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, Author: Natasha Lennard.

By Bradley Babendir – This idea runs through Being Numerous, a collection of essays that seek to demonstrate and enact a means of non-fascist thinking. Lennard approaches a range of subjects as part of this project, from the controversy over someone punching Richard Spencer, to representations of dead bodies in media, to suicide. Each essay is rooted in Lennard’s foundational argument that “liberal, capitalist ideology … fails to address its own potential accidents and limitations.”

The first essay, “We, Anti-Fascists,” is a forceful piece in favor of anti-fascist organizing and thinking. Lennard opens the essay with an endorsement of the on-the-ground counter-violence of Antifa, and makes a convincing case for the necessity of such violence when traditional institutions cannot be trusted to protect counter-protesters. She also argues against the overreaction to Antifa by mainstream American media after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, after which, Lennard says, newspapers spent more page-space condemning anti-fascists than they did the white nationalists who had murdered the civil-rights activist Heather Heyer.

This defense of Antifa is perhaps the part of the essay that will grab most readers’ attention, but Lennard’s subsequent exploration of what she calls “fascistic habit” is its liveliest and most engaging section. more>