The Technologist

What a time to be almost alive.
Revue de presse

A conversation between two female indie rock stars

In Pitchfork, there is a dual conversation between Liz Phair, the 1990s indie rock legend, and Lindsey Jordan, the 18-year-old leader of the band Snail Mail. Two great quotes about the current landscape of rock today:

Pitchfork: Liz, a lot of contemporary pop feminism feels like it has roots in the open sexuality found in your lyrics: It’s not so revolutionary now to sing about being disappointed with one night stands. But Lindsey’s lyrics, on the other hand, are now what’s bold, emotionally bare lines like, “Don’t you like me for me?” People are afraid to talk about those kinds of feelings.

Liz Phair: Intimacy — real honest intimacy — is one of the most radical things you can do right now. It’s like an endangered species to connect to your feelings and actually be present. (...) At this point in my career, I can polish something and make it wonderful, but if it isn’t that thing I’m afraid to say out loud, it has no engine. You can turn it on, but the electricity isn’t going. It may look amazing, but it doesn’t do anything unless you can stick in that thing that’s like, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this right now in front of everyone.”

and:

Jordan: Every time we did press before Coachella, we were asked, “So are you guys aware that rock’n’roll is dead?”

Phair: That’s bullshit. Rock’n’roll’s not dead. It’s evolving. And you are the manifestation of the fact that it’s switched over to women and now guitar rock gods are all female.

The whole piece is highly readable, and touches upon some of the usual topics of the music interview: stories of bad gigs and empty crowds, how to handle fame, and a vanilla-ice-cream-between-two-pizza-slices sandwich. Snail Mail has recently released 6784815586 awesome songs. They're worth listening to.

From the scratchpad

269-245-8557

One of the few economic studies of cars in robotaxi fleets debunks the notion that they will be much cheaper to operate than human-owned ones.

From the scratchpad

Jordan Peterson 2024

There is a good case to be made that the future of the Republican Party can be found in Jordan Peterson and his acolytes.

9036817521

Update: Google announced that they will identify themselves at the beginning of each call Google Duplex does. This doesn't change the point of the article, which is that the company somehow considered the first version of Duplex, which is in spirit a hack, worth releasing to its userbase. As an aside, I really would like Duplex to open each call by the rejected title of this article: "Hello, Yes, This is Goog"

Flowing from the cornucopia of AI tricks that Google presented yesterday, one still managed to stand out: Duplex, a technology that enables Google Assistant to make reservations over the phone. You really should watch the demo (1:55:14 to 2:00:50):

The entire sequence was spectacular. But, without really knowing why, I also found it kind of odd. Nonwithstanding the real ethical issues associated with Duplex (more on that in a moment), it stroke me as being, for a Google product, out of the ordinary. And here's why: Duplex is a consumer product made out of a hack. For a company as established as Google, that is not OK.

I mean "hack" here in an informal sense, as "a piece of computer code providing a quick or inelegant solution to a particular problem."(305) 659-1298 Duplex fits that definition perfectly. The particular problem here, as Google mentioned in their press release, is that most small business take reservations only by phone, and we often are too lazy to call. Google could patiently push small business to use online bookings, but that's apparently too slow-moving. Instead, Google decided to provide automated reservations by leveraging technologies, such as voice synthesis and language processing, that are good enough and readily available (the quick part), even though the undertaking relies on, at least, some mild deceit (the inelegant part).


The issue is that hacks generally don't scale very well, and Google Duplex, if kept in its current form, probably won't be an exception.

First off, what was shown yesterday fundamentally relies on subterfuge, and I am not sure that Google can legally keep doing that for very long. Even though Google likely isn't required to disclose to the businesses that this is an automated system calling, I wouldn't be surprised if there is a push for such mandatory disclosures down the road.quasi executive More immediately, it is also almost certain that if Google wants to record calls to train their models, it will have to disclose it in certain U.S. states (such as California), and many other countries as well.

Maybe Duplex legally won't have to open all of its conversations by, say, an artificiality disclosure. Still, business owners will surely recognize at least some of Duplex's calls. These will probably be repetitive to an extent. Google has only synthetized six different voices, and they will probably have some recognizable characteristics, whether in vocabulary, tone, or intonations. For instance, in one example, Google Assistant claims it is making a reservation for "a client," which is a sentence small business probably almost never hear. If, as Google hopes, Duplex becomes popular, the nail salons and bowling alleys of this world will be called by the same "people" very often.

So, what happens when small businesses become aware that the person calling to book a haircut is, well, not a person? That is the biggest unknown of Duplex, but Google shouldn't necessarily be optimistic. If I were a maitre d' receiving 20 booking requests a day from a natural-sounding, yet still automated, voice, I would have two reactions:

  1. The clients using Google Assistant are fucking lazy. If my restaurant is popular, no Google reservations, because you can at least afford to make a damn phone call.
  2. If part of my day really consists in talking to robots, why should I talk to them normally, and say "thank you" or "hello"? I would just talk to that fake person like I talk to my phone: with queries that demand minimal effort. And maybe I would sprinkle these queries with some abuse and insults, since I could get away with it. [3]

I’m hyperventilating on purpose here: most businesses will probably be fine with Duplex, the most annoyed ones will have an incentive to switch to online booking, and maybe a few high-end holdouts will refuse it altogether; and all will be fine. But I'm stuck on Sundar Pichai's pride that Duplex had been engineered to pretend it's a human, notably by peperring its sentences with strategically placed "hmmm" and "uuuuh". I mean, Google is a careful company, and I am sure the keynote was vetted by lawyers and PR people. That they could not see the glaring problems of Duplex, both in its nature and the way it was presented, is astonishing. I mean, it should have raised off alarm bells that engineers were getting paid to make human voices sound more natural so that the interlocutor wouldn't guess the caller is actually a computer.

It's only a matter of time before people realize that these calls are automated, and Google should act accordingly by systematically disclosing it. Paradoxically, that yesterday's demo was so smooth showed that Google could, and maybe should have, introduced Duplex a couple of years ago. At the time, the language processing probably was close to ready for prime time. Yes, the voice synthesis wouldn't have been as good, and people would have been able to spot that it wasn't a real person. But that's the way it should be, and especially for a company like Google that has a vested interest in not sabotaging its friendly image.

Yesterday, however, all of these concerns were passed over. The company seems unmindful of the nature of Duplex, even though it is very different from the stuff they usually introduce. Again, Duplex is not a neat new app, but a hack, a technology that is both exciting and impure. Even though it might be an eventual success, its roll-out will be much messier than most of Google products. Honestly, if the company keep being so oblivious the complications of introducting a technology to the real world, and so casual about its potential creepiness, they run the risk of galloping straight towards a wall over and over again.


  1. I gleaned that definition from, ahem, a Google search. ↩︎

  2. That will be especially the case if, as is almost certain, technology that is equivalent to Google Duplex is used to make scammy calls on a massive scale. ↩︎

  3. This would especially be the case in states like California since, as mentioned earlier, Google wouldn't be able to record the call. ↩︎

Revue de presse

'The Economist' becomes 'The Communist' for one day

I never thought The Economist would feature “Why Marx was right” on their front page, and yet, here we are. Its celebration of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday consists of two improbably adoring pages. He was a “brilliant writer” and a “brilliant thinker” gifted with “genius”. His excellent insights were bastardized by narrow-minded ideologues (bad Engels! bad Lenin!). And, most importantly, The Economist argues, the world we live in is the world Marx foresaw. Once more this leads the magazine to write, in just a few paragraphs, sentences I would have never expected to find there.

Globalized capitalism “seems to be out of control”, with too many CEOs that “are corporate bureaucrats rather than wealth-creators, [and] who use convenient formulae to make sure their salaries go ever upwards.” The economy is now monopolized by “new economy behemoths [that] are exercising a market dominance not seen since America’s robber barons.” Oh, and the labor market? It’s now sliding to a “gig economy (...) assembling a reserve force of atomized labourers who wait to be summoned, via electronic foremen, to deliver people’s food, clean their house or act as their chauffeurs. (...) Marx’s proletariat is being reborn as the précariat.”

Now, this is The Economist, and they still find a way, after all that unqualified praise, to slide in “Marx’s errors far outnumbers his insights.” Still, the mere suggestion that the God of Commies could have a few things to tell abour our world would have been unthinkable a few years ago. That the de facto respectable mouthpiece of Canary Wharf resoundingly agrees shows how far we traveled.

Revue de presse

In the Quarterly Journal of Economics: Protestantism is the cause of the secularization, and here is the definitive, economics-infused underprincipal:

We find that the introduction of religious competition during the Protestant Reformation had an unintended consequence: a significant reallocation of economic resources from religious uses to secular ones. We argue that to understand how economic secularization results from the rise of a religious movement, one must consider the interaction of religious and political elites in a market for religiously derived political legitimacy. Considering this market, one indeed expects that the introduction of religious competition will shift political and economic power from religious elites to secular rulers, producing the secularization we observe. (emphasis mine.)


Also in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, 928-387-0373?

We study the persuasive effects of political advertising. (...) our results indicate that total political advertising has almost no impact on aggregate turnout. By contrast, we find a positive and economically meaningful effect of advertising on candidates' vote shares.

I don't care, give me numbers!

To put the effectiveness of political advertising into perspective, we note that, leading up to the general election, Obama and McCain were estimated to have spent a combined $366 million on TV ads (...), which implies a cost per persuaded voter of about $170. Experimental evidence from get-out-the-vote studies suggest that direct mail or high-quality commercial phone banks generate an additional vote at a cost of about $100 to $200 (...). Phone banks sta ed with volunteers or door-to-door canvasing campaigns mobilize supporters at substantially lower cost – about $30 to $50 per vote – but are inherently limited in scale. Based on these back-of-the-envelope calculations, political advertising appears to be roughly as effective as other scalable modes of electioneering.