A Tech-Econ Mashup with a Libertarian Flavor

Spotify vs. Pandora, and the Indecisive Listener

Tech geeks across the web have been wetting their collective pants in anticipation over the American release of Spotify. This up-and-coming free music-streaming service that blends the best of iTunes, iMeem, Grooveshark,, Pandora, and all the other popular music services. I however, remain unconvinced.

I’m stuck on Pandora because I dislike having to mess around with playlists. I like typing in a name and just letting the machine do its thing. Granted, sometimes Pandora gives me very odd choices (like Hanson on a station seeded with the Rolling Stones and STP, what??), but usually I just enjoy the passive listening experience. If I don’t like a song, I hit “next,” and let the algorithm decide for me.

I guess my inclination towards Pandora says more about me than it does about music streaming apps. It’s just that…  playlists require a level of decisiveness that I just don’t have when it comes to the little things in life. I use the “shuffle” and “random” settings on every music player I’ve ever had. I’m a go-where-life-takes-you kind of person, I suppose.


Filed under: Computers and Software, Uncategorized, , , ,

FTC Investigates Apple and Google Boards for Possible Antitrust Violations

The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation Monday into the ties between the boards of Google and Apple. Eric Schmidt and Arthur Levinson each sit on the boards for both companies, although according to antitrust law, a person may not sit on the board of two companies if it decreases competition between them.

As if it needs to be said, Apple and Google aren’t really competitors, not in any meaningful sense, anyway. Google is an information services company that specializes in internet search, advertising, information organization, and not being evil. Apple is primarily a hardware company that manufactures PCs (called “Macs,” though technically they’re still personal computers), mp3 players, cell phones, and “edgy” urban hipsters. In effect, Google is the top company for geeks with mathematics PhDs, Apple the haven for geek-wannabes with horn-rimmed glasses.

If the two company’s compete anywhere, it’s in the wireless marketplace, albeit indirectly. Google’s entry into the smart phone market (through its open-source Android operating system) has no doubt spurred this investigation. Android runs on T-mobile “smart” handsets, which compete with the AT&T iPhone (both of which compete with Blackberry, HTC, Palm, etc). Here’s the rub: Apple itself only has about a 1% share of the cell phone market, and about 6% of the smartphone market, while the Android phone is about 4% (smartphones make up about 12% of the entire cell phone market).  Google also has a deal pending with HP that would put the Google OS on a new line of HP netbooks, which would bring Apple and Google closer to being true competitors, but rumors aside, Apple appears to have no intent to enter the netbook market.

While I don’t object to the FTC’s goal to promote a competitive marketplace, this investigation is unecessary. The tech market has historically been the least regulated, most competitive, and fastest advancing sector of the economy, while tech prices have come down year after year after year. Let’s chill out and leave it alone.

Filed under: Computers and Software, Tech Biz, , , , ,

Revisiting the Turing Test

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Earlier this week, at Will‘s suggestion, I watched an episode of the tv show “NUMB3RS” that involved artificial intelligence and the Turing Test.

A quick (spoiler-heavy) summary: when an AI engineer is found dead in a secure room, the resident supercomputer is the main suspect. After interrogating the computer’s AI (named “Bailey”), Charlie & Co. conclude that it passes the Turing Test and is, in fact, sentient, leading the FBI to believe that Bailey is the murderer. After a few commercial breaks, the math squad discovers that Bailey isn’t a programmed intelligence after all – “she’s” just a complex, souped up expert system that models human conversation. The machine appeared intelligent on the surface because of the rapid speed at which it could search for appropriate responses to the user’s queries. The programmer’s death is attributed to a hacker attack (or his jealous and tech-savvy wife, I can’t remember), and Bailey is deemed a failure and deactivated.

In the show, Bailey is compared to Deep Blue, the supercomputer that defeated chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue didn’t have any measureable intelligence; rather, it employed brute force computing, calculating millions of sequences of possible chess moves before determining the best move (the math is complex, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll say that it chose the move with the highest probability of leading to a win). Deep Blue’s knowledge of chess strategy went only as far as what its programmers “taught” it. The reason it defeated Kasparov had little to do with “what” it knew, or “how” it thought, but the speed at which it could analyze moves (200 million per second), something no human is capable of doing.

So, where does that leave the Turing Test? If a sufficiently complex computer could fool us, how can we really know if a machine is intelligent or not?

To answer that question, I’d ask: How can we know if we’re intelligent or not? Free will is a shaky assertion once science is applied to philosophy. All of our decisions are the results of chemical reactions in our brains that we have little, if any, control over. Sure, we can choose to take a mind-altering chemical to change our brain’s functioning, but that choice isn’t really our own, either; our preferences or morals involving drug use are either part of our social programming or our inherent tastes. By no means am I an expert in cognitive science, but I think we are slaves to our biochemistry, psychology, and external social conditioning much more than we think. My gut also tells me that there are anomolies, too: purely unprecedented thoughts that don’t follow the chemical reaction chain (similar to random genetic mutations in evolutionary biology), although I’d bet these are rare and more often that not inconsequential.

None of that is to say that a murderer isn’t guilty because he ultimately had no choice or control over his actions  – society couldn’t function if we let that kind of logic rule us. I’m just suggesting that we’re not as free as we’d like to think. However, I don’t think that fact really matters in a funtional, “macroscopic,” day-to-day context. Most of us in the developed world live long enough to reproduce, provide for our families, and live well past our reproductive years. Our species has survived and evolved for millions of years, which means we must be doing things correctly – yet how many people do you know who spend considerable effort determining if they’re really intelligent or just on auto-pilot? (Aside: I dare say that a person who devotes his or her career to this kind of research is probably unfit to produce many offspring… to my knowledge, those at the extreme tail ends of the bell curve don’t tend to do well in evolutionary terms. My intuition tells me to compare the number of computer scientists or mathematicians with litters of small children, vs the number of Walmart cashiers with trailers full of kids. On a related note, I am totally screwed if I keep this geek stuff up.)

Getting back to the original questions, now: we assume we’re intelligent because we’re self-aware, and we take it on faith that everyone else is self-aware and intelligent to basically the same degree as us. Whether or not we actually are that self-aware is irrelevant for the most part. So, if a computer is able to deceive us into accepting its sentience, I don’t think it matters much. If such a machine is capable of choosing to commit a crime, or if it’s simply programmed to kill, we’d consider it a menace to society and deal with it with accordingly.

And then the war between robots and humanity shall begin… 😉

Further Reading:

Society of Mind (Marvin Minsky, MIT)

The Age of Spiritual Machines (Ray Kurzweil)

Filed under: Computers and Software, Science & Technology, , , , , ,

Funniest Headline I Saw Today

Sorry for the micro post, but this is too funny not to pass on:

Mass Failure of 30GB Zunes Shows that at Least a Few People Actually Own Zunes.

Filed under: Computers and Software, Humor, ,

Update on DHS Laptop Search Policy

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) released a press release today outlining new legislation to rein in the DHS and its invasive border search procedures:

“The chief responsibility of the United States Government is to protect its citizens, and while doing so it is critical that we do not overshadow the obligation to protect the privacy and rights of Americans. This legislation will provide clear and commonsense legal avenues for the Department of Homeland Security to pursue those who commit crime and wish to do our country harm without infringing on the rights of American citizens. Importantly, it will provide travelers a level of privacy for their computers, digital cameras, cellular telephones and other electronic devices consistent with the Constitution and our nation’s values of liberty,” said [co-sponsor Rep. Adam] Smith [D-WA].

The Travelers Privacy Protection Act requires Department of Homeland Security agents to have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before searching the contents of laptops or other electronic devices carried by U.S. citizens or lawful residents, and it prohibits profiling travelers based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. The bill also specifies that after 24 hours, a search becomes a seizure, which requires probable cause and a warrant or court order. Information acquired during an electronic border search is protected through strict limitations on disclosure, with narrow exceptions for sharing information about possible criminal violations or foreign intelligence information. Finally, the bill contains provisions ensuring that DHS provides information on its border search policies and practices to Congress and the public.

Surprisingly lucid, no? While I don’t particularly like Feingold’s previous disregard for the constitution (the pro-campaign finance reform speech I made in 11th grade notwithstanding… ), the Travelers Privacy Protection Act is a big step in the right direction towards protecting Americans’ privacy.

Still… 24 hours is long enough for the DHS to steal my copyrighted music and movie files. Would being stopped, searched, and seized at the US/Mexican border fall under “fair use,” I wonder? 😉

H/T: Slashdot

Filed under: Computers and Software, Politics, , , ,

DHS Can Steal Your Data Without Suspicion

A Washington Post article today details the Dept. of Homeland Security’s border search policies, which include the authority to take any traveler’s (US citizens included) laptop computer for any length of time, without any suspicion of wrongdoing. Furthermore:

…officials may share copies of the laptop’s contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This incredibly intrusive and privacy-decimating rule applies to any device capable of storing digital documentation (ipods, flash drives, cell phones, etc), as well as any paper documents in the traveler’s possession.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff asserted in last month’s USA Today that, although only a small percentage of travelers’ computers are actually searched, this rule was necessary because “the most dangerous contraband is often contained in laptop computers or other electronic devices, not on paper,” namely, jihadist materials and child pornography. Maybe Mr. Chertoff should schedule a meeting with Sen. Ted “series-of-tubes” Stevens, if he wants to learn a thing or two about how electronic documents are usually distributed. /sarcasm.

I wonder if the feds have the legal authority to copy and share copyrighted mp3s and movies?

via Slashdot

Filed under: Computers and Software, , , , ,

Sen. Stevens Noes Teh Internets.

Well, you’ve probably heard all about Sen. Ted “The Internet is a Series of Tubes” Stevens’ recent fall from grace.

Speaking of his ridiculous “internets speech”, I’m curious if the net neutrality folks (those who have a clue on how the net works) have ever heard of a concept like “consumers pressuring service providers to increase bandwidth capacity.” What a novel idea.

Filed under: Computers and Software, Uncategorized, ,

Mozilla’s CEO on Firefox

Wired fed out an interview with Mozilla CEO John Lilly today, where he explains Firefox’s success as an open-source program developed by a non-profit company.

Wired: That’s nice, but it’s not exactly a long-term strategic plan. Do you worry about competition from Apple now that it has enabled Safari on Windows?

Lilly: I used to work at Apple. I have an iPhone. But there are other ways of developing software. Instead of relying on individual brilliance, we rely on enabling a network around the world, like Wikipedia does. That’s a different aesthetic.

Decentralized knowledge > monolithic Microsoft, ftw.

Filed under: Computers and Software,


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