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Why you can’t overlook the small details in the pursuit of innovation

This week, we read a very short story, The Great Silence, as we start to head toward the end of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. This story asks questions about how we connect with nature, and also how to think about innovation and where new ideas come from.

We will finish the remaining two stories in the collection in the coming week, and then it will be time (sadly!) to change books. I’ll announce the next book in the book club hopefully shortly.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at bookclub@techcrunch.com (we got a real email address!) or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter (hashtag TCBookClub)
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading The Great Silence

This is a quite short story with a simple message. The narrator is a parrot discussing humanity’s quest to seek out artificial life elsewhere in the universe. The parrot, observing these actions, reflects on why humanity spends so much time looking for intelligence elsewhere, when it itself is intelligent, and located right next to us. The devastating line Chiang delivers comes toward the end:

But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species ever will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alien intelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred light-years away?

The author offers us some obvious points to think about around environmental destruction and species extinction, and those are obvious enough that I think any reader can sort of surmise how the story connects to those issues.

So I want to instead connect this discussion to a theme dear to the heart of TechCrunch readers, and that is the quest for science and innovation.

To me, Chiang isn’t just criticizing our disdain for the animal species around us, but is also critiquing an innovation community that constantly strives for the big and “shiny” discoveries when so many smaller and local discoveries have yet to be made.

We invest billions of dollars into satellites and telescopes and radar arrays hoping to capture some fleeting glimpse into an alien world somewhere in the galaxy. And yet, there are deeply alien worlds all around us. It’s not just parrots — Earth is filled with species that are incredibly different from us in physiology, behavior, and group dynamics. What if the species most alien to our own in the whole galaxy is located right under our noses?

Of course, there would be huge headlines in finding even a single-celled organism on another planet (assuming there was even some way to detect such life in the first place). But that is precisely the type of narrow-minded, novelty-seeking behavior that Chiang is pointing out here.

Nonetheless, innovation can be a weird beast. It isn’t hard to look around the Valley these days and be dismayed at just how adrift a huge part of the industry is. We are creating more “smart” products than ever, yet huge social challenges and scientific frontiers remain completely unfunded. It’s easier to raise funding to start up an upgraded handbag company with a new brand and marketing strategy than it is to build an engineering team to push quantum computing forward.

There are certainly many valid arguments for moving our money to more “worthwhile” pursuits. Yet, fresh ideas that change industries can sometimes come from the oddest places, with even frivolous products occasionally creating fundamental advances in technology. Facebook as a social network might be a time sink for its users, but its huge scale also triggered all kinds of new data center infrastructure technologies that have been widely adopted by the rest of the tech industry. Solving a frivolous problem became the means to solving a problem of more depth.

In the end, you need to seek answers. Don’t overlook the obvious around us or get inured to the quotidian challenges that may just be the fount of innovation. Maybe figuring out the communication of parrots does nothing for us. Or maybe, exploring that area will open up whole new ideas for how to communicate and understand the neural patterns of speech. We can’t know until we tread along the path.

Now, to take one aside before we close out: Exhalation is a collection of previously-published short stories, but Chiang manages to work in his arch-symbol of breath and air into this piece in a fairly tight way:

It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the act of breathing.

When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.

It’s a symbol we saw most substantively in Exhalation (the short story itself, not this whole collection) which we talked about a few posts ago. It’s a gorgeous little motif, and Chiang nicely embeds it to create an empathetic connection between humans and animals.

Some question about Omphalos

For the next and penultimate short story Omphalos, here are some questions to think about as you read the story.

  • What is the meaning of belief? How does belief influence both our views on our place in the world and our approaches to science and the scientific method?
  • Does existence and existentialism flow from external symbols or internal rationales?
  • How do religion and science mix? How did Chiang frame this narrative to make this question easier to contend with?
  • The story focuses on the dynamics of archaeology and astronomy — why these two disciplines and not some other field of science?
  • What’s the ultimate message of the story? Or is there more than one that can be read into the text?

Can we debate free will versus destiny in four pages?

The informal TechCrunch book club (which is now a whole week off schedule thanks to the news cycle — let’s see if we can catch up here shortly!) is now venturing into the very, very short story What’s Expected of Us, the third piece in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. If you’re one of those people that fall behind in book clubs, don’t fret: you’ve had two weeks to read four pages. You can probably read the short story before finishing this post.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous editions of this book club which explores the first two (larger) short stories in the collection, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a beautiful story exploring predestination and fate, and Exhalation, a vital yet subtle story about climate change, the connections between people and society, and so, so much more.

Next, we will read the lengthier story The Lifecycle of Software Objects — some reading questions are posted at the bottom of this article.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

What’s Expected of Us

We are only three stories into Exhalation, but already there are threads that are starting to connect these disparate stories, none more important than the meaning of fate in lives increasingly filled with technological determinism.

Chiang loves to presuppose these novel technologies that prove that our fates are fixed. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, he imagines these teleporting gates that allows users to move forward and backwards in time, while in this story, it is the Predictor that sends a light signal back in time by one second after the button is clicked, forcing the device’s user to confront the fact that the future is already predetermined when the light burns bright.

While these two stories have certain symmetries, what’s interesting to me is how different their conclusions are from each other. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Chiang notes that while our destinies may be fixed, and even if we had a time machine, we couldn’t change the past to affect our futures, he essentially argues that the journey itself is often its own reward. The past may indeed be immutable, but our understanding of the past is in fact quite malleable, and learning the context of our previous actions and those of others is in many ways the whole point of existence.

In What’s Expected of Us though, the Predictor creates a dystopic world where lethargy among people runs supreme. Here’s a simple device that transmits a basic signal across a short period of time, but provides overwhelming evidence that free will is essentially a myth. For many, that’s enough for at least some people to become catatonic and just stop eating entirely.

Our occasional fiction review contributor on Extra Crunch Eliot Peper wrote in with his favorite passage and a thought, which gets at one of Chiang’s solutions:

“Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”

As science reveals a clockwork determinism behind reality’s veil, it becomes ever more important for us to believe the opposite in order to build a better future. A belief in free will is enfranchising. It is the spark of hope that inspires us to push back against the invisible systems that shape our lives — creating a chance for change.

Peper gets at the core message of this story, but frankly, self-deception isn’t easy (as any less-than-perfectly-confident startup founder who has attempted to persuade investors about their product can tell you). It’s one thing to say “pretend it all doesn’t matter,” but of course it does matter, and you intrinsically acknowledge and comprehend the deception. It’s like that self-help dreck about setting artificial deadlines to get stuff done — yet their very artificiality is precisely why they are ineffective. As Chiang writes about the Predictor, “The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means; over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in.” Fate locks into our very souls.

Chiang notes though that people respond differently to this realization. Some become catatonic, but it is implied in the story that others find a different path. Of course, those paths are all laid out before the Predictor even arrived — no one can choose their destiny, even about how they will confront the knowledge of fate and destiny itself.

Yet, even without that choice, we must move on. Structurally, the story (similar again to The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate) is told retrospectively, with a future agent sending a note back in time warning about the consequences of the Predictor. Rhetorically asking whether anything would change by this note, the future agent says no, but then says that “Why did I do it? Because I had no choice.”

In other words, maybe everything is indeed predetermined. Maybe everything in our lives can’t be changed. And yet, we are still going to move forward in time, and we are still going to take the actions we are predetermined to make. Maybe that requires self-deception to muddle through it. Or maybe, we just need to vigorously commit to the actions in front of us — regardless of whether we had the ability to choose them in the first place.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

The next short story in the collection is a bit more sprawling, touching on a huge numbers of topics around virtual worlds, the entities we raise in them, and what that means for us as humans. Here are some questions to think about as you read the story:

  • What’s it mean to love something? We understand love in the context of (human) children, but can you love an AI? Can you love an inanimate object like a statue? Is there a line when our ability to love stops?
  • What makes an entity sentient? Does it take experience delivered from others, or can sentience be constructed out of thin air?
  • Chiang sometimes fast-forwards time in a variety of different circumstances: hothouses to accelerate AI learning, and for the human characters themselves in the plot. What is the meaning of time in the context of the story? How do the concepts of time and experience interact?
  • The author touches on but doesn’t deeply explore the legal questions around “human rights” in the context of sentient AI beings. How should we think about what rights these entities have? Which characters’ views best represented your own?
  • How can we define concepts like consciousness, sentience, and independence? What elements of the story seem to indicate where Chiang defines the boundaries between those definitions?
  • One of the central under-tones of the plot is the challenge of money and the profitability of AI. Should AI be judged in terms of the utility it provides humans, or the ability of AI to create their own worlds and cultures? How do we think about “success” (very broadly conceived) in the context of what these computer programs can do?
  • How will human empathy change in the coming years as we surpass the uncanny valley and more and more technologies connect with our emotional heartstrings? Is this ultimately an evolution for humanity or just another challenge to overcome in the years ahead?

Can America ever rebuild its neighborhoods and communities?

We talk a lot about startup ecosystems around these parts, and for good reason. Strong ecosystems have great reservoirs of talent congregated close together, a culture built around helping one another on ambitious projects, and sufficient risk capital to ensure that interesting projects have the resources to get underway.

Strip off the ecosystem layer though, and you are left with the actual, physical manifestation of a city or region — its housing, its transportation and mobility options, and its infrastructure. And if Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity is any indication, a whole heck of a swath of America has little hope of ever tapping into the modern knowledge economy or creating the kind of sustainable growth that builds “Strong Towns.”

Across the country, Marohn sees evidence of what he dubs a “Municipal Ponzi scheme.” Cities — armed with economic development dollars and consultants galore — focus their energies and budgets on new housing subdivisions as well as far-flung, auto-dependent office parks and strip malls, all the while ignoring the long-term debt, maintenance costs, and municipal burdens they are transferring to future generations of residents. “The growth creates an illusion of wealth, a broad, cultural misperception that the growing community is become [sic] stronger and more prosperous. Instead, with each new development, they become increasingly more insolvent,” the author writes.

He provides a multitude of examples, but few are as striking as that of Lafayette, Louisiana:

As one example, the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, had 5 feet of pipe per person in 1949. By 2015, that had grown to 50 feet, an increase of 1,000%. They had 2.4 fire hydrants per 1,000 people in 1949, but by 2015, they had 51.3. This is a 2,140% increase. Over the same period, median household income in Lafayette grew just 160% from an inflation-adjusted $27,700 to $45,000. And if national trends hold locally in Lafayette, which they almost certainly do, household savings decreased while personal debt skyrocketed. Lafayette grew its liabilities thousands of times over in service of a theory of national growth, yet its families are poorer.

The author contextualizes just how weird the modern American suburb and community is in the grand sweep of human history, where co-location, walkability, and human-scale density weren’t just norms, but necessities. The lack of thoughtful, dynamic planning that allows cities to adapt and evolve over time eventually comes to tear at the vitality of the town itself. “Only the richest country in the world could build so much and make such poor use of it.”

Marohn has spent decades in urban planning and also runs Strong Towns, a non-profit advocacy organization that tries to create more sustainable cities by attempting to guide the urban planning conversation toward better models of adaptable growth. He brings an authority to the topic that is heartening, and the book is absolutely on the right vector on how to start to think about urban planning going forward.

In addition to his discussions around municipal finance, he makes the critical connections between urban planning and some of the most pressing challenges facing America today. He notes how the disintegration of tight-knit communities has exacerbated issues like drug abuse and mental health, and how the focus on big-box retail development has undermined smaller-scale entrepreneurship.

Even more heartening in some ways is that the solutions are seemingly so easy. For example, one is to simply account for the true, long-term costs of infrastructure and economic development dollars, properly accounting for “value per acre.”

Yet, the flaws in the book are manifold, and I couldn’t help but shake my head on numerous occasions at the extent to which movements to improve urban planning always seem to shudder on the weight of reality.

Nowhere are those flaws more glaring than over the actual preferences of the residents of these cities themselves. As anyone who lives in San Francisco or Palo Alto understands, there is a serious contingent of NIMBYs who consistently vote against housing and density regardless of its effects on inequality or urban quality. Kim-Mai Cutler wrote one of the definitive pieces on this topic five years ago right here at TechCrunch, and yet, all these years later, the same dynamics still animates local politics in California and across the world.

The prescriptions offered in Strong Towns are not only correct, they are almost incontestable. “Instead of prioritizing maintenance based on condition or age, cities must prioritize based on financial productivity,” Marohn writes. Public dollars should be spent on the highest-impact maintenance projects. Who is really against that?

But, people are, as evidenced by city council meetings all across the United States and the simple ground truth that cities don’t spend their dollars wisely. Whether your issue is housing, or climate change, or economic development, or inequality, the reality is that residents vote, and their voices are heard. That leads to Marohn writing:

As a voter, as a property owner within a municipal corporation, as a person living cooperatively with my neighbors in a community, I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city. My local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options, particularly at the price points people expect.

Yet, what should one do if 70-80% of a city’s voters literally want to jump off the proverbial cliff?

Ultimately, should cities be responsive to their own voters? If San Francisco refuses to build more transit-oriented development and in the process exacerbates the climate change literally setting the Bay Area on fire, shouldn’t the damn voters burn straight to the ground?

Peak California liberalism is painting a mural honoring a 16 year-old climate activist within a year of her rise to prominence while spending the last 20 years refusing to build the dense multifamily housing we need to actually reduce our impact on the environment. https://t.co/9w56sbtNRy

— Strang Gang (@ryxcommar) November 9, 2019

Marohn, who talks over several pages of his political evolution from Republican to complex libertarian communalist, never faithfully addresses this core problem with the Strong Towns thesis, or indeed, the entire activism around urban politics today. “American culture spends a lot of time debating what should be done, but hardly any time discussing who should make the decision,” he writes. But we do — we did — discuss who makes the decisions, and our political systems actively respond to those decision-makers: local voters.

American towns are in a perilous state – and that is precisely what people demanded and received. Marohn criticizes the planning profession for its lack of municipal sustainability, but seemingly is willing to substitute one group of far-flung experts with another to override the locals, presumably just with a different (better?) set of values.

In the final analysis, Strong Towns the book gets the fundamentals right. But will it change minds? I’m doubtful. It certainly doesn’t offer a clear guidebook on how local leaders can start to educate their neighbors and build the kinds of voter blocs required to get local, democratic change on these issues. Ultimately, the book feels like a smaller footnote to the worthy work of Strong Towns the organization, which ultimately will drive the activity needed to build change on these issues.

In Army of None, a field guide to the coming world of autonomous warfare

The Silicon Valley-military industrial complex is increasingly in the crosshairs of artificial intelligence engineers. A few weeks ago, Google was reported to be backing out of a Pentagon contract around Project Maven, which would use image recognition to automatically evaluate photos. Earlier this year, AI researchers around the world joined petitions calling for a boycott of any research that could be used in autonomous warfare.

For Paul Scharre, though, such petitions barely touch the deep complexity, nuance, and ambiguity that will make evaluating autonomous weapons a major concern for defense planners this century. In Army of None, Scharre argues that the challenges around just the definitions of these machines will take enormous effort to work out between nations, let alone handling their effects. It’s a sobering, thoughtful, if at times protracted look at this critical topic.

Scharre should know. A former Army Ranger, he joined the Pentagon working in the Office of Secretary of Defense, where he developed some of the Defense Department’s first policies around autonomy. Leaving in 2013, he joined the DC-based think tank Center for a New American Security, where he directs a center on technology and national security. In short, he has spent about a decade on this emerging tech, and his expertise clearly shows throughout the book.

The first challenge that belies these petitions on autonomous weapons is that these systems already exist, and are already deployed in the field. Technologies like the Aegis Combat System, High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the Harpy already include sophisticated autonomous features. As Scharre writes, “The human launching the Harpy decides to destroy any enemy radars within a general area in space and time, but the Harpy itself chooses the specific radar it destroys.” The weapon can loiter for 2.5 hours while it determines a target with its sensors — is it autonomous?

Scharre repeatedly uses the military’s OODA loop (for observe, orient, decide, and act) as a framework to determine the level of autonomy for a given machine. Humans can be “in the loop,” where they determine the actions of the machine, “on the loop” where they have control but the machine is mostly working independently, and “out of the loop” when machines are entirely independent of human decision-making.

The framework helps clear some of the confusion between different systems, but it is not sufficient. When machines fight machines, for instance, the speed of the battle can become so great that humans may well do more harm then good intervening. Millions of cycles of the OODA loop could be processed by a drone before a human even registers what is happening on the battlefield. A human out of the loop, therefore, could well lead to safer outcomes. It’s exactly these kinds of paradoxes that make the subject so difficult to analyze.

In addition to paradoxes, constraints are a huge theme in the book as well. Speed is one — and the price of military equipment is another. Dumb missiles are cheap, and adding automation has consistently added to the price of hardware. As Scharre notes, “Modern missiles can cost upwards of a million dollars apiece. As a practical matter, militaries will want to know that there is, in fact, a valid enemy target in the area before using an expensive weapon.”

Another constraint is simply culture. The author writes, “There is intense cultural resistance within the U.S. military to handing over jobs to uninhabited systems.” Not unlike automation in the civilian workforce, people in power want to place flesh-and-blood humans in the most complex assignments. These constraints matter, because Scharre foresees a classic arms race around these weapons as dozens of countries pursue these machines.

Humans “in the loop” may be the default today, but for how long?

At a higher level, about a third of the book is devoted to the history of automation, (generalized) AI, and the potential for autonomy, topics which should be familiar to any regular reader of TechCrunch. Another third of the book or so is a meditation on the challenges of the technology from a dual use and strategic perspective, as well as the dubious path toward an international ban.

Yet, what I found most valuable in the book was the chapter on ethics, lodged fairly late in the book’s narrative. Scharre does a superb job covering the ground of the various schools of thought around the ethics of autonomous warfare, and how they intersect and compete. He extensively analyzes and quotes Ron Arkin, a roboticist who has spent significant time thinking about autonomy in warfare. Arkin tells Scharre that “We put way too much faith in human warfighters,” and argues that autonomous weapons could theoretically be programmed never to commit a war crime unlike humans. Other activists, like Jody Williams, believe that only a comprehensive ban can ensure that such weapons are never developed in the first place.

Scharre regrets that more of these conversations don’t take into account the strategic positions of the military. He notes that international discussions on bans are led by NGOs and not by nation states, whereas all examples of successful bans have been the other way around.

Another challenge is simply that antiwar activism and anti-autonomous weapons activism are increasingly being conflated. Scharre writes, “One of the challenges in weighing the ethics of autonomous weapons is untangling which criticisms are about autonomous weapons and which are really about war.” Citing Sherman, who marched through the U.S. South in the Civil War in an aggressive pillage, the author reminds the reader that “war is hell,” and that militaries don’t choose weapons in a vacuum, but relatively against other tools in their and their competitors’ arsenals.

The book is a compendium of the various issues around autonomous weapons, although it suffers a bit from the classic problem of being too lengthy on some subjects (drone swarms) while offering limited information on others (arms control negotiations). The book also is marred at times by errors, such as “news rules of engagement” that otherwise detract from a direct and active text. Tighter editing would have helped in both cases. Given the inchoate nature of the subject, the book works as an overview, although it fails to present an opinionated narrative on where autonomy and the military should go in the future, an unsatisfying gap given the author’s extensive and unique background on the subject.

All that said, Army of None is a one-stop guide book to the debates, the challenges, and yes, the opportunities that can come from autonomous warfare. Scharre ends on exactly the right note, reminding us that ultimately, all of these machines are owned by us, and what we choose to build is within our control. “The world we are creating is one that will have intelligent machines in it, but it is not for them. It is a world for us.” We should continue to engage, and petition, and debate, but always with a vision for the future we want to realize.

The 'Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillian' series

“Your first doomsday machine is a malevolent, inscrutable wristwatch.”


The Please Don’t Tell My Parents series, by Richard Roberts, is a wonderful young adult series of novels about Penelope Akk and her two friends Claire and Ray. They are normal middle school kids just hoping their superpowers will kick in soon. (more…)

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