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Cognitive Scarcity and Artificial Intelligence: How Assistive AI Could Alleviate Inequality

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By Miles Brundage (FHI, Oxford University) and John Danaher (NUI Galway)

(Be sure to check out Miles’s other work on his website and over at the Future of Humanity Institute, where he is currently a research fellow. You can also follow him on Twitter @Miles_Brundage)

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cjheinz
21 hours ago
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Mexico Launches Scheme to Insure Its Coral Reef

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By Fiona Harvey, The Guardian

A stretch of coral reef off Mexico is the testing ground for a new idea that could protect fragile environments around the world: insurance.

The reef, off the coast of Cancún, is the first to be protected under an insurance scheme by which the premiums will be paid by local hotels and government, and money to pay for the repair of the reef will be released if a storm strikes.

A coral canyon in the Yutican Peninsula, Mexico.
Credit: Darrell/flickr

Coral reefs offer a valuable buffer against storm damage from waves but their condition has deteriorated in recent years, the result of human exploitation and destruction of the reefs, as well as climate change, plastic waste and the acidification of the oceans.

Under the Cancún insurance policy, pioneered by the insurance company Swiss Re and the Nature Conservancy, a U.S. environmental charity, local organisations dependent on tourism will pay in to a collective pot likely to amount to between $1 million (£770,000) and $7.5 million for the insurance premiums on the policy, and a 40 mile (60km) stretch of reef and connected beach will be monitored. If any destructive storms damage the reef system, the insurer will pay out sums likely to be $25m to $70m in any given year.

Any payouts will be used for restoration of the reef, for instance by building artificial structures that can increase the height of the reef in case of storm damage.

Corals from the reef can be removed and rested for a period of weeks or months, to help them regrow, at which point they can be safely reattached to their native habitat to regenerate the growth of the reef system.

The advantages of such restoration go far beyond the hotels that border the seafront. As well as providing a natural brake against destructive storms, coral reefs provide nurseries for fish when they are growing, and form a vital part of the marine ecosystem. Their health or decline is seen as one of the key indicators of the state of the natural environment globally.

The Cancún scheme, which is to be run by Swiss Re and the Nature Conservancy, with backing from the Mexican government, is thought to be one of the first in the world to tie environmental benefits and the “eco-system services” provided by natural environmental features to firm monetary costs and rewards. It could provide a model for similar projects in the future, linking the protection and preservation of the environment to payouts in case of disaster.

Reef diving with a parrotfish in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
Credit: Malcom Browne/flickr

Hotels and private companies are signing up to the scheme at present, and the plan is for a fund backed by the government that will cover the premiums. This is scheduled to be activated in September, with further contracts to be signed in November and December, and full coverage will then begin from next January.

“Public-private partnerships are the key,” said Mark Tercek, chief executive of the Nature Conservancy, in an interview with the Guardian. He predicted that more governments would see the advantages of such an approach when the Cancún scheme begins formal operation.

“I used to get very frustrated that not enough was happening [to protect the environment],” said Tercek. “We have to push business leaders to go further, to stick their neck out to tackle issues beyond the short term.”

Tercek said the Cancún scheme would provide an example for businesses, governments and insurance firms that would be “very scalable around the world”.

A future target for similar insurance products could be mangrove swamps, which also protect the shore against storm damage, and are equally under threat, with many destroyed to make way for housing development or farming, and others in peril from climate change.

Reprinted with permission by The Guardian

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cjheinz
21 hours ago
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#tweeted
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When castes collide

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An hour outside of Varanasi, India, the Ganjari village cricket ground is hot and dusty. Birds pick at a cow carcass beside the road, and a stand further down sells samosas. Players arrive on motorbikes, and the men cluster in teams of five around MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) surveyors, who enter details like the captain’s name and the batting order into tablets. It's a friendly Saturday cricket match — and also a development economics experiment in mediating caste interactions.

“You could think of the cricket pitch as a microcosm of caste issues in India,” says Matt Lowe, the leader of the study. This summer, Lowe traveled to India through the MIT-India program at the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) to continue his field work on the J-PAL project.  

Lowe studied economics as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge in England and joined the MIT Department of Economics in 2012. During the summer after his third year, he worked with a large Indian carpet manufacturer near Varanasi, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

“In retrospect I was quite naive. I had all these ideas, and I would pitch them every day. But a lot of them were really wacky,” Lowe says. “I was thinking of what was interesting to me intellectually, and not what would make sense for the firm.”

One aspect of his summer at the carpet factory that struck him was caste; he observed that, when offered spaces in a paid training program, women from lower castes often refused to participate because they felt that members of high castes in the neighborhood surrounding the training shed would abuse them.

A microcosm

Back at MIT, Lowe began talking with his advisors, Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics and the co-founder of J-PAL, and Daron Acemoglu, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics. They envisioned a project in the same region of India that would focus specifically on caste — and how caste interactions might be improved through a series of integrated cricket matches. 

“The cricket tournament just gives you this natural story,” Lowe says. “It gives you a very structured way to study and observe social interaction.” Plus, he says, India loves cricket.

Each five-player cricket team orders itself for batting, and chooses bowlers, who are similar to pitchers in baseball. But, every player is not guaranteed to bat or bowl in an over, which is similar to a baseball inning. Lowe would track who was chosen as captain and who was prioritized to bat and bowl. Arguments, collusion, and high fives given would also be recorded. Photos of the team taken before each match would later be coded for who stood next to whom, and body language would be observed.

Together with the Sarathi Development Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Uttar Pradesh, Lowe and his team approached pradhans, village leaders, and prominent community members to build interest in hosting paid tournaments. These areas typically hold tournaments once or twice a year, but players pay to play, and only the winning team receives a cash prize, explained Mustufa Patel, a J-PAL research consultant who heads up the field operations in Varanasi. To qualify, villages needed to have an even split between the three caste categories: General, Other Backwards Class, and Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe. Lowe asked the pradhans to draw maps of their villages to ensure that the castes lived separately.

Although caste-based discrimination was officially outlawed in India more than 60 years ago, an individual’s caste is often easily discerned by their last name, and can still affect their opportunities, access to education, profession, and social interactions. According to the India Human Development Survey of 2012, 37 percent of upper caste households in Uttar Pradesh practice untouchability, the shunning of lower castes and confining them to menial and despised jobs. Nationally, this figure is slightly lower, with roughly one out of four households confirming the practice.

After a series of baseline surveys ascertained each player's caste, mapped their social networks among members of the tournament, and assessed their cricket abilities, the players were assigned to teams of same or mixed caste. Players were then randomized to receive payment either based on the performance of their entire team, or their individual performance. With support from the J-PAL Governance Initiative, the Weiss Family Fund, the Shultz Fund, the Center for International Studies, and MIT-India, the project grew to support eight tournaments with more than 140 players each.

“Traditional studies in J-PAL used to have just two surveys. That was it — baseline and endline. In the middle, the partner implements the program,” Lowe says. “But this is much more like you are observing and surveying every single day, capturing every interaction.”

Comprehensively capturing these interactions was made possible through the twenty-odd J-PAL surveyors, the supervisors, and the field manager working on the project around Varanasi. Equipped with a tablet and a motorbike, at least two men attended every cricket match — one to score the details of the game, and the other to observe how players talked with one another, argued with other players, teams, or the umpire, and participated in moments of encouragement, like hugging or bat-tapping. Intern Yashna Shivdasani of Wellesley College's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program is classifying anecdotes from the surveyors’ notes into categories such as “comments on monetary incentive” and “caste-based insults.”

For the players, the events were ostensibly just an opportunity to play cricket — and a chance to make as much as 300 rupees, which is not an insignificant sum for players who might expect to earn 200 rupees (about $3) for a day of work. Lowe took care to focus discussion on community building and community interactions within villages when talking about the project with the surveyors.

Eight tournaments down, the surveyors have caught on. Raj Rajesh, who has recorded more than a hundred cricket matches, says when he joined, he thought the focus would be more on cricket than on caste. He has worked as a surveyor for J-PAL for three years, and comes from a caste-segregated village in the northern state of Bihar. Speaking through an interpreter, he explains that when he first started, he was skeptical about inter-caste interaction; now he is beginning to understand that it is possible. And it could be useful, he says.

The last tournament complete, Lowe is now measuring changes in players’ social networks, as well as having them vote on which teammates should attend a professional cricket coaching workshop. Through MIT-India, Lowe is in Varanasi again this summer to complete the final stage of the study, in which players receive a gift of slippers or gloves. But there's a catch: Players are given two right-footed slippers or right-handed gloves or two left-footed slippers or left-handed gloves and must exchange with one another to make a useful pair. Lowe will be able to track who has traded with whom.

If the effects of the competitions are long term, a cricket-based intervention could be worth scaling up across Uttar Pradesh, Lowe says. Many people have the ability to score matches, and the effort would be relatively low in cost compared to other interventions, even with players continuing to receive monetary incentives. Eventually, entire villages could be randomized, and the effects of mediating caste interactions through cricket could be studied even on people who do not play in the matches, such as women.

“Cricket is something that 50 percent of these guys play every single day. They play it every day, but they still only have one lower caste friend,” Lowe says. “Though they don’t currently play together, as soon as they are asked, they play together willingly. That alone tells you it’s worth trying.”



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cjheinz
4 days ago
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India is so hamstrung by the caste system. This is encouraging.
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In These Cities, Solar Isn’t a Luxury, It’s a Mandate

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South Miami this week became the first city outside of California to require all new homes to install solar panels on their roofs. Six cities in the Golden State began requiring solar to be installed on new homes over the past few years. But in Florida, where voters killed proposed solar restrictions last year, South Miami is now a pioneer.

This week, the South Miami City Commission in a 4-1 vote approved a law requiring solar panels to be installed on all new homes built in the city.

Solar panels line the exterior wall of an apartment building in Santa Monica, Calif.
Credit: LimelightPower/flickr

Mayor Philip Stoddard says the city is trying to cut its carbon footprint because the region will be deeply affected by climate change, especially as sea levels rise.

“We’re down in South Florida where climate change and sea level rise are existential threats, so we’re looking for every opportunity to promote renewable energy,” Stoddard said. “It’s carbon reduction, plain and simple. We have a pledge for carbon neutrality. We support the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Stoddard said he expects only a few new homes and other buildings to be built in South Miami this year because the city of about 11,000 is surrounded on all sides by dense urban development and has very little space for new construction. But the requirement for new homes compliments the city’s push for existing homeowners to put solar on their roofs.

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The new law won’t put solar panels on all the region’s homes and it won’t significantly cut climate pollution, but it is the first concrete step by a city outside of California to require renewable energy to be considered as part of the design of any new home.

It also sets an example for other cities that may be considering doing the same thing.  

Action to expand renewables on the local level is critical at a time when the federal government has stepped back from advocating for renewable energy, said Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware.

Rooftop solar helps wean America’s electric power system off coal and natural gas power plants that pollute the atmosphere with large amounts of carbon dioxide. President Obama made support for rooftop solar a part of his Climate Action Plan, which the Trump administration has abandoned.

“These mandates will have an effect locally,” Firestone said. “As to the larger effect, they would hopefully move states to increase the fraction of (electricity) generation that has to be dedicated toward renewable energy.”

A solar panel is insallted on a San Francisco rooftop.
Credit: Brian Kusler/flickr

Solar installation mandates would also help accelerate the acceptance of rooftop solar across the country, said K Kaufmann, spokeswoman for the Smart Electric Power Alliance, a nonpartisan renewable energy education organization in Washington, D.C.

As solar panel costs have fallen in recent years, a growing number of homes have installed them, often with the assistance of companies such as SolarCity, which helps to finance and install photovoltaic panels.

Rooftop solar makes up only a tiny fraction — less than 1 percent — of all the electricity generated in the U.S.. The amount of electricity generated by solar panels installed on homes and businesses across the country is expected to grow by 70 percent by the end of next year.

So far, the largest city in the country to mandate rooftop solar panels is San Francisco, which began requiring them on most new buildings beginning in January. The city mandates that solar panels, a “living roof,” or a combination of the two occupy between 15 and 30 percent of the surface area of a new rooftop. A “living roof” is covered with grass, trees or other vegetation.

Other California cities that have mandated solar panel installations include Culver City, San Mateo, Lancaster, Sebastopol and Santa Monica.

In Florida, the rooftop solar mandate didn’t come easily for South Miami.

Florida utilities and other groups launched a ballot initiative last year in an attempt to limit the expansion of rooftop solar. The proposed amendment to the state constitutional would have allowed utilities to charge fees to solar panel owners as a way to make up for the loss of revenue when homeowners generate their own electricity, according to Politifact.

A rooftop solar installation.
NREL/flickr

The state’s largest utilities spent more than $20 million to support the ballot initiative, but the measure failed at the polls in November. South Miami’s electric utility, Florida Power and Light, which supported the ballot measure, did not respond to a request for comment.

In June, the South Miami solar mandate was opposed by the Washington, D.C. lobbying group Family Businesses for Affordable Energy, which says on its website that homeowners expose themselves to “predatory companies” that hide various costs associated with solar installations. The group did not respond to requests for comment.

“Despite all our sunshine, public utilities have spent tens of millions of dollars to fight solar,” Stoddard said. The measure’s defeat helped clear the way for the city to push solar panel installations for both new and existing homes.

“I expect to see a lot more residents voluntarily putting solar on houses,” he said.

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cjheinz
5 days ago
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Rudy Rucker on Walkaway

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Walkaway is my first novel for adults since 2009 and I had extremely high hopes (and not a little anxiety) for it as it entered the world, back in April. Since then, I’ve been gratified by the kind words of many of my literary heroes, from William Gibson to Bruce Sterling to the kind cover quotes from Edward Snowden, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson.


Today I got a most welcome treat on those lines: a review by Rudy Rucker, lavishly illustrated with some of his excellent photos. Rucker really got the novel, got excited about the parts that excited me, and you can’t really ask for better than that.

“I’m groundhog daying again, aren’t I?”

Who’s saying this? It’s the character Dis. Her body is dead, but before she died, they managed (thanks to Dis’s work) to copy or transfer the brain processes into the cloud, that is, into a network of computers. And she can run as a sim in there. And she’s having trouble getting her sim to stabilize. It keeps freaking out and crashing. And each time she restarts the character Iceweasel sits there talking to the computer sim, trying to mellow it out, and Dis will realize she’s been rebooted, or restarted like Bill Murray in that towering cinematic SF masterpiece Groundhog Day. And Cory has the antic wit to make that verb.

The first half of the book is kind of a standard good young people against evil corporate rich people thing. But then, when Dis is talking about groundhog dayhing, it kicks into another gear. Cory pulls out a different stop on the mighty SF Wurlitzer organ: the software immortality trope. As I’m fond of saying, in my 1980 novel Software, I became one of the very first authors to write about the by-now-familiar notion of the mind as software. That is, your mind is in some sense like software running on your physical body. If we could create a sufficiently rich and flexible computer, the computer might be able to emulate a person.

There’s been a zillion movies, TV shows, SF stories and novels using this idea since then. What I liked so much about Walkaway is that Cory finds a way to make this (still fairly fantastic and unlikely) idea seem real and new.

Cory Doctorow’s WALKAWAY [Rudy Rucker]

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cjheinz
5 days ago
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Is Productivity Growth Becoming Irrelevant?

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Some economists see low business investment, poor skills, outdated infrastructure, or excessive regulation holding back potential growth nowadays. But there may be a deeper explanation: As we get richer, measured productivity may inevitably slow, and measured per capita GDP may tell us ever less about trends in human welfare.



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cjheinz
7 days ago
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#postscarcityutopia
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