Build your own AI

... and play Go with it.

...AI is actually in the process of leaving the lab. Google open sourced its AI framework called tensorflow on November 2015. The ecosystem around tensorflow has since grown to the point where easy, step-by-step tutorial on installing and running your own AI model are now available (see, for example, here).
These tutorials are not exactly for everybody. A minimum knowledge of Python and the basic principles of machine learning are required (which, by the way, can also be easily acquired by reading few tutorials or following an online class). Still, it is a huge step in democratizing access to AI.
What will bright entrepreneurs do with it? We already saw few virtual assistants/schedulers. But how about a “candy crush” crushing algorithm? A challenger for “alpha-go”? Or, finally, a towel-folding robot? 


"You can train your body into thinking it’s had medicine"

One of the most interesting articles I read recently: all you wanted to know about the placebo effect. What I learned:

  • The placebo effect works in reverse: if you think you are receiving a poison (when in fact you are not), you may actually die.
  • The placebo effect works also in animals.
  • The immunitary system associates harmless substances (i.e., sugar pills) with either drugs - in which case it triggers an immunitary response - or poisons - in which case it suppresses its normal immunitary response.

Here is the passage I found most fascinating:

In 1975, a psychologist in New York was studying taste aversion in a group of rats and got an utterly mystifying result.

Robert Ader, working at the University of Rochester, gave his animals saccharin solution to drink. Rats usually love the sweet taste but for this experiment, Ader paired the drink with injections of Cytoxan, which made them feel sick. When he later gave the animals the sweetened water on its own they refused to drink it, just as he expected. So to find out how long the learned aversion would last, he force-fed this harmless drink to them using an eyedropper. But the rats didn’t forget. Instead, one by one, they died.

Though Cytoxan is toxic, Ader’s rats hadn’t received anything close to a fatal dose. Instead, after a series of other experiments, Ader concluded that when the animals received saccharin and the drug together, they hadn’t just associated the sweet taste with feeling sick, they’d also learned the immunosuppression. Eventually, they’d responded to the sweetened water just as they had to the drug.


[...] a similar discovery had already been made in Russia. In the 1920s, researchers at the University of St Petersburg were following up on Pavlov’s work, to see which other physiological responses could be conditioned.

Among them was the immunologist Sergey Metalnikov. Instead of suppressing the immune system, like Ader would, Metalnikov wanted to boost it. In one series of experiments, he repeatedly warmed guinea pigs’ skin at the same time as giving them injections (small doses of bacteria, for example) that triggered an immune response. Then he gave them – and another group of guinea pigs that hadn’t had this conditioning – a normally lethal dose of Vibrio cholerae bacteria, at the same time as warming their skin. The unconditioned animals died within 8 hours, Metalnikov reported, whereas the conditioned ones survived an average of 36 hours, and some of them recovered completely. Their response to a learned cue – the feeling of heat – appeared to have saved their lives.



Your daily "dose of crypto conspiracy theorizing"

Cryptography is not exactly my thing. But I really enjoyed this article. Basically, the NSA spent the last 20 years pushing for the adoption of a set of cryptographic standards called Suite B "the first public cryptography standard to include non-classified algorithms certified for encrypting Secret and Top Secret data."

Then, all of a sudden, in August the agency freaked out, and "updated the Suite B website to announce a rapid transition away from Suite B, and to a new set of quantum quantum-resistant algorithms in the coming years."

However, experts agree that there has not been any major breakthrough in quantum computing, and hence the official justification is not believable. So why such a sudden transition away from a standard that they pushed so hard for? Is it possible that this standard had some weaknesses--by design--that now are known not only to the NSA but also to someone else?



"The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery"

Knausgaard follows neurosurgeon Henry Marsh to Albania, where he performs a new type of surgery in which the patient is awake the entire time.

"His job is to slice into the brain, the most complex structure we know of in the universe, where everything that makes us human is contained, and the contrast between the extremely sophisticated and the extremely primitive — all of that work with knives, drills and saws — fascinated me deeply. "

Beautiful pictures too. By the way, my own thoughts on Henry Marsh's book "do no harm"

The Nazi war on Xmas

"Jesus had been taken care of, but Santa Claus was not so easily forgotten. Tracing his roots to St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Greek Christian bishop from Turkey, Santa was both explicitly Christian and very definitely not Aryan. Even so, Santa was so beloved that not even the Nazis felt that they could wage a war against him. Instead, they changed his name. Nazis argued that the white-robed and gray-bearded figure who came to people’s houses and gave them gifts on Christmas Day was really the pagan god Odin. Christians had merely stolen him, but now he had been reclaimed"


Hot or not? Definitely not

"... how perceived hotness of professors affected their RateMyProfessors evaluations for teaching quality. As part of this exercise, Felton et al. ranked (Table 2 in their paper) the relative hotness quotients of 36 different academic disciplines"

The blockchain, disruption and money

Last week the Economist joined the groups of blockchain enthusiasts, announcing that the blockchain will change everything.  I fully agree with this forecast. However, contrary to what most people think, who will make profits – and if there are profits to be made – is far from obvious.

What is the blockchain

The blockchain is the technology that powers the bitcoin network. Think of a huge spreadsheet with two columns: a name (or an ID) and a number representing the number of bitcoin owned by each name. This spreadsheet is continuously updated to reflect transactions being made across the network.

The problem with such spreadsheet is how to make sure that all the transactions are legitimate, voluntary and there is no double spending. Before the invention of the blockchain, the only way to maintain such spreadsheet was to have a trusted (often regulated) intermediary that maintains a “master” copy, and strictly regulates who has access to it, when/how transactions can  be recorded.  The blockchain instead allows to perform these same tasks is a fully decentralized way, where all people participating in the bitcoin network verify and record transactions. 

Why it matters

The blockchain matters because it can be applied to all situations in which a “central trusted party” is necessary for the market to function. For example, the second column may represent USD, or stocks in a company, or ownership of a car, .... Hence, the blockchain has the potential of radically change the allocation of market power in many industries.

To understand why, consider these two pictures.






The first one represents a so called “star”: a network in which all the transactions among different nodes must go through a central node. The second picture instead is a “fully connected network” in which each node can communicate directly with all other nodes. The important thing to note is that, in the star network, the central node has market power. Because all parties trust the central node but do not trust each other, the central node becomes the only enabler of transactions and therefore can charge a fee for its service. In the “fully connected network” instead each node can deal directly with every other node and a “trusted third party” is not needed. No node has market power.

The blockchain will transform the structure of several markets from a “star” to a “fully connected network”. Interestingly, this transformation is not new: it has already happened in the market for information with the advent of the internet. Before the internet, the central nodes (traditional medias such as newspaper, TV, Radios) where controlling the information flowing across the network. In other words, if you wanted to get a piece of news across, or wanted to know about it, you had to go through these traditional media. The internet completely transformed this market: now every person can communicate directly with everybody else. The blockchain will bring about the same type of change in the financial sector (no more swift, western-union, credit card networks, …), public services (registry of ownership),  platforms (amazon, uber), ...

Where is the money?

The point I want to make is that it is far from clear who will make money out of this disruptive process (and if there is money to be made!). To illustrate my argument, suppose it is the late '80s and someone is pitching you the following business idea: 

“We are planning to use this awesome new technology (the internet) to deliver information way more efficiently. Think of all the costs that traditional media companies have to sustain to print, air, distribute their content. We can achieve the same outcome basically for free. Our goal is to replace these incumbents and make tons of money.”

This pitch is incorrect, because it fails to realize that the introduction of a new technology will reshape the market. In other words, the pitch assumes that there will still be a “central node” regulating the flow of information, and is planning to replace this central node. The problem is: such central node won't be there anymore. There is no money to be made by simply delivering information. Many blockchain proponents sound a lot like the above pitch. Simply replace “traditional media companies” with “credit cards”, “swift”, “central exchanges”, “platforms”, …

So, is there money to be made with the Blockchain? And where is it? Honestly, I do not know. But a parallel with the market for information is, again, useful. As it turns out, when information is available to everybody for free, the scarce resource becomes people's attention. Hence, the companies making money in the internet age are the ones that can control this new scarce resource: your attention. In the blockchain era, trust will not be a scarce resource anymore and no trusted third parties will be needed. What will be the scarce resource then? Who will make money in the new blockchain era depends on the answer to this question.