Notable things: How do you give ethics to a robot? Let’s keep political pundits honest with batting averages, ad-banner honesty from The Onion

Self-driving cars. Drones. Robot armies. All of these things are stepping from science fiction into our daily lives, yet we haven’t addressed a fundamental question:

How do we teach our machines to be ethical?

Gary Marcus explores the repercussions of machine ethics in this fascinating essay. Of particular note is the following excerpt, which contrasts machine ethics with humanity’s still-under-construction ethical methods:

The thought that haunts me the most is that that human ethics themselves are only a work-in-progress. We still confront situations for which we don’t have well-developed codes (e.g., in the case of assisted suicide) and need not look far into the past to find cases where our own codes were dubious, or worse (e.g., laws that permitted slavery and segregation). What we really want are machines that can go a step further, endowed not only with the soundest codes of ethics that our best contemporary philosophers can devise, but also with the possibility of machines making their own moral progress, bringing them past our own limited early-twenty-first century idea of morality.

In many ways what we’re searching for is a way to make machine ethics better than our own. How do you even begin to do that?

Proposed: A batting average for political pundits and pollsters.


Every ad-driven website should be required, by law, to include this on their terms of service page:

… we can go through a whole dog-and-pony show here where I pretend that this column exists as a forum for ideas, and that I act as an independent voice who isn’t beholden to advertisers, and the power of the First Amendment, and blah blah, etc. etc. But let’s get real for a second here, okay? This column — nay, this entire website, this entire industry we call journalism — exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell ads. Lots of ads. Big, stupid ads. Ads with loud videos that play when you run your mouse cursor over them. Ads with pictures of supermodels and bacon cheeseburgers and beer bottles dripping with condensation. Ads with huge fricking graphics of SUVs that “drive” across your screen as though you were living in some sort of damned nightmare world. In short, ads that will make poor, honest working saps like you — yes, you, reader — click on them so that The Onion can continue stocking the coffers and I can continue to send my kid through four years of Cornell’s hotel management school.

Via The Onion

Notable things: Tumblr’s pride is justified, but misplaced; newspaper ad sales are on a very long slide; indoor navigation has an accuracy problem

Here’s the headline: “Tumblr boasts nearly 170 million monthly visitors

Only that’s not quite right. Those 170 million monthly visitors aren’t going to for the sake of visiting Tumblr. They’re looking at this kind of thing (and rightfully so, because it’s awesome).

That’s an important difference. I have no issue if those numbers are meant to show the rise of Tumblr as a publishing platform. But if the stats are trying to place Tumblr in the same domain as other top sites, we need to take a step back and consider the context.

Here’s Quantcast’s* current list of the top 10 sites “based on the number of people in the United States who visit each site within a month”:

  1. Google; 194,407,568 [monthly people in the U.S.]
  2. YouTube; 174,158,768
  3. Facebook; 140,719,136
  4. MSN; 98,480,592
  5. Twitter; 91,263,448
  6. Yahoo; 79,030,880
  7. Amazon; 76,791,592
  8. Wikipedia; 68,114,712
  9. Microsoft; 63,044,600
  10. Huffingtonpost; 61,289,024

Tumblr is a publishing platform / discovery tool. The only other sites in the top 10 that compare — and this is a reach — are YouTube and Twitter. Both of those sites are also utilities — a significant portion of their engagement and distribution occurs off-site via embeds and external tools. Tumblr doesn’t really work that way.

Tumblr is closer to and Blogger, and that comparison is where things get interesting.

From the same Quantcast stats:

No. 15: Tumblr; 51,947,516 [monthly people in the U.S.]
No. 17: WordPress: 51,182,896
No. 19: Blogger: 48,293,848

Tumblr certainly has something to celebrate, but it isn’t the thing that’s being played up.

*I’m using Quantcast data because that’s the source of the “170 million” figure. The validity of Quantcast’s numbers is beyond the scope of this admittedly feeble examination.

Alan Mutter says newspaper ad sales have fallen 25 quarters in a row:

It is a testimony to the legendarily high operating margins of the [newspaper] industry and the considerable cost-slashing skills of contemporary publishers that nearly all the newspapers in business in mid-2006, when the trouble began, are still plugging along today.

The full piece is worth a read.

Last week I said I need an app for finding products in stores. Sadly, that’s an itch that will remain itchy for some time:

Analysts caution that the technology is still immature, with high costs and accuracy issues keeping more prospective customers on the sidelines. Adding more Wi-Fi access points and other hardware is expensive. Most indoor positioning systems, even using Wi-Fi, still miss the precise location by several feet. And there aren’t enough high-end smartphones in the market that can handle indoor positioning. [Emphasis added.]

“Several feet” isn’t good enough when you can’t find the damn Tobasco sauce.