All posts by Steven Cherry

Are Electronic Media Any Good at Getting Out the Vote?

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/at-work/education/are-electronic-media-any-good-at-getting-out-the-vote

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

For some years and still today, there’s been a quiet but profound schism among political strategists. There are those who favor modern methods and modern media—mass mailings, robocalling, television advertising, and, increasingly, social-media advertising. On the other hand are those, including my guest today, who not only still see a value in traditional person-to-person messaging, but see it as, frequently, the better bang for the campaign buck.

Just last week [this was recorded Oct 5, 2020—Ed.] the attorney general of Michigan— a state that has been a battleground, not just for electoral delegates, but this methodological dispute—announced that two political operatives were charged with felonies in connection with robocalls that made a number of false claims about the risks of voting by mail, in an apparent attempt to discourage residents of Detroit from voting by mail. And last week as well, the Biden campaign announced a complete turnaround on the question of door-to-door canvassing, perhaps the gold standard of person-to-person political campaigning. Are they perhaps afraid of Democratic standard-bearers making the same mistake twice?

In the endless post-mortem of the 2016 Presidential election, an article in Politico argued that the Clinton campaign was too data-driven and model-driven, and refused local requests, especially in Michigan, for boots-on-the-ground support. It quoted a longtime political hand in Michigan as describing quote “months of failed attempts to get attention to the collapse she was watching unfold in slow-motion among women and African-American millennials.”

I confess I saw something of that phenomenon on a recent Saturday. I’m living in Pittsburgh these days, and in the morning, I worked a Pennsylvania-based phone bank for my preferred political party. One of my first calls was to someone in the Philadelphia area, who told me he had already made his absentee ballot request and asked, while he had me on the phone, when his ballot would come. “There used to be someone around here I forget what you call her but someone I could ask stuff of.” That was strike one.

In another call, to a man in the Erie area, the conversation turned to yard signs. He said he would like to put one out but he had no idea where to get it. Strike two. In the late afternoon, two of us went to a neighborhood near us to put out door-hangers, and if we saw someone face-to-face we would ask if they wanted a yard sign. One fellow said he would. “We were supposed to get one,” he told us. When he saw we had a stack of them in our car, he sheepishly added, “We were supposed to get two in fact, one for a friend.” That was my third indication in one day that there was a lack of political party involvement at the very local level—in three different parts of what could well be the most critical swing state of the 2020 Presidential election.

When I strung these three moments together over a beer, my partner immediately thought of a book she owned, Get Out the Vote, now in its fourth edition. Its authors, Donald Green and Alan Gerber, argue that political consultants and campaign managers have underappreciated boots-on-the-ground canvassing in person and on the phone, in favor of less personal, more easily-scaled methods—radio and TV advertising, robocalling, mass mailings, and the like.

Of particular interest, they base their case with real data, based on experimental research. The first edition of their book described a few dozen such experiments; their new edition, they say, summarizes hundreds.

One of those authors is Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University focusing on such issues as voting behavior and partisanship, and most importantly, methodologies for studying politics and elections. His teaching career started at Yale University, where he directed its Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He joins us via Skype.

Steven Cherry Don, welcome to the podcast.

Donald Green Thank you very much for having me.

Steven Cherry Modern campaigns can employ an army of advisers, consultants, direct mail specialists, phone bank vendors, and on and on. You say that much of the advice candidates get from these professionals comes from war stories and not evidence. Robocalls seem to be one example of that. The study of a 2006 Texas primary found that 65 000 calls for one candidate increased his vote share by about two votes.

Donald Green Yes, the robocalls have an almost perfect record of never working in randomized trials. These are trials in which we randomly assigned some voters to get a robocall and others not and allow the campaign to give it its best shot with the best possible robocall. And then at the end of the election, we look at voter turnout records to see who voted. And in that particular case, the results were rather dismal. But not just in that case. I think that there have been more than 10 such large-scale experiments, and it’s hard to think of an instance in which they’ve performed well.

Steven Cherry The two robocallers in Michigan allegedly made 12 000 calls into Detroit, which is majority black—85 000 calls in total to there and similar areas in other cities. According to a report in the Associated Press, calls falsely claimed that voting by mail would result in personal information going into databases that will be used by police to resolve old warrants, credit card companies to collect debts, and federal officials to track mandatory vaccines. It quoted the calls as saying, “Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to The Man. Beware of vote-by-mail.” You’ve studied plenty of affirmative campaigns, that is, attempts to increase voter participation. Do you have any thoughts about this negative robocalling?

Donald Green Well, that certainly seems like a clear case of attempted voter suppression—to try to scare people away from voting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. I haven’t heard the call. I’d be curious to know something about the voiceover that was used. But let’s suppose that it seemed credible. You know, the question is whether people take it seriously enough or whether they questioned the content, maybe talking to others in ways that undercut its effectiveness. But if robocalls seldom work, it’s probably because people just don’t notice them. Not sure whether this one would potentially work because it would get somebody to notice at any rate. We don’t know how effective it would be. I suspect not terribly effective, but probably effective enough to be concerning.

Steven Cherry Yeah, it was noticed enough that complaints about it filtered up to the state attorney general, but that doesn’t give us any quantitative data.

For decades, campaigns have spent a lot of their money on television advertising. And it can influence strategy. To take just one example, there’s a debate among Democrats about whether their candidate should invest in Texas because there’s so many big media markets. It’s a very expensive state to contest. What does the experimental data tell us about television?

Donald Green Experience on television is relatively rare. One that I’m most familiar with is one that actually I helped conduct with my three coauthors back when we were studying the Texans for Rick Perry campaign in 2006. We randomly assigned 18 of the 20 media markets in Texas to receive varying amounts of TV advertising, and various timings at which point it would be rolled out. And we conducted daily tracking polls to see the extent to which public opinion moved as ads rolled out in various media markets. And what we found was there was some effect of Rick Perry’s advertising campaign, but it subsided very quickly. Only a few days passed before it was essentially gone without a trace, which means that one can burn quite a lot of money for a relatively evanescent effect in terms of the campaign. I really don’t think that there’s much evidence that the very, very large amounts of money that are spent on television in the context of a presidential campaign have any lasting effect. And so it’s really an open question as to whether, say, the $300 million dollars that the Clinton campaign spent in 2016 would have been better spent least as well spent on the ground.

Steven Cherry In contrast to war stories, you and your colleagues conduct true randomized experiments. Maybe you could say a little bit more about how hard that is to do in the middle of an election.

Yes, it’s a juggling act for sure. The idea is, if we wanted to study, for example, the effects of direct mail on voter turnout, one would randomly assign large lists of registered voters, some to get the mail, some to be left alone. And then we’d use the fact that voting is a public record in the United States—and a few other countries as well—to gauge voter turnout after the election is over. This is often unsatisfactory for campaigns. They want to know the answer ahead of time. But first, we know no good way of answering the question before people actually cast their ballots. And so this is something that’s been done in increasing numbers since 1998. And now hundreds of those trials have been done on everything ranging from radio, robocalls, TV, direct mail, phone calls, social media, etc, etc.

Steven Cherry One thing you would expect campaign professionals to have data on is cost-effectiveness, but apparently they don’t. But you do. You’ve found, for example, that you can generate the same 200 votes with a quarter of a million robocalls, 38 000 mailers, or 2500 door-to-door conversations.

Donald Green Yes, we try to not only gauge the effects of the intervention through randomized trials but also try to figure out what that amounts to in terms of dollars per vote. And these kinds of calculations are always going to be context-dependent because some campaigns are able to rely on inexpensive people power, to inspire volunteers in vast numbers. And so in some sense, the costs that we estimate could be greatly overstated for the kinds of boots-on-the-ground canvassing that are typical of presidential elections in battleground states. Nevertheless, I think that it is interesting to note that even with relatively cautious calculations, to the effect that people are getting $16 an hour for canvassing, canvassing still acquits itself rather well in terms of its comparisons to other campaign tactics.

Steven Cherry Now that’s just for turnout, not votes for one candidate instead of another; a nonpartisan good-government group might be interested in turnout for its own sake, but a campaign wants a higher turnout of its own voters. How does it make that leap?

Donald Green Well, typically what they do is rely on voter files—and augmented voter files, which is, say, voter files that had other information about people appended to them—in order to make an educated guess about which people on the voter file are likely to be supportive of their own campaign. So Biden supporters have been micro-targeted and so have Trump supporters and so on and so forth, based on their history of donating to campaigns or signing petitions or showing up in party primaries. And that makes the job of the campaign much easier because instead of trying to persuade people or win them over from the other side, they’re trying to bring a bigger army to the battlefield by building up enthusiasm and mobilizing their own core supporters. So the ideal for that kind of campaign is a person who is very strongly aligned with the candidate that is sponsoring the campaign but has a low propensity of voting. And so that that kind of person is really perfect for a mobilization campaign.

So that could also be done demographically. I mean, there are zip codes in Detroit that are 80 percent black.

Donald Green Yes, there are lots of ways of doing this based on aggregates. No, you often don’t have to rely on aggregates because you typically have information about each person. But if you were to basically do it, say, precinct by precinct, you could use as proxies for the left—percentage-African-American—or proxies for the right demographics that are associated with Trump voting. So it’s possible to do it, but it’s probably not state of the art.

Steven Cherry You mentioned door-to-door canvassing; it increases turnout but—perhaps counterintuitively—apparently, it doesn’t matter much whether it’s a close contest or a likely blowout, and if it doesn’t matter what the canvasser’s message is.

Donald Green This is one of the most interesting things, actually about studying canvassing and other kinds of tactics experimentally. It appears that some of the most important communication at the door is nonverbal. You know, you show up at my door, and I wonder what you’re up to—are you trying to sell me something, trying to, you know, make your way in here? I figure, oh, actually you’re just having a pleasant conversation. You’re a person like me. You’re taking your time out to encourage me to vote. Well, that sounds okay. And I think that that message is probably the thing that sticks with people, perhaps more than the details of what you’re trying to say to me about the campaign or the particularities about why I should vote—should I vote because it’s my civic duty or should I vote because I need to stand up in solidarity with my community? Those kinds of nuances don’t seem to matter as much as we might suppose.

Steven Cherry So it seems reminiscent of what the sociologists would call a Hawthorne effect.

Donald Green Some of it is reminiscent of the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect is basically, we increase our productivity when we’re being watched. And so there’s some sense in which being monitored, being encouraged by another person makes us feel as though we’ve got to give a bit more effort. So there’s a bit of that. But I think partly what’s going on is voting is a social activity. And just as you’re more likely to go to a party if you were invited by a person as opposed to by e-mail. So too, you’re more likely to show up to vote if somebody makes an authentic, heartfelt appeal to you and encourages you to vote in-person or through something that’s very much like in-person. So it’s some gathering or some friend to friend communication as opposed to something impersonal, like you get a postcard.

Steven Cherry So without looking into the details of the Biden campaign flip-flop on door-to-door canvassing, your hunch would be that they’re making the right move?

Donald Green Yes, I think so. I mean, putting aside the other kinds of normative concerns about whether people are at risk if they get up and go out to canvass or they’re putting others at risk … In terms of the raw politics of winning votes, it’s a good idea in part because in 2018, they were able to field an enormous army of very committed activists in many of the closely contested congressional elections and showed apparently very good, good results. And the tactic itself is so well tested that if they can do it with appropriate PPE and precautions, they could be quite effective.

Steven Cherry In your research you found by contrast, door-hangers and yard signs—the way I spent that Saturday afternoon I described—have little or maybe even no utility.

Donald Green Well, yard signs might have some utility to candidates, especially down-ballot candidates who are trying to increase their vote share. It doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on voter turnout. Maybe that’s because the election is already in full swing and everybody knows that there’s an election coming up—the yard sign isn’t going to convey any new information. But I do think the door hangers have some residual effect. They’re probably about as effective as a leaflet or a mailer, which is not very effective, but maybe a smidge better than zero.

Steven Cherry You’re more positive on phone banks, albeit with some qualifiers.

Donald Green Yes, I think that phone banking, especially authentic volunteer-staffed phone banking, can be rather effective. You know, I think that if you have an unhurried conversation with someone who is basically like-minded. They’re presumably targeted because they’re someone who shares more or less your political outlook and you bring them around to explain to them why it’s an important and historic election, giving them any guidance you can about when and how to vote. You can have an effect. It’s not an enormous effect. It’s something in the order of, say, three percentage points or about one additional vote for every 30 calls you complete. But it’s a substantial effect.

And if you are able to extract a commitment to vote from that person and you were to be so bold as to call them back on the day before the election to make sure that they’re making good on their pledge, then you can have an even bigger effect, in fact, a very large effect. So I do think it can be effective. I also think that perfunctory, hurried calls by telemarketing operations are rather ineffective for a number of reasons, but especially the lack of authenticity.

Steven Cherry Let’s turn to social media, particularly Facebook. You described one rather pointless Facebook campaign that ended up costing $474 per vote. But your book also describes a very successful experiment in friend-to-friend communication on Facebook.

Donald Green That’s right. We have a number of randomized trials suggesting that encouragements to vote via Facebook ads or other kinds of Facebook media that are mass-produced seem to be relatively limited in their effects. Perhaps the biggest, most intensive Facebook advertising campaign was its full-day banner ads that ran all day long—I think it was the 2010 election—and had precisely no effect, even though it was tested among 61 million people.

More effective on Facebook were ads that showed you whether your Facebook friends had claimed to vote. Now, that didn’t produce a huge harvest of votes, but it increased turnout by about a third of a percentage point. So better than nothing. The big effects you see on Facebook and elsewhere are where people are, in a personalized way, announcing the importance of the upcoming election and urging their Facebook friends—their own social networks—to vote.

And that seems to be rather effective and indeed is part of a larger literature that’s now coming to light, suggesting that even text messaging, though not a particularly personal form of communication, is quite effective when friends are texting other friends about the importance of registering and voting. Surprisingly effective, and that, I think, opens up the door to a wide array of different theories about what can be done to increase voter turnout. It seems as though friend-to-friend communication or neighbor-to-neighbor communication or communication among people who are coworkers or co-congregants … that could be the key to raising turnout—not by not just one or two percentage points, but more like eight to 10.

Steven Cherry On this continuum of personal versus impersonal, Facebook groups,—which are a new phenomenon—seem to lie somewhere in between. Some people are calling them “toxic echo chambers,” but they would seem to maybe be a godsend for political engagement.

Donald Green I would think so, as long as the communication within the groups is authentic. If it’s if it’s automated, then probably not so much. But to the extent that the people in these groups have gotten to know each other or knew each other before they came into the group, then I think communication among them or between them could be quite compelling.

Steven Cherry Yes. Although, of course, that person that you think you’re getting to know might be some employee in St. Petersburg, Russia, of the Internet Research Agency. Snapchat has been getting some attention these days in terms of political advertising. They’ve tried to be more transparent than Facebook, and they do some fact-checking on political advertising. Could it be a better platform for political ads or engagement?

Donald Green I realize I just don’t know very much about the nuances of what they’re doing. I’m not sure that I have enough information to say.

Steven Cherry Getting back to more analog activities, your book discusses events like rallies and processions, but I didn’t see anything about smaller coffee-klatch-style events where, say, you invite all your neighbors and friends to hear a local candidate speak. That would seem to combine the effectiveness of door-to-door canvassing with the Facebook friend-to-friend campaign. But maybe it’s hard to study experimentally.

Donald Green That’s right. I would be very, very optimistic about the effects of those kinds of small gatherings. And it’s not that we are skeptical about their effects. It’s just, as you say, difficult to orchestrate a lot of experiments where people are basically opening their homes to friends. We need to talk to rope in more volunteers to bring in their friends experimentally.

Steven Cherry The business model for some campaign professionals is to get paid relative to the amount of money that gets spent. Does that disincentivize the kind of person-to-person campaigning you generally favor?

Donald Green Yes, I would say that one of the biggest limiting factors on person-to-person campaigning is that it’s very difficult for campaign consultants to make serious money off of it. And that goes double for the kind of serious money that is poured into campaigns in the final weeks. Huge amounts of money tend to be donated within the last three weeks of an election. And by that point, it’s very difficult to build the infrastructure necessary for large-scale canvassing or really any kind of retail-type politics. For that reason, the last-minute money tends to be dumped into digital ads and in television advertising—and in lots and lots of robocalls.

Steven Cherry Don, as we record, this is less than a week after the first 2020 presidential debate and other events in the political news have maybe superseded the debate already. But I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about it in terms of getting out the vote. Many people, I have to say, myself included, found the debate disappointing. Do you think it’s possible for a debate to depress voter participation?

Donald Green I think it’s possible. I think it’s rather unlikely to the extent that political science researchers have argued that negative campaigning depresses turnout, tends to depress turnout among independent voters, not so much among committed partisans who watched the debate and realize more than ever that their opponent is aligned with the forces of evil. For independent voters, they might say, “a plague on both your houses, I’m going to participate.” But I think that this particular election is one that is so intrinsically interesting that the usual way that independents feel about partisan competition probably doesn’t apply here.

Steven Cherry On a lighter note, an upcoming podcast episode for me will be about video game culture. And it’ll be with a professor of communications who writes her own video games for her classes. Your hobby turns out to be designing board games. Are they oriented toward political science? Is there any overlap of these passions?

Donald Green You know, it’s strange that they really don’t overlap at all. My interest in board games goes back to when I was a child. I’ve always been passionate about abstract board games like chess or go. And there was an accident that I started to design them myself. I did it actually when my fully-adult children were kids and we were playing with construction toys. And I began to see possibilities for games in those construction toys. And one thing led to another. And they were actually deployed to the world and marketed. And now I think they’re kind of going the way of the dinosaur. But there’s still a few dinosaurs like me who enjoy playing on an actual physical board.

Steven Cherry My girlfriend and I still play Rack-O. So maybe this is not a completely lost cause.

Well Don, I think in the US, everyone’s thoughts will be far from the election until the counting stops. Opinions and loyalties differ. But the one thing I think we can all agree on is that participation is essential for the health of the body politic. On behalf of all voters, let me thank you for all that your book has done toward that end and for myself and my listeners, thank you for joining me today.

Donald Green I very much appreciate it. Thanks.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Donald Green, a political scientist and co-author of Get Out the Vote, which takes a data-driven look at maximizing efforts to get out the vote.

This interview was recorded October 5th, 2020. Our thanks to Mike at Gotham Podcast Studio for audio engineering. Our music is by Chad Crouch.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

Going Carbon-Negative—Starting with Vodka

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/energy/environment/going-carbonnegativestarting-with-vodka

Steven Cherry Hi this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

In 2014, two Google engineers, writing in the pages of IEEE Spectrum, noted that “if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability.” Citing the work of climatologist James Hansen, they continued: “To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form.”

One alternative is to grab carbon dioxide as it’s produced, and stuff it underground or elsewhere. People have been talking about CSS, which alternatively stands for carbon capture and storage, or carbon capture and sequestration, for well over a decade. But you can look around, for example at Exxon-Mobil’s website, and see how much progress hasn’t been made.

In fact, in 2015, a bunch of mostly Canadian energy producers decided on a different route. They went to the XPRIZE people and funded what came to be called the Carbon XPRIZE to, as a Spectrum article at the time said, turn “CO2 molecules into products with higher added value.”

In 2018, the XPRIZE announced 10 finalists, who divvied up a $5 million incremental prize. The prize timeline called for five teams each to begin an operational phase in two locations, one in Wyoming and the other in Alberta, culminating in a $20 million grand prize. And then the coronavirus hit, rebooting the prize timeline.

One of the more unlikely finalists emerged from the hipsterish Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Their solution to climate change: vodka. Yes, vodka. The finalist, which calls itself the Air Company, takes carbon dioxide that has been liquified and distills it into ethanol, and then fine-tunes it into vodka. The resulting product is, the company claims, not only carbon-neutral but carbon negative.

The scientific half of founding duo of the Air Company is Stafford Sheehan—Staff, as he’s known. He had two startups under his belt by the time he graduated from Boston College. He started his next venture while in graduate school at Yale. He’s a prolific researcher but he’s determined to find commercially viable ways to reduce the carbon in the air, and he’s my guest today, via Skype.

Staff, welcome to the podcast.

Stafford Sheehan Thanks very much for having me. Steven.

Steven Cherry Staff, I’m sure people have been teasing you that maybe vodka doesn’t solve the problem of climate change entirely, but it can make us forget it for a while. But in serious engineering terms, the Air Company process seems a remarkable advance. Talk us through it. It starts with liquefied carbon dioxide.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, happy to. So, we use liquefied carbon dioxide because we source it offsite in in Bushwick. But really, we can just feed any sort of carbon dioxide into our system. We combine the carbon dioxide with water by first splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Water is H2O, so we use what’s called an electrolyzer to split water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas and then combine the hydrogen together with carbon dioxide in a reactor over proprietary catalysts that I and my coworkers developed over the course of the last several years. And that produces a mixture of ethanol and water that we then distill to make a very, very clean and very, very pure vodka.

Steven Cherry Your claim that the product is carbon-negative is based on a life-cycle analysis. The calculation starts with an initial minus of the amount of carbon you take out of the atmosphere. And then we start adding back the carbon and carbon equivalents needed to get it into a bottle and onto the shelf of a hipster bar. That first step where your supplier takes carbon out of the atmosphere, puts it into liquefied form and then delivers it to your distillery. That puts about 10 percent of that that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, 10 to 20 percent. When a tonne of carbon dioxide arrives in liquid form at our Bushwick facility, we assume that it took 200 kilograms of CO2 emitted—not only for the capture of the carbon dioxide; most of the carbon dioxide that we get actually comes from fuel ethanol fermentation. So we take the carbon dioxide emissions of the existing ethanol industry and we’re turning that into a higher purity ethanol. But it’s captured from those facilities and then it’s liquefied and transported to our Bushwick facility. And if you integrate the lifecycle carbon emissions of all of the equipment, all the steel, all of the transportation, every part of that process, then you you get about a maximum life-cycle CO2 emissions for the carbon dioxide of 200 kilograms per ton. So we still have eight hundred kilograms to play with at our facility.

Steven Cherry So another 10 percent gets eaten up by that electrolysis process.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah. The electrolysis process is highly dependent on what sort of electricity you use to power it with. We use a company called Clean Choice. And we’re we work very closely with a number of solar and wind deployers in New York State to make sure that all the electricity that’s used at our facility is solar or wind. And if you use wind energy, that’s the most carbon-friendly energy source that we have available there. Right now, the mix that we have, which is certified through Con Edison, is actually very heavily wind and a little bit of solar. But that was the lowest lifecycle-intensity electricity that we could get. So we get … it’s actually a little bit less than 10 percent of that is consumed by electrolysis. So the electrolysis is actually quite green as long as you power it with a very low-carbon source of electricity.

Steven Cherry And the distilling process, even though it’s solar-based, takes maybe another 13 percent or so?

Stafford Sheehan It’s in that ballpark. The distilling process is powered by an electric steam boiler. So we use the same electricity that we use to split water, to heat our water for the distillation system. So we have a fully electric distillery process. You could say that we’ve electrified vodka distilling.

Steven Cherry There’s presumably a bit more by way of carbon equivalents when it comes to the bottles the vodka comes in, shipping it to customers, and so on, but that’s true of any vodka that ends up on that shelf of any bar, and those also have a carbon-emitting farming process—whether it’s potatoes or sugar beets or wheat or whatever—that your process sidesteps.

Stafford Sheehan Yes. And I think one thing that’s really important is, this electrification act aspect by electrifying or all of our distillery processes, for example, if you’re boiling water using a natural gas boiler, your carbon emissions are going to be much, much higher as compared to boiling water using an electric steam boiler that’s powered with wind energy.

Steven Cherry It seems like if you just poured the vodka down the drain or into the East River, you would be benefiting the environment. I mean, would it be possible to do that on an industrial scale as a form of carbon capture and storage that really works?

Stafford Sheehan Yeah. I don’t think you’d want to pour good alcohol down the drain in any capacity just because the alcohol that we make can offset the use of fossil fuel alcohol.

So by putting the alcohol that we make—this carbon negative alcohol that we make—into the market, that means you have to make less fossil alcohol. And I’m including corn ethanol in that because so many fossil fuels go into its production. But that makes it so that our indirect CO2, our indirect CO2 utilization is very, very high because we’re offsetting a very carbon-intensive product.

Steven Cherry That’s interesting. I was thinking that maybe you could earn carbon credits and sell them for more than you might make with having a, you know, another pricey competitor to Grey Goose and Ketel One.

Stafford Sheehan The carbon credit, the carbon credit system is still very young, especially in the US.

We also … our technology still has a ways to scale between our Bushwick facility—which is, I would say, a micro distillery—and a real bona industrial process, which … we’re working on that right now.

Steven Cherry Speaking of which, though, it is rather pricey stuff at this point, isn’t it? Did I read $65 or $70 a bottle?

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, it’s pricey not only because you pay a premium for our electricity, for renewable electricity, but we also pay a premium for carbon dioxide that, you know, has that that only emits 10 to 20 percent of the carbon intensity of its actual weight, so we pay a lot more for the inputs than is typical—sustainability costs money—and also we’re building these systems, they’re R&D systems, and so they’re  more costly to operate on a R&D scale, on kind of our pilot plant scale. As we scale up, the cost will go down. But at the scales we’re at right now, we need to be able to sell a premium product to be able to have a viable business. Now, on top of that, the product is also won a lot of awards that put it in that price category. It’s won three gold medals in the three most prestigious blind taste test competitions. And it’s won a lot of other spirits and design industry awards that enable us to get that sort of cost for it.

Steven Cherry I’m eager to do my own blind taste testing. Vodka is typically 80 proof, meaning it’s 60 percent water. You and your co-founder went on an epic search for just the right water.

Stafford Sheehan That we did. We tested over … probably over one hundred and thirty different types of water. We tried to find which one was best to make vodka with using the very, very highly pure ethanol that comes out of our process. And it’s a very nuanced thing. Water, by changing things like the mineral content, the pH, by changing the very, very small trace impurities in the water—that in many cases are good for you—can really change the way the water feels in your mouth and the way that it tastes. And adding alcohol to water just really amplifies that. It lowers the boiling point and it makes it more volatile so that it feels different in your mouth. And so different types of water have a different mouth feel; they have a different taste. We did a lot of research on water to be able to find the right one to mix with our vodka.

Steven Cherry Did you end up where you started with New York water?

Stafford Sheehan Yes. In in a in a sense, we are we’re very, very close to where we started.

Steven Cherry I guess we have to add your vodka to the list that New Yorkers would claim includes New York’s bagels and New York’s pizza as uniquely good, because if their water.

Stafford Sheehan Bagels, pizza, vodka … hand sanitizer …

Steven Cherry It’s a well-balanced diet. So where do things stand with the XPRIZE? I gather you finally made it to Canada for this operational round, but take us through the journey getting there.

Stafford Sheehan So I initially entered the XPRIZE when it was soliciting for very first submissions—I believe it was 2016—and going through the different stages, we had at the end of 2017, we had very rigorous due diligence on our prototype scale. And we passed through that and got good marks and continuously progressed through to the finals where we are now. Now, of course, coronavirus kind of threw both our team and many other teams for a loop, delaying deployment, especially for us: We’re the only American team deploying in Canada. The other four teams that are deploying at the ACCTC [Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre] are all Canadian teams. So being the only international team in a time of a global pandemic that, you know, essentially halted all international travel—and a lot of international commerce—put some substantial barriers in our way. But over the course of the last seven months or so, we’ve been able to get back on our feet. And I’m currently sitting in quarantine in Mississauga, Ontario, getting ready for a factory-acceptance test. That’s scheduled to happen right at the same time as quarantine ends. So we’re gonna be at the end of this month landing our skid in Alberta for the finals and then in November, going through diligence and everything else to prove out its operation and then operating it through the rest of the year.

Steven Cherry I understand that you weren’t one of the original 10 finalists named in 2018.

Stafford Sheehan No, we were not. We were the runner-up. There was a runner-up for each track—the Wyoming track and the Alberta track. And ultimately, there were teams that dropped out or merged for reasons within their own businesses. We were given the opportunity to rejoin the competition. We decided to take it because it was a good proving ground for our next step of scale, and it provided a lot of infrastructure that allowed us to do that at a reasonable cost—at a reasonable cost for us and at a reasonable cost in terms of our time.

Steven Cherry Staff, you were previously a co-founder of a startup called Catalytic Innovations. In fact, you were a 2016 Forbes magazine, 30-under-30 because of it. What was it? And is it? And how did it lead to Air Company and vodka?

Stafford Sheehan For sure. That was a company that I spun out of Yale University, along with a professor at Yale, Paul Anastas. We initially targeted making new catalysts for fuel cell and electrolysis industries, focusing around the water oxidation reaction. So to turn carbon dioxide—or to produce fuel in general using renewable electricity—there are three major things that need to happen. You need to have a very efficient renewable energy source. Trees, for example, use the sun. That’s photosynthesis. You have to be able to oxidize water into oxygen gas. And that’s why trees breathe out oxygen. And you have to be able to use the protons and electrons that come out of water oxidation to either reduce carbon dioxide or through some other method, produce a fuel. So I studied all three of those when I was in graduate school, and upon graduating, I spun out Catalytic Innovations that focused on the water oxidation reaction and commercializing materials that more efficiently produced oxygen for all of The man-made processes such as metal refining that do that chemistry. And that company found its niche in corrosion—anti-corrosion and corrosion protection—because one of the big challenges, whenever you’re producing oxygen, be it for renewable fuels or be it to produce zinc or to do a handful of different electrorefining and electrowinning processes in the metal industry. You always have a very serious corrosion problem. Did a lot of work in that industry in Catalytic Innovations, and they still continue to do work there, to this day.

Steven Cherry You and your current co-founder, Greg Constantine, are a classic match—a technologist, in this case an electrochemist and a marketer. If this were a movie, you would have met in a bar drinking vodka. And I understand you actually did meet at a bar. Were you drinking vodka?

Stafford Sheehan No, we were actually drinking whiskey. So I didn’t … I actually I’m not a big fan of vodka pre-Air Company, but it was the product that really gave us the best value proposition where really, really clean, highly pure ethanol is most important. So I’ve always been more of a whiskey man myself, and Greg and I met over whiskey in Israel when we were on a trip that was for Forbes. You know, they sent us out there because we were both part of their 30-Under-30 list and we became really good friends out there. And then several months later, fast forward, we started Air Company.

Steven Cherry Air Company’s charter makes it look like you would like to go far beyond vodka when it comes to finding useful things to do with CO2. In the very near term, you turned to using your alcohol in a way that contributes to our safety.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah. So we we had always planned the air company, not the air vodka company. We had always planned to go into several different verticals with ultra-high-purity ethanol that we create. And spirits is one of the places where you can realize the value proposition of a very clean and highly pure alcohol, very readily—spirits, fragrance is another one. But down the list a little bit is sanitizer, specifically hand sanitizer. And when coronavirus hit, we actually pivoted all of our technology because there was a really, really major shortage of sanitizer in New York City. A lot of my friends from graduate school that had kind of gone more on the medical track were telling me that the hospitals that they worked in, in New York didn’t have any hand sanitizer. And when the hospitals—for the nurses and doctors—ran out of hand sanitizer, that means you really have a shortage. And so we pivoted all of our technology to produce sanitizer in March. And for three months after that, we gave it away. We donated it to these hospitals, to the fire department, to NYPD and to other organizations in the city that needed it most.

Yeah, the hand sanitizer, I like to think, is also a very premium product. You can’t realize the benefits of the very, very clean and pure ethanol that we use for it as readily as you can with the bad guys since you’re not tasting it. But we did have to go through all of the facility registrations and that sort of thing to make the sanitizer because it is classified as a drug. So our pilot plant in and in Bushwick, which was a converted warehouse, I used to tell people in March that I always knew my future was going to be sitting in a dark warehouse in Bushwick making drugs. But, you know, never thought that it was actually going to become a reality.

Steven Cherry That was in the short term. By now, you can get sanitizer in every supermarket and Home Depot. What are the longer-term prospects for going beyond vodka?

Stafford Sheehan Longer term, we’re looking at commodity chemicals, even going on to fuel. So longer term, we’re looking at the other verticals where we can take advantage of the high-purity value proposition of our ethanol—like pharmaceuticals, as a chemical feedstock, things like that. But then as we scale, we want to be able to make renewable fuel as well from this and renewable chemicals. Ultimately, we want to we want to get to world scale with this technology, but we need to take the appropriate steps to get there. And what we’re doing now are the stepping-stones to scaling it.

Steven Cherry It seems like if you could locate the distilling operation right at the ethanol plant, you would just be making more ethanol for them with their waste product, avoid a lot of shipping and so forth. It, you would just become of value add to their industry.

Stafford Sheehan That is something that we hope to do in the long term. You know what, our current skids are fairly small scale where we couldn’t take a massive amount of CO2 with them. But as we scale, we do hope to get there gradually when we get to larger scales, like talking about several barrels per day rather than liters per hour, which is the scale we’re at now.

A lot of stuff you can turn CO2 into. One of the prime examples is calcium carbonate. C03-[[minus]] CO2 is CO2. You can very easily convert carbon dioxide into things like that for building materials. So pour concrete for different parts of bricks and things like that. There are a lot of different ways to mineralized CO2 as well. Like you can inject it into the ground. That will also turn it into carbon-based minerals. Beyond that, as far as more complex chemical conversion goes, the list is almost endless. You can make plastics. You can make pharmaceutical materials. You can make all sorts of crazy stuff from CO2. Almost any of the base chemicals that have carbon in them can come from CO2. And in a way, they do come from CO2 because all the petrochemicals that we mine from the ground, that they’re from photosynthesis that happened over the course of the last two billion years.

Have you ever seen the movie Forest Gump? There’s a part in that where Bubba, Gump’s buddy in the Vietnam War, talks about all the things you can do with shrimp. And it kind of goes on and on and on. But I could say the same about CO2. You can make plastic. You can make clothes. You can make sneakers. You can make alcohol. You can make any sort of chemical carbon-based ethylene, carbon monoxide, formic acid, methanol, ethanol. And there … The list goes on. Just about any carbon-based chemical you can think of. You can make from CO2.

Steven Cherry Would it be possible to pull carbon dioxide out of a plastic itself and thereby solve two problems at once?

Yeah, you could you could take plastic and capture the CO2 that’s emitted when you either incinerate it or where you gasify it. That is a strategy that’s used in certain places, gasification of waste, municipal waste. It doesn’t give you CO2, but it actually gives you something that you can do chemistry with a little more easily. It gives you a syngas—a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. So, there are a lot of different strategies that you can use to convert CO2 into things better for the planet than global warming.

Steven Cherry If hydrogen is a byproduct of that, you have a ready use for it.

Stafford Sheehan Yeah, exactly, that is one of the many places where we could source feedstock materials for our process. Our process is versatile and that’s one of the big advantages to it.

If we get hydrogen, as a byproduct of chloralkali production, for example, we can use that instead of having to source the electrolyzer. If our CO2 comes from direct air capture, we can use that. And that means we can place our plants pretty much wherever there’s literally air, water and sunlight. As far as the products that come out, liquid products that are made from CO2 have a big advantage in that they can be transported and they’re not as volatile, obviously, as the gases.

Steven Cherry Well, Staff, it’s a remarkable story, one that certainly earns you that XPRIZE finalist berth. We wish you great luck with it. But it seems like your good fortune is self-made and assured, in any event to the benefit of the planet. Thank you for joining us today.

Stafford Sheehan Thanks very much for having me, Steven.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Staff Sheehan, co-founder of the Air Company, a Brooklyn startup working to actively undo the toxic effects of global warming.

This interview was recorded October 2, 2020. Our thanks to Miles of Gotham Podcast Studio for our audio engineering; our music is by Chad Crouch.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

 

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

 

Why Does the U.S. Have Three Electrical Grids?

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/energy/renewables/why-does-the-us-have-three-electrical-grids

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

If you look at lists of the 100 greatest inventions of all time, electricity figures prominently. Once you get past some key enablers that can’t really be called inventions—fire, money, the wheel, calendars, the alphabet—you find things like light bulbs, the automobile, refrigeration, radios, the telegraph and telephone, airplanes, computers and the Internet. Antibiotics and the modern hospital would be impossible without refrigeration. The vaccines we’re all waiting for depend on electricity in a hundred different ways.

It’s the key to modern life as we know it, and yet, universal, reliable service remains an unsolved problem. By one estimate, a billion people still do without it. Even in a modern city like Mumbai, generators are commonplace, because of an uncertain electrical grid. This year, California once again saw rolling blackouts, and with our contemporary climate producing heat waves that can stretch from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains, they won’t be the last.

Electricity is hard to store and hard to move, and electrical grids are complex, creaky, and expensive to change. In the early 20teens, Europe began merging its distinct grids into a continent-wide supergrid, an algorithm-based project that IEEE Spectrum wrote about in 2014. The need for a continent-wide supergrid in the U.S. has been almost as great, and by 2018 the planning of one was pretty far long—until it hit a roadblock that, two years later, still stymies any progress. The problem is not the technology, and not even the cost. The problem is political. That’s the conclusion of an extensively reported investigation jointly conducted by The Atlantic magazine and InvestigateWest, a watchdog nonprofit that was founded in 2009 after the one of Seattle’s daily newspapers stopped publishing. The resulting article, with the heading, “Who Killed the Supergrid?”, was written by Peter Fairley, who has been a longtime contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum and is my guest today. He joins us via Skype.

Peter, welcome to the podcast.

Peter Fairley It’s great to be here, Steven.

Steven Cherry Peter, you wrote that 2014 article in Spectrum about the Pan-European Hybrid Electricity Market Integration Algorithm, which you say was needed to tie together separate fiefdoms. Maybe you can tell us what was bad about the separate fiefdoms served Europe nobly for a century.

Peter Fairley Thanks for the question, Steven. That story was about a pretty wonky development that nevertheless was very significant. Europe, over the last century, has amalgamated its power systems to the point where the European grid now exchange’s electricity, literally across the continent, north, south, east, west. But until fairly recently, there have been sort of different power markets operating within it. So even though the different regions are all physically interconnected, there’s a limit to how much power can actually flow all the way from Spain up to Central Europe. And so there are these individual regional markets that handle keeping the power supply and demand in balance, and putting prices on electricity. And that algorithm basically made a big step towards integrating them all. So that you’d have one big market and a more competitive, open market and the ability to, for example, if you have spare wind power in one area, to then make use of that in some place a thousand kilometers away.

Steven Cherry The U.S. also has separate fiefdoms. Specifically, there are three that barely interact at all. What are they? And why can’t they share power?

Peter Fairley Now, in this case, when we’re talking about the U.S. fiefdoms, we’re talking about big zones that are physically divided. You have the Eastern—what’s called the Eastern Interconnection—which is a huge zone of synchronous AC power that’s basically most of North America east of the Rockies. You have the Western Interconnection, which is most of North America west of the Rockies. And then you have Texas, which has its own separate grid.

Steven Cherry And why can’t they share power?

Peter Fairley Everything within those separate zones is synched up. So you’ve got your 60 hertz AC wave; 60 times a second the AC power flow is changing direction. And all of the generators, all of the power consumption within each zone is doing that synchronously. But the east is doing it on its own. The West is on a different phase. Same for Texas.

Now you can trickle some power across those divides, across what are called “seams” that separate those, using DC power converters—basically, sort of giant substations with the world’s largest electronic devices—which are taking some AC power from one zone, turning it into DC power, and then producing a synthetic AC wave, to put that power into another zone. So to give you a sense of just what the scale of the transfers is and how small it is, the East and the West interconnects have a total of about 950 gigawatts of power-generating capacity together. And they can share a little over one gigawatt of electricity.

Steven Cherry So barely one-tenth of one percent. There are enormous financial benefits and reliability benefits to uniting the three. Let’s start with reliability.

Peter Fairley Historically, when grids started out, you would have literally a power system for one neighborhood and a separate power system for another. And then ultimately, over the last century, they have amalgamated. Cities connected with each other and then states connected with each other. Now we have these huge interconnections. And reliability has been one of the big drivers for that because you can imagine a situation where if you if you’re in city X and your biggest power generator goes offline, you know, burn out or whatever. If you’re interconnected with your neighbor, they probably have some spare generating capacity and they can help you out. They can keep the system from going down.

So similarly, if you could interconnect the three big power systems in North America, they could support each other. So, for example, if you have a major blackout or a major weather event like we saw last month—there was this massive heatwave in the West, and much of the West was struggling to keep the lights on. It wasn’t just California. If they were more strongly interconnected with Texas or the Eastern Interconnect, they could have leaned on those neighbors for extra power supply.

Steven Cherry Yeah, your article imagines, for example, the sun rising in the West during a heatwave sending power east; the sun setting in the Midwest, wind farms could send power westward. What about the financial benefits of tying together these three interconnects? Are they substantial? And are they enough to pay for the work that would be needed to unify them into a supergrid?

Peter Fairley The financial benefits are substantial and they would pay for themselves. And there’s really two reasons for that. One is as old as our systems, and that is, if you interconnect your power grids, then all of the generators in the amalgamated system can, in theory, they can all serve that total load. And what that means is they’re all competing against each other. And power plants that are inefficient are more likely to be driven out of the market or to operate less frequently. And so that the whole system becomes more efficient, more cost-effective, and prices tend to go down. You see that kind of savings when you look at interconnecting the big grids in North America. Consumers benefit—not necessarily all the power generators, right? There you get more winners and losers. And so that’s the old part of transmission economics.

What’s new is the increasing reliance on renewable energy and particularly variable renewable energy supplies like wind and solar. Their production tends to be more kind of bunchy, where you have days when there’s no wind and you have days when you’ve got so much wind that the local system can barely handle it. So there are a number of reasons why renewable energy really benefits economically when it’s in a larger system. You just get better utilization of the same installations.

Steven Cherry And that’s all true, even though sending power 1000 miles or 3000 miles? You lose a fair amount of that generation, don’t you?

Peter Fairley It’s less than people imagine, especially if you’re using the latest high voltage direct current power transmission equipment. DC power lines transmit power more efficiently than AC lines do, because the physics are actually pretty straightforward. An AC current will ride on the outside of a power cable, whereas a DC current will use the entire cross-section of the metal. And so you get less resistance overall, less heating, and less loss. And so. And the power electronics that you need on either side of a long power line like that are also becoming much more efficient. So you’re talking about losses of a couple of percent on lines that, for example in China, span over 3000 kilometers.

Steven Cherry The reliability benefits, the financial benefits, the way a supergrid would be an important step for helping us move off of our largely carbon-based sources of power—we know all this in part because in the mid-2010s a study was made of the feasibility—including the financial feasibility—of unifying the U.S. in one single supergrid. Tell us about the Interconnections Seams Study.

Peter Fairley So the Interconnection Seams Study [Seams] was one of a suite of studies that got started in 2016 at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, which is one of the national labs operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. And the premise of the Seams study was that the electronic converters sitting between the east and the west grids were getting old; they were built largely in the 70s; they are going to start to fail and need to be replaced.

And the people at NREL were saying, this is an opportunity. Let’s think—and the power operators along the seam were thinking the same thing—we’re gonna have to replace these things. Let’s study our strategic options rather than have them go out of service and just automatically replace them with similar equipment. So what they posited was, let’s look at some longer DC connections to tie the East and the West together—and maybe some bigger ones. And let’s see if they pay for themselves. Let’s see if they have the kind of transformative effects that one would imagine that they would, just based on the theory. So they set up a big simulation modeling effort and they started running the numbers…

Now, of course, this got started in 2016 under President Obama. And it continued to 2017 and 2018 under a very different president. And basically, they affirmed that tying these grids, together with long DC lines, was a great idea, that it would pay for itself, that it would make much better use of renewable energy. But it also showed that it would accelerate the shutdown of coal-fired power. And that got them in some hot water with the new masters at the Department of Energy.

Steven Cherry By 2018 the study was largely completed and researchers will begin to share its conclusions with other energy experts and policymakers. For example, there was a meeting in Iowa. You describe where there is a lot of excitement over the scenes study. You write that things took a dramatic turn at one such gathering in Lawrence, Kansas.

Peter Fairley Yes. So the study was complete as far as the researchers were concerned. And they were working on their final task under their contract from the Department of Energy, which was to write and submit a journal article in this case. They were targeting an IEEE journal. And they, as you say, had started making some presentations. The second one was in August, in Kansas, and there’s a DOE official—a political appointee—who’s sitting in the audience and she does not like what she’s hearing. She, while the talk is going on, pulls out her cell phone, writes an email to DOE headquarters, and throws a red flag in the air.

Steven Cherry The drama moved up the political chain to a pretty high perch.

Peter Fairley According to an email from one of the researchers that I obtained and is presented in the InvestigateWest version of this article, it went all the way to the current secretary of energy, Daniel Brouillette, and perhaps to the then-Secretary of Energy, former Texas Governor [Rick] Perry.

Steven Cherry And the problem you say in that article was essentially the U.S. administration’s connections to—devotion to—the coal industry.

Peter Fairley Right. You’ve got a president who has made a lot of noise both during his election campaign and since then about clean, beautiful coal. He is committed to trying to stop the bleeding in the U.S. coal industry, to slow down or stop the ongoing mothballing of coal-fired power plants. His Secretary of Energy. Rick Perry is doing everything he can to deliver on Trump’s promises. And along comes this study that says we can have a cleaner, more efficient power system with less coal. And yes, so it just ran completely counter to the political narrative of the day.

Steven Cherry You said earlier the financial benefits to consumers are unequivocal. But in the case of the energy providers, there would be winners and losers and the losers with largely come from the coal industry.

Peter Fairley I would just add one thing to that, and that is and this depends on really the different systems. You’re looking at the different conditions and scenarios and assumptions. But, you know, in a scenario where you have more renewable energy, there are also going to be impacts on natural gas. And the oil and gas industry is definitely also a major political backer of the Trump administration.

Steven Cherry The irony is that the grid is moving off of coal anyway, and to some extent, oil and even natural gas, isn’t it?

Peter Fairley Definitely oil. It’s just a very expensive and inefficient way to produce power. So we’ve been shutting that down for a long time. There’s very little left. We are shutting down coal at a rapid rate in spite of every effort to save it. Natural gas is growing. So natural gas has really been—even more so than renewables—the beneficiary of the coal shutdown. Natural gas is very cheap in the U.S. thanks to widespread fracking. And so it’s coming on strong and it’s still growing.

Steven Cherry Where is the Seams study now?

Peter Fairley The Seams study is sitting at the National Renewable Energy Lab. Its leaders, under pressure from the political appointees at DOE, its leaders have kept it under wraps. It appears that there may have been some additional work done on the study since it got held up in 2018. But we don’t know what the nature of that work was. Yeah, so it’s just kind of missing in action at this point.

My sources tell me that there is an effort underway at the lab to get it out. And I think the reason for that is that they’ve taken a real hit in terms of the morale of their staff. the NREL Seams study is not the only one that’s been held up, that is being held up. In fact, it’s one of dozens, according to my follow-up reporting. And, you know, NREL researchers are feeling pretty hard done by and I think the management is trying to show its staff that it has some scientific integrity.

But I think it’s important to note that there are other political barriers to building a supergrid. It might be a no brainer on paper, but in addition to the pushback from the fossil-fuel industry that we’re seeing with Seams, there are other political crosscurrents that have long stood in the way of long-distance transmission in the U.S. For example—and this is a huge one—that, in the U.S., most states have their own public utility commission that has to approve new power lines. And when you’re looking at the kind of lines that Seams contemplated, or that would be part of a supergrid, you’re talking about long lines that have to span, in some cases, a dozen states. And so you need to get approval from each of those states to transit— to send power from point A to point X. And that is a huge challenge. There’s a wonderful book that really explores that side of things called Superpower [Simon & Schuster, 2019] by the Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold.

Steven Cherry The politics that led to the suppression of the publication of the Seams study go beyond Seams itself don’t they? There are consequences, for example, at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Peter Fairley Absolutely. Seams is one of several dozen studies that I know of right now that are held up and they go way beyond transmission. They get into energy efficiency upgrades to low-income housing, prices for solar power… So, for example—and I believe this hasn’t been reported yet; I’m working on it—the Department of Energy has hitherto published annual reports on renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. And, in those, they provide the latest update on how much it costs to build a solar power plant, for example. And they also update their goals for the technology. Those annual reports have now been canceled. They will be every other year, if not less frequent. That’s an example of politics getting in the way because the cost savings from delaying those reports are not great, but the potential impact on the market is. There are many studies, not just those performed by the Department of Energy that will use those official price numbers in their simulations. And so if you delay updating those prices for something like solar, where the prices are coming down rapidly, you are making renewable energy look less competitive.

Steven Cherry And even beyond the Department of Energy, the EPA, for example, has censored itself on the topic of climate change, removing information and databases from its own Web sites.

Peter Fairley That’s right. The way I think of it is, when you tell a lie, it begets other lies. And you and you have to tell more lies to cover your initial lie and to maintain the fiction. And I see the same thing at work here with the Trump administration. When the president says that climate change is a hoax, when the president says that coal is a clean source of power, it then falls to the people below him on the political food chain to somehow make the world fit his fantastical and anti-science vision. And so, you just get this proliferation of information control in a hopeless bid to try and bend the facts to somehow make the great leader look reasonable and rational.

Steven Cherry You say even e-mails related to the Seams study have disappeared, something you found in your Freedom of Information Act requests. What about the national labs themselves? Historically, they have been almost academic research organizations or at least a home for unfettered academic freedom style research.

Peter Fairley That’s the idea. There has been this presumption or practice in the past, under past administrations, that the national labs had some independence. And that’s not to say that there’s never been political oversight or influence on the labs. Certainly, the Department of Energy decides what research it’s going to fund at the labs. And so that in itself shapes the research landscape. But there was always this idea that the labs would then be—you fund the study and then it’s up to the labs to do the best work they can and to publish the results. And the idea that you are deep-sixing studies that are simply politically inconvenient or altering the content of the studies to fit the politics that’s new. That’s what people at the lab say is new under the Trump administration. It violates. DOE’s own scientific integrity policies in some cases, for example, with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It violates the lab’s scientific integrity policy and the contract language under which the University of California system operates that lab for the Department of Energy. So, yeah, the independence of the national labs is under threat today. And there are absolutely concerns among scientists that precedents are being set that could affect how the labs operate, even if, let’s say, President Trump is voted out of office in November.

Steven Cherry Along those lines, what do you think the future of grid unification is?

Peter Fairley Well, Steven, I’ve been writing about climate and energy for over 20 years now, and I would have lost my mind if I wasn’t a hopeful person. So I still feel optimistic about our ability to recognize the huge challenge that climate change poses and to change the way we live and to change our energy system. And so I do think that we will see longer power lines helping regions share energy in the future. I am hopeful about that. It’s just it makes too much sense to leave that on the shelf.

Steven Cherry Well, Peter, it’s an amazing investigation of the sort that reminds us why the press is important enough to democracy to be called the fourth estate. Thanks for publishing this work and for joining us today.

Peter Fairley Thank you so much. Steven. It’s been a pleasure.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Peter Fairley, a journalist who focuses on energy and the environment, about his researching and reporting on the suspension of work on a potential unification of the U.S. energy grid.

This interview was recorded September 11, 2020. Our audio engineering was by Gotham Podcast Studio; our music is by Chad Crouch.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

Fake News Is a Huge Problem, Unless It’s Not

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/telecom/internet/fake-news-is-a-huge-problem-unless-its-not

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

Jonathan Swift in 1710 definitely said, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” Mark Twain, on the other hand, may or may not have said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Especially in the context of politics, we lately use the term “fake news” instead of “political lies” and the problem of fake news—especially when it originates abroad—seems to be much with us these days. It’s believed by some to have had a decisive effect upon the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and fears are widespread that the same foreign adversaries are at work attempting to influence the vote in the current contest.

A report in 2018 commissioned by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee centered its attention on the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy arm of Russia’s intelligence services. The report offers, to quote an account of it in Wired magazine, “the most extensive look at the IRA’s attempts to divide Americans, suppress the vote, and boost then-candidate Donald Trump before and after the 2016 presidential election.”

Countless hours of research have gone into identifying and combating fake news. A recent study found more than 2000 articles about fake news published between 2017 and 2020.

Nonetheless, there’s a dearth of actual data when it comes to the magnitude, extent, and impact, of fake news.

For one thing, we get news that might be fake in various ways—from the Web, from our phones, from television—yet it’s hard to aggregate these disparate sources. Nor do we know what portion of all our news is fake news. Finally, the impact of fake news may or may not exceed its prevalence—we just don’t know.

A new study looks into these very questions. Its authors include two researchers at Microsoft who listeners of the earlier incarnation of this podcast will recognize: David Rothschild and Duncan Watts were both interviewed here back in 2012. The lead author, Jennifer Allen, was a software engineer at Facebook before becoming a researcher at Microsoft in its Computational Social Science Group and she is also a Ph.D. student at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. She’s my guest today via Skype.

Jenny, welcome to the podcast.

Jennifer Allen Thank you, Steven. Happy to be here.

Steven Cherry [[COPY]] Jenny, Wikipedia defines “fake news” as “a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.” The term made its way into the online version of the Random House dictionary in 2017 as “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.” Jenny, are you okay with either of these definitions? More simply, what is fake news?

Jennifer Allen Yeah. Starting off with a tough question. I think the way that we define fake news really changes whether or not we consider it to be a problem or the magnitude of the problem. So the way that we define fake news in our research—and how the academic community has defined fake news—is that it is false or misleading information masquerading as legitimate news. I think the way that, you know, we’re using fake news is really sort of this hoax news that’s masquerading as true news. And that is the definition that I’m going to be working with today.

Steven Cherry The first question you tackled in this study and here I’m quoting it: “Americans consume news online via desktop computers and increasingly mobile devices as well as on television. Yet no single source of data covers all three modes.” Was it hard to aggregate these disparate sources of data?

Jennifer Allen Yes. So that was one thing that was really cool about this paper, is that usually when people study fake news or misinformation, they do so in the context of a single platform. So there’s a lot of work that happens on Twitter, for example. And Twitter is interesting and it’s important for a lot of reasons, but it certainly does not give a representative picture of the way that people consume information today or consume news today. It might be popular among academics and journalists. But the average person is not necessarily on Twitter. And so one thing that was really cool and important, although, as you mentioned, it was difficult as well, was to combine different forms of data.

And so we looked at a panel of Nielsen TV data, as well as a desktop panel of individual Web traffic, also provided by Nielsen. And then finally, we also looked at mobile traffic with an aggregate data set provided to us by ComScore. And so we have these three different datasets that really allow us to triangulate the way that people are consuming information and give sort of a high-level view.

Steven Cherry You found a couple of interesting things. One was that most media consumption is not news-related—maybe it isn’t surprising—and there’s a big difference across age lines.

Jennifer Allen Yes, we did find that. And so—as perhaps it might not be surprising—older people consume a lot more television than younger people do. And younger people spend more time on mobile and online than older people do. However, what might be surprising to you is that no matter whether it’s old people or younger people, the vast majority of people are consuming more news on TV. And so that is a stat that surprises a lot of people, even as we look across age groups—that television is the dominant news source, even among people age 18 to 24.

Steven Cherry When somebody looked at a television-originating news piece on the web instead of actually on television, you characterized it as online. That is to say, you characterized by the consumption of the news, not its source. How did you distinguish news from non-news, especially on social media?

Jennifer Allen Yes. So there are a lot of different definitions of news here that you could use. We tried to take the widest definition possible across all of our platforms. So on television, we categorized as news anything that Nielsen categorizes as news as part of their dataset. And they are the gold standard dataset for TV consumption. And so, think Fox News, think the Today show. But then we also added things that maybe they wouldn’t consider news. So Saturday Night Live often contains news clips and touches on the topical events of the day. And so we also included that show as news. And so, again, we tried to take a really wide definition. And the same online.

And so online, we also aggregated a list of, I think, several thousand Web site that were both mainstream news and hyper-partisan news, as well as fake news. And we find hyper-partisan news and fake news using these news lists that have emerged in the large body of research that has come out of the 2016 elections / fake news phenomenon. And so there again, we tried to take the widest definition of fake news. And so not only are things like your crappy single-article site but also things like Breitbart and the Daily Wire we categorize as hyper-partisan sites.

Steven Cherry Even though we associate online consumption with young people and television with older people, you found that fake news stories were more likely to be encountered on social media and that older viewers were heavier consumers than younger ones.

Jennifer Allen Yes, we did find that. This is a typical finding within the fake news literature, which is that older people tend to be more drawn to fake news for whatever reason. And there’s been work looking at why that might be. Maybe it’s digital literacy. Maybe it’s just more interested in news generally. And it’s true that on social media, there’s more fake and hyper-partisan news than, you know, on the open web.

That being said, I would just emphasize that the dominant … that the majority of news that is consumed even on social media—and even among older Americans—is still mainstream. And so, think your New York Times or your Washington Post instead of your Daily Wire or Breitbart.

Steven Cherry You didn’t find much in the way of fake news on television at all.

Jennifer Allen Yes. And so this is sort of a function, as I was saying before, of the way that we defined fake news. We, by definition, did not find any fake news on television, because the way the fake news has really been studied and in the literature and also talked about sort of in the mainstream media is as this phenomenon of Web sites masquerading as legitimate news outlets. That being said, I definitely believe that there is misinformation that occurs on television. You know, a recent study came out looking at who the biggest spreader of misinformation around the coronavirus was and found it to be Donald Trump. And just because we aren’t defining that content as fake news—because it’s not deceptive in the way that it is presenting itself—doesn’t mean that it is necessarily legitimate to information. It could still be misinformation, even though we do not define it as fake news.

Steven Cherry I think the same thing would end up being true about radio. I mean, there certainly seems to be a large group of voters—including, it’s believed, the core supporters of one of the presidential candidates—who are thought to get a lot of their information, including fake information from talk radio.

Jennifer Allen Yeah, talk radio is unfortunately a hole in our research; we were not able to get a good dataset looking at talk radio. And indeed, you know, talk radio. And, you know, Rush Limbaugh’s talk show, for example, can really be seen as the source of a lot of the polarization in the news and the news environment.

And there’s been work done by Yochai Benkler at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center that looks at the origins of talk radio in creating a polarized and swampy news environment.

Steven Cherry Your third finding, and maybe the most interesting or important one, is and I’m going to quote again, “fake news consumption is a negligible fraction of Americans’ daily information diet.”

Jennifer Allen Yes. So it might be a stat that surprises people. We find that fake news comprises only 0.15 percent of Americans’ daily media diet. Despite the outsized attention that fake news gets in the mainstream media and especially within the academic community: more than half of the journal articles that contain the word news are about fake news in recent years. It is actually just a small fraction of the news that people consume. And also a small fraction of the information that people consume. The vast majority of the content that people are engaging with online is not news at all. It’s YouTube music videos. It’s entertainment. It’s Netflix.

And so I think that it’s an important reminder that when we consider conversations around fake news and its potential impact, for example, on the 2016 election, that we look at this information in the context of the information ecosystem and we look at it not just in terms of the numerator and the raw amount of fake news that people are consuming, but with the denominator as well. So how much of the news that people consume is actually fake news?

Steven Cherry So fake news ends up being only one percent or even less of our overall media diet. What percentage is it of news consumption?

Jennifer Allen It occupied less than one percent of overall news consumption. So that is, including TV. Of course, when you zoom in, for example, to fake news on social media, the scale of the problem gets larger. And so maybe seven to 10 percent—and perhaps more, depending on your definition of fake news—of news that is consumed on social media could be considered what we say is hyper-partisan or fake news. But still, again, to emphasize, the majority of people on Facebook are not seeing any news at all. So, you know, over 50 percent of people on Facebook and in our data don’t click on any news articles that we can see.

Steven Cherry You found that our diet is pretty deficient in news in general. The one question that you weren’t able to answer in your study is whether fake news, albeit just a fraction of our news consumption—and certainly a tiny fraction of our media consumption—still might have an outsized impact compared with regular news.

Jennifer Allen Yeah, that’s very true. And I think here it’s important to distinguish between the primary and secondary impact of fake news. And so in terms of, you know, the primary exposure of people consuming fake news online and seeing a news article about Hillary Clinton running a pedophile ring out of a pizzeria and then changing their vote, I think we see very little data to show that that could be the case. 

That being said, I think there’s a lot we don’t know about the secondary sort of impact of fake news. So what does it mean for our information diets that we now have this concept of fake news that is known to the public and can be used and weaponized?

And so, the extent to which fake news is covered and pointed to by the mainstream media as a problem also gives ammunition to people who oppose journalists, you know, mainstream media and want to erode trust in journalism and give them ammunition to attack information that they don’t agree with. And I think that is a far more dangerous and potentially negatively impactful effect of fake news and perhaps its long-lasting legacy.

The impetus behind this paper was that there’s all this conversation around fake news out of the 2016 election. There is a strong sense that was perpetuated by the mainstream media that fake news on Facebook was responsible for the election of Trump. And that people were somehow tricked into voting for him because of a fake story that they saw online. And I think the reason that we wanted to write this paper is to contradict that narrative because you might read those stories and think people are just living in an alternate fake news reality. I think that this paper really shows that that just isn’t the case.

To the extent that people are misinformed or they make voting decisions that we think are bad for democracy, it is more likely due to the mainstream media or the fact that people don’t read news at all than it is to a proliferation of fake news on social media. And you know, one thing that David [Rothschild]—and in one piece of research that David and Duncan [Watts] did prior to this study that I thought was really resonant was to say that, let’s look at the New York Times. And in the lead-up to the 2016 election, there were more stories about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal in the seven days before the 2016 election than there were about policy at all over the whole scope of the election process. And so instead of zeroing in on fake news, really push our attention to really take a hard look at the way the mainstream media operates. And also, you know, what happens in this news vacuum where people aren’t consuming any news at all.

Steven Cherry So people complain about people living inside information bubbles. What your study shows is fake news, if it’s a problem at all, is really the smallest part of the problem. A bigger part of the problem would be false news—false information that doesn’t rise to the level of fake news. And then finally, the question that you raise here of balance when it comes to the mainstream media. “Balance”—I should even say “emphasis.”

Jennifer Allen Yes. So I think, again, the extent to which people are misinformed, I think that we can look to the mainstream news. And, you know, for example, it’s overwhelming coverage of Trump and the lies that often he spreads. And I think some of the new work that we’re doing is trying to look at the mainstream media and its potential role and not reporting false news that is masquerading as true. But, you know, reporting on people who say false things without appropriately taking the steps to discredit those things and really strongly punch back against them. And so I think that is an area that is really understudied. And I would hope that researchers look at this research and sort of look at the conversation that is happening around Covid and, you know, mail in voting and the 2020 election and really take a hard look at mainstream media, you know, so-called experts or politicians making wild claims in a way that we would not consider them to be fake news, but are still very dangerous.

Steven Cherry Well, Jenny, it’s all too often true that the things we all know to be true aren’t so true. And as usual, the devil is in the details. Thanks for taking a detailed look at fake news, maybe with a better sense of it quantitatively, people can go on and get a better sense of its qualitative impact. So thank you for your work here and thanks for joining us today.

Jennifer Allen Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

We’ve been speaking with Jennifer Allan, lead author of an important new study, “Evaluating the Fake News Problem at the Scale of the Information Ecosystem.” This interview was recorded October 7, 2020. Our thanks to Raul at Gotham Podcast’s Studio for our engineering today and to Chad Crouch for our music.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

Banking, Cash, and the Future of Money

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/at-work/innovation/banking-cash-and-the-future-of-money

Steven Cherry Hi this Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

We’re used to the idea of gold and silver being used as money, but in the in the 1600s, Sweden didn’t have a lot of gold and silver—not enough to sustain its economy. The Swedes had a lot of copper, though, so that’s what they used for their money. Copper isn’t really great for the job—it’s not nearly scarce enough—so Swedish coins were big—the largest denomination weighed fortythree pounds and people carried them to market on their backs. So the Swedes created a bank that gave people paper money in exchange for giant copper coins.

The Swedes weren’t the first to create paper money—they missed that mark by about several hundred years. Nor will they likely be the first to get rid of paper money, though they may have the lead in that race. A few years ago, banks there started to refuse cash deposits and to allow cash withdrawals, until a law was passed requiring them to do so.

A new book about the history and future of money has just come out, imaginatively titled, Money. It’s not specifically about Sweden—in fact, those are the only two times Sweden comes up. It’s about money itself, and how it has changed wildly across time and geography—from Greek city-states in 600 B.C. to China in the eighth century and Kublai Khan in the thirteenth, to Amsterdam in the seventeenth, Paris during the Enlightenment, and the U.S. in the nineteenth century and cyberspace in the twenty-first.

It’s a wild ride that the world is still in the middle of, and it’s told in a thoroughly researched but thoroughly entertaining, and I mean laugh-out-loud entertaining, literally—I had to finish the book last night downstairs on the couch—told as a series of stories by one of radio’s great storytellers. Jacob Goldstein was a newspaper reporter before joining National Public Radio’s popular show, Planet Money, which he currently co-hosts, and he’s the author of the destined-to-be popular tome, Money, newly minted by Hachette Books. And he’s my guest today. He joins us via Skype.

Jacob, welcome to the podcast.

Jacob Goldstein Thanks so much for having me. And thank you for that very kind and generous introduction.

Steven Cherry Jacob wasn’t fair to the title of the book, and I wasn’t entirely fair—

Jacob Goldstein I didn’t want to be petty, but that thought crossed my mind—.

Steven Cherry —and I wasn’t entirely fair about what the book is about. The full title is Money: The True Story of a Made Up Thing, which hints at what I take your book’s thesis to be: Money is whatever we trust for the exchange of goods and services. Money is whatever we trust to be money.

Jacob Goldstein That’s right. And, you know, I’m not sure like on one level, I worry that that’s a little bit obvious. But I do think there is this thing that happens. And it was quite striking to me as I was doing the research for the book. And that is in whatever period people are living in, whatever monetary regime, they—we—seem to think that whatever we’re doing as money, whatever we’re using for money, however we’re doing money, is like some kind of natural law. It’s like the way money must be is the way we’re doing it now. And everything else is just crazy or weird. And the point I was trying to make in the subtitle of the book is That is not so. Right? We are constantly inventing and reinventing money. And, you know, it has changed many times in the past and it will continue to change in the future.

Steven Cherry We can’t tell the whole story of money here in 20 or 30 minutes. But let’s touch on the history in order to understand some of the things you say about its future. You say that it’s easy to think of money as growing out of a barter economy, but there has never been a barter economy. We went straight from more or less self-sufficiency, maybe augmented by status-seeking gifting, to empowering cowrie shells and other things as a way to store value over time—a kind of proto-money.

Jacob Goldstein Yes. So the piece about barter is really to refute this kind of standard historical story of money. For a long time the set-piece story about the origin of money was it’s very inconvenient to barter, right, because for you and I to trade—to do business with each other, whatever—you have to have what I want and I have to have what you want. But if we could just have some intermediate thing—some piece of silver, a dollar bill—that would solve the problem. Which is a very tidy story. But anthropologists in the 20th century started raising their hands and saying, sorry, economists, it just doesn’t appear that the world works that way. And what they described instead is a much more, I don’t know if organic is the right word, a much more social kind of construction of money where you have lots of small nonindustrial societies with lots of rules about giving and getting. And what you have to give somebody’s family if you’re going to marry them or somebody’s family if you killed somebody in their family. And those kinds of norms really seem to be the roots of money.

Steven Cherry You look at the history of the world, the beginnings of money, and kind of summarized things by saying the first writers weren’t poets, they were accountants, which as a writer, I find a sobering thought and you must too.

Jacob Goldstein I mean, I respect accountants. I feel like they do something very useful. Let’s not be too highfalutin.

I respect accountants, like, I respect them more now that, you know, now that I’ve written the book. That period that is Mesopotamia, essentially the classic cradle of civilization several thousand years ago, and what happened there, apparently, obviously, it’s a long time ago…. But what seems to have happened there is people initially would give each other like a clay sort of ball with maybe a cone in it or a ball, a sphere in it as like an IOU. So I would give you a clay ball with a cone in it. And that would mean, I don’t know, I owe you six sheep. And then from there, people were like, wait a minute, maybe we don’t have to put a little cone inside the ball. What if we just pressed it into the clay on the outside? And the notion is that, that is proto-writing. And then these cities start to spring up, the civilization gets more complex, and you get this essentially class of accountants who are working at the temple—which is kind of like a temple/city-hall—and they develop Cuneiform. They develop the first kind of writing, which is making marks in clay tablets, basically to keep the ledgers of the temple of the city-state.

Steven Cherry In the 5000-year history of money, the gold standard takes up three percent of that time. But it’s a pretty important century and a half and it still influences how we think of money. So maybe tell us how it began.

Jacob Goldstein I think you’re right. I think it does. Gold and silver were money for quite a long time, for thousands of years. But when economists use the phrase the gold standard, then in this very particular period of time from, what, 1830-ish, give or take a few years, to basically the 1930s—that century-ish.

And what happened was, it started in Britain, which was the most important economy of the world. And lots of countries had sort of used gold and silver and kind of gone back-and-forth. And it’s hard to have two different metals as money because their values can change. So Britain feels like, all right, we’re just going to be on the gold standard. And because Britain was so important, lots of people followed them. The 19th century, as it progressed, was this first great wave of globalization. Lots of other countries followed onto the gold standard. And so that by the end of the 19th century, most of the major economies of the world were on this kind of uniform gold standard.

Steven Cherry Yeah, I said a century and a half because we officially went off the gold standard in the 1970s, but it was really barely more than a century: Even before we officially went off the gold standard, you say FDR, in 1933, for all intents and purposes, took us off it.

Yes, the depression was really the big turn. And I think, you know, just this year, 1933 is an incredibly momentous year in the history of money. So what’s happening is, the Depression, obviously. And people didn’t realize it at the time—and I feel like the vernacular version of the story doesn’t really include this fact—but a core problem with the depression, maybe the core problem with the depression, was the gold standard. And that—among economists now—is not controversial. That’s what everybody thinks. And what happened was, you know, there was this crash in 1929 of the stock market and the economy started to plunge.

And, you know, now what happens when there’s a crash and the economy starts to plunge, is the Federal Reserve, the central bank, can essentially create more money and make it easier for people who are in debt to stay afloat—make it easier for businesses that are in trouble to stay open. But that was not the case then. It was, under the gold standard, the Federal Reserve wound up doing essentially the opposite. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates, which took up a bad crash and turned it into the Great Depression. And that sent prices falling and banks collapsing.

And so Roosevelt gets elected in ’32, takes office in ’33, and he, against the advice of almost all of his advisors who tell him that going off the gold standard will mean, quote, “the end of Western civilization,” basically goes off the gold standard. He says, you know, the key rule under the gold standard is a dollar is worth a fixed amount of gold or a fixed amount of gold is worth a dollar. It was like 20 dollars and change got you an ounce of gold. And that had been the case decade after decade. He’s like, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to do that. A dollar is going to get you less gold than it used to. And that is why I say and most people say he was really the one who took us off the gold standard. And I should say ’33, when he did that, was when the Depression started to get better. Now, clearly, it didn’t get all better until WWII, but very clearly the turn things are going down before then and they start going up after them. And it’s true in many countries, as each country goes off the gold standard you see each country starting to get better from the depths of the Depression. Now, for a few decades after that, to your point, it was true that ordinary people could no longer exchange dollars for a fixed amount of gold, but other countries could change their currency for dollars and then other countries could change dollars for a fixed amount of gold. But that was basically a formality. And Nixon ended that formality in ’70 or ’71.

Steven Cherry One of the great things about your book is, I thought I knew the story of the gold standard and William Jennings Bryan and the Cross of Gold, and you tell that story, too. But then you come along with something really interesting and crazy, like the story of Irving Fisher, who you describe as a Yale economist, a health food zealot, a Prohibitionist, and a fitness guru who filled a floor of his New Haven mansion with exercise equipment. It turns out when he wasn’t exercising and making his hapless employees join him, he devoted much of his life to trying to untie our idea of money to gold and instead to something a little bit more like the Consumer Price Index? Tell us about the money illusion.

Jacob Goldstein Sure. I’m glad you like Irving Fisher. I love Irving Fisher. You know, I had been covering economics for, I don’t know, 10 years. When I wrote this book and I didn’t really know about Fisher. I feel like he has largely been forgotten, in part because in 1929 he said the stock market was on a permanently high plateau, like, two weeks before the market crash. So bad investing advice, but great economist. OK, the money illusion. So the money illusion was this idea that he articulated that is really very resonant today. And the basic idea of the money illusion is we get confused by inflation and deflation. So a simple example is, you know, if you if your parents say they bought their house, whatever, 40 years ago and they paid $100,000 for it and they sold it this year and they got $400,000 for it, they might think, great, I made, you know, $300,000. I made 4x my investment—I did great on that house. In fact, they are wrong—because of inflation. Right? Because $400,000 today buys you less than $100,000 bought 40 or 50 years ago. It may be semi-obvious in that case, but that kind of misunderstanding creates a lot of problems. It was one of the problems in the Depression, when you had deflation, when you had prices falling by like 30 percent. And it’s very hard for people to take like a wage cut of 30 percent, even though the stuff they buy gets 30 percent cheaper. So they end up—businesses end up laying off workers. So this idea that we are confused by inflation and deflation is really important. And it is, frankly, a big part of the reason that the Federal Reserve today tries to maintain this low, steady, two-percent rate of inflation.

Steven Cherry You describe the travails of the euro. How it miraculously worked for a while and how it stopped miraculously working. It seems it failed in some of the same way as the gold standard itself, even though everyone was off it.

Jacob Goldstein Yeah, that’s really insightful. That is correct. And in some ways, it is, in fact, quite similar. One of the fundamental features of the international gold standard that, you know, high 19th-century gold standard was because each currency was fixed to a set amount of gold. It also meant that each currency’s relationship to every other currency was the same. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but if one dollar get to four pounds today, one dollar will get you four pounds forever. Everything is in the same relationship. And the euro effectively did that to all of the countries in Europe.

It meant that the money in Greece was the same value as the money in Germany as the money in Italy, as the money in France. And that is okay when everybody is doing fine—or badly. But when the economies diverge, when, say, Germany is doing great and Greece is doing really badly, that is actually quite bad. You know, when the currencies are separate and they diverge, then Greece, if it had its own drachma, can say, oh, we need to wait, we need to put some more money in the system. We need to make it easier for people to borrow, so that, you know, we can get unemployment down. Business will invest and hire. But when Greece gave up the drachma and joined the euro, they lost the ability to do that. And so in the same way that under the gold standard, all these countries are linked together, under the euro, all these countries are linked together.

Steven Cherry You point out that America is a confederation of states, but we don’t treat Arizona the same way the Europeans treated Greece. And in fact, this was anticipated. The chancellor of Germany at the time said we need to either be politically unified as well as fiscally, or neither.

Jacob Goldstein That’s right. And I think that is still an open question. I mean, I think in the long run for the euro to survive. Europe, the eurozone needs to become more like a United States of Europe. And interestingly, they do seem slowly to be moving in that direction. This year in response to the pandemic and the economic crisis that went with it, the E.U. authorized borrowing at the EU level. A lot of money. So that is a new thing. And that is more like being a single country. Like in the US, the federal government borrows trillions of dollars and sends that money to people in Arizona and in Florida and in Maine. And that is now what the European Union in a smaller way is starting to do. So they do seem to be moving in that direction. And it does seem like in the long run, they either got to be a lot more like one country or give up on sharing a currency.

Steven Cherry The first time I saw a millennial pay for a cup of coffee with a credit card, I was shocked, but now I do it myself.

Jacob Goldstein Do you mean the phone—use the phone? It’s pretty good.

Steven Cherry That that day is coming.

Jacob Goldstein Okay.

Steven Cherry I mentioned, early on, the Swedes working their way toward ending cash and they’re not alone. Is that something you foresee?

Jacob Goldstein I mean, it seems like in the long run it will happen, right? I don’t think I have super insight into what’s going to happen, but it certainly seems directionally like that is the way we’re going. One interesting countervailing trend is the fact that more and more paper money is going out into the world. Even if you account for the growth of the economy, the amount of paper dollars in the world is growing faster than the economy.

Now, there is a gap between what we do in our everyday lives, which is pay for a cup of coffee with a credit card or our iPhone and what’s going on with paper money. A lot of that paper money is hundred-dollar bills. There are more hundred-dollar bills than one-dollar bills. You know, there’s like, 40 hundred-dollar bills for every man, woman, and child in America. And pretty clearly, a lot of that is just crime.

Paper money is really good for crime or tax evasion, which is crime. Some of it is, you know, people in other countries where the banks are not stable, the currency is not stable, they’re holding hundreds. So that is not a crime. This economist, Ken Rogoff, has said we should get rid of big bills, but I don’t know. I mean, sure, in the long run, I suppose cash will go away.

You know, there are a lot of people who don’t have bank accounts. And so, you know, a standard refrain is the end of cash would be bad for those people. And that is true. But it’s also worth pointing out that it is bad for them now not to have a bank account. If you don’t have a bank account, you tend to get screwed. You have to carry cash on you, which is not safe. You have to go to a check-cashing store. You have to pay a high fee. So like the problem of people not having bank accounts gets lumped into the problem of not having cash. But that’s a problem in either world and it’s a problem. You know, the government could solve that by giving people bank accounts or debit cards. So that seems like a solvable problem that’s often lumped in with the end of the cash. It seems worth solving on its own.

Steven Cherry Well, people want the post office to go back to acting a little bit like a bank. And that seems like a good idea to me.

Jacob Goldstein Yes. And it seems like a reasonable role for the government, frankly. Money is very much a government thing—certainly now, but really always. And giving people a way, today, when even people who don’t have a bank account have a smartphone, it seems like a very solvable problem.

The Hoover Institution seems about as mainstream conservative as it gets. But you quote, an economist affiliated with it is calling banks—and we mean ordinary banks like Wells Fargo and Ulster Savings of Kingston, New York, which holds many mortgage—huge crony capitalist nightmares. Our banks, huge crony capitalist nightmares. And more to the point. Can you imagine a world without banks?

Jacob Goldstein As a reporter, I’m not going to weigh in on whether they are huge crony capitalists nightmares. But to your point, it is striking that—that is John Cochrane, who is a very, very pro free market, classic style economist who told me that. And, you know, the reason he said that is banks—well, banks do this very special thing in the economy. They create money, right?

When banks make loans, they are actually creating money. And that is this public function. How much money there is matters to everybody—creating money is this kind of public thing. They’re able to do it because the government, you know, guarantees are deposits at the bank. And the Federal Reserve, which is part of the government, promises—that’s a standing promise—that it will lend money to banks in a crisis. And in exchange for those guarantees, banks are very heavily regulated by the government. You would say not always regulated well; some people say not always regulated enough; but they are heavily regulated. So that is what the conservative economist is talking about when he describes it as a huge crony capitalist nightmare. It is this web, this close linkage between the government and the banks.

And to your question about a future without banks, I mean, the reason you basically need to—or at least the reason we have decided to—have that linkage is: Banks are fundamentally unstable. And that’s not because they’re evil or anything like that. It’s just the basic structure of the most plain-vanilla Main Street bank is, you have your money there on deposit that you can take out all of it at any moment. But also that money is loaned out to somebody to buy their house. Your mortgage rate is there that you don’t have to pay back for 30 years.

And so the nature of any bank is if everybody with a deposit goes and ask for their money back at any time, the bank doesn’t have it. And that is a big problem. And so the way we have solved it is by creating this whole web, this old crony capitalist thing, in the words of this economist and what he has suggested and what a lot of economists going back to Irving Fisher, who you mentioned before, suggested all the way back in the Depression was: Why do we have to do it this way? Why do we have to have this fundamental problem that we do all this work to solve? What if we just stopped, started from scratch and imagined a different world? So the problem is that banks are doing these two different things. They’re holding our money, they’re letting us get direct deposit, letting us pay our bills online. That’s one thing they’re doing. Then the other thing they’re doing is they’re making these loans that people may or may not pay back. Not everybody pays back a loan. There’s fundamental risk in lending. And there are moments when lots of people don’t pay back their loans. And that’s when we have financial crises. Why not separate those two things? So on the one hand, you would have a money warehouse, call it, where you would deposit your money, you get your direct deposit there, you pay your bills there—the basic things we do with the bank day-to-day, your checking account. Now, you might pay a fee for that because they’re providing a service. Fair. Fine.

And then you would have another kind of thing, another kind of company that is making loans. But that money is coming from people who, (a), know they might lose it and (b), cannot demand it back at any time, which is basically like, we have bond mutual funds today, and that’s basically how they work. You invest your money and the bond fund essentially is lending out your money and you can, in that case, ask for it back. But, you know, you might lose money if the people who borrow don’t pay back the money, you will lose money. The government doesn’t have to come in and bail you out. So, like, that idea actually seems quite reasonable to me and it would solve a lot of problems.

Now, politically, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen anytime soon. But you could imagine if there were another financial crisis, another big bank bailout, it is the kind of big change that we’ve seen before and it’s imaginable to me.

Another thing that might be politically undoable involves your final question about the future of money in the book, which involves something called modern monetary theory—yet another way in which money might evolve. What is modern monetary theory?

So modern monetary theory is a set of ideas about how money works. That has become popular with a small group of economists who tend to be associated with the political left. Stephanie Kelton is maybe the most prominent and she was an adviser to Bernie Sanders a few years ago. And their basic idea is this. We have been too worried about the government running deficits. They don’t say you can always run deficits, but they say there are a lot of times when we would be better off if the government just spent more money. To, you know, get people working. Get the economy going. And the standard response to that in traditional economics has been, well, if that happens, interest rates are going to go up. Inflation is going to go up. And that is going to be bad.

And what the modern-monetary-theory theorists say is, well, if inflation goes up, what we can do is we can raise taxes. We should keep spending and keep spending, keep helping people, keep doing stuff in the economy and wait for inflation to actually go up. And to be fair, they say there’s different things you can do. But one of the important things they say you should do when inflation goes up is raise taxes because raising taxes takes money back out of the economy. And it is a way to fight inflation.

They also say attach to their set of ideas. We should have a jobs guarantee. The government should offer everybody a job. So those are the basic pieces. The government should be more willing to run deficits. The government should offer a jobs guarantee. And one of the key ways you can fight inflation is raise taxes.

Steven Cherry As I read the book there seems to be a sort of historical line that can be drawn from Irving Fisher, the money-illusion fitness-nut guy to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who seems to be an endorser of modern monetary theory—and by the way, who happens to be my mother’s congresswoman. Is that fair to say?

Jacob Goldstein I like all the Queens shout-outs.

Steven Cherry Is that fair to say? And what is that historical line?

Jacob Goldstein Well, let me think about that. Certainly an easier line, a more obvious line for me, is from Irving Fisher to … whoever … Jerome Powell, Janet Yellen—to the people, to the modern chairmen and -women of the Fed. Irving Fisher solution to the money problem and to the gold standard was we should manage the dollar not based on gold, but just based on how much the stuff everybody buys costs. What we want is for prices to be basically stable. And that is essentially the way the Fed works now. So that to me is the clearer line. I think to draw a line from him to modern monetary theory is a bit more of a stretch. I mean, if you zoomed out more, you could say, well, in both cases they’re saying, look, the way we do money now is wrong, is suboptimal, and we could be doing this better. So I think at an abstract level, there’s that connection. But I think, practically speaking, he’s pretty close to the way money, in fact, works now.

Steven Cherry You seem sympathetic to Fisher’s ideas and maybe modern monetary theory, but you also write in the book for modern money to work—to have banks and a stock market and a central bank—there needs to be tension. Investors and bankers and activists and government officials all need to be arguing over who gets to do what and when. Does modern monetary theory eliminate too much of that tension?

Jacob Goldstein It may I mean, you know, one of the things working on the book has done for me is it’s made me humble in terms of trying to be prescriptive or predictive. I’m able to think about different things and talk about them. But, you see time and again, really smart people who know a lot being just wrong about the world, about the present, about the future. So, I mean, one thing I will say about modern monetary theory is just in terms of the political realities, the notion that Congress will raise taxes to fight inflation seems like a thing that might not happen. And there is an argument that, well, you wouldn’t have to have Congress vote every time. Congress could create an automatic mechanism that is out of their hands. But still, people know when their taxes go up and they tend not to like it. And so, one place to look at and think about with modern monetary theory is that particular crux—do you really think Congress will set up a system that will automatically raise taxes to fight inflation when necessary?

Steven Cherry In the fall of 1933, President Roosevelt wrote in a letter to a Harvard economist, “You place a former artificial gold standard among nations above human suffering and the crying needs of your own country.” You say in the book, the most important word in that sentence is “artificial.” And I was reminded of something you wrote earlier in the book: “The Incas had rivers full of gold and mountains full of silver. And they used gold and silver for art and for worship. But they never invented money because it was a fiction they had no use for.” The most important words in that sentence are “fiction” and “use.” Money is a useful fiction—maybe the most useful fiction we have because it shares with some other primordial fictions the same character. I’m thinking of love and faith. And that character is trust. Is that the basis of all of this?

Jacob Goldstein I think so. I mean, certainly today, when we have fiat money, money that is backed by nothing, the dollar is only backed by our trust in the United States government, the United States economy. It’s this notion that our country as an entity, as a political entity, which obviously is another kind of fiction, will persist. And function. So it’s more obvious today, but I think even if you look back to a time when people are using, say, gold itself or silver itself as money, the gold- or silverness of the thing is not the money part. The part that makes it money—his thing we know we will be able to exchange for other things—is trust that other people will also think it’s money. It’s money if everybody thinks it’s money. And if everybody doesn’t think it’s money, it’s not money.

Steven Cherry Jacob, your book is a highly useful—and as I said, wildly entertaining—nonfiction. And I thank you for writing it and for joining us today.

Jacob Goldstein It’s very kind of you to say. I really had fun.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Jacob Goldstein, author of a new book just released: “Money: The True Story of a Made Up Thing,” about the past, present, and future of this most important made-up thing.

This interview was recorded September 2, 2020. Our audio engineering was by Gotham Podcast Studio in New York. Our music is by Chad Crouch. My thanks to the folks at Hachette for helping this along.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Additional Resources:

The Last Days of Cash: How E-Money Technology Is Plugging Us into the Digital Economy (IEEE Spectrum special report on the future of money)

/static/future-of-money

The Murderer, The Boy King, And The Invention Of Modern Finance (Planet Money podcast)

https://www.npr.org/2020/09/04/909876702/the-murderer-the-boy-king-and-the-invention-of-modern-finance

The Economist Who Believes the Government Should Just Print More Money (New Yorker profile of Stephanie Kelton)

https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-economist-who-believes-the-government-should-just-print-more-money

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

The Problem of Filter Bubbles Hasn’t Gone Away

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/telecom/internet/the-problem-of-filter-bubbles-hasnt-gone-away

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

In 2011, the former executive director of MoveOn gave a widely-viewed TED talk, “Beware Online Filter Bubbles“ that became a 2012 book and a startup. In all the talk of fake news these days, many of us have forgotten the unseen power of filter bubbles in determining the ways in which we think about politics, culture, and society. That startup tried to get people to read news they might otherwise not see by repackaging them with new headlines.

A recent app, called Ground News, has a different approach. It lets you look up a topic and see how it’s covered by media outlets with identifiably left-leaning or right-leaning slants. You can read the coverage itself, right–left–moderate or internationally; look at its distribution; or track a story’s coverage over time. Most fundamentally, it’s a way of seeing stories that you wouldn’t ordinarily come across.

My guest today is Sukh Singh, the chief technology officer of Ground News and one of its co-founders.

Sukh, welcome to the podcast.

Sukh Singh Thanks for having me on, Steven.

Steven Cherry Back in the pre-Internet era, newspapers flourished, but overall news sources were limited. Besides a couple of newspapers in one’s area, there would be two or three television stations you could get, and a bunch of radio stations that were mainly devoted to music. Magazines were on newsstands and delivered by subscription, but only a few concentrated on weekly news. That world is gone forever in favor of a million news sources, many of them suspect. And it seems the Ground News strategy is to embrace that diversity instead of lamenting it, putting stories in the context of who’s delivering them and what their agendas might be, and most importantly, break us out of the bubbles we’re in.

Sukh Singh That’s true that we are embracing the diversity as you mentioned, moving from the print era and the TV era to the Internet era. The costs of having a news outlet or any kind of a media distribution outlet have dropped dramatically to the point of a single-person operation becoming viable. That has had the positive benefit of allowing people to cater to very niche interests that were previously glossed over. But on the negative side, the explosion of a number of outlets out there certainly has—it has a lot of drawbacks. Our approach at Ground News is to take as wide a swath as we meaningfully can and put it in one destination for our subscribers.

Steven Cherry So has the problem of filter bubbles gotten worse since that term was coined a decade ago?

Sukh Singh It has. It has certainly gotten much worse. In fact, I would say by the time it was even coined, the development of filter bubbles were well underway before the phenomena was observed.

And that’s largely because it’s a natural outcome of the algorithms and, later, machine learning models used to determine what is being served, what content is being served to people. In the age of the Internet, personalization of a news feed became possible. And that meant more and more individual personalization and machines picking—virtually handpicking—what anybody get served. By and large, we saw the upstream effect of that being that news publications found out what type of content appealed to a large enough number of people to make to make them viable. And that has resulted in a shift from a sort of aspiration of every news outlet to be the universal record of truth to a more of an erosion of that. And now many outlets, certainly not all of them, but many outlets embracing the fact that they’re not going to cater to everyone; they are going to cater to a certain set of people who agree with their worldview. And their mission then becomes reinforcing that worldview, that agenda, that that specific set of beliefs through reiterated and repeated content for everything that’s happening in the world.

Steven Cherry People complain about the filtering of social media. But that original TED talk was about Google and its search results, which seems even more insidious. Where’s is the biggest problem today?

Sukh Singh I would say that social media has shocked us all in terms of how bad the problem can get. If you think back 10 years, 15 years … Social media as we have it today, would not have been the prediction of most people. If we think back to the origin of, say, Facebook, it was very much in the social networking era over most of the content you were receiving was from friends and family. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, certainly in this decade. Not the last one, where we saw this chimera of social network plus digital media becoming social media and the news feed there—going back to the personalization—catered to the one-engagement rhetoric, one-success metric being how much time-on-platform could they get the user to spend. Which, comparing against Google, isn’t as much about the success metrics, it’s more getting you to the right page or to the most relevant page as quickly as possible. But with social media, when that becomes a multi-hour-per-day activity, it certainly had more wide-reaching and deeper consequences.

Steven Cherry So I gave just a little sketch of how Ground News works. Do you want to say a little bit more about that?

Sukh Singh Absolutely. So I think you alluded to this in your earlier questions … going from the past age of print and TV media to the Internet age. What we’ve seen is that news delivery today has really bifurcated into two types, into two categories. We have the more traditional, more legacy based news outlets coming to the digital age, to the mobile age, with websites and mobile apps that are tailored along the conventional sections of, here’s the sports section, here’s the entertainment section, here’s a politics section—that was roughly how the world of information was divided up by these publications, and that has carried over. And on the other side, we see the social media feed, which has in many ways blown the legacy model out of the water.

It’s a single-drip feed where the user has to do no work and can just scroll and keep finding more and more and more … an infinite supply of engaging content. That divide doesn’t map exactly to education versus entertainment. Entertainment and sensationalism has been a part of media as far as back media goes. But there certainly is more affinity toward entertainment in a social media feed which caters to engagement.

So we at Ground News serve both those needs, through both those models, with two clearly labeled and divided feeds. One is Top Stories and the other one is My Feed. The Top Stories is more. … there’s a legacy model of, here are universally important news events that you should know about, no matter which walk of life you come from, no matter where you are located, no matter where your interests lie. And the second being My Feed, which is the recognition that ultimately people will care more about certain interests, certain topics, certain issues than other ones. So it is a nod to that personalization within the limits of not delving down to the same spiral of filter bubbles.

Steven Cherry There’s only so many reporters at a newspaper. There’s only so many minutes we have in a day to read the news. So in all of the coverage, for example, of the protests this past month—coverage we should be grateful for of an issue that deserves all the prominence it can get—a lot of other stories got lost. For example, there was a dramatic and sudden announcement of a reduction in our U.S. troop count in Germany. [Note: This episode was recorded June 18, 2020 — Ed.] I happened to catch that story in the New York Times myself. But it was a pretty small headline, buried pretty far down. It was covered in your weekly newsletter, though. I take it you see yourself as having a second mission besides one-sided news. The problem of under-covered news.

Sukh Singh Yes, we do, and that’s been a realization as we’ve made the journey of Ground News. It wasn’t something that we recognized from the onset, but something that we discovered as we were … as our throughput of news increased. We spoke about the problem of filter bubbles. And we initially thought the problem was bias. The problem was that a news event happens, some real concrete event happens in the real world, and then it is passed on as information through various news outlets, each one spinning it or at least wording it in a way that aligned to either their core agenda or to the likings of their audience. More and more, we found that the problem isn’t just bias and spin, it’s also the mission.

So if we look at the wide swath of left-leaning and right-leaning publications, news publications, in America today … If we were to go to the home page of two publications fairly wide apart on the political spectrum, you would not just find the same news stories with different headlines or different lenses, but an entirely different set of news stories. So much so—you mentioned our newsletter to the Blindspot report—in the Blindspot report. We pick each week five to six stories that were covered massively on one side of the political spectrum but entirely omitted from the other.

So in this case—the event that you mentioned about the troop withdrawal from Germany—it did go very unnoticed by certain parts of the political spectrum. So as a consumer, as a consumer who wants to be informed, going to one or two news sources, no matter how valuable, no matter how rigorous they are, will inevitably result in very large parts of the news out there that will be emitted from your field of view. It’s a secondary conversation, whether that’s whether if you’re going to the right set of publications or not. But what a more primary and more concerning conversation is: how do you communicate with your neighbor when they’re coming from a completely different set of news stories and a different worldview informed by them?

Steven Cherry The name Ground News seems to be a reference to the idea that there’s a ground truth. There are ground truths in science and engineering; it would be wonderful, for example, if we could do some truly random testing for coronavirus and get the ground truth on rates of infection. But are there ground truths in the news business anymore? Or are there only counterbalancings of partial truths?

Sukh Singh That’s a good question. I wouldn’t be as cynical to say as that there’s no news publications out there reporting what they truly believe to be the ground truth. But we do find ourselves in a world where … in a world of court counterbalances. We do turn on the TV news networks and we do see a set of three talking heads with a moderator in the middle and differing opinions on either side. So what we do, at Ground News—as you said, the reference to the name—is try to have that flat, even playing field where different perspectives can come and make their case.

So our aspiration is always to take the—whether that’s the ground truth, whether that’s in the world of science or in the world philosophy, whatever you want to call an atomic fact—is, take the real event and then have dozens, typically, on average, we have about 20 different news perspectives, local, national, international, left, right, all across the board covering the same news event. And are our central thesis is that the ultimate solution is reader empowerment, that no publication or technology can truly come to the conclusions for a person. And there’s perhaps a “shouldn’t” in there as well. So our mission really is to take the different news perspectives, present them on an even playing field to the user, to our subscribers, and then allow them to come to their own conclusion.

Steven Cherry So without getting entirely philosophical about this, it seems to me that—let’s say in the language of Plato’s Republic and the allegory of the cave—you’re able to help us look at more than just the shadows that are projected on the wall of the cave. We get to see all of the different people projecting the shadows, but we’re still not going to get to the Platonic forms of the actual truth of what’s happening in the world. Is that fair to say?

Sukh Singh Yes. Keeping with that allegory, I would say that our assertion is not that every single perspective is equally valid. That’s not a value judgment view that we ever make. We don’t label the left-right-moderate biases on any news publication or a platform. We actually source them from three arms-length nonprofit agencies that have the mission of labeling news publications by their demonstrated bias. So we aggregate and use those as labels in our platform. So we never pass a value judgment on any perspective. But my hope personally and ours as a company really is that some perspectives are getting you closer to the glimpse of the outside rather than just being another shadow on the wall. The onus really is on the reader to be able to say which perspective or which coverage they think most closely resembles what the ground truth is.

Steven Cherry I think that’s fair enough. And I think I would also be fair to add that, even for issues for which there really isn’t a pairing of two opposing sides—for example, climate change, responsible journalists pretty much ignore the idea of there being no climate change—but still, it’s important for people politically to understand that there are people out there who have not accepted climate change and that they’re still writing about it and still sharing views and so forth. And so it seems to me that what you’re doing is shining a light on that aspect of it.

Sukh Singh Absolutely, and one of our key aspirations and our mission is to enable people to have those conversations. So even if you are 100 percent convinced that you are going to credible news publications and you’re getting the most vetted and journalistically rigorous news coverage that is available on the free market, it may still be that you might not be able to reach across the aisle or just go next door and talk to your neighbor or your friend, who is living in a very different … different world view. Better or worse, again, we won’t pass judgment, but just having a more expanded scope of news stories that come into your field of view, on your radar, does enable you to have those conversations, even if you feel some of your peers may be misguided.

Steven Cherry The fundamental problem in news is that there are financial incentives for aggregators like Google and Facebook and for the news sources themselves to keep us in the bubbles that we’re in, feeding us only stories that fit our world view and giving us extreme versions of the news instead of more moderate ones. You yourself noted that with Facebook and other social networks, the user does no work in those cases. Using Ground News is something you have to do actively. Do you ever fear that it’s just a sort of Band-Aid that we can place on this gaping social wound?

Sukh Singh So let me deal with that in two parts, the first part is the financial sustainability of journalism. There certainly is a crisis there. And then I think we can have another of several more of these conversations about the financial sustainability in journalism and solutions to that crisis.

But one very easily identifiable problem is the reliance on advertising. I think a lot of news publications all too willingly started publicizing their content on the Internet to increase their reach and any advertising revenue that they could get off of that from Facebook, sorry, from Google and later Facebook, was incremental revenue to their print subscription. And they were, on the whole, very chipper to get incremental revenue by using the Internet. As we’ve seen, that problem has become a more and more of a stranglehold on news publications and media publications in general, where they’re trying to find a fight for these ad dollars. And the natural end of that, that competition is sensationalism and clickbait. That’s speaking to the financial sustainability in journalism there.

I mean, the path we’ve chosen to go down—exactly for that reason—is to charge subscriptions directly to our users. So we have thousands of paying subscribers now paying a dollar a month or ten dollars a year to access the features on Ground News. And that’s a nominal price point. But it also has an ulterior motive to that. It really is about habit-building and getting people to pay for news again. There are many of us have forgotten over the last couple of decades that news paying for news, which almost used to be that the same as paying for electricity or water, that sense of having to pay for news, has disappeared. We’re trying to revive that, which again, will hopefully pay dividends down the line for financial sustainability in journalism.

In terms of being a Band-Aid solution, we do think there is more of a movement for people accepting the responsibility to do the work, to inform themselves, which is direct and stands in direct contrast to the social media feed, which I think most of us have come to distrust, especially in recent years. There was a, I believe, Reuters study two years ago that showed that 2013 was the first year where people went to Facebook for their news, fewer people than to Facebook for their news in twenty eighteen than they did in the year before. And that was the first time in a decade. So I do think there’s a recognition of that. There’s a recognition a social media feed is no longer a viable news delivery mechanism. So people we do see come doing that little bit of work and on our part, we make it as accessible as possible here. Your question reminds me of the kind of adage that as a consumer, if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And that really is the divide using a free social media feed as opposed to paying for a news delivery mechanism.

Steven Cherry Ground News is actually a service of your earlier startup Snapwise. Do you want to say a little bit about it, what it does.

Sukh Singh My co-founder was a former NASA engineer of NASA’s satellite engineer who worked on earth observation satellites. So she was working on a constellation of satellites that went across the planet every 24 hours and mapped every square foot of the planet for literally the ground truth, what was happening everywhere on the planet. And once she left her space career and she and I was starting to talk about the impact of technology in journalism, we realized that if we can map the entire planet every 24 hours and have an undeniable record of what what’s happening in the world, why can’t we have the same in the news industry? So our earliest iteration of what is now Ground News was much more focused on citizen journalism and getting folks to use their phones to communicate what was happening in the world around them and getting that firsthand data into the information stream, which we consume as news consumers.

If this is starting to sound like Twitter, we ran into several of the same drawbacks, especially when it came to news integrity and verifying the facts and making sure that what people were using as information really was to them to the same grade as professional journalists. And more and more, we realized we couldn’t diminish the role of professional journalists in delivering what the news is. So we started to advocate more and more vetted, credible news publications from across the world. And before we knew it, we had fifty thousand different unique sources of news, local, national, international, left-to-right, all the way down from your town newspaper to you to a giant multi-national press wire service like Thomson Reuters. We were taking all those different news sources and putting them in the same platform. So so that’s really been our evolution, as people trying to solve some of these problems in the journalistic industry.

Steven Cherry How do you identify publications as being on the left or on the right?

Sukh Singh As we started aggregating more and more news sources, we got over to the 10,000 mark. And before we knew what we were up to 50,000 news sources that we were covering. It’s humanly impossible for our small team or imagine even a much, much larger team to really carefully go and label each of them. So we’ve taken that from a number of news monitoring agencies whose mission and entire purpose as organizations is to review and review news publications.

So we use three different ones today. Media Bias Fact Check, AllSides, as well as Ad Fontes Media and all three of these, I would call them rating agencies, if you want to use the stock market analogy, that sort of rate, the political leanings and factual sort of demonstrated factuality of these news organizations. We take that as inputs. We aggregate them. But you do make exactly their original labels available on our platform, to use an analogy from the movie world, where we’re sort of like Metacritic, aggregating ratings from IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes and different platforms and making that all transparently available for consumers.

Steven Cherry You’re based in Canada, in Kitchener, which is a small city about an hour from Toronto. I think Americans think of Canada as having avoided some of the extremisms of the U.S. I mean, other than maybe burning down the White House a couple of centuries ago, it’s been a pretty easy-going get-along kind of place. Do you think being Canadian and looking at the U.S. from a bit of a distance contributed to what you’re doing?

Sukh Singh We had I don’t think we’ve had a belligerent reputation since since the War of 1812. As Canadians, we do enjoy a generally nice-person kind of stereotype. We are, as you said, at arm’s length. And sitting’s not quite a safe distance away, but across the border from everything that happens in the US, but with frequent trips down and just being deeply integrating with the United States as as a country, we do get a very, very close view on what’s happening.

North of the border, we do have our own political … I mean, we do have our own political system to deal with all of its workings and all of its ins and outs. But in terms of where we’ve really seen Ground News deliver value, it certainly has been in the United States. That is are both our biggest market and our largest set of subscribers by far.

Steven Cherry Thank you so much for giving us this time today and explaining a service that’s really providing an essential function in this chaotic news political world.

Sukh Singh Thanks, Steven.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Sukh Singh, CTO and co-founder of Ground News, an app that helps break us out of our filter bubbles and tries to provide a 360-degree view of the news.

Our audio engineering was by Gotham Podcast Studio in New York. Our music is by Chad Crouch.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

This interview was recorded June 18, 2020.

Resources

Spotify, Machine Learning, and the Business of Recommendation Engines

https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/

AllSides

Ad Fontes Media

“Beware Online Filter Bubbles” (TED talk)

The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think, by Eli Pariser (Penguin, 2012)

Reimagining Public Buses in the Age of Uber

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/transportation/alternative-transportation/reimagining-public-buses-in-the-age-of-uber

Steven Cherry Hi this is Steven Cherry, for Radio Spectrum.

A thread on Reddit once started:

“So I recently got a job offer that is about 15 miles away from where I live. I don’t have a car so I’m planning on commuting by bus, however the commute is estimated to last anywhere from 70-85 minutes. This is my first post-grad job … I really need the experience. However, I’m wondering if it is worth it … two hours a day just in my commute.”

Metropolises like London, Tokyo, and New York are built up on a backbone of subways and rail transit. But in much of the world, people without cars travel by bus. And that’s a problem, if a 15-mile commute takes five times as many minutes.

Marchetti’s Constant, named after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, is the average time people spend on their daily commute, which is approximately a half hour each way, all around the world. The average U.S. commute is about 27 minutes, up 8 percent from a decade earlier. But that averages people who walk 10 minutes to work with people who drive an hour; it averages people who have a quick subway ride and people taking two or three buses that run only infrequently.

In the mid-2000s, the megacity of São Paulo developed a system of buses making limited stops and with their own lanes that my colleague Erico Guizzo wrote about in 2007. It’s a scheme that perhaps made sense 15 years ago, trying to combine the best of highway transport with the best of rail transit.

But in the mind of another Italian physicist who has turned his attention and his career to transportation, we now have enough computing power—smartphones, AI, and the cloud—for a different kind of solution.

My guest today, Tommaso Gecchelin, is a physicist and industrial designer. After studying quantum mechanics in Padua, Italy, and industrial design in Venice, he co-founded something called NEXT Future Transportation. For the past seven years there he has been developing a system of bus pods, one that in effect chops up a bus into car-sized pieces and has the potential to combine the best of commuter buses with the best of Uber. He joins me via Skype.

Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Tommaso Gecchelin Thank you very much. Thank you for having me here.

Steven Cherry Tom “chopping up a bus into car sized pieces” is my characterization of this system. Why don’t you describe it yourself?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, we would describe them like a very short section of a bus that can dock together, forming a longer unit. So it’s like a train when where all the cars can drive themselves. They can be independent. They can be like cars or like taxis when they are alone. And when they join together, they can form a bus. But the most important thing is that they communicate with each other physically. So when they are connected, the doors open in between. So basically, they create something that we call a “stopless station” because the passengers can freely walk between the one unit and the other internally without the need for the entire bus to stop, to drop off, and pick them up again.

Steven Cherry So they’re a little bit longer than a Smart car. They’re self-driving. They have doors at either end. They communicate with one another and their passengers constantly. They mate up at highway speeds so smoothly that you can walk from one to the other. And they know who needs to get where and which pod needs to connect with which potentially hundreds of pods and tens of thousands of people, maybe twenty-four hours a day. What could possibly go wrong?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes. It seems like a very complicated thing but actually we try to simplify lots of the project from the start of it to now. And for example, what we are trying to do now, it’s to focus on the docking procedure and the modularity of the system instead of being too focused on the self-driving because the self-driving part, it’s most difficult thing to do, and it’s the most difficult also to certify and to be legal on the road at the moment.

Steven Cherry We’re going to get to all of that, but let me first ask what the experience will be like. As I understand it, I’m sitting at home in the morning getting ready for work. My phone tells me a pod has arrived; I get on; the system, figures out that another pod is going to go near my destination. It determines where the two pods should connect. My phone alerts me when that moment is near and tells me which pod to switch to because there may be several connected at this train like way at this point. Am I picturing this correctly?

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. The only difference is that it’s very likely that you don’t have more than two pods docked together at the same time. Because generally the first mile, it’s covered by one pod that picks you up alone like a taxi that you call. And then afterward, when you’re merging into main roads, it docking to another pod, that generally is already almost full because they have done the same thing again and again. So you just walk to the port that has already few people inside. So you leave your pod completely empty and your pod will detach and go to pick up other people. So it’s like a relay race.

Steven Cherry And from the central city in the afternoon, back to the suburbs, it would be the same in reverse.

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. Generally, you are not that interested in timing when you are going back to home. So the vehicles will split with ten people inside, then they will do two or three stops before you get home. So you don’t need to get home completely alone. That’s a slight difference from the beginning of the trip in the morning.

Steven Cherry Yes. And that’s in the central city model, people leave for work at very different times, but frequently they leave work at pretty close to the same time. So it is a little different in that respect. I’m wondering, does your modeling tell you—if I have, say, in my own car, a maybe a half-hour commute—with the pods connecting and multiple people and perhaps even waiting at a sort of pod bus shelter for a few minutes for my next pod to come, what would be the average transit time? I imagine it would increase a little bit at least.

Tommaso Gecchelin Well, this is the difference. You never have to stop to wait for another pod. The pods always docked together when they are traveling. And if you cannot find another pod traveling in your direction, you will get directly to your destination. Because we want to differentiate our system from traditional buses, to increase the comfort for the passengers. So we absolutely never stop to drop off people at the end to pick up another pod in case they have any connection, let’s say, pod connection, they will dock together—the two pods—and the people would just walk from one to the other. So it’s very different from a bus. The transportation system is built for this feature. And to reply to your question, we did a lot of simulation and roughly, the increase in the travel time is roughly five percent.

Steven Cherry That’s very little. And there is an advantage of not having to park at the destination. So that might actually save that five percent as well.

This depends on a certain amount of scale, I would imagine. And so do you have any thoughts on what the optimum geographies are? Is it as big metropolitan areas with lots of suburbs? What about smaller ones like, say, Pittsburgh … the city has 300,000 people and the metro area is about four times that. And what about cities like Albany, New York, or South Bend, Indiana, which have about 100,000 each.

Tommaso Gecchelin Well, we focus on cities that have very dense downtown, and very sparse suburb areas. So most of the cities in the U.S. are like that. We concentrated also on cities like Dubai that have very concentrated traffic in the main part of the city. Sheikh Zayev Road. So these cities are the most optimizable by our system. And on the other side, European cities vary with fairly homogeneous density of pick-up and drop-off—and so origin and destination matrix. In that case, the optimization level is slightly less.

Steven Cherry Now you first developed a 1:10 scaled prototype and brought it to Dubai, where I guess it was enough of a hit that they had you build two pods to be tested there. And you’ve trialed some key technology pieces: the linking up and the walking from one to the other at speed; the cloud intelligence; the communication to the mobile-device app … Each of these seems like a huge challenge.

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, it was very critical for us to test the vehicle in a 1:1 scale after the 1:10 scale was working. So we convinced the sheik of Dubai to buy two vehicles and up to the very end of the engineering and prototyping phase, we were a little bit afraid about the docking procedure. Then afterwards, it worked perfectly. So every calculation we have done was good. And we have done a very, very good job and good showcase in Dubai.

Steven Cherry Does Dubai’s cities have the kind of density and central city / sparse suburbs that you imagine to be optimal? And do they have any thoughts about building out a complete system for themselves?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, the city of Dubai … It’s perfect for our system, especially because the the destinations are very, very concentrated. For example, Dubai Mall—it’s a destination of very, let’s say punctual, very specific. And on the other hand, you have in almost every house, it’s sparse in the other part of the city that that’s Sharjah [U.A.E.], that it’s like the residential area of Dubai. So we had done a lot of similation, especially in Dubai. And this is optimizing very much the system, the traffic in Dubai.

Steven Cherry Do they have much of a public transport network there now? And more generally, do you envision the system coexisting with transport systems or do you expect it to largely replace them?

Tommaso Gecchelin I think that it will co-exist because it’s not trying to take away passengers from the buses or Metro. They are trying to take out private cars. So, in fact, the system, it’s a little bit more expensive than regular buses, but nonetheless, it’s picking you up at home. So it’s much more similar to a taxi. Let’s say the price tag, it’s in between them and it’s much cheaper than having a car, that private car, and to manage them, to park them. So it’s much more convenient and also cheaper than a car a private car. But at the same time, it’s cheaper than a taxi, even if it’s basically giving you the same service. So at the same time to this destination and the same ubiquity as a taxi.

Steven Cherry In New York, for example, there are single and double buses, sometimes it’s standing room only, but sometimes they’re only carrying a handful of people. When you “chop up a bus” to use my term of maybe 40 or 50 or 80 people into four or six or eight pods, each pod is closer to its capacity. How expensive might five pods end up being compared to, say, a 50-person bus?

Tommaso Gecchelin Five pods will be roughly equivalent to a 12-meter bus. So we are trying to get to the price where five pods will be equivalent also, in terms of the price to an electric bus, a premium electric bus. So this is our goal.

Steven Cherry Just to be clear, a 12-meter bus would have what seating capacity?

Tommaso Gecchelin It really depends if it’s a city bus or an entire city bus. But generally it goes from 50 to 70 people.

Steven Cherry So similar capacity really, because your pods would seat six and have a total capacity of 10.

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. Very comfortably. And they can go up to 15 people—each pod—if you want to have the same density per person—so [the same] people-per-square-meter of a typical city bus.

Steven Cherry A point I haven’t heard in any of the presentations of yours that I’ve watched is that in an all-electric vehicle system, a single pod can go out of service to recharge instead of an entire 50 person or 75 person bus. So only one-fifth of the bus, so to speak, has to go offline.

Tommaso Gecchelin Exactly. This is a very interesting feature because it’s like having swappable batteries. Because you can swap one pod. So you cut your capacity at that moment by 10 percent or 20 percent instead of the entire capacity of the bus.

Steven Cherry It seems like pods are also going to be much more manageable within the cities than buses—making left turns on narrow streets, parking, pulling over … Bus stops nowadays typically take up one hundred feet of road or sidewalk. There are a lot of things to like about these smaller pods.

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, in fact, that you can park two pods stuck together in the place where you generally put a traditional car.

Steven Cherry I think you know that I teach at New York University’s engineering school as an adjunct professor. There’s an NYU connection to the story, as I understand it.

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, yes. And actually, Joseph Chow featured us in a paper. And afterwards, we started a collaboration with them. And so they are doing a research paper on this modularity and the benefit—that he’s calling “in-route transfer.” So it’s the transfer of the passengers while they are going on the road without stopping. It’s it’s a very interesting collaboration, actually.

Steven Cherry Yes, Chow is the deputy director of C2Smart, which stands for Connected Cities with Smart Transportation. And there was also an important contribution by a graduate student as part of his master’s thesis?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, exactly. Nick Paros as part of the master’s thesis did a great job describing the behavior of our vehicles.

Steven Cherry Tom, what sort of timeline are we on? Do we have to wait for others to perfect the self-driving aspect? Do you have any idea when we would see a full system ready to be built?

Tommaso Gecchelin Well, at the moment, we are doing a lot of studies to understand if the system makes sense before self-driving would be legal. So, for example, when you split the bus, each pod will be driven by one of the passengers. So it’s like a hybrid between Uber and the traditional bus. So our next step is to certify the vehicle in Europe at the moment for European laws—to be road legal in all the public roads. With the driver. So driverless will be the next step, but not right now.

Steven Cherry And in the long run, you envision that these pods could also do package delivery as almost an additional business model?

Tommaso Gecchelin Yes, they they can do, let’s say, package logistics. But the most interesting thing, it’s to do retail logistics. So not just delivering to you a package like Amazon is doing, but delivering to you the entire retail experience, because each pod can be dressed, can be customized like a room, like a retail store. So when it’s coming to you—or in motion in the future—it will really be a new business line for us. And it will be really the future of retail, especially in this Covid period in which it’s a little bit more frightening to go to the mall.

Steven Cherry Tom, I mentioned at the top of the show your eclectic background. You also paint real paintings that have been featured in art exhibitions. And you’ve written that—and this is a quote of yours—”art reaches the eyes and the heart of the user.” Calling the viewer a user suggests that these are closely related passions for you, art and science and technology. Are they?

Tommaso Gecchelin Absolutely. I always tried to merge them, to mix them, to create something that it’s more than the two parts separated because generally heart … It doesn’t really use the science to get to the point, to get to be fully useful for people. And I’m trying to do something that …  It’s not just expressing myself, but it’s trying to be something really useful, something that it’s doing good for the whole world.

Steven Cherry Well, Tom, I think you’ve come up with an artful, elegant solution to what has been an intractable urban and especially suburban problem. I wish you and the project in boca al lupo.

Tommaso Gecchelin Ah, yes [laughter], in boca al lupo.

Steven Cherry And I thank you for joining me today. Grazie.

Tommaso Gecchelin Prego.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Tomaso Gecchelin, co-founder and CEO of Next Future Transportation, which wants to reimagine Uber as a public transit system, where connecting from one bus to another is as easy as walking from the kitchen to the living room.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

 

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

The Problem of Old Code and Older Coders

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/computing/it/the-problem-of-old-code-and-older-coders

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed any number of weaknesses in our technologies, business models, medical systems, media, and more. Perhaps none is more exposed than what my guest today calls, “The Hidden World of Legacy IT.” If you remember last April’s infamous call for volunteer COBOL programmers by the governor of New Jersey, when his state’s unemployment and disability benefits systems needed to be updated, that turned out to be just the tip of a ubiquitous multi-trillion-dollar iceberg—yes, trillion with ‘t’—of outdated systems. Some of them are even more important to us than getting out unemployment checks—though that’s pretty important in its own right. Water treatment plants, telephone exchanges, power grids, and air traffic control are just a few of the systems controlled by antiquated code.

In 2005, Bob Charette wrote a seminal article, entitled “Why Software Fails.” Now, fifteen years later, he strikes a similar nerve with another cover story that shines a light at the vast and largely hidden problem of legacy IT. Bob is a 30-year veteran of IT consulting, a fellow IEEE Spectrum contributing editor, and I’m happy to say my good friend as well as my guest today. He joins us by Skype.

Bob, welcome to the podcast.

Bob Charette Thank you, Steven.

Steven Cherry Bob, legacy software, like a middle child or your knees meniscus, isn’t something we think about much until there’s a problem. You note that we know more about government systems because the costs are a matter of public record. But are the problems of the corporate world just as bad?

Bob Charette Yes. There’s really not a lot of difference between what’s happening in government and what’s happening in industry. As you mentioned, government is more visible because you have auditors who are looking at failures and [are] publishing reports. But there’s been major problems in airlines and banks and insurance companies—just about every industry that has IT has a problem with legacy systems in one way or another.

Steven Cherry Bob, the numbers are staggering. In the past 10 years, at least $2.5 trillion has been spent trying to replace legacy IT systems, of which some seven hundred and twenty billion dollars was utterly wasted on failed replacement efforts. And that’s before the last of the COBOL generation retires. Just how big a problem is this?

Bob Charette That’s a really good question. The size of the problem really is unknown. We have no clear count of the number of systems that are legacy in government where we should be able to have a pretty good idea. We have really no insight into what’s happening in industry. The only thing that we that we do know is that we’re spending trillions of dollars annually in terms of operations and maintenance of these systems, and as you mentioned, we’re spending hundreds of billions per year in trying to modernize them with large numbers failing. This is this is one of the things that when I was doing the research and you try to find some authoritative number, there just isn’t any there at all.

In fact, a recent report by the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General basically said that even they could not figure out how many systems were actually legacy in Social Security. And in fact, the Social Security Administration didn’t know itself either.

Steven Cherry So some of that is record-keeping problems, some of that is secrecy, especially on the corporate side. A little bit of that might be definitional. So maybe we should step back and ask what the philosophers call the the ti esti [τὸ τί ἐστι] question—the what-is question. Does everybody agree on what legacy IT is? What counts as legacy?

Bob Charette No. And that’s another problem. What happens is there’s different definitions in different organizations and in different government agencies, even in the US government. And no one has a standard definition. About the closest that we come to is that it’s a system that does not meet the business need for some reason. Now, I want to make it very clear: The definition doesn’t say that it has to be old, or past a certain point in time Nor does it mean that it’s COBOL. There are systems that have been built and are less than 10 years old that are considered legacy because they no longer meet the business need. So the idea is, is that there’s lots of reasons why it may not meet the business needs—there may be obsolescent hardware, the software software may not be usable or feasible to be improved. There may be bugs in the system that just can’t be fixed at any reasonable cost. So there’s a lot of reasons why a system may be termed legacy, but there’s really no general definition that everybody agrees with.

Steven Cherry Bob, states like your Virginia and New York and every state in the Union keep building new roads, seemingly without a thought. A few years ago, a Bloomberg article noted that every mile of fresh new road will one day become a mile of crumbling old road that needs additional attention. Less than half of all road budgets go to maintenance. A Texas study found that the 40-year cost to maintain a $120 million  highway was about $800 million. Do we see the same thing in IT? Do we keep building new systems, seemingly without a second thought that we’re going to have to maintain them?

Bob Charette Yes, and for good reason. When we build a system and it actually works, it works usually for a fairly long time. There’s kind of an irony and a paradox. The irony is that the longer these systems live, the harder they are to replace. Paradoxically, because they’re so important, they also don’t receive any attention in terms of spend. Typically, for every dollar that’s spent on developing a system, there’s somewhere between eight and 10 dollars that’s being spent to maintain it over its life. But very few systems actually are retired before their time. Almost every system that I know of, of any size tends to last a lot longer than what the designers ever intended.

Steven Cherry The Bloomberg article noted that disproportionate spending by states on road expansion, at the expense of regular repair—again, less than half of state road budgets are spent on maintenance—has left many roads in poor condition. IT spent a lot of money on maintenance, but a GAO study found that a big part of IT budgets are for operations and maintenance at the expense of modernization or replacement. And in fact, that ratio is getting higher, that less and less money is available for upgrades.

Bob Charette  Well, there’s two factors at play. One is, it’s easier to build new systems, so there’s money to build new systems, and that’s what we we constantly do. So we’re building new IT systems over time, which has again, proliferated the number of systems that we need to maintain. So as we build more systems, we’re going to eat up more of our funding so that when it comes time to actually modernize these, there’s less money available. The other aspect is, as we build these systems, we don’t build them a standalone systems. These systems are interconnected with others. And so when you interconnect lots of different systems, you’re not maintaining just an individual s— you’re maintaining this system of systems. And that becomes more costly. Because the systems are interconnected, and because they are very costly to replace, we tend to hold onto these systems longer. And so what happens is that the more systems that you build and interconnect, the harder it is later to replace them, because the cost of replacement is huge. And the probability of failure is also huge.

Steven Cherry Finally—and I promise to get off the highway comparison after this—there seems to be a point at which roads, even when well maintained, need to be reconstructed, not just maintained and repaved. And that point for roads is typically the 40-year mark. Are we seeing something like that in IT?

Bob Charette Well, we’re starting to see a radical change. I think that one of the real changes in IT development and maintenance and support has been the notion of what’s called DevOps, this notion of having development and operations being merged into one.

Since the beginning almost of IT systems development, we’ve thought about it as kind of being in two phases. There is the development phase, and then there was a separate maintenance phase. And a maintenance phase could last anywhere from 8, 10, some systems now are 20, 30, 40 years old. The idea now is to say when you develop it, you have to think about how you’re going to support it and therefore, development and maintenance are rolled into one. It’s kind of this idea that software is never done and therefore, hopefully in the future, this problem of legacy in many ways will go away. We’ll still have to worry about at some point where you can’t really support it anymore. But we should have a lot fewer failures, at least in the operational side. And our costs hopefully will also go down.

Steven Cherry So we can have the best of intentions, but we build roads and bridges and tunnels to last for 40 or 50 years, and then seventy-five years later, we realize we still need them and will for the foreseeable future. Are we still going to need COBOL programmers in 2030? 2050? 2100?

Bob Charette Probably. There’s so much coded in COBOL. And a lot of them work extremely well. And it’s not the software so much that that is the problem. It’s the hardware obsolescence. I can easily foresee COBOL systems being around for another 30, 40, maybe even 50 years. And even that I may be underestimating the longevity of these systems. What’s true in the military, where aircraft like to be 50 to, which was supposed to have about a 20 to 25 year life, is now one hundred years old, replacing everything in the aircraft over a period of time.

There is research being done by DARPA and others to look at how to extend systems and possibly have a system be around for 100 years. And you can do that if you’re extremely clever in how you design it. And also have this idea of how I’m going to constantly upgrade and constantly repair the system and make it easy to move both the data and the hardware. And so I think, again, we’re starting to see the realization that IT, which at one time—again, systems designers were always thinking about 10 years is great, twenty years is fantastic—that maybe now that these system’s, core systems, may be around for one hundred years,.

Steven Cherry Age and complexity have another consequence: Unlike roads, there’s a cybersecurity aspect to all of this as well.

Bob Charette Yeah, that’s probably the biggest weakness that that occurs in new systems, as well as with legacy systems. Legacy systems were never really built with security in mind. And in fact, one of the common complaints even today with new systems is that security isn’t built in; it’s bolted on afterwards, which makes it extremely difficult.

I think security has really come to the fore, especially in the last two or three years where we’ve had this … In fact last year we had over 100 government systems in the United States—local, state and federal systems—that were subject to ransomware attacks and successful ransomware attacks because the attackers focused in on legacy systems, because they were not as well maintained in terms of their security practices as well as the ability to be made secure. So I think security is going to be an ongoing issue into the foreseeable future.

Steven Cherry The distinction between development and operations brings to mind another one, and that is we think of executable software and data as very separate things. That’s the basis of computing architectures ever since John von Neumann. But legacy IT has a problem with data as well as software, doesn’t it?

Bob Charette One of the areas that we didn’t get to explore very deeply in the story, mostly because of space limitations, is is the problem of data. Data is one of the most difficult things to move from one system to another. In the story, we talked about a Navy system, a payroll system … The Navy was trying to consolidate 55 systems into one and they use dozens of programing languages. They have multiple databases. The formats are different. How the data is accessed—what business processes, how they use the data—is different. And when you try to think about how you’re going to move all that information and make sure that the information is relevant, it’s correct. We want to make sure we don’t have dirty data. Those things all need to come to be so that when we move to a new system, the data actually is what we want. And in fact, if you take a look at the IRS, the IRS has 60-year-old systems and the reason they have 60-year-old systems is because they have 60-year-old data on millions of companies and millions of—or hundreds of millions of—taxpayers and trying to move that data to new systems and make sure that you don’t lose it and you don’t corrupt it has been a decades-long problem that they’ve been trying to solve.

Steven Cherry Making sure you don’t lose individuals or duplicate individuals across databases when you merge them.

Bob Charette One of the worst things that you can do is have not only duplicate data, but have data that actually is incorrect and then you just move that incorrect data into a new system.

Steven Cherry Well, Bob, as I said, you did it before with why software fails and you’ve done it again with this detailed investigation. Thanks for publishing “The Hidden World of Legacy IT,” and thanks for joining us today.

Bob Charette My pleasure. Steven.

We’ve been speaking with IT consultant Bob Charette about the enormous and still-growing problem of legacy IT systems.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

 

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.

Spotify, Machine Learning, and the Business of Recommendation Engines

Post Syndicated from Steven Cherry original https://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/consumer-electronics/audiovideo/spotify-machine-learning-and-the-business-of-recommendation-engines

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

You’re surely familiar—though you may not know it by name—with the Paradox of Choice; we’re surrounded by it: 175 salad dressing choices, 80,000 possible Starbucks beverages, 50 different mutual funds for your retirement account.

“All of this choice,” psychologists say, “starts to be not only unproductive, but counterproductive—a source of pain, regret, worry about missed opportunities, and unrealistically high expectations.”

And yet, we have more choices than ever— 32,000 hours to watch on Netflix, 10 million e-books on our Kindles, 5000 different car makes and models, not counting color and dozens of options.

It’s too much. We need help. And that help is available in the form of recommendation engines. In fact, they may be helping us a bit too much, according to my guest today.

Michael Schrage is a research fellow at the MIT Sloan School’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. He advises corporations— including Procter & Gamble, Google, Intel, and Siemens—on innovation and investment, and he’s the author of several books including 2014’s The Innovator’s Hypothesis, and the 2020 book Recommendation Engines, newly published by MIT Press. He joins us today via Skype.

Steven Cherry Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Michael Schrage Thank you so much for having me.

Steven Cherry Michael, many of us think of recommendation engines as those helpful messages at Netflix or Amazon, such as people like you also watched or also bought, but also Yelp and TripAdvisor, predictive text choices and spelling corrections. And, of course, Twitter posts, Google results and they order things are your Facebook feed. How ubiquitous are recommendation engines?

Michael Schrage They’re ubiquitous. They’re pervasive. They’re becoming more so, in no small part because of the way the reason for which you set up this talk. There’s more choices and more choices aren’t inherently better choices. So what are the ways that better data and better algorithms can personalize or customize or in some other way make more relevant a choice or an opportunity for you? That is the reason why I wrote the Recommendation Engines book, because this issue of, on one hand, the explosion of choice in the absence of time, the constraints of time, but the chance, the opportunity to get something that really resonates with you, that really pleasantly and instructively and empoweringly helps you—that’s a big deal. That’s a big deal. And I think it’s a big deal that’s going to become a bigger deal as machine learning algorithms kick in and our recommender systems, our recommendation engines become even smarter.

Steven Cherry I want to get to some examples, but before we do, it seems like prediction and recommendation are all tied up with one another. Do we need to distinguish them?

That is an excellent, excellent question. And let me tell you why I think it’s such an excellent question. When I really began looking into this area, I thought of recommendation as just that, you know, analytics and analytics proffers out relevant choices. In fact, depending upon the kind of datasets you have access to, one can and should think of recommendation engines as generators of predictions of things you will like. Predictions of things you will engage with. Predictions of things you will buy. Now, what you like and what you engage with and what you buy may be different things to optimize around, but they are all different predictions. And so, yes—recommendation engines are indeed predictors.

Steven Cherry Back in the day Spectrum had some of the early articles on the Netflix Prize. Netflix now seems to collect data on just about every moment we spend on the service … what we queue up, how much bingeing we do, where exactly we stop a show for the night or forever …. It switched from a five-star rating system to a thumbs up or down, and it seems it doesn’t even need that information when there’s so much actual behavior to go by.

Michael Schrage You are exactly right on the Netflix instrumentation. It is remarkable what they have learned and what they do—and decline to disclose about what they’ve learned—about the difference between what’s called implicit versus explicit ratings. Explicit ratings are exactly what you’ve described, five stars. But in fact, thumbs up, thumbs down turns out to be statistically quite relevant and quite useful. The most important thing Netflix discovered and of course, let’s not forget that Netflix didn’t begin as a streaming service. It began with its delivery system being the good old-fashioned United States Postal Service. What Netflix discovered was people’s behavior was far more revealing and far more useful in terms of, yes, predicting preference.

Steven Cherry So Netflix encourages us to binge-watch. But it seems YouTube is really the master at queuing up a next video and playing it … you start a two-minute video and find that an hour has gone by … In the book, you say Uber uses much the same technique with its drivers. How does that work?

Michael Schrage Yes! YouTube has really literally, not just figuratively re-engineered itself around recommendation. And TikTok was a born recommender. The circumstances for Uber were somewhat different because what Uber did and its analytics was it discovered that if there was too much downtime between rides, some of its drivers would abandon the platform and become Lyft drivers. So the question then became, how do we keep our power drivers engaged constructively, productively, cost-effectively, time-effectively engaged? And they began to do stacking and they began to—the team using a platform I think called Leonardo—began analyzing what kind of requests were coming in. And they began sorting out and stacking requests so that drivers could literally, as they were dropping somebody off, have the option, a recommendation of one or two or three, depending upon what the flow was, what the queue was, what ride match they could do next.

And that was a very obviously a very, very big deal because it was a win-win for the platform. It gave more choices for people who wanted to use the ride-hailing service. But it also kept the flow of drivers very, very smooth and consistent. So it was a demand-smoothing and a supply-smoothing approach. And recommendation is really key for that. In fact, forgive me for going on a bit longer on this, but this was one of the reasons why Netflix went into recommender systems and recommendation engines, because, of course, everybody wanted the blockbuster films back in the DVD days. So what could we give people if we were out of the top five blockbusters? So this was the emergence of recommendation engines to help manage the long- or longer-tail phenomenon. How can we customize the experience? How can we do a better job of managing inventory? So there are certain transcendent mathematical algorithmic techniques that were as relevant to the Uber you hail as to the movie you watch.

Steven Cherry Recommendation engine designers draw from psychology, but also you say in the book from behavioral economics and then even one more area persuasion technology. How do these three things differ and how did they fit into the recommendation engines?

Michael Schrage They are very different flavors—and I’m very much appreciative of that question and that perception because there’s the classic notion that, you know, the recommendation it’s about persuasion and there is persuasion technology. It’s been called captiveology. And it’s the folks at Stanford were pioneers in that regard. And one of the people in the class, one of the captiveology classes, persuasion technology classes, ended up being a founder, a co-founder of Instagram.

And the whole notion there is how do we persuade or how do we design a technology was rooted in technology. How do we design and technology, engagement or interaction to create persistent engagement, persistent awareness? So in Stanford, for understandable reasons, it was rooted in technology. Psychology, absolutely. The history of choice presentation you mentioned about the tyranny, the paradox of choice. Barry Schwartz’s work in Swarthmore. How do people cognitively process choice? When does choice become overwhelming? There’s the famous article by George Miller, the magic number seven plus or minus two, which talks about the cognitive constraints that people have when they are trying to make a decision. This is where psychology and economics began to intersect with Herb Simon, who was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence from Carnegie Tech and then Carnegie Mellon—bounded rationality. So there are limits on what we can’t remember everything. So what are the limits and how do those limits constrain the quantity and quality of choices that we make?

This evolved into behavioral economics. This was Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and Kahneman also won the Nobel Prize in economics. Cognitive heuristics, shortcuts. And basically what you had was the incred—because of the Internet, you had all of these incredible software and technical tools, and the Internet became the greatest laboratory for behavioral, economic, psychological, and captiveology experiments in the history of the world. And the medium, the format, the template, which made the most sense for doing this kind of experimentation. These kinds of experimentation, mashing up persuasion technology with behavioral economics was recommender systems, recommendation engines. They really became the domain where this work was tested, explored, exploited. And in 2007, the RecSys, the Recommendation Systems Conference, academic conference, was launched internationally and people from all over the world, and most importantly, from all of these disciplines, computer science, psychology, economics, etc., they came and began sharing stuff in this regard. So it’s a remarkable, remarkable epistemological story, not just a technological or innovation story.

Steven Cherry You point out that startups nowadays are not only born digital but born recommending. You have three great case studies in the book, Spotify, ByteDance, which is the company behind TikTok, and Stitch Fix, which is a billion-dollar startup that applies data science to fashion. I want to talk about Spotify because the density of data is just a bit mind-bending here. Two hundred million users, 30 million songs, spectrogram data of each song’s tempo key and loudness, activity logs and user playlists. micro-genre analysis…. You were particularly impressed by Spotify Discover Weekly Service, which uses all of that data. Could you tell us about it?

Michael Schrage Yes. And it’s the fifth anniversary and I just got a release saying that they’ve been over 2.3 billion hours streamed under Discovery. And the whole idea was that it’s an obvious idea, but it’s an obvious idea that’s difficult to do. The idea was, what can you listen to that you’ve never heard before? Discover. This is key. One of the key elements of effective recommender-system/recommendation- engine design is discovery and serendipity. And what they did was basically launch a program where you get a playlist, where you get to hear stuff that you’ve never heard before but that you are likely to like. And how can they be confident that you are likely to like it? Because it deals directly with everything that you mentioned in setting up the question. The micro-genres, the tempo, the cadence, the different genres, what you have on your playlist, what your friends have on their playlists, etc. And of course, as with Netflix, they track your behavior. How long do you listen to the track? Do you skip it, etc? And it’s proven to be remarkably successful.

And it illustrates to my mind one of the most interesting ontological, epistemological, esthetic, and philosophical issues that that recommendation engine design raises: What is the nature of similarity? How similar is similar? What is the more important similarity in music? The lyrics? The tempo, the mood, the spectrograph, the acoustics, the time of day? What are the dimensions of similarity that matter most? And the algorithms that either individually or ensembled tease out and identify and rank those similarities. And based on those similarities, proffer this list, t his playlist of songs, of music you are most likely to like. It’s remarkable. It’s a prediction of your future taste based on your past behavior. But! But! Not in a way that is simply, no pun intended, an echo of what you’ve liked in the past.

But it represents a trajectory of what you are likely to like in the future. And I find that fascinating because it’s using the past to predict serendipitous, surprising, and unexpected future preferences, seemingly unexpected future preferences. I think that’s a huge deal.

Steven Cherry Yeah, the music case is so interesting to me, I think, because, you know, we want to hear new things that we’re going to like, but we also want to hear the old stuff that we know that we like. It’s that mix that’s really interesting. And it seems to me that you go to a concert and the artist, without all of the machinery of a recommendation engine, is doing that, him- or herself. They’re presenting the stuff off of the new album, but they’re making sure to give you a healthy selection of the old favorites.

I’m going to make a little bit of a leap here, but something like that, I think goes on with—you mentioned ranking and we have this big election coming up in the U.S. and a handful of jurisdictions have moved to ranked-choice voting. In its simplest form, this is where people select not just their preferred candidate, but they rank them. And then after an initial counting, the candidate with the fewest votes as the first choice has dropped out from the count and their ballots get redistributed based on people’s number-two choices and so on until there’s a clear winner.

The idea is to get to a candidate who is acceptable to the largest number of voters instead of maybe one that’s more strongly preferred by a smaller number. And here’s the similarity where I think a concert is sort of in a crude form doing what the recommendation engine does. Runoff elections do this in a much cruder way. And so my question for you is, is there some way in a manageable form for recommendation systems to help us in voting for candidates and and and help us get to the candidate who is most acceptable to the largest number of voters?

Michael Schrage What a fascinating question. And just to be clear, my background is in computer science and economics. I’m not a political scientist. Some of my best friends are political scientists. And let me point out that there is a very, very rich literature on this. And I would go so far to say that people who are really interested in pursuing this question should look at public choice literature. They should go back to the French. You know, Condorcet … the French came up with a variety of voting systems in this regard. But let me tell you one of my immediate, visceral reactions to it. Are we voting for people or are we voting for policies? What would be the better option or opportunity for people: to vote for a referendum on immigration, public health, or for the people to enact a variety of policies where whereas, you know, we do not have direct democracy. There are certain areas there, certain states where you can, of course, you know, vote on directly on a particular question. The way I would repurpose your question would be, do we want recommendation engines that help us vote for people? Help us vote for policies? Or help us vote for some hybrid of the two?

Why am I complicating your seemingly simple question? Precisely because it is the kind of question that forces us to ask, “Well, what is the real purpose of the recommendation?” To get us to make a better vote for a person or to get a better outcome from the political system and the governance system?

Let me give you a real-world example that I’ve worked with companies on. We can come up with a recommendation system recommendation engine that is optimized around the transaction, getting you to buy now. Now! We’re optimizing recommendations so that you will buy now! Or we say hmm, that customer, we can have a relationship with. Maybe what we should do is have recommendations that optimize customer lifetime value. And this is one of the most important questions going on for every single Internet platform company that I know. Google had exactly this issue with YouTube; it still has this issue with its advertising partners and platform. This is the exact issue that Amazon has. Clearly, it regards its Prime customers from a customer lifetime value perspective. So your political question raises the single most important issue. What are the recommendations optimized for: the vote in this election or the general public welfare over the next three to four to six years?

Steven Cherry That turned out to be more interesting than I thought it was going to be. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to ask you about your previous book, The Innovator’s Hypothesis. Its core idea is that cheap experiments are a better path to innovation than brainstorming sessions, innovation vacations, and a bunch of things that companies are often advised to do to promote innovation and creativity. Maybe you could just take a minute and tell us about the 5×5 framework.

Michael Schrage Oh, my goodness. So I’d be delighted. And just to be clear, the book on recommendation engines could not and would not have been written without the work that I did on The Innovator’s Hypothesis.

You have five people from different parts of the organization come up with a portfolio of five different experiments based on well-framed, rigorous, testable hypotheses. Imagine doing this with 15 or 20 teams throughout an organization. What you’re creating is an innovation pipeline, an experimentation pipeline. You see what percent and proportion of your hypotheses address the need of users, customers, partners, suppliers. Which ones are efficiency-oriented? Which ones are new value-oriented? Wow! What a fascinating way to gain insight into the creative and innovative and indeed the business culture of the enterprise. So I wanted to move the Schwerpunkt, the center of gravity, away from, “Where are good ideas coming from?” to, “Can we set up an infrastructure to frame, test, experiment, and scale business hypotheses that matter? What do you think a recommendation engine is? A recommendation engine is a way to test hypotheses about what people want to watch, what they want to listen to, who they want to reach out to, who they want to share with. Recommendation engines are experimentation engines.

Steven Cherry I’m reminded of IDEO, the design company. It has a sort of motto, no meeting without a prototype.

Michael Schrage Yes. A prototype is an experiment. A prototype shouldn’t be…. Here’s where you know people are cheating: when they say “proof of concept.” Screw the proof of concept. You want skepticism when you want to validate a hypothesis. Screw validation. What do you want to learn? What do you want to learn? Prototypes are about learning. Experimentation is about learning. Recommendation engines are about learning—learning people’s preferences, what they’re willing to explore, what they’re not willing to explore. Learning is the key. Learning is the central organizing principle for why these technologies and these opportunities are so bloody exciting.

Steven Cherry You mentioned Stanford earlier and it seems there’s a direct connection between the two books here, and that is the famous 2007 class at Stanford where Facebook’s future programmers were taught to “move fast and break things.” There was a key class taught by the experimental psychologist B.J. Fogg.

Michael Schrage Right. B.J. is a remarkable guy. He is one of the pioneers of captiveology and persuasion technology. And one of the really impressive things about B.J. is he really took a prototyping/experimentation sensibility to all of this.

It used to be that the deliverable if you took a class on entrepreneurship at Stanford or M.I.T.—and this is as recent as a decade ago—is what did you have to come up with? What was your deliverable? A business plan. Screw the business plan! With things like GitHub and open-source software, you now have to come up with a prototype. What’s the cliché phrase? The MVP: the minimum viable prototype. Okay? But that’s really the key point here. We’re trying to turn prototypes into platforms from learning what matters most, learning about what matters most in terms of our customer or user orientation and value, and learning what matters most about what we need to build and how it needs to be built. How modular should it be? How scalable should it be? How bespoke should be?

What’s the big difference between this in 2020 and 2010? What we’re building now will have the capability to learn—machine learning capabilities. One of the bad things that happened to me is I wrote my book was, far faster than I expected machine learning algorithms colonized the recommendation engine/recommender system world. And so I had to get up to speed and get up to speed fast on machine learning and machine learning platforms because recommendation engines now are the paragon and paradigm of machine learning worldwide.

Steven Cherry Well, it seems that once our basic needs are satisfied, the most precious commodities, we have our time and attention. One of the central dilemmas of our age is that we may be giving over too much of our everyday life to recommendation engines, but we certainly can’t live our overly complex everyday lives without them. Michael, thank you for studying them, for writing this book about them, and for joining us today.

Michael Schrage My thanks for the opportunity. It was a pleasure.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Michael Schrage of the MIT Sloan School and author of the new book, Recommendation Engines, about how they are influencing more and more of our experiences.

This interview was recorded 26 August 2020. Our audio engineering was by Gotham Podcast Studio in New York. Our music is by Chad Crouch.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

We welcome your comments on Twitter (@RadioSpectrum1 and @IEEESpectrum) and Facebook.