[N.B. We interrupt the A.I. series for some primo satire on recent events]
As the world builds walls, Singapore must go against the tide and build bridges, a ministerial representative said yesterday.
"It is our great fortune that we are separated from our nearest neighbours by a strait of water, about a kilometre wide at a minimum. You know how difficult it is to swim a kilometre? I'm no Joseph Schooling, but I can tell you, it's bloody hard. And on the south side, it's open sea, baby. Nobody's coming that way."
He then emphasized how obvious it was, that in such a situation, the logical thing was to build bridges.
"It would allow goods and people to enter the country, but in a carefully-controlled manner. So we can tax them. We were so wary, in fact, that we had only the one bridge for the longest time, but now we have two."
The audience was then completely wowed with the innovation on display, when the ministerial representative explained how their walls had been deployed with utmost efficiency.
"Since all the people can come in only by the bridges, we build our walls only around the exits of those bridges!" he revealed, to thunderous applause. "There is then no need to build additional walls around our shoreline, because, let's be honest, a guy fit enough to cross miles of water undetected by our coast guard patrols would likely be able to climb it."
But, he hastened to add, there was a ready solution.
"Unlike places like America, we do not hold such illegal immigrants in possibly-poor conditions. Oh no. That would be too random and far too soft. Instead, after we catch them, we strip them, strap them down, and whip them with a half-inch thick rattan cane. Until the skin breaks and the blood flows like water. Once, twice, three times at least. The scars never fully heal, as a permanent reminder of what awaits them, if they try to make a better life here without official permission."
"And it's like, nobody cares here." the ministerial representative added triumphantly. "Our native SJWs tend to bandwagon to whine about what other countries do instead."
"Then again, maybe they know, deep inside, that we're right."
The ministerial representative was careful to state that the law was impartial in this regard. "This wouldn't have happened if they had money, you know? If you're rich, whether you're a run-of-the-mill tax dodger, a shady Indonesian tycoon, or even a retired African dictator, my greeting to you is: welcome."
"Just so it's clear, our bridges are totally for you, and not for refugees or asylum-seekers. Because we are a small country with limited land, the land's reserved only for those with cash. But if you're an exile with a Swiss bank account, please inform that fine gentleman, and we might discuss it over lunch."
Finally, in response to a journalist's hypothetical as to what he would do if the country had a land border, the ministerial representative got dismissive.
"Obviously, in that case, we build a wall. What do we look like to you? Stupid people?"
So, here it is - the new new hype, or the new old hype depending on how long you've been around: artificial intelligence. The state's announced its half-billion dollar National AI strategy plan about a fortnight ago, on top of the S$150 million a couple of years back... pretty much like every other country out there, it has to be said. It might not have been much of a choice. My personal theory is that modern world history has revolved around ascendacy in what might be termed as "generational technologies":
Note that terming these as "generational technologies" does not imply that there were no significant developments in other fields, or that no progress happened in those areas after the time period stated - nuclear fusion is still being worked on, SpaceX and satellites are still a thing, as are various shiny web stacks and groundbreaking bio tools like CRISPR. It was just that those technologies more or less defined their generation; the best and brightest of the 1930s would arguably have been nudged towards physics, of the 1950s aerospace, and most recently, biology and perhaps quantum physics (computer science in the 1990s was perhaps something of a special case, since formal instruction was not strictly required to excel there). Seen in this light, a general consensus appears to be forming on A.I. being the thing to do, for the foreseeable future.
It can also unavoidably be observed that mastery of the generational technology of the era has been strongly correlated with global influence and power. The Cold War was led by those with the most nukes, and the U.S.S.R. clearly fell away after being outdone in space. The rise of the Internet coincided with the near-unfettered spread of Western (i.e. mostly American) liberalism, and leadership in biotech has kept the U.S. and Europe dominant in pharma and its accessory medical sciences.
The China Challenge
The U.S.'s streak of four generational technologies in a row might however be under threat, with China apparently pulling out all the stops on A.I. in particular, having already possibly edged ahead in 5G. Their Big Three of Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent have just been added to an official "A.I. national team" (because, let's face it, can they refuse like, say, Google would?)
America, seemingly caught flatfooted, has responded by banhammering Huawei's 5G products, and is now going after A.I. startups from China, alongside hollering up supposed academic and industrial espionage. In particular, there has been pushback against the strategy of using Chinese nationals embedded in American labs to divert funding and effort towards boosting China's own technological base. About this, it should first be said that the prevalence of Chinese nationals in STEM had largely been an economic quid pro quo (see: case of ResNet): U.S. universities and institutions got brainpower and work ethic on the cheap, while the students received cutting-edge mentoring and facilities, and a fat paycheque by China's standards. A decoupling of this symbiotic relationship, analogous to the trade war, would be messy to say the least.
But back to Singapore. You've heard of the "transformative" masterplan with five national A.I. projects and the ultimate goal to become a, hubba hubba, global A.I. hub, as always. Please allow me to restore some perspective here, because if you want the self-congratulatory backclapping, there's plenty of that to go around in the mainstream media. To begin with, is some S$700 million pumped into A.I. a lot? Very likely for the common taxpayer, who might understandably ask if they could have just held the GST increase back or something. In the bigger picture, however, it's... honestly not very much. OpenAI alone, for example, has an endowment of at least US$2 billion, and that's just one non-profit. Get to the Alphabets and Tencents of the world, and the bare truth is that the resources that they can and have thrown at A.I. dwarfs that of universities, ours included. Honestly, as with the Space Race, I see only two real players here: China's national team, and America's tech titans (amusingly, a Russian A.I. advised citizens to flee the country)
Our Place In The Brave New World
This is however not to say that we might as well just save the money and give up, though. Returning to the point about supposed Chinese stealing of research - shadowy alphabet agencies aside, isn't the knowledge gained in university, and often national, labs supposed to be freely disseminated anyhow? Heck, publishing work is how the researchers gain credit and promotions! The answer, I believe, is that a crucial part of the accumulated scientific expertise is not openly distributed - oft unintentionally. For instance, wet-lab fields are notorious for having unspoken practices within protocols that complicate replication, and even for subjects such as computer science that in theory allow perfectly-reproducible experiments, there remains much hidden knowledge that accrues with experience. As such, attempting to "free-ride" by working only from published research is unlikely to turn out well.
Our leaders have acknowledged the obvious - that America and China will be driving the A.I. race - and correctly recognized that our best hope is to carve out a niche. The fundamental problem remains as follows: the government wants returns, and quick, what with their foreign adventures generally... not going too well (e.g. the Our Most Successful Investment Firm-led consortium's US$4 billion project in Andhra Pradesh seems to have fallen through, to the usual gloating from netizens, and with Magic Leap patents used as collateral, it don't look good on that end either). The trouble is that good R&D simply doesn't work that way, as a local scientist pointed out on A*Star's refocusing on industrial (i.e. profitable) research last year. In his own words:
"...Knowledge creation is the one part where writing grants make no sense. Grants require a researcher to spell out exactly [what they'll] do in the next 3-5 years, and what milestones they will hit... in exploratory projects where breakthroughs come from unexpected directions - grants are pretty meaningless, and end up restricting researchers to do incremental results which they know will work! In the end, true breakthroughs get stifled."
To this, two responses, one old:
"If you pay a man a salary for doing research, he and you will want to have something to point to at the end of the year to show that the money has not been wasted. In promising work of the highest class, however, results do not come in this regular fashion, in fact years may pass without any tangible result being obtained, and the position of the paid worker would be very embarrassing and he would naturally take to work on a lower, or at any rate a different plane where he could be sure of getting year by year tangible results which would justify his salary. The position is this: You want one kind of research, but, if you pay a man to do it, it will drive him to research of a different kind. The only thing to do is to pay him for doing something else and give him enough leisure to do research for the love of it." (J. J. Thompson)
and one new:
"Maybe it's like the inapplicability of law of large numbers and lack of critical density in SG's scientific community that makes knowledge creation infeasible. It's like mining for bitcoin. Even though, for example, on average you can mine a coin every month. But if you only have one machine it's not strange that you get unlucky and took six months to mine one coin. Application is the key. Singapore's not going to beat Google, Amazon or Tencent in smart city technologies and research. Focus on execution, optimization and commercialization."
[To be continued...]
While preparing for my lab's movement from its current AS6 location to the aspirationally-named Innovation 4.0 (a.k.a the former IMRE building), it was unavoidable reflecting on the past seven years or so spent there. Then again, perhaps a change of scenery might bring about new perspectives.
[N.B. That said, I'm honestly not sold on the open office trend in general, and most of the relevant research appears to agree on the adverse productivity and morale effects. Common sense would appear to suggest that open offices work best in fast-paced production environments such as trading pits, where any member might have reason to communicate openly with any other member (and everybody's expecting it). The general suspicion's been that open offices are a space (and thus cost) saving measure dressed up as a collaboration-enhancer (alongside hot-desking), but frankly, why hire expensive knowledge workers only to hobble them with the environment? It's like splashing US$200k on a Lambo, then cheaping out on a US$40 set of used tyres. Well, in my particular case, the environment does seem reasonable at least.]
Since we're on innovation, recent news reports had me heartened by the creative capacity of Singaporeans, following the out-of-the-blue immediate ban on personal mobility devices (PMDs) at the beginning of the month. Riders, responding to the proscription on footpaths, instantly took to the grass patches running alongside the paths, and enterprising firms offered to modify existing PMDs into PMAs, by adding a third wheel and speed limiter. The winner, however, was this chap who literally took to the skies, by riding on top of a sheltered walkway. Well, they definitely all adhered to the letter if not the spirit of the new law, only to be smacked down by its long arm. This again goes to show that getting innovative's not the problem - it's getting the higher-ups to accept it.
A Cycling Above All
The PMD ban, recall, arose after a spate of highly-publicized accidents, some of them even fatal. The frequency of mishaps and ensuing public outrage (amongst a large enough swathe, at least) towards blatantly-irresponsible riders would eventually force the government's hand, despite promises from the Senior Minister of State for Transport a couple of months back that no ban was forthcoming. Therefore, the abruptness when it came ruined more than a few retailers (not that they're receiving much sympathy) and food delivery fellas, many of whom could really do with the income. Said delivery guys would surround their fair share of ministers and MPs in the rawest outpouring of discontent here for some time; as it is, the sudden policy U-turn was seen as evidence of a shortsighted and high-handed "ban culture" within the administration, by some, as opposed to actually putting in the work to strike a middle ground. Tellingly, emboldened members of the public are not only informing on the many rule-breakers, but even assaulting them. Tempers flare easily from a lack of personal space.
Going off on a slight tangent, Grab's recent cash advance scheme has raised some eyebrows, with more financially-savvy commentators noting that such effectively-loans might not be the best deal for their independent contractors, especially if spent on relative frivolities such as European vacations. Lest it all seem too negative, the government has moved towards quantifying local poverty, to the tune of at least a thousand homeless people, from a first study. Two Catholic churches' gesture in June of opening their doors to them for the night has recently brought matching responses from churches of other denominations, temples and mosques; this is the kind of religious competition I can get behind!
And over in Hong Kong, there may have been some believing of one's own propaganda going on from Beijing, as the pro-democracy camp won a stunning landslide of over three-quarters of the elected seats, demonstrating some very real and very broad grievances; being tone-deaf's a risk with one-party states, I suppose, but more on Hong Kong next time. For now, they could do with thanking GEOTUS for not getting obliterated in fourteen minutes. History shall be kind to his majesty.
A paper deadline and a sudden influx of reviews happened, so here's a couple of videos to whet your appetite for that delayed A.I. hype. First up, a demonstration from some seven years back, but which I only just got wind of:
And a more modern (in current helterskelter A.I. terms, anyway) application from MIT, in which they simulated inter-dimensional time travel to arrive in an alternative reality where the Apollo moon mission failed, and Nixon had to deliver the bad news (N.B. the speechwriter probably borrowed from Brooke for the finale there):
It's not only The Simpsons and South Park that have proven eerily prophetic:
[N.B. More real-life Snuffles]
No, not in DotA Underlords (but just a hint, the 6 Assassins build's been the most consistent against the A.I. in racking up overall wins and XP in Proto Pass mode, with the Warriors alliance in a somewhat distant second - splashing the frenemy duo of Tidehunter & Kunkka plus Medusa fits almost any configuration later on, seeing as how this activates the Scaled alliance for +30% magic resistance, and also more or less the Warriors alliance, for a minimum of +10 armor... and this is before the insane all-around Area of Effect control)
Combat has been enjoined. Amidst loud whooping, prospective Democratic presidental candidate Elizabeth Warren has signalled the start of the Second Great Meme War, with the proposed formation of an official "Meme Team". Only one teeny problem with that - the left can't meme (fittingly, itself a meme)
Example of effective meme presented as an academic case study
[N.B. Kudos to BitChute for preserving free speech]
[N.N.B. Hosted non-embeddable (but probably smoother) version]
We have encountered this cringe with Hillary falling flat on her face with her "Pokémon GO to the Polls" failure in the last elections, in which she attempted to harness the highest-grossing franchise ever (and still going strong, mind) at the height of its popularity, to general ridicule. On the face of it, it was a no-brainer - cute worldwide phenomenon that no-one had much against, sorta-wittily combined into a "get out and vote" message. But sadly for establishment squares, memes don't work like that. Successful memes aren't sequential or linear mashups of desired properties, they can't be assembled or forced into the public consciousness on demand, as Regina comprehends when she says "stop trying to make fetch happen" in the Mean Girls movie. Think back to the all-time classics: Harambe, hamsterdance, LOLcats, distracted boyfriend, etc. They weren't made. They just were (like covfefe).
True memes, then, possess a certain je ne sais quoi, an ineffable quality present in their conception, of speaking for the times. Admittedly, despite that, there are some characteristics that many of the greats share:
Compare this to the organic grassroots support for the GOD-EMPEROR, from the denizens of 4chan, the_donald and other nexuses of unbounded creativity; they were not paid. They were not enticed. To them, the meme was life itself. They were born to the meme, moulded by it. And Warren and company imagine that they can just form a comparable unit of weaponized autists, on demand? No matter; the foe has called, and the shitlords will answer. Let the dank memes block out the sun!
The promised piece on A.I. hype's been pushed back for some more urgent hype - the just-introduced resource in DotA Underlords. But before we get to it, a follow-up on current affairs. On Epstein's August "suicide", a pathologist has opined that... yeah, he didn't kill himself, which clearly leaves a lot of very interesting questions open. One was asked of Hillary Clinton on The Daily Show, where she self-indulgently declined to reveal the mystery of how she pulled the hit job off, to everyone's intense disappointment.
This made a crossover of sorts with another surprise death, this time of ISIS leader and "austere religious scholar" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at least according to the hopelessly-biased Washington Post, who might as well have described Epstein as a "wealthy philanthropist who dedicated his life to children", or Mao as "revolutionary culturalist and adult re-education advocate", in keeping with the growing representation of unhinged reporting in the mainstream media, which has fallen to the level of defending the courage of recognized terrorists, while assigning next to no credit for his liquidation. Luckily, this proliferation of FAKE NEWS in government is being stemmed by the mass cancellation of NY Times and WaPo subscriptions by federal agencies - which is only fair, honestly - with GEOTUS further rubbing it in Bezos' face by pushing the Pentagon's US$10 billion cloud contract to Microsoft. Excellently done!
And on to the main course. DotA Underlords is a new strategy game in the "auto chess" or "auto battler" genre, which may naturally spark memories of the venerable Battle Chess program, for the oldies out there. While both Underlords and Battle Chess utilize the standard 8x8 chessboard, the similarities end there; Battle Chess is essentially normal international chess spiced up with animated violence, which happens to be essentially unwinnable against a good smartphone nowadays. Underlords instead has the heroes from DotA as game pieces, each of whom retain some of their signature abilities. Moreover, there is no human input once all pieces are placed in Underlords - the pieces will automatically go at each other based on fixed logical rules, until one side loses all its pieces.
Additionally, DotA Underlords is not designed to be played in one-off rounds, or against a single opponent. Instead, eight humans (and/or bots) participate in tournament fashion, with players facing each other in round-robin order. The first three rounds are can't-lose gimmes that allow the player to pick his first three game pieces and items. After that, the real battles begin, with the loser of each round losing Health equal to the combined stars (we'll get to this) of the winning player's surviving pieces and Underlord. Each player starts with 100 Health, and is eliminated once he loses all of it; the last player standing wins the tournament, and players with an above-average finish (i.e. fourth place or above) are considered to have succeeded in ranked matches (i.e. gain rank).
So, where's the skill in this game? Well, the tactical part comes with the selection and positioning of (hero) pieces, and their equipping with items - each player may have a number of pieces equal to his level on the board at the start of each round, with up to eight extra pieces in reserve on the bench that can be freely swapped with board pieces. Each piece has its unique abilities, stats and behaviour, and membership of two (or rarely three) alliances. If a player has enough unique pieces belonging to the same alliance, a useful alliance bonus will come into effect. These bonuses are generally strong enough that players would do well to pick pieces with them in mind.
The probably more-important strategic part comes with the acquisition of these pieces. Players earn gold at the end of each round, and are then presented with a random draft of five pieces to buy with their accumulated gold. Gold may also be used to bring up a new set of five pieces (2 gold per reroll), or to buy XP towards higher levels (5 gold per 5 XP), which allows the fielding of more pieces.
The improper management of gold reserves is probably how new players lose their tournaments - it is probably natural for newbies to try rerolling until they are presented with their imagined "perfect combination" of pieces. However, as with casino jackpots, this is quite unlikely, and wiser play tends to involve saving up a good warchest to earn interest early on, all the more since losing these rounds costs relatively little Health. Knowing what (piece or XP) to buy, whether to build alliances or rely on the "good stuff", and when to try rerolling (since there is a fixed shared pool of pieces, strong pieces may be heavily contested and thus simply unavailable) is probably the greater part of success in Underlords.
Stars good for pieces. Get more stars.
Slightly complicating the piece situation, each piece belongs to one of five tiers, which correspond to the power and cost of the piece (Tier 1 pieces cost a single gold, while Ace [Tier Five] pieces cost 5 gold but have near-broken abilities), and also may have one to three stars, with a two-star piece having approximately double the HP and damage of its one-star variant, and a three-star piece double again that of its two-star variant. However, to obtain a two-star piece, a player has to buy three identical one-star pieces. Then, for a three-star piece, three two-star pieces, or nine one-star ones, are required. In practice, this makes it quite difficult to create three-star pieces, and it's not uncommon to win tournaments without a single one.
Finally, each player is also represented by an Underlord piece as his in-game avatar, and is presented with an Underlord-specific choice of talents after certain rounds. Currently, only two Underlords - the support healer Anessix, and the fiery Hobgen have been implemented, although at least four are planned, from the game art. Current consensus appears to be that Anessix is more-forgiving and stronger early on, being able to sustain her pieces, which Hobgen comes into his own later with his superior damage, though his problem is surviving until that advantage comes into effect.
All considered, DotA Underlords has been suitably fun and addictive, which should come as a relief to Valve given how their last big DotA spin-off - the supremely-complex trading card game Artifact - bombed. Don't get me wrong, Underlords is anything but simple, with considerations such as predicting opposition formations, hogging pieces that they need and various many little tricks increasingly important at higher levels of play, but there's something of a thrill in watching one's chosen pieces do their stuff on the board. Moreover, being a solo game, griefing and over-demanding teammates are out of the equation, unlike regular DotA. Perhaps best of all, it's free to play and cross-platform. Can't ask for more.
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