What we've been reading: history, heroes and Alexa

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It’s the end of the week once again and that means 'What we’ve been reading', our weekly roundup of books, tv shows and podcasts we’ve loved.

(Yes, we realise our understanding of the word ‘reading’ is very loose.)

Our poor grasp of English aside, we hope you enjoy this week’s selection. Have a good weekend, dear readers.

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Fran - How to change the course of human history

For centuries, we’ve told ourselves the same simple story about the origin of inequality. As the anthropologist David Graeber explains, it goes something like this:

“For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking.”

Civilization brought wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery etc. but also “made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements”.

This narrative always concludes that equality is a futile notion, and inequality is the price we pay for civilisation (and all the good it creates). The problem? It isn’t true..

That participatory democracy or social equality are only possible in small groups, and that they can’t scale isn’t accurate. As Graeber points out, “Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies” are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households, on the other hand, are not.

So what does this mean? “Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence.

“If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.”

Charity, as the saying goes, begins at home.

Valme - Inside the Alexa Prize

Every time I read about conversational AI I inevitably think about Spike Jonze’s film “Her”. In a way, Amazon seems to be trying to make Alexa similar to Samantha, the intelligent computer operating system of the film.

The goal is to make Alexa able to talk like an informative, entertaining and friendly human. To achieve this, Amazon challenged computer science graduate students to build “a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes.” The reward for succeeding includes the promise of brilliant future careers and a $1 million purse: the Alexa Prize.

At the moment, Alexa can answer thousands of questions and perform basic tasks such as setting alarms or fulfilling commands. However, small talk is not one of its strengths.

Last November, during the last phase of the Amazon contest, the judges chose a winner, a bot created by the University of Washington. However, the bot only managed to converse for about 10 minutes instead of the 20-minute mark stated in the competition rules.

Developers find innovative ways of teaching machines how to answer, but chatbots inevitably keep on making mistakes. Everyday we are closer to developing an AI that will talk like a human, but developers still have a long way to go. In the meantime, if you want to talk to a bot that converses like a human, you might want to stick to real humans instead.

Tom: The Income Tax officer who won a Shaurya Chakra

“Captain Arya is a taxman who can drop his income tax files and pick up a weapon with ease…”

For those who thought Ben Affleck’s depiction of accountants as gun-toting desperados was a little far-fetched, this real-life tale of Indian Revenue Service (IRS) worker Pradeep Shoury Arya may prove a little too much.

Arya joined the IRS in 2004 then signed up to the Indian Territorial Army in 2008. Those who join the territorial army in India are required to serve in the army for two months each year, and Arya was commissioned into the TA’s parachute regiment.

He was awarded the Shaurya Chakra, the third-highest award for gallantry, roughly equivalent to our Victoria Cross, in 2017 after he led a mission to stop terrorists from entering into India in Jammu and Kashmir - a tale this article tells with Boy’s Own gusto:

“On a moonless night in May last year, Captain Arya and his small band of men of the Special Forces, detected 4 to 6 terrorists in a jungle… If the terrorists had escaped, they would slip into India and strike mayhem. Captain Arya and his men had to stop that!”

So next time HMRC come calling, however annoying the query may be, be thankful that it’s not Captain Arya on the other end of the investigation.

(Hat-tip to AWeb regular Wendy Bradley for alerting me to this one)

About Francois Badenhorst

Francois

I'm AccountingWEB's business editor. Feel free to get in touch with comments, tips, scoops or irreverent banter. 

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