Kevin Drum

Artificial Intelligence for Kids Is the Hot New Toy Sensation

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 2:11 PM EDT

Artificial intelligence is here, baby!

In the past five years, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and speech recognition have given the devices around us — smartphones, computers, cars — the ability to engage in something approaching conversation....With such technology widely available, it was inevitable that artificial intelligence for children would arrive, too, and it is doing so most prominently in the pink, perky form of Mattel’s Hello Barbie. Produced in collaboration with ToyTalk, a San Francisco-based company specializing in artificial intelligence, the doll is scheduled to be released in November with the intention of hitting the lucrative $6 billion holiday toy market.

For adults, this new wave of everyday A.I. is nowhere near sophisticated enough to fool us into seeing machines as fully alive....But things are different with children, because children are different. Especially with the very young, ‘‘it is very hard for them to distinguish what is real from what is not real,’’ says Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Ohio who studies play. The penchant to anthropomorphize — to believe that inanimate objects are to some degree humanlike and alive — is in no way restricted to the young, but children, who often favor magical thinking over the mundane rules of reality, have an especially rich capacity to believe in the unreal.

Fine: it's artificial intelligence for six-year-olds. But you know what? Lots of adults also have a rich capacity to believe in the unreal. I will refrain from naming names in order to protect the guilty. In any case, if we can produce tolerable childlike AI in a bundle the size of a Barbie doll, how far are we from producing tolerable adult AI in a bundle the size of a PC? Five years? Probably too soon. Twenty years? It won't take that long. But somewhere in the middle, say ten or fifteen years, we'll all be talking merrily to our gadgets and mostly forgetting that they aren't actually people.

That's still not honest-to-God real AI, but it's in the ballpark. We'll be there by 2040.

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Poverty Is Still Winning the War on Poverty

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 1:34 PM EDT

The Census Bureau released its latest report on income and poverty today, and there were no big surprises. Median income is basically flat or down for all ethnic groups, though things would look a bit better if health care benefits were included. Full-time women are now earning about 79 percent of full-time men, a slow but steady increase. But here's the chart I want to highlight. You've seen it before, but it's worth seeing again:

Here's the nutshell version: Since 1970, thanks to Social Security, we've made steady progress in reducing elderly poverty. Among all other age groups, we've made no progress at all. In fact, poverty has increased. These numbers might look a little different if you use a different measure of poverty, but not by much. If you're under 65, it's safe to say that we fought a war against poverty, and poverty won.

How to Get Arrested In Two Easy Steps: (1) Be Named Ahmed, (2) Build a Clock

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 12:28 PM EDT

From Fox News:

The incident went viral on social media and the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed was the top non-promoted U.S. trend on Twitter early Wednesday morning. Some supporters alleged Mohamed was arrested only because of his name, or the way he looked. Others claimed the situation was a case of Islamaphobia.

What went viral? And why quote Fox News on the subject? More on that in a moment.

The topic here is Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old robotics geek at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas. He decided to build an electronic clock to show off to his teacher, and ended up arrested instead. Apparently it beeped during his English class, and his English teacher decided it looked kind of like a bomb. So it was confiscated and Ahmed was led off in handcuff and then suspended for three days. This despite the fact that (a) it wasn't a bomb, (b) nobody thought it was a bomb, and (c) Ahmed told everyone who saw it that it was a clock. After the incident, the school sent out a letter to all parents not admitting any fault, but basically bragging about how vigilant they'd been and recommending that they review the school's Code of Conduct with their kids.

So why link to Fox News on the subject? To highlight the fact that, as near as I can tell, conservative blogs and websites have all but ignored this story. That's even though it practically saturated my Twitter feed last night and, as Fox says, went viral on social media. I realize that this kind of thing doesn't interest conservatives much, but it's such a blatant and stupid abuse of power that you'd think it would at least give them an opportunity to show that occasionally they care about obvious bigotry like this. Plus they'd get to take a shot at a public school and its stupid overpaid administrators. What more do they want?

UPDATE: I see that President Obama and Hillary Clinton have just tweeted messages of support for Ahmed. I think it's safe to say that conservative outlets will now start to weigh in. But it poses a dilemma for them. Even conservatives can't really defend what happened here. On the other hand, they can hardly agree with Obama, can they? What to do?

My guess: defend Ahmed, but somehow make the claim that Obama's terrorist-appeasing ways are responsible for an all-too-understandable suspicion of brown people. It's a win-win!

"Several Dozen" Tea Partiers Hold Fate of Nation in Their Hands

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 11:35 AM EDT

The tea partiers are feeling their oats:

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is bracing for what could be the toughest weeks of his speakership as several dozen conservatives in his party are threatening to topple him unless he is more ferocious with Democrats during the upcoming fiscal showdowns.

....The speaker’s lieutenants are openly girding for battle with the small but influential bloc of anti-Boehner conservatives, who have signaled that if Boehner cuts any deal that they don’t like with Hill Democrats and President Obama, they could seek to remove him from the speaker’s post. It is a threat that Boehner and his allies are taking seriously.

"Several dozen"! But these lunatics might still be able to force a government shutdown or unseat Boehner as Speaker of the House. This would be a hell of a show, since the TPers (a) apparently have no strategy for winning a shutdown fight, and (b) would never in a million years be able to agree on a replacement for Boehner. The whole thing is crazy.

Which is nothing new. The obvious solution for Boehner is to cut a deal with Democrats, who have more than enough votes to pass a budget and keep him safely in the Speaker's chair. In another era, that might be an option. But today? It would just dig Boehner into an ever deeper hole. Good luck.

Donald Trump's Winning Game of Affinity Politics

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 11:02 PM EDT

In our more thoughtful moments, even us wonkish types admit that few people really care about policy. Nor do most people care about whether presidential candidates can actually do any of the things they promise. The whole campaign process is basically a way of identifying a person who shares your values and nothing more. Tedious details are unnecessary. All that matters is: When a big decision presents itself, what will the candidate's gut tell him to do? It's pure affinity politics.

With that in mind, here's an (undoubtedly incomplete) list of the things that Donald Trump likes and dislikes:

Things Donald Trump Likes Things Donald Trump Hates
  • Israel
  • Social Security
  • Low taxes
  • Guns
  • Social media
  • Veterans
  • Great infrastructure
  • Women
  • A kick-ass military
  • The Bible
  • Affirmative action
  • Police officers
  • Lower corporate taxes
  • Fair trade
  • Great schools
  • Fossil fuels
  • Carl Icahn
  • Speaking his mind
  • Tough negotiators
  • Jobs
  • Donald Trump
  • Iran
  • Obamacare
  • Hedge fund guys who evade taxes
  • Street gangs
  • The mainstream media
  • Illegal immigrants
  • Budget deficits
  • Abortion
  • ISIS
  • Gay marriage...though he's "evolving"
  • Political correctness
  • Crime
  • Tax inversions
  • China, Japan, and Mexico
  • Common Core
  • The big climate change hoax
  • John Kerry
  • Apologizing
  • Weak, stupid politicians
  • Phony government jobs statistics
  • People who attack Donald Trump

Suppose that Donald Trump were an ordinary candidate with a mainstream persona—maybe a more charismatic version of Marco Rubio. This seems like a fairly winning set of values, doesn't it?

No, Bernie Sanders' Domestic Policy Plan Doesn't Really Cost $18 Trillion

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 2:34 PM EDT

The Wall Street Journal says Bernie Sanders' domestic policy plan would cost $18 trillion over ten years. Is this true?

It depends on how you look at it. First, there's a set of proposals that the Journal estimates would cost about $3.4 trillion. That's not pocket change, but it's about as much as Jeb Bush's tax cut. The big difference is that Jeb's tax cuts mostly benefit the rich, while Bernie's proposals mostly benefit the poor and the middle class. You can decide for yourself which you prefer.

Then there's the $15 trillion price tag for universal health care. Is this a fair estimate? It's probably in the ballpark. Private health insurance accounted for about $1 trillion in spending last year, and assuming reasonable growth that will probably come to around $15 trillion over the course of a decade.

But here's the thing: this is money we already spend. Right now, employers and workers pay insurance companies $1 trillion for health care. Under Bernie's plan, we'd instead pay that money to the federal government. Generally speaking, this would be invisible to most of us. Behind the scenes, our dollars would flow to a different place, and that's about it.

So the Sanders plan wouldn't actually take money out of our pockets. It's a wash. It needs to be evaluated instead on all the usual metrics. Would the government do a better job of holding down costs? Would government control distort market signals? Would innovation suffer? Would most of us have more choice in health care providers? Would more people be covered? Etc.

Bottom line: You should think of the Sanders plan as costing about $3.4 trillion. You may or may not like the idea of universal health care, but it wouldn't have much impact on how much money you actually take home each week.

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Ben Carson Month Is in Full Swing

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 1:11 PM EDT

Last night Donald Trump was whining about how badly the media mistreats him—yes, seriously—and Exhibit A was a bunch of recent headlines saying that Ben Carson was surging in the polls. "Everybody's surging but me," he griped.

Well, if the latest New York Times poll is any indication, the reason everyone says Carson is surging is because he's surging. He's up 17 points over the past month. Trump is up three points, which is basically a statistical nothing.

Carson is increasingly becoming the flavor of the week among the GOP faithful, and in fairness, not at the expense of Trump. It's mostly at the expense of Jeb Bush and the increasingly pathetic Scott Walker. Man, that guy sure is making my political crystal ball skills look bad. Get your act together, Scott! If things keep going the way they are, who knows? Maybe we'll end up with a Carson-Sanders contest next fall. Wouldn't that be a hell of a thing?

Donald Trump Is Still Never Going to Be President of the United States

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 11:55 AM EDT

I would like to take this opportunity to announce that I have not succumbed to the "It's time to take Trump seriously" bandwagon. I continue to think he's a buffoon who deserves admiration only for his ability to hoodwink the rubes and play the media like a fiddle. His act will grow stale with time, and four years from now we'll remember him only as a somewhat glossier version of Herman Cain.

That is all.

President Obama Not Thrilled With Trigger Warnings

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 11:50 AM EDT

I see that President Obama has waded in to the great trigger warning debate:

I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.

Apparently what happened is this: Boomers screwed up their kids by coddling the hell out of them, and now they're all bitching because their kids have grown up coddled. Really, you gotta love Boomers. We're the greatest, aren't we?

I've paid only minor attention to the whole trigger warning/microaggressions bubble for two reasons. First, when you put several thousand smart, verbal 18-year-olds on a college campus away from home for the first time, they're going to do all sorts of stupid stuff. Big deal. I'd be worried if they didn't do stupid stuff. They'll grow out of it in a few years.

Second, it really does seem like a flavor-of-the-week. The bubble will burst somewhere down the road, and something else will take its place that we older and wiser heads can all get terribly disturbed about. This is the way of the world. Kids search long and hard for something new that will annoy their elders, and their elders tsk tsk about the kids these days. Lather, rinse, repeat.

All that said, you can count me among the elders who are none too thrilled about the intolerance of non-lefty points of view on many college campuses these days. Trigger warnings are absurd in a public space like a university. "Microaggression" is just a trendy new word for a very old problem. And if Condi Rice gets invited to your campus to speak, mount a protest. But let her speak. If you can't tolerate even the thought of listening to someone with whom you profoundly disagree—or of anyone else listening—then you need to examine your own principles pretty hard.

That's one old codger's view, anyway. But no one under the age of 20 will pay it any mind. And they probably shouldn't. After all, sometimes worthwhile progress gets its start from even the dumbest movements.

Exclusive: Republicans Really Hate Hillary Clinton

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 11:04 AM EDT

Last night a friend pointed me to a piece at Mediaite by Tommy Christopher. Christopher asked Quinnipiac for the crosstabs of that famous poll in which the top description of Hillary Clinton was "liar," and what he discovered will surprise exactly no one. You can click the link for all the gory details, but here it is in a nutshell: roughly speaking, the only people who described Hillary as a liar were Republicans. And the reason that word so badly outnumbered the others is that Republicans used it in lockstep. The positive descriptions of Hillary were all over the map, so no single one of them racked up big numbers.

In other words, there's actually no news here at all. Republicans hate Hillary, Democrats love Hillary, and independents are unsure. It may well be that Hillary Clinton has an image problem that she needs to work on, but it's pretty much the same image problem she's had forever.