Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Japan jobless at two-decade low; Why Ireland doesn't want billions from Apple; Rise of the robots

1 Japan jobless at two-decade low (BBC) Japan's unemployment rate fell to 3% in July, the lowest for 21 years, despite the country's stagnant economy. Separate data showed spending by households in Japan fell by less than expected in the month. Japan's government has been struggling for years to find a way to boost growth in the world's third-largest economy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ambitious reform agenda, dubbed Abenomics, has introduced huge stimulus packages to try to revive the economy. Japan's economy grew at an annualised rate of just 0.2% in the three months to June and recent inflation figures fell far short of the central bank's 2% target, so the fresh data provides a rare glimpse of positive news.

The new seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate of 3%, down from 3.1% in June, is just above what authorities would consider full employment. Earlier this month, the Japanese cabinet approved yet another stimulus package, worth more than 28 trillion yen ($275bn; £207bn).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policy, which quickly became known as "Abenomics" is based on three arrows: The monetary arrow: expansion of the money supply to combat deflation. The fiscal arrow: increased government spending to stimulate demand in the economy. The structural arrow: structural reforms to make the economy more productive and competitive.

2 Why Ireland doesn’t want billions from Apple (San Francisco Chronicle) In normal circumstances, a 13 billion euro ($14.5 billion) cash award would make any country ecstatic. But Ireland is no ordinary country when it comes to tax law — and its government insists it doesn't want the colossal windfall.

The Irish government joined Apple in vowing to appeal the European Commission's judgment that the smartphone and computing giant didn't pay the correct volume of tax to Ireland for more than a decade, a mounting bill that analysts say could constitute 19 billion euros ($21 billion) with interest.

At stake is the foundation of Ireland's multinational-dependent, export-driven economy, which has rapidly rebounded from a banking crisis and 2010 international bailout to become once again the fastest growing in Europe. Since the 1980s, successive Irish governments have made low corporate tax and other tax-avoidance measures a key part of their sales pitch to woo foreign firms to Ireland.

Ireland's strategy aims to keep as many foreign job creators anchored on the island as they can. The approximately 1,000 foreign companies, mostly American, on Irish soil employ 100,000 people — some 5 percent of the workforce — but generate more than nearly a quarter of Ireland's economic output. They directly pay Ireland more than 2 billion euros annually in tax, a figure dwarfed by their much larger investment in salaries (6 billion euros), infrastructure and research (3 billion euros) and Irish goods and services (4 billion euros).

If Apple were to lose its appeal, Ireland's sometimes gravity-defying growth would lose a key foundation stone as a succession of companies with similar tax deals face retroactive charges rendering the tax-efficient reputation of Ireland null and void.

"Champagne corks should be popping in government buildings with the news that 13 billion euros is owed to the state, but instead the panic button has been pressed," said Paul Murphy, an opposition Socialist Party lawmaker. "It shows the reality that the government represents the interests of major corporations instead of the majority of people in this state."

3 Rise of the robots (Olivia Solon in The Guardian) It’s far more likely that robots would inadvertently harm or frustrate humans while carrying out our orders than they would become conscious and rise up against us. In recognition of this, the University of California, Berkeley has this week launched a center to focus on building people-pleasing AIs.

The Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence, launched this week with $5.5m in funding from the Open Philanthropy Project, is led by computer science professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Stuart Russell. He’s quick to dispel any “unreasonable and melodramatic” comparisons to the threats posed in science fiction.

“The risk doesn’t come from machines suddenly developing spontaneous malevolent consciousness,” he said. “It’s important that we’re not trying to prevent that from happening because there’s absolutely no understanding of consciousness whatsoever.”

Up until now, AI has primarily been applied to very limited contexts such as playing Chess or Go or recognizing objects in images, where there isn’t much scope for the system to do much damage. As they start to make decisions on our behalf within the real world, the stakes are much higher.

Russell uses autonomous vehicles to illustrate the type of problem the center will try to solve. Someone building a self-driving car might instruct it never to go through a red light, but the machine might then hack into the traffic light control system so that all of the lights are changed to green. In this case the car would be obeying orders but in a way that humans didn’t expect or intend.

Similarly, an artificially intelligent hedge fund designed to maximize the value of its portfolio could be incentivized to short consumer stocks, buy long on defence stocks and then start a war – as suggested by Elon Musk in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary.

Russell and his colleagues propose making AI systems that observe human behavior and try to work out what the human’s objective is, then behave accordingly and learn from mistakes. So instead of trying to give the machine a long list of rules to follow, the machine is told that its main objective is to do what the human wants them to do. It sounds simple, but it’s not how engineers have been building systems for the past 50 years.

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