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Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’?

Source: Researchers: Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’? – BBC News

The BBC talks to researchers who suggest after a summer of activity, AI could be about to enter a winter. They have a point:

Hype surrounding AI has peaked and troughed over the years as the abilities of the technology get overestimated and then re-evaluated. The peaks are known as AI summers, and the troughs AI winters. The 10s were arguably the hottest AI summer on record with tech giants repeatedly touting AI’s abilities.

Note the language here: “tech giants repeatedly touting AI’s abilities”. Not every claimed AI success was really about artificial intelligence.

Some of the time they were talking about AI. Some of the time the were talking about trawling through huge piles of data. That’s not to say there weren’t huge strides in artificial intelligence. There were. But there was also a lot of other stuff dressed up as AI because that term came back into fashion.

AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio, sometimes called one of the “godfathers of AI”, told the BBC that AI’s abilities were somewhat overhyped in the 10s by certain companies with an interest in doing so. There are signs, however, that the hype might be about to start cooling off.

He isn’t kidding. The Gartner Hype Cycle talks about the peak of inflated expectations. During the last decade those peaks ranged higher and higher.

“I have the sense that AI is transitioning to a new phase,” said Katja Hofmann, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. Given the billions being invested in AI and the fact that there are likely to be more breakthroughs ahead, some researchers believe it would be wrong to call this new phase an AI winter.

Calling it a ‘winter’ is more hype. Technology and science have always had uneven progress. The term does give tech companies a useful fig leaf should progress slow and they have to justify themselves to investors.

Robot Wars judge Noel Sharkey, who is also a professor of AI and robotics at Sheffield University, told the BBC that he likes the term “AI autumn” — and several others agree.

First, the AI summer was overheated. For a while everything tech had AI applied to it. The term was and continues to be misused in ways that leave non-technical people puzzled.

A lot of ‘AI’ is not artificial intelligence in any meaningful sense. And even the more impressive examples of what AI can do are often in practice huge lists of IF…THEN statements working through vast amounts of data.

Take camera makers who say their phones use AI to determine what kind of image they are shooting. The implication is that a phone makes AI calculations at the time the camera shutter clicks. That’s not the case. What’s actually going on is that cameras are using the results of earlier AI analysis. The phone cameras do not learn as they go.

This is not to say AI has not achieved great things. It does and continues to do so every day. AI is changing the world. Yet a lot of the excitement is nothing but hype, bandwagon jumping or AI-washing.

Research company Gartner has made a reputation for itself examining technology hype cycles. Many technologies have progressed along Gartner’s path. Some have fallen away before they get past the Trough of Disillusionment.

AI is on a different trajectory. In part that’s because it’s a more complex and nuanced idea than many of the technologies tracked by the hype cycle.

The BBC story goes on to play down some of the expectation about AI. It’s a balanced overview, with a neat précis of where things are heading. Let’s hope that includes less hype.

Mike Riversdale has a problem with the price of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. He responded to my review of the Laptop on Twitter:

Soon after:

Then:

He has a good point. The Surface Laptop 3 is far more than expensive than similar laptops. Even if you shop around it is  $1000 or so more expensive than similar laptops. That makes it at least 50 percent more than the price of a 15-inch Windows laptop from HP, Dell or Lenovo. It is a whopping 80 percent more than Riversdale’s fancy new birthday laptop.

Premium laptop

Microsoft positions its Surface Laptops as premium models. It would be fair to say the build is top notch. The case is nicer than you’ll find on most commodity laptops. The keyboard is the best I’ve seen in any laptop. The screen ratio is more suited to writing than displays on consumer laptops optimised for video

All these things are nice. For many people who spend all day writing a first class keyboard is a must. It is well worth paying a few extra dollars for more comfortable, more productive typing.

Yet it’s still a struggle to justify a 50 or 80 percent premium.

And anyway, Microsoft does not sell its Surface Laptop 3 on these features. At the time of writing the marketing copy on Microsoft’s website makes that clear. It starts: “Make a powerful statement and get improved speed, performance, and all-day battery life”.

The $3100 review model might have improved speed compared with a second generation Surface Laptop. Yet it is no faster than those $1700 rival Windows laptops. We can concede the battery life is good, but not a lot better than those competing machines.

Tangible, intangible

If the tangible aspects can’t justify the higher price, does it come down to less tangible things?

And that’s where Microsoft’s price becomes more of a puzzle.

Apple can and does charge more for MacBooks than most Windows computer makers can get away with. There are people, I’m one of them, who are happy to pay more for Apple’s software and ecosystem. The fact that I can handoff between my phone, iPad and MacBook is worth paying a little extra for.

Some people swear there are productivity benefits from using a Mac. You don’t have to agree with this opinion. That’s not important. What is important is that many computer buyers believe they get better productivity from a Mac

Microsoft cannot make a similar claim. The version of Windows 10 on the Surface Laptop 3 is near identical to that on rival Windows laptops. There is no premium in the software. Unless you count the fact that Microsoft doesn’t load up its laptops with bloatware.

Microsoft Surface Laptop brand

Which only leaves another reason Microsoft thinks it can charge a premium; that the brand is more valuable. It can’t be that Microsoft computers are more reliable than competing devices. In 2017 the US Consumer Reports said that it would no longer recommend Microsoft’s Surface laptops and tablets because of “poor predicted reliability” compared to other brands.

That’s damning. Microsoft says it has fixed the problems. It may have done. But any laptop buyer with a memory or access to Google will doubt it is worth paying a quality premium.

It’s not going to cut much ice with buyers, yet scale is one reason Microsoft hardware is expensive. The company does not rate among the top five PC makers. HP, Dell, Lenovo, Apple and Acer account for 80 percent of personal computer sales. Acer is the smallest of the top 5 with a six percent share of the market. It’s no secret Acer is struggling.

The Surface range is a US$2 billion business for Microsoft. That puts it in the region of a little over one percent of the company. It’s healthy, but not essential to Microsoft’s future.

It’s not about you, it’s not about the laptop

So what is going on with Surface? Before Microsoft entered the market, the Windows laptop scene was in bad shape. There was as race to the bottom between computer makers. They still make tiny margins selling hardware, in some cases unsustainable margins.

Microsoft introduced the Surface to inject quality and excitement back into the market.

At the time Apple was almost the entire premium end of the PC market. That’s not something Microsoft could sit by and watch. Over time that would erode the Windows brand and create all sorts of tensions. There was no way Microsoft would leave the high ground to Apple.

You can see from the numbers and the market share, that Microsoft is not serious about winning the bulk of hardware customers. It doesn’t need to do that. It needs to establish a premium Windows computer brand that shines out as an alternative to Apple.

Having high prices is an important part of that strategy. A high price can be as much a marketing strategy as low, low prices. It also means Microsoft makes a tidy sum from the exercise.

If you, like Mike Riversdale, think the Surface Laptop 3 costs too much at NZ$3100, that’s fine. Shop elsewhere. It’s not for you. It is a message from Microsoft to let you know there is more to the PC business than getting a bargain.

After spending more time with the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 there is more to say.

My original review is dismissive of the keyboard. That needs to be updated.

First time around I wrote:

“The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about.”

That was written after a couple of hours tinkering with the machine. Later I used the laptop to write a long feature and realised the keyboard deserves more praise. It is among the better laptop keyboards I’ve used.

For someone who writes all day, this is important. Laptop typing can leave me exhausted after ten hours at the keyboard.

This goes a long way towards justifying what is, by 2020 standards, the expensive price tag.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, like me, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The propritary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 reminds me of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Power Supply

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

A better Windows experience

There’s one other aspect of the Surface Laptop 3 that took more time to sink in is how much better Windows 10 is in 2020 than in earlier versions. Yes, I know most people use Windows most of the time and this might be an unremarkable comment for many readers. My Windows 8 experience was so negative I switched to an Apple Mac. My productivity soared and I never looked back.

The earlier incarnations of Windows 10 didn’t fix things for me. Eight years later it finally feels as if Windows is back on track. That doesn’t mean I plan to switch back from MacOs to Windows, it does mean that doing so would no longer be a jarring backward step.

A virtual private network has its uses. But only in limited and narrow cases.

Most people don’t need a VPN. That won’t stop advertisers barraging you with scare stories.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out in Why public Wi-fi is a lot safer than you think. It says widespread use of HTTPS encryption means a virtual private network is often overkill.

“In general, using public Wi-Fi is a lot safer than it was in the early days of the Internet. With the widespread adoption of HTTPS, most major websites will be protected by the same encryption regardless of how you connect to them.”

If you are still scared of public Wi-fi, use a mobile data connection. They are far more secure and it works out far cheaper in the long term.

Digital snake oil

VPNs are often sold to people who don’t need them. For most users they are digital snake oil. You might as well buy a charm to ward off evil spirits.

Companies selling virtual private network services charge a lot for not much. They are cheap to set up. Which means VPN margins are high. It’s a lucrative business.

If you are tech savvy you could build your own. It isn’t hard.

Although most people don’t need VPNs most of the time, a minority do.

Helpful when government is repressive

Say you live in or travel to a place where the government restricts internet activity. A VPN can help. In effect it digs a tunnel for your data to pass through firewalls and other digital obstacles.

At least, they do that until the government concerned cracks down on VPNs.

On my first visit to China a VPN helped me get around internet restrictions.

With a VPN I could use Gmail and Outlook.com to send mail. It let me connect to Google and popular social networks. I used it to connect to my WordPress account. There was no problem using iCloud or OneDrive with the VPN switched on.

None of this worked if I switched off my VPN.

What happens in China stays in China

By the time I returned two years later, China was better at frustrating the VPN.

My VPN’s activity was erratic. It disconnected again and again. Some of the time it didn’t work at all. It’s reasonable to assume governments have now figured out their VPN workarounds.

That’s not to say a VPN isn’t useful in these circumstances. Governments tend to be more concerned about restricting their citizens. Overseas visitor are not the main target, the governments may tolerate some use.

Although I couldn’t use my VPN on public networks on my last China trip, I could use it from my hotel room.

Big end of town

You may also need a VPN if you work for a large corporation. They may insist you use a VPN when connecting to the digital mothership. Corporations can be targets for online criminals. Insisting on a VPN may reduce the threat.

HTTPS encrypts data end-to-end. People watching don’t know what’s going on in your messages, but they can view your metadata.

In other words, they know which sites you visit, but not the pages on a site. Metadata may be all a criminal need to find vulnerabilities if they have other parts of the jigsaw.

This argument doesn’t apply when you use your device to check your bank balance or read Gmail. Knowing you’ve connected to Westpac or Gmail isn’t that helpful to a criminal.

Geo-blocking

A second practical VPN application is bypassing geo-blocking.

Bypassing a block doesn’t have to be illegal. There are legitimate reasons to do this. And there are activities that are, well, let’s say ambiguous.

Services like Netflix negotiate content rights on a territory by territory basis.

Say your favourite TV show to is available to US Netflix customers but not New Zealand.

A VPN can make your connection appear to be coming from wherever you choose. To Netflix, a New Zealand customer may appear to be in the US.

Using a VPN terminating in the US makes it look as though you live there. Some streaming services don’t ask questions if you use a New Zealand credit card to subscribe. Others do. There’s a wealth of expertise around the subject of getting past geo blocks1.

Pirates, criminals, persons of interest

Pirates use VPNs to hide their illegal activities from authorities. There is no grey area here, piracy is illegal. By using a VPN their ISP has no idea what is going on, nor do the authorities.

There are worse criminal online acts where a VPN can cover the tracks, up to a point. One thing to keep in mind is that anyone looking hard enough can tell a VPN is being used.

Not all VPNs are create equal. Some are trustworthy even if the sales pitch might be a touch insincere. Take extra care with free VPNs. They are often data gathering exercises. It may hide your information from your ISP and the authorities but it is being stored elsewhere. These ratbags then share your data with other companies.

Some free VPNs are criminal in intent. As is often the case, the worst examples are in the Android world. Some Android VPNs push malware on to your computer. .

“In 2017, researchers from Australia, the UK, and the US studied 234 VPN applications available on the Google Play Store. They discovered that more than a third of these apps used malware to track users’ online behaviour.”

Ciso Magazine.

See also 29 VPN Services Owned by Six China-Based Organizations.

Virtual private network overview

At this point there’s little practical advice to offer readers other than “be wary of free VPNs”. If you are squeaky clean, don’t deal in secrets and don’t travel to locked down countries you don’t need a VPN. If you think you do need one, take care. It’s a minefield out there.

 


  1. Go and look elsewhere. It’s not hard to find ↩︎

The 15-inch version of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is big, beautiful and nicely put together. While it is less powerful than most other laptops of this size and price, it meets a real need.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 - large and small models

At a glance:

 

For: Large screen with 3:2 ratio for document work. Well made. Good keyboard. Excellent trackpad.
Against: Lack of ports, AMD Ryzen processor not up to serious media editing.
Maybe: OK battery life, lack of ports and general minimalism could go either way.
Verdict: Great for writers, lawyers and other people who work with documents.
Price: Official Microsoft price is NZ$3100, but shop around, retailers have better deals.
Web: Microsoft NZ

Microsoft offers a range of Surface Laptop 3 variants. Prices start at NZ$1900. Here I looked at the NZ$3100 model that sports a 15-inch screen and, in a brave move, AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. It also has 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of ram.

Although bigger screens add to laptop prices, NZ$3100 is a little more than you might expect to shell out for that combination of processor, storage and ram.

You may not have to pay that much. Microsoft’s online store asks NZ$3100, but if you shop around, you’ll find retailers offer the same hardware for up to $300 less. At least they did at the time of writing.

For the same money you could buy a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro or an HP Spectre x360. The other PC makers all have models that offer a little more power for the price. Keep this in mind as you read on.

AMD or Intel inside?

Microsoft doesn’t appear to sell a 15-inch model with an Intel processor in New Zealand1. You can purchase a model with a 13.5 screen and an Intel i7 processor that cost about $100 less. That may be a better choice for some readers.

From the moment you open the box, the Surface Laptop 3 looks impressive. It has a matt black, all-aluminium case. There is none of the fabric coating found on other Surface Laptop models. It looks and feels like Microsoft made it for serious work. Up to a point it fits the bill.

The 15-inch screen gives you much more working real estate than a 13-inch screen. There’s enough to put two documents side-by-side without compromise. Microsoft has opted for a 3:2 screen ratio which is more business-like.

It works better with text documents and web pages than watching wide-screen video.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Design choices

The trackpad works well enough. It sits at the centre of what feels like acres of room. At a guess Microsoft dropped a 13-inch laptop’s keyboard into the 15-inch model’s shell. This is an unusual design choice.

Despite this, the trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Apple hardware. It works well and it a pleasure to use. In my experience this can be weakness with Windows laptops.

It’s been a while since I’ve used a stand-out laptop keyboard. They must be out there. The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about. See my revised opinion on the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard.

There’s plenty of travel for more demanding touch-typists. The keys are nicely pitched an it is comfortable. It could be a fraction crisper in its action, but that’s quibbling.

Spacey

Microsoft has failed to use the extra space around the keyboard on the 15-inch model in any way. Other laptop makers often use this extra real estate to provide bigger speakers. That often means better sounding speakers.

It’s a missed opportunity. The sound from the speakers is more than adequate for work purposes, but disappointing for music. This ‘good for everyday work, not great for entertainment’ is that theme that continues again and again with this computer.

Microsoft has also been stingy about the ports on the Surface Laptop. Sure, Apple has shown that you can build popular laptops with few ports. Here there is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port, one USB-C and one USB-A. Welcome to the world of dongles.

Generally, larger laptop screens mean more grunt under the hood. Gaming laptops have big screens and powerful graphics processors. So do large screen models from brands like Dell or Apple. They aim at creative professionals. Microsoft has not gone down any of those paths.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for the kind of work I do: writing, researching, some basic web design. It is unlikely the Ryzen 5 processor is enough for people who work with large spreadsheets or databases. And you can forget about compiling code without wandering off for a tea break.

This specification is not necessarily a bad thing, many laptops have more power than necessary for the work thrown at them. There are people like writers and journalist who wold enjoy being able to see more on screen but don’t need a stonking CPU to power through numbers.

If it is a little underpowered, the Ryzen chip has its good side: it offers great battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours. In testing that seemed ambitious. I saw nothing like that. Yet there is enough to cruise through an eight-hour working day without looking for a socket and a little more in the tank if you’re asked to stay behind for a wee while.

When the Surface Laptop 3 arrived I felt excited about the machine. At first sight it appears to be a great work computer for people who need a larger screen.

That impression didn’t go away. Yet there is also the dawning realisation that the big screen is all you get with the 15-inch Ryzen 5 Surface Laptop 3. It might help to think of it as a physically pumped-up version of a smaller computer with a bigger screen. That makes it good for personal productivity, not so good for games or media production.


  1. There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎