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Computing for the future of the planet: the digital commons

On Wednesday we had a "flagship seminar" from Prof Andy Hopper on Computing for the future of the planet. How can computing help in the quest for sustainability of the planet and humanity?

Lots of food for thought in the talk. I was surprised to come out with a completely different take-home message than I'd expected - and a different take-home message than I think the speaker had in mind too. I'll come back to that in a second.

Some of the themes he discussed:

  • Green computing. This is pretty familiar: how can computing be less wasteful? Low-energy systems, improving the efficiency of computer chips, that kind of thing. A good recent example is how DeepMind used machine learning to reduce the cooling requirements of a Google data centre by 40%. 40% reductions are really rare. Hopper also have a nice example of "free lunch" computing - the idea is that energy is going unused somewhere out there in the world (a remote patch of the sea, for example) so if you stick a renewable energy generator and a server farm there, you essentially get your computation done at no resource cost.
  • Computing for green, i.e. using computation to help us do things in a more sustainable way. Hopper gave a slightly odd example of high-tech monitoring that improved efficiency of manufacturing in a car factory; not very clear to me that this is a particularly generalisable example. How about this much better example? Open source geospatial maps and cheap new tools improve farming in Africa. "Aerial drones, crowds of folks gathering soil samples and new analysis techniques combine as pieces in digital maps that improve crop yields on African farms. The Africa Soil Information Service is a mapping effort halfway through its 15-year timeline. Its goal is to publish dynamic digital maps of all of Sub-Saharan Africa at a resolution high enough to serve farmers with small plots. The maps will be dynamic because AfSIS is training people now to continue the work and update the maps." - based on crowdsourced and other data, machine-learning techniques are used to create a complete picture of soil characteristics, and can be used to predict where's good to farm what, what irrigation is needed, etc.

Then Hopper also talked about replacing physical activities by digital activities (e.g. shopping), and this led him on to the topic of the Internet, worldwide sharing of information and so on. He argued (correctly) that a lot of these developments will benefit the low-income countries even though they were essentially made by-and-for richer countries - and also that there's nothing patronising in this: we're not "developing" other countries to be like us, we're just sharing things, and whatever innovations come out of African countries (for example) might have been enabled by (e.g.) the Internet without anyone losing their own self-determination.

Hopper called this "wealth by proxy"... but it doesn't have to be as mystifying as that. It's a well-known idea called the commons.

The name "commons" originates from having a patch of land which was shared by all villagers, and that makes it a perfect term for what we're considering now. In the digital world the idea was taken up by the free software movement and open culture such as Creative Commons licensing. But it's wider than that. In computing, the commons consists of the physical fabric of the Internet, of the public standards that make the World Wide Web and other Internet actually work (http, smtp, tcp/ip), of public domain data generated by governments, of the Linux and Android operating systems, of open web browsers such as Firefox, of open collaborative knowledge-bases like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap. It consists of projects like the Internet Archive, selflessly preserving digital content and acting as the web's long-term memory. It consists of the GPS global positioning system, invented and maintained (as are many things) by the US military, but now being complemented by Russia's GloNass and the EU's Galileo.

All of those are things you can use at no cost, and which anyone can use as bedrock for some piece of data analysis, some business idea, some piece of art, including a million opportunities for making a positive contribution to sustainability. It's an unbelievable wealth, when you stop to think about it, an amazing collection of achievements.

The surprising take-home lesson for me was: for sustainable computing for the future of the planet, we must protect and extend the digital commons. This is particularly surprising to me because the challenges here are really societal, at least as much as they are computational.

There's more we can add to the commons; and worse, the commons is often under threat of encroachment. Take the Internet and World Wide Web: it's increasingly becoming centralised into the control of a few companies (Facebook, Amazon) which is bad news generally, but also presents a practical systemic risk. This was seen recently when Amazon's AWS service suffered an outage. AWS powers so many of the commercial and non-commercial websites online that this one outage took down a massive chunk of the digital world. As another example, I recently had problems when Google's "ReCAPTCHA" system locked me out for a while - so many websites use ReCAPTCHA to confirm that there's a real human filling in a form, that if ReCAPTCHA decides to give you the cold shoulder then you instantly lose access to a weird random sample of services, some of those which may be important to you.

Another big issue is net neutrality. "Net neutrality is like free speech" and it repeatedly comes under threat.

Those examples are not green-related in themselves, but they illustrate that out of the components of the commons I've listed, the basic connectivity offered by the Internet/WWW is the thing that is, surprisingly, perhaps the flakiest and most in need of defence. Without a thriving and open internet, how do we join the dots of all the other things?

But onto the positive. What more can we add to this commons? Take the African soil-sensing example. Shouldn't the world have a free, public stream of such land use data, for the whole planet? The question, of course, is who would pay for it. That's a social and political question. Here in the UK I can bring the question even further down to the everyday. The UK's official database of addresses (the Postcode Address File) was... ahem... was sold off privately in 2013. This is a core piece of our information infrastructure, and the government - against a lot of advice - decided to sell it as part of privatisation, rather than make it open. Related is the UK Land Registry data (i.e. who owns what parcel of land) which is not published as open data but is stuck behind a pay-wall, all very inconvenient for data analysis, investigative journalism etc.

We need to add this kind of data to the commons so that society can benefit. In green terms, geospatial data is quite clearly raw material for clever green computing of the future, to do good things like land management, intelligent routing, resource allocation, and all kinds of things I can't yet imagine.

As citizens and computerists, what can we do?

  1. We can defend the free and open internet. Defend net neutrality. Support groups like the Mozilla Foundation.
  2. Support open initiatives such as Wikipedia (and the Wikimedia Foundation), OpenStreetMap, and the Internet Archive. Join a local Missing Maps party!
  3. Demand that your government does open data, and properly. It's a win-win - forget the old mindset of "why should we give away data that we've paid for" - open data leads to widespread economic benefits, as is well documented.
  4. Work towards filling the digital commons with ace opportunities for people and for computing. For example satellite sensing, as I've mentioned. And there's going to be lots of drones buzzing around us collecting data in the coming years; let's pool that intelligence and put it to good use.

If we get this right, 20 years from now our society's computing will be green as anything, not just because it's powered by innocent renewable energy but because it can potentially be a massive net benefit - data-mining and inference to help us live well on a light footprint. To do that we need a healthy digital commons which will underpin many of the great innovations that will spring up everywhere.

| IT |

Roast squash, halloumi and pine nuts with asparagus

This was gorgeous. I hadn't realised that the sweet butternut and the salty halloumi would play so well off each other.

Serves 2, takes 45 minutes overall but with a big gap in the middle.

  • 1/2 a butternut squash
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • olive oil
  • a generous handful of pine nuts
  • 1 block of halloumi
  • 6 stalks of fresh asparagus
  • Half a lemon

First get the oven pre-heated to 180 C. While it's warming get the butternut ready to go in the oven. Chop it into bitesize pieces, roughly the size of 2cm cubes but no need to be exact. Then put the pieces in a roasting tin. Take the tines of rosemary off the stalk, chop them up and sprinkle them over the squash, then drizzle generously with olive oil. Chop the garlic into two pieces (no need to skin them - we're not eating them, just using them to add flavour) and place the pieces strategically among the squash. Then put this all into the oven, to roast for maybe 40 minutes.

When there's about 10 minutes left, heat up a griddle pan and a frying pan on the hob. Don't add any oil to either of the pans.

Take the asparagus stalks, toss them in olive oil and lay them on the griddle. Don't move them about.

Put the pine nuts into the hot dry frying pan. You'll want to shuffle these about for the next few minutes, watching them carefully - they need to get a bit toasty but not burn. While you're doing that you can cut the halloumi into bitesize pieces, about 2cm cube size. Turn the asparagus over to cook the other side and add the halloumi to the pan too. (I hope they fit in the pan with the asparagus...) After a couple of minutes you can turn the halloumi over.

Get the tin out of the oven a couple of minutes before you serve it. Find and discard the garlic.

To serve, place the asparagus on each plate, then next to it you put the squash and the halloumi. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the squash and halloumi. Finally sprinkle a squeeze of lemon over.

| recipes |

The Economist shopping list for UK work

I don't always agree with The Economist magazine but it's interesting. It thinks bigger than many of the things you can buy on an average news stand. The current issue has an article about Britain and Marx, which happens to end with a clear and laudable shopping-list of things that our country needs to do to ensure the health of the economy and of worker's conditions. Let me quote:

"The genius of the British system has always been to reform in order to prevent social breakdown. This means doing more than just engaging in silly gestures such as as fixing energy prices, as the Conservatives proposed this week (silly because this will suppress investment and lead eventually to higher prices).

  • "It means preventing monopolies from forming: Britain's antitrust rules need to be updated for an age where information is the most valuable resource and network effects convey huge advantages.
  • "It means ending the CEO salary racket, not least by giving more power to shareholders.
  • "It means thinking seriously about the casualisation of work.
  • "And it means closing the revolving door between politics and business."
| politics |

Another failed attempt to discredit the vegans

People love to take the vegans down a peg or two. I guess they must unconsciously agree that the vegans are basically correct and doing the right thing, hence the defensive mud-slinging.

There's a bullshit article "Being vegan isn’t as good for humanity as you think". Like many bullshit articles, it's based on manipulating some claims from a research paper.

The point that the article is making is summarised by this quote:

"When applied to an entire global population, the vegan diet wastes available land that could otherwise feed more people. That’s because we use different kinds of land to produce different types of food, and not all diets exploit these land types equally."

This is factually correct, according to the original research paper which itself seems a decent attempt to estimate the different land requirements of different diets. The clickbaity inference, especially as stated in the headline, is that vegans are wrong. But that's where the bullshit lies.

Why? Look again at the quote. "When applied to an entire global population." Is that actually a scenario anyone expects? The whole world going vegan? In the next ten years, fifty years, a hundred? No. It's fine for the research paper to look at full-veganism as a comparison against the 9 other scenarios they consider (e.g. 20% veggy, 100% veggy), but the researchers are quite clear that their model is about what a whole population eats. You can think of it as what "an average person" eats, but no it's not what "each person should" eat.

The research concludes that a vegetarian diet is "best", judged on this specific criterion of how big a population can the USA's farmland support. And since that's for the population as a whole, and there's no chance that meat-eating will entirely leave the Western diet, a more sensible journalistic conclusion is that we should all be encouraged to be a bit more vegetarian, and the vegans should be celebrated for helping balance out those meat-eaters.

Plus, of course, the usual conclusion: more research is needed. This research was just about land use, it didn't include considerations of CO2 emissions, welfare, social attitudes, geopolitics...

The research illustrates that the USA has more than enough land to feed its population and that this could be really boosted if we all transition to eat a bit less meat. Towards the end of the paper, the researchers note that if the USA moved to a vegetarian diet, "the dietary changes could free up capacity to feed hundreds of millions of people around the globe."

| science |

Asparagus and chestnut risotto

It's asparagus season, plus I have a half-used packet of ready-cooked chestnuts. Wait a moment - maybe those flavours can come together over a risotto. Yes they can.

Note: I would have started with some leek or onion to help get things going - if I'd had some.

Quantities are to serve 1, but scale it as you like. Took about 30 mins.

  • 1 big cupful of risotto rice
  • 1 bunch fresh asparagus
  • Stock (I used veg stock as well as a dash of mushroom ketchup)
  • 1 glass white wine
  • 1 handful cooked chestnuts, halved
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • Black pepper
  • 2 knobs butter
  • Parmesan cheese

Rinse the asparagus, snip off the hardest end bits and chop the rest into bite-size pieces (about half an inch).

In a good-sized saucepan heat up 1 knob of butter. When it's melted add the rice and the asparagus and give it a good stir. Let it cook for a minute or so before you add a small cup-worth of stock and/or wine. Stir the rice gently as it absorbs the liquid. Eventually when pretty much all is absorbed add more liquid, and continue stirring. Continue this way for about 20 minutes, until all the liquid is added and the rice is approaching being nicely soft.

In a small frying pan heat up a big knob of butter. When it's melted and ready to sizzle add the halved chestnuts. Stir-fry them around for 3-5 minutes until coloured and smelling nice, then add the chestnuts and the butter to the risotto, stirring them in. Chop the parsley finely and add that too, stirring.

You'll want the chestnuts to spend about 5 minutes in the risotto to meld the flavours together. Then add a good twist of pepper, stir, and serve with plenty of shaved parmesan on top.

| recipes |

On the validity of looking at spectrograms

People who do technical work with sound use spectrograms a heck of a lot. This standard way of visualising sound becomes second nature to us.

As you can see from these photos, I like to point at spectrograms all the time:

(Our research group even makes some really nice software for visualising sound which you can download for free.)

It's helpful to transform sound into something visual. You can point at it, you can discuss tiny details, etc. But sometimes, the spectrogram becomes a stand-in for listening. When we're labelling data, for example, we often listen and look at the same time. There's a rich tradition in bioacoustics of presenting and discussing spectrograms while trying to tease apart the intricacies of some bird or animal's vocal repertoire.

But there's a question of validity. If I look at two spectrograms and they look the same, does that mean the sounds actually sound the same?

In strict sense, we already know that the answer is "No". Us audio people can construct counterexamples pretty easily, in which there's a subtle audio difference that's not visually obvious (e.g. phase coherence -- see this delightfully devious example by Jonathan le Roux.) But it could perhaps be even worse than that: similarities might not just be made easier or harder to spot, in practice they could actually be differently arranged. If we have a particular sound X, it could audibly be more similar to A than B, while visually it could be more similar to B than A. If this was indeed true, we'd need to be very careful about performing tasks such as clustering sounds or labelling sounds while staring at their spectrograms.

So - what does the research literature say? Does it give us guidance on how far we can trust our eyes as a proxy for our ears? Well, it gives us hints but so far not a complete answer. Here are a few relevant factoids which dance around the issue:

  • Agus et al (2012) found that people could respond particularly fast to voice stimuli vs other musical stimuli (in a go/no-go discrimination task), and that this speed wasn't explained by the "distance" measured between spectrograms. (There's no visual similarity judgment here, but a pretty good automatic algorithm for comparing spectrograms [actually, "cochleagrams"] acts as a proxy.)
  • Another example which Trevor Agus sent me - I'll quote him directly: "My favourite counterexample for using the spectrogram as a surrogate for auditory perception is Thurlow (1959), in which he shows that we are rubbish at reporting the number of simultaneous pure tones, even when there are just 2 or 3. This is a task that would be trivial with a spectrogram. A more complex version would be Gutschalk et al. (2008) in which sequences of pure tones that are visually obvious on a spectrogram are very difficult to detect audibly. (This builds on a series of results on the informational masking of tones, but is a particularly nice example and audio demo.)"
  • Zue (1985) gives a very nice introduction and study of "spectrogram reading of speech" - this is when experts learn to look at a spectrogram of speech and to "read" from it the words/phonemes that were spoken. It's difficult and anyone who's good at it will have had to practice a lot, but as the paper shows, it's possible to get up to 80-90% accuracy on labelling the phonemes. I was surprised to read that "There was a tendency for consonants to be identified more accurately than vowels", because I would have thought the relatively long duration of vowels and the concentration of energy in different formants would have been the biggest clue for the eye. Now, the paper is arguing that spectrogram reading is possible, but I take a different lesson from it here: 80-90% is impressive but it's much much worse than the performance of an expert who is listening rather than looking. In other words, it demonstrates that looking and listening are very different, when it comes to the task of identifying phonemes. There's a question one can raise about whether spectrogram reading would reach a higher accuracy if someone learned it as thoroughly as we learn to listen to speech, but that's unlikely to be answered any time soon.
  • Rob Lachlan pointed out that most often we look at standard spectrograms which have a linear frequency scale, whereas our listening doesn't really treat frequency that way - it is more like a logarithmic scale, at least at higher frequencies. This could be accommodated by using spectrograms with log, mel or ERB frequency scales. People do have a habit of using the standard spectrogram, though, perhaps because it's the common default in software and because it's the one we tend to be most familiar with.
  • We know that listening can be highly accurate in many cases. This is exploited in the field of "auditory display" in which listening is used to analyse scatter plots and all kinds of things. Here's a particularly lovely exmaple quoted from Barrett & Kramer (1999): "In an experiment dating back to 1945, pilots took only an hour to learn to fly using a sonified instrument panel in which turning was heard by a sweeping pan, tilt by a change in pitch, and speed by variation in the rate of a “putt putt” sound (Kramer 1994a, p. 34). Radio beacons are used by rescue pilots to home-in on a tiny speck of a life-raft in the vast expanse of the ocean by listening to the strength of an audio signal over a set of radio headphones."
  • James Beauchamp sent me their 2006 study - again, they didn't use looking-at-spectrograms directly, but they did compare listening vs spectrogram analysis, as in Agus et al. The particularly pertinent thing here is that they evaluated this using small spectral modifications, i.e. very fine-scale differences. He says: "We attempted to find a formula based on spectrogram data that would predict percent error that listeners would incur in detecting the difference between original and corresponding spectrally altered sounds. The sounds were all harmonic single-tone musical instruments that were subjected to time-variant harmonic analysis and synthesis. The formula that worked best for this case (randomly spectrally altered) did not work very well for a later study (interpolating between sounds). Finding a best formula for all cases seems to still be an open question."

Really, what does this all tell us? It tells us that looking at spectrograms and listening to sounds are different in so many myriad ways that we definitely shouldn't expect the fine details to match up. We can probably trust our eyes for broad-brush tasks such as labelling sounds that are quite distinct, but for the fine-grained comparisons (which we often need in research) one should definitely be careful, and use actual auditory perception as the judge when it really matters. How to know when this is needed? Still a question of judgment, in most cases.

My thanks go to Trevor Agus, Michael Mandel, Rob Lachlan, Anto Creo and Tony Stockman for examples quoted here, plus all the other researchers who kindly responded with suggestions.

Know any research literature on the topic? If so do email me - NB there's plenty of literature on the accuracy of looking or of listening in various situations; here the question is specifically about comparisons between the two modalities.

| science |

How I rescued my blog, moved it from PHP to Pelican

My blog has been running for more than a decade, using the same cute-but-creaky old software made by my chum Sam. It was a lo-fi PHP and MySQL blog, and it did everything I needed. (Oh and it suited my stupid lo-fi blog aesthetics too, the clunky visuals are entirely …

| IT |

Modelling vocal interactions

Last year I took part in the Dagstuhl seminar on Vocal Interactivity in-and-between Humans, Animals and Robots (VIHAR). Many fascinating discussions with phoneticians, roboticists, and animal behaviourists (ethologists).

One surprisingly difficult topic was to come up with a basic data model for describing multi-party interactions. It was so easy to …

| science |

Paper: Applications of machine learning in animal behaviour studies

A colleague pointed out this new review paper in the journal "Animal Behaviour": Applications of machine learning in animal behaviour studies.

It's a useful introduction to machine learning for animal behaviour people. In particular, the distinction between machine learning (ML) and classical statistical modelling is nicely described (sometimes tricky to …

| science |

Spy in the Wild

Last year, when I took part in the Dagstuhl workshop on Vocal Interactivity in-and-between Humans, Animals and Robots, we had a brainstorming session, fantasising about how advanced robots might help us with animal behaviour research. "Spy" animals, if you will. Imagine a robot bird or a robot chimp, living as …

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