Elected Officials Will Not Have Roles in Anniversary Ceremony




Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center is due to open in 2013

Bloomberg News, NEW YORK (AP) – The Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony at ground zero has been stripped of politicians this year. But can it ever be stripped of politics?

For the first time, elected officials won’t speak Tuesday at an occasion that has allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight. The change was made in the name of sidelining politics, but some have rapped it as a political move in itself.

It’s a sign of the entrenched sensitivity of the politics of Sept. 11, even after a decade of commemorating the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. From the first anniversary in 2002, the date has been limned with questions about how — or even whether — to try to separate the Sept. 11 that is about personal loss from the 9/11 that reverberates through public life.

The answers are complicated for Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon. She feels politicians’ involvement can lend gravity to the remembrances, but she empathizes with the reasons for silencing officeholders at the New York ceremony this year.

“It is the one day, out of 365 days a year, where, when we invoke the term ‘9/11,’ we mean the people who died and the events that happened,” rather than the political and cultural layers the phrase has accumulated, said Burlingame, who’s on the board of the organization that announced the change in plans this year.

“So I think the idea that it’s even controversial that politicians wouldn’t be speaking is really rather remarkable.”

Remarkable, perhaps, but a glimpse through the political prism that splits so much surrounding Sept. 11 into different lights.

Officeholders from the mayor to presidents have been heard at the New York ceremony, reading texts ranging from parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address to poems by John Donne and Langston Hughes.

But in July, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum — led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as its board chairman — announced that this year’s version would include only relatives reading victims’ names. Politicians still may attend.

The point, memorial President Joe Daniels said, was “honoring the victims and their families in a way free of politics” in an election year.

“You always want to change,” Bloomberg said in a radio interview in July, “… and I think it’ll be very moving.”

Some victims’ relatives and commentators praised the decision. “It is time” to extricate Sept. 11 from politics, the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial.

But others said keeping politicians off the rostrum smacked of … politics.

The move came amid friction between the memorial foundation and the governors of New York and New Jersey over progress on the memorial museum. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, have signaled their displeasure by calling on federal officials to give the memorial a financial and technical hand.

Some victims’ relatives see the no-politicians anniversary ceremony as retaliation. Both states’ governors have traditionally been invited to participate.

“Banning the governors of New York and New Jersey from speaking is the ultimate political decision,” said one relatives’ group, led by retired Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches. His firefighter son and namesake was killed responding to the burning World Trade Center.

To Riches, political leaders’ presence shows a nation’s respect and recognizes their role in passing laws that aided victims’ families and people sickened by working at ground zero.

With politicians excluded, “the 9/11 families are having to turn their backs on the people who helped us so much,” he said.

Spokesmen for Christie and Cuomo said the governors were fine with the memorial organizers’ decision.

For former New York Gov. George Pataki, the change ends a 10-year experience that was deeply personal even as it reflected his political role. He was governor at the time of the attacks.

“As the names are read out, I just listen and have great memories of people who I knew very well who were on that list of names. It was very emotional,” Pataki reflected by phone last week. Among his friends who were killed was Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

But Pataki supports the decision not to have government figures speak.

“It’s time to take the next step, which is simply to continue to pay tribute,” said Pataki, who expects he’ll continue to attend.

Of course, it’s difficult to remember 9/11 without remembering its impact on the nation’s political narrative. As both an event and a symbol, it’s “seared into the American social and political psyche, with profound consequences,” says Baruch College political science professor Douglas Muzzio.

And from the start, the anniversary has been a flashpoint for accusations of playing politics with Sept. 11.

The first anniversary engendered political flaps from New York to Pikeville, Ky. New York Republicans said a Democratic television ad featuring the Gettysburg Address was aimed at upstaging Pataki’s ground zero reading from the same text. In Pikeville, a judicial candidate complained when the incumbent was tapped to sing at the Sept. 11 ceremony in the town of roughly 7,000; organizers let the judge perform, anyway.

When Republicans scheduled their 2004 national convention in New York City less than two weeks before the anniversary, some victims’ relatives accused the GOP of using Sept. 11 as a political backdrop. And some family members and firefighters objected that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani would bring politics into the ceremony by participating in 2007, when he was a Republican presidential candidate. Giuliani ultimately made brief remarks.

“I’ve tried very hard not to politicize Sept. 11, particularly around the time of 9/11, but it’s almost impossible not to be criticized for politicizing it because it’s a political event,” Giuliani told the news website Politico last year.

Several family members sent a political message of their own as they read names at the 2005 ground zero ceremony, calling for a fitting memorial amid a fight over a then-planned “freedom museum” that some said would politicize the site. And the 2010 anniversary unfolded amid protests and counterprotests over a proposed mosque near ground zero, as well as a furor over a Florida minister’s ultimately canceled plan to burn copies of the Quran.

Charles G. Wolf feels it’s time to take political voices out of the anniversary this year. He thinks that the public’s connection to Sept. 11 has changed, and that the ceremony should, too.

“We’ve gone past that deep, collective public grief,” says Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed at the trade center. “And the fact that the politicians will not be involved, to me, makes it more intimate, for the families.

“I think that the politicians don’t need to be there, personally. … It can be just us. That’s the way that it can be now.”

Graphic: Jon Han



Crowdsourcing can create an artificial chat partner that’s smarter than Siri-style personal assistants.



MIT Technology Review, by Tom Simonite, September 10, 2012  —   Personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri may be useful, but they are still far from matching the smarts and conversational skills of a real person. Researchers at the University of Rochester have demonstrated a new, potentially better approach that creates a smart artificial chat partner from fleeting contributions from many crowdsourced workers.

Crowdsourcing typically involves posting simple tasks to a website such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, where Web users complete them for a reward of a few cents. The tasks are often simple, repetitive jobs that are easy for humans but tough for computers, such as categorizing images. Crowdsourcing has become a popular way for companies to handle such tasks, but some researchers, including the group at Rochester, believe it can also be used to take on more complex tasks.

When people talk to the new crowd-powered chat system, called Chorus, using an instant messaging window, they get an experience practically indistinguishable from chatting with a single real person. Yet behind the scenes, each response is the result of tens of people paid a few cents to perform small tasks: including suggesting possible replies and voting for the best suggestions submitted by other workers.

Tests where Chorus was asked for travel advice showed that it could be smarter than any one individual in the crowd, because around seven people were contributing to its responses at any one time. Helpers built this way might also be cheaper than paying a conventional one-on-one assistant. “It shows how a crowd-powered system that is relatively simple can do something that AI has struggled to do for decades,” says Jeffrey Bigham, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester, and a member of the research team that created Chorus. Bigham jokes that Chorus is more likely to pass a Turing Test, which challenges an artificial intelligence system to fool someone into thinking it’s human, than conventional chat software, although it may not meet most definitions of artificial intelligence.

In trials of the system, people asked Chorus for advice on restaurants to visit in Los Angeles and New York, and quickly received suggestions. Feedback such as “Hmm. That seems pricey,” was quickly taken on board by the crowd, which came up with an alternative. AI systems such as Siri typically have difficulty following this kind of back-and-forth conversation, particularly in colloquial language.

Bigham worked with Rochester colleagues Walter Lasecki and Rachel Wesley, and Anand Kulkarni, the cofounder of crowdsourcing company MobileWorks (see “Human Workers, Managed by an Algorithm“). Their goal was to find a new way to increase the power of crowdsourcing, which is typically limited to simple, isolated tasks, such as adding labels to image files. “What we’re really interested in is when a crowd as a collective can do better than even a high-quality individual,” says Bigham, by combining work on many simple tasks into a coherent, complex whole.

Chorus does that with three simple types of task. First, any new chat updates from the human user are passed along to many crowd workers, who are asked to suggest a reply. Those suggestions are then voted on by crowd workers to determine the one that will be sent back.

A final mechanism creates a kind of working memory that ensures that Chorus’s replies reflect the history of the conversation so far, crucial if it is to carry out long conversations—something that is a challenge for apps like Siri and even AI chatbots intended to showcase conversational skills.

For the working memory component, crowd members are asked to maintain a short running list of the eight most important snippets of information under discussion, to be used as a reference when workers suggest replies. This is important, as to allow for the natural turnover of crowdsourcing workers. “A single person may not be around for the duration of the conversation—they come and go, and some may contribute more than others,” says Bigham.

Bigham says Chorus has the potential to be more than just a neat demonstration. “We definitely want to start embedding it into real systems,” he says. “Perhaps you could help someone with cognitive impairment by having a crowd as a personal assistant.”

Another possibility is to combine Chorus with another system previously developed at Rochester, which has crowd workers collaborate to steer a robot. “Could you create a robot this way that can drive around and interact intelligently with humans?” asks Bigham.

Michael Bernstein, an assistant professor at Stanford University who is currently doing research at Facebook, agrees that Chorus could lead to real-world applications (see “Adding Human Intelligence to Software“).

“You could go from today where I call AT&T and speak with an individual, to a future where many people with different skills work together to act as a single incredibly intelligent tech support,” says Bernstein. He says the Chorus software could become a true expert if it were able to direct incoming questions to members of the crowd with particular knowledge or skills.

However, Bernstein adds that it may be necessary to add more reviewing steps to Chorus in order to filter a crowd’s suggestions to prevent it developing a split personality when faced with difficult questions. This is a familiar problem in applying crowdsourcing. One of the Rochester team’s biggest challenges when building their crowd-controlled robot, for example, was to prevent it crashing into obstacles dead ahead because half the crowd workers steering it wanted it to go left, and the other half wanted it to go right.



The Future of Work


Can Creativity be Automated?


Graphic: Kelly Blair



Computer algorithms have started to write news stories, compose music, and pick hits.



MIT Technology Review, September 10, 2012, by Christopher Steiner  —  In 2004, New Zealander Ben Novak was just a guy with a couple of guitars and distant dreams of becoming a pop star. A year later one of Novak’s songs, “Turn Your Car Around,” had invaded Europe’s radio stations, becoming a top-10 hit.

Novak had to beat long odds to get discovered. The process record labels use to find new talent—A&R, for “artists and repertoire”—is fickle and hard to explain; it rarely admits unknowns like him. So Novak got into the music business through a back door that had been opened not by a human, but by an algorithm tasked with finding hit songs.

It’s widely accepted that creativity can’t be copied by machines. Reinforcing these assumptions are hundreds of books and studies that have attempted to explain creativity as the product of mysterious processes within the right side of the human brain. Creativity, the thinking has been, proves just how different people are from CPUs.

But now we’re learning that for some creative work, that simply isn’t true. Complex algorithms are moving into creative fields—even those as nebulous as music A&R—and proving that in some of these pursuits, humans can be displaced.

The algorithm that kindled Novak’s music career belongs to Music X-Ray, whose founder, Mike McCready, has spent the last 10 years developing technology to detect musical hooks that are destined for the charts. When Novak submitted a song to McCready’s engine through the Web, it was graded on a par with classic hits such as “Take It Easy” by the Eagles and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”

Music X-Ray’s algorithms use Fourier transforms—a method of separating a signal from the “noise” of complex data—to isolate a song’s base melody, beat, tempo, rhythm, octave, pitch, chords, progression, sonic brilliance, and several other factors that catch a listener’s ear. The software then builds three-dimensional models of the song based on these properties and compares it with hit songs of the past. Putting a just-analyzed song on the screen with No. 1 tracks of yore shows a kind of cloud structure filled in with dots representing songs. The hits tend to be grouped in clusters, which reveal similar underlying structures. Get close to the middle of one of those clusters and you may have a hit.

McCready’s website and software have now connected more than 5,000 artists with recording deals, and after a long period of shunning him, the A&R industry is regularly using Music X-Ray to find new artists. “I’m finally making friends in the record industry,” McCready says.

Music lends itself naturally to being parsed by algorithms—mathematics is mixed up in every chord, beat, and harmony that we hear. But can computer programming hack something as subjective as grading English papers?

Why, yes. Earlier this year the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation sponsored a $100,000 competition that invited programmers to build the best essay-grading bot possible. The ultimate goal: an algorithm that closely tracks marks given by the most competent human graders. The best of the 159 submissions did exactly that, producing scores nearly identical to those given by a pool of humans. Such a tool could improve the productivity of teachers who must slog through hundreds of student essays. It could also reintroduce essays to a wider set of standardized tests, which have become dominated by multiple-choice questions that can be cheaply scored by machines.

Algorithms won’t only do work that requires a critical eye. They also will create. Narrative Science, a company in Evanston, Illinois, whose founders include journalism and computer science professors from Northwestern University, has built a set of algorithms that take box scores and produce well-styled and grammatically correct sports reports. The Big Ten Network uses the technology to produce stories one minute after a game is over. An article duly punched out by the bot seconds after an Illinois-Indiana football game started like this: “Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 211 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 95 yards and one touchdown, leading No. 16 Illinois to a 41-20 victory over Indiana on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illinois’ (6-0) offense dominated, ripping off huge chunks of yardage.”

Bots can’t yet script prose worthy of awards, but on some metrics of economic importance to publishers—such as number of page views a site registers—bots can be far more productive than any journalist. They can write articles in seconds, even about events that no journalist attended.

So at what point do algorithms produce something really creative, like art? David Cope, a professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, believes we’re nearly there. Cope has been weaving thousands of lines of LISP code into music-making algorithms for 30 years. While his first algorithms produced crude music unfit for public performance, his newer ones have consistently composed classical music that imitates masters like Johann Sebastian Bach so well that people can’t always tell the difference.

Cope feeds music to machine learning algorithms that create new compositions by changing and building on patterns it finds in existing music. Some might call this mere plagiarism. But Cope argues that building upon the past is what great musicians and composers have always done. This, he insists, is creativity.

Cope’s latest algorithm, which he’s dubbed Annie, takes programmed creativity yet a step further. She decides on the musical patterns, the criteria, and ultimately, the path she takes to making music. “The really interesting thing is that I have no idea what she’s going to do sometimes,” Cope says. “She surprises me as much as anybody.”

Christopher Steiner is an author and entrepreneur. His forthcoming book Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World is being published by Portfolio/Penguin in August.