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Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Opinion | ‘The Death Knell for Higher Education in Florida’ - The New York Times

The Chatbots Are Here, and the Internet Industry Is in a Tizzy

"The new technology could upend many online businesses. But for companies that figure out how to work with it, A.I. could be a boon.

An illustration of a man’s face, partly hidden by blocks that resemble parts of a computer.
Anthony Gerace

SAN FRANCISCO — When Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, tried a new A.I. chatbot called ChatGPT in early December, it didn’t take him long to declare, “We need people on this!”

He cleared his calendar and asked employees to figure out how the technology, which instantly provides comprehensive answers to complex questions, could benefit Box, a cloud computing company that sells services that help businesses manage their online data.

Mr. Levie’s reaction to ChatGPT was typical of the anxiety — and excitement — over Silicon Valley’s new new thing. Chatbots have ignited a scramble to determine whether their technology could upend the economics of the internet, turn today’s powerhouses into has-beens or create the industry’s next giants.

Not since the iPhone has the belief that a new technology could change the industry run so deep. Cloud computing companies are rushing to deliver chatbot tools, even as they worry that the technology will gut other parts of their businesses. E-commerce outfits are dreaming of new ways to sell things. Social media platforms are being flooded with posts written by bots. And publishing companies are fretting that even more dollars will be squeezed out of digital advertising.

The volatility of chatbots has made it impossible to predict their impact. In one second, the systems impress by fielding a complex request for a five-day itinerary, making Google’s search engine look archaic. A moment later, they disturb by taking conversations in dark directions and launching verbal assaults.

The result is an industry gripped with the question: What do we do now?

“Everybody is agitated,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. “There’s a lot of value to be won or lost.”

Rarely have so many tech sectors been simultaneously exposed. The A.I. systems could disrupt $100 billion in cloud spending, $500 billion in digital advertising and $5.4 trillion in e-commerce sales, according to totals from IDC, a market research firm, and GroupM, a media agency.

Google, perhaps more than any other company, has reason to both love and hate the chatbots. It has declared a “code red” because their abilities could be a blow to its $162 billion business showing ads on searches.

But Google’s cloud computing business could be a big winner. Smaller companies like Box need help building chatbot tools, so they are turning to the giants that process, store and manage information across the web. Those companies — Google, Microsoft and Amazon — are in a race to provide businesses with the software and substantial computing power behind their A.I. chatbots.

Manish Chandra, the chief executive of Poshmark, imagines new approaches to e-commerce through artificial intelligence.Jason Henry for The New York Times

“The cloud computing providers have gone all in on A.I. over the last few months,” said Clément Delangue, head of the A.I. company Hugging Face, which helps run open-source projects similar to ChatGPT. “They are realizing that in a few years, most of the spending will be on A.I., so it is important for them to make big bets.”

When Microsoft introduced a chatbot-equipped Bing search engine last month, Yusuf Mehdi, the head of Bing, said the company was wrestling with how the new version would make money. Advertising will be a major driver, he said, but the company expects fewer ads than traditional search allows.

“We’re going to learn that as we go,” Mr. Mehdi said.

As Microsoft figures out a chatbot business model, it is forging ahead with plans to sell the technology to others. It charges $10 a month for a cloud service, built in conjunction with the OpenAI lab, that provides developers with coding suggestions, among other things.

Google has similar ambitions for its A.I. technology. After introducing its Bard chatbot last month, the company said its cloud customers would be able to tap into that underlying system for their own businesses.

But Google has not yet begun exploring how to make money from Bard itself, said Dan Taylor, a company vice president of global ads. It considers the technology “experimental,” he said, and is focused on using the so-called large language models that power chatbots to improve traditional search.

“The discourse on A.I. is rather narrow and focused on text and the chat experience,” Mr. Taylor said. “Our vision for search is about understanding information and all its forms: language, images, video, navigating the real world.”

Sridhar Ramaswamy, who led Google’s advertising division from 2013 to 2018, said Microsoft and Google recognized that their current search business might not survive. “The wall of ads and sea of blue links is a thing of the past,” said Mr. Ramaswamy, who now runs Neeva, a subscription-based search engine.

Amazon, which has a larger share of the cloud market than Microsoft and Google combined, has not been as public in its chatbot pursuit as the other two, though it has been working on A.I. technology for years.

But in January, Andy Jassy, Amazon’s chief executive, corresponded with Mr. Delangue of Hugging Face, and weeks later Amazon expanded a partnership to make it easier to offer Hugging Face’s software to customers.

As that underlying tech, known as generative A.I., becomes more widely available, it could fuel new ideas in e-commerce. Late last year, Manish Chandra, the chief executive of Poshmark, a popular online secondhand store, found himself daydreaming during a long flight from India about chatbots building profiles of people’s tastes, then recommending and buying clothes or electronics. He imagined grocers instantly fulfilling orders for a recipe.

“It becomes your mini-Amazon,” said Mr. Chandra, who has made integrating generative A.I. into Poshmark one of the company’s top priorities over the next three years. “That layer is going to be very powerful and disruptive and start almost a new layer of retail.”

But generative A.I is causing other headaches. In early December, users of Stack Overflow, a popular social network for computer programmers, began posting substandard coding advice written by ChatGPT. Moderators quickly banned A.I.-generated text.

Part of the problem was that people could post this questionable content far faster than they could write posts on their own, said Dennis Soemers, a moderator for the site. “Content generated by ChatGPT looks trustworthy and professional, but often isn’t,” he said.

When websites thrived during the pandemic as traffic from Google surged, Nilay Patel, editor in chief of The Verge, a tech news site, warned publishers that the search giant would one day turn off the spigot. He had seen Facebook stop linking out to websites and foresaw Google following suit in a bid to boost its own business.

He predicted that visitors from Google would drop from a third of websites’ traffic to nothing. He called that day “Google zero.”

“People thought I was crazy,” said Mr. Patel, who redesigned The Verge’s website to protect it. Because chatbots replace website search links with footnotes to answers, he said, many publishers are now asking if his prophecy is coming true.

Paul Bannister, the chief strategy officer at CafeMedia, has been helping companies study how A.I. could change online advertising.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

For the past two months, strategists and engineers at the digital advertising company CafeMedia have met twice a week to contemplate a future where A.I. chatbots replace search engines and squeeze web traffic.

The group recently discussed what websites should do if chatbots lift information but send fewer visitors. One possible solution would be to encourage CafeMedia’s network of 4,200 websites to insert code that limited A.I. companies from taking content, a practice currently allowed because it contributes to search rankings.

“There are a million things to be worried about,” said Paul Bannister, CafeMedia’s chief strategy officer. “You have to figure out what to prioritize.”

Courts are expected to be the ultimate arbiter of content ownership. Last month, Getty Images sued Stability AI, the start-up behind the art generator tool Stable Diffusion, accusing it of unlawfully copying millions of images. The Wall Street Journal has said using its articles to train an A.I. system requires a license.

In the meantime, A.I. companies continue collecting information across the web under the “fair use” doctrine, which permits limited use of material without permission.

“The world is facing a new technology, and the law is groping to find ways of dealing with it,” said Bradley J. Hulbert, a lawyer who specializes in this area. “No one knows where the courts will draw the lines.”

Karen Weise contributed reporting from Seattle."

Opinion | ‘The Death Knell for Higher Education in Florida’ - The New York Times

Black Soldiers Cycled 1,900 Miles Across the U.S. So He Did, Too. - The New York Times

Black Soldiers Cycled 1,900 Miles Across the U.S. So He Did, Too.

A remarkable journey from Montana to St. Louis by 20 Black infantrymen in 1897 seemed doomed to obscurity until Erick Cedeño, a bicyclist, retraced their journey.

A man with long, silver dreadlocks and a helmet rides a bicycle outdoors in a green, grassy environment.
“I want everyone to know,” Erick Cedeño said of the 20 Black soldiers’ bicycling feat in 1897. He drew new attention to their story by re-enacting the expedition last year.Josh Caffrey

In the summer of 1897, 20 Black U.S. Army infantrymen cycled 1,900 miles on fixed-gear, state-of-the-art bikes from Fort Missoula, Mont., to St. Louis. The Army ordered the grueling expedition to see whether soldiers could form a bicycle corps. Newspapers chronicled their progress as they pedaled 50 miles a day in mud and sand, through Montana’s snowy mountains and across Nebraska’s burning plains. The 41-day undertaking was a bit of lost military history until Erick Cedeño, a long-distance cyclist and a model based in Santa Monica, Calif., reenacted it in June of last year, on the expedition’s 125th anniversary.

“I’ve always been fascinated with history,” said Mr. Cedeño, 49, who has spent years gathering photos and documents related to the infantrymen and their journey. It was on a cycling trip from Miami to New York, about 10 years ago, when he decided he wanted to learn more about the history of long-distance cycling. His curiosity led him to the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps.

“It was the first time that I saw a Black man from that time traveling by bike,” he said, referring to the historical photos of the soldiers on their bicycles.

A black-and-white photo of Black men in a uniform that comprises slacks with suspenders, a shirt and a hat, pose with bicycles. They are standing with their bicycles on an outdoor rock formation, some standing in different elevations on the rock.
The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps poses at Yellowstone National Park during a shorter expedition in 1896.F. Jay Haynes. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.

The soldiers were part of the 25th Infantry Regiment, one of the African American units whose members were also known as Buffalo Soldiers. The 20 selected men, who were joined by a physician and a journalist on the expedition, were led by Lieutenant James Moss, who was fascinated by bikes, and proposed creating a bicycle corps. Lt. Moss, who was white, had graduated last in his class at West Point (the United States Military Academy), just three years before the expedition.

“Most of the people did not want to work west of the Mississippi,” Mr. Cedeño said. “So west of the Mississippi was left to the last in the class. And most of the time, west of the Mississippi meant that you had to work with African American troops.”

It was these troops who achieved a remarkable feat in both Black and cycling history — one that Mr. Cedeño has drawn new attention to by following in their bicycle tracks and telling their stories. I spoke to him about it in February, after he gave a talk about the journey at the Explorers’ Club, a members-only society in New York City.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You reenacted this journey. What were the highs and lows for you?

I started my expedition at 5:30 a.m. on June 14, 2022, precisely the hour and date the soldiers set off. It was 42 degrees when I was riding in Montana, and as someone who lives in Southern California, that’s pretty cold. It was windy but there was no snow, which they dealt with. On the lower plains into Nebraska, it became really hot, about 105, 106 degrees almost every day. Luckily for me, I was not on an army expedition, so I was able to take my shirt off. Every 10 miles, I would go into a convenience store and ask if I could go into the beer cooler. I would eat my snacks inside the beer cooler. People were so great. Once I told people what I was doing, they were like, ‘yeah, please, whatever you want!’ The soldiers didn’t have that opportunity to go into a beer cooler. They also rode in uniform and carried heavy rifles on their backs. These guys were almost superheroes, you know, like superpowered.

Tell me a little bit about the bikes.

They had the latest bike at the time, an 1897 Special Spalding that cost about $75, which at that time was a lot of money for a bike. The Spalding company donated the bikes in the hope that the Army would buy more if it worked out. So, single speed. In 1886, the bikes had wooden wheels and no chain guards. In 1897, they saw that ‘if we’re going through snow and rain, we’re going to have to change the wooden wheels to steel wheels and add the chain guard.’ Which they did.

How did they manage to feed and hydrate themselves?

There was a water issue that started when they crossed Wyoming to South Dakota. They drank some contaminated water and a few of them got ill. Regardless of what was going on, they had to keep moving. There were times when they rode almost 50 miles without water. They had bacon, flour, coffee, left at drop-offs near the railroad every 100 miles. Along the way, they would buy meat and eggs from farmers.

Black, uniformed men wearing hats pose with bicycles in the street. It is a historical photo that has been colorized.
A colorized photo of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps in Livingston, Mont., in 1897.Edward Boos. Courtesy of The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
A man with long, gray dreadlocks poses with a bicycle in a street. It is the same street as in the photograph before, except now there are cars and modern signs.
Mr. Cedeño in Livingston in 2022.Rob Park

The racist response to the men increased as they moved east and south. Why was it so much easier to be a Black man in Montana at that time?

I don’t know if it was better. I mean, they still dealt with some racism there, but they were part of the community, and they did so much for the communities that people realized they had to give them respect. The 25th Infantry Regiment was stationed out there doing Army things, like helping restore order during mining strikes.

They encountered increasing racism as they got farther east and south, especially in Missouri. But then when they got to St. Louis, over 10,000 people showed up to celebrate them. Some 300 cyclists rode the last few miles with them. That made me happy.

What happened to the corps? You learned that at least one of the men — the mechanic — was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Army never created a corps, although I hear they tried them in Poland and India. In 1898, some of the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to fight the Spanish War in Cuba. Some returned to Missoula, Mont. Some were sent to Brownsville, Texas. In 1906, there was an incident there for which the Black soldiers were wrongly blamed. They were cleared by local law enforcement, but Teddy Roosevelt dishonorably discharged them anyway. First Sergeant Mingo Sanders, the oldest rider in the expedition, was near retirement and pension. I have seen a letter to the president pleading that he not be discharged. But he was. That hurt me a lot.

This is only 41 years after slavery, where some of their dads, their moms, were enslaved. And for the first time, they had a job. They felt like part of society. They felt like, we’re equal. They’re fighting for this country. They just came from war. We have the names of 20 riders. These men are somebody’s grandparents, somebody’s great-grandparents. They don’t know how badass they were. I want everyone to know."

Black Soldiers Cycled 1,900 Miles Across the U.S. So He Did, Too. - The New York Times

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