The best of the week’s long reads in science and technology, including the psychology of price tags and how technology has made us gamble.

AI | Artificial intelligence: Rise of the machines

A smart robot may take your job, but it is highly unlikely to take over the world, at least given foreseeable technologies. Deep learning has revived our ambitions for artificial intelligence; based on a relatively few human prompts, machines can construct rules for recognising and categorising things in the world around them, often more consistently than humans can. But they do not (yet) have motives and desires. (The Economist, 3,600 words)

Gambling | Engineers of addiction

The technology of addiction, explored in visits to the Las Vegas headquarters of Bally, inventor of the electromechanical slot machine, and of IGT, market leader in video poker. Gambling machines are random number generators with screens. All the rest is marketing. “Putting the same exact games on curved screens increased gameplay 30-80%.” At a payback rate of 45% the customer loses the sense of risk. (Andrew Thompson, Verge, 4,800 words)

Numbers | The psychology of pricing

The subtitle is "A gigantic list of strategies". So a long read, almost an e-book, but clearly written and easily read, which explains plausibly why things are priced for sale the way that they are, right down to the omission of dollar signs from restaurant menus. And all the 0.99 price tags, the “charm pricing”? It’s about getting the first digit down, the anchor number. Even when we think we know the trick, we are easily manipulated.  (Nick Kolenda, 7,500 words)

Space travel | The democratisation of space

New rules are needed to regulate travel and traffic in space, as rockets and satellites come within reach of almost every country on Earth and innumerable private actors. When the current Outer Space Treaty was signed almost 50 years ago, space was reserved for superpowers. Now a well-funded high school science club can launch a satellite. Advances in computing and 3D printing will bring costs down even further. (Dave Baiocchi and William Welser IV, Foreign Affairs, 2,250 words)

Philosophy | Can we ever be in charge of our lives?

Former Archbishop of Canterbury reviews books on freedom and free will by Julian Baggini, John Gray, Alfred Mele. “We have become the prisoners of a picture, in which to be free is to be able to determine absolutely who or what I am. A mixture of existentialist rhetoric and misplaced religious anxiety has encouraged us in the view that to be responsible for our actions we must be unequivocally the cause of our actions.” (Rowan Williams, New Statesman, 2,000 words)

Evolution | My vision of life

A discussion of evolution. The word ‘God’ does not occur throughout. “When and if we ever discover life elsewhere in the Universe it will be based upon something like DNA, in the sense of an ultra-high fidelity, self-replicating coding system with the capability of producing great variety, which is what DNA does. So what I call universal Darwinism is the doctrine, the one thing we know about life everywhere. It’s Darwinian life.” (Richard Dawkins, Edge, 9,860 words)

Cars | Imagine test driving a petrol car

Not only are petrol cars dirty and noisy, they are also extremely expensive to run. “How much does it cost to fill up at home, and how many free stations are there? The seller looked very puzzled at us and explained that it is not possible to refuel gasoline cars at home, and there are no free gas stations. Apparently you have to several times a month drive to the gas station to recharge your petrol car at extortionate prices.” (Tibor Blomhall, Tesla Club Sweden, 1,860 words)

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