Category Archives: Technica

The Rise of Beards and the Fall of Social Media

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Perhaps the rise of the hipster beard, handle-bar mustache, oversized glasses, craft brew, fixie (fixed-gear bicycle), thrift store sweaters, indie folk and pickling is a sign. Some see it as a signal of the imminent demise of social media, no less.

Can the length of facial hair or jacket elbow pads and the end of Facebook be correlated? I doubt it, but it’s worth pondering. Though, like John Biggs over a TechCrunch I do believe that the technology pendulum will eventually swing back towards more guarded privacy — if only as the next generation strikes back at the unguarded, frivolous, over-the-top public sharing of its parents.

Then, we can only hope for the demise of the hipster trend.

From TechCrunch:

After the early, exciting expository years of the Internet – the Age of Jennicam where the web was supposed to act as confessional and stage – things changed swiftly. This new medium was a revelation, a gift of freedom that we all took for granted. Want to post rants against the government? Press publish on Blogspot. Want to yell at the world? Aggregate and comment upon some online news. Want to meet people with similar interests or kinks? There was a site for you although you probably had to hunt it down.

The way we shared deep feelings on the Internet grew out of its first written stage into other more interactive forms. It passed through chatrooms, Chatroulette, and photo sharing. It passed through YouTube and Indie gaming. It planted a long, clammy kiss on Tumblr where it will probably remain for a long time. But that was for the professional exhibitionists. Today the most confessional “static” writing you’ll find on a web page is the occasional Medium post about beating adversity through meditation and Apple Watch apps and we have hidden our human foibles behind dank memes and chatbots. Where could the average person, the civilian, go to share their deepest feelings of love, anger, and fear?

Social media.

But an important change is coming to social media. We are learning that all of our thoughts aren’t welcome, especially by social media company investors. We are also learning that social media companies are a business. This means conversation is encouraged as long as it runs the gamut from mundane to vicious but stops at the overtly sexual or violent. Early in its life-cycle Pinterest made a big stink about actively banning porn while Instagram essentially allowed all sorts of exposition as long as it was monetizable and censored. Facebook still actively polices its photographs for even the hint of sexuality as an artist named Justyna Kiesielewicz recently discovered. She posted a staid nude and wanted to run it as an targeted advertisement. Facebook mistakenly ran the ad for a while, grabbing $50 before it banned the image. In short the latest incarnation of the expository impulse is truncated and sites like Facebook and Twitter welcome most hate groups but most draw the line at underboobs.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search and all hipsters.

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Consumerism Gone Utterly Utterly Mad

amazon-patent-afc

I’m not sure whether to love or hate Amazon (the online retailer). I love the one-click convenience and the mall-less shopping experience. But, Amazon’s lengthy tentacles are increasingly encroaching into every aspect of our lives. Its avaricious quest to “serve the customer” has me scared.

I don’t want Amazon to be the sole source for everything that I eat, wear and use. I don’t want Amazon to run the world’s computing infrastructure. I don’t want Amazon making and peddling movies. I don’t want Amazon tech eavesdropping on my household conversations. I don’t want Amazon owning telecommunications and fiber infrastructure, nor do I want it making phones. I don’t wish to live in a nation that has to all intents become a giant, nationwide Amazon warehouse. And, this leads me to the company’s latest crazy idea.

The company was granted patent #9,305,280 in April 2016 for an “airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery“. You got it: a flying warehouse stocked full of goodies hovering over your neighborhood armed and ready to launch your favorite washing detergent, a pair of Zappos shoes, diapers and a salame to your doorstep via missile drone.

Apparently the proposed airborne fulfillment center (AFC) “may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet)”. Not surprisingly, the AFC mothership will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — drones — “to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations”. But, in addition, the patent filing suggests that “shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC”. The proposed airship will also deliver customized airborne advertising tied to its inventory enabling on-the-fly (pun intended) product promotions and fulfillment.

As Annalee Newitz, Tech Culture Editor, over at ars technica remarks, “sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel“. Yes, and while Dick’s many novels were gloriously imagined, we don’t necessarily need them to enter the real world. Please let our androids continue dreaming (of electric sheep).

Image: Figure 2 from Amazon’s patent for an airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery. US patent #9305280. Courtesy: USPTO. Public Domain.

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MondayMap: Food Rhythms

rhythm-of-food-screenshot

OK, I admit it. Today’s article is not strictly about a map, but I couldn’t resist these fascinating data visualizations. The graphic show some of the patterns and trends that can be derived from the vast mountains of data gathered from Google searches. A group of designers and data scientists from Truth & Beauty teamed up with Google News Labs to produce a portfolio of charts that show food and drink related searches over the last 12 years.

The visual above shows a clear spike in cocktail related searches in December (for entertaining during holiday season). Interestingly Searches for a “Tom Collins” have increased since 2004 whereas those for “Martini” have decreased in number. A more recent phenomenon on the cocktail scene seems to be the “Moscow Mule”.

Since most of the searches emanated in the United States the resulting charts show some fascinating changes in the nation’s collective nutritional mood. While some visualizations confirm the obvious — fruit searches peak when in season; pizza is popular year round — some  specific insights are more curious:

  • Orange Jell-O [“jelly” for my British readers] is popular for US Thanksgiving.
  • Tamale searches peak around Christmas.
  • Pumpkin spice latte searches increase in the fall, but searches are peaking earlier each year.
  • Superfood searches are up; fat-free searches are down.
  • Nacho searches peak around Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Cauliflower may be the new Kale.

You can check out much more from this gorgeous data visualization project at The Rhythm of Food.

Image: Screenshot from Rhythm of Food. Courtesy: Rhythm of Food.

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Computational Folkloristics

hca_by_thora_hallager_1869What do you get when you set AI (artificial intelligence) the task of reading through 30,000 Danish folk and fairy tales? Well, you get a host of fascinating, newly discovered insights into Scandinavian witches and trolls.

More importantly, you hammer another nail into the coffin of literary criticism and set AI on a collision course with yet another preserve of once exclusive human endeavor. It’s probably safe to assume that creative writing will fall to intelligent machines in the not too distant future (as well) — certainly human-powered investigative journalism seemed to became extinct in 2016; replaced by algorithmic aggregation, social bots and fake-mongers.

From aeon:

Where do witches come from, and what do those places have in common? While browsing a large collection of traditional Danish folktales, the folklorist Timothy Tangherlini and his colleague Peter Broadwell, both at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to find out. Armed with a geographical index and some 30,000 stories, they developed WitchHunter, an interactive ‘geo-semantic’ map of Denmark that highlights the hotspots for witchcraft.

The system used artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to unearth a trove of surprising insights. For example, they found that evil sorcery often took place close to Catholic monasteries. This made a certain amount of sense, since Catholic sites in Denmark were tarred with diabolical associations after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. By plotting the distance and direction of witchcraft relative to the storyteller’s location, WitchHunter also showed that enchantresses tend to be found within the local community, much closer to home than other kinds of threats. ‘Witches and robbers are human threats to the economic stability of the community,’ the researchers write. ‘Yet, while witches threaten from within, robbers are generally situated at a remove from the well-described village, often living in woods, forests, or the heath … it seems that no matter how far one goes, nor where one turns, one is in danger of encountering a witch.’

Such ‘computational folkloristics’ raise a big question: what can algorithms tell us about the stories we love to read? Any proposed answer seems to point to as many uncertainties as it resolves, especially as AI technologies grow in power. Can literature really be sliced up into computable bits of ‘information’, or is there something about the experience of reading that is irreducible? Could AI enhance literary interpretation, or will it alter the field of literary criticism beyond recognition? And could algorithms ever derive meaning from books in the way humans do, or even produce literature themselves?

Author and computational linguist Inderjeet Mani concludes his essay thus:

Computational analysis and ‘traditional’ literary interpretation need not be a winner-takes-all scenario. Digital technology has already started to blur the line between creators and critics. In a similar way, literary critics should start combining their deep expertise with ingenuity in their use of AI tools, as Broadwell and Tangherlini did with WitchHunter. Without algorithmic assistance, researchers would be hard-pressed to make such supernaturally intriguing findings, especially as the quantity and diversity of writing proliferates online.

In the future, scholars who lean on digital helpmates are likely to dominate the rest, enriching our literary culture and changing the kinds of questions that can be explored. Those who resist the temptation to unleash the capabilities of machines will have to content themselves with the pleasures afforded by smaller-scale, and fewer, discoveries. While critics and book reviewers may continue to be an essential part of public cultural life, literary theorists who do not embrace AI will be at risk of becoming an exotic species – like the librarians who once used index cards to search for information.

Read the entire tale here.

Image: Portrait of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Courtesy: Thora Hallager, 10/16 October 1869. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Uber For…

google-search-uber

There’s an Uber for pet-sitters (Rover). There’s an Uber for dog walkers (Wag). There’s an Uber for private jets (JetMe). There are several Ubers for alcohol (Minibar, Saucey, Drizly, Thirstie). In fact, enter the keywords “Uber for…” into Google and the search engine will return “Uber for kids, Uber for icecream, Uber for news, Uber for seniors, Uber for trucks, Uber for haircuts, Uber for iPads (?), Uber for food, Uber for undertakers (??)…” and thousands of other results.

The list of Uber-like copycats, startups and ideas is seemingly endless — a sign, without doubt, that we have indeed reached peak-Uber. Perhaps VCs in the valley should move on to some more meaningful investments, before the Uber bubble bursts.

From Wired:

“Uber for X” has been the headline of more than four hundred news articles. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs used the phrase to describe their companies in their pitch decks. On one site alone—AngelList, where startups can court angel investors and employees—526 companies included “Uber for” in their listings. As a judge for various emerging technology startup competitions, I saw “Uber for” so many times that at some point, I developed perceptual blindness.

Nearly all the organizations I advised at that time wanted to know about the “Uber for” of their respective industries. A university wanted to develop an “Uber for tutoring”; a government agency was hoping to solve an impending transit issue with an “Uber for parking.” I knew that “Uber for” had reached critical mass when one large media organization, in need of a sustainable profit center, pitched me their “Uber for news strategy.”

“We’re going to be the Uber for news,” the news exec told me. Confused, I asked what, exactly, he meant by that.

“Three years from now, we’ll have an on-demand news platform for Millennials. They tap a button on their phones and they get the news delivered right to them, wherever they are,” the editor said enthusiastically. “This is the future of news!”

“Is it an app?” I asked, trying to understand.

“Maybe. The point is that you get the news right away, when you want it, wherever you are,” the exec said.

“So you mean an app,” I pressed. “Yes!” he said. “But more like Uber.”

The mass “Uber for X” excitement is a good example of what happens when we don’t stop to investigate a trend, asking difficult questions and challenging our cherished beliefs. We need to first understand what, exactly, Uber is and what led to entrepreneurs coining that catchphrase.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Robots Beware. Humans Are Still (Sort of) Smarter Than You

So, it looks like we humans may have a few more years to go as the smartest beings on the planet, before being overrun by ubiquitous sentient robots. Some may question my assertion based on recent election results in the UK and the US, but I digress.

A recent experiment featuring some of our best-loved voice-activated assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, clearly shows our digital brethren have some learning to do. A conversation between two of these rapidly enters an infinite loop.

Read more about this here.

Video: Echo/Google Home infinite loop. Courtesy: Adam Jakowenko.

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Nightmare Machine

mit-nightmare-machine

Now that the abject terror of the US presidential election is over — at least for a while — we have to turn our minds to new forms of pain and horror.

In recent years a growing number of illustrious scientists and technologists has described artificial intelligence (AI) as the greatest existential threat to humanity. They worry, rightfully, that a well-drilled, unfettered AI could eventually out-think and out-smart us at every level. Eventually, a super-intelligent AI would determine that humans were either peripheral or superfluous to its needs and goals, and then either enslave or extinguish us. This is the stuff of real nightmares.

Yet, at a more playful level, AI can also learn to deliver imagined nightmares. This Halloween researchers at MIT used AI techniques to create and optimize horrifying images of human faces and places. They called their AI the Nightmare Machine.

For the first step, researchers fed hundreds of thousands of celebrity photos into their AI algorithm, known as a deep convolutional generative adversarial network. This allowed the AI to learn about faces and how to create new ones. Second, they flavored the results with a second learning algorithm that had been trained on images of zombies. The combination allowed the AI to learn the critical factors that make for scary images and to selectively improve upon upon them. It turns out that blood on the face, empty eyeball sockets, and missing or misshaped teeth tend to illicit the greatest horror and fear.

While the results are not quite as scary as Stephen Hawkins’ warning of AI-led human extinction the images are terrorizing nonetheless.

Learn more about the MIT Media Lab’s Nightmare Machine here.

Image: Horror imagery generated by artificial intelligence. Courtesy: MIT Media Lab.

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The Ambition of Limited Access to Email

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Ubiquitous and constant connectivity has thoroughly reshaped our world over the last couple of decades. We are always reachable, personally and professionally — mobile phones, email and texting have seen to that. Yet, the automated out-of-office message still persists. You know, the email text goes something like this:

I’m currently out of the office and have limited access to email.

Yet, we all know that we can have unlimited access, all the time, and from almost anywhere on the planet. So, what do our automated messages of absence really mean? There are some suggestions that our absence from the connected world ranks as an indicator of status — the less reachable you are, the higher your status. Also, it’s quite possible that some of us use the rather lame excuse of communications service interruption as a smoke-screen for our inability to say no to the 24/7 demands of our work.

From the Guardian:

My favorite literary form of the summer of 2016 is the automatic email out-of-office message. When future scholars of literature reflect on the way that we wrote in this tumultuous, steaming-hot summer, what will they focus on? Perhaps it will be the way these utilitarian missives shifted towards a particular kind of magical thinking.
“I’m away,” these out-of-office messages say, dropping into my inbox one after another, “and I have limited access to email.”

Limited access wasn’t always our collective ambition. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, when Wi-Fi was but a dream for the masses, I recall a television commercial that often aired during my father’s favorite basketball games. A tropical beach, a sleeves-rolled-up business executive kicking back with a clunky, black-box laptop. This was the exciting future of work: going somewhere beautiful but still being able to show everyone how important you were by bringing your 30lb ThinkPad, kicking back with a couple of spreadsheets and a piña colada.

Now, a generation later, with unprecedented portability, connection, we feel the urge to note our limitations, or the ones that we’d like to envision that we have. We are world-weary: with staring at screens, yes. But also with anticipation of how important we’ll feel when we look at our inbox after two, three hours away, note the stack of communiques at which we will sigh, with which we’ll reluctantly cope.

This is progress: the demonstration of status not through our ability to work wherever we go, but our inability to work. Our distance. Our ability to divide between the mundanity of day-to-day life and the sublimity of vacation. Our genuine and admirable devotion to personal time and space. Or at least our desire to have that devotion: our understanding that it is something to aim for. A wish.

“Limited access to email,” we write, wilfully overlooking the existence of smartphones, playacting as if every hotel in the world doesn’t place the Wi-Fi password in our sweaty palms along with our room key cards. We are aloof, too good to feel a thrill at the buzzing notification that our high school friend has posted a 20-year-old photo of the time that we all went to a water park.

Read the entire story here.

Image: No signal from here. Courtesy: the author.

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The Death of Permissionless Innovation

NeXTcube_first_webserver

The internet and its user-friendly interface, the World Wide Web (Web), was founded on the principle of openness. The acronym soup of standards, such as TCP/IP, HTTP and HTML, paved the way for unprecedented connectivity and interoperability. Anyone armed with a computer and a connection, adhering to these standards, could now connect and browse and share data with any one else.

This is a simplified view of Sir Tim Berners-Lee vision for the Web in 1989 — the same year that brought us Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Berners-Lee invented the Web. His invention fostered an entire global technological and communications revolution over the next  quarter century.

However, Berners-Lee did something much more important. Rather than keeping the Web to himself and his colleagues, and turning to Silicon Valley to found and fund the next billion dollar startup, he pursued a path to give the ideas and technologies away. Critically, the open standards of the internet and Web enabled countless others to innovate and to profit.

One of the innovators to reap the greatest rewards from this openness is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, in the ultimate irony, Facebook has turned the Berners-Lee model of openness and permissionless innovation on its head. It’s billion-plus users are members of a private, corporate-controlled walled garden. Innovation, to a large extent, is now limited by the whims of Facebook. Increasingly so, open innovation on the internet is stifled and extinguished by the constraints manufactured and controlled for Facebook’s own ends. This makes Zuckerberg’s vision of making the world “more open and connected” thoroughly laughable.

From the Guardian:

If there were a Nobel prize for hypocrisy, then its first recipient ought to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss. On 23 August, all his 1.7 billion users were greeted by this message: “Celebrating 25 years of connecting people. The web opened up to the world 25 years ago today! We thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other internet pioneers for making the world more open and connected.”

Aw, isn’t that nice? From one “pioneer” to another. What a pity, then, that it is a combination of bullshit and hypocrisy. In relation to the former, the guy who invented the web, Tim Berners-Lee, is as mystified by this “anniversary” as everyone else. “Who on earth made up 23 August?” he asked on Twitter. Good question. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out: “If Facebook had asked Berners-Lee, he’d probably have told them what he’s been telling people for years: the web’s 25th birthday already happened, two years ago.”

“In 1989, I delivered a proposal to Cern for the system that went on to become the worldwide web,” he wrote in 2014. It was that year, not this one, that he said we should celebrate as the web’s 25th birthday.

It’s not the inaccuracy that grates, however, but the hypocrisy. Zuckerberg thanks Berners-Lee for “making the world more open and connected”. So do I. What Zuck conveniently omits to mention, though, is that he is embarked upon a commercial project whose sole aim is to make the world more “connected” but less open. Facebook is what we used to call a “walled garden” and now call a silo: a controlled space in which people are allowed to do things that will amuse them while enabling Facebook to monetise their data trails. One network to rule them all. If you wanted a vision of the opposite of the open web, then Facebook is it.

The thing that makes the web distinctive is also what made the internet special, namely that it was designed as an open platform. It was designed to facilitate “permissionless innovation”. If you had a good idea that could be realised using data packets, and possessed the programming skills to write the necessary software, then the internet – and the web – would do it for you, no questions asked. And you didn’t need much in the way of financial resources – or to ask anyone for permission – in order to realise your dream.

An open platform is one on which anyone can build whatever they like. It’s what enabled a young Harvard sophomore, name of Zuckerberg, to take an idea lifted from two nice-but-dim oarsmen, translate it into computer code and launch it on an unsuspecting world. And in the process create an empire of 1.7 billion subjects with apparently limitless revenues. That’s what permissionless innovation is like.

The open web enabled Zuckerberg to do this. But – guess what? – the Facebook founder has no intention of allowing anyone to build anything on his platform that does not have his express approval. Having profited mightily from the openness of the web, in other words, he has kicked away the ladder that elevated him to his current eminence. And the whole thrust of his company’s strategy is to persuade billions of future users that Facebook is the only bit of the internet they really need.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The NeXT Computer used by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Courtesy: Science Museum, London. GFDL CC-BY-SA.

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MondayMap: Addresses Made Simple

what3words-buckingham-palace

I recently tripped over a fascinating mapping app called What3Words. Its goal is to make location and address finding easier. It does so in quite a creative way — by assigning a unique combination of 3 words to every 3×3 square meter location on the planet. In What3Words own words:

So in case you were wondering. The Queen’s official residence in London (Buckingham Palace) is fence.gross.bats.

It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates.

Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.

How cool.

Image: What3Words screenshot. Courtesy: What3Words.

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Benjamin Saves Us From Hollywood

Benjamin-screenshot

Not a moment too soon. Benjamin has arrived in California to save us from ill-conceived and poorly written screenplays vying to be the next Hollywood blockbuster.

Thankfully, Benjamin is neither the 20-something, creative-wunderkind nor a 30-something know-it-all uber-producer; he (or she) is not even human. Benjamin is an AI (artificial intelligence) based automatic screenwriter, and author of Sunspring, a short science fiction film.

From ars technica:

Ars is excited to be hosting this online debut of Sunspring, a short science fiction film that’s not entirely what it seems. It’s about three people living in a weird future, possibly on a space station, probably in a love triangle. You know it’s the future because H (played with neurotic gravity by Silicon Valley‘s Thomas Middleditch) is wearing a shiny gold jacket, H2 (Elisabeth Gray) is playing with computers, and C (Humphrey Ker) announces that he has to “go to the skull” before sticking his face into a bunch of green lights. It sounds like your typical sci-fi B-movie, complete with an incoherent plot. Except Sunspring isn’t the product of Hollywood hacks—it was written entirely by an AI. To be specific, it was authored by a recurrent neural network called long short-term memory, or LSTM for short. At least, that’s what we’d call it. The AI named itself Benjamin.

Knowing that an AI wrote Sunspring makes the movie more fun to watch, especially once you know how the cast and crew put it together. Director Oscar Sharp made the movie for Sci-Fi London, an annual film festival that includes the 48-Hour Film Challenge, where contestants are given a set of prompts (mostly props and lines) that have to appear in a movie they make over the next two days. Sharp’s longtime collaborator, Ross Goodwin, is an AI researcher at New York University, and he supplied the movie’s AI writer, initially called Jetson. As the cast gathered around a tiny printer, Benjamin spat out the screenplay, complete with almost impossible stage directions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor.” Then Sharp randomly assigned roles to the actors in the room. “As soon as we had a read-through, everyone around the table was laughing their heads off with delight,” Sharp told Ars. The actors interpreted the lines as they read, adding tone and body language, and the results are what you see in the movie. Somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world. It even has its own musical interlude (performed by Andrew and Tiger), with a pop song Benjamin composed after learning from a corpus of 30,000 other pop songs.

Read more here.

Image: Benjamin screenshot. Courtesy of Benjamin.

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Search and the Invisible Hand of Bias

duck-duck-go

I’ve written about the online filter bubble for a while now. It’s an insidious and disturbing consequence of our online world. It refers to the phenomenon whereby our profile, personal preferences, history and connections pre-select and filter the type of content that reaches us, eliminating things we don’t need to see. The filter bubble reduces our exposure to the wider world of information and serendipitous discovery.

If this were not bad enough the online world enables a much more dangerous threat — one of hidden bias through explicit manipulation. We’re all familiar with the pull and push exerted by the constant bombardment from overt advertising. We’re also familiar with more subtle techniques of ambient and subliminal control, which aim to sway our minds without our conscious awareness — think mood music in your grocery store (it really does work).

So, now comes another more subtle form of manipulation, but with more powerful results, and it’s tied to search engines and the central role these tools play in our daily lives.

Online search engines, such as Google, know you. They know your eye movements and your click habits; they know your proclivity to select a search result near the top of the first search engine results page (SERP). Advertisers part with a fortune each day with the goal of appearing in this sweet spot on a SERP. This is a tried and tested process — higher ranking on a SERP leads to more clicks and shifts more product.

Google and many other search engines will list a handful of sponsored results at the top of a SERP, followed by a collection of random results listed in order that best fit your search query. Your expectation is that these results are tailored to your query, but that they’re non-biased. That’s the key.

New research shows that you believe these SERP results to be non-biased, even if they are manipulated behind the scenes. Moreover, these manipulated results can greatly sway your opinion. The phenomenon now comes with a name, the search engine manipulation effect, or SEME (pronounced “seem”).

In the wrong hands — government overlords or technology oligarchs — this heralds a disturbing possible (and probable) future, already underway in countries with tightly controlled media and flows of information.

Check out a detailed essay on SEME by Robert Epstein here. Epstein is an author and research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California.

Finally, if you’re interested in using an alternative search engine that’s less interested in taking over the world, check out DuckDuckGo.

Image courtesy of DuckDuckGo.

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Pokemon Go and the Post-Apocalyptic Future is Nigh

google-search-pokemon-go

Some have lauded Pokémon Go as the next great health and fitness enabler since the “invention” of running. After all, over the span of just a few days it has forced half of Western civilization to unplug from Netflix, get off the couch and move around, and to do so outside!

The cynic in me perceives deeper, darker motives at play: a plot by North Korea to distract the West while it prepares a preemptive nuclear strike; a corporate sponsored youth brain-washing program; an exquisitely orchestrated, self-perpetuated genocidal time-bomb wrought by shady political operatives; a Google inspired initiative to tackle the obesity epidemic.

While the true nature of this elegantly devious phenomenon unfolds over the long-term — and maintains the collective attention of tens of millions of teens and millennials in the process — I will make a dozen bold, short-term predictions:

  1. A legendary Pokémon, such as Mewtwo, will show up at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and it will be promptly shot by open carry fanatics.
  2. The first Pokémon Go fatality will occur by July 31, 2016 — a player will inadvertently step into traffic while trying to throw a Poké Ball.
  3. The hundredth Pokémon Go fatality will occur on August 1, 2016 — the 49th player to fall into a sewer and drown.
  4. Sales of comfortable running shoes will skyrocket over the next 3 days, as the West discovers walking.
  5. Evangelical mega-churches in the US will hack the game to ensure Pokémon characters appear during revivals to draw more potential customers.
  6. Pokémon characters will begin showing up on Fox News and the Supreme Court.
  7. Tinder will file for chapter 11 bankruptcy and emerge as a Pokémon dating site.
  8. Gyms and stadia around the country will ditch all sporting events to make way for mass Pokémon hunts; NFL’s next expansion team will be virtual and led by Pikachu as quarterback.
  9. The Pokémon Company, Nintendo and Niantic Labs will join forces to purchase Japan by year’s end.
  10. Google and Tesla will team up to deliver Poké Spot in-car navigation allowing players to automatically drive to Pokémon locations.
  11. Donald Trump will assume office of PokémonPresident of the United States on January 20, 2017; 18-35-year-olds forgot to vote.
  12. World ends, January 21, 2017.

Pokemon-Go WSJ screenshot 13Jul2016If you’re one of the few earthlings wondering what Pokémon Go is all about, and how in the space of just a few days our neighborhoods have become overrun by zombie-like players, look no further than the WSJ. Rupert Murdoch must be a fan.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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Hoverboard or Jet Pack With That Martini?

Personally, I’m still waiting for the advent of Star Trek-like teleportation to get me from point A to point B.

But, in the meantime, and Hyperloop notwithstanding, I’ll go for the hoverboard. It looks like a much more technically finessed product than James Bond’s jet pack.

Check out this Wired report on a recent record-setting hoverboard adventure around and over Saussett-Le-Pins, near Marseille, France.

Video: Franky Zapata set a new record for the farthest hoverboard flight. Courtesy: Guinness World Records.

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What Keeps NASA Going?

Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan on lunar rover

Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan is the last human to have set foot on a world other than Earth. It’s been 44 years since he last stepped off the moon. In fact, in 1972 he drove around using the lunar rover and found time to scribble his daughter’s initials on the dusty lunar surface. So, other than forays to the International Space Station (ISS) and trips to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) NASA has kept humans firmly rooted to the homeland.

Of course, in the intervening decades the space agency has not rested on its laurels. NASA has sent probes and robots all over the Solar System and beyond: Voyager to the gas giants and on to interstellar space,  Dawn to visit asteroids; Rosetta (in concert with the European Space Agency) to visit a comet; SOHO and its countless cousins to keep an eye on our home star; Galileo and Pioneer to Jupiter; countless spacecraft including Curiosity Rover to Mars; Messenger to map Mercury; Magellan to probe the clouds of Venus; Cassini to survey Saturn and its fascinating moons; and of course, New Horizons to Pluto and beyond.

Spiral galaxies together with irregular galaxies make up approximately 60% of the galaxies in the local Universe. However, despite their prevalence, each spiral galaxy is unique — like snowflakes, no two are alike. This is demonstrated by the striking face-on spiral galaxy NGC 6814, whose luminous nucleus and spectacular sweeping arms, rippled with an intricate pattern of dark dust, are captured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. NGC 6814 has an extremely bright nucleus, a telltale sign that the galaxy is a Seyfert galaxy. These galaxies have very active centres that can emit strong bursts of radiation. The luminous heart of NGC 6814 is a highly variable source of X-ray radiation, causing scientists to suspect that it hosts a supermassive black hole with a mass about 18 million times that of the Sun. As NGC 6814 is a very active galaxy, many regions of ionised gas are studded along  its spiral arms. In these large clouds of gas, a burst of star formation has recently taken place, forging the brilliant blue stars that are visible scattered throughout the galaxy.

Our mechanical human proxies reach out a little farther each day to learn more about our universe and our place in it. Exploration and discovery is part of our human DNA; it’s what we do. NASA is our vehicle. So, it’s good to see what NASA is planning. The agency just funded eight advanced-technology programs that officials believe may help transform space exploration. The grants are part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The most interesting, perhaps, are a program to evaluate inducing hibernation in Mars-bound astronauts, and an assessment of directed energy propulsion for interstellar travel.

Our science and technology becomes more and more like science fiction each day.

Read more about NIAC programs here.

Image 1: Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the early part of the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Courtesy: NASA.

Image 2: Hubble Spies a Spiral Snowflake, galaxy NGC 6814. Courtesy: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

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First, Order a Pizza. Second, World Domination

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Tech startups that plan to envelope the globe with their never-thought-of-before-but-cannot-do-without technologies and services have to begin somewhere. Usually, the path to worldwide domination begins with pizza.

From the Washington Post:

In an ordinary conference room in this city of start-ups, a group of engineers sat down to order pizza in an entirely new way.

“Get me a pizza from Pizz’a Chicago near my office,” one of the engineers said into his smartphone. It was their first real test of Viv, the artificial-intelligence technology that the team had been quietly building for more than a year. Everyone was a little nervous. Then, a text from Viv piped up: “Would you like toppings with that?”

The engineers, eight in all, started jumping in: “Pepperoni.” “Half cheese.” “Caesar salad.” Emboldened by the result, they peppered Viv with more commands: Add more toppings. Remove toppings. Change medium size to large.

About 40 minutes later — and after a few hiccups when Viv confused the office address — a Pizz’a Chicago driver showed up with four made-to-order pizzas.

The engineers erupted in cheers as the pizzas arrived. They had ordered pizza, from start to finish, without placing a single phone call and without doing a Google search — without any typing at all, actually. Moreover, they did it without downloading an app from Domino’s or Grubhub.

Of course, a pizza is just a pizza. But for Silicon Valley, a seemingly small change in consumer behavior or design can mean a tectonic shift in the commercial order, with ripple effects across an entire economy. Engineers here have long been animated by the quest to achieve the path of least friction — to use the parlance of the tech world — to the proverbial pizza.

The stealthy, four-year-old Viv is among the furthest along in an endeavor that many in Silicon Valley believe heralds that next big shift in computing — and digital commerce itself. Over the next five years, that transition will turn smartphones — and perhaps smart homes and cars and other devices — into virtual assistants with supercharged conversational capabilities, said Julie Ask, an expert in mobile commerce at Forrester.

Powered by artificial intelligence and unprecedented volumes of data, they could become the portal through which billions of people connect to every service and business on the Internet. It’s a world in which you can order a taxi, make a restaurant reservation and buy movie tickets in one long unbroken conversation — no more typing, searching or even clicking.

Viv, which will be publicly demonstrated for the first time at a major industry conference on Monday, is one of the most highly anticipated technologies expected to come out of a start-up this year. But Viv is by no means alone in this effort. The quest to define the next generation of artificial-intelligence technology has sparked an arms race among the five major tech giants: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon.com have all announced major investments in virtual-assistant software over the past year.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Story of the Default Coordinate: 38°N 97°W

Map-US-center

About 40 miles and 40 minutes north-east of Wichita, Kansas lies the small town of Potwin. The 2010 census put the official population of Potwin at 449.

Potwin would be an unremarkable town, situated in the Great Plains surrounded by vast farms and feedlots, if it were not for one unique fact. Potwin is home to a farmhouse with a Lat-Long location of 38°N 97°W.

You see, 38°N 97°W happens to coincide with the coordinates, incorrectly, chosen as the geographical center of the United States by a digital mapping company in 2002. Geographically the official center of the country is 39°50′ N (or 39.8333333), 98°35′ W (or -98.585522), which is a spot in northern Kansas near the Nebraska border.

But, back in 2002, a digital mapping company, called MaxMind, decided to round the actual, unwieldy Lat-Long coordinates to 38.0000, -97.0000. These coordinates would become the default point and de facto center of the United States.

Now, the internet uses a protocol (IP) to allow any device to connect with any other, via a unique IP address. This allows a message or webpage from one device, say a server, to find its way to another device, such as your computer. Every device connected to the internet has a unique IP address. Companies soon realized that having an IP address, in cyberspace, would be much more valuable — for technical maintenance or marketing purposes — if it could be tied to a physical location. So, companies like MaxMind came along to provide the digital mapping and location translation service.

However, for those IP addresses that could not be adequately resolved to a physical address, the company assigned the default coordinate — the center of the United States.

Unfortunately, there are now around 600 million IP addresses that point to this default location, 38°N 97°W, which also happens to be the farmhouse in Potwin.

This becomes rather problematic for the residents of 38°N 97°W because internet scammers, spammers,  cyber-thieves and other digitally-minded criminals typically like to hide their locations, which end up resolving to the default coordinate and the farmhouse in Potwin. As a result, the federal authorities have made quite a habit of visiting this unremarkable farmhouse in Potwin, and the residents now lead far from unremarkable lives.

Read more of this surreal story here.

Image: Potwin, Kansas. Courtesy: Google Maps.

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Peak Tech Bubble

Nelsons-Column-Great-Smog-London-1952The following story is surely a sign of the impending implosion of the next tech bubble — too much easy money flowing to too many bad and lazy ideas.

While an increasing number of people dream of a future built on renewable, clean energy, some entrepreneurs are defining ways to make gasoline (petrol) consumption even more convenient for consumers. Welcome to Uber-style, gas delivery on-demand.

This casts my mind back to the mid-1960s, recalling the deliveries of black, sooty coal to our cellar (basement) coal bunker. Thankfully, the UK’s Clean Air Acts of the 1950s and 60s finally paved the way for cleaner fuel and cleared the skies of unhealthy, mid-century London smog.

Surely, these modern day counterparts are heading in the wrong direction just to make a quick buck.

From the Guardian:

It is hard to imagine a less hospitable niche for a startup to enter than gasoline – a combustible commodity that is (one hopes) being innovated into obsolescence.

And yet, over the past 18 months, at least six startups have launched some variation on the theme of “Uber for gas” – your car’s tank gets refilled while it is parked somewhere.

The gas delivery startup founders all share similar stories of discovering the wannabe entrepreneur’s holy grail: a point of friction that can be translated into an app.

“David, one of the co-founders, basically said, ‘I hate going to the gas station’,” said Nick Alexander, the other co-founder of Yoshi, of their company’s origins. “I think he had run out of gas recently, so he said, ‘What about an idea where someone comes and fills your car up?’”

For Ale Donzis, co-founder of WeFuel, the moment came when he was trying to get gas in the middle of winter in upstate New York and realized he had forgotten his gloves. For Frank Mycroft, founder and CEO of Booster Fuels, it was during his wife’s pregnancy when he started refueling her car as well as his own.

“It wore on me,” Mycroft said. “I didn’t like doing it.”

The tales of gas station woe are the kind of first-world problems that have inspired a thousand parodies of startup culture. (A customer testimonial on the website of Purple, another gas delivery service, reads: “I live across the street from a gas station, but I don’t always have time to make the stop.”)

But delivering large quantities of a toxic and flammable liquid is significantly more complicated – and regulated – than delivering sandwiches. The companies generally source their gasoline from the same distributors that supply 10,000-gallon tankers to retail gas stations. But the app companies put the fuel into the back of pickup trucks or specially designed mini-tankers. Booster Fuels only services cars in open air, corporate parking lots on private property, but other companies offer to refill your car wherever it’s parked.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of London, 1952. Courtesy: By N T Stobbs, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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A Tale of Frolicsome Engines

Al-Jazari-peacock-foundation

From the Public Domain Review comes a fascinating tale of hydraulic automata, mechanical monkeys, automatic organs and a host of other beautiful robotic inventions predating our current technological revolution by hundreds of years. These wonderful contraptions span the siphonic inventions of 1st-century-AD engineer Hero of Alexandria to the speaking machines and the chess playing mechanical Turk of Hungarian engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen from the late-1700s.

My favorite is the infamous “Defecating Duck”. Designed in the mid-18th century by Frenchman Jacques Vaucanson, the duck was one of the first simulative automata. The mechanical duck flapped its wings and moved much like its real world cousin, but its claim to fame was its ability to peck and swallow bits of food and excrete “droppings”.

More from Public Domain Review:

How old are the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence? Many might trace their origins to the mid-twentieth century, and the work of people such as Alan Turing, who wrote about the possibility of machine intelligence in the ‘40s and ‘50s, or the MIT engineer Norbert Wiener, a founder of cybernetics. But these fields have prehistories — traditions of machines that imitate living and intelligent processes — stretching back centuries and, depending how you count, even millennia.

The word “robot” made its first appearance in a 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel ?apek entitled R.U.R., for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Deriving his neologism from the Czech word “robota,” meaning “drudgery” or “servitude,” ?apek used “robot” to refer to a race of artificial humans who replace human workers in a futurist dystopia. (In fact, the artificial humans in the play are more like clones than what we would consider robots, grown in vats rather than built from parts.)

There was, however, an earlier word for artificial humans and animals, “automaton”, stemming from Greek roots meaning “self-moving”. This etymology was in keeping with Aristotle’s definition of living beings as those things that could move themselves at will. Self-moving machines were inanimate objects that seemed to borrow the defining feature of living creatures: self-motion. The first-century-AD engineer Hero of Alexandria described lots of automata. Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Illustration of the peacock fountain, from a 14th-century edition of Al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Courtesy: Public Domain Review.

 

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Beware. Your Teaching Assistant May Be a Robot

RobotsMODO

All college level students have at some point wondered if one or more of their professorial teaching assistants was from planet Earth. If you fall into this category — as I once did — your skepticism and paranoia are completely justified. You see, some assistants aren’t even human.

So, here’s my first tip to any students wondering how to tell if their assistant is an alien entity: be skeptical if her or his last name is Watson.

From WSJ:

One day in January, Eric Wilson dashed off a message to the teaching assistants for an online course at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“I really feel like I missed the mark in giving the correct amount of feedback,” he wrote, pleading to revise an assignment.

Thirteen minutes later, the TA responded. “Unfortunately, there is not a way to edit submitted feedback,” wrote Jill Watson, one of nine assistants for the 300-plus students.

Last week, Mr. Wilson found out he had been seeking guidance from a computer.

Since January, “Jill,” as she was known to the artificial-intelligence class, had been helping graduate students design programs that allow computers to solve certain problems, like choosing an image to complete a logical sequence.

“She was the person—well, the teaching assistant—who would remind us of due dates and post questions in the middle of the week to spark conversations,” said student Jennifer Gavin.

Ms. Watson—so named because she’s powered by International Business Machines Inc. ’s Watson analytics system—wrote things like “Yep!” and “we’d love to,” speaking on behalf of her fellow TAs, in the online forum where students discussed coursework and submitted projects.

“It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being,” Ms. Gavin said.

Shreyas Vidyarthi, another student, ascribed human attributes to the TA—imagining her as a friendly Caucasian 20-something on her way to a Ph.D.

Students were told of their guinea-pig status last month. “I was flabbergasted,” said Mr. Vidyarthi.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Toy robots on display at the Museo del Objeto del Objeto in Mexico City, 2011. Courtesy: Alejandro Linares Garcia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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Venture Capital and (Ping-Pong) Balls

Google-search-ping-pong-balls

If you’re even slightly interested in protecting your retirement savings from the bursting of the next tech bubble and subsequent stock market crash look no further than sales of ping-pong tables and Pot-A-Shot indoor basketball. It turns out that there is a direct correlation between the sale of indoor recreational gear and the flow of venture capital to Silicon Valley’s next trillion dollar babies (ie., those saving humanity or building the next cool dating app).

From WSJ:

Twitter ’s gloomy quarterly report last week unsettled investors. They might have anticipated trouble more than a year ago had they noticed one key indicator.

Until late 2014, Twitter was regularly ordering ping-pong tables from Billiard Wholesale, a store in San Jose, Calif. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The store’s owner, Simon Ng, figured it either ran out of space “or they’re having company problems.”

Twitter Inc.’s slowing user growth has been unsettling analysts, and the company’s revenue growth was unexpectedly weak in last week’s report. Asked why Twitter stopped buying tables, spokesman Jim Prosser says: “I guess we bought really sturdy ones.” Twitter spokeswoman Natalie Miyake says: “Honestly, we’re more of a Pop-A-Shot company now,” referring to an indoor basketball game.

Is the tech bubble popping? Ping pong offers an answer, and the tables are turning.

“Last year, the first quarter was hot” for tables, says Mr. Ng, who thinks sales track the tech economy. Now “there’s a general slowdown.”

In the first quarter of 2016, his table sales to companies fell 50% from the prior quarter. In that period, U.S. startup funding dropped 25%, says Dow Jones VentureSource, which tracks venture financing.

The table-tennis indicator is a peek into Silicon Valley culture, in which the right to play ping pong on the job is sacrosanct.

“If you don’t have a ping-pong table, you’re not a tech company,” says Sunil Rajasekar, chief technology officer at Lithium Technologies, a San Francisco software startup.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Mind-Bending Mixed Reality is Coming

Magic-Leap-screenshot

Wired profiles a stealthy startup tech company that garnered lots of insider interest and piles of funding. The company is called Magic Leap. It’s raked in $1.4 billion in venture funds from industry luminaries including Google, Qualcomm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Vulcan Capital, and Andreessen Horowitz.

Like several hundred other companies Magic Leap is developing a virtual reality (VR) system. But what sets Magic Leap apart from many of its competitors is its focus on mixed reality (MR). Mixed reality overlays VR onto the real world. This allows synthetic constructions of VR to be superimposed over actual visual surroundings.

VR technologists agree that MR systems are much more difficult to construct than fully immersive VR, but provide much richer and compelling user experiences. Magic Leap calls their technology Cinematic Reality. That’s where the story of Magic Leap begins.

In the company’s own words:

Using our Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal™, imagine being able to generate images indistinguishable from real objects and then being able to place those images seamlessly into the real world.

From Wired:

There is something special happening in a generic office park in an uninspiring suburb near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Inside, amid the low gray cubicles, clustered desks, and empty swivel chairs, an impossible 8-inch robot drone from an alien planet hovers chest-high in front of a row of potted plants. It is steampunk-cute, minutely detailed. I can walk around it and examine it from any angle. I can squat to look at its ornate underside. Bending closer, I bring my face to within inches of it to inspect its tiny pipes and protruding armatures. I can see polishing swirls where the metallic surface was “milled.” When I raise a hand, it approaches and extends a glowing appendage to touch my fingertip. I reach out and move it around. I step back across the room to view it from afar. All the while it hums and slowly rotates above a desk. It looks as real as the lamps and computer monitors around it. It’s not. I’m seeing all this through a synthetic-reality headset. Intellectually, I know this drone is an elaborate simulation, but as far as my eyes are concerned it’s really there, in that ordinary office. It is a virtual object, but there is no evidence of pixels or digital artifacts in its three-dimensional fullness.

If I reposition my head just so, I can get the virtual drone to line up in front of a bright office lamp and perceive that it is faintly transparent, but that hint does not impede the strong sense of it being present. This, of course, is one of the great promises of artificial reality—either you get teleported to magical places or magical things get teleported to you. And in this prototype headset, created by the much speculated about, ultrasecretive company called Magic Leap, this alien drone certainly does seem to be transported to this office in Florida—and its reality is stronger than I thought possible.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Magic Leap MR screenshot. The hands live in the real world, the miniature elephant lives in a digitized VR world.

 

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Facebook’s Growing Filter Bubble

I’ve been writing about the filter bubble for quite sometime. The filter bubble refers to the tendency for online search tools, and now social media, to screen and deliver results that fit our online history and profile thereby returning only results that are deemed relevant. Eli Pariser coined the term in his book The Filter Bubble, published in 2011.

The filter bubble presents us with a clear faustian bargain: give up knowledge and serendipitous discovery of the wider world for narrow, personalized news and information that matches our immediate needs and agrees with our profile.

The great irony is that our technologies promise a limitless, interconnected web of data and information, but these same technologies ensure that we will see only the small sliver of information that passes through our personal, and social, filters. This consigns us to live inside our very own personal echo chambers, separated from disagreeable information that does not pass criteria in our profiles or measures gleaned across our social networks.

So, we should all be concerned as Facebook turns its attention to delivering and filtering news, and curating it in a quest for a more profitable return. Without question we are in the early stages of the reinvention of journalism as a whole and digital news in particular. The logical conclusion of this evolution has yet to be written, but it is certainly clear that handing so much power over the dissemination of news and information to one company cannot be in our long-term interests. If Mr. Zuckerberg and team deem certain political news to be personally distasteful or contrary to their corporate mission, should we sit back and allow them to filter it for us? I think not.

From Wired:

When Facebook News Feed guru Will Cathcart took the stage at F8 to talk about news, the audience was packed. Some followed along on Twitter. Others streamed the session online. Journalists, developers, and media types all clamored to catch a glimpse of “Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook”—value that has become the most coveted asset in the news business as Facebook becomes a primary way the public finds and shares news.

As Cathcart kicked off the session, he took the captive audience to a Syrian refugee camp via Facebook’s new, innovative, and immersive 360 video experience. He didn’t say much about where the camp was (“I believe in Greece?”), nor anything about the camp situation. He didn’t offer the audio of the journalist describing the scene. No matter!

The refugee camp is a placeholder. A placeholder, in fact, that has become so overused that it was actually the second time yesterday that Facebook execs waved their hands about the importance of media before playing a video clip of refugees. It could have been a tour of the White House, the Boston bombing, Coachella. It could have been anything to Facebook. It’s “content.” It’s a commodity. What matters to Facebook is the product it’s selling—and who’s buying is you and the news industry.

What Facebook is selling you is pretty simple. It’s selling an experience, part of which includes news. That experience is dependent on content creators—you know, journalists and newsrooms—who come up with ideas, use their own resources to realize them, and then put them out into the world. All of which takes time, money, and skill. For its “media partners” (the CNNs, BuzzFeeds, and WIREDs of the world), Facebook is selling a promise that their future will be bright if they use Facebook’s latest news products to distribute those new, innovative, and immersive stories to Facebook’s giant audience.

The only problem is that Facebook’s promise isn’t a real one. It’s false hope; or at its worst, a threat.

Read the entire article here.

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Meet the Chatbot Speech Artist

While speech recognition technology has been in the public sphere for several decades, Silicon Valley has re-discovered it with a renewed fervor. Companies from the tech giants, such as Facebook and Amazon, down to dozens of start-ups and their VC handlers have declared the next few years those of the chatbot; natural language-based messaging is the next big thing.

Thanks to Apple the most widespread incarnation of the chatbot is of course Siri — a personalized digital assistant capable of interacting with a user through a natural language conversation (well, almost). But while the parsing and understanding of human conversation, and the construction of chatbot responses, is all done via software — the vocalizations themselves are human. As a result, a new career field is opening up for enterprising speech artists.

From Washington Post:

Until recently, Robyn Ewing was a writer in Hollywood, developing TV scripts and pitching pilots to film studios.

Now she’s applying her creative talents toward building the personality of a different type of character — a virtual assistant, animated by artifical intelligence, that interacts with sick patients.

Ewing works with engineers on the software program, called Sophie, which can be downloaded to a smartphone. The virtual nurse gently reminds users to check their medication, asks them how they are feeling or if they are in pain, and then sends the data to a real doctor.

As tech behemoths and a wave of start-ups double down on virtual assistants that can chat with human beings, writing for AI is becoming a hot job in Silicon Valley. Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.

“Maybe this will help pay back all the student loans,” joked Ewing, who has master’s degrees from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and film school.

Unlike the fictional characters that Ewing developed in Hollywood, who are put through adventures, personal trials and plot twists, most virtual assistants today are designed to perform largely prosaic tasks, such as reading through email, sending meetings reminders or turning off the lights as you shout across the room.

But a new crop of virtual assistant start-ups, whose products will soon flood the market, have in mind more ambitious bots that can interact seamlessly with human beings.

Because this wave of technology is distinguished by the ability to chat, writers for AI must focus on making the conversation feel natural. Designers for Amazon’s Alexa have built humanizing “hmms” and “ums” into her responses to questions. Apple’s Siri assistant is known for her wry jokes, as well as her ability to beatbox upon request.

As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing. “You have to develop an entire backstory — even if you never use it,” Ewing said.

Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities. At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should use emojis or address people by first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’?” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI interaction designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”

Virtual assistant start-ups garnered at least $35 million in investment over the past year, according to CBInsights and Washington Post research (This figure doesn’t count the many millions spent by tech giants Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft).

The surge of investor interest in virtual assistants that can converse has been fueled in part by the popularity of messaging apps, such as WeChat, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s Messenger, which are among the most widely downloaded smartphone applications. Investors see that users are increasingly drawn to conversational platforms, and hope to build additional features into them.

Read the entire story here.

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The Rembrandt Algorithm

new-rembrandt

Over the last few decades robots have been steadily replacing humans in industrial and manufacturing sectors. Increasingly, robots are appearing in a broader array of service sectors; they’re stocking shelves, cleaning hotels, buffing windows, tending bar, dispensing cash.

Nowadays you’re likely to be the recipient of news articles filtered, and in some cases written, by pieces of code and business algorithms. Indeed, many boilerplate financial reports are now “written” by “analysts” who reside, not as flesh-and-bones, but virtually, inside server-farms. Just recently a collection of circuitry and software trounced a human being at the strategic board game, Go.

So, can computers progress from repetitive, mechanical and programmatic roles to more creative, free-wheeling vocations? Can computers become artists?

A group of data scientists, computer engineers, software developers and art historians set out to answer the question.

Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian has a few choice words on the result:

I’ve been away for a few days and missed the April Fool stories in Friday’s papers – until I spotted the one about a team of Dutch “data analysts, developers, engineers and art historians” creating a new painting using digital technology: a virtual Rembrandt painted by a Rembrandt app. Hilarious! But wait, this was too late to be an April Fool’s joke. This is a real thing that is actually happening.

What a horrible, tasteless, insensitive and soulless travesty of all that is creative in human nature. What a vile product of our strange time when the best brains dedicate themselves to the stupidest “challenges”, when technology is used for things it should never be used for and everybody feels obliged to applaud the heartless results because we so revere everything digital.

Hey, they’ve replaced the most poetic and searching portrait painter in history with a machine. When are we going to get Shakespeare’s plays and Bach’s St Matthew Passion rebooted by computers? I cannot wait for Love’s Labours Have Been Successfully Functionalised by William Shakesbot.

You cannot, I repeat, cannot, replicate the genius of Rembrandt van Rijn. His art is not a set of algorithms or stylistic tics that can be recreated by a human or mechanical imitator. He can only be faked – and a fake is a dead, dull thing with none of the life of the original. What these silly people have done is to invent a new way to mock art. Bravo to them! But the Dutch art historians and museums who appear to have lent their authority to such a venture are fools.

Rembrandt lived from 1606 to 1669. His art only has meaning as a historical record of his encounters with the people, beliefs and anguishes of his time. Its universality is the consequence of the depth and profundity with which it does so. Looking into the eyes of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, I am looking at time itself: the time he has lived, and the time since he lived. A man who stared, hard, at himself in his 17th-century mirror now looks back at me, at you, his gaze so deep his mottled flesh is just the surface of what we see.

We glimpse his very soul. It’s not style and surface effects that make his paintings so great but the artist’s capacity to reveal his inner life and make us aware in turn of our own interiority – to experience an uncanny contact, soul to soul. Let’s call it the Rembrandt Shudder, that feeling I long for – and get – in front of every true Rembrandt masterpiece..

Is that a mystical claim? The implication of the digital Rembrandt is that we get too sentimental and moist-eyed about art, that great art is just a set of mannerisms that can be digitised. I disagree. If it’s mystical to see Rembrandt as a special and unique human being who created unrepeatable, inexhaustible masterpieces of perception and intuition then count me a mystic.

Read the entire story here.

Image: The Next Rembrandt (based on 168,263 Rembrandt painting fragments). Courtesy: Microsoft, Delft University of Technology,  Mauritshuis (Hague), Rembrandt House Museum (Amsterdam).

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Beware the Beauty of Move 37

AlphaGo-Lee-Sedol-Game 2

Make a note of the date, March 15, 2016. On this day, AlphaGo the Go playing artificial intelligence (AI) system from Google’s DeepMind unit, wrapped up its five game series. It beat Lee Sedol, a human and one of the world’s best Go players, by 4 games to 1.

This marks the first time a machine has beaten a human at Go, an ancient and notoriously complex board game.  AlphaGo’s victory stunned the Go-playing world, but its achievement is merely the opening shot in the coming AI revolution.

The AlphaGo system is based on deep neural networks and machine learning, which means it is driven by software that learns. In fact, AlphaGo became an expert Go player by analyzing millions of previous Go games and also by playing itself tens of millions of times, and learning and improving in the process.

While the AI technology that underlies AlphaGo has been around for decades, it is now reaching a point where AI-based systems can out-think and outperform their human masters. In fact, many considered it impossible for a computer to play Go at this level due to the immeasurable number of possible positions on the board, mastery of strategy, tactical obfuscation, and the need for a human-like sense of intuition.

Indeed, in game 2 of the series AlphaGo made a strange, seemingly inexplicable decision on move 37. This turned the game to AlphaGo’s favor and Lee Sedol never recovered. Commentators and AlphaGo’s human adversary noted move 37 as extraordinarily unexpected and “beautiful”.

And, from that story of beauty comes a tale of caution from David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale. Gelernter rightly wonders what an AI with an IQ of 5,000 would mean. After all, it is only a matter of time — rapidly approaching — before we have constructed machines with a human average IQ of 100, then 500.

Image: Game 2, first 99 moves, screenshot. AlphaGo (black) versus Lee Sedol (white), March 10, 2016. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Curate Your Own Death

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It’s your funeral. So why not manage it yourself.

A new crop of smartphone and web apps aims to deliver end-of-life planning services directly to your small screen. Not only can you manage your own funeral, some of these services even help you curate your own afterlife. Apparently, apps like Cake, SafeBeyond, Everplans and Everest, are perfectly suited to millennials, many of whom already curate significant aspects of their lives online.

From the Guardian:

A young man is staring straight into the camera. He looks late 20s or early 30s, with a suede blazer and two-toned hipster glasses, and cheerfully waves as he introduces himself. “Hi, my name’s Will,” he tells the YouTube audience. “And I’m dead.”

“While my family is a bit upset, they’re not stressed. Because when I was among the land of the living, I made the incredibly smart move of signing up for Everest.”

Will flashes a smile. His family plans his funeral in the background, using the detailed plan he left behind.

Everest is a Houston-based funeral concierge, and the firm that commissioned Will’s upbeat, millennial-friendly video last fall from Sandwich Video, a Los Angeles production company popular with the tech set in Silicon Valley. Everest published the film in February 2016 as part of a campaign to target millennials, hoping even twentysomethings can be lured into thinking about their digital afterlives.

Everest is just one of a wave of apps and digital services that are emerging to help millennials plan their own #authentic mortal passings, right down to Instagram-worthy funerals. Last fall, rival apps Cake and SafeBeyond were released within one month of each other, and both hope to streamline end-of-life planning into one simple app.

Death apps promise to help a person organize his or her entire online life into a bundle of digital living wills, funeral plans, multimedia memorial portfolios and digital estate arrangements. It could be the mother of all personal media accounts, designed to store all of a person’s online passwords in one spot, for a successor to retrieve after he or she dies.

But millennials already curate their digital lives to perfection on social media. So how much are these “death apps” adding just another layer of pressure to personalize yet another stage of their lives?

Read the entire story here.

Image: Six Feet Under, opening title. Courtesy: HBO / Wikia.

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Software That Learns to Eat Itself

Google became a monstrously successful technology company by inventing a solution to index and search content scattered across the Web, and then monetizing the search results through contextual ads. Since its inception the company has relied on increasingly sophisticated algorithms for indexing mountains of information and then serving up increasingly relevant results. These algorithms are based on a secret sauce that ranks the relevance of a webpage by evaluating its content, structure and relationships with other pages. They are defined and continuously improved by technologists and encoded into software by teams of engineers.

But as is the case in many areas of human endeavor, the underlying search engine technology and its teams of human designers and caregivers are being replaced by newer, better technology. In this case the better technology is based on artificial intelligence (AI), and it doesn’t rely on humans. It is based on machine or deep learning and neural networks — a combination of hardware and software that increasingly mimics the human brain in its ability to aggregate and filter information, decipher patterns and infer meaning.

[I’m sure it will not be long before yours truly is replaced by a bot.]

From Wired:

Yesterday, the 46-year-old Google veteran who oversees its search engine, Amit Singhal, announced his retirement. And in short order, Google revealed that Singhal’s rather enormous shoes would be filled by a man named John Giannandrea. On one level, these are just two guys doing something new with their lives. But you can also view the pair as the ideal metaphor for a momentous shift in the way things work inside Google—and across the tech world as a whole.

Giannandrea, you see, oversees Google’s work in artificial intelligence. This includes deep neural networks, networks of hardware and software that approximate the web of neurons in the human brain. By analyzing vast amounts of digital data, these neural nets can learn all sorts of useful tasks, like identifying photos, recognizing commands spoken into a smartphone, and, as it turns out, responding to Internet search queries. In some cases, they can learn a task so well that they outperform humans. They can do it better. They can do it faster. And they can do it at a much larger scale.

This approach, called deep learning, is rapidly reinventing so many of the Internet’s most popular services, from Facebook to Twitter to Skype. Over the past year, it has also reinvented Google Search, where the company generates most of its revenue. Early in 2015, as Bloomberg recently reported, Google began rolling out a deep learning system called RankBrain that helps generate responses to search queries. As of October, RankBrain played a role in “a very large fraction” of the millions of queries that go through the search engine with each passing second.

Read the entire story here.

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Shear Madness/Genius: Smartphoneless For 18 Months

Model5302TelephoneRead the following sentence and you’ll conclude that this person is stark-raving-mad.

Writer Jenna Woginrich jettisoned her smartphone and lived 18 months without mobile calls and without texting, status updates and alerts.

Now read her complete story, excerpted below, and you’ll realize that after 18 months without a smartphone she is perfectly sane, more balanced, less stressed and generally more human.

From Jenna Woginrich via the Guardian:

The phone rings: it’s my friend checking to see if I can pick her up on the way to a dinner party. I ask her where she is and as she explains, I reach as far as I can across the countertop for a pen. I scribble the address in my trusty notebook I keep in my back pocket. I tell her I’ll be at her place in about 20 minutes, give or take a few. Then I hang up. Literally.

I physically take the handset receiver away from my ear and hang it on the weight-triggered click switch that cuts off my landline’s dial tone.

I take my laptop, Google the address, add better directions to my notes and head outside to my 1989 pick-up truck (whose most recent technological feature is a cassette player) and drive over. If I get lost on the way, I’ll need to ask someone for directions. If she changes her plans, she won’t be able to tell me or cancel at a moment’s notice. If I crash on the way, I won’t be calling 911.

I’m fine with all of this. As you guessed by now, I haven’t had a cellphone for more than 18 months.

I didn’t just cancel cellular service and keep the smartphone for Wi-Fi fun, nor did I downgrade to a flip phone to “simplify”; I opted out entirely. There is no mobile phone in my life, in any form, at all.

Arguably, there should be. I’m a freelance writer and graphic designer with many reasons to have a little computer in my holster, but I don’t miss it. There are a dozen ways to contact me between email and social media. When I check in, it’s on my terms. No one can interrupt my bad singing of Hooked on a Feeling with a text message. It’s as freeing as the first night of a vacation.

“My phone” has become “the phone”. It’s no longer my personal assistant; it has reverted back to being a piece of furniture – like “the fridge” or “the couch”, two other items you also wouldn’t carry around on your butt.

I didn’t get rid of it for some hipster-inspired luddite ideal or because I couldn’t afford it. I cut myself off because my life is better without a cellphone. I’m less distracted and less accessible, two things I didn’t realize were far more important than instantly knowing how many movies Kevin Kline’s been in since 2010 at a moment’s notice. I can’t be bothered unless I choose to be. It makes a woman feel rich.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Western Electric Model 5302 telephone Courtesy: ProhibitOnions, 2007 / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Google AI Versus the Human Race

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It does indeed appear that a computer armed with Google’s experimental AI (artificial intelligence) software just beat a grandmaster of the strategy board game Go. The game was devised in ancient China — it’s been around for several millennia. Go is commonly held to be substantially more difficult than chess to master, to which I can personally attest.

So, does this mean that the human race is next in line for a defeat at the hands of an uber-intelligent AI? Well, not really, not yet anyway.

But, I’m with prominent scientists and entrepreneurs — including Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk — who warn of the long-term existential peril to humanity from unfettered AI. In the meantime check out how AlphaGo from Google’s DeepMind unit set about thrashing a human.

From Wired:

An artificially intelligent Google machine just beat a human grandmaster at the game of Go, the 2,500-year-old contest of strategy and intellect that’s exponentially more complex than the game of chess. And Nick Bostrom isn’t exactly impressed.

Bostrom is the Swedish-born Oxford philosophy professor who rose to prominence on the back of his recent bestseller Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, a book that explores the benefits of AI, but also argues that a truly intelligent computer could hasten the extinction of humanity. It’s not that he discounts the power of Google’s Go-playing machine. He just argues that it isn’t necessarily a huge leap forward. The technologies behind Google’s system, Bostrom points out, have been steadily improving for years, including much-discussed AI techniques such as deep learning and reinforcement learning. Google beating a Go grandmaster is just part of a much bigger arc. It started long ago, and it will continue for years to come.

“There has been, and there is, a lot of progress in state-of-the-art artificial intelligence,” Bostrom says. “[Google’s] underlying technology is very much continuous with what has been under development for the last several years.”

But if you look at this another way, it’s exactly why Google’s triumph is so exciting—and perhaps a little frightening. Even Bostrom says it’s a good excuse to stop and take a look at how far this technology has come and where it’s going. Researchers once thought AI would struggle to crack Go for at least another decade. Now, it’s headed to places that once seemed unreachable. Or, at least, there are many people—with much power and money at their disposal—who are intent on reaching those places.

Building a Brain

Google’s AI system, known as AlphaGo, was developed at DeepMind, the AI research house that Google acquired for $400 million in early 2014. DeepMind specializes in both deep learning and reinforcement learning, technologies that allow machines to learn largely on their own.

Using what are called neural networks—networks of hardware and software that approximate the web of neurons in the human brain—deep learning is what drives the remarkably effective image search tool build into Google Photos—not to mention the face recognition service on Facebook and the language translation tool built into Microsoft’s Skype and the system that identifies porn on Twitter. If you feed millions of game moves into a deep neural net, you can teach it to play a video game.

Reinforcement learning takes things a step further. Once you’ve built a neural net that’s pretty good at playing a game, you can match it against itself. As two versions of this neural net play thousands of games against each other, the system tracks which moves yield the highest reward—that is, the highest score—and in this way, it learns to play the game at an even higher level.

AlphaGo uses all this. And then some. Hassabis [Demis Hassabis, AlphaGo founder] and his team added a second level of “deep reinforcement learning” that looks ahead to the longterm results of each move. And they lean on traditional AI techniques that have driven Go-playing AI in the past, including the Monte Carlo tree search method, which basically plays out a huge number of scenarios to their eventual conclusions. Drawing from techniques both new and old, they built a system capable of beating a top professional player. In October, AlphaGo played a close-door match against the reigning three-time European Go champion, which was only revealed to the public on Wednesday morning. The match spanned five games, and AlphaGo won all five.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Korean couple, in traditional dress, play Go; photograph dated between 1910 and 1920. Courtesy: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection. Public Domain.

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