Thursday, April 30, 2009

Surge in AI stories makes me think its arrival may be sooner than expected.

IBM has announced Watson will begin sparring humans this year leading up to a final contest sometime in 2010. Steve Wolfram has announced Wolfram Alpha will launch in May. The good folks over at Caltech have 'trained' a computer to analyze the behavior of fruit flies... in real time, something it takes a human close to 100 hours to do. A Program, dubbed Adam, has also been developed capable of making, and testing, a hypothesis has produced modest, though publishable results. A group at Cornell has created an AI that can derive the laws of physics from data of the natural world, with some refinement, it should be able to extract tons of information from the massive amounts of data we already have. The University of Southerland, meanwhile, is working on CASSANDRA, a program to monitor stock markets and guard against insider trading and spin.

When we look at these news stories we see a trend emerging, programs able to understand natural human language, recognize patterns, make inferences... what happens when we have computers as powerful as bluegene available for tens of thousands of dollars (rather than hundreds of millions), a program like Watson, which can read texts and 'understand' them, *and,* unlike Watson, you hook it up to a search engine like Wolfram Alpha? Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot, HAL really can read lips...

This brings me back to the point I keep trying to hammer home, it doesn't take true sentience for a program to displace a person from a job. If your job is monotonous, highly technical, or requires you to have command over vast amounts of information, your job will be among the first to go. Doubly so if it's also high paying.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

For me, a rare moment of optimism about the future.

There's an expression I like, "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." It seems to fit here.

Of course, he doesn't take into consideration ai... but that's another topic.

Monday, April 27, 2009

AI to compete on Jeopardy...

FTA: I.B.M. plans to announce Monday that it is in the final stages of completing a computer program to compete against human “Jeopardy!” contestants. If the program beats the humans, the field of artificial intelligence will have made a leap forward.

There is still hope for the Ken Jennings out there: ...the creators of the system — which the company refers to as Watson, after the I.B.M. founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr. — said they were not yet confident their system would be able to compete successfully on the show, on which human champions typically provide correct responses 85 percent of the time.

And as usual, this isn't true AI: The team is aiming not at a true thinking machine but at a new class of software that can “understand” human questions and respond to them correctly. Such a program would have enormous economic implications.

And if you're wondering what makes this machine different from a Wolfram Alpha w/ an internet connection: To approximate the dimensions of the challenge faced by the human contestants, the computer will not be connected to the Internet, but will make its answers based on text that it has “read,” or processed and indexed, before the show.

This is going to be interesting, expect some impressive bits and the occasional blunder: the program stumbled when it decided it had high confidence that a “sheet” was a fruit.

And, as always, I remind you that AI doesn't have to reach the level of true sentience before it becomes a major disruptive technology. How many of your jobs depend on your ability to understand Shakespeare or interpret an impressionist painting? At some point the AI is 'smart enough' and 'flexible enough' to approximate a human level output in a job. At that point, it becomes just a question of when will this AI be cheap enough to replace a person at that job.

And another article.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Politics and Brand Management.

What's amazing is that the Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) is the one that posted this video. He believes that he got the better of Steven Chu, our energy secretary and a Nobel laureate. That sound you here after Mr. Barton's question is the good doctor laughing.

The 'science' tag is only for Dr. Chu and Dr. Chu only. The other tags are all for Joe Barton... well, ok, they can share the 'Government' tag.

Kiosks replacing humans... More on Blockbuster

This is a very short blurb, here's the whole thing: Blockbuster (BBI) on Wednesday said it expects to have 10,000 DVD rental kiosks in operation by the end of 2010 following the acquisition by partner NCR (NCR) of TNR Entertainment, the second-largest player in the business. TNR operates about 2,200 kiosks in supermarkets under the MovieCube and The New Release brands.
As Reuters noted today, the leader in the sector is Redbox, a unit of Coinstar (CSTR), which has more than 12,000 locations.

It doesn't mention the financial issues I wrote about earlier.

Expect to see the automation of every job that can be automated. Most of these jobs will be the jobs that have no barrier to entry. That's scary. Competition for a first job is going to become fierce and the 'free rider' problem is going to become even more pronounced than it already is.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

GTFO! Ultrasound Imaging Now Possible With Smartphone

Nothing magical here, just a combination that makes such perfect sense yet I totally did not see coming. FTA: Computer engineers at Washington University in St. Louis are bringing the minimalist approach to medical care and computing by coupling USB-based ultrasound probe technology with a smartphone, enabling a compact, mobile computational platform and a medical imaging device that fits in the palm of a hand.

Man, those pervs that try to take pictures up girls' skirts just got a new toy that's gonna take the gross to a whole new level.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The good news: No more outsourcing factory jobs!

The bad news: No more factory jobs.

FTA: Scottish scientists yesterday claimed we are only five years away from a generation of robots capable of putting together wardrobes, beds and chairs.

The article's headline is about Robot Butlers but the obvious downside is that any robot capable of being a butler is (likely as not) capable of being virtually anything else. Add in a pinch of this and a dash of that, maybe a smidge of this and boom, this is what you get....

This is serious. We all like the fantasy of our having robot butlers but we fail to realize the reality of how this technology would impact our world. Robot butlers, once they hit the appropriate price point, will simply gut the jobs of the unskilled. By dramatically increasing the labor supply labor wages will free fall... essentially, if a robot can do a job 24 hrs a day for X dollars a day(maintenance, fuel, depreciation of value), and a human can do the same job 16 hours a day, but not quite as well, than they will have to take approximately (or less than) x/2 dollars a day. (Cost of a robot/years until replacement is needed)+(robots annual maintenance)+(robot's fuel expenditures)= (total annual salary of all workers needed to do the same job) + (amount needed to compensate for losses due to human inefficiency).

There are circumstances that could mitigate the problem: a strong public backlash, (bad) deflation due to lowered buying power of the large number of unemployed, (good) deflation due to the cheaper manufacturing costs, government intervention and safety nets.

Now, all that being said, I totally want one. The world is going to go through some extremely interesting changes. They're already happening. It doesn't take huge leaps in our technological capabilities to see amazing changes- just look at how the internet is still changing our business world.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An incredibly unfair comparison

Democrats Vs. Republicans

Call it brand management. Call it positioning. This is how a lot of people see American politics today. Over the weekend I had a very enjoyable talk with a very bright Conservative (yes, they do exist) and I don't want anyone to think that my occasional hyperbole is (entirely) serious.

Still, its tough to look at these stories and not immediately think about the battle lines that have been drawn, particularly during this decade, and see how things have come to this point, this point where these two stories are beside one another on the front page of

I grew up in what you might call a New England Republican household. We talked a lot about fiscal policy. We never spoke of holding back homosexuals or the march of science. That, more and more, the Republican party represents these things is appalling. Especially while they're failing at what is, ostensibly, the one unifying thread they're suppose to all share: "Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, topped the list of senators receiving earmarks, with a total of $653 million." & "Alaska led the nation in pork per capita, at $322 a person." (Source)

OK, this one's gotten away from me. I'm rambling. Anyone else curious about these Tea/Teabag parties? It's going to be a bumpy four years. Hang on.

Oh, and PS, how fraken amazing is that Stem Cell article, eh?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

And speaking of eyes....

FTA: Take a close look at that picture. There's no camera trickery going on, and no special effects; that man really does have an LED implanted in his right eye socket. And that's only the beginning.

Personally I think what this says about transhumanism is much more compelling than what it says about tis stated purpose, 'The purpose for this? To "provide a unique perspective on the way video surveillance is becoming more popular in western societies," Spence told New Scientist.' I think there are clearer (/better) ways of doing that.

The unblinking eye of an AI Auditor

This is just a step, but it could be a big step, an important step, and one which will improve all of our lives by creating a truer free market.

FTA: The artificially intelligent software being developed at the University of Sunderland is designed to spot signs of insider trading and spin.
Cassandra (Computerised Analysis of Stocks and Shares for Novelty Detection and Radical Activities) could help bring an end to the kind of market abuse that fuelled the credit crunch.
Not only will the system point the finger at insider traders, but ultimately it will flag up false rumours and exaggerated claims deliberately fed to the media to distort the market.

'It's a good thing.' Anyone? Anyone? Well, I think I'm funny.

And from a commentator: The Financial Times recently quoted as many as 25% of UK share dealing may be tainted by insider trading. A study commissioned by the New York Times suggested as many as 41% of North American deals may be similarly affected.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Daddy, what's a video store?

The change is coming.

Headline & Kicker: Blockbuster says it may not be able to continue
In regulatory filing, it discloses auditor doesn’t see future for company

FTA: Even if the ($250 million) loan is funded, the company said it “may not have sufficient liquidity to finance the ongoing obligations of our business, which raises substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern.”

And this is thanks to tech that only began getting popular in the mid nineties.

EDIT: There's also stuff like this, 'Over a million people have downloaded the leaked print of Wolverine. Now people are selling DVDs of it on the streets of San Francisco and New York City,' which can't be helping Blockbuster's cause.

Downloading is easier. Content (seems) to want to be free. Everything we do makes it easier and easier to move media around...

Nanoparticle Assembly: the Holy Grail

FTA: Because of its reliability and precision control, Brookhaven’s nano-assembly method would be scalable for the kind of high-throughput production that would be essential for commercial applications.

This is a game changing technology. This could radically boost the efficiency of dozens of our technologies- notably photovoltaic solar. Early commercial applications will likely just be nanocoatings for existing industrial materials, then new industrial materials... then new products using those materials. Perhaps materials like this gas storage nanomaterial, 'Just 1/30th of an ounce of the material has the approximate surface area of a football field,' which makes storing vast amounts of hydrogen far easier...

Theory is nice. Practice is better. That's what this break through promises us.

And it's only the beginning.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

No Job is Safe, not even those of research scientists.

FTA: A robot scientist that can generate its own hypotheses and run experiments to test them has made its first real scientific discoveries.
Dubbed Adam, the robot is the handiwork of researchers at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge in the UK. All by itself it discovered new functions for a number of genes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, aka brewer's yeast.
Ross King, a computational biologist at Aberystwyth, who leads the project, said that Adam's results were modest, but real. "It's certainly a contribution to knowledge. It would be publishable," he says.

Of note here, the more specialized a task is, the easier it is to automate. Interesting times ahead.

And some more.... this from another article about another lab AI.

FTA: The researchers have taught a computer to find regularities in the natural world that become established laws – yet without any prior scientific knowledge on the part of the computer. They have tested their method, or algorithm, on simple mechanical systems and believe it could be applied to more complex systems ranging from biology to cosmology and be useful in analyzing the mountains of data generated by modern experiments that use electronic data collection.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Well that was quick, follow up to yesterday's WallE post.

FTA: In a genetic engineering breakthrough that could help everyone from bed-ridden patients to elite athletes, a team of American researchers—including 2007 Nobel Prize winner Mario R. Capecchi—have created a "switch" that allows mutations to be turned on in muscle stem cells to monitor muscle regeneration in a living mammal.

We're really all over this one. If there's one thing I've learned in my life it is this, if you have to have something wrong with you, try to make it be something that a lot of people in wealthy, industrialized nations have wrong with them as well.

This is why we haven't cured cancer yet.

FTA: Scientific navel-gazing has been taken to new heights by a chemist who claims he has solved one of the great mysteries of human biology: why men produce navel fluff, but women do not.

Our future, as a species, just got that much brighter.

Pfff! Well, effe Claritin then!

Actual Headline: Masturbation could bring hay fever relief for men