Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Nationalism: Save your job today, doom your children tomorrow.

Artificial Intelligence and bio-engineering technologies are no longer science fiction, but entering our daily lives right now.   AI automation has replaced many manufacturing jobs, and is now replacing white collar jobs.  Treatments for alzheimers and other disorders will not only heal, but also enhance our minds.  Some of these things are exciting, but some of them also threaten our definition of humanity.

Can you afford plastic surgery today?  How about the latest fertility treatments that allow you to select the gender and eye color of your child?  You may be too poor today, but there is opportunity and through hard work you may one day successful enough to do so.  But what if you are stupid compared to other job applicants who can afford a $300,000 mind enhancement?  You would never make it through the interview.

Congress could enact legislation prohibiting bio-engineering of humans, but what if Russia, China, and Europe do not? America would be at a disadvantage.  The only way we can control these technologies for the betterment of humankind and society would have to be at a global level through institutions such as the UN, European Union, World Trade Organization, etc.  We need to be strengthening these institutions and global governance.  Instead, they are under threat from the rise of nationalism.

You might think nationalism and protectionism will save your job today, but they may forever doom your children to live out their lives as an outdated version of humanity.

To learn more, check out the book Homo Deus: A brief History of Tomorrow by Professor Yuval Noah Harari

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Artificial Intelligence and Intuition

Today's news talks about how an AI called Libratus beat one of the best human poker players in a game that relies on bluffing and intuition.  I think intuition has always been that mystical quality with which the human in every sci-fi film always beats the alien or machine.  One would have to say that its one of those pillars upon which our humanity rests, but nobody can really explain what it is.  Well, just because we don't know exactly the inner workings of our mind, doesn't mean its a nut science won't crack.  Here's how it was done...

Trial and Error.  We have all used trial and error to solve problems.  We just hope not to error too much when the stakes are high.  One of the trial and error methods in AI is called Reinforcement Learning.  Its pretty self explanatory, but at the speed of supercomputers, it really means that the AI has LOTS of time to practice.

But trial and error can lead to patterns, and in the game of poker those patterns can be noticed and exploited.  So Libratus also used randomization.  Computer programs use random numbers all the time, but how many times have you randomized your bets in a poker game and how well can you do it?

Put together, with some serious number crunching at night (an AI never sleeps), one of the human players Dong Kim said it seemed that the AI was reading his cards.  

The algorithms that power Libratus weren't developed solely for playing Texas Hold'em.  They have have applications anywhere the game contains incomplete and misleading information... like the stock market, diplomacy, and elections.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Big Data and Who We Are

Over the past decade, we have all taken advantage of the free tools the big tech companies offered.  I personally use gmail for all of my personal correspondence, and Facebook for social.  Can you imagine if facebook was a survey tool rather than a social media tool?  Do you like this?  Do you like that?  Nobody will log in daily to answer the questions.  But what if your friends could see how  you answered them?  Welcome to Facebook.

All of this data about our profiles, likes and dislikes.  It's not just to target ads about handsoap and the latest movie.  There are so many incredibly profound uses for having a profile on every single person.  Amazon can pre-stock the warehouse closest to you based on what you will probably order in the near future.  Software can find cancer in images just as it can tag aunt Hilda in that facebook photo.  Traffic apps can predict travel times for next tuesday afternoon.  Cities can determine the optimal bus routes.  And politicians can use services to determine what twitter message will turn the maximum undecided voters in a district.  Even what will turn you.

All of this is made possible through vast quantities of data that highrises full of statisticians could never sift through.  It's the combination of cheap computing power that enables collection and storage of enough data to fill 10 million blue-ray disks per day.  And it's the combination of machine learning and statistics than enables use use of this data in the meaningful ways.

Are you interested in this field of Big Data?  Jobs like Data Scientist require skills not just in programming but also statistics.  Technologies like Hadoop to consume data from NoSQL MongoDB databases, and presentation tools like QlikView and Tableau.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Evolving Ourselves

I was reading an article on BBC about the impact of technology on human evolution. Basically, we know that changes to the environment drive biological adaptation and evolution. But humans have found non-biological ways to adapt more quickly, and without the cruelty of death associated with natural evolution. An example given in the article is that while polar bears evolved blubber to insulate themselves from the cold, humans used tools to kill the polar bear and use its fur for insulation.

Now we are not only using technology to deal with to our environments, we are using technology to both adapt ourselves and our environment. How will this drive human evolution in the future? Here is an interesting excerpt:

"Technology may have limited the impact of evolutionary forces such as predation and disease, but that does not mean humans have stopped evolving.

Far from it, in a world of globalisation, rapidly advancing medical and genetic science and the increasing power of individuals to determine their own life choices, more powerful forces may come into play.

The direction of our future evolution is likely to be driven as much by us as by nature. It may be less dependent on how the world changes us, but ever more so on our growing ability to change the world."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

For Now We See Through A Glass Less Darkly

1 Corinthians 13:12 contains the phrase "For now we see through a glass, darkly."

There are a number of new technologies in development that I believe put us on the cusp of a revolution in computing technology, and more specifically our interaction with computer interfaces.

First came the iPhone that introduced us to swipes and gestures rather than point and click. This was a big step in the direction of a "natural" human interface rather than the precision of a mouse pointer on tiny buttons.

Next came 3D Movies and 3D home theater. Most people don't have a 3D TV in their home yet, but if you have ever gone and sat down in front of a demo set in Best Buy, you will see how compelling it can be, turning the bezel around your screen into a window frame through which you gaze through at a scene on the other side.

The problem with current 3D technology is the glasses. They are only needed because of the varying viewing distances and angles of the audience. If those two things were fixed, such as a child holding a Nintendo 3DS (coming out in March), glasses aren't needed to provide the effect.

So what if you could track the audience and project the image based on their distance and angle? Enter the Microsoft XBOX Kinect. This device consists of cameras, lasers, and microphones that do just that, eliminating the need for a handheld controller for video games. Well it just so happens that the Kinect tracks the position of the user. So there you have it, the technology pieces are in place to allow us to interact with computing devices using natural human gestures, gazing through glass windows at a three dimensional virtual or augmented reality environment, rather than looking at or touching screens.

See the Microsoft video below for some great examples:


Friday, February 11, 2011

The Water of Life's Quantum Secret

One of the most interesting, and perplexing, things I learned in grade school science class, was the unique properties of water.  Not only did we learn that our bodies are made up of mostly water, but that it does strange things when changing states.  Like expanding and becoming less dense when freezing when everything else shrinks and becomes more dense when going from a liquid to a solid.  Also, when it freezes, it does so from the top down instead of bottom up.  It turns out this is very important for life to live and evolve in bodies of water, where we all started out.  Oh, and one more thing... when water passes through the tiny channels in cell membranes, it does so much faster than fluid dynamics predicts. 

None of these things were explained in science class.  It was like, "here are the rules of physics, but water behaves differently, and don't forget to hydrate before gym class".  

Today George Reiter at the University of Houston may have answered some these questions related to water and life.  They took tiny amounts of water and confined them to very small spaces in carbon nano-tubes that approximate the confines in cellular membranes.   When they performed measurements, they found the confined water to have gone into a different quantum state, with more kinetic energy than expected, thus providing an energy boost to the engine of life. 

There is even something in this for the religious, as water plays an important role in the first acts of Genesis.  "Darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters...And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Overcoming Organic Conflict

During my career I have noticed that a kind of organic conflict develops between and within certain kinds of organizations.  Typically this occurs when the objective of one organization is a check and balance to the objective of another.  As a whole,  these checks and balances are good, but if the inherent friction is allowed to become conflict,  the organizations efficiency will be greatly reduced.  

During normal times this usually just simmers in the background.  And example in IT might be a development manager who doesn't work closely with infrastructure to determine actual hardware costs of a project,  resulting in discovery of the need late in the project lifecycle and going over budget or delays.  

On the other hand,  a manager who reaches out to their counterparts and builds relationships and trust that transcends the natural friction enable the combined teams to act quickly and effectively in times of unusual crisis or opportunity.

But it takes diplomacy and extra effort as the natural tendancy is to back your team members in these conflicts because, after all, they are merely following the objectives you set for the team.