Stephen Baker

The Boost
News-Decoder: a global news startup
December 17, 2014General

When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I changed jobs and continents every year, hoping eventually to land a job as a correspondent for a major publication or wire service somewhere in Latin America. I taught English in Ecuador, freelanced in Madrid and Argentina, and worked at newspapers in Venezuela and on the U.S.-Mexico border, in El Paso, Texas.

To understand the stories I was covering, I needed input from the rest of the world. I had to learn about banking (Latin America was buried in foreign debt) and oil. Events in Europe were crucial, because after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Latin America was competing with Eastern Europe for investments. Japan, at that point, was an economic juggernaut, and was investing in Mexico and Brazil. Chinese labor at some point was going to compete with the region…

There was a lot to follow. I did the best I could. I read The Economist and Foreign Affairs. I struggled my way through Le Monde Diplomatique. (All of this was on paper, often weeks or months behind the news.)

There were no Web sites back then, and no public Internet. But imagine how much more I could have learned if I’d had a connection with a network of a few hundred people like me around the globe. It would have been a dream to share ideas, photos and links to articles with people living in Moscow, Havana, Warsaw, Beijing, Managua, and Berlin. I can only imagine what I would have learned, and how it would have improved my coverage.

That type of rich communication is possible with today’s technology, but where do you go to find it? How do you learn about the domestic pressures weighing upon the leaders of Russia or Iran, now that oil is cheap, or feelings toward ISIS in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has been hounded into hiding?

That’s where News-Decoder comes in. It’s a global affairs startup, geared toward young adults. The founders are a group of foreign correspondents, most of them with roots at Reuters. Nelson Graves, a friend of mine since the early ‘80s, is the project leader. Take a look at this page. If you’re living somewhere interesting in the world—and all of us are—jump aboard.



Raul Alfonsin speaks to a crowd before 1983 elections in Argentina. One of those dots is me.

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The evolution of A.I.
December 16, 2014General


I visited my Amazon author page today and happened upon a conversation about artificial intelligence (AI) and evolution. Are Darwinian forces pushing the development of AI?


I wrote a response, which I’ll cut-n-paste here:


Perhaps we give intelligence more credit than it deserves in biological evolution. The shark has proven a survivor on earth, with a model that hasn't changed in tens of millions of years. Lots of animals are smarter, no doubt including thousands sea animals that have gone extinct. Intelligence only goes so far. The shark has the smarts it needs to operate the killing machine that it is, and to mate. Lots of animals survive by growing sharp teeth or thicker fur, by seeing better, by expanding lung capacity or sloughing off a virus that kills others. I would say that the development of the computer owes much more to intelligent design than evolution.


The evolution of the computer, if we want to call it that, occurs in the marketplace. And if the buyers are backward, or ill-equipped, or blind to its qualities and potential, then it fails. If you take a brand new 24-inch iMac to a medieval peasant, it's useless to him. He can't even plug it in. So, if we're disappointed in the progress AI has made over the last 50 years, it's been limited in part by the imagination of the consumers, including ourselves. That said, AI has made enormous progress even over the last five years. Its impact on our lives is already enormous, and will only grow in the age of data.



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Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
December 3, 2014Marketing the book

On Sunday afternoon, I finished writing the prequel to The Boost. It's (tentatively) called Dark Site, which is the name for the corporate prisons featured in the story. The one readers get to know is in Vienna, Virginia, within walking distance of the Metro. 

On Monday and Tuesday, I went through the text, about 119,000 words. I cut out extraneous stuff, including plot elements I never developed and ruminations that slowed the pace. I chopped out about 12,000 words (or nearly two weeks of writing). That leaves it at close to 400 pages, about 15% longer than The Boost. (I can see coming back to it with fresh eyes in a month or two and chopping out more.) 

Today, I sat down to write a promotional precis for the book. This isn't my favorite activity. Actually, it reminds me of writing a short BusinessWeek article, where you have to squish a complex story into 500 words. In any case, now I'm done that, and I'll have to figure out what to do next.

I placed the narrator of the book, Gary, in an apartment building some of my friends lived in long ago. It's called The Shawmut, and it's on Columbia Road in the Adams Morgan section of Washington. I'm sure it's a very nice building now, and Adams Morgan is a wonderful place to live. But when my friends lived in a borrowed apartment there, they kept it "untidy," and the kitchen walls and sink were alive with rushing roaches. I have no idea why those bugs kept so busy. It was as if they were trying to lose weight. 


                                                                     The Shawmut

I don't know yet when this book will by published, or by whom. But here's the precis I wrote today:

Dark Site

The Boost Files: Washington 2044



2043. Two billion Asians operate Chinese-made supercomputers, or boosts, implanted into their brains. Americans, still waiting for their own chip, remain “wild.” In the coming cognitive war, the two powers will battle over access to brains—and control of mankind’s thoughts. The United States starts out dangerously behind.


On a summer day, a software lobbyist in Washington named Gary Terwilliger learns that his lovely downstairs neighbor, Stella, is the first government employee with a Chinese boost running in her head. The Congressional guinea pig for brain implants, she has access to top political leaders, including the president.


While privacy mavens are terrified by brain implants, advocates tout them as the next jump in human cognition, similar to our leap 40,000 years ago to cro-magnon. Some wealthy parents, including Gary and his ex-wife, fearing that their children will be left behind, start sending them on “cognitive vacations” to Asia.


From his apartment in the Shawmut, in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, Gary harnesses his newly boosted 11-year-old daughter, Alissa, as a spy. Riding “shotgun” on her neighbor’s boost, Alissa sees the world through Stella’s eyes. She witnesses chilling corruption and back-channel intrigue. She also sees political opponents being snatched up by drones and carried to corporate prisons, known as Dark Sites. And she learns a startling secret about the president that could bring down the government.


The exuberant Alissa is fascinated by what she’s learning—but cannot keep her mouth closed. As the secrets spread through Washington, powerful players, from tech plutocrats to South American capos, trace them back to their source. Will they lay claim to the precious flow of intelligence by throwing Gary, or even Alissa, into a Dark Site?


As dangers mount, Gary finds himself falling in love with Stella. But he’s all too aware that his daughter might be riding shotgun, and spying on him through Stella’s eyes. For his own privacy, he needs Stella to block Alissa’s access to her brain chip—but not before one final mission, which could carry Alissa into the innermost sanctum of the President of the United States.


Dark Site is a fast-paced prequel to The Boost (Tor Books, 2014), which takes place 28 years later. Kirkus Reviews called The Boost “a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.” Paul di Filippo, writing in Locus, notes that the “tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly.”


Baker was a senior technology writer at BusinessWeek for 10 years, and is also author of two non-fiction books, The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and Final Jeopardy: Man vs Machine and the Quest to Know Everything (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).



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AI and talking dogs
November 12, 2014General


I was talking yesterday to students at Newark Academy. The subject was Artificial Intelligence, and I started off my talk with a question about dogs. If you could give your dog some drug or therapy which would enable it to speak, I asked, how many of you would sign up for. Hundreds of kids raised their hands. There's clearly a market for talking dogs.

I pointed out that talking dogs might not turn out to be great conversationists. They might wander the house repeating "I'm hungry, I'm hungry," or go on forever about other urges or desires. Maybe they'd tell us that they don't like us, or agitate against leashes. Living with talking dogs would also raise delicate issues. If you're having a private conversation, is the dog hearing it? Does it understand? Will it spill our secrets? 

The point of this thought experiment is that we humans have had language more or less to ourselves for about 30,000 years. But in the coming years, we'll be surrounded by talking machines. We won't be sure exactly how much they understand, and we can't be sure they'll respect our secrets. Unlike talking dogs, these machines will be experts in data retrieval and analysis, and will have fabulous math skills. 

The point? All of us should be preparing ourselves to be sharing our jobs and our lives with this next generation of cognitive machines. The key is to figure out which jobs they'll be doing, and to be in a position to work with them--and not be replaced by them.



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Why is dentistry sane?
October 2, 2014General

I went to the dentist yesterday and ended up getting my tooth prepared (to put it as nicely as possible) for a crown. I paid a $560 co-pay, which I think is 50% of the total. I think it's pretty good value for the money. If I were uninsured, it would be $1,120. Either way, as a consumer, I'm satisfied.


Compare that to a recent trip to the cardiologist (concerning my now disappeared blood clot). I had an ultrasound on my legs, to see if the clots were gone. This involved spending 15 minutes with a technician  who pushed an a sensor again my vaselined legs, and gazed at the images on the monitor. She wasn't allowed to tell me what she saw (though she was nice enough to do so "off the record.") That set of images was then sent to a "reader," a doctor qualified to interpret them. This is serious medicine. The cost of mistakes is high, and they have to buy insurance against it. The machinery, I'm sure, is expensive, in part because it's sold to an spendthrift industry and the price can be absorbed into wildly inflated bills.


Speaking of which… The bill for the ultrasound came to me the other day. The hospital charged $2,095 for it. The insurance company paid $597. And then the hospital, which has some sort of nodding-winking relationship with the insurer, gives another $1,348 as a “discount.” I pay about $11,000 out of pocket every year for this coverage, and I’m still left with a co-pay of $149--which is about what I might expect to pay for the service in a sane health care economy.


I’m not a happy customer. I feel that money is being thrown around capriciously. I have little choice, because we're talking about my heart. This dynamic--life-or-death leverage in a market with little price accountability--has driven health care to 19% of our economy. (That's one reason we can’t afford to reform health care as drastically or as quickly as we should.)



                                                                       How much is that worth?

Compare the cardiology experience to the dentist making the crown. He’s a professional, an expert. He spends a full hour preparing the tooth, making the molds, crafting a temporary molar and making sure it fits. Then he sends the mold to a manufacturer, which puts together a meticulously made replacement piece for my body. It’s unique and sturdy, and it contains all kinds of composites that must be expensive. All of this is done, and my tooth is new (or as new as it’ll ever be)  for $1,120.


He earns the money and gets paid, and the bill is as simple as the ones from the roofer or the tree surgeon. He’s dealing with me as a customer and selling me a service. Many of his customers aren’t insured. So he has to compete in the marketplace. While I'm sure exceptions exist, dentristry, for the most part, is sane.


As Jonathan Bush and I wrote in Where Does it Hurt?, when medical procedures are not included in the false economy of current  insurance plans, prices go down. Lasix surgery, which is not covered by most insurance plans, is an example. Prices have plummeted over the last 30 years. The health care economy fares better where patients can be shoppers.

Coda: Today in the mail, I receive a letter from Englewood Hospital, the "non-profit" which charged $2,095 for the ultrasound. They have a foundation, and tell me about an exciting opportunity. I can donate up to $50,000, and that money will be matched dollar-for dollar, by other donors.



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Bruce Sterling's vision looks like The Boost
September 20, 2014General

"Imagine Amazon subways. The Internet of Things is not a world where Amazon literally buys, owns and manages your subways. Instead, it's a world where Amazon's skills at logistics have crushed the subway unions and are managing riders as if they were packets in one of Amazon's gigantic robotic distribution centers."

--Bruce Sterling, The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things




Couldn't Amazon run this better?


A few days ago, I downloaded 
Bruce Sterling's essay on the Internet of Things. It's worth noting that I bought it on Amazon for $3.99. In that way, Sterling and the rest of us are building the very structures whose power over us is only going to grow. 

The way Sterling sees it, five huge companies are positioned to dominate the next stage of the Internet. They are Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. In his view, these companies will be extending their dominion from screens to the physical world. And as they do, they will increasingly dominate our economy, our jobs, our politics, in short, the planet. 

This is more or less the vision in The Boost, and its sequel (which I'm now writing), Washington at War. It's based on laws of the marketplace. These companies need to grow and expand, or they'll die. At the same time, computing is getting cheaper, smarter, and smaller. They have to use these advances to insinuate their services ever deeper into our lives. We are their frontier. 

Whether or not we eventually have chips in our head isn't the issue. They'll surround us with so much computing and sensing and surveillance that they might as well be in the head, and I'm betting they'll eventually go there.

Sterling predicts that the Chinese Internet of Things "will likely be much better known as the "Firewalled Internet of Heavily Censored Things with Chinese Characteristics." But he doesn't speculate on how that Chinese Internet will interact with our own.

This interaction is a central premise of The Boost. The idea is that the Chinese will be freer to implement a system of surveillance, efficiency and control (all eventually managed through brain chips), and that the rest of the world will remain hopelessly backward, uncompetitive and "wild" --until they get the implants themselves.


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Paint, print and words: relative value
August 31, 2014General


Philemona Williamson, Solitary Reflections, 1996

We were having coffee yesterday with two wonderful Montclair artists, the painter Philemona Williamson and Jay Seldin, a globe-trotting photographer. They were complimenting each other's work, and Jay suggested that they trade pictures. And then I offered short stories for their images. That drew a laugh. Maybe I'd have to come over and read to him until he fell asleep, Jay said.

We finished our coffee without making any deals. And that got me to thinking about the economics of painting and photography. Each of Philemona's paintings is unique. They cannot be shared or uploaded. She's virtually impervious to the Internet economy. 




Jay Seldin, Havana Street

In addition to taking beautiful photographs, Jay is a master printer. But unlike Philemona, he can make copies of his work. Because photography is now digital, the economic model of the industry is in brutal transition. LIke musicians and writers, photographers increasingly have use the free distribution of their art to build their brands, and then figure out how to make a business from that. Jay leads groups of amateur photographers on tours. In the coming year, he's heading to Cuba, Ethiopia and Myanmar. (His next project is a photo-shooting trip with a friend down highway 89, from Montana's border with Calgary to the Mexican border south of Tucson.)

So when they talked about trading art, it's no wonder they didn't come to an agreement. They work in different economies, and they're growing apart by the day. 
 




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How the prequel to The Boost starts
August 15, 2014Marketing the book


I'm about a third of the way through the first draft of the prequel to The Boost. It's called Washington at War. To give you an idea of where it's going, I'm pasting the first paragraph below. A bit of context for Boost readers: The lover is the 29-year-old Stella, and her husband is Francisco.

Between March of 2043 and the following January, war raged between United States and China. You wouldn’t have noticed it walking across the Mall on a late summer afternoon, as the Congressional teams played softball and drank beer. I strolled past them one evening and thought: We’re at war and life goes on. The drones circling above seemed as harmless as sea gulls. A Frisbee fell at my feet. I picked it up and heaved it toward the Monument, and someone yelled thanks. My trek continued past the White House. I waded through the vaporing crowds around DuPont Circle, and from there to Columbia Road, where my lover waited for me—assuming her husband wasn’t around, or too drunk to notice.

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LA drivers hate my ode to jaywalking
August 4, 2014General




Looks like I hit a nerve in Los Angeles. My op-ed in favor of jaywalkers drew angry letters to the editor. None of the paid much attention to my argument about computers and the evolution of rules. They just saw excuses for jaywalking, and that made them mad. "Living in a society requires a certain amount of common sense, courtesy and compassion for others, concepts to which Baker appears either ignorant or apatheic," writes one. Another takes to the offense: "Let's free the car drivers from those laws that forbid running down a jaywalker. Messy at first, perhaps, but pretty soon there wouldn't be any jaywalkers."

I have to admit that I wrote that article thinking about pedestrians in New York, not L.A. In New York, lots of the streets are narrower (faster to cross) and slower. The risks are higher in L.A., and any time that a jaywalker who causes a driver to slam on the brakes is inconsiderate and foolhardy. Still, I suspect that even some of the angry letter writers from L.A. would jaywalk in New York. It's silly not to. And I'm sure there are plenty of reasonable jaywalkers in L.A. The reckless ones give us a bad name. 

Have to admit, the tone of the Los Angeles letters bugs me a little. They defend the rules of a society built for cars, in which pedestrians are interlopers. The machines that kill must be obeyed. Maybe instead we should follow the rules of the sea, in which the strong yield to the weak. The canoe must yield to the swimmer, the motorboat to the canoe, and so on. In such a scenario in cities, wheelchairs, strollers and canes would be on top, followed by run-of-the-mill pedestrians, and then bikers. Those of us who drive cars (and I do) would come to grips with the uncomfortable fact that despite all the talk in the angry letters about empathy about community spirit, we're spending precious resources and polluting the air, and that we should be last in line. 


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Will virtual reality be unhealthy?
July 15, 2014General




Will the Wang Bao He Restaurant sell virtual versions of its famous 'hairy crabs'?

The big challenge for the virtual reality industry is overcoming nausea. 
Our minds become disoriented, because what we're seeing doesn't sync with what our body is experiencing, and the gap makes us feel like vomiting. If technicians can overcome this problem, as John Markoff describes in the NYTimes, we'll have an industry with explosive possibilities in everything from surgery and warfare to sex. 

This is the future I describe in The Boost, and in the prequel I'm busy writing now. Here are some issues that come up in the book, in the 2030s, after several hundred Chinese industrial workers have brain chips, or boosts, implanted in their heads. (They are known as the "capped" workers.)

...Then there was the issue of the physical world and what was formerly known as “reality.” Increasingly, the capped workers avoided it. This wasn’t just day dreaming. These people would take leave. The hook-ups to their brains tied their experiences in virtual worlds to their perceptions, so that when they were sitting on the blue bench at lunchtime with a vacant look in their eyes, they were actually tasting the famous “hairy” crabs at Wang Bao He in Shanghai, or maybe cavorting in the whorehouse next door. Looking back, their virtual worlds were primitive. The seafood and the sex were crude simulations of reality, with only a hint of the texture and nuance of the physical sensations. At the time, though, the virtual world seemed magical. And everyone knew that as the software improved, year by year, each release would be more colorful, more fun, more real. The molecular world, by contrast, seemed stagnant. 

As the Chinese workers spent more of their time in virtual realms, authorities began to fret. The risk, they saw, was that the capped workers would eat only in their heads--and starve--or dedicate their sex lives to virtual movie stars, and die childless. The government hired technicians to tweak the chip. They told them to jazz up the perceptions of regular life, so that people would hang around in their bodies more of the time--and not just leave them parked here and there like hunks of meat. This proved to be a challenge.

(By the way, if you read the book and don't remember this passage, I chopped out quite a bit of this history for the final edition. I wanted readers to get to the story more quickly.)



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Kirkus Reviews - https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-baker/the-boost/

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

read more reviews



Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
- December 3, 2014


The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
- February 3, 2014


My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012


"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011


Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011


Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010