Watson Off-Broadway show is born, a cousin of The Boost
|The other night I saw Watson in the theater. This wasn't just the IBM Watson, but a whole posse of them--all played by a single actor. It was a new play, The Curious Case of The Watson Intelligence, which is opening this month off Broadway (a stone's throw from the Port Authority). Written by Madeleine George, it's an engaging group of stories about intelligent helpers named Watson. One helps Sherlock Holmes, another Alexander Graham Bell, and a third is a not-too-distant future version of IBM's Jeopardy machine. It's a question-answering robot that can provide information. It's like Siri or Google voice a couple or three years from now, endowed with fairly primitive empathy "awareness" and more context than today's version.
IBM invited me to the show. I took along a galley of the Boost
, hoping I could deliver it to Madeleine George, because I view her play and my book as first cousins, both progeny of the IBM Watson project. (I had to leave the post-performance panel discussion to catch my bus back to New Jersey.) It was 2011, after I had finished and published Final Jeopardy
, that I felt a certain discontent. I had worked hard on the book, was proud of it, and I thought it wrestled with fundamental questions facing us, such as how are we going to use our minds in the future, and much a part of our "thinking" will be done in conjuntion with a computer of some sort? The book didn't sell all that well. Actually, I think people were interested in the Jeopardy project, but figured they knew enough about it from the TV shows and all of the surrounding publicity and interviews. To many, reading the book probably looked like overkill.
I wanted to reach a broader audience. So I took the advice of a Spanish friend and began writing a novel that takes place in this future. That became The Boost. I just got the galleys this week, and it will be coming out this May or June. In my book, most people (except for the wild) operate networked cognitive chips in their head. It looks at how we store and regard memories and knowledge, and how we network with these chips for friendship and love, while coping with massive surveillance. The template for this world, needless to say, already exists, and some form of the technology, descending from machines like the iPhone and Google Glass, is en route (whether or not it actually goes inside the head).
Madeleine George takes a different tack. While my chip is in the head, her's functions in another person, or robot, who tends to our needs. It's engaging, smartly written and wonderfully acted. I'd say it goes on about a half hour too long. But I can understand why. She has a lot of great material, and chopping out scenes has to be painful.
Probably no surprise, my favorite parts of the play took place in the near future in which a woman, a computer scientist who has left IBM's Watson team, is building a next-generation empathetic and conversational AI. She becomes emotionally entangled with this intelligence, which seems to shift between the machine and humans. Is that happening? Or is it something she feels because she spends her life threading these two cognitive systems?
This was fascinating, and well acted. The same trio of actors also traced other 19th century dramas, both involving helpers named Watson. They were entertaining and kept my attention, but it was the 21st century part that captivated me.
I went to the play with Steve Hamm
, my frend and former BusinessWeek colleague. We edited each other's stories. He now works as a blogger-videoman-content guy at IBM. (His post on the play
) After the play, I was trying to summarize for him my feelings, and I dipped into the spiel we would give each other in the editing process. It goes like this: "You have a lot of great
stuff! Loved the part where (fill in the blank), and also (ditto)....(Changing voice to more somber tone
) I think we need to make it clearer up top where we are taking this story. And actually, instead of covering the whole industry, why not focus on one company, or even one person? Yes, I know you have a lot of great stuff about the marketing angle. That's another story! etc etc.
Long story short: The play about Watson is very good. It has what it takes to be a niche success. But the theme of the human helper isn't nearly as compelling as the other developing intelligence that works in conjuntion with us, cohabiting in our minds. If Madeleine cut out the 19th century scenes and expanded the 21st, it could be a big hit.
Or maybe she could move on straight to The Boost. She'd be great for it.
The Boost: Galleys out
December 3, 2013News
|Just got a box of these galleys of The Boost. It's coming out late spring. Fun to page through it. I like the pages and the font. It's missing corrections that I sent in yesterday. But I guess that gives meaning to "uncorrected proof." If anyone would like to review the book or turn it into a feature film, please get in touch.
IBM's Smart Machines details era of cognitive computing
November 14, 2013News
|Imagine this. The baby is sleeping upstairs. One of those monitors in her room plays her noises down to the kitchen. The parents can hear her thrash and gurgle. But those sounds are in the background. More prominent is a computer voice that announces: "The baby wet her diapers at 1:23. She's been awake for four minutes." She cries. Is it time to nurse her already? No, the computer says. Her stomach hurts.
I picked up this idea from the new book from IBM Research, Smart Machines: IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing. It is co-written by John Kelly, the director of IBM Research and Steve Hamm, my friend and former colleague at BusinessWeek.
It's a useful, concise and engaging guide to the future of computing--which is also the future of knowledge, sensing, decision-making and discovery. I read it in about two hours. It led me from employment opportunities for Watson to frontiers of Big Data and the physics of new computing. It's hard to summarize the future of cognitive computing, but these two sentences come pretty close: "In the programmable-computing era, people have to adapt to the way computers work. In the cognitive era, computers will adapt to people."
|Now, back to the baby example. Given what we know about data, it really shouldn't be so surprising that machines will be able to decode baby noises. With enough data about the noises babies make, apps will be allow babies to talk to us. Of course, not all babies will use the same noises. I imagine that the program will come with a standard template, and that parents will have ways to correct the machine's early mistakes, helping it to customize its analysis for each baby. And as those fixes make their way to the cloud service, it will grow more sophisticated, just like Google Voice or Siri.
Another similar challenge, I imagine, will be to interpret the noises and gestures of animals, and to get them also to talk to us. This animal analysis could probably benefit from smell sensors. They could pick up molecules of chemicals signaling an animal's fear, confusion, hunger and sexual drive.
Do we want a machine announcing that Rover is hungry or horny or needs to go out for one reason or another? That could be too much information. But the marketplace will iron out those issues. For now, we at least know from a very good IBM book that the technology is en route.
How I shamelessly exploited Twitter (and don't anymore)
November 8, 2013News
|Five years ago, I was the Twitter guy at BusinessWeek. As Roben Farzad recalled Thursday on Brian Lehrer's show, I wandered around the the offices telling colleagues to tweet. Now, as the new Twitter stock debuts, I barely tweet anymore. The reason: Much as I'd like to, I don't participate anymore in the "nugget economy."
I'll explain. When you tweet, you send out a nugget of information wrapped in self-branding. If people like that nugget, they retweet, and the information spreads, along with the branding. Maybe they respond with interesting information, or a relevant link. Those nuggets can be valuable. When I was at BusinessWeek, nuggets I harvested turned into blog posts and stories. And the branding was vital for me. BusinessWeek was in late stages of collapse, and I needed the branding to promote my post-BW career, and (hopefully) to sell books. My brand, as I saw it, had been locked up in the magazine for 20 comfortable years. But now I needed to fashion it into a lifeboat.
An example of how shamelessly I used Twitter for my own ends. I started on Twitter on Jan. 5, 2008. I was in Steve Rubel's office
at Edelman, above Times Square, asking him how Heather Green and I could update our three-year-old story on blogs. (I remember the day because Barack Obama had just won the Iowa caucases, and his face was on every television in the lobby.) Steve urged me to jump onto Twitter. At that point, I remember, he had 2,400 followers. And he asked them with a tweet why @stevebaker should get onto Twitter. Responses poured in. He was clearly at the controls of a powerful tool. I had a book, The Numerati
, coming out later that year and wanted some of that network magic. But how was I going to get thousands of followers?
After a month on Twitter, I had barely 100. But then I came up with a plan to leverage my mainstream journalism asset. I would write a BusinessWeek article explaining Why Twitter Matters
. But instead of calling up the usual sources, like @jayrosen_nyu, @jeffjarvis, and @biz (Twitter co-founder Biz Stone), I would research the piece on Twitter. I would tweet topic sentences for each paragraph, and the Twittersphere would respond with examples, links, and insights. Hopefully, they'd discuss and argue. Through this process, Twitter would write the story. Word would quickly spread about this story, and people who wanted to participate would follow me. I would catch up to Steve Rubel, or even pass him! I'd be hoisted up in the nugget economy.
It turned out that turning 250 tweets into a coherent article took a lot of work. But it worked. The article went mildly viral and my Twitter following quintupled, finally reaching 1,000. My evil strategy worked. And I even won a minor magazine award for the story. (I'll note, in passing, that traditional journalism awards carry zero weight in the nugget economy, not unless they're branding giants, like Pulitzers. If I were still focussed on nuggets, I'd trade my dusty old Overseas Press Award
for 10,000 Twitter followers in a minute.)
Months after that triumph, the economy cratered and BusinessWeek spiraled toward death. I left after Bloomberg snapped it up for barely the price of a Superbowl commercial, and I got a book contract to write about IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson
. Since then, I've been doing books. That has removed me from the nugget economy. Much of what I'm doing is vaguely secret. For instance, I'm co-writing a healthcare book that Penguin will publish next spring. But they're not publicizing it. So I don't either. As a result, I don't generate good targeted nuggets. And my Twitter presence has degenerated into the occasional note about my life, a wine I drank in France, a slideshow from Africa. I'm a scattered Tweeter, virtually lapsed.
Now that I think about it, though, I should jump back on. I have a novel coming out next spring, The Boost
. Maybe if I break down the first chapter into 150 nuggets.... No, really, I should get serious about this.
But this social media marketing is so exhausting, don't you think?
Photos from France
|We took a week in France, and traveled a lot more than usual in that time. We started in Avignon, drove down to Narbonne, stopping for lunch in Nimes. Then we dipped into the Pyrenees on a personal quest, before hurrying up to Lyon, mostly to eat, and then finishing in Paris.
All in all, a wonderful time. Below, a picture of the best bottle of wine we had on the trip which, oddly enough, was at the worst restaurant, a touristy place with slovenly service in Avignon.
|The second best came at the best restaurant, Le Viverais in Lyon. Some might notice that we ordered the Cote du Rhone in Avignon and wine from the Avignon area when we were dining on the cote of the Rhone. Rookie mistake. Still, no complaints.
|We had a nice last dinner at Astier, in Paris (below), in the 11th arrondissement. The wine list, though, was terrible, at least for those wanting to spend less than $80 on a bottle. We paid about $55 for a Cotes de Rhone that tasted like two-buck-chuck.
Is Bill Clinton today's Joe Dimaggio?
|I was listening to Slacker as I cooked last night, and Mrs. Robinson came on. I remember hearing the song when I saw the movie, The Graduate, before going to summer camp in 1968. The most famous line:
"Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you..."
Dimaggio and Monroe
That got me to thinking about time. When I heard that song, I was 12. Joe Dimaggio had been retired from baseball for 17 years. Lots had happened in the interval. TV was born, and went from B&W to color. Dimaggio had married Marilyn Monroe, divorced her, and she had killed herself. The Kennedy presidency, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, the assassinations. A lot had happened. Rock and Music was just a form of southern blues when Dimaggio retired. Now we had the Doors' Light My Fire, the Beatles' Sgt Peppers, Motown.
These were huge changes. So when Simon & Garfunkel sang about Joe Dimaggio, it evoked values from a distant time. But it was only 17 years. Maybe it seemed far back just because I was young. Did it seem so distant to people who were then in their 50s? I ask, because if you mention a figure from 1996, it seems to me almost like yesterday.
This led me to wonder how 12-year-olds today would regard a historical figure from the 1990s. The world has certainly changed a lot since then. The Internet has exploded, as has 9/11 and all of its repercussions, the Obama election, the global economic collapse. Kids today have been living their share of history. So which name would evoke for them what Joe Dimaggio's did for me?
I thought about sports figures who retired back then. Joe Montana, Cal Ripken? Nowhere close. Michael Jordan? Closer, no doubt. Then I considered a different realm, which led me to Bill Clinton. He was president in a time of (relative) peace and strong economic growth. It was pre-9-11. Is he today's Dimaggio? I have no idea.
A couple of notes, comparing '68 to '51. The number one hit in 51 was Patti Page's Tennessee Waltz. In 1968? The Beatles' Hello Goodbye. (I was going to embed it here, because their outfits are priceless. But the video includes a 30-second Vidal Sassoon ad I didn't feel like hosting.)
Nelson Rockefeller's strange choices
|Imagine living in a place with a view like this with all the money you could ever want. While you're at it, imagine that you have a fabulous art collection, with enormous Warhol portraits of you and your wife, and lots of Picassos, including a set of intricately woven tapestries based on his paintings and overseen by the master himself. Nelson Rockefeller had all that, and he decided to remodel a dank basement at his family estate, Kykuit, to house the collection.
Here in New Jersey, we have a split-level house worth only a fraction of one of Rockefeller's canvases. And yet there is not one room here that is uglier or more depressing than the basement in which he housed his art collection. (One exception might my "office," a converted laundry room.) We were told on our tour of Kykuit yesterday that Rockefeller had the architect Philip Johnson help him design the space. The result is a claustrophic corridon with no windows, ceilings hung at about seven feet and lined with ugly ceiling tiles.
|He had plenty of money to build a beautiful space for his art. He had hundreds of acres with spectacular views of the Hudson, or, looking in the other direction, the family's "reversible" nine-hole golf course bordered by forest. Yet he stored his art in the basement. Maybe it felt "modern" to him, a respite from the old stuff upstairs. Maybe he wanted a quiet place he could wander to in the middle of the night, in his bathrobe and slippers, and have a drink.
The larger point for me is that the beauty we experience has more to do with the choices we make than the resources at hand.
One other note about Nelson. He did what he could to add modern comforts to this grandfather's mansion. He dug a couple of extra swimming pools in the garden (since buried) and installed false book shelves in the study, which open up to show a color television. What a throwback it is. A state-of-the-art from the late sixties, it's probably 25 inches, maybe 27. Again, I thought, this guy had all the money in the world, and he had to watch the kind of TV that people today leave out on the sidewalk, hoping against hope that someone will pick it up.
In Nelson's defense, have to say that he placed statues beautifully.
I went to the last Pirates play-off game...until tonight
|In 1992, we had just moved from Mexico to Pittsburgh, where I would be covering steel and other heavy industries for BusinessWeek. That October, 21 years ago, the Pirates were in the play-offs, and on Oct. 11, I drove with my 12-year-old son from our house in Mt. Lebanon to Three Rivers Stadium. It didn't seem like a particularly auspicious game. The Pirates were one game away from elimination. If they lost, and it looked like they would, it might be years before they got into the play-offs again. Their best player, Barry Bonds, was sure to sign for big dollars elsewhere. Their pitching ace, Doug Drabek, was also on his way out.
|That was the last play-off game in Pittsburgh, until tonight. The Pirates won that game, incidentally, behind Bob Walk (who was the game one winner for the Phillies in the 1980 World Series). The next day the PIrates' young knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, won in Atlanta. The following evening they were one out from going to the World Series when a single by an obscure outfielder named Francisco Cabrera drove in the tying and winning runs for the Braves.
I've just been thinking about the changes in the 21 years since that game.
* Barry Bonds, who was slender and fast that night in Pittsburgh, grew into a Ruthian body several years later, broke the home run record, and lives a life tarnished by the steroids scandal.
* My team, the Phillies, went from the cellar in '92 to the World Series the following year. Then they stank again for about a decade, then got very good, won a World Series, and now stink again. (They appear to run on faster cycles than the Pirates.)
* BusinessWeek lost interest in steel and other heavy industry. I turned to tech. They sent me to Paris and brought me back to New York four years later. In 2009, the magazine collapsed and was sold to Bloomberg.
* My son Aidan, who's never been a big baseball fan, was just starting that year in Mt. Lebanon schools. For the next six years, he did as little school work as possible. He changed, though, and will be returning to the Burgh in a couple months to be a professor at Pitt.
* Go Bucs!
If you buy a baseball bat in the UK, should the police be alerted?
|If you buy a baseball bat in the United States, you're also likely to be in the market for balls and, perhaps, a glove. If you are buying a bat in the UK, one of the most common items is a balaclava. Amazon even offers them as a package (though without a discount).
|This data comes from Amazon.co.uk, the company's British Web site. The conclusion doesn't come from hooligans or prejudiced merchants. It is just the data talking: People who buy bats in the UK are also likely to buy masks. They also buy garden choppers, which in other cultures are known as machetes.
|Based on this evidence, I would bet that the average customer for a baseball bat in the UK wouldn't know much about drag bunting, much less the infield fly rule.
This raises important questions about correlation. Would police be justified in creating a registry of baseball bat buyers in the UK? If not, how many UK citizens would favor it? Think about it. Ninety-nine percent of us, with many nines after the decimal, would never dream of bombing an airplane, especially one we're riding in. And yet we're all treated as potential terrorists at the airport. And even to utter a joke at airport security is considered a pretty serious offense. And here the Brits could conceivably come up with a list of people who are likely to buy baseball bats, machetes and masks. Amazon has their names. Are they asking for them? Should they?
You could argue, of course, that the situation is more serious in the United States, where millions of people buy killing weapons and have a Constitutional right to do so. But the sample in the US is so large, and it includes a vast majority of people who buy them to defend themselves, to hunt, to go to target ranges. Millions of Americans believe that their guns defend them from violent people (which is one reason it's so hard to pass gun-control legislation). But is the same true of those who buy bats, masks and machetes in the UK?
|As a special bonus, I'm hunted down the lyrics to Balaclava, by the Arctic Monkeys. (YouTube) They don't mention a baseball bat, but you can picture it as part of the violent mix:
Running off over next doors garden
Before the hour is done
It's more a question of feeling
Than it is a question of fun
The confidence is the balaclava
I'm sure you'll baffle 'em good
With the ending wreak of salty cheeks
And runny makeup alone
Oh, will blood run down the face
Of a boy bewildered and scorned
And you'll find yourself in a skirmish
Where you wish you'd never been born
You tie yourself to the tracks
And there isn't no going back
And it's wrong, wrong, wrong
But we'll do it anyway 'cause we love a bit of trouble
Are you pulling her from a burning building
Or throwing her to the sharks?
Can only hope that the ending is a pleasurable as the start
The confidence is the balaclava
I'm sure you baffle 'em straight
And it's wrong, wrong, wrong
She can hardly wait
That's right, he won't let her out his sight
Now the shaggers perform
And the daggers are drawn
Who's the crooks in this crime?
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
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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
- October 3, 2010
The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010
The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010
My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010
- November 12, 2009
BusinessWeek cannot afford to stay within McGraw-Hill
- August 6, 2009