IBM's Watson can't taste what it cooks
|Years before he headed up the team to build IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson, David Ferrucci co-authored a book. It's called Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity--Inside the MInd of Brutus, a Story-telling Machine. The idea was to program a computer to recognize various elements of story-telling--from coming up with a plot to creating characters--and then let it start authoring. Brutus effectively assembled words into coherent sentences and paragraphs, Ferrucci later told me. But it had no way of knowing if what it created was any good.
And that's the problem with teaching machines to be creative. To date, they haven't been blessed with good taste. Sad to report, that's even true when Watson ventures into the kitchen. But perhaps it can find a role as a wild and inventive sous-chef.
Anshul Sheopuri is on the IBM team training Watson for kitchen work
. The idea, essentially, is that most humans are locked into cooking with combinations that we know. Tomatoes, for example, go with oregano, and with Parmesan cheese. Someone might try throwing in a pinch of marjoram with that, or an ill-advised turnip. But outside of celebrity chefs, most of us paint with a small and conservative pallet.
IBM's goal is to get Watson to experiment, suggesting combinations most people would never consider. For this, the IBM team has the computer reduce food to its molecular components, and then rearrange them based on each ingrediant's chemistry and what the computer has gleaned from lots of written material about food. It then comes up thousands of new recipes. Based on its readings, it gives each recipe a score for novelty, its quality to blend with other foods (pairing) and "pleasantness."
Of course, this is all academic. For the computer, pleasantness, along with everything else in the universe, is simply a string of ones and zeros that appears to correlate with other ones and zeros that make up its point of reference. It's up to human beings to pick the most promising looking recipes, cook and taste them.
|The results include novel blends, such as the sweet and piquant Caymanian Plantain dessert (above). Have to say, though, I glanced at the recipes, and they didn't look as surprising as I would have imagined. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Swiss-Thai quiche on the menu of the Asian fusion restaurant down the road. But the caution could come from conservative humans. Maybe the people on the IBM team picked the recipes that they liked best, and that they figured fellow humans coming up to their food truck at South by Southwest were most likely to enjoy. Watson is hard-pressed, at least for now, to make such judgments. So my guess is that it didn't get a chance to fly its freak flag.
With time, this type of computer chef will be able to incorporate all sorts of other analysis in its recipes, incorporating data about health, disease, prices and supply chain. In fact, those areas are in Watson's comfort zone. Cooking? Well, it's still learning. The problem, from Watson's perspective, is that the boss has this thing called a tongue.
Medicine: How to spend $2,000 in 15 minutes
|A few days after my adventure with the blood clot, I returned to the cardiologist's office for a check up. We don't have national health care in this country, but the scene in this office felt grim and inefficient, like something I might expect in a mid-sized city in Romania. The shades were drawn, lights low. A movie no one seemed to watch blared on a flat-screen.
When I signed in, I saw an enormous complex of shelves stuffed with fat manila folders. Despite tens of billions of dollars of government subsidies (as part of President Obama's stimulous package), this practice still finds a reason to avoid investing in electronic medical records. (As I write, I realize my reference to the Romanians may have been unfair.)
A medic finally retreived me from the lobby and took me to an office. She set me up for an electrocardiogram. I told her that I'd had one at the hospital only a week earlier (and probably would be paying $1,000 for it). She retreated with her machine.
Finally, the doctor looked at my leg. She explained a thing or two about the clot, and cleared up some misunderstandings on my part. I thought that the medically thinned blood was busy eroding the blood clot, much the way water from a hose breaks up a clump of mud. Turns out that the blood-thinner is merely to ensure that more blood won't add to the clot. Within a month or two, the clot should shrink and dissolve by itself, molecule by molecule. If I hadn't taken blood thinners, she said cheerfully, the blood would have kept adding to the clot, eventually occupying my whole leg. I didn't dare ask her what would happen then.
She wanted to make sure, she said, that the clot hadn't in some way affected the work being done by the left chambers of my heart. So she sent me upstairs to a sister company for an echo-cardiogram. It's based on ultrasound. They rub you with goo and then slowly run a machine over it. You see the heart carrying out its exersions. The rushing blood sounds almost like the ocean. (What do I know? Maybe before taking my blood thinner, it sounded more like a swamp.) The exam took about 15 minutes. Afterwards, someone presumably analyzed the report.
They haven't gotten back to me yet, 10 days later, but my wife saw the bill: More than $2,000 for the test alone. I could go up and see the exact number, but I don't want to. It just makes me mad at this gauging, dysfunctional mess of a health care system we have. I'm sure the insurance company will end up paying less. And then I'll pay my 20% cut of whatever number they settle on. As a consumer, I'm powerless in this transaction.
You need good eyes to see my name.
As I mentioned to the cardiologist, I just finished writing a book with Jonathan Bush, co-founder and CEO of athenahealth, about how to fix this same health care system. It's his book, but I wrote it, and Penguin-Portfolio is publishing it in May. It's called Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care.
For my own education, I guess it was good for me to experience the system we criticize in the book. I should mention that lots of the people I've met along the way, including the doctors and nurses, have been just fine. And we don't complain about them in the book, either. It's just that they're stuck, as are we all, with a dreadful system.
I won't lay out the arguments of the book here. But the basic premise is that the industry needs to be massively disrupted, and that the forces that run it--the big research hospitals, pharma giants, insurance companies and the government--are committed to sustaining much of the status quo. Bush, a medical tech entrepreneur who happens to be a member of the Bush family, thinks that only outsiders can shake things up. The book lays out the argument for a revolution based on plentiful information, innovation, customer service, transparent pricing, and competition. More later.
My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
Friday evening I flew from Phoenix to Newark with a planeload of football fans from Denver and Seattle. They were heading to the Superbowl. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had thrombosis in my left calf and would be spending most of the weekend in a hospital. On balance, I would say, I had a better weekend than many of those fans I was sitting with.
A little background. I had fallen the previous Sunday. (lesson: Don’t walk down stairs in your socks reading something on your tablet.) Two days later, when walking up a hill in Scottsdale, I noticed a tightness in my left calf. Bruising, I thought. A day later, I had a few free hours and the weather was nice. So I put on shorts and hiked up Camelback Mountain. The calf was still tight, and I saw for the first time that it was swollen. At this point, I think it’s safe to say I was guilty of self medical malpractice…
So, let’s compare my weekend experience to that of my fellow travelers from Denver. Friday night, I drive home from the airport and have a drink with my wife and listen to music, and then go to bed. It is at that point that she sees my swollen leg and orders me to go to the doctor the next day. The Denver fan I’m picturing takes public transport to a midtown hotel and spends the evening partying around Times Square. While I wouldn’t trade my evening for his, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Saturday, I wake up and go to the doctor’s office. He takes one glance at my calf and says I probably have deep vein thrombosis--a blood clot. If the blood clot works its way loose, it could travel to my lungs, leading to an embolism and a very serious situation. He sends me to the hospital.
The Denver fan is probably waking up at about that time, perhaps with a hangover. Still, he faces a full day in New York. The weather’s nice. I’d say his Saturday is shaping up better than mine.
I check into the emergency room. They give me tests, ascertain that I have a blood clot. They clamp on my first of several identity bracelets, drill a medicine port into my left arm, and then I wait a number of hours to be wheeled up into a room.
Needles bring out the chicken in me
I’m not a big fan of the food scene around Times Square. There are loads of overpriced chains, a Hard Rock Cafe, a Bubba Gump shrimp place, an Applebees. But whatever they find, it’s infinitely better than the hospital dinner I eat, an institutional meal with slabs of tasteless turkey, mashed potatoes made from powder, and string beans that have been boiled for hours, or perhaps days, on end. At this point, strong advantage for the Denver fan.
And things get worse for me. Because while the Denver fan is carousing, my roommate and I are trying to get some shut-eye. It’s probably easier, on balance, to get sleep in a train station than a hospital. Nurses and medics shout up and down the halls. They barge into the room and turn on the light, waking you up to take blood pressure or stick a thermometer in your mouth.
What’s worse, my roommate, who came in a day earlier with chest pains, has a lot of monitors attached to him. And when they fall off or become detached, which they tend to do when he rolls over, alarms go off. At around two in the morning, an alarm rings. He hits his nurse button, I hit mine. But nothing happens. I finally climb out of bed (risking pulmonary embolism) and go out into the corridor in my skimpy nighty to call for help. He bellows NURSE! from his bed. Someone finally comes. Later, a few people spend what seems like a half hour setting him up with an IV. An hour later, he yanks it out, climbs out of bed, and spends a long and noisy time in the bathroom. The nurse, in as civil a tone as she can muster, later gives him hell for that.
Sunday morning, I think it’s safe to say, the Denver fan is having a much better weekend than I am. But this is where things begin to turn in my favor.
Morning in the hospital is the best time. Light streams in through the windows. Breakfast is much better than dinner. I'm not facing the dark and disturbing emptiness of a hospital night, at least for a while. I have music (to blot out my roomie’s TV), a Kindle, all the services of a smart phone. I master the bed controls to lift my legs and my head, turning it into a sheeted barca-lounger. Best of all, they tell me I’ll soon be getting released.
Compare that to the Denver fan. To be fair, maybe he’s not waking up with a hangover. But he probably is. He staggers over to Times Square, where the breakfast scene is bleak. Security and logistics dictate, he has been told, that he has to get to Giants Stadium a full three hours before kickoff. (It’s as if he’s flying to Israel!) And he’d better give himself some extra time, because the New Jersey Transit connections are bound to be crowded and slow.
As he and hordes of football fans march toward Penn Station, I’m out of the hospital and getting my blood-thinning meds at a pharmacy. It's not fun yet, but I’m facing a free afternoon, followed by dinner and an evening watching football on the tube.
From what I’ve since seen, the commute to Giants Stadium is a nightmarish ordeal for the football fans. Thousands of them are jammed on the platforms of the Frank Lautenberg transit station in Secaucas. Some take four hours to get to the game. Walking would be quicker (though I’m sure a stream of pedestrians marching up Route 3 would attract the attention of eagle-eyed snipers guarding the stadium).
Long story short. I’m free. The Denver fan is being shuttled from one confinement to the next. And in the biggest confinement center, Giants Stadium, after all the waiting and lines and security procedures, after all the questionable food around Times Square, and probably too much to drink, he has to sit there for four hours and watch his beloved team get absolutely clobbered. He has nothing to cheer about.
I put the cats in the basement and walk up to bed after the game, happy to be home. The Denver fan has another hellish commute back to Manhattan. He’s surrounded by delirious Seattle fans. Some of the trains didn’t leave until 12:30.
The next day, we wake up to about four inches of snow, and it snows most of the day. Plane flights are cancelled. I’m writing this on Tuesday evening. That Denver fan might be getting home about now. I hope so, because more snow is coming in a few hours.
| Fans in the Secaucas station (AP photo)
Bad people are... Nazis
Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938
So venture capitalist Tom Perkins frets that the very rich might suffer the same fate as Jews in Germany in the 1930s.
This is nothing new. A few years ago, Steve Schwartzman, head of the Blackstone private equity firm, equated President Obama’s proposed tax hikes with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. And lots of people find ways to compare Obamacare to Nazi policies. One North Carolina politician, perhaps just to be evenhanded, said it was worse than Hitler, Stalin and terrorism combined.
There are probably books to write about a common sense of victimhood we have in this country, one that no level of wealth or privilege can assuage. And of course, they’re scandalously insensitive to those who suffered terrible crimes at the hands of butchers. But what strikes me is how primitive the thinking is. I would expect people who can feed themselves, perform basic hygiene and organize nouns and verbs into sentences to come up with better metaphors.
Tom Perkins, after all, is capable of nuanced thinking. All kinds of startups knocked on his door through the decades, and he was able to think through business plans, technology trends, the patterns of social and economic behavior, and put his firm’s money on Amazon, Google and Genentech. Yet when it comes to historical analogies, he sounds like a kindergartener.
The problem, I think, is that many people, rich and poor alike, don’t spend too much time thinking about history. As a result, we have an impoverished historical vocabulary. There are only a handful of things we all know, and one of them is that Hitler was a monster. So he becomes the common receptacle for everything that’s bad. His policies created victims, and those feeling victimized, like Perkins, find common ground with people facing a holocaust. And Hitler deceived well-meaning negotiators, so every diplomatic deal with an adversary is compared to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich.
This kind of thinking is tantalizing. After all, we barely need to know how to talk. Thumbs up and down will suffice. Now that I think about it, didn’t the Roman leaders make use of that gesture to signal life or death for the gladiators? Maybe we could widen our historical references to include that colorful detail. Nah. Probably better just to equip Hitler with thumbs. Easier.
Why IBM's Watson is slow out of the blocks
|Picture a high school graduate of staggering genius. Her skills are spell-binding, but at this point, she doesn't have any experience in the work place or, for that matter, know anything. What's more, her social skills are abysmal. Now when this prodigy knocks on the door of Citigroup or the Mayo Clinic or General Electric, what can she offer?
Selling such a job candidate is more or less the challenge the IBM team has when they try market Watson to corporate customers. It's a fabulous machine. With its blend of big data retrieval, natural language, question-answering and analytics, It represents cognitive computing, the future of knowledge work. But what job can it do today?
We don't know. In these early days, Watson, just like other newcomers to the job market, will take boring jobs for which it's overqualified. A call center assistant, for example. People see that and wonder what all the fuss is about. Spencer Ante of the Wall Street Journal reports
(behind firewall) that Watson's numbers are disappointing, and below projections. IBM is now building an entire Watson division
But Watson, like that high school prodigy, is still in the development phase. This has to be frustrating to investors who are looking for winners in the next stage of the information economy. But it's just the way things move. It's similar, in a sense, to the early period of the personal computers, when no one knew exactly what they'd do. People said that homemakers would use computers in the kitchen, to keep records of food and manage recipes. Finally, speadsheets and word processing programs gave people a reason to buy the machines. (And then many promptly wondered why anyone would do anything else on a computer, including hitching it to a network.)
The fact is that cognitive computing technology, like Watson, will not only do jobs. It will transform work. In information industries, having question-answering machines on hand, in pockets, always on call, will alter our thinking about knowledge and what we have to know. But we don't yet know exactly how these machines will get from here to there, nor which companies will build them. Changing metaphors, if this is spring training and I'm trying to pick the two teams in the World Series, I'd bet on IBM and Google, one coming from the corporate side, the other from consumers.
I was quoted in Spencer's story, which got me an invite to Fox Business News yesterday to discuss Watson's challenges. I went in there, got made up and waited and waited while they aired Gov. Chris Christie's never-ending press conference about the Bridgegate scandal. In the end I was bumped. It reminded me of going to Chicago for a day of Numerati events on the day that Gov. Rod Blagoyevich was arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. And then when I was pitching Final Jeopardy and had a nationwide slot on Ira Flatow's Science Friday, most markets pre-empted me to cover the fall of Hosni Mubarak. You might assume that I'm unlucky. I'd just say that news happens on a frequent basis. Going back to Fox Biz today...
|Thinking of books I read in 2013. A sampling...
Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. I had read it in my 20s, and remembered almost nothing of it. Figured it was a good book to read in winter months, so I downloaded. I found it frustrating to read on the Kindle app, so I actually went to Watchung Booksellers and paid nearly $20 for a nice big paperback. I'd say I read it dutifully, enjoyed the scenes of 19th century life, but didn't get caught up nearly as much as Tolstoy might have liked in the ethical and spiritual issues.
Trees of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. A great novel about trust, family, America, and a life running on auto-pilot in Southeast Asia.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
. I had picked up this book a couple of years ago and found it unreadable. Then I started hearing that so many of my friends loved it, so I gave it another try. This time it worked. I've bought the follow-up, Bring up the Bodies
, but haven't gotten to it yet. What I love about her style is the way she manages to make the story clear while providing a minimum of context. Sometimes you have to stop and figure something out. Who is this person? Who is the "He" she's referring to, etc. But this keeps the author hidden, and makes it feel like the story is being imparted directly, without artifice. It's full of artifice, of course. Otherwise it would be unintelligible. But she builds the context with little bits, small phrases between commas and short asides.
1493, by Charles Mann
, Globalization. I learned a ton about the modern world reading this book, and I read it while traveling in Brazil's Northeast
, where the effects of decisions made right after 1493 were all around us. The hills were blanketed with sugar cane and many of our hosts had ancestors brought from Africa five centuries ago to farm it.
El Camino, by Miguel Delibes
. Small town life in Spain under Franco and the Church. Funny and beautiful, reminded me of Mark Twain. I read this while preparing for the bike trip in Spain
, where we rode through lots of small villages like the one Delibes describes.
Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill
. I was working most of this year on a health care book, which is coming out in May. I'll write about it in a separate post, and will flog the issues as we approach publication. But the book, of which I'm the co-writer, shares a perspective with Goldhill's book.
L'Adversaire, by Emmanuel Carrere.
This is the story of Jean Claude Romand, a Frenchman who fabricated an entire false life for nearly 20 years, and killed his family when his secret started to come out. Sounds gruesome, but most of the book is about a guy surrounding himself with an ever more complex web of lies. I'd read it in 1999, soon after we moved to Paris. One of the best non fiction books I've ever read.
In the Garden of Beasts
, by Eric Larson. The American ambassador to Germany and his family try to make sense of what's happening in Berlin in the 1930s. Great reading. I enjoyed the American side, too. So interesting that Roosevelt settled on a fairly obscure history professor, whose specialty was the American South, to represent the US in Europe's most important post (though I'm sure the Paris hands would have disputed that, back then). It's seems so quaint.
Smart Machines : IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing by John Kelly and Steve Hamm. I
There were others, I'm sure. If I think of another, I might add to the list. But the one that's been keeping me busy since mid-November is Marcel Proust's giant novel, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu
(In Search of Lost Time). After our trip to France
in November, I was looking at French books on the Kindle, and Amazon promoted the entire work by Proust for $3,99. I thought what the hell. I'd always thought that someday I'd read it. Why not now/? So I've been spending at least an hour a day, sometimes much more, curled up at home or in a cafe, waltzing through 19th century French with a wordy, sickly, hypersentitive aesthete as a guide. So far, I've made it through 22% of the total, probably about 850 pages. That means I'm about halfway through the second volume, A L'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur
(known as Within the Budding Grove
). I'm not tiring of it the least bit, and I figure I'll finish the whole work around May, when this health care book and my novel, The Boost
, both come out.
Proust's novel is one book that I find easier to read electronically. One reason is that when I look at two full pages of the paper book, the big blocks of grey in tiny font can seem daunting. Sometimes the two pages feature one single paragraph, other times just a mega-sentence or two. But if I blow up the font and read the book on a screen, the language goes by like a stream of words, and I don't obsess on finishing something or getting anywhere in particular. I imagine it feels a bit like the Appalachian Trail. Yesterday I blew up the font even bigger and flipped through tiny pages of it on my phone while on the elyptical trainer at the Y. (So you could probably conclude at this point that I've plunged into the deep end.)
Last weekend, I took a short break from the novel and read Edmond White's short biography
of Proust. It had quite a bit about Proust as a closeted gay author. At one point, Andre Gide gave Proust, whose sexuality was no secret (though not openly discussed), a hard time about the negative treatment he gives to homosexuality in his Sodom et Gomorrhe,
a volume I'll probably be reading in March or April. Proust reportedly told him that most of the girls the narrator falls in love with are actually based on men he loved. There the reader encounters the beauty and mystery of love. And Proust apparently didn't have much of the positive side left over for the gays and lesbians in Sodom et Gomorrhe
(which for some reason, possibly squeamishness, is translated in English versions as Cities of the Plain
We can only speculate about what Proust's life would have been like, and how his art would have changed, if he had lived in a time when rich asthmatics (like him) can live normal lives, and gay men and women can not only develop open and loving relationships, but also marry. He would no doubt have been an artist under such conditions, but anyone's guess as to what he would have written.
Funny that only a full week after writing this post do I remember, while staring at the book shelf, that I read Ian McEwan's latest novel, Sweet Tooth
. I'm still sitting here reassembling the plot in my head, where it was utterly absent for months. Not a very consequential novel, I guess. But I'll read anything Ian McEwan writes, if only for his sentences, story-telling and intelligence.
Pyongyang Chronicle: The demise of a trickster
December 14, 2013News
|Word that Jang Song-thaek was a trickster emerged the day he was executed, or perhaps the following day. Chronology is always hard to nail down in North Korea. In any case, a 2,000+-word government news release disclosed that in addition to being a gambler, thief, capitalist, careerist and a lesser form of life than dog, Jang was also a trickster. It would seem that the government was unaware until very recently of this fact. You might expect as much. After all, don't tricksters keep secrets? They do. Perhaps better than anybody.
But signs that Jang was a trickster had been evident for years, perhaps decades. Insiders in Pyongyang were aware that Jang was--not necessarily in this order--the dictator's uncle, confidente, coach, and that he was a trickster. At least one person must have seen him lift $4 million from one account or another. They don't have automatic withdrawals in North Korea. People do such work. But such people also know to keep quiet when a trickster who happens to be the second most powerful person in the realm tells them mum's the word. Several others knew that he blew millions in international casinos. People who lose that kind of money get seen. Many of those who saw him at crap tables in Macao later told government inspectors that Jang, surprisingly for such a notorious trickster, lost his millions with good cheer and forbearance. They wished him the best and looked forward to his return.
So it was known. Jang was a trickster, but largely a discreet one. When his nephew, Kim Jong-um, showed interest in executing criminals and traitors, Jang pointed toward other people, professors and army officers, certainly not to himself. He was not stupid.
It's hard to say, in retrospect, what led to the clapping incident. I should say the non-clapping incident, or perhaps half-hearted clapping one. The leader had spoken. Everyone was clapping. Clapping is what is done. It is loud and enthusiastic, probably more loud than enthusiastic, in truth, but it is carried out whole-heartedly, with solid impact, maximum noise, and preferably a smile. And there was Jang, his expression grim, like that of someone who had lost millions in casinos. He may have been suffering the ravages of a hangover. He was barely touching his palms to each other. People noticed. Among a circle of people surrounding him, morale collapsed. Yes, Jang was a trickster. That much they knew. He was hardly clapping. That was new.
He was arrested tried and executed the next day, or maybe the following one. Why do tricksters meet such untimely ends?
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.
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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