Stephen Baker

The Boost
If Watson had legs, it would jay-walk
July 13, 2014General

An op-ed I wrote for The Los Angeles Times, illustration by Edel Rodriguez

It's strange to walk the streets of Seattle and San Jose, two of the world's great software
capitals, and see people behaving like machines. I'm referring to jaywalking or, more
precisely, the lack of it. You see packs of knowledge workers huddled on street corners.
They appear able to ignore the data streaming in through their eyes and ears that would make it
clear to other creatures — dogs, squirrels or, for that matter, New Yorkers — that the coast is clear
and it's safe to cross. Instead they wait for a blinking machine to issue orders.

This approach, like much of computer science in its early years, is based on rules. Because cars are
killing machines, they must stop at red lights. And because pedestrians can be killed and maimed
by cars, they too must obey the signal. To save a motorist and a pedestrian from a deadly
rendezvous, authorities force both driver and walker to follow strict rules.

Computer programs, traditionally, feature long lists of such rules. If X happens, do Y. This is ideal
for listing names in alphabetical order and countless other memory and logic tasks. But rule-based
thinking is what makes computers so thickheaded. They struggle to adjust to change. The human
brain, by contrast, adjusts almost effortlessly. It picks up changing context, is alive to nuance and
adjusts to exceptions. This is why when someone tells us his name is spelled Ximenez, we shrug
and accept it, while the spell-checker on the computer stubbornly insists on changing the X to a J.
Rules, by their very nature, are dumb.

Researchers in artificial intelligence are working to overcome them. They program machines, such
as Watson, IBM's "Jeopardy" computer, to analyze evidence and to calculate the odds for the best
response. This is what jaywalkers do. We carry out advanced analytics involving a host of variables:
the perceived speed of the oncoming truck, our walking speed and the width of the street, the
worst-case chance that the driver will accelerate or swerve, and our ability in such a scenario to

Now, there's always a good defense for rules. Traffic authorities no doubt agree that human beings
have fabulous brains, which are fully capable of looking left and right, drawing conclusions and
crossing the street when safe. But many people are not using their brains for this important work.
They're talking on their phones, listening to music or fiddling with umbrellas. Some are drugged.
Some are lousy at calculating their chances against oncoming traffic.

So the only way to keep them safe is to treat them like herd animals and bypass independent
analysis with ironclad rules. That approach certainly makes sense for governing vehicles, at least until the computer scientists make these killing machines "smarter." But I'd argue that we people should be as free as possible
to navigate our bodies as we see fit. That includes the right to cross an empty street against a red

And what about the people who walk obliviously into traffic wearing headphones or messaging on
Google Glass? Where jaywalking is legal, or at least tolerated, they have a choice. They can either
wait with the masses for the red light or pay attention. If they choose neither and wander into
traffic, an angry motorist will honk at them or scream out the window or, in the very worst case, hit

This does happen. In the jaywalking hotbed of New York City, 168 pedestrians were killed last year,
according to police. It's a grave problem. Mayor Bill de Blasio vows to go after outlaw pedestrians
as well as fast-moving cars and trucks. In Los Angeles, where 72 pedestrians died in 2013, the
police justify handing out $250 tickets to people who step into crosswalks downtown as the
"walk/don't walk" signal begins to count down because of "too many accidents and deaths."

Despite such crackdowns, jaywalking is a constant in most cities. It's factored into our commuting
and delivery schedules. It's also part of what makes a city feel footloose. As the years pass, I think
we'll especially treasure this freedom of movement because in so many areas we're going to be less
free. Increasingly, governments, employers and insurance companies, among others, are going to
have the tools to monitor and optimize our behavior, in every area from the dinner table and the
workplace to our cars.

In fact, the same push for safety that punishes jaywalkers will likely lead us to driverless vehicles.
They'll be a lot safer, since automatic drivers don't drink, text, turn around and scream at kids or
fall asleep. At the same time, though, we passengers are bound to feel a bit shackled as the cars
convey us, under the speed limit and following the most efficient route, to our destination.
At least we should be free to jaywalk. It will be a tiny refuge for self-expression. And here's the best
part. In this future, driverless cars will screech to a halt if a pedestrian crosses their vision. It will
no doubt be programmed into their operating system as a rule.

Stephen Baker is the author of "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know
Everything." His novel "The Boost" came out in May.

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Future of the Internet... Looks a lot like the Boost
July 4, 2014General

In 2025, the Internet is likely to be a much more controlled environment, one increasingly ruled by governments and corporations, according to a Pew Research Study. (the full study, the NPR summary)

Hmmm, I thought. That sounds a lot like The Boost.

The outlook in the study looks pretty grim. More surveillance, more government control (often in the name of security or privacy protection), and money doing more and more of the talking. Naturally, this more controlled and controlling Internet will be far more pervasive than it is today, with more mingling of the physical and digital realms. No, we won't have chips in our heads, it will often feel as though we do. 

Here are the four characteristics of the future Net as detailed in the report:

1) A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through 
the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive 
data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things. 

2) “Augmented reality” enhancements to the real-world input that people perceive through 
the use of portable/wearable/implantable technologies.  

3)  Disruption of business models established in the 20th century (most notably impacting 
finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts, and education). (This one seems too obvious, and they should throw in health care, government and manufacturing)

4)  Tagging, databasing, and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms. 

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Facebook ads: Scary stuff wins
July 3, 2014Marketing the book

See that scary looking ad? I've been dabbling in advertising on Facebook, trying different images and ad copy. And I'm sure it comes as no surprise that the most menacing graphic and message gets by far the most clicks.

The issue for me is that I don't view the future in The Boost as especially terrifying. It's simply the future. Sure, there are aspects I'd rather do without. People can send headaches to each other, journalism no longer exists within the borders of the United States, people eat tasteless pellets and flavor them with brain apps, etc etc. But there's still love, laughter, jokes, and above all, hope. Life goes on. 

But when it comes to selling the book, dark wins. 

I've faced this issue before. The Numerati attempted to portray a balanced view of Big Data. Yes, there would be privacy issues. But governments, corporations, and doctors would stop treating us like herds. Data, for example, would bring us personalized medicine. But the scary stuff sold. When it came time to publish the book in paperback In the UK, my publisher actually changed the title to the menacing "They've Got Your Number."  (The New York Times used the same headline in its review of the book.)

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Going to school on Gone Girl
June 29, 2014General

A couple of weeks ago, as I was sketching out the prequel to The Boost. I downloaded Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I wanted new ideas about plotting and character development, and what better source than a massive best-seller that a good friend called "compulsively readable?" 

It starts well: "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head." The narrator goes on to describe its shape and angles, "like a shiny, hard corn kernal or a riverbed fossil."  Then he adds a touch of dark foreshadowing. "You could imagine the skull quite easily."

After that first paragraph, I felt that I was in the hands of a master. And I prepared to enjoy the first easy reading in months. (I'd been plowing through Proust since Thanksgiving, with a few breaks for non-fiction.) I would be spending consecutive weekends in Cape Cod and Nantucket, and I had the perfect beach reading, and even a Kindle with a non-reflective screen. It was almost luxurious to have a book written in modern American English, with protagonists who lived the lives of people I know (One is a laid-off journalist). 

But something unexpected happened. I kept putting the book down. The plot didn't grip me. I didn't care about the characters. My mind wandered. 

This isn't to rip the book, or to discourge people from reading it. Judging from its sales, and reviews, people are crazy about it. It just wasn't right for me. 

However, I can still take lessons from it. One device Flynn uses is the unreliable narrator. She has two of them, and they take turns hiding important facts from the readers. They admit such awful things about themselves that you tend to believe them. But their revelations are calibrated to gain credibility, so that they can hide the more damning aspects of their existence. (By the way, next time someone tells me that readers want "likeable" characters, I'm going to cite Gone Girl as a counter-example.)

This reading has changed my thinking about my prequel, Washington at War--2043. I was planning to write it with the same omnicient narrative that I use in The Boost, skipping from character to character and reading most of their minds. (For some reason, I never got into Don Paquito's head.) Now I'm considering having one of the characters tell the story. And it might be someone who's up to no good. 

(In the spirit of Gone Girl, I came upon the scene below near the Walnut Street market in Montclair.)

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The steam engine and the future
June 25, 2014Marketing the book

When the steam engine was king, the future looked steamy. The hulking machines, it seemed in the 19th century, would just grow bigger and more powerful.

That's easiest way to imagine the future: Start with what we have now, and exaggerate everything. And that's sort of what I did with The Boost. We have cell phones that increasingly dominate our thinking, track our movements, and are fast turning into external lobes of our brains. So I simply made them tiny, maybe a million times more powerful, and moved them into the head.

I believe that computers will increasingly knit their way into our minds, but I'd bet the technology I describe in the book will be laughable in 2072. That's because between now and then there are likely to be jumps to different tech platforms. These will probably make the boosts seem as silly as a cell phone powered by an internal combustion engine, or perhaps Jules Verne's vision of a moonship fired into space by a massive cannon. 

What will the jump be? John Markoff writes in the New York Times about Microsoft's research into quantum computers. These could conceivably turn computing upside down. It would not only make computers thousands of times more powerful, but would also revolutionize the way they process information. It would conceivably permit them to introduce doubt into calculations--more the way we do. (Today's computers, in contrast, simulate doubt with billions of statistical calculations). Other researchers are looking into computing models based on animal brains. 

The point is that the change won't come in a straight line, and it's likely to be more dramatic than we imagine--and more dramatic than the brain chips in The Boost. 

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An online Playboy in a cyberworld swimming in porn
June 22, 2014News

The news industry in the age of the boost (2072) is dead. People with brain implants get most of their news directly from e-commerce companies and governments, and they spend most of their online time in the world of entertainment. For many, this means the virtual world, and a lot of what they're doing in that world involves sex.

This fits into the plot of The Boost. Without giving away too much, think of it this way: if you have vital news to communicate to a large population, where do you find everybody?

This is the business model for a site called Badoink (don't want to link to it by adding .com). Jasper Hammill outlines the strategy in an article in Forbes. The idea is to offer a news and features magazine, and to finance the journalism with links to porn sites. Hammill compares it to Playboy, which published big-time writers and featured great interviews, all of them financed by soft porn. The Badoink site looks like Maxim, which updated Playboy's model for the '90s.

Anyone's guess if this venture will work. Most don't. But I expect news to continue to cozy up with the parts of the entertainment industry people will pay for. That means porn, gambling, sports, games and comedy. 

This isn't entirely new. When Jimmy Carter wanted to reach an important demographic in 1976, he looked to Playboy, but later regretted it. 

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My next novel: Washington at War
June 20, 2014General

I'm working on my next novel. It's a prequel to The Boost, and I'm calling it Washington at War. It takes place in the crucial years of 2043/44, when China and the United States battle for tech supremacy in the age of brain iimplants. The implants, or boosts, will become the platform for virtually all human communication--news, business, entertainment, diplomacy, and virtual worlds. Whoever rules the boost runs the world. Needless to say, the stakes are large.

I have a plot sketched out. I'm wondering, though, whether to tell the story more or less as I did in The Boost, with an omniscient narrator going from character to character, or to try something different. I'm toying with the idea of a first-person narration. In this case, this character wouldn't be entirely reliable. He (and I think it's a he) wouldn't know everything. And he might not be the nicest person in the story. In fact, he might be something of a villain. 

I'll let you know what I decide, but would welcome ideas.

The art, incidentally, comes from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I was looking for images of Washington at War, and all I came across was Revolutionary War art featuring Gen. Washington. That's about three centuries too old. So I opted instead for an old image of the future.

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Amazon Fire phone: One step closer to the Boost
June 19, 2014News

Amazon's new phone is out, and one of its features, Firefly, brings it closer to The Boost. Firefly allows a user to point the phone at practically any object, send an image to the cloud, and have it recognized and located in Amazon's warehouses. Hit buy, and it will be at your doorstep in a day or two. It even works with movies and songs. 

In The Boost, where nearly everyone has a brain chip, most artifacts of the physical world are also identified and tagged. There's less need for physical objects, because more and more of our lives occur in the entertainment and communications hubs on the chip. (In fact, much of the physical world looks abandandoned.) But it occurs to me that Amazon, if it continues along the line traced by Founder Jeff Bezos, will one day be looking into brain chips. It's the natural evolution of the brand.

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Will kids have to hack cars to drive them?
June 11, 2014General

Google's braintrust in a robotic car

Driverless cars are inevitable, I believe, because they're safer by orders of magnitude.
 Robotic drivers don't fall asleep, drive drunk or fiddle with text messages. Today's NYTimes lays out the numbers. Of course, if it were up to us, that wouldn't matter. We smoke, eat bacon cheeseburgers and ride motorcycles without helmets. 

So what will force the change? Insurance companies. They'll start, I'm guessing, by offering rich discounts to people who hand over the driving to robots. As these numbers grow, the economics will shift. Those who insist on driving their own cars will have to pay hideous premiums. Imagine what it's like today to get insurance when you have a couple of drunk driving convictions on your record. That's what it'll be like for those who want to drive on robot-dominated roadways.

In The Boost, which takes place in 2072, all cars have been robotic for decades. Ralf, the protagonist, has had his brain chip, or boost, ripped from his head, and is now "wild." At one point, he marvels that back when his mother was a teenager, in the late 2020s, people still had the freedom to drive cars. 

"They'd make phone calls, turn around to yell at their kids, even get drunk or fall asleep--all while driving a three-ton machine that was getting instructions from no one but them. It wasn't only the people who were were wild. Cars were, too."

One question is whether kids in the future will be able to "hack" robotic cars to be able to drive. It'll be hard for them, of course, if there's no steering wheel.

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Long before Snowden: My time at the NSA
June 7, 2014Datamining

The secretive National Security Agency wanted some publicity, if you can believe it. This was in 2005. I was working on a  BusinessWeek cover story about the coming age of data, and the NSA put me in touch with the chief of its mathematics group, James R. Schatz.

In the age of growing data, Schatz told me, "There has never been a better time to be a mathematician." And that was precisely why he was on the phone. The market was hot for math. Wall Street was gobbling up mathematicians, and so were the Internet giants, like Google and Yahoo. The NSA was hard-pressed to compete for brainpower. In this race, the NSA was handicapped. It was limited to U.S. citizens, and while the banks and Web companies could offer stock and big salaries, the NSA could only offer government pay. Its pitch: Patriotism, interesting work, regular working hours, and a suburban life style near its base in Ft Meade, Md. 

I went on later to meet James Schatz in Ft. Meade while working on the Terrorism chapter for the book that grew out of the BusinessWeek story, The Numerati. (We met at the National Cryptologic Museum down the road from the black glass headquarters pictured above.) Anyway, I was thinking about his concerns when I saw the NYT story this morning on how the Internet giants are building defenses against the spies. Wonder who'll win that battle of brains.

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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