Stephen Baker http://thenumerati.net/ Stephen Baker en-us AI and talking dogs http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1012&ai-and-talking-dogs http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1012&ai-and-talking-dogs Wed, 12 Nov 2014 09:58:00 GMT
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? http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1011&why-is-dentistry-sane http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1011&why-is-dentistry-sane Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:08:00 GMT

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 http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1010&bruce-sterlings-vision-looks-like-the-boost http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1010&bruce-sterlings-vision-looks-like-the-boost Sat, 20 Sep 2014 09:17:00 GMT 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 http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1009&paint-print-and-words-relative-value http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1009&paint-print-and-words-relative-value Sun, 31 Aug 2014 07:33:00 GMT
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 http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1007&how-the-prequel-to-the-boost-starts http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1007&how-the-prequel-to-the-boost-starts Fri, 15 Aug 2014 09:17:00 GMT
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 http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1006&la-drivers-hate-my-ode-to-jaywalking http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1006&la-drivers-hate-my-ode-to-jaywalking Mon, 04 Aug 2014 10:18:00 GMT



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? http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1005&will-virtual-reality-be-unhealthy http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1005&will-virtual-reality-be-unhealthy Tue, 15 Jul 2014 08:29:00 GMT



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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If Watson had legs, it would jay-walk http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1004&if-watson-had-legs-it-would-jay-walk http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1004&if-watson-had-legs-it-would-jay-walk Sun, 13 Jul 2014 09:46:00 GMT



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
run.

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
light.

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
them.

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 http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1003&future-of-the-internet-looks-a-lot-like-the-boost http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1003&future-of-the-internet-looks-a-lot-like-the-boost Fri, 04 Jul 2014 10:57:00 GMT



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 http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1002&facebook-ads-scary-stuff-wins http://thenumerati.net/?postID=1002&facebook-ads-scary-stuff-wins Thu, 03 Jul 2014 07:40:00 GMT
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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