A.I., Innovation & Watson

The New York Times: “Silicon Valley veterans argue that people routinely overestimate what can be done with new technology in three years, yet underestimate what can be done in 10 years … Predictions made in the ’90s about how the new World Wide Web would shake the foundations of the media, advertising and retailing industries did prove to be true, for example. But it happened a decade later, years after the dot-com bust. Today’s A.I., even optimists say, is early in that cycle.”

“IBM’s early struggles with Watson point to the sobering fact that commercializing new technology, however promising, typically comes in short steps rather than giant leaps … Watson’s early struggles in health care are viewed as a learning experience. The IBM teams, the executives say, underestimated the difficulty of grappling with messy data like faxes and handwritten notes and failed to understand how physicians make decisions.”

“IBM is trying to position Watson as the equivalent of an A.I. operating system, a software platform others use to build applications. Nearly 80,000 developers have downloaded and tried out the software. IBM now has more than 500 industry partners, from big companies to start-ups, in industries including health care, financial services, retailing, consumer products and legal services.”

Jeremy Howard, CEO of Enclitic: “You have to take technology that works and apply it to a known problem. Innovation alone is a mistake.”


Mercedes Replaces Robots With People

Engadget: “Mercedes-Benz is replacing some of its high-tech workers with real live humans. As it turns out, robots can’t keep up with the degree of customization that the automaker offers on its S-Class sedans. The change comes at a time when a number of companies are replacing people with robotic devices … However, as Mercedes continues to expand the options available on its vehicles, the robots aren’t able to adapt to new tasks. They’re better suited for doing the same jobs repeatedly.”

“Robots aren’t getting the boot from Mercedes-Benz Sindelfingen factory entirely, though. The machines will work alongside humans instead of being confined behind glass. Mercedes, BMW and Audi are all working on sensor-packed robots that can operate safely alongside their living breathing colleagues.”


Bluetooth Can Be a Driving Headache

“The road to the autonomous future, it seems, is not as smooth as it appears,” The New York Times reports. “Problems related to cars’ rapidly advancing technology are now at the top of the list of consumer complaints, according to the 2016 J. D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study.”

“The biggest issues are balky voice recognition systems and problems with Bluetooth pairing, accounting for 20 percent of all customer complaints. Over all, the discontent drove a 3 percent decline in vehicle dependability in the study … Complaints about technology have gone from being fifth most troublesome in the 2014 study, to third last year, to now being first.”


Samsung: Retail as a ‘Cultural Center’

Samsung’s NYC flagship store — Samsung 837 — is a “cultural center” that is designed “to build experiences rather than push product,” reports Engadget. “Across three floors you’ll find a 75-seat amphitheater, a full working kitchen and plenty of bench space for tech support and workshops. The amphitheater hosts a three-story interactive screen that was used for an art installation this week, but will be repurposed for screenings and presentations as well.”

“The ground level art gallery showcases works that use technology in a major way. The current exhibition, ‘Social Galaxy’ by Black Egg, contains a mirrored tunnel lined with Samsung devices. Users input their Instagram handle at the entrance and then, within seconds, the displays pull in images and comments from their accounts, creating a rapid cacophony of sound and color.”

“A set of chairs in the front of the store offer up a ‘4D’ virtual reality experience, by having you strap a Gear VR to your face as you sit in a chair that bobs in time whatever you’re looking at … Samsung 837 sourced a lot of its style locally as well. The employee uniforms came from designer line Rag & Bone, which has a location right across the street. The store also has a partnership with the nearby Standard hotel. Samsung 837 considers itself part of the Meatpacking District community, as well as a destination for both tourists and locals.”


littleBits: Designing A Gender-Neutral Toy

C-Suite Strategies, a special supplement in The Wall Street Journal, featured an interview with Ayah Bdeir, founder of littleBits Electronics, makers of gender-neutral kits for building electronic toys — “snap-together electronic circuits, motors, lights and motors.”

“We want to help kids and adults understand the world around them further and reinvent it,” Ms. Bdeir, herself an engineer, says. In response to a question about how she creates gender-neutrality, especially in a category that is traditionally male-oriented, she responds:

“We are deliberately gender-neutral in the design of our product, packaging and communications, the colors we pick, the inventors we feature, the inventions we select [for publicity]. We promote creativity in art, in music, in design, not gendered hobbies. We market littleBits as a tool for invention, learning and play, as opposed to marketing it as a toy, which avoids placing it in either the pink or blue aisle.

The traditional association with robotics and vehicles is that they’re boys’ tools. So, we have bright colors that look like candy. There’s an extra effort to make the circuits look beautiful. And it turns out boys are not turned off. Anecdotally, our teachers tell us it’s close to 40% to 50% girls, which is unheard of in electronics.”


Inclusive Design: Microsoft Thinks Outside the XBox

Fast Company: “Dubbed inclusive design, (Microsoft) begins with studying overlooked communities, ranging from dyslexics to the deaf. By learning about how they adapt to their world, the hope is that you can actually build better new products for everyone else.”

“What’s more, by finding more analogues between tribes of people outside the mainstream and situations that we’ve all found ourselves in, you can come up with all kinds of new products. The big idea is that in order to build machines that adapt to humans better, there needs to be a more robust process for watching how humans adapt to each other, and to their world … They are finding the expertise and ingenuity that arises naturally, when people are forced to live a life differently from most … the promise of this new design process isn’t in just a better Microsoft.”

August de los Reyes of Xbox: ”If we’re successful, we’re going to change the way products are designed across the industry. Period. That’s my vision.”


Stories Can Teach Machines How To Behave

“Mark Riedl and Brent Harrison from the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology have just unveiled Quixote, a prototype system that is able to learn social conventions from simple stories,” reports The Guardian.

“A simple version of a story could be about going to get prescription medicine from a chemist … An AI (artificial intelligence) given the task of picking up a prescription for a human could, variously, rob the chemist and run, or be polite and wait in line. Robbing would be the fastest way to accomplish its goal, but Quixote learns that it will be rewarded if it acts like the protagonist in the story.”

“Quixote has not learned the lesson of ‘do not steal,’ Riedl says, but ‘simply prefers to not steal after reading and emulating the stories it was provided … the stories are surrogate memories for an AI that cannot ‘grow up’ immersed in a society the way people are and must quickly immerse itself in a society by reading about [it].’”

“The system was named Quixote, said Riedl, after Cervantes’ would-be knight-errant, who ‘reads stories about chivalrous knights and decides to emulate the behaviour of those knights.'”


The Design Science of Conversational Agents

“The challenge of creating a computer “personality” is now one that a growing number of software designers are grappling with,” reports The New York Times. “A new design science is emerging in the pursuit of building what are called “conversational agents,” software programs that understand natural language and speech and can respond to human voice commands. However, the creation of such systems, led by researchers in a field known as human-computer interaction design, is still as much an art as it is a science.”

“Most software designers acknowledge that they are still faced with crossing the ‘uncanny valley,’ in which voices that are almost human-sounding are actually disturbing or jarring … Beyond correct pronunciation, there is the even larger challenge of correctly placing human qualities like inflection and emotion into speech. Linguists call this ‘prosody,’ the ability to add correct stress, intonation or sentiment to spoken language.”

“The highest-quality techniques for natural-sounding speech begin with a human voice that is used to generate a database of parts and even subparts of speech spoken in many different ways. A human voice actor may spend from 10 hours to hundreds of hours, if not more, recording for each database.”


Jolly Roger Telephone: A Cure for Telemarketers

The Washington Post: “A Los Angeles man with an unusual passion for phone systems created a new robotic answering service that wastes telemarketers’ time. Roger Anderson started the Jolly Roger Telephone, which lets users start a three-way call with the service so they can listen gleefully as the bot rambles on. It’s designed to provide entertainment and empowerment for everyone who has grown weary of the phone calls. Its first question of the telemarketers is often, ‘Is this a real person?'”

“Anderson experimented with different personalities for his robot before deciding that an odd man who just woke up from a nap worked best. For instance, the robot burned time by telling the telemarketer they sound like a former high school classmate, rambling on about needing coffee or asking them to start over again.”