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.'”

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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.”

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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.”

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Lab-to-Table Meat Is Nearly Here

The Wall Street Journal: “Memphis Meats grows meat by isolating cow and pig cells that have the capacity to renew themselves, and providing the cells with oxygen and nutrients such as sugars and minerals. These cells develop inside bioreactor tanks into skeletal muscle that can be harvested in between nine and 21 days … Currently it costs about $18,000 to produce a pound of Memphis Meats’ ground beef, compared with about $4 a pound in U.S. grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti: “The meat industry knows their products aren’t sustainable. We believe that in 20 years, a majority of meat sold in stores will be cultured.”

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Is The Deck Stacked Against Disruptive Innovation?

The Wall Street Journal: “Anshu Sharma, a venture capitalist at Storm Ventures, thinks he knows why so many companies that should have all the resources and brainpower required to build the next big thing so often fail to do so. He calls his thesis the ‘stack theory’ … the mistaken belief that” building something new is a simple matter of “moving up the stack.”

The “stack” is a “layer cake of technology, one level of abstraction sitting atop the next that ultimately delivers a product or service to the user.” IBM, for example, “moved up the stack from making things that compute to selling the services that computation enables … Google tried to move up the stack from search to social networking.” Apple apparently hopes to move up the stack to make electric cars.

According to Mr. Sharma, failure to move up the stack happen when the company lacks empathy for its customers and doesn’t understand its customers’ wants or needs. It’s generally easier to move down the stack (e.g., Tesla builds its own batteries because it knows its own requirements). Uber would be more likely to succeed at building its own cars than General Motors would be at creating a ride-sharing service. That’s because “Uber has the advantage of knowing exactly what it needs in a vehicle for such a service.”

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Why Aren’t Wearables Well Worn?

In The New York Times, Nick Bilton offers several reasons why so much wearable technology has not worn so well. “First, almost all of them require a smartphone to be fully operational … a wearable becomes yet another gadget that we need to lug around. There’s also the fact that most of these devices are quite ugly … Then there’s the unpleasant fact that the technology just doesn’t seem ready … But the biggest issue may be the price … consumers just can’t justify buying a smartwatch that costs nearly as much as a smartphone.”

Geoffrey A. Fowler, writing in The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile extols the virtues of the Mio, which uses a metric called Personal Activity Intelligence (PAI), which tracks heart patterns rather than foot movement. “Mio’s hardware isn’t as elegant as others on the market, but PAI is the best example yet of how wearables can turn data into tailored, actionable advice, and hopefully longer lives,” Geoffrey writes.

“Unlike step counting, where you start over each morning at zero, PAI runs on a rolling weekly tally … Everyone’s PAI is a little different, by design. The formula takes into account your age, gender, resting heart rate, max heart rate and other unique signals. It’s personal Big Data,” Geoffrey writes.

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IBM: Where Design Thinking Is The Corporate Culture

Wired: “For going on four years now, IBM has been working to reinvent itself as a design-led business. In 2012, the computing behemoth employed just one designer for every 80 coders. Today, that ratio stands at 1:20. By the end of 2016, the company hopes to narrow it to 1:15. All-told, the company is investing more than $100-million in an effort to become a design-centered corporation.”

“That plan hinges not only on the company-wide implementation of design thinking—a framework for conducting business that puts users’ (i.e. customers’) needs first—but the establishment of IBM as a leader in the growing ecosystem of design-conscious companies.”

“Its entire design thinking manifesto is now online (link), and if you’re interested, it’s certainly worth a read. If nothing else, it provides fascinating insight into how a massively successful corporation plans to stay relevant amidst the rapidly changing worlds of computing and business. In many ways, IBM’s newfound focus on design is an admission that a good user experience isn’t always as simple as slapping on a new user interface—it can take a total overhaul of corporate culture to get it right.”

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When Dumb Devices Make Us Feel Smart

On Thursday, The New York Times ran a story about Nest, the “smart” thermostat. Apparently, a glitch in a software update caused users “across America” to lose heat on a cold winter’s night. Babies were crying and grandmothers caught chills. Customer support lines were jammed. Those lucky enough to get assistance were talked through a nine-step procedure that required a mini USB cable.

Shortly after I read this story, my own low-tech, “dumb” thermostat went haywire. Part of the house felt like St. Martin in the summertime while other rooms recalled Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. So, off to Home Depot I went, to buy a new thermostat. At the low end was a basic model, priced at $24.95. The priciest — The Nest — was ten times (ten times!) as expensive. Two hundred and forty-five dollars!

It’s often said that we tend to buy things that make us feel smart — whether that’s based on a relatively rational price-value calculation or a more emotional rationalization. All I can say is, I have rarely felt as smart (even to the point of smug) about a purchase as I did walking out of that store with my $24.95 “dumb” thermostat. The three-step installation took about 10 minutes and specified only a screwdriver.

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