Artificial Intelligence

“The intelligence exhibited by machines or software”, artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise in making machines smarter using tools of natural language processing, reasoning, computational intelligence, robotics etc. The commercial potential includes customer service, self driving cars and personal care.

Microsoft launched an experimental chatbot based on AI last week. On Wednesday Tay was born, an artificially intelligent chatbot with the personality of a 19-year-old female American, with the aim of “conducting research on conversational understanding”.

But it quickly went wrong, within hours Tay’s twitter account was supporting conspiracy theories around 9/11, espousing right wing views to vie with Hitler or Donald Trump. Tay’s life was short, Microsoft took her offline by the evening, and the worst of her tweets started disappearing. (Not before loads of people took screen grabs).

In the same week FastCompany reported on Whisper’s Arbiter software which ensures that nothing untoward is published by the company’s user-base. Whisper is anonymous and combines text with images, a virtual version of PostSecret. Their filter software is build on masses of data, but they still use human moderators to make sure that their user generated content stays on the right side of the company’s policies. This is particular challenging in an environment of anonymous accounts and sneaky attempts to subvert the algorithm.

So why didn’t Microsoft do the same? This “troll” phenomenon is well-known and well documented, and Microsoft has significant experience using social platforms, certainly enough to predict this.  WIRED report that Microsoft advised them in an email “We have taken Tay offline and are making adjustments” so perhaps when Tay comes back online she’ll have learnt from the first experiment.

There’s an oft quoted saying “artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity”, in this case Tay learnt from us, she copied patterns of speech and opinions from the humans who interacted with her. She’s a human creation in more ways than one; to make artificial intelligence better, we need to be better humans.

Image: digitization via pixabay

 

The Internet of Things

The idea behind the Internet of Things (IoT) is simple, use the internet as a communications network and enable devices to talk to each other, to applications and ultimately to us.

To give a really simple example that already exists, in fact I have one installed in my house, a home heating system that includes a thermostat and an app that lets me schedule temperature changed by date and time.  It cost an extra hundred euros, but the savings due to scheduling lower temperatures at night and on holiday will pay for that.

IoT has tremendous potential to simplify our homes, cities, work environments, transport systems, and healthcare. We’re well on the path towards the IoT, many companies are creating connected devices and Intel has stated that we’ll all have 7 connected devices by 2020.

ISF_Infographic_1600x944

Most people already have multiple devices that are connected to the internet; phones, laptops, e-readers, computers, TVs. Coming soon to your home are connected devices such as heating, fridges, lighting, sound systems, and home security. Gartner estimates that by 2022 we’ll have more than 500 devices in our homes, although they don’t provide a list.

IoT goes beyond our front door, the healthcare industry is looking at connected devices to support patient care in hospitals and live-at-home independence for people with disabilities and the elderly.  For those without known health issues wearable devices monitor your activity and fitness each day.

1970s Teasmade

Many of the home devices can also make our work environment smarter, and more productive, including a wifi enabled coffee machine reminiscent of the old fashioned teasmade of the 70s.

IoT also impacts our transport systems, giving us the famous Google driver-less cars and smart driving systems, along with automation of our public transport systems.

On a large scale cities are looking at smart ways to use limited resources, including space, more effectively. Monitoring traffic, pollution, rainfall, foot traffic, waste disposal can help a city provide better services and save money. A very simple example; lighting a city can be revolutionised by knowing how city space is used, and the lights themselves can be monitored and maintained based on information rather than inefficient repeated inspections.

What’s the catch?

Masses of opportunities, but what’s the catch? There are concerns around security, privacy, and some specific ethical concerns.

If your connected device is critical then it needs to be secure, hackers have already tested a number of devices and found that the security is lacking. In one alarming case researchers hacked a pacemaker, the pacemaker was in a mannequin, but if it had been in a person that would have amounted to a death sentence. Some guidelines have already been created to protect yourself against IoT risks.

If our homes have hundreds of connected devices how can we know which data is provided? Many of the IoT devices don’t allow you to discover that. There are existing data protection laws in place that companies must follow, but when each “thing” in your portfolio of IoT is transmitting data about one aspect of your life that is a massive amount of data.

Driverless cars, potentially part of the IoT pose a very specific ethical challenge; how should they be programmed when the choice is between harming a passenger vs harming a pedestrian? I don’t know either – and the dilemma is likely to push us towards smart assisted drivers rather than fully driverless cars in the short term.

I’m excited by much of this development, but if devices remain discrete and unconnected the number of control apps I have on my phone will become unmanageable, this is starting to be addressed with some platform systems for smart homes. I can’t help wondering what I will do with all this new information, and whether it will really give me new insights.

Image:  BB8 via pixabay

Toy Stories

Two pieces of good news from the world of toys last week.

Barbie got a make-under

As iconic as Barbie is she’s been under fire for years for perpetuating an unrealistic body myth for girls and young women. Someone has gone to the trouble of calculating the probability of a woman having Barbie’s measurements; for Barbie’s neck measurement it’s one in 4.3 billion. For a long time doctors, teachers, parents and feminists have raised the issue of “the Barbie effect“.  She’s encountered criticism for her career performance as well, when cast as a computer programmer. Mattel have seemed reluctant to make big changes, but in 2013 sales dropped. 2015 saw the launch of some

Mattel have now launched a new series of Barbie dolls, the Fashionistas; with 4 body types, 7 skin tones, 14 face shapes and a myriad of hair colours.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 15.12.17

This is just some of the range available.

I broke the internet rule and read the comments on this article from the Guardian.  Many commenters don’t believe this is an important step, stating that dolls are part of fantasy play. Yes, of course, but the dolls are our own avatars and it’s great that these dolls give children a choice that is more like themselves.

Legoland gets a wheelchair

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Lego, another toy brand that has been under fire for its designs in recent years, has launched a wheelchair that will fit any minifig as part of its “Fun in the Park” set.

It may be in response to the Toy Like Me campaign which seeks to have better representation of childhood toys with disabilities. They’re in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign right now, check it out and give them your support.

I’ve heard all the arguments about “it’s just a toy”, “kids don’t remember this stuff” and “changing toys doesn’t change the world”. To me this isn’t about creating a single memory, and I don’t believe changing how toys appear will change the world. But creating toys that demonstrate diversity could be part of a bigger change, it could widen our perception of what “normal” is, and it could be part of instilling pride in children who are outside the mainstream because they are in an ethnic minority, use a wheelchair, have glasses, use a walking stick or have red hair.

Children are very aware of the people around them and pick up on all sorts of nuances of people’s appearance. They’re also aware from an early age of when they’re invisible or excluded.  I’m sure that both Mattel and Lego have calculated the benefits of PR and profit from these moves, but I still applaud these moves to make their toys more inclusive.

 

Post Script; I didn’t have Barbie or Lego growing up, it’s the lack of Lego I regret.

header image:  toys via pixabay

Drones for Good

At Expo 2015 in Milan I spotted some examples of drones being used in ingenious ways, as a navigation aid in a sand dune environment for example, connected to a four wheel vehicle with its very own built-in “drone helipad”.

So far my exposure to drones has either been the militaristic  or the artistic sort. I started to wonder about other uses, commercial uses, and not the hyped up “Amazon will deliver to your fourth floor apartment window”. So I did some research. Here are some of the coolest uses I found.

Agriculture

Nicknamed “precision agriculture”, drones are giving farmers better data and more detail on their crops. Enabling them to target any treatment, and follow a crop’s progress.

I saw a couple of examples of drone use for agriculture at the EXPO, at the Kazakhstan pavilion where they were using drones to target insecticide and fertiliser use.

The Dutch pavilion also showed a pair of potato farmers who use drones to  assess areas that need more seeding, watering or fertilising.

A great way to save costs, but also to reduce the chemical run off to waterways, agricultural use is seen by some as the biggest potential market for drones.

Inspecting Oil Rigs

Oil rigs and wind farms sit out at sea in tough operating conditions and need regular inspection. Using drones has taken the inspection time from 8 weeks down to 5 days, a massive saving of operational costs.

Real Estate

Drone photography and video is seen as a great potential marketing tool in the Real Estate industry – but it’s subject to various regulation in most countries. In the UK and Australia commercial drone operator permits are possible, but in the US the FAA is banning commercial use of drones, although they might be fighting a losing battle.

A second potential use is for monitoring real estate development projects, a site visit from the ground as it were.

Movies

Drones are used for creating sweeping views in advertising, TV documentaries, and movies.

It means that some of those shots once out of scope for those on a limited budget are now possible. Good news for indie film makers, not so good for helicopter pilots.

Events

Pretty sure you couldn’t make the high level shots in the Rockin1000 without drones (now someone will tell me it’s a camera on a super boom).

Burning http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_28682001/drones-improving-oil-rig-inspectionMan now issues permits for drone use at the event and limits the number to thirty. It’s also produced a guideline on drone use to address safety concerns.

Less commercial but still interesting developments are uses of drains for humanitarian aid and wildlife research.

Humanitarian

Drones have been used as tools for disaster relief in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake on a scale unseen before. In part because the technology has matured, and partly because the country already had transport issues reaching its isolated villages. Combined with crowd-sourced work from volunteers around the world, the drone images are helping researchers document damage and prioritise rescue efforts.

Amazon and Domino’s both had PR wins out of trialling drones for delivery but there could be a sensible application; delivering medicine to isolated areas. Medicines are high value yet small, and so could be worth the investment. A Gates Foundation funded team are working on this, and Deutschepost DHL have apparently been testing it as a means of delivering to an isolated island.

Wildlife Research

While researching for this post the video below turned up all over social media. It’s a view of whales that is taken from the air, and obviously doesn’t disturb them in their habitat. And for anyone worrying about the dude on the paddle board, these are Southern Right Whales, baleen feeders. Of course they could still wipe him off the board with a flick of the tail.

The whale video is more opportunistic observation, but scientist have also been using drones to research wildlife in more inaccessible areas, for example monitoring orangutan populations in Indonesia.

It’s not a new idea, WWF Nepal began using drones to monitor the endangered one-horned rhinoceros and tigers more than three years ago.

Future Uses

I’ve seen a few documentaries recently that have used camera techniques and helicopters to increase the understanding of ancient structures like Angkor Wat and Stonehenge. Surely there’s a role for drones here.

There is also space for “drones as a service” companies, offering drone + operator for a single use, in fact a number of drone start-ups are already developing companies to cash in on this concept.

Some predictions suggest that the next big use of drones will be as Christmas presents, I do get the appeal – another toy to play with, even though some people don’t seem to understand when it might not be a good idea to play with the toy. The genie is out of the bottle on drones, and countries/authorities need to find ways to regulate and licence drone pilots for responsible use. After all, we all need a licence to drive a car.

Web Summit Highlights: Day One

Phil Libin, CEO Evernote

I missed his presentation last year, but my colleague recommended him as a speaker and a visionary, so this year I was determined to be in the room.

His vision comes down to; make work less sucky.

Evernote are ahead of the curve on productivity tools. They see the free version as their main version, and focus on getting people to “stay rather than pay”. People use the free version for a long time before buying into the product. They’ve also seen that individual users are often their best leads for enterprise to use Evernote.

His advice to entrepreneurs and developers; make something useful, see if people will like it and stay on it. Their best test of whether will use a new feature or tool is whether their colleagues use it.

Lew Cirne

Lew Cirne is the founder and CEO of New Relic, a company founded on the principal of making data visual in a way that is useful.

He had the quote of the day

Life is too short for bad software

The Role of Technology in Filmmaking: John Underkoffler and Tim Webber

John Underkoffler from Oblong worked on Minority Report and went on to make a real version of some of the coolest tools shown in the movie. Tim Webber from Framestore won the Oscar for visual effects in the movie Gravity. What I loved about this discussion was the emphasis on telling a story. The story comes first and the technology is tool to tell that story.

In the future they see the possibility to integrate with reality tools, but that this has to work in parallel with the story rather than detracting from the story. It occurs to me that at some point movies with virtual reality tools will start to blur the line between movies and games.

The next technology challenge is CGI “humans” that are believable and sustainable for a whole movie.

One key to their success is a very interesting skill that has growing importance in all sorts of companies. Movies are now made across several teams located in different countries, so collaboration in virtual environments has become an essential skill.

Eva Longoria

Room starts to fill up – this might be the closest geeks ever get to genuine stars.

This is not the most original of interviews, some of the questions seem to have been cribbed from an old Cosmo magazine. But Eva Longoria is gracious and funny and she gets her points across.

  • in the cycle of poverty the best intervention is education
  • women start biz at 3x rate of men but have trouble getting access to expertise and capital (in US)
  • her foundation starts addressing these issues

By the end of the 20 minute interview there is a crowd at the front in a photo frenzy.

Gary Marcus

Artifical Intelligence has been disappointing, all the best stuff is always promised as something 20 years away – but we’ve been saying that for 50 years. As Peter Thiel once said “We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters”

Privacy Discussion

Last year there was a panel discussion in a tiny hard-to-find room, that ended up over-crowded with people peering in through the door. This year it’s on the main stage. Privacy is a real issue, and a challenge for all companies working in digital. An ongoing challenge in my work in social media.

Legal rep for NSA vs CEO from Cloudflare on the basis of privacy in the digital world; neither of them deny the importance of privacy and the challenges faced. But the discussion is where does the responsibility lie?

Peoples’ expectations have changed, many users will sacrifice some privacy for free services. Facebook and Google have a business model that exploits this, selling aggregated data to advertisers. But this is not everyone’s business model; Apple, Cloudflare and Ello are showing that.

There seems to be an ongoing tension between security and privacy; is this inevitable?

Drew Housten

The CEO and founder of Dropbox, a tool I’ve loved and used for years.

He begins by talking about a tennis ball and the number 30,000

The tennis ball represents obsession – think of a dog at play, and 30,000 represents the number of days you have have in your life. Realising at the age of 24 he’d used up a third of them jolted him into starting out as an entrepreneur.

As Dropbox became successful he got a call; Apple were interested. He famously didn’t sell. When asked what number was on the table, he admits they never got as far as stating a number. Before the meeting someone told him that if he didn’t want to sell the company then don’t discuss selling the company.

When asked about competition he answers almost casually “We’ve always had competiton”, but manages to give the impression that being seen as a competitor to giants such as Google et al is a sign of success.

There was an announcement earlier – Dropbox and Microsoft have agreed to work together and produce deep integration between their two products. This leads to a question about equal pay – given the Microsoft CEO’s advice to women to rely on “karma” for salary equality. His answer is unequivocal “two people doing the same work should get the same money regardless of gender”.

And with a round of applause I wander off to find a Dublin shuttle bus. The driver roars “it’s two euro and tirty-five cents, all Dublin buses take coins only” and when we look surprised “this information is all on the web”.

Finance and Innovation

Fast Company listed their most innovative companies for the year, including a top ten for innovation in financial services, companies who are building great things for their customers; new services and new platforms.

There were very few on the list I’d ever heard of so I started reading through the list and the company profiles; I started to wonder (a) how new are these companies? and (b) why is it so hard for incumbents, despite their resources, to innovate their way onto this list?

Answering that first question, here’s list of the companies in the top ten with the year they were established. Only two of the ten are more than ten years old.

Company Name Established Service Provided
Nice systems 1986 Consumer service for mobile, including within apps.
Square 2009 Send money via email.
Bitcoin 2009 Cryptocurrency, removing all the middlemen in financial services.
GiveDirectly 2008 Donate via cellphone, direct to the recipient.
Dwolla 2008 Building a better banking network and launching a credit card.
Transferwise 2011 Peer-to-peer international currency transfers.
OneID 2011 Creating a single login – no more remembering multiple passwords.
Mastercard 1966 Re-imagining the mobile-payment network with MasterPass.
Estimize 2011 Crowd-sourcing estimates on company performance, and doing better than most of the pros.
Etoro 2007 A social network for traders, lets you copy the investment of other traders.

All of these innovations take advantage of something in the digital space, some on the growing world of mobile. To be fair the banks have also been active and innovative in this space – just not at the same rate. Some of the innovations above support and use

There’s already some discussion on why it’s so hard for large companies in established industries to innovate. Even the best techniques from Silicon Valley aren’t a magic path to increasing innovation according to this HBR article. It comes down to culture; the things that make a company successful at execution at scale aren’t the things that make a company naturally great at innovation. There are companies that are able to innovate and to scale their operations, but it’s a rare combination.

Is there something about the financial sector that makes it even harder? Perhaps, some sectors (music, travel) show a similar batch of relatively young companies, but the energy sector has more than twice the number of companies over 10 years.

I think there are two things that make it harder for financial services companies to innovate. The first is the risk mindset, in theory financial services companies should be expert at assessing risk and take decisions that maximise return for an accepted risk. In my experience the growing pressure of public opinion and increasing regulation have reduced whatever appetite there was for risk since the global financial crisis. And that’s the second thing – the global financial crisis began in 2007 and during the crisis and in the years since affected financial institutions have had to focus on legal cases, restructuring, cost control and divestment. All of that left little room and few resources for innovation. It’s probably not a co-incidence that half of the companies in the top ten were started between 2007 and 2009.

It’s great that there’s innovation in finance, and many of the solutions are customer-focused either as improved service or as de-mystifying the world of finance. I hope it inspires the “old” banks; there are more opportunities for more innovation.

Postscript September 2018, all the companies are still trading under the names listed except OneID which was acquired by Neustar.

 

Image; finance via pixabay