On the brighter prospects of a world with more tasks handled by machines

2-Color-Design-Hi-Res-100px-widthSince the advent of the world wide web in the early 1990s it has been possible to craft viable business models from highly specific — and limited — market niches. Now, in 2015, with the promise of an expansion in the capabilities of computing machines to handle more tasks of, perhaps, a mundane nature, this opportunity horizon has widened even further. (If you would like more information about why I have specifically connected the enormous popularity of web pages exposed over Ethernet networks for the general public as an important milestone leading to an enormous expansion in the range of viable tech business notions, please contact me as I offer consulting services in this area).

I think it makes sense for readers to keep this factor in mind as they witness public debate about the notion of just whether or not the proliferation of robots, hardware computing machines powered by algorithms, and even what are colloquially referred to as “smart” applications (and apps) will, in sum, result in a net positive, or negative, result for the sheer number of people employed.

An OPED piece published on the CNN web site on March 18, 2015 communicates the seriousness of this debate and adds a raw edge to it: Silicon Valley to millennials: Drop dead. The piece is written by David R. Wheeler. I could not find any information about him, beyond his picture on the CNN web site. So I can provide no background on why CNN decided to post his article.

The raw and right-to-the-point flavor of Wheeler’s chosen title for his piece certainly captures one’s attention. When this factor is combined with CNN’s decision to go to press, and prominently, with this piece, I would hope my readers will agree the topic has a lot of interest behind it, as it should given what I take to be Wheeler’s core point: “The commonly held belief is that with hard work and a good education, a young person in America can get a good job”.

Given the statistics Wheeler provides in his piece, he is probably correct in his conclusion the employment horizon has darkened. But if I replace “can get a good job” in the above quote with “can achieve financial security and even wealth”, then the horizon opens up for another phenomenon we are all witnessing today: an explosion in the number of small businesses and, particular, technology startups.

As recently as Sunday, March 29, 2015, an article appeared on the Financial Times web site about an entrepreneur by the name of Bart Van der Roost. Mr. Van der Roost has started a business by the name of neoScores. I hope readers can share my appreciation for Van der Roost to craft what may become a very promising business from an especially narrow niche market — musicians requiring scores on digital devices. Perhaps we can extrapolate from his notion an opportunity for literally millions of these niches just waiting for entrepreneurs to expose.

Sure code is required. But isn’t code one of the skills people can go to college to learn? I hope we can all take a more sunny view of a new world of computing with hardware devices (powered by algorithms) capable of executing a widened vista of tasks.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2015 All Rights Reserved


Personal agents, and artificial intelligence may transform enormous amounts of information into manageable resources

2-Color-Design-Hi-Res-100px-widthPeter Holley of the Washington Post captured some thoughts Bill Gates articulated during a Reddit “Ask me Anything” session on the topic of a Microsoft project “called the Personal Agent”. Holley’s clips appear in an article titled Bill Gates on dangers of artificial intelligence: ‘I don’t understand why some people are not concerned’. Holley writes: “He went on to highlight a Microsoft project known as the “Personal Agent,” which is being designed to help people manage their memory, attention and focus.”

But Holley doesn’t note the project has been discussed before, this time by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella touched on the very same theme on July 10, 2014, in his letter to Microsoft Employees, titled Bold Ambition & Our Core. Here is the quote from Nadella: “Computing is ubiquitous and experiences span devices and exhibit ambient intelligence. Billions of sensors, screens and devices – in conference rooms, living rooms, cities, cars, phones, PCs – are forming a vast network and streams of data that simply disappear into the background of our lives. This computing power will digitize nearly everything around us and will derive insights from all of the data being generated by interactions among people and between people and machines. We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”.

I wrote earlier in this blog on these comments of Nadella’s. My formal education includes a Master’s degree in English Literature. I spent a lot of time working on the poems of Samuel Coleridge and couldn’t help noting Coleridge’s prescience when he wrote in the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere, but nary a drop to drink”.

I think, in 2015, a lot of us are parched mariners, dying of thirst in a world flooded with too much information to be manageable. So, where Holley reads Gates’ comments as a portrayal of some of the features of Microsoft’s personal agent as a kind of personal tune up, I read them as depicting a set of components of a solution packed with artificial intelligence. The solution will be designed to sort, and prioritize information into useful, digestible chunks, which can provide the user with a reliable basis of beneficial activity.

Cortana, Siri, and Google Now are three very early stage examples of this type of effort, with, respectively, very limited results. But perhaps these tools will become useful in time.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2015 All Rights Reserved


Machine learning and Windows 10 and Windows Phone 8.1

2-Color-Design-Hi-Res-100px-widthMicrosoft’s Windows 10: The Next Chapter event, which was held on Wednesday, January 21, 2015, included a number of new product and features announcements. A lot of editorial copy has been produced on the Holographic computer, the “Hololens”. But other announcements, about machine learning capabilities, while, perhaps not as dramatic, also deserve some comments.

Windows 10 Leverages Machine Learning

During the 2 plus hour webcast, Joe Belfiore demonstrates the new role Microsoft’s Personal Assistant, aka “Cortana”, will play in Windows 10. He makes the point of mentioning Cortana’s capacity to learn, over time.

This machine learning capability is also demonstrated much later in the presentation, within the introduction of the Hololens.

Belfiore’s claims are overstated, at least when they are judged against my use of Cortana on Windows Phones. We own two of these, both are Windows 8.1 Lumia 925 smartphones. Cortana has operated as a feature on these phones for at least the last 90 days, and perhaps even longer. The biggest missing piece for us has been the lack of any improvement in Cortana’s understanding of either of our two users. One of our users has a pronounced accent, which has proven to be the basis of erroneous responses from Cortana, which she has gotten to simple questions.

Our other user, me, recently asked Cortana what it knows about him. Cortana’s reply included mention of a “Notebook”. The “Notebook” is presented in the “Windows 10: Next Chapter” event as a valuable new feature. In the webcast, one of the presenters (probably either Terry Myerson or Joe Belfiore) makes mention of the “Notebook” as an important control people will be able to use to determine just what personal information is available for processing and to limit the cognizance of the system of personal information.

Cortana’s reply to a simple question about what this personal assistant application “knows” about a specific person: “Well, I have my Notebook, so I know what you know you’ve let me know. Y’know?” seems to be more of a disclaimer than anything else. We took a look at the “Notebook”. We framed specific questions about information included in it, but could not get an answer from the system on any questions about any of the entries in the “Notebook”. Recommendation: turn down the hype on machine learning as this component of the system does not seem to have developed much at all since we last took a look at it.

In fairness, we need to also note we have an Android 4.4 KitKat smartphone manufactured by LG and an Apple iPad Air 2. Both of these devices also include personal assistants, “Siri” and “OK Google”, which are capable of understanding verbal commands and formulating audible responses. Neither of these devices are actually any more useful than Microsoft’s Cortana when the requirement amounts to an extended audio discussion with one’s computer device.

Machine learning in all of these applications has a long way to go before it is tangibly useful for personal computing.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2015 All Rights Reserved