31
Mar

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 (http://www NULL.cnn NULL.com/2015/03/18/opinions/wheeler-silicon-valley-jobs/index NULL.html). 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 (http://www NULL.neoscores NULL.com). 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

28
Mar

What is prompting interest in Altera from Intel?

2-Color-Design-Hi-Res-100px-width This last week the Wall Street Journal published an article written by Dana Mattioli, Dana Cimilluca, and Don Clark about Intel® and Altera® (http://www NULL.wsj NULL.com/articles/intel-in-talks-to-buy-altera-1427485172).

The topic was Intel’s public expression of more than a passing interest in Altera from the perspective of an acquisition. Despite the fact no name could be publicly associated (the following claim is merely attributed to “people familiar with the matter” in the article) with the most important clause in the piece, “Intel Corp. is in advanced talks to buy chip partner Altera Corp”, a lot of editorial content appeared almost instantaneously after the publication of this article in the online WSJ, in what might easily be construed as merely a knee-jerk reaction as the 800 lb gorilla in the PC CPU business starts moving around and sniffing the air.

Is this interest the result of Intel’s obsession with opening other substantial revenue streams? Or is it being prompted by Intel’s inept handling of Altera as its biggest tenant for its foundry business? Or, finally, is it even being prompted by recent market acknowledgement of favorable features of Field Programmable Gateway Architecture (FPGA) semi-conductors (Altera’s main product line) for the development of what amounts to today’s hottest trend in computing — machine learning, algorithms and computer cognition systems. Incidentally, anyone skeptical on this last point should read this call for proposals from the ACM (http://www NULL.sigarch NULL.org/2015/01/17/call-for-proposals-intel-altera-heterogeneous-architecture-research-platform-program/).

I will not take the time here to provide more detail on each of the above points, namely, the need to augment the PC CPU business with something equally compelling for major markets, the foundry business model, or FPGAs as a superior platform for machine learning applications. If you would like further detail on any of these, or all, please contact me and we can talk about it.

If impatient readers with a keen interest in either player in this drama still think it is very important to put together a strategy now to plan for this acquisition taking place, it might save them a lot of effort to simply mention “this notion has come up before” as a quick look at Analyst: Intel may acquire FPGA vendor (http://www NULL.eetimes NULL.com/document NULL.asp?doc_id=1172756), which was published back in 2010 will corroborate.

Bottom line, we need further word from Intel and Altera before any one of us should write much more about this. The setting simply is not clear enough, now, to warrant all of this chatter.

Ira Michael Blonder

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

25
Feb

Proponents of artificial intelligence solutions need to come forward with a serious public relations effort

2-Color-Design-Hi-Res-100px-widthMachine learning solutions, and those of the “deep learning” variety are playing an ever increasing role in daily computing activities for most people. This condition does not look to change anytime soon.

But regardless, ISVs with products targeted to the predictive analytics market, or the robotics market, or any one of many emerging new market segments, need to tune in on public perception about these technologies in the mature global markets (US, Western Europe, Japan). Public perception has the potential to prod government regulators towards counter-productive pronouncements. Therefore, it makes sense for ISVs to mount a public relations effort to ensure public perception about these technologies stays “on track”.

On Tuesday, February 24, 2015 the Wall Street Journal published an article germaine to this topic. The piece was written by Timothy Aeppel and is titled What Clever Robots Mean for Jobs (http://www NULL.wsj NULL.com/articles/what-clever-robots-mean-for-jobs-1424835002?mod=WSJ_hpp_MIDDLENexttoWhatsNewsThird). The employment theme is a very familiar one for anyone involved with efforts to use computer processes to automate repetitive tasks. So Aeppel’s skepticism about just whether or not an exploding market of robotics solutions will lead to more jobs, or not (which appears to be his position) is really nothing new.

But the timing of the article, in close proximity to several other articles from “prominent” individuals (Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and more) about the dangers presented by algorithms should they be applied to computing lends power to Aeppel’s thoughts. Readers should also not lose sight of the 2016 Presidential election here in the States, where ostensible candidates like Hillary Clinton are starting to stake out turf about “hi tech” and its performance as a job creator.

I encourage readers to go back to my first points in this post. Methods of automating processes, including requirements for prediction, are increasing and becoming more accessible to “average” consumers of computing services. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, in my opinion the accessibility of comparatively powerful methods of enhancing the accuracy of prediction is a net positive contribution to overall business and certainly a likely simulant for new business activity.

Do new businesses create jobs? I am not sure as to the answer to this question, but I can posit they certainly empower more entrepreneurs. Machine learning ISVs and their deep learning siblings need to step forward and do a better job of educating the public about the real benefit of these technologies.

Ira Michael Blonder

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

22
Jan

Machine learning and Windows 10 and Windows Phone 8.1

2-Color-Design-Hi-Res-100px-widthMicrosoft’s Windows 10: The Next Chapter (http://news NULL.microsoft NULL.com/windows10story/) 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

15
Jan

Just how accurate are advertising predictions produced by machine learning systems?

2-Color-Design-Hi-Res-100px-widthThanks to Mikio Braun, who on Thursday, January 2015 published an article on the InfoQ website. Braun’s article includes mention of a Google acknowledgement about the role played by machine learning (also known, at least in part, as data processing by algorithms) as a predictive tool in its ad placement technology for its click ad business. Readers interested in this topic should read Braun’s article, which is titled Google on the Technical Debt of Machine Learning (http://www NULL.infoq NULL.com/news/2015/01/google-technical-debt-ml).

I have written about the inaccuracy of click advertising in earlier posts to this blog. To quickly summarize my opinion on this topic, I found the systemic tendency towards poor ad placement to be especially difficult to overcome when the items to be promoted provide subjective, intangible benefit. So gaining a perspective on just how much of the ad placement technology behind Google Adwords and, in all likelihood, its direct competitors (principally Microsoft’s Bing advertising system), as Braun points out in this short article is very helpful.

What is also very helpful in Braun’s article is the manner in which the Google researchers (Braun’s article is really a news report on a presentation at a recent conference event held in Montreal, the Software Engineering for Machine Learning workshop, part of the annual Neural Information Processing Systems, NIPS, conference held in Montreal) shed light on the precariousness of proper performance for machine learning systems, in this (online advertising) context, given the effect they have on other related computer processes. These researchers make clear how the basic assumptions powering Neural Networks can actually adversely affect these siblings, and, thereby, produce erroneous results along with very little value to people depending on them. Readers should note this conclusion is my own, and not a conclusion expressed anywhere in Braun’s article.

From Braun’s article, and the technical précis of a research paper on the algorithmic process behind machine learning, which was also published by Google researchers, online advertisers should be careful to set realistic expectations about paid placements. Perhaps it will make sense to horizontally structure these campaigns, with a panoramic reach wherever possible, if they are to produce any meaningful results.

Ira Michael Blonder

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

17
Nov

Comments on Cortana and Google Now (OK Google)

After a wait of seven months (five beyond an original expectation), I finally received an update to Windows Phone 8.1 for my Lumia 925 (T-Mobile is the cellular carrier) during the first week of November, 2014. Cortana, Microsoft’s “personal assistant” was included, despite rumors I had heard to the contrary from some contacts located internationally.

Around the same time of this update to my primary smartphone, I received an invitation from Google to take a look at their “inbox” email product. In order to participate, I needed to first add the “inbox” app to a mobile phone. So I decided to add a smartphone running Android O/S to my set of computing devices. I found an offer from T-Mobile for LG’s D-415 “Optimus L90”, running Android 4.1 KitKat. I could buy the mobile phone, outright, for $79.99 (included a $20 trade-in for an Apple iPhone 4S). I purchased the phone and, therefore, will comment here on some impressions on Google Now aka “OK Google”, as well.

Before jumping into my initial thoughts on both of these personal assistant apps, I would like to point readers back to the last post to this blog, Any meaningful feature gap between high end and low end smartphones has been obliterated. I based my positions, expressed in the post, on my initial opinion about the LG D-415. Bottom line: I think this phone represents an enormous bargain compared to smartphones at the high end. I’ve been using it for about two weeks to track a daily walk (complete with mapping via GPS) and can’t complain at all about its performance. When the purchase price is considered, along with the 27 months of $22.00 per month I will, altogether, end up paying T-Mobile for my Lumia 925, I can’t overstate the value of the LG smartphone.

Cortana

I was disappointed by my first few days using Cortana. Our family includes a member with a pronounced European accent. When she attempted to use Cortana, the results were far off. Cortana did not understand the questions asked and, worse, never offered my family member an opportunity to train for voice recognition. In all fairness, I need to note “OK Google” shares this disinterest in training for better voice recognition. Is this oversight the result of no charge for either personal assistant? Perhaps, though readers should understand I have no substantive information to support the notion.

Another annoying feature amounted to an apparently arbitrary process whereby Cortana, the personal assistant, served up responses audibly, or with a page of text results. Perhaps I’m missing something. Microsoft does provide some guidelines about the questions Cortana can, and will answer. But I would recommend they make the limitations on audible response clearer. My attraction (which I can’t help but think most users will share) is for all responses to be made audibly to questions asked.

Finally, Cortana appeared to be stumped by some questions Google Now, aka “OK Google” could answer. I personally was very disappointed at this result. I am a big fan of Microsoft and had high expectations of the “power” of Cortana given all of the content published about how this personal assistant app leverages “Office Graph”, Bing, etc. But, bottom line, I stumped Cortana a few times where, in all fairness, the app should have served up a valid answer.

OK Google

As just mentioned, “OK Google” (is the name “OK Google” or is it “Google Now”? This ambiguous branding should be corrected) adroitly answered questions about an upcoming European election correctly, and, even better, with an audible response. But I do need to note the difficulty I experienced (and continue to experience) simply locating the right app for the “OK Google” feature. In contrast, it’s hard to miss the button for Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1.

In the next post to this blog I’ll make some comments about how each of these personal assistants handled a likely common requirement — getting driving directions.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

23
Sep

IBM Debuts BI Applications Powered by Watson Running on an iPad

On September 6, 2014, the New York Times published an article written by Steve Lohr on, arguably, a new look for IBM’s Watson machine learning solution, which is, apparently, an ambidextrous tool. This time Watson was said to be powering a rich set of BI dashboards displayed on an iPad. The article is titled IBM Offers a Data Tool for the Mainstream, With Watson’s Help (http://bits NULL.blogs NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2014/09/16/ibm-offers-a-data-tool-for-the-mainstream-with-watsons-help/?_php=true&_type=blogs&ref=technology&_r=0).

The image displayed on the web page presenting this article says a lot. A woman holds an Apple iPad tablet computer, which is exposing a set of Business Intelligence (BI) charts, dials, and the rest of the usual accoutrements of what are commonly referred to as “dashboards”. Presumably the woman holding the tablet is an example of Gartner’s notion of a “citizen developer”, meaning the type of power user targeted by this marketing effort for Watson. For readers otherwise unfamiliar with the notion, a “citizen developer” is an enterprise business user, with some authority, who maintains a voracious appetite for technology, but can’t write software, and has little interest in learning how to code. These people devour so-called “no-code” applications built on workflows.

By “says a lot”, this writer means the notion of someone (like the woman depicted in the image, who is enthusiastic about technology) high on energy, but low on computer programming skills, successfully creating a full-featured dashboard of data, without recourse to developers, points to a direct, head-to-head competition between Apple/IBM and Microsoft for the same market, namely enterprise customers looking for “no-code” solutions and lots of BI.

The product on the table on the Microsoft side, in this presumed comparison, is Office 365 and the suite of BI solutions included in the Power BI Excel offer. IBM certainly has the position in the enterprise computing space to represent a serious, credible threat to Microsoft’s dominance. The fact the dashboard is depicted running on an Apple iPad, rather than a Microsoft Surface is, as well, something to think about.

This competition is nothing new. IBM and Microsoft have fiercely competed for BI business before. IBM’s Cognos has traditionally owned a large piece of the market, with Microsoft challenging via a combination of SQL Server, SharePoint, and efforts of some prominent partners — notably Neudesic (http://www NULL.neudesic NULL.com). What is different about the potential challenge represented by the combination depicted in Lohr’s article, is the dramatically lower cost of acquisition likely for the kind of solution we see running on the lady’s iPad. Redmond will likely get the wake up call.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved