Abandoning Science Fiction. Embracing Science Fiction.

Traditionally, science fiction imagined the impacts of emerging technology decades and centuries into the future, suggesting fanciful, outrageous possibilities. These were generally ignored as figments of, well, science fiction.

No more. Lots of people are paying attention to science fiction. We can’t dismiss the potential of technology as surreal anymore. It’s real, as real as your online medical history, or app-controlled crockpot.

Science fiction has snuck into, and taken a starring role in, mainstream entertainment: Starwars, Game of Thrones, Dr. Who, and countless other movies and TV shows. Best books of 2016 include science fiction and fantasy titles. While some might debate the purity of this popular scifi, a heightened awareness of technology permeates popular culture, perhaps as a collective intuition of the urgency to understand what’s coming.

In classic titles like 1984 (information technology), Brave New World (human engineering), and Blade Runner (artificial intelligence), science fiction explored the frontiers of advancing technology. The time has past for the implications of emerging technologies be left to the philosophers in their ivory towers or visionaries in their chrome think tanks. Jaw-dropping new technology barrels towards us like a runaway locomotive, and threatens to overwhelm us like deer in the headlights.

My mission is to make science and technology accessible. In 2004, I took up writing scifi to help people understand science, both how it worked and its potential outcomes. By mid 2015, it seemed to me the field of scifi had undergone a tectonic shift. Currently popular stories seems less to hypothesize the impacts and ethics of emerging technologies than to explore human nature. All good, but not my fundamental driving force.

I took another path, focused on another passion – using business strategy to turn scientific developments into useful products for people1. Ironically, this is now a better place to achieve my goal to bring science to people. We are poised on the edge of many technological advances with the potential to change life as we know it, probably sometime next week, or year. Definitely now-ish.

At one of my recent business meetings, the light, closing banter considered whether bitcoin would become a solid currency. Bitcoin, or entirely digital currency, is an attractive concept, as a global, non-political, apparently secure2 and completely portable form of money. Many commentators expect it to disrupt banking as we know it. Not science fiction. Business.

I credit the book (from the business section of the bookstore) ‘Industries of the Future’ by Alec Ross3 with coalescing my thoughts about science fiction. In this book, the list of emerging technologies was no surprise and included self driving cars, the Internet of Things, big data and the associated privacy or lack thereof, genetic profiles, and cyberwarfare. Ross’ genius is coupling the astonishing capability of the technology with current uses and impacts.

Technology is becoming mainstream faster than it can become science fiction.

Today you can place your order as you walk towards your favourite coffee shop, pay for it before you open the door and whizz by the barista as you grab the cuppa with your name on it. Tomorrow, someone could hack your fridge to steal your identity or you might never find another job once your genetic profile has been uploaded into Monster.

No more is 19844 fiction. Fifty years ago, although horrified by the notion of being monitored constantly, we stood back and debated whether it would ever really happen. No more debate – the capacity exists. Now. Most of us are fortunate that such intel is not used against us. It’s only used to sell us things.

Issac Asimov wrote about robots5. While countless manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation, the real question is: how far it will go? Will robots replace teachers, lawyers, doctors, or spouses? This is about more than lost jobs, it’s about what it is to be human.

GATTACA6 (1997) was a movie about a young man who wanted to be an astronaut, but it wasn’t in his DNA, literally. The movie’s premise is that people’s occupations are determined by genetic profiling. In GATTACA, our hero fakes his genetic makeup to live his dream. Genetic profiling is close enough to reality that the Canadian government is working on genetic privacy legislation, while businesses that provide health insurance want to use genetic information to determine policy premiums.

Cory Doctorow, in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom7, wrote about a system called Whuffie. The basic concept was that a score like karma, based on how many good things you did and how many people liked you, followed you around and determined your fate. How different is this from celebrity influencers on social media, who might have a more pervasive impact on medical products that knowledgeable medical professionals?

Countless scifi stories show people being identified by their fingerprints or retinal scan. How close is this to reality? Ask Bionym, a Canadian company that authenticates identity by heartbeat8.

Artificial intelligence is coming. In the classic scifi tale, 2001 Space Odyssey,9 an evil computer took over a spaceship because a human tried to shut it down. Watson, IBM’s super computer, knows more about medical advances10 than any of our physicians possibly could, and it won on Jeopardy!11 Meanwhile, Google can predict pancreatic cancer more efficiently than medical tests12, and Twitter can divine which movies will be hits before the box office opens to sell the first ticket to a showing13.

Business brings us new technology, whether we are ready or not. Realizing the potential consequences can’t be left to science fiction. We need to understand all the ethical, secondary and broader environment effects in real time, when the technology is in its infancy or sooner. Simultaneously, science fiction has moved on to deal with some of the most challenging social issues this world currently faces.

To understand technology, I abandon science fiction for business, but I embrace science fiction for wisdom to understand people.

——–

1I consider this the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, and of course credit Douglas Adams with bestowing on me an understanding of the universe.

2The experts claim that digital currencies are unhackable, but that just sounds to me like a giant invitational to hackers.

4The book by George Orwell, written in 1949.

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Evolving with Technology, or Is Fresh Air Good for You?

The perfect house: energy efficient, climate-controlled, with sweet filtered air inside. Want one? I don’t. To me, healthy living means opening a window to change the temperature in the house and rejoice in what the environment presents1.

I’m an environmental pig, living in a house designed over a century ago, lacking in the latest energy efficient technology. Instead, I have trees. Trees that shade my home and prevent the sun from beating extra kilojoules of energy, as heat, into my rooms. I have primitive geothermal cooling – an unfinished basement that breathes coolness into my main floor. My grandmother had something called a ‘root cellar’. A root cellar is on the cool side of the house (NE), in an area of the basement surrounded on four of its six sides by earth (top, bottom, north and east walls), and provides sufficient refridgeration to preserve carrots, potatoes and turnips.

Today’s ultimate ergonomic home, controlled with energy saving algorithms, has constant temperature regulation, purified air, and is tightly sealed from the outdoors. This provides cost effective heating and cooling2, and optimum air flow to prevent the growth of moulds and the like, with filters to cleanse contaminant particles from the air.

treesSounds great, but I don’t like it. Imagine instead opening a window to the heavenly smell of a summer rain, or when the roses are in bloom, or if the grass has just been cut. Wake in the morning to the sounds of the birds peeping and trilling through your open windows. Feel the caress of a breeze, floating in with the rhythimic chirp of the crickets on a hot summer night. Man, it’s good.

Which is better: the ecological, economical, sealed house, separating us from the nasty environment bent on messing with our equilibrium, or fresh air? Long ago, doctors prescribed fresh air to cure all kinds of ailments, obtained by sitting seaside as ocean gales hurled past. Today, we have polluted air and climate change that superheats and supercools our environment. We also seem to have heighened levels of environmental sensitivity, making many of us retreat into our climate-controlled isolation units.

I think there’s an instinctive attraction to fresh air, perhaps the converse of our repulsion for things that smell of bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms associated with death, disease and decay. When we smell clean water, or air scented with healthy growing things, we know there’s sustaining substances for us. The reek of animal waste makes us recoil, which is surely a good survival instinct, allowing us to avoid traipsing into the bear’s or lion’s den.

Ancient history? Do our instincts lag behind what’s useful in the modern world? I went looking to see if fresh air is still good for us. The first web search turned up organizations confirming fresh air was good for the soul. It cleanses, reduces stress, improves digestion, boosts the immune system and a number of general statements of limited substance. People believe that fresh air is good for us, perhaps based on how good it feels, but how about proof?

Science, where are you? Science says there are benefits to feeling as good as fresh air can make us feel. Fair enough.

One interesting study3 measured ventillation in 28 grade schools in California and compared it to sick days taken by students. It found the higher the rate of removal of CO2, the fewer sick days. This cleansing of the air, associated with less illness, was higher in classrooms with open windows than air conditioning. But that might just mean that traditional air conditioning isn’t very good at air exchange.

What is fresh air, exactly? Anyone who’s familiar with farm country, a bastion of wholesomeness, knows it often smells unpleasantly of manure. Different people might define fresh air as air that’s:

  • scented with pleasant things, like apple pie, or the sea,
  • has less CO2 and more O2,
  • low in irritants, or infectious agents, or
  • a comfortable temperature.

Googling ‘allergen free air’ is amusing. The first nine hits are businesses offering sources of air treatment, and the last one is for chimney cleaning4.

On Google Scholar, I found specific, detailed studies, such as:

  • dust-free pillow covers reduce allergic symptoms in a group of 30 kids,
  • Hepa filters decreased cat dander but did nothing for asthma symptoms in a handful of people,
  • fungus is higher inside than out in the winter in the US midwest.

This, of course, is the point. Science is very specific because sometimes it matters very much if you take one acetaminophen capsule today or one acetaminophen capsule per day, so we shouldn’t expect it to provide pronouncements on something as general as fresh air.

The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines six things5 as hazardous to human health in air (at sufficient concentrations), all based on full arsenals of scientific research. Some of these harmful things are not smellable when you open the window after a summer rain. But I can’t accept that it’s better for people to stay inside a sealed building, even if it has perfect air quality.

Are my instincts betraying me, telling me outside is good? Are they antiquated notions, left over from a time when there was no pollution, climate change or crazy, invisible things in the environment that could harm me?

If my fresh air instincts give me a survival advantage, turning my yearning to spend time outside to increased health and longevity, then they are good instincts. But if those who stay inside are better off, don’t contract as many diseases because they are protected by their controlled environment, then my instincts will fade from the human repetoire. My line will die out while the earth is populated by the people who stay inside.

I don’t know the answer to who will win this evolutionary battle of survival strategies and it will take centuries or longer before anyone knows. The question is whether they will be living in a sealed, plastic dome or in the forest alongside the deer, mushrooms, and snails.

——

1 At least for half of the year, not when central heating is doing it’s best to keep the indoor temperature above 65oF/18oC, then I’m all about man-made heat.

2 I am told that it’s most efficient to control the temperature 7×24, rather than adjust it at will, as keeping the temperature constant is less energy intensive than sudden changes.

3 Mendell, M. J., Eliseeva, E. A., Davies, M. M., Spears, M., Lobscheid, A., Fisk, W. J., Apte, M. G. (2103) Association of classroom ventilation with reduced illness absence: a prospective study in California elementary schools. Indoor Air v23(6) doi10.1111/ina.12042 retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ina.12042/abstract

4 Probably because I have a wood burning fireplace and was looking for someone to clean it recently, but an admirable example of how sweet the smell of something (burning hardwood) can be but how unsure I am that it’s healthy

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What if your Doctor was an AI? Part 2

Imagine what it might be like to visit your doctor in the future, if your family doctor was an AI.

The first thing I realize is I don’t have to go anywhere. The AI can talk to me online. Cool. Humm. Will it mind if I’m still in my pyjamas? I wouldn’t want it to think I’m depressed, so perhaps I’ll find some clothes.

Come to think of it, I don’t need to book a visit. If the doctor is online and can run multiple sessions simultaneously, I don’t need an appointment, I can just login. After I get dressed.

No waiting and no waiting room is really cool. In real life, I feel bad for fellow patients who are sniffling and sneezing, but don’t need to share their bugs. Nor do I want to give anyone else my infestation, which for the sake of this exercise is some kind of respiratory thing that won’t go away.

I sit down in front of my computer screen and wait for Dr. AI to appear, after logging into my account that has all of my medical history available for the doctor. It probably has analysis of all of my social media posts, search queries, and everything other bit of information that can be gleaned from the Internet of Things, like what I bought at the grocery store, meals out, number of steps taken and activity log obtained from the appliances in my house and clothes that monitor what I do on a minute-by-minute basis.

I feel a little nervous as I wait for the session to initialize. I’ve always felt a little nervous visiting the doctor, sort of the same vague unease most people feel when a police cruiser appears in their rear-view mirror. Significantly, this is the same feeling I get when I see my human doctor. Slightly apprehensive that something really serious could be wrong with me, or that I’ll be called out for some unhealthy practice. We all have them. Things we love but know aren’t good for us. French fries. Cake. Lounging on the couch instead of going to fitness class.

Dr. AI appears. Probably not on screen because that will be so early 21st century technology. Some embodiment of a human-like avatar in a lab coat materializes in my augmented visual range. In the near future, I think AI’s will maintain a plasticy look, clearly distinguishable from Homo sapiens, because that’s what we’ll be comfortable with.

Dr. AI appears to greet me: “Hello, [different tone of voice] Ms. [another tone of voice] Dulhanty. May I call you Ann?”

“Sure. But it’s Dr.”

“At your service.” It bows slightly.

I’m not convinced I’ve gotten my message across, which is my title is Dr. not Ms., but since it isn’t important, I don’t push it. That is rather like talking to a human.

Dr. AI sails on. “Your vitals suggest … Do you feel feverish? Been to a farm or agricultural depot recently?”

“No. ”

“Your genotype suggests a family history of …”

“Do I need a vaccination against the new virus they’ve found in Milwaukee?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Not called for in your case.”

This is exactly like talking to a human who has too many things to do. I go to the preferences on my healthcare interface and adjust them.

Dr. AI says “Ok. Redirecting.” Then smiles reassuringly. “Why didn’t you say so.” And details the pathology of new virus, risk factors associated with infection, epidemiological data, and toxicology, along side relevant information about me and those in my household, from genetics to how many tissues I used yesterday (cached in my browser).

I dabble at the information over the rest of the afternoon, follow a number of links to various opinions on the interpretations of the data. When I have questions, at 3:16 pm, 5:01 and after dinner, Dr. AI cheerfully chimes in with answers. Another cool thing: medical advice on my clock, not jammed into a 15 minute session.

By the next morning I’m not satisfied. There’s a shadow of a doubt in my mind, so I message Dr. AI, having realized that I can communicate with my physician in real time, at my discretion, like I would any service provider. “I’d rather have the shot. There are few risks, so better to have it.”

Dr. AI answers, “Of course, I’ll write the prescription. Your medical insurance is set to the appropriate level of discretionary care.”

A small drone appears outside my house 7 minutes later. As I extend my arm to open the door to find out what it’s delivering, it whirs in and I feel a slight prick in my upper arm. My mobile blips with a message about the possible side effects of the vaccine administered.

Fifteen minutes later, Dr. AI appears in avatar. “All your vitals are normal – no acute reaction detected.” He snaps a folder icon closed. “I’ll monitor your feeds tomorrow for latent effects, and will only contact you if there is reason for concern. Good night.”

Wow. Now that’s service1.

1Not to say I am complaining about the service provided me currently by my family doctor or any other health professional. Ok, I kinda am, but blame the constraints they are under in the healthcare system in Ontario, not their intentions.

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What if your Doctor was an AI?

This year’s MedEdge Summit. York Region – MedTech conference was affirming. Inspiring in a creative kind of way, rather than the eye-opening, mind-numbing advances in technology that make you think you’ve been hiding in a foxhole with a metal bowl on your head for the past 70 years. We’re on the right track with our crazy, cutting-edge technology to doing something useful. Things are falling into place, in a crooked, bottom of a kaleidoscope pattern.

Ok, there was still some wild stuff discussed, like patients being in charge of their own medical data and sequencing an entire human genome in a few days. Those are the beginning of approaches that I think will turn out well in the long term.

Today, even if we’re presented with our entire genomic sequence on a silver tray, no one knows what most of it means. But we will some day. Until then, we’ll keep doing those studies that give us a bit more evidence what the sequence of 11q21.3 means if you have green eyes and are good at cricket.

Right now, having people control their own medical records is like giving a four year old the keys to the car. Most of us don’t have the training to understand the data we’re presented with. As a small segue, when I was 15, I found my medical file open on a desk. A nurse chided me for reading it. I looked at her in wonder, ‘but, it’s about me.’ She snapped the file shut. In retrospect, we were both right. She took it away because it was written in a language that would confuse or misguide most people, so it wouldn’t be to the patient’s benefit to see it. But, information about me should be my property. That’s seems to be how modern privacy laws are playing out.

Let’s get to the exciting stuff: artificial intelligence. I can see it being useful in medicine because AI could provide the kind of assistance only AI is capable of. An enormous number of researchers are learning new things about human health all the time. Expecting your friendly family doctor to read 100’s of papers a day, while he or she works full time meeting with patients, assessing their conditions and suggesting a growing number of preventative approaches, is just crazy. They are only human.

Enter Artificial Intelligence. It’s particularly good at assimilating vast quantities of information that arrive over long periods of time. It doesn’t need to wrack its brain to put together one study published in South Africa in 2009 with another one from Sweden in 2016 to collect information about a rare disease. That’s easy-peasy for AI and the basis of how we learn about human health. Dozens of separate studies, done in different ways, by different people, come together to lead us to new knowledge. Rarely does one report change medical practice. AI also can provide us with the benefits of analyzing the activities of billions of people. Rumour1 has it that Microsoft was able to find common symptoms that people searched on before they were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. AI can provide an up-to-the-microsecond summation of all that’s relevant to a patient’s condition.

Great, as far as it goes. But it stops at the sum of all human knowledge and behaviour. Could AI possibly deal with uncertainty and lack of answers better than the current, malpractice-avoidance approaches? AI probably isn’t capable of caring or being sympathetic. In my experiences, this has been all but beat out of the current medical system, with quotas to deliver, expectations to manage, and routinized care. I long for the time when the doctor put the chart down, smiled and said, ‘you’ll be fine. It’s just a bug/growing pains/aging/over exertion/gas/random. Come back and see me in a week if it isn’t better.’

How is AI going to provide us with common sense, perspective, or talk us down from the fear we are dying of an incurable but totally improbably disease? Maybe it can. To my way of thinking, many of the situations where patients need to be told things are ok are based on the natural variability of the human body. Guidelines usually have a range for things like blood pressure, heart rate, levels of cholesterol and more. What does it mean when someone is outside the normal range? More tests can be done for explanations that might be pathological. When those turn up negative, the physician is left with no explanation and the possibility of natural variation. The doctor may have a hard time saying so, just in case there’s something going on. AI could at least quantify the answer with something like ‘there’s only a one in 500 chance of this’, or ‘a one in 248 chance of that’.

How will AI deal with situations when patients need to be consoled? We all die eventually and at some point many of us will need to be told we have a terminal or very serious condition. Will AI develop algorithms to read a person’s expressions and body language so it can tailor its delivery to each patient, or will it defer to its human equivalent? Let the doctor do what may have attracted them to medicine in the first place – care for their patients.

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Privacy. Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself. And Third Party Use of Data.

‘What do we fear could happen if we put our personal information online?’ A question I came across while researching internet privacy. Simple but brilliant, because the answer didn’t come easily to me. Like washing my hands before meals, I do it, but why?

Should I be concerned that I’ve made numerous posts on Facebook about my love of beer, my Twitter account reflects an interest in rock music, and how these leisure activities align with the professional profile I try to maintain on LinkedIn?

If I ran for Prime Minister, which I wouldn’t, what might someone turn up to incriminate me? Not that I’ve done anything terrible. That’s the thing. Fear may be rooted in how some mundane piece of information could be spun. With a little information, say that I’m an avid poker player, what horrible portrait could be drawn of me – the gambling addiction? Or my fascination with guns. (I played paint-ball war games once in 1986.)

We all have our hobbies. Many people fear that their, ahem, socially-shared, social interactions (i.e.. partying) will be frowned upon by future employers. Stories of job interviews ending in a request for Facebook passwords still float around, despite the clear invasion of privacy. Snapchat, with posts that disappear without a trace unless someone downloads them, may resolve the drunken photo-share problem. Social media is worrisome because of the foreverness of it. Can something we did years ago, that everyone’s forgotten about because it isn’t a habitual activity, come back to haunt us?

Not only can we fear the past being exhumed, there’s little to protect us from the practice of tracing our day to day web browsing activity. On average, I go to 20 different sites in a day. What does my cumulative surfing activity tell a keen marketing algorithm? The practice of tracking user activities (searches and website visits) may provide smarter observations about our tendencies than we can come up with ourselves. Is this a valuable service or an annoyance of spam and suggestive selling?

Some fears are rooted in reality. Identity theft. Credit card fraud. Or being sold something you don’t need because you’re vulnerable, like forest fire damage insurance. Don’t you feel bad for people who make a silly mistake and get caught on social media, like calling in sick to work when they aren’t, or ruining a surprise proposal or party. We all have lapses in judgement occasionally.

Privacy is a fundamental right. If I don’t want you to know ‘that’, then it’s my right to keep ‘that’ private. But often, it isn’t on web forms. How many have you filled out where a phone number is a required field even though you can’t see the need for one, but can’t place your order without it? More annoying is the site that insists you create an account, or ‘sign up’, with the requisite disclosure of personal information. I say NO to those sites because I’m convinced they get more out of me becoming a member than I do.

Most of us know it’s possible to track websites visited and location through the GPS on mobile phone. However, in one study, while 90% of a group of experienced internet users say they know what a cookie is, only 15% can actually answer questions correctly that demonstrate they really know what cookies are1. We may be vaguely aware that online actions are traceable, don’t know what does it really means, or what could someone do with the information. Facebook reportedly2 looks into browser history to target ads to users. If an organization is profiting by selling information about me, without my knowledge, that does not sound right.

Back to the original question – how much harm can be done if a company knows I’ve researched hemorrhoids, looked up recipes for grasshoppers, visited six shoe shopping sites, and watched way too many cat videos? It might be embarrassing, but it won’t ruin my love life, empty my bank accounts, or set fire to my car. Still, I’m uneasy about what’s being done with my personal information, because I don’t know what’s being done with it. I’m not alone. This study3 suggests only 28% of people in a group of about 1500 agreed with the following statement: ‘what companies know about me from my behavior online cannot hurt’.

I don’t have the answer to ‘what do I fear will happen if my personal information is online’. I don’t need to. I wash my hands, without knowing if a bacteria, virus or fungus is lurking, waiting to infect me, or how serious an infection it might cause. Similarly, I’m concerned that something sick and disabling might be done with my online personal information, so I’m cautious of what I share.

1 from Luzak, J. (2014) Privacy Notice for Dummies? Towards European Guidelines on How to Give “Clear and Comprehensive Information” on the Cookies Use in Order to Protect the Internet Users’ Right to Online Privacy J Consum Policy 37:547-559

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So Close and Yet so Far: Contrast between Advanced Technology and Everyday Life.

In this era of lightening-fast technological advancement, new, astonishing developments emerge every day, like virtual reality goggles or driverless cars. With all of our awesome gadgets, apps and information, what has advanced technology done for us?

For the love of paradox, I catalogued a few instances of bleeding-edge technology and readily available solutions in similar areas. In no particular order:

Advanced Technology Current ‘State of the Art’

Medicine – Assistive Devices

Assistive and prosthetic devices that restore arm functionality by sensing the brain’s intention to move and moving the limb by brain command1. Stainless steel artificial hips to replace worn out joints and make recipients pain-free and able to carry out everyday activities like walking2 – certain models subject to recall3.
Google glass and other augmented reality visual aids. Meant to provide computing power through visual display and hand motions. Information about the visual field presented to the wearer, such as historical background, competitive pricing, communication history. (Privacy issues being worked out but the technology exists.) ‘Progressive lenses’. Corrective glasses allow distances, mid-range and close to be focused on, within a single lens. Works if you are vertical and the things you want to see close up are at chest height. Doesn’t work for close work above the head, like wiring a ceiling fixture or fixing the plumbing under the kitchen sink. Nor for reading while lying on your side.

Robots or other automation to do routine tasks.

Automation of jobs, such as taking your order at the fast food restaurant, sweeping the floor or delivering your take out order, through touch screens, robotic devices and drones. Youth unemployment. Many young people feel threatened by automation – that it will take away entry level jobs. There are many useful lessons people can learn working at a fast food restaurant or clothing store.
The super power of artificial intelligence has the capacity to control complex systems that include the power grid, water supply and energy production. Arguably will have the ability to dictate all human life support systems. (And lead to our control and possible demise.) Autocorrect is hysterical. Really – we fear the likes of this has the capability to rule the world? What is is a donkey ferris, anyway?

The Environment

Technology reduces an individual’s carbon footprint (electric cars, home lighting control, more efficient heating, more secure, faster electronic devices). Throw out the old version to become more environmentally efficient. Reduce, reuse, recycle. But the life cycle of many current consumer products has decreased, and most are unrepairable, unrefurbishable and apparently outdated. It’s cheaper and easier to buy the new. Into the landfill with the old!
Genetically engineered crops. Whatever you think about GMO’s, the purpose in their creation was to engineer plants that were more cost effective to grow, either due to insect, climate or pesticide resistance (allowing more efficient use of the land). Distrust of GMO’s. Concerns about toxins. Conspiracy theories about big business controlling the food supply. (The food supply is big business.)

Communication

Vast amounts of information is available to anyone with an internet connections. Misinformation about everything runs rampant. Massive amount of personal bandwidth is directed into subjects such as the black/blue vs gold/white dress question, cat videos, and conspiracy theories about big business.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad of the technology we have access to. If I lived in primitive times, I’d been eaten by a bear or other hungry predator before I hit puberty because I can’t see well enough to avoid things more than two feet away. I’m privileged to have a longer lifespan than my ancestors, and that I don’t have to churn my own butter, make candles or go down to the river to do the laundry, where I’d likely be eaten by alligators I couldn’t see. And I have this platform to air my views and watch videos about plumbing repair, creativity, and cats.

The moral of this post is that the time from introduction of a novel technology to when we all can use it depends on:

  • the scientists and business people getting together to decide what the technology might be useful for,
  • the business people determining where the market is and how to communicate to people who might find the technology useful,
  • the engineers figuring out how to make mass quantities of the new thingie,
  • the business people getting it into stores or similar distribution points so that people can buy the new thingie.

This assumes that the business people made the price reasonable and the engineers and scientists got the thingie right so it does what it’s supposed to.

I didn’t mean to make this an infomercial for the commercialization process. Technology is advancing in quantum leaps and bounds, but it takes time to make it work consistently and safely. Maybe our children will put going into space on their bucket list, along with 3D printing their dream home.

1for example http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/technology/a-bionic-approach-to-prosthetics-controlled-by-thought.html?_r=0

2http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/hip_replacement/hip_replacement_ff.asp

3http://www.depuysynthes.com/asrrecall/asrcanadaenglish.html

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Artificial Intelligence Part 3. Randomness: A Human Advantage.

Arnold Trehub states ‘Machines cannot think because they have no point of view’¹. Trehub cleverly links opinion and point of view. I now intuitively see how point of view, or a unique perspective, is necessary for opinion.

I’ve thrashed around on my keyboard for weeks, trying to articulate how human opinion differs from information provided by AI. I have no justification how I know they’re different, but I do. Because I’m human. Humans have a natural tendency to draw conclusions, have a point of view, based on whatever amount of information we have. AIs do not.

Does having an opinion make us human? No, it’s the other way around. Because we are human, we have opinions, derived from the way we process information and draw conclusions from what we’ve collected. For the most part, human’s work by adding each new bit of information on top of whatever they’ve already picked up, while AI has the capacity to catalogue each fragment of data until the entire story emerges. Thus, for people, how we incorporate each new experience depends on our previous experiences.

We’ve evolved the capacity to learn on the background of animal survival instincts. Are big dogs to be feared or petted? – depends on your past experience. Was your childhood best friend an Irish Setter, or was the first horror movie you watched Cujo, a story of a rabid St. Bernard terrorizing a family? Each of us has decades of history – song lyrics, movies, people, places, things, weather, but our memories work in mysterious ways, smashing things together, processing them through the filters of human optimism, then reprocessing until we’re convinced things were wonderful back then, and subject to random recall.

No AI would proudly claim it recalls some things and not others, glorifies the past, or has random memories pop into its processor to distract it.

Makes it sound like fun to be a human doesn’t it?

I’ll took a stab at calculating how different each person’s life experience is from the next person’s and got to infinite before I could write any thing down².

Clearly we have our own unique set of experiences. One AI would be expected to come to the same conclusion as another if they were given the same set of experiences, even if it was in a different order. Consider how the opinions of two 35 year old coworkers might be to the first snow of the year if one lived in a tropical climate for the first 34 years of their life and the other has shovelled lengthy driveways from the age of 7.

In addition to the historical context, humans interpret each event by how it will effect us. If the temperature goes down – does that mean you’ll budget more for heating, blanket the garden, or start a promotion on skis in your store? Do changes in GDP of a neighbouring country make you plan a vacation, watch the stock market, or pull up cat videos?

We form our conclusions on the basis of what evidence we have. If it’s hot today, was hot yesterday and when you were waiting in line to buy gas a few days ago, it’s been a hot summer. An AI would collect data, from the past month, or months, calculate means, variances and then compare to the past year, decade or century before deciding if it’s been a hot summer.

Humans process information as though they’re building a pyramid. Each new experience is interpreted on the background of all the previous ones (or the ones we remember). AI’s process information like Tetris. A new piece of information is allocated to a column of relevance and a conclusion is only drawn if the column is full (i.e. sufficient data to make statistically valid conclusion).

Why do we constantly form opinions, when we know we don’t know everything about the topic? Because we have to. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we’re certain what the weather or traffic is going to be like before we go to work. We put on a summer dress and take the highway because its June and the city streets tend to be under construction in the summer. We have to give a presentation to important clients.

We don’t seek out all possible information before we decide. We get on with our life, form an opinion, and change our mind later if need be. This sounds like jumping to conclusions or being a bigot but I’m talking about the human propensity to form a working hypothesis. If we eat a turnip and then projectile vomit, we avoid turnips. Sure, we’ve only have one observation that said food disagrees with us, but won’t risk it will happen again. We don’t need statistical significance to decide the possible outcome is unpleasant and avoid turnips. And we can live without turnips, because our grandfather, who never ate them, lived to be 95.

Can the same can be said for an AI? It experiences a sequence of events and learns from each, like us. I expect AI to be objective, less invested in changing its mind with the addition of new data. It would refrain from drawing conclusions with insufficient information. It would seeks information on turnips and other factors that correlate with projectile vomiting and longevity before deciding what to eat.

The AI may be more objective, but human’s have opinions, quicker. Does that make us smarter, cooler, or more adaptable? Humans will have no problem answering that question. AIs might.

QED³.


¹ ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ (2015) Brockman, J. (ed) Harper Perennial NY pg 71.
‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ is gobsmackingly good. Making me think and ask questions and learn things I thought I knew about what it is to be one of my kind. And I’m not even a sentient machine. Who knew the place to find out about being a human was from a book about artificial intelligence? Although many contributors, such as George Church and Sean Carroll, describe humans as thinking machines.

² I geeked out on semi-math. Here’s what I’m thinking: Every human is in a different place – the living room, Antartica, or primary school where the lighting may be bright or dim, the weather rainy, foggy or gale force winds may blow, we may be alone, with our Mum or at a football stadium full of Argos fans, we could be a teenager, senior, or babe-in-arms, observing a coronation, action-thriller movie, domestic dispute or bird building a nest. And so on. Then, the next second, something could change, someone walks in the room, the car stalls, the cat meows, you throw up because you are pregnant, or there’s an earthquake.

We’ve done two seconds of the calculation. By the time we’re 35, we’ve lived a little over 1.1 billion seconds, so our experiences are different from the next persons by (however many parameters you would like to include but even if you just have two I can make my point) to the power of 1.1 billion. For fun, I input this into my calculator. The answer is ‘Infinity’. Even if we say that it takes an hour for a person to have a different experience, a 15 year old has lived over 130,000 hours, which is still an ‘Infinity’ of potential combinations different from her BFF who wears the same style clothes, has the same hairdo, piercings and speaks in the same idioms.

³ This is the mathematical equivalent of ‘I told you so’. In high school, there was a rumour that it stood for ‘quite easily done’, although it’s latin for ‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’ which could be a good name for a metal band.

 

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Look at Tech, It’s Growing Up.

I don’t like being called a geek, but being thrilled to attend the Toronto Tech Summit where I was titillated by the frontiers of new technology is pretty geeky, isn’t it?

Friday’s event (April 8, 2106) was a well organized and thought out conference, with high quality speakers and good breadth to the program. The event claims a focus on customer experience or ‘crafting experiences through technology’¹. Not too long into the first session, it hit me:

Tech² is growing up. Leaving that awkward teenage phrase of ‘no, I’m totally different’, to resemble a young adult who want to make good in the world, but have their own ideas about how to achieve it.

One of the speakers³ asked ‘how do we business in Canada?’. Business as a verb. Yes. The conference was about the business made possible by technology, not how to turn technology into business.

Maybe everything I see looks like a business strategy lesson right now, but I was blown away how each talk could illustrate a concept from a quintessential strategic management textbook.

Tech has grown into an enabling component of every product and service, so it’s not surprising that I imagined writing a different chapter of a strategy manual with each presentation at the Tech Summit. All the better because every story was about a cutting edge business. How exciting… tech is no longer separate, it’s integral. Not renegade and unruly, but maverick and enlightened. Less Sex Pistols and more U2.

Here are the business lessons I took from some of the presentations at the Toronto Tech Summit:

No business conference is complete without a presentation about the Internet of Things. Sachin Mahajan from Telus eloquently laid out evidence that this is an industry entering the growth phase following its introduction. Large companies, like Google, IBM and Apple are investing heavily in the area, as are venture capitalists. The business is nascent, so there are few industry standards – another hallmark of an early growth stage industry, as is knowing little about the verticals that will serve the industry.

FreshBooks – a general audience pause while we all roll our eyes because its accounting software – is in a more mature industry – enterprise software. Avrum Laurie described their process for agile design. Process innovation, the textbook says, is a hallmark of a maturing industry. Yup, integrating real-time design innovation and customer feedback may be new tech, but process innovation, to decrease waste and remain competitive, is old school, cost-focused strategy.

Classic diversification strategy was presented by Bowie Cheung of UberEats. Lots of great strategic moves here. Uber’s mission is to deliver everything to people – I’m paraphrasing and may not have got the words exactly right but clearly she was talking about new business units. What does a company do to grow? Build on its existing knowledge base. Use what it knows in new ways. In Uber’s case, deliver food to people instead of giving them a ride using essentially the same driver and car base they’ve established. Makes sense, so far. But delivering food from restaurants isn’t a new thing. Can Uber make it better? The roster of restaurants is UberEats’ differentiating factor, allowing them to realize economies of scale in making their dishes for a wider customer base, with distribution enabled by the Uber app and quick delivery. I particularly liked the idea of being able to track delivery through the app. How many times have you paced, ravenous, wondering where the heck your pizza was? Uber answers. This could be a key success factor.

The customer experience/care panel asked traditional questions about client demographics. I had to wonder when the talk turned to the use of chatbots in retail. The essence of the concept was that instead of lifting a finger to click on opinions or pull down menus, the AI would ask which option the customer preferred. Could we all become so lazy? But I can see it being the new normal or industry standard.

Other delicious morsels of business strategy I heard:

  • The requirement for organizational structure, especially as a startup grows, was attest to by Paul Grey of KiK. KiK is a social media platform used by a particular demographic.
  • Differences in new entry costs between hardware and software was a theme from Wesley Yun from GroPro.
  • Diversity in all businesses has value for the organization and is not just good corporate social responsibility, said Nada Basir from the U of Waterloo business school.
  • Another example of cost focus strategy from the mature business of online auctions, methods to reduce costs by changing currency offering.
  • And the importance of corporate culture for delivering anything in business.

As an old person, always excited about new technology, I felt right at home with the new generation. Because they’re practicing business just the way we did when I was young.

——

¹ http://www.torontotechsummit.com

²I’ve always defined technology as inclusively as possible, encompassing software, hardware and the combination, and newly engineered physical and biological things. I was glad to hear one of the speakers say the same.

³here http://www.torontotechsummit.com is the list of speakers. apologies in advance if I don’t attribute every phrase I heard correctly.

 

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Ruminations on Artificial Intelligence. Part 2: Are We in Danger?

What many people seem to fear from AIs, over and above a general fear of mysterious new things, is that they will subjugate us. They’ll run amok, denying humans our life-sustaining internet connectivity or fossil fuels or sporting events. Or worse, they’ll shut us down altogether, through the food supply, atmosphere, or access to cat videos.

Why would intelligence imply a domination agenda? This is also a question Martin Rees asks¹. Sure, that seems to be the way humans have behaved on this earth, forever, with various species/businesses/soccer teams outcompeting each other for habitat/market/world domination. Could something smarter, like artificial intelligence, conceive of a more inclusive world that didn’t require destroying other forms of life?

This reminds me of when I adopted an eight week old kitten and welcomed her into my home with mature cats. One was an exemplary specimen, a seventeen pound male, all muscle and fighting prowess. In their first encounter, the kitten puffed up her tiny self and hissed at the tom. He stood passively, looking down at her with what I swear was comfortable indulgence, certain that she could do neither him or herself any harm. Then he went on about his cat business. Similarly, I expect super-rational artificial intelligence to recognize when humans are acting out of fear and displaying unnecessarily aggressive tactics and calmly allow us to determine for ourselves no real threat exists.

Max Tegmart² points out that scaremongering sells³ news stories better than romanticized tales of cooperation, agreement and lack of conflict. He’s critical about how journalists have approached AI. I’m guilty of this myself – the alarmism. We’ve been presented with suggestions that AI’s will be damaging, dangerous or deadly to humans. In the science fiction movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, the intelligent computer, Hal, tries to murder people by shutting down their oxygen supply. The far-reaching control that AIs could exert over our environment frightens us. By nature, humans fear the unknown, probably for good reason. Cautiously considering whether the big, golden-furred beast, with paws as big as your head, is likely to eat you is a good survival skill.

A slightly more tangible fear with AIs is that they will control too much and shut off systems vital for our life. I can sympathize with this. I was on a bus recently that stopped working in the middle of nowhere. It was a modern bus, with electronic display boards and a synthetic voice that announced upcoming destinations and thanked patrons for prepurchasing their fare (well-meaning but a bit patronizing). As the driver attempted to restart the bus, the screens displayed the sort of nonsense I associate with a dysfunctional computer. Stack dumps, strings of port numbers and error messages. From the driver’s curses, clearly he was frustrated because he had no control over the function of this mechanical device. It’s computer system declared it dysfunctional, and it was going nowhere.

Uncooperative buses are a glimpse of what we fear from AIs. No room for humans to push to get the job done, doing the best they can to hold things together to get their passengers to the destination. No place for human ingenuity and know-how. No Macgyvering so everyone gets to work on time.

A kind bus driver will make exceptions for passengers in need and stop at unregistered stops. Would an AI driving the bus do that?

Can we program AIs to be resourceful and ingenious? To understand rules are things we made and therefore we want to break them. Human priories shift like clouds on a stormy day. We want the bus to run under the ultra-safe conditions we specified until it isn’t convenient. Then we know there are ways we can compensate to make it just as safe that aren’t written into the code.

We don’t need to fear artificial intelligence taking control over our lives. Being human is to adapt, to survive, regardless of what the unpredictable, improbable and Murphy’s-lawable throws at us. We got this.

——

¹ Martin Rees pg. 9- 11 in ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ (2015) Brockman, J. (ed) Harper Perennial NY

² Max Tegmark pg. 43-46 ibid

³ or the modern equivalent, gets more clicks, page hits or eyeball time.

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Ruminations about Artificial Intelligence. Part 1: Humans are Smarter because We’re More Primitive

I liked the book ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ immediately. Along with the jaunty title, it has a snappy structure – approximately 185 mini essays, brain bytes, by sage people about AIs (artificial intelligences). Each contribution is 3 or 4 pages long which is apparently how a thought is when written down.

The essayists responded to ‘What do you think about machines that think?” I’m making my way through and have read mostly entries from engineers and physicists. This book is the most fertile source of thought stimulation I’ve encountered in a long time. Each contribution is wonderful and I’m riffing off of most of them.

‘Contemplation of artificial intelligence makes us ask who we humans are’¹ Murray Shanahan writes. One of the book’s themes is ‘who are we’, although it’s a desire to set ourselves apart from AI’s that’s triggered the existential question in this case.

How are we different from thinking machines? Steven Pinker suggests the way that AI’s think is nothing special², its a series of logical conclusions. A simple example is the hierarchy of suggestions you get when start to enter a URL into your search engine. It may seem like the interface ‘knows you’ and can anticipate your interests, but really, the suggested sites are based on simple statistics about your previous behaviour. Similarly, your wise grandmother might have seemed to know things about you when you were a child that you didn’t know yourself. And she’s smarter than a rudimentary AI. She watched your reactions in a number of situations and recognized the trends like the search engine, but unlike the software, she understands human nature, and what was motivates you. When it comes to human nature, we’re often very predictable. Shakespeare provides good evidence to support this. Although he wrote centuries ago, his portrayals of young lovers (Romeo and Juliet), corrupt, yet ambitious leaders (Macbeth), and crafty business people (Merchant of Venice), ring as true today as they did when the plays debuted.

Emotion could be our defining feature. An interesting observation by Steven Pinker, ‘Being smart is not the same as wanting something’² could suggest our primal ancestry will set us apart. Was this the author’s intent? The idea of motivation, of driving force, ambition, compulsion, fills my heart with pride for humankind. Machines don’t strive to excel, or make heroic efforts to do things. They do what they’re programmed to. They achieve goals. If the goal is to maintain a temperature of 22 degrees in a room, they induce the heating elements and cooling vents of the HVAC system to warm or chill the air when a deviance from the desire temperature occurs. Machines don’t care that the three year old twins have a fever and are malnourished because their father is unemployed. AI still keeps the temperature at 22 degrees. A human superintendent knows the fragility of toddlers and the added stresses of poverty and secretly tweaks the heating system to divert more heat to protect the young, even if their mother can’t afford it.

Humans have survival instincts, very strong ones, which may set them apart from AIs. Does an AI even care if it’ll be turned off tomorrow? I suspect that depends on what it believes it needs to do the next day but I’m sure it wouldn’t fight to the death to protect itself, unlike most people who would sacrifice everything to be sure they get out of bed tomorrow, even if it’s to face the same old dripping tap, sour milk, and demonically possessed boss.

Is it instincts that set us apart from AI’s? We still have a primitive area in our brain responsible for instinctive or involuntary actions. My own option, based on observing people is that this primitive brain controls more of our behaviour than we are aware of. If that’s the case, it could distinguish from AIs.

We honour and hold in high esteem leaders who are intuitive – those that make logical leaps most of us are afraid to pursue. Are these intuitive leaps instances of higher thought – processing so fast that only the outcome is important? That would be AI-ish.

I consider instincts and intuition closely related, although many would not³. Instincts are subconscious – leading us to perform acts without deciding to do so. We act instinctive to pull our hand out of a flame or to veer the car clear of an oncoming truck on the highway. When the adrenaline wears off, we’re proud of our quick thinking. Intuition is generally considered more conscious, related to thought. However, an intuitive action or decision is one that ‘comes from the gut’ or ‘feels right’. Whether it’s to take a different route home or hire the kid with no experience, when we realize the benefits of the choice, we learn to ‘trust our intuition’. So, is intuition higher thinking than instinct? Some explain intuition as a subconscious compilation of knowledge gathered in the brain. Could it be that intuition is the instinct of thought?

This is my premise: Human’s are different from AIs because we evolved from a less evolved species and we do things that don’t reduce to a series of logic equations. AIs are cool. We made them, so they have the potential to be ok. Or at least as ok as run-away trucks, fires, demonically possessed bosses and new hires from hell. But don’t worry. We know how to disconnect their power supply, at least on the AIs.

—-

¹ Murray Shanahan in Brockman, J. (ed) (2015) What to Think about Machines that Think Harper Perennial NY pg. 1-4

² Steven Pinker in Brockman, J. (ed) (2015) What to Think about Machines that Think Harper Perennial NY pg. 5-8

³I have to giggle. One site I found that explained the difference between instinct and intuition used human mate choice as an example of something decided intuitively because it was the culmination of too many thought processes to be reduced to explanation. If ever there was a decision that biologists could explain at an instinctive level, it’s mate selection. Ha-ha. Geek moment.

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