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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Brief Encounters with Artificial Intelligence

I’m preoccupied with how artificial intelligence will impact society even though artificial intelligence isn’t very smart or common yet. A couple of recent observations (the type that come with the metaphorical light bulb over the head1, not made with binoculars from a shelter hidden in the shrubbery) brought me to a greater understanding of how artificial intelligence may fit into everyday life.

First encounter: I picked up my phone and thumbed to my favourite cab company. I hadn’t called them in a year and a half, and was surprised to hear an automated attendant answer instead of the woman with the gravelly voice who called me ‘dear’. It said if I wanted to be picked up immediately at the address I was calling from, I could push ‘1’ and it would happen. I did and did and was (want to be picked up at the address, pushed 1, and the cab arrived shortly thereafter). As we cruised towards my destination, I chatted to the driver, telling him that while the call seemed very efficient, I felt odd about it.

What was lacking? Why was having a machine arrange to pick me up, when that was the very reason I’d called the cab company, disconcerting? If the dispatcher had asked if I wanted to be picked up at home, or the usual place, I’d be glad of the personal service.

For me, the missing link was someone who actually cared if the cab came to get me. Someone who wanted to do their job well and understood that if I was going to the train station it was to catch a train, and being late could have a ripple effect: missing the train, then maybe being late for a job interview and therefore mortgage payments. The gravelly-voiced lady may never have given a rat’s ass if I got where I needed to go on time, but generally, people can empathize with the consequences of being late. Yes, a machine can list the potential consequences, but it can’t remember the time it got a flat tire on the way to a wedding rehearsal where it was the best man for a nervous groom who needed his best buddy’s support.

My second encounter is more subtle. I’m knee-deep in business theory, pondering what gives companies like Harley Davidson and Tim Horton’s their competitive advantage. Causal ambiguity is a thing, which I’ve always liked the sound, and the meaning, of. It’s rather similar to the idea that the sum of the parts is less than the whole. Sure you can make motorcycles growl and sputter in an outlaw kind of way but what makes a Harley the motorcycle of choice for everyone from rock stars to the pastor of an upwardly mobile flock? Why is Tim’s a thing half the Canadian population will wait in line for when the competition across the street has the same product (coffee)? Casual ambiguity. Don’t know how – but it works.

The best explanation we have right now is that casual ambiguity is the sum of a vast number of elements, each subtly different than the norm. Will artificial intelligences be able to dissect casual ambiguity into its multitude of components? It’ll be interesting to see what the AIs come up with to explain the appeal of Hello Kitty or the allure of certain notorious socialites.

On the same topic (competitive advantage), but a more mundane level, human nature dictates we develop processes, or rituals. These get passed down through generations, whether it’s a ham recipe or a manufacturing process for golf balls. Scholars of Operations Management know that the best processes morph overtime because every little detail can’t be recorded, so instructions are interpreted and revised. Will AIs eliminate this natural drift, detailing processes with an infinite number of stepwise instructions? Me, I take detailed instructions, read them until I understand the concept and then construct the functional details.

Humans make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are good and we discover something new. Sometimes they’re neutral for many cycles and get propagated through the system then someday turn out to be of benefit.

AIs won’t make mistakes, so there will be no drift in the processes they oversee or serendipitous finding of new things. AIs follow instructions with a precision that leaves nothing to the imagination.

So, we humans, with all our squishy emotions and random actions, are useful after all. We care – who can deliver good customer service without caring? And we err. To err is human, not to err – divinely artificial.

1Does that metaphor still work with a compact fluorescent bulb?

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Big Data – So Glad I’m not Alone

How many businesses are based on the collection of user data? Could be all of them, soon.

Having done just enough reading about the Internet of Things to be dangerous, I’ve surmised the time is coming when we’ll have the capacity to collect and store a ridiculous amount of information, perhaps down to a level of minutiae (does that word rhyme with nausea?) whereby we could track each step the family pet takes, every day, as it wanders around the house. I have to admit, I’m curious what my cats do while I’m not home, but suspect that information would interest me for 0.8 minutes. And I’d pay less than what a cup of coffee costs to know.

If I won’t pay, maybe a maker of veterinary products will. And discover a cause to displaced aggression, an increasingly common syndrome whereby cats get all snarly because they can see another cat outside their home, making them uber-aggressive to anything inside their home. Perhaps a new line of pet-food would counteract the cause. Depending on what the cause is, maybe the manufacture of air-fresheners, refiners of natural gas or growers of gourds should get involved.

It may seem I’m being silly but that is the potential of big data. Everything may be connected to everything else in previously unsuspected ways. A world where every object (including people) sends frequent signals about its position, temperature, or movement isn’t so far away. And while that may seems like an innocuous set of variables, much can be determined. Knowing where a person is at all times says a lot about their habits and interests. Go to the corner store each night? – there’s some kind of habit brewing – smokes, junk food, lottery or maybe just an attraction to the clerk. Already sounds like too much person information.

Add a little more, like your purchasing habits, co-location with other objects (people) provides much information about your relationships. A speedometer, GPS and accelerometer is enough to reveal your driving habits – do you break quickly or a lot? Knowing your speed and where you are tells if you are a habitual speeder. Aggressive driving can be spotted by proximity to other vehicles.

So there’s another rub. Things we are buying now come with embedded information gathers. Never mind the electronic device (mobile phone/tablet) we use to communicate that snarfs down a mountain of information about us – there are others, such as cars. Appliances will soon want to be in constant contact with retailers (or maybe the other way around) so the fridge will refill itself with all your favourite foods (at your expense). The washer and dryer will order refills of detergent and fabric softener if you don’t stop them.

The electric utility monitors my consumption of power by the minute but also may soon link that information to all the appliances in my house to suggest which are being left on too long or could otherwise be used more wisely. That’s information I can use to decrease my power bill, or may be the information will be used in another way.

Oops.The pessimist woke up.

What about personal privacy and associated rights that various businesses may want to stick their nose into? Like say, Insurance. There’s a data loving industry. Wouldn’t my home insurance provider like to know if I was in the habit of leaving electrical appliances unattended, risking a fire. Or maybe they’d be more interested to know there was no power drawn from a home security system even though I ensured them I installed one.

And this is just one example that sprung to mind. There’s cars and driving habits. Food and eating habits. How hot I heat my home compared to everyone else in the neighbourhood. How many fruits and vegetables my family buys each week and how many end up in the compose bin. The household consumption of entertainment – bringing a blush to everyone’s cheeks. You get the idea. Personal privacy is at stake.

Many businesses assure us that our information will not be used except to ‘provide us with service’ – that sounds like a can of worms.

When I saw the title ‘The Need to Embed Big Privacy in a World of Big Data – by Design’ a talk by Ann Cavoukian, I was thrilled because it seemed to echo my sentiments exactly. Dr. Cavoukian is the former privacy commissioner for Ontario who has created a system called Privacy by Design to protect privacy (all kinds, individual, corporate, organizational).

I went to the talk. I liked what I heard. The key principles. Privacy should be:

  • Proactive
  • By default
  • Embedded into design
  • Positive sum – not a trade off with security, we get privacy and security
  • Full life cycle protection
  • Visible and transparent
  • Respect for user choice – no service denial because you decline to provide information

The last one won me over completely. Too many online sites are binary (yes, the irony is intentional). If you don’t agree to provide information required, you can’t get in. After all, it’s a web interface and not capable of understanding explanations.

Hence my love of the privacy by default idea. If I don’t want to provide my birthdate, I can still get an account. This is where privacy by design is important. Yes, it you need to ensure users are above a certain age. Currently, you build the user account system to verify this by asking for their date of birth, then of course they are rejected if you refuse to provide that information. But if you did it differently from the beginning, asking people to warrant they were of age and sending an email to confirm, you might design a system that protected the provider and the consumer equally. Squeee.

One of the suggestions was that we should be routinely reminded that data was being collected. I’d love it if Facebook popped a window to tell me I’d watched 65 cat videos in a month and they were escalating my profile to ‘cat lady’. Or Twitter said I was following enough grunge-rock bands to qualify as a metal-head groupie. It might be fun.

I applaud the Privacy by Design initiative, to boldly embrace privacy and see how easy it is to incorporate it if it’s done from the beginning. I can see it as a competitive advantage, providing customers the option of how much of their data is used and what kind of information they get back from sharing. Sigh. Oh for the day when we’re secure in what we communicate freely, without fear of our messages being used against us.

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My Love Affair with Technology (Part 2)

Oh, technology, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.**

With you, I always know where I am. No need to flutter a giant accordion of paper, clearly declaring myself a vulnerable tourist. With a discrete touch of a wee arrow, a blue glow appears, pinpointing my location on a map where ever I am, around the corner from the new pub in town or in the middle of a Louisiana swamp.

You are infinitely patient, awaiting my call, any time, day or night, whether three seconds after my last flurry of interaction or three days. When I return, muddy and hungover from a weekend of outdoor debauchery, you are there, perky and responsive, eager to fulfill my requests.

Grateful and graceful, you seem to thrive on whatever amount of attention I provide, should I spend all afternoon doing Facebook quizzes or take seconds to fire an emoticon at a friend. You don’t complain, it’s never too much or ever too little.

And such an entertainer. No longer do I fear waiting in line, sitting in the doctor’s reception area, or a bus ride. You are always there, sharing news, messages from friends, cat videos.

How did we manage before every piece of information anyone could ever want was no further away than a Google search box, when TV choices were limited, when we had to wait until the stores opened to shop? I can learn how to do just about anything from a YouTube video, send messages and post rants that the whole world can see. I am empowered by so much information. You have brought me the world, to serve and amuse me.

You’re full of surprises, constantly changing to try and fulfill my needs, with no hint that in later years you’ll turn into a couch potato or develop a monotonic fascination with sports teams, online games or a particular breed of dog.

What more could I ask in a relationship?

Well, if you really want to know, there are one, or two, little things you could do. I mean, if you aren’t busy. I’d be eternally grateful. Make sure your favourite ports are active and connect all your inputs and outputs the way I know you like. If it’s not too much trouble, could you:

  • create the ultimate identification algorithm, some combination of biometrics that doesn’t require remembering anything, that’s unhackable and carries all the information anyone would every need to do anything, like full medical history and banking information.
  • make medical diagnosis 100% accurate, and come complete with a full explanation of the implications. No more, ‘well there’s a slight shadow on your liver but we aren’t sure what it is or if it’s harmful’. Or my favourite, ‘let’s wait six months and redo the test’.

Thanks Hon, I know you’re up to it. Hurry home, I’ll slip into that shell you like and we can relax, cosy up behind our firewall, and share some cookies.

** This is the second part of my romance with technology. Part 1 was the darker side of relationships.

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My Romance with Technology (Part 1)

I want to break up with technology. I’ve had enough of its passive-aggressive neediness and constant mood swings. Seriously, I need some space, time away to reconsider our relationship.

machine outThere’s the clinginess. I don’t need to stay logged into all apps at all time. I won’t forget  you if we’re apart occasionally. And having to create an account for everything, to buy plane tickets, to read a story (and see the ads in the sidebar), to look at a recipe. If I was paranoid, I’d think I was being watched, tracked to see where I spent my time.

When we first started seeing each other, things were simpler. When I wanted information, I’d go to a webpage and find, say, a bus schedule. Now, there’s an interrogation. Where am I starting from, where am I going, when do I want to travel?

Some of you are so controlling, I can’t even look at the website site on my mobile device, you insist I download the app. Now, I’m sure it’s a lovely app that many people really like. But take the hint, after offering it to me for the twentieth time and I decline, it means that I’m not interested. Let me use the website like I do on my laptop. I don’t care if its a bit of a mess. If you care so much, maybe you should spend the time to optimize it for mobile, rather than trying to control my interfaces.

There are times when I wonder what you are up to, with so many businesses built on free products. My darlings, you’ve forgotten the definition of business – an enterprise to derive a profit from selling things. Free data storage, free travel arrangements, free email accounts. I’ve been through too much and can only think that you are hiding something from me.

There has to be some way you think you are going to make money by letting me post my videos of the cat chasing its tail to your website. The more mature among you have admitted to it, to the schemes of how to make money from we devoted users. Facebook shamelessly posts targeted ads, Twitter has sponsored content, Youtube – commercials in front of clips. But even those who appear to speak freely about what they are doing have a bone chilling ability to pinpoint selected things that are going on in my life that only an intimate would know. Are you watching, listening, as I surf? How long are you remembering my posts and how do you have an uncanny ability to put them together to know what no one could possibly have seen me do in the bathroom last night?

This brings me to the inevitable conclusion that we would be better off apart. It’s not you. Well, it sort of is you, but more accurately, it’s us. I’m sure you will make someone a fine companion. You deserve better – a doting, frisky user, glad to see your shining logos each time the screen unlocks. Obediently memorizing dozens of passwords, linking all their information together in happily-ever-after conjoined bliss, while you continue your wanton data exchanges behind the scenes.

Me, I’ll find a sunny spot out of range of any WiFi and listen to the birds and waves on the beach, and read a book. A paper one.

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When is a Smart Vehicle too Smart?

I recently heard a story about a novel technology for the car. A logical approach to safer driving. It scared me silly.

An excellent presentation by Ron Dicarlantonio of iNAGO blew my mind, and in one of those rare, tectonic upheavals of comprehension, I saw where smart automobiles/interconnected machines/autonomous applications, could go. And it made me shudder. The presentation is here (at about the 20 minute mark).

Ron introduced me to the concept of cognitive load which I later found is a well established in psychology. Cognitive load relates to how much of your attention something requires. For some of us, a call from mother may demand a lot of attention, others less so. Think about how hard it is to input your PIN on the credit card machine while discussing plans for next week with a colleague.

iNAGO and Vocolage are collaborating to engineer ‘Safe Driver Notifications’ – an interface between humans and computers in the car. Makes all kinds of sense to try and design a dashboard interface that extracts useful information from traffic reports, along with info about how the car is running, weather and road conditions. And since many of us now communicate, via voice, text and other means, while driving, why not make it even safer to do so through the car interface? This sounds like a wonderful product.

Will there be a day when all news, email, text, social media posts are delivered to us while we drive? That is quite the arsenal of distraction. One possible approach to making cars safe while delivering this information is to modulate the delivery of messages by balancing the cognitive load of the messages with the driving requirements. Light traffic, freshly paved straight-away on a sunny day, the driver receives the message from the kid’s teacher about their unruly behaviour. Driving in rush hours in a blizzard? – no communications get through. This sounds like censorship. Does it make it any better that it will be personalized censorship, since the factors that create cognitive load are different for each person? On the other hand, public safety is at stake if a car goes off the road while the driver watches the latest kitten video.

A related emerging issue for the data-capturing and analyzing automobile, is the ownership of the data.

Who owns the data related to an individual’s driving? If someone routinely travels 20km/hr above the speed limit, will this information eventually make it to his or her insurance rates, to the police, to a potential employer who wants to know how law-abiding the person is? Or will it make it to a dating profile, to select appropriate mates for the risk-taking?

I think this is an area ripe for a lot of discussion and legislation. According to this article from 2014, the answer was a firm ‘don’t know’: “It is not clear, certainly under German law, whether the drivers, the owners or the manufacturers of vehicles can be said to own the data generated by them” .

From my very unscientific survey of one person who recently bought a car, car owners currently are not signing agreements to use their data.
More substantially, this report titled ‘The Connected Car: who is in the driver’s seat’ which seems comprehensive in its look at the privacy perspective states:

 ‘It is not known what proportion of dealerships address the issue of customer data in their dealing with customers. The website of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (“CADA”), had no privacy policy or related information when accessed on Feb.7, 2015, and the CADA Code of Ethics does not address protection of customer data. A survey of three dealerships in Whitehorse, Yukon in February 2014 found that none of them had privacy policies nor did their standard purchase agreements include any term about collection, retention, use or disclosure of the customer’s personal data.’

Another issue is reliability. When it’s cool and damp outside, my 2006 vehicle flashes dashboard fault lights, which I have learned through trial aren’t accurate. I believe moisture gets into a sensor and causes false signals to be sent. Having read of similar experiences with my brand of vehicle by others, I know repair isn’t cost-effective, since there are no mechanical faults, just one in an ancient computer system. Extrapolate to a much smarter car, with more control over the system. My creative mind can imagine random possible faults, such as: the car refusing to operate on a road if there is another vehicle within 500 meters, or if it’s Tuesday, or maybe it will block all messages from the boss because the driver mutters something about ‘when hell freezes over’ in response to a message from her.

Designers are aiming for fewer traffic accidents, through less distraction in the vehicle, which is fantastic. There are lots of emerging questions to keep entrepreneurs busy developing people-friendly versions. One simple solution to ensuring that the driver’s cognitive load isn’t over-taxed by personal messages is to leave the driving to the car. Auto-manufacturers are working towards bringing us new technology in a way that helps us to adapt¹ which I think is what we need to embrace self driving cars.

¹ ‘the industry’s slow-and-steady approach — using computers to help the driver at the wheel rather than replace him or her’

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Where Are We Going in Self-Driving Cars?

If ever there was a disruptive technology, it’s self-driving cars. Imagine a world full of autonomous vehicles, and the ripples through all aspects of our lives.

Visionaries see a time when our roads will be filled with computer-driven cars, cars that completely control navigation – selecting the route, setting the speed, obeying traffic signals. Artificial intelligence systems in the vehicle will sense road conditions and surrounding objects, people and animals and integrate this information with data from other systems such as weather reports and traffic conditions, to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently.

To make this a reality, two major areas of technology have been advancing for the past two decades and will continue for decades to come:

1. Car technology. In broad categories, this consists of automated sensing, integrating and controlling. Automotive components and systems have been developed to sense the environment (a current example is the camera that shows what’s behind the car when backing up, and the detector that beeps more frantically as the car approaches an object). The next step is a system to integrate various information and control a subsystem of the car, such as breaks that automatically engage when the car is about to run into something. Subsystem control is available now and truly self-driving cars are being tested on the streets of California. Various sources¹ suggest we are ten to twenty years from truly self-driving cars dominating the roads.

2. The Internet of Things. The capacity to coordinate cars and traffic relies on a level of connectivity of many things, including each car, the traffic lights, community events (for examples a few thousand vehicle trying to exit the stadium parking lot after the game or a road closure for a charity event). This capacity is growing, perhaps exponentially, but I believe is still in its infancy.

Self-driving cars are anticipated to bring all manner of benefits, such as:

  • safer roads. No more human driver error.
  • more accessibility. Anyone can sit in the ‘drivers seat’ of an autonomous vehicle, regardless of their age, mobility, visual acuity or what they’ve been doing previously, like sitting in a beer tent.
  • more leisure time. The time we all spend driving becomes time to read, chat, or catch up on our communications (safely).
  • less traffic congestion. If the cars control the traffic, they can optimize the volume, distributing the traffic so there are no jams, rerouting around accidents long before everything comes to a halt, except…
  • fewer accidents, because the cars should be better at avoiding them. So, that’s even less congestion and more efficiency.

Depending on how the system evolves, we may stop owning cars and call them on demand. This could eliminate the need for parking, further easing congestion and freeing up a lot of real estate. When ready to go for groceries, send a text and the car appears. The cost will depend on the distance travelled, number of passengers, other items carried, whether we are willing to make a slight detour to share the fee. The fee would encompass maintenance, fuel, license fees and insurance.

What will become of taxi drivers? Other industries are likely to be effected. If there are fewer traffic violations and accidents, we’ll need fewer police, ambulance workers and tow-truck drivers. Auto insurance could be a thing of the past. If the cars are centrally dispatched and maintained, then there’ll be less need for fuelling stations and auto-mechanics. There may be less wear and tear on the roads and less construction.

All this efficiency and safety sounds very appealing, even if it has the potential to impact many industries and professions. Cars are a big part of our lives. People like to to drive. Think of the family tradition of loading everyone into the car, with no specific destination, and going for a drive. There are parents, at wits end to comfort a crying child, who bundle the infant in their car seat knowing that just ‘driving around’ is a sure fire way to send the little one into silent slumber. I get in my car to see new places, turn down roads I’ve never been down to find out what’s there, and take the long way because there’s a breath-taking view or tricky curves where I can put my steering skills to the test.

I’m sure we all hope autonomous vehicles will make road rage go away, but I’m skeptical. Impatience and feeling a lack of control seem to fuel road rage. The driver of the car that fills my rearview mirror who can’t get home fast enough to the icy cold beer he/she needs after a day of being scrutinized by the boss may not appreciate a self-driving car. An autonomous vehicle is unlikely to break speed limits, totally unsympathetic to the rider’s need to get where they want to go faster (although I can imagine that if we develop a safer automobile transit system, speed limits could increase).

When I was a kid, getting your driver’s license at 16 was a significant rite of passage. With self-driving cars, there may be no more licenses. With luck on my side, fully functional driverless cars should fill our streets about the time I’m too old to get my license renewed.

As a new technology, self-driving cars have the potential to deliver enhanced safety and efficiency in our transportation systems in an environmentally positive way, but they also have the capacity for profound social and lifestyle effects.


¹ As examples:

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How Smart is Artificial Intelligence?

Cyberspace isn’t much like space at all. It’s crammed full of bytes of information, churning and frothing with intelligence agents who gnash and dissect the data in search of new knowledge, or at least something else to sell us. This is big data and at least one embodiment of artificial intelligence.

Recently, I heard an elegant explanation¹ of machine learning, or the ability of machines to create programs and algorithms that deduce things that they haven’t been programmed to – how machines learn. Consider what would be involved if you had to write program to tell a computer how to distinguish between a cat and a dog. I’d put together a logic chart and add up the cat vs dog points:



Meow noise



‘ark-ark’ noise



retractable claws



floppy ears






lolling tongue



it’s ignoring you



it thinks you are the smartest, most desirable person in the world



thrax ignoringand I’m sure you can come up with many other criteria, some less than absolute, such as curly fur (much more common in dogs but not impossible in cats).

In machine learning, you’d give the computer a million videos labelled cat and a million videos labelled dog to watch and let it figure out its own algorithm to tell the difference. Who wouldn’t want the job of watching a million cat and dog videos? Most of us already have. I am curious about the computer’s algorithm: does it use tail wagging frequency, that silly whining noise dogs make, or hissing, as selection criteria?

What if after all that the AI comes to the wrong conclusion. It might decide the true difference between cats and dogs is that cats are the overlords of the planet and dogs are service animals. It’s easy enough for a mere human to decide if the computer has done a good job of differentiating between the two animals. But what happens when they start predicting things we have no prior knowledge of, like how long a pair of socks will last?

And this is a trivial application of artificial intelligence. There is so much data out there, silly names for bigger numbers have emerged. According to this BBC article, 2.5 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data were generated in one day in 2012 and the US National Security Agency has the capacity to store a yottabyte (one thousand trillion gigabytes) of data. That’s a lot of Facebook likes, tweets, diagnostics at the auto-mechanic, GPS locations, term marks and everything else. If we set AIs to learning from all this data, it seems like a tremendous wealth of knowledge will emerge. This might fall in a few categories:

1. Important and life saving intelligence such as diagnosing serious health events like heart failure and intercepting terrorist plans, so interventions can be made earlier.

2. Efficient systems, such as automated traffic flow to relieve congestion or business processes like finding items (books, events to attend, cheese) people might be interested in based on their preferences.

3. Predictions – varying from novelty (suggestion of what the name of you next pet should be) to kinda useful (prediction of what your partner might like for dinner tonight) to downright world changing (motivational media reports – this is one of my personal dreams).

The biggest question in my mind right now is how do we know if the machines are right?

Sure, we can test each conclusion the machine reaches after it’s made but that will take some time, especially if it’s a long range projection. And who owns the predictions? Is information about me that I don’t know, like what diseases I will develop in my old age, my personal information?

Yikes, I don’t want to go a bad place with such a potentially good thing. Like most new technologies, there is the possibility of misuse and misinformation with machine learning and artificial intelligence. Maybe we can use machine learning to figure out how to avoid the misappropriation of information for improper purposes. That would be cool. A truly self-regulating system.


¹ I believe it was from Steve Brown,Chief Futurist and Evangelist, Intel at the Plenary Session ‘Innovation: Steering Disruption’ of the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Toronto July 8, 2015

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Beyond the Internet of Things (Already!)

Can Moore’s law – that computing capacity expands exponentially – be extrapolated to the Internet of Things (IoT)¹? This is one of the questions that went through my mind at the MedEdge Summit (#MedEdge)  – a half day with the tag line ‘disruptive innovations in healthcare’.

It was a really good meeting. For me, a memorable meeting makes you think. I met interesting people, from diverse backgrounds in healthcare-related industries. I learned new things. Healthcare is a good example of an area at both the forefront and tail end of technology innovation. Perhaps that’s why the themes of change and connectivity resonated for me.

Here are some of the observations and predictions I had after attending the Summit. I’ll end with some thoughts about Moore’s Law.

For medical care, this initiative is going beyond the Internet of Things, to the Internet of Healthcare. The Internet of Healthcare includes people – updates from and to all the medical professionals – combined with data from other sources. The pilot project was presented at the Summit by collaborators from Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital, Thoughtwire and Blackberry. Blackberry has some interesting inputs, especially in security, a significant challenge in the IoT, and even more so in healthcare.

This is the forefront of technology, beyond the internet of things to the internet of all objects, devices, information, and people involved in caring for patients. And yet, at the MedTech Summit, there were reminders of the challenges in the business of healthcare and particularly to commercialization or adoption of novel products. I learned about OHIC (Ontario Health Innovation Council), an initiative of the Ontario Government with a mission to accelerate the adoption of new technologies into our healthcare system. I particularly liked the diagram, a motif in this OHIC report , with a hustling Innovation Broker in the centre of a mesh of the myriad stakeholders in healthcare.² This is a connectivity of a different type. Different forms of communication are required for the connection between patients, their families, medical practitioners, healthcare organizations, businesses, regulatory bodies, academic institutions and investors. This abundance of stakeholders makes commercialization particularly challenging in the healthcare sector, compared to others, like manufacturing, consumer goods or consumer software (apps).

I suspect we’ll see a rise in innovations in home and consumer-based healthcare but the business environment for this sort of product can be challenging. Physicians can prescribe outside medical care, such as oxygen therapy, physiotherapy or massage. Suppliers of these sorts of services or goods can’t actively recruit customers, since the physician decides who needs the product. They can’t set the price, since reimbursement, from either the government or insurer, controls pricing. Product innovations and features are limited by regulatory bodies. New offerings in this area will need creative business plans to flourish.

How fast will we see change in healthcare? The revolution in the IoT is the exchange and compilation of information from, and about, many things. Not all the things communicate like computers. People, animals and other complex phenomena like the weather use hard to model processes to make complex and random moves or subjective decisions. Objects like furniture and cars, especially those manufactured in the past, have no ability to communicate electronically and while newer versions can do so, the world is still full of old ones.

Connecting people and inanimate things into the Internet of Things is no easy task and will take more than just advanced computing power. It will require completely new ways to make connections and this will take time. My prediction for the Internet of Things is that it will bring policy and policy reform in many iterations and this will slow its growth. Thus, the creation or formation of the IoT is going to depend on a whole lot of other factors than the processing speed of a semi-conductor. Moore’s law is going to need a few amendments that take people into consideration before it can be applied to the IoT, because people, after all, is what healthcare is about.


¹ The Internet of Things is a concept that encompasses connecting all objects, – books, pill bottles, pets, cars and everything else -, on the world wide web or through other electron communication systems. The internet of everything doesn’t exist right now and probably will never, but just might. However, currently there are internets of a subsets of things, for example the connection of everything in your house.

² It reminded me of why I have ‘spider’ in the name of my business. Here’s the blog post.

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