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Archive for March, 2017

The difference between Elon Musk and most other people is that when Elon Musk sees a problem, he takes it upon himself to fix it.  Energy.  Transportation.  Space travel.  Even traffic congestion in Los Angeles.  So when Musk made comments recently that he was concerned about the threat that Artificial Intelligence poses to humanity it was only a matter of time before he would decide to do something about it the only way he knows how: by starting a company to tackle the problem head on.

It’s with that in mind (pun intended) that we say hello to Musk’s latest venture: Neuralink, a company that will try to develop a computer-brain interface, similar to the fictional Neural Lace that Musk has made reference to, so that humans can keep pace with the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence.

As the Verge puts it:

“These types of brain-computer interfaces exist today only in science fiction. In the medical realm, electrode arrays and other implants have been used to help ameliorate the effects of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative diseases. However, very few people on the planet have complex implants placed inside their skulls, while the number of patients with very basic stimulating devices number only in the tens of thousands. This is partly because it is incredibly dangerous and invasive to operate on the human brain, and only those who have exhausted every other medical option choose to undergo such surgery as a last resort.  This has not stopped a surge in Silicon Valley interest from tech industry futurists who are interested in accelerating the advancement of these types of far-off ideas. Kernel, a startup created by Braintree co-founder Bryan Johnson, is also trying to enhance human cognition.”

The ultimate goal is to get to the point where we can figure out a way to augment human potential.  A neural link or neural lace could enable its user to access the internet just by thinking about it, extend the capabilities of their memory, allow them to control an exoskeleton, or even self-diagnosis medical issues as they arise throughout the body.  It’s essentially a modern day spin on the old adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.   One that could very well be necessary if we want to avoid becoming enslaves by our robot overlords.

On the other hand there’s still so much about the brain that we don’t understand, the technology is still in its infancy, and most healthy people aren’t exactly going to being lining up for risky elective brain surgery no matter the potential reward.  This is definitely one technology where you’re not going to want to be an early adopter.

But if there’s anyone who can overcome those stigmas and hurdles it’s Musk.  At least, that is, until he turns his attention to something else that needs fixing.

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Is Neuralink the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,045 – Heliograf

A twenty-four hour convenience store, known as Wheelys, just opened in China and will operate without any human intervention or even a cash register.  Patrons will use a phone app to open the door to the store, scan what they want to purchase, and just walk out.  No hassle.  No friction.

This futuristic shopping experience is just another reminder that the majority of jobs currently available to humans will one day become obsolete thanks to automation and advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.  Basically, suffice it to say, if the humble grocery store can get by without a stock clerk, cashier, or security guard then no one is safe.  Every walk of life is about to get upgraded whether we like it or not.

I always assumed that as a writer that I would be safe.  Not from competition mind you.  That would actually increase ten-fold, a thousand-fold, a million-fold (?) as our entire species, freed from mundane tasks by automation, turned to creative pursuits to make a living.  But, rather, from becoming obsolete myself.  Because while machines are great at doing the things they’ve been programmed to do they’d never be able to do the things that humans excel at.  Things like thinking critically, making inferences, recognizing patters and trends, drawing conclusions, etc.  Boy, was I wrong.

That’s because the Washington Post, the fledgling outfit purchased by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos a few years back, has turned to technology to solve some of their problems, such as not being able to keep up with the tedious task of manually tracking election day outcomes by hand.  The result is an artificially intelligent robo-reporter known as Heliograf.

Now Heliograf isn’t the first of its kind.  There are already plenty of algorithms capable of turning data streams into stories.  My fantasy baseball and football teams, on CBS and Yahoo respectively, already have their exploits written up by a bot that can churn our reasonably compelling matchup recaps.  But Heliograph takes auto writing to a whole new level.  That’s because it doesn’t just write what it’s told to.  It also tells you what to write about.  And it doesn’t just write articles using static figures.  Rather, it constantly updates them.

As Wired reports, “the next step is to use Heliograf to keep the data in both machine- and human-written stories up-to-date. For instance, if someone shares a Tuesday story on Thursday, and the facts change in the meantime, Heliograf will automatically update the story with the most recent facts.”

Eventually, it could also do things like, “search the web to see what people are talking about, check the Post to see if that story is being covered, and, if not, alert editors or just write the piece itself.”

For the Post the appeal of Heliograf is obvious: it can handle mundane tasks, churn out hundreds of hyper-local stories, keep information up to date, and free up human reporters to do more interesting things like long-form, deep-dive reporting.  For now.  Eventually, it will probably be able to do that too.  Maybe one day it’ll even win a Pulitzer.  Perhaps I ought to re-think my career choice.

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Is Heliograf the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The other day I saw a video of a color blind kid who got to see colors for the first time thanks to a pair of special glasses.  It was a touching and heartfelt moment as the boy realized what he had been missing out on his entire life.  And it got me thinking.  What if I was in a similar circumstance to that boy?  What if I was the one who could suddenly see images that had been kept from me for my whole life?  How incredible would that be?  And what if that’s what was really happening?  What if the world as we know it isn’t really the way that the world is?!

Well, just a few days later it would seem as though I’m about to get my wish thanks to a breakthrough that could allow people to see additional colors and shades of colors that we didn’t even know existed!  What the what!!?

According to I Fucking Love Science, “Tetrachromacy is considered a rare condition in humans, which allows those with it to distinguish and see hundreds of shades of colors that, to the rest of us, simply look the same. But now researchers may have developed a special pair of glasses that will allow those without tetrachromacy to have a glimpse at what it is like to see the extra colors.

Reported in New Scientist, the special kit has been designed by a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and could be used to aid those looking to counteract camouflage, or even to spot counterfeit bank notes. It can allow the wearer to distinguish between two shades of color that initially look identical but are actually subtlety different, known as metamers.”

It’s said that Tetrachromats can see ten colors in the rainbow and over 100 million colors in total.  So I wonder just how many colors the glasses would enable you to see? I also wonder if these glasses will have additional uses aside from the military and financial applications listed above?  Could you build the technology into an Augmented Reality app?  Could artists or photographers use them to create works of art that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to create?  Could magazines include these glasses as free inserts in their publications to unlock additional hidden content?  And what about fashion designers?  What could they do with this technology?

I don’t know.  All I know is that I can’t wait to try them.

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If you could see extra colors would you want to?

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Did you know that the reason why the Dinosaurs were so much bigger than modern day mammals and animals is that there used to be more oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and as a result of this everything that lived at that time was super-sized.  In the millions of years since Dinosaurs roamed the Earth life has obviously adapted to make due with less oxygen.  And in fact the amount of Oxygen on Earth has actually steadily decreased even further over the last few years.  However, the amount of the decline was so minimal that we haven’t noticed its effects yet.  But that day is coming.  Thanks to climate change it’s only a matter of time before oxygen levels drop to an unsafe level.  And when that happens it’ll be too late to say I told you so to all those climate change deniers since we’d all be dead.

Thankfully, we probably won’t have to worry about that thanks to the exploits of a high school student named Wyatt Pontius who, in addition to having a name that sounds like a character in a Clint Eastwood movie, has figured out a way to change the composition of leaves so that they produce more oxygen.  An innovation that he has dubbed “releaf”.  An innovation that could very well save the planet and every living thing on it.

According to Uproxx:

“The result of his work was that the leaf was able to produce about 375% more oxygen than a typical leaf. It’s a potentially world saving discovery as we face increasingly lowering amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere.  A recent study showed that at the rate that the oceans’ temperatures are rising, the photosynthesis of phytoplankton could be interrupted by 2100. This is a big deal. Phytoplankton produces two thirds of the world’s oxygen. If it stopped producing, we’d be looking at a mass extinction of life on Earth. Those modified leaves will become essential in a hurry.”

In addition to counteracting the effects of climate change the releaf might also be a boon to space travel considering that it will enable us to produce more oxygen using fewer resources.  A cost cutting measure that could let us travel further away from home and for longer stretches of time.  If we’re ever going to become a space faring species it’s probably going to be because of a series of tiny innovations like this one instead of just any one thing.

Considering its impact on saving life on Earth and helping us to establish life on other planets it’s suffice to say that the releaf may not just be one of the greatest ideas of 2017, but of any year.  Thank you Wyatt, for saving us all!

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Is releaf the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 with the goal of sequencing the human genome within fifteen years.  The ultimate goal, however, was to try and understand the way the human body functions.  In theory, if we could identify certain genes and what they were responsible for we could more accurately fix issues, such as genetic disorders, when things went haywire in the body as they often do.  The project was declared complete in 2003 with 95% of the genome sequenced, although active research is still on-going in many cases.

By all accounts the Human Genome Project, the largest collaborative science project in human history, was a great success. As a result of this massive global undertaking over 30,000 genes were successfully identified, providing scientists and doctors with vital information in our fight against cancer and other diseases.

As great as the Human Genome Project was the time has finally come to embark on a new journey.  On a far greater challenge.  Not content with merely sequencing the genome scientists now want to venture further out into unchartered territory by actually writing an entire synthetic human genome as part of an initiative known as HGP-Write.

The scientists involved in the project aren’t even sure if this will be possible but if it is the possibilities would be mind-boggling, from animal free drug testing to parent-less babies designed to exact specifications.

According to the New York Times, “It might be possible to make organisms resistant to all viruses, for instance, or make pig organs suitable for transplant into people.”

And as Wired puts it, “One major scientific benefit could be the creation of living cell lines for pharmaceutical testing. Whole-genome synthesis would also bring down the cost of gene editing. CRISPR allows individual edits to DNA, but producing a full genome would allow thousands of edits in one go.”

Woah! Thousands of edits in one go?!?!  If CRISPR, with its individual edits, is getting hailed as a world-changing technology, can you imagine the hype that HGP-Write will get once people realize what it can do?  If that day comes it’ll likely come ten years from now when the $1 billion project is expected to be completed after synthesizing the complete three billion base pair human genome.  I for one, can’t wait to see how this project unfolds.  Pun intended.

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Is HGP-Write the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Have you ever had one of those Jimmy Stewart moments where you wondered how differently your life could have turned out if you had done something differently. Made a different choice. Met different people. Taken up a different interest. I do. All the time. But I don’t lament giving up on my dream of becoming general manager of the New York Yankees. Nor do I regret changing my major in college or dropping out of the Army R.O.T.C. Rather, what I wish I had done differently was learn to code.

If I did I could be at Google [X] right now, making six figures, while working on the Next Big Thing. Or I could be at Tesla, rubbing elbows with Elon Musk while working on driverless car tech. Or better yet, I could be independently wealthy, sitting next to a gaggle of supermodels on some tropical beach while pondering what my next killer app was going to be. Instead, all of my best app ideas are locked away inside of my cherished Book of Ideas while I’m left wondering if I could have been as prolific a coder as Felicity Smoak or Lucas Wolenczak.

Of course it’s not too late for me to learn to code. And, in fact, I did try CodeAcademy a few years ago. But, ultimately I couldn’t commit enough time to the project and realized that coding wasn’t really for me. For while I’m introverted and like to solve puzzles I also like to go outside every once in a while.

Fortunately, Microsoft is working on new technology that could solve my problem by allowing me to code apps without actually having to know anything about coding. All I’d have to do is explain to their AI system, known as DeepCoder, what I was trying to accomplish and it would then code it for me.

As Digital Trends explains, “DeepCoder uses program synthesis, the process of combining existing code to create new applications, to search and integrate the best source code in the best combinations to solve problems. Once the system knows what a human programmer wants it to accomplish, along with the available inputs, the system can then search more quickly and more completely than any human coder to create a new application.”

On the one hand you can read that and assume the worst. Assume that DeepCoder is going to take jobs away from human coders or go rogue and figure out a way to code our own demise. But when I read that I see something else. I see a total game-changer. The democratization of coding.

Thanks to DeepCoder the American dream is alive and well as anyone with an idea can now make it big in the blink of an eye. The barrier to entry has been lowered all the way down. Not since the invention of the Gutenberg Press, the start of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the World Wide Web have we been on the precipice of such a game-changing technology.  Hopefully, everyone else will see it that way too.

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Is DeepCoder the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

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The other day I heard something truly startling: Hollywood is actually contemplating a reboot of the Matrix franchise, not even twenty years after the cult hit emerged into the zeitgeist.  Then I learned about something even more shocking: it may soon be possible to actually create the Matrix.  Sort of.

Improbable is a UK based startup that has pioneered a way to create vast virtual simulations at a level of scale and detail that has never been attempted before.  It’s not the Matrix per say.  But it is the next best thing: virtual worlds so complex that they actually mirror the way the real world works.

Why is this important? As their website puts it:

“Imagine simulations of the human body used to help fight disease. Virtual worlds with millions of people interacting to create incredible new entertainment experiences. Companies basing decisions on detailed simulations of entire markets, or governments modelling whole nations.  This would transform how we see the world and help us solve immense problems that need us to be able to understand the emergent complexity of real world systems.”

Economists from Oxford are already using Improbable to run models of the U.K. housing market, Google is using it to build VR experiences, and Samsung is interested in using it to run simulations for its Internet of Things connected devices. And that’s just the start.  The World Health Organization might want to use it to track a potential outbreak and video game developers might want to use it to test their software.  With technology this transformative the potential use cases are truly endless.

So while we may not know how Improbable will be used and who will want to use it one thing is for sure: Hollywood definitely didn’t use it when deciding whether or not to reboot the Matrix.  Because if they did they would have known that this is one reboot that no one was asking for.

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Improbable can create simulations on a grand scale just like in the Matrix.  Does this make it the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

 

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Virtual Reality gets all of the buzz and attention but in actuality it’s probably going to be Augmented Reality (digital information overlayed onto the real world) that will wind up affecting our daily lives more.  But that’s a story for another day.  For today, I want to talk about something else.  Something far more interesting than turn by turn directions and Wikipedia entries that pop up in your peripheral version.  Allow me to introduce to you Augmented Eternity, a useful albeit somewhat creepy way to communicate with those that we just lost.

Currently being pioneered by Dr. Hossein Rahnana of the M.I.T. Media Lab, Augmented Eternity is a way for us to talk to people from beyond the grave, thanks to the ability of a chat bot to analyze their digital footprint and realistically mimic the nuances of their speech as well as their distinct patterns of thought.

Now, here’s where things get interesting.  In addition to letting us speak to our friends and relatives who just recently passed like we saw on an episode of Black Mirror, this technology could also be used to allow us to speak to the luminaries we lost long ago.

Imagine if you will, being able to summon Steve Jobs for tech advice or Albert Einstein for help with a physics question.  Eventually we could get to the point where the thoughts and though processes of our best minds and greatest leaders get saved for use by future generations.

Accord to Quartz, “Rahnama’s vision for augmented eternity’s educational application focuses on ‘swappable identities,’ where the same question can be addressed to AI personas with drastically different backgrounds. Being able to directly speak to different primary sources on historical issues could be an invaluable, perspective-enhancing tool for students. ‘The future is about being able to switch your lens and see the world from someone else’s view,’ he says. ‘Issues such as gun control, liberalism, genetic cloning, and legal disputes can all be seen from different political, scientific, academic, and statistical angles.'”

Obviously it’s going to be harder to replicate the personality of someone from a generation ago since we don’t have much in the way of usable data to analyze for them.  But modern celebrities with all of their tweets, Facebook posts, emails, and texts would have a treasure trove of information for the AI to cull through.

Suddenly, my 1,000 blog posts don’t seem like such a waste of time anymore.  Maybe in the future students will be chatting with me about ideas, inventions, and innovation.  In a way, this means that our impact on the world is no longer going to be bound by the constraints of our physical bodies.  For some of us, this may mean that we now have a way to live forever.

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In the future you may be able to chat with Albert Einstein directly.

 

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Cord cutters rejoice!  In the on-going war against cable TV providers there’s now another option in your arsenal: YouTube TV, a new streaming service that will aim to turn your favorite viewing spot for cat videos into a one-stop source for all your entertainment needs.

To start out the fledgling service will offer 40 channels for just $35 a month.  Offerings will include CBS and ESPN among other big name networks.  CNN and MTV are among the heavyweights that are omitted for now.  Over time, it’s likely that more offerings will get added as the service gains popularity.  With the ultimate goal being to provide a la carte programming, that is, letting people pay only for those channels that appeal to them.

Of course, there were already plenty of streaming services available to cord cutters whether that’s Hulu or Netflix or even PlayStation Vue and Sling TV.  But YouTube TV is likely to appeal to millenials who are already spending all of their free time on the site watching tutorials and clips from their favorite movies.

Now here’s where things get interesting and why YouTube TV may have a chance at widespread adapatation.  Since YouTube is owned by Google that means that YouTube TV is powered by Google search.  Which means that it is capable of doing some pretty cool things.  For example, let’s say that you want to search by keyword instead of by show title or genre.  Typing in nerd, for instance, will bring up Star Trek and the Big Bang Theory among other geeky fare.  Currently, no other TV search engine is capable of making that kind of inference.

But an even more interesting question is what happens next now that Google has staked its claim in the TV landscape.  How will the cable providers respond?  Will this bring us any closer to Apple TV?  Is anyone even reading this or is everyone busy binge watching Iron Fist on Netflix right now?

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Is YouTube TV the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The other day I wrote about neurofiction, a new literary experience in which books read you and change their ending based upon on your emotional state.  If you want a happy ending, you can get a happy ending.  If you prefer a sad ending, you can get a sad ending.  It’s a sort of sub-conscious Choose Your Own Adventure.

Now, thanks to Netflix, we may soon have a conscious Choose Your Own Adventures as they are planning on shooting multiple versions of key plot points and endings for their original content thereby giving viewers the chance to shape how the story unfolds.  The days of passively consuming content are over.  Welcome to the era of interactivity.

Such a bold gambit would figure to be an extensive and expensive undertaking.  But if there’s anyone who can pull it off, it’s Netflix as they can afford to pay stars and content creators even larger salaries to film additional scenes.  The format also makes sense for Netflix versus traditional network TV or cable as the idea of sitting down and watching multiple endings is tailor made for an audience that’s already gotten used to binge watching shows in long stretches.  In fact, some people have suggested that the shows may be created in such a way that they could theoretically loop back in on themselves thereby creating an infinite show that never ends.

To start out Netflix will be running a trial with children’s programming.  If successful, they will then segway into adult fare.  Meaning that you may eventually be able to decide which characters will join a gang on in Orange is the New Black or which political scandal Frank Underwood will wind up in on House of Cards.

As a huge fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid I can’t wait to see how the format will play out on TV.  On the one hand, constantly pausing the flow of a show to make decisions could be annoying.  On the other, shaping how the story unfolds could add interest to a show that may not otherwise have you hooked.

Overall, I hope that the format catches on and we will all get to turn into amateur showrunners.  Unfortunately, there’s probably no going back and redoing what has already aired.  Which means we’re forever stuck with that horrible Lost ending.

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Soon you may be able to decide how your favorite shows progress.

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