“Can Technology Think? Watson Can.”

watson 1

So says IBM in its promo video for Watson, released earlier this year (see below). Watson is “a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer,” according to its homepage.

In January IBM launched the Watson Group and funded it to the tune of $1 billion. Back in November it opened up an API, so developers can build on the technology. Now IBM has entered into a partnership with Apple. Raising the intriguing possibility that Watson might talk with Siri.

Watson is certainly the most impressive large-scale AI project around these days. I think it has a great chance at being the Next Big Platform. At the very least, IBM is shaking things up again technologically – which is good to see.

Desirable Futures 100 Years From Now

Desirable Futures

One of my favorite technology writers Kevin Kelly recently tweeted out: “I’ll pay $100 for the best 100-word description of a plausible technological future in 100 years that I would like to live in.” He’s written up a post on Medium with the answers he got, together with his own musings on “a desirable future scenario.” Kelly chose this one, by John Hanacek, as the winning entry:

Physical and virtual realities are meshed together with no distinction. Ideas are given sovereignty with their creators rewarded fairly and directly. The world itself does the drudgery of assembling itself across all sectors that information science has been applied, which is limited only by the quantum information underpinnings of the universe. Humans have taken up their primary purpose of creativity and now work with other intelligences of any kind to ask questions and achieve answers, with an eye toward more questions. “Human” has taken on flourishing new meanings. Imagination has been unleashed upon the world in a literal sense.

I like how Hanacek subtly portrays machine intelligence working with us humans, instead of replacing us…or worse! This is a topic I’m exploring in my second book. Also, the “ideas are given sovereignty” line sounds a lot like Ted Nelson’s pre-Web vision of Xanadu. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that was the WWW in 100 years time.

I also liked Kelly’s own answer:

2121: Population 4 billion; 85% urban. Cities boom, empty suburbs struggle. Agriculture acreage reduced with GMOs. Nature monitored quantitatively; green lands expand with genetic engineering. Solar, fusion, mini nukes generate cheap power. Climate change adapted. Creative middle class the new majority, globally mobile. Computer pilots make travel common internationally. Eco and heritage tourism primary income for poorest. Robots takeover remaining blue-color jobs in Asia and Africa. Internet of everything physical continued. Universal library, and universal lifelong education for free. All humans always on the net anywhere. Brain interface, wearables. Co-veillent tracking ubiquitous. Quantified self for personalized medicine. Techno-literacy (managing) skills mandatory. 

The brain interface and wearables touch on the theme of my second book too.

Both of these “desirable futures” by Hanacek and Kelly are compelling. Of course, what makes them desirable is that humans are center stage.

The Human Element In Freestyle Chess


“When humans team up with computers to play chess, the humans who do best are not necessarily the strongest players. They’re the ones who are modest, and who know when to listen to the computer. Often, what the human adds is knowledge of when the computer needs to look more deeply.”

Great quote from Tyler Cowen, author of a book called ‘Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation’. He’s referring to “freestyle” chess competitions, in which humans and computers play on teams together. He goes on to say:

“Today, the human-plus-machine teams are better than machines by themselves. It shows how there may always be room for a human element.”

Yes, although I hope the “may” turns out to be a “will”!

Image credit: ChessBase

The Quantified Doctor

Quantified Care

My first book, due out January 2015, is about the Quantified Self movement. It’s called Trackers: How Technology Is Helping Us Monitor & Improve Our Health. One of the chapters is about a doctor who encourages her patients to use self-tracking tools, such as Fitbit or MyFitnessPal.

Well now there’s a self-tracking company that caters specifically to doctors, called Quantified Care. I think this is a fantastic development, because these tools can benefit doctors just as much as they do their patients. Here are a couple of infographics from Quantified Care that showcase this:

QC Infographic 1

QC Infographic 2

Atheism & AI

book_3d“He’s an atheist, the rule not the exception among AI experts.” So says James Barrat, talking about Eliezer Yudkowsky from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI).

I’m currently listening to the audio version of Barrat’s book ‘Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era’. It’s an enjoyable exploration of the dangers of artificial intelligence.

As an aside, I’m a bit worried that atheism is “the rule” for AI experts. I’d like my AI experts to be a bit more open-minded. Agnostic, at least.

The 1958 Perceptron: First Attempt At A Conscious Computer


While researching my second book, about augmented intelligence, I came across this New York Times article from July 7, 1958. The lead is “NEW NAVY DEVICE LEARNS BY DOING. Psychologist Shows Embryo of Computer Designed to Read and Grow Wiser.” Here’s the opening line:

The Navy revealed the embryo of an electronic computer today that it expects will be able to walk, talk, see, write, reproduce itself and be conscious of its existence.

The device was called a Perceptron, a marvelously 1950s scifi name, and was invented by one Frank Rosenblatt.

Of course, it was a wildly optimistic news report by The Times. 56 years later and the tech industry is nowhere near creating a conscious computer. In fact we still can’t even define consciousness, let alone create an artificial one.

Writer’s Log, 20/6/14: Update On Book Projects

A couple of quick updates on my writing projects.

1) The book I completed at the end of 2013, on the topic of self-tracking (a.k.a. Quantified Self) is still at the publisher. The publication date of January-February 2015 hasn’t changed. With any luck, it will arrive at the same time as the also long-awaited Apple iWatch!

2) I’m currently working on my second book, which will be about augmented intelligence. Earlier this month I returned from a trip to the US, where I conducted interviews and did archive research for the project. I’ll tell you more about it in upcoming posts.


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