Writer’s Log, 3/10/14: Update On Books 1 & 2

I’ve just completed the first draft of the opening chapter for my second book, on the topic of augmented intelligence. I’m very pleased with the story arc of this book. It took me many months to work it out, but I have a solid structure now. That plus the experience gained from writing book #1 have led me into a good writing flow early on. I hope that continues! I’ll tell you more about this book in future updates.

As for book #1, it’s about to make its debut at the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair – the world’s largest trade fair for books. The book is entitled Trackers: How Technology Is Helping Us Monitor & Improve Our Health and is set for public release this January. I’ve gotten very encouraging feedback so far, from people in the industry who have read it and written promotional blurbs. I can’t wait for everyone else to read it! This process seems to have taken forever, as I finished writing it at the end of last year. However the good news is that the book is even more relevant now, since self-tracking is only just beginning to ramp up. When Trackers is released – with any luck concurrently with Apple Watch – I’m sure it’ll be well timed.

What Apple Watch Means For Trackers

Apple Watch

This morning Apple announced its much anticipated smartwatch, called Apple Watch. It will be released “early 2015,” which I’m thrilled to say is also when my book about self-tracking will be released! My book, entitled Trackers: How Technology Is Helping Us Monitor & Improve Our Health, is about how technology is fundamentally changing how we track our daily health and care for our bodies. The book tells the stories behind the Fitbit activity tracker, food-logging app MyFitnessPal, personal genomics company 23andMe, and other self-tracking pioneers.

There’s nothing in the new Apple Watch that usurps the functionality of those existing tracking products. But what the Apple Watch will do is take self-tracking mainstream in a big way.

When I began writing my book, Trackers, I knew it had to be about more than the technology. Because at the time I started, I couldn’t know what tracking product Apple – or indeed any other company – would eventually release. I only knew that newer and better tracking products would come out; and that Apple’s would be a game-changer. So in writing my book, I prepared for that. Instead of writing about how to use the existing products, I focused on the philosophy and usefulness of health tracking.

This promotional video is a great overview of what Apple Watch will bring to the self-tracking table:

 

I should note firstly that Apple Watch is not solely focused on health tracking. The tracking is just one of many features that Apple Watch appears to have. Indeed its timekeeping and social features were highlighted in Apple CEO Tim Cook’s keynote today. But I personally think the self-tracking functionality in Apple Watch will be one of the most appreciated features, when the new watch becomes available in early 2015. Apple says that its watch is “made to measure all the ways you move.” Here’s how Apple explains the tracking features:

Apple Watch unites the capabilities of an all-day fitness tracker and a highly advanced sports watch in one device you can wear all the time. It can track a wider variety of activities because it’s able to collect more types of data. It uses an accelerometer to measure your total body movement. It has a custom sensor that can measure intensity by tracking your heart rate. And it uses the GPS and Wi‑Fi in your iPhone to track how far you’ve moved.

Note that you’ll need an iPhone in order to use the Apple Watch. But that’s hardly surprising, in this era of big tech companies tying you into their platforms.

3 Rings To Rule Them All

OK that’s the hardware side of it. There’s also the software.

Apple Watch fitness

The watch will come with an “Activity app,” which will be a circular visualization of your daily health.

The Activity app on Apple Watch provides a simple and powerful graphic of your daily activity, with three rings telling you everything you need to know. The Move ring shows how many calories you’ve burned. The Exercise ring shows how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve done. And the Stand ring shows how often you’ve stood up to take a break from sitting. The goal? Sit less, move more, and get some exercise by completing each ring every day.

Apple Watch

I think the key part of the software will be how Apple Watch motivates you to “lead a healthier life by being more active” (that quote is from the video):

Each week, Apple Watch suggests a new Move goal for how many active calories to burn per day, based on your recent history. Adjust it up or down until it feels just right. You close the Move ring when you meet your personal active calorie burn goal for the day.

This gets at the heart of self-tracking, and what my book is all about. In order to stay healthy, you need to understand your body and what its needs are. Technology on its own doesn’t do that, but it can help. That’s what fascinated me about Fitbit, MyFitnessPal and even the controversial 23andMe. This is what excites me about the new Apple Watch too – it’ll help you monitor and maintain your health. Whether that’s through exercise or the watch simply telling you that you’re sitting down too much, Apple Watch will help you “minimize your sedentary time throughout the day.”

Apple Watch iphone

The iPhone will complement the Apple Watch, in that it will enable you to “track your progress over time.”

Apple Watch lets you see your daily activity at a glance. To see your progress and trends over longer periods of time, there’s Fitness — an Apple Watch companion app on your iPhone. You can view your activity history, workouts, and achievements by the day, the week, and the month. And it’s easy to zoom in on the details to see just how far you’ve come.

Health App

Apple Watch will also be able to connect with third party apps, like Fitbit:

There’s also a Health app on iPhone that allows you to share your activity and workout data with your favorite third-party health and fitness apps.

In conclusion, the Apple Watch looks to be a highly advanced – and great looking – smartwatch. Plus it turns out that the publication of my Trackers book will be perfectly timed to coincide with its release. So when you buy your Apple Watch in early 2015, I hope you buy my book too!

Viv: Siri Mark II

Viv

Two co-founders of Siri, the virtual assistant in Apple’s iPhone and iPad, have just announced their latest startup: Viv. It’s another virtual assistant.

RicMac’s Two Cents: Siri is a big part of the book I’m currently writing. I see it as the first widely popular consumer AI product. I’m writing about “augmented intelligence” and Siri is, to my mind, the prototypical app of that kind in the current era. By the sounds of the Wired profile, Viv is the next big step for Siri-like functionality. It’s going to be an open platform, meaning that hundreds of different apps will hook into it. The company is calling it “the global brain” and “an intelligent interface to everything.” Those are huge claims, even in an industry that thrives on hype. But if anyone can deliver that vision, it’s Adam Cheyer and Dag Kittlaus. I interviewed Cheyer for my book, along with Siri’s other co-founder Tom Gruber (he’s still at Apple). If Cheyer’s track record is anything to go by, Viv will be a very significant product in the future of AI. One to watch!

IBM’s Brain Inspired Computer Chip

SyNAPSE

IBM is touting a “new type of computer chip, SyNAPSE, whose architecture is inspired by the human brain.”

RicMac’s Two Cents: Traditional computers rely on ‘brute force’ in order to be intelligent (the so-called von Neumann architecture), but this new chip is modeled on how the brain works. A key point is that this technology will complement the brute force approach, not replace it. As the Forbes article put it: “…to crunch big numbers and do heavy computational lifting, we’ll still need conventional computers. Where these “cognitive” computers come in is in analyzing and discerning patterns in that data.” It’s early days and so far IBM’s technology, which is backed by DARPA, has yet to prove itself in the real world. But I like that the focus is on complementing the traditional computer chip, which in turn complements our own brains. So the ideal result would be having both kinds of chips augmenting our native intelligence. I’ll be tracking this with interest.

Further Facts:

The chip attempts to mimic the way brains recognize patterns, relying on densely interconnected webs of transistors similar to the brain’s neural networks. (New York Times)

Each core of the chip is modeled on a simplified version of the brain’s neural architecture. The core contains 256 “neurons” (processors), 256 “axons” (memory) and 64,000 “synapses” (communications between neurons and axons). This structure is a radical departure from the von Neumann architecture that’s the basis of virtually every computer today. (Forbes)

In a von Neumann computer, the storage and handling of data is divvied up between the machine’s main memory and its central processing unit. To do their work, computers carry out a set of instructions, or programs, sequentially by shuttling data from memory (where it’s stored) to the CPU (where it’s crunched). Because the memory and CPU are separated, data needs to be transferred constantly. (Wired)

Augmented Chat: Emu Acquired By Google

Emu

Today Google bought Emu, an iPhone app which TechCrunch described as “an IM client with Siri-like intelligence.”

RicMac’s Two Cents: Emu is a great example of how apps and Web services are getting smarter, taking some of the cognitive load off us humans. While messaging apps are a dime a dozen currently, adding virtual assistant technology to messaging was an inspired idea. I expect to see this ‘smart’ functionality in the next versions of the big IM services: Apple’s iMessage, Facebook’s Messenger, Skype, etc. And of course, what a smart move by Google – yet another AI (artificial intelligence) technology it has snapped up.

Further Facts: The ties to Siri are deep. Emu co-founder Gummi Hafsteinsson was VP Product at Siri, prior to its acquisition by Apple in 2010. He continued working on the Siri team at Apple up till January 2012, then co-founded Emu a month later with Yahoo alumni Dave Feldman. Hafsteinsson told TC in April 2014 how Emu was inspired by Siri: “I felt that you kind of had to engage Siri all the time, and I wanted to create an assistant that was more in the background and proactive.” Interestingly, he described this as a “Google Now-like” concept – implying that Google Now is more sophisticated than Siri.

Here’s an Emu company video that shows how clunky our current txting and messaging interfaces are, compared to Emu’s automation of background tasks.

Vernor Vinge & Cognitive Computing

VernorVinge_RainbowsEndScience fiction author Vernor Vinge, interviewed by Reason magazine in May 2007:

Reason: You dedicate Rainbows End “to the Internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives—Wikipedia, Google, eBay, and the others of their kind, now and in the future.” What’s the story behind this dedication?

Vinge: I regard the current Internet as a test bed for the cognitive coordination of people and databases and computers. Tools such as Google, eBay, and Wikipedia are—I hope—harbingers of much more spectacular developments.

RicMac: That was 7 years ago and, as usual, Vinge’s foresight was razor sharp. The cutting edge of the 2014 era is machine learning technology, such as IBM’s Watson and the many AI startups that Google has acquired recently. These developments are enabling a more advanced version of what Vinge called “the cognitive coordination of people and databases and computers.” We haven’t reached spectacular yet, but it’s heading in that direction…

“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.

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