Welcome to the future

I showed this video to rapturous applause in my final class at Upward Bound. The speaker is Pranav Mistry, a young Indian technologist at MIT. He outlines the development of his Sixth Sense system of augmented reality. The video starts off rather slowly, but as we works through the evolution of his thinking and demonstrates more and more audacious applications of the technology, it becomes rather a thrill-ride. This technology has so many potential uses that it’s hard to believe that it won’t be in widespread use within a few years. I’d imagine the next step is having the augmentative imagery displayed in a head-up fashion, using glasses or even (eventually) contacts.

I especially appreciate the way that Mistry talks about us ceasing to be machines sitting in front of machines, and instead humanizes technology by making it a natural part of the way we interact with the world. In Mistry’s vision, technology is like air — ubiquitous and taken for granted. At the moment our digital world is confined within various rectangles. It’s rather as if we had to carry all our air around in bottles. Mistry allows the digital world and the analog world to blend seamlessly, so that we simply use it, the way we simply use oxygen.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy!

Robert Wright on the emerging planetary consciousness

Interesting and provocative stuff from writer (and meditator) Robert Wright:

This autumn will see the publication of a book that promises to help us out here: “What Technology Wants,” by Kevin Kelly, a long-time tech-watcher who helped launch Wired magazine and was its executive editor back in its young, edgy days.

Don’t let the title of Kelly’s book terrify you. He assures us that he doesn’t think technology is conscious — at least, not “at this point.” For now, he says, technology’s “mechanical wants are not carefully considered deliberations but rather leanings.”

So relax; apparently we have a few years before Keanu Reeves gets stuffed into a gooey pod by robotic overlords who use people as batteries. Still, it’s notable that, before Reeves played that role in “The Matrix,” the movie’s directors gave him a copy of Kelly’s earlier book, “Out of Control,” as preparation. And Kelly does say in “What Technology Wants” that technology is increasingly like “a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.”

Well, I don’t know about the “urges” part, but it’s true that technology is weaving humans into electronic webs that resemble big brains — corporations, online hobby groups, far-flung N.G.O.s. And I personally don’t think it’s outlandish to talk about us being, increasingly, neurons in a giant superorganism; certainly an observer from outer space, watching the emergence of the Internet, could be excused for looking at us that way. In fact, the superorganism scenario is in a sense just the cosmic flip side of the diagnosis offered by Carr and other techno-skeptics.

Read the rest of the article…

The computer that wins at Jeopardy

An interesting thing is happening in the field of artificial intelligence: a computer that can beat humans in a natural-language general knowledge quiz:

‘Toured the Burj in this U.A.E. city. They say it’s the tallest tower in the world; looked over the ledge and lost my lunch.”

This is the quintessential sort of clue you hear on the TV game show “Jeopardy!” It’s witty (the clue’s category is “Postcards From the Edge” ), demands a large store of trivia and requires contestants to make confident, split-second decisions. This particular clue appeared in a mock version of the game in December, held in Hawthorne, N.Y. at one of I.B.M.’s research labs. Two contestants — Dorothy Gilmartin, a health teacher with her hair tied back in a ponytail, and Alison Kolani, a copy editor — furrowed their brows in concentration. Who would be the first to answer?

Neither, as it turned out. Both were beaten to the buzzer by the third combatant: Watson, a supercomputer.

For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like Google and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself. Technologists have long regarded this sort of artificial intelligence as a holy grail, because it would allow machines to converse more naturally with people, letting us ask questions instead of typing keywords. Software firms and university scientists have produced question-answering systems for years, but these have mostly been limited to simply phrased questions. Nobody ever tackled “Jeopardy!” because experts assumed that even for the latest artificial intelligence, the game was simply too hard: the clues are too puzzling and allusive, and the breadth of trivia is too wide.

With Watson, I.B.M. claims it has cracked the problem — and aims to prove as much on national TV. The producers of “Jeopardy!” have agreed to pit Watson against some of the game’s best former players as early as this fall. To test Watson’s capabilities against actual humans, I.B.M.’s scientists began holding live matches last winter. They mocked up a conference room to resemble the actual “Jeopardy!” set, including buzzers and stations for the human contestants, brought in former contestants from the show and even hired a host for the occasion: Todd Alan Crain, who plays a newscaster on the satirical Onion News Network.

Technically speaking, Watson wasn’t in the room. It was one floor up and consisted of a roomful of servers working at speeds thousands of times faster than most ordinary desktops. Over its three-year life, Watson stored the content of tens of millions of documents, which it now accessed to answer questions about almost anything. (Watson is not connected to the Internet; like all “Jeopardy!” competitors, it knows only what is already in its “brain.”) During the sparring matches, Watson received the questions as electronic texts at the same moment they were made visible to the human players; to answer a question, Watson spoke in a machine-synthesized voice through a small black speaker on the game-show set. When it answered the Burj clue — “What is Dubai?” (“Jeopardy!” answers must be phrased as questions) — it sounded like a perkier cousin of the computer in the movie “WarGames” that nearly destroyed the world by trying to start a nuclear war.

This time, though, the computer was doing the right thing. Watson won $1,000 (in pretend money, anyway), pulled ahead and eventually defeated Gilmartin and Kolani soundly, winning $18,400 to their $12,000 each.

“Watson,” Crain shouted, “is our new champion!”

Continued in the New York Times…

Readability: a simple tool for simplifying the web

Readability is a simple tool that makes reading on the Web more enjoyable by removing the clutter around what you’re reading.

It’s a simple bookmark that you put on your browser toolbar and then click when you want to simplify a web page. On a blog it removes all the sidebars and ads, allowing you to focus on the main content. On a regular site it can be useful for reformatting the font and column width. Here’s an example:

“Before”

readability

Note the excessively wide “column.” Actually, the text runs right across the page width, meaning that your eyes have to work very hard to scan across the width of the text.

“After”

readability

See how much easier it would be to read the text in a proper column?

Here’s another “before.”

readability

Ironically, this one is in an article about website clutter. Note that the entire web page is off to the side of the browser rather than centered. The “sidebar” is actually in the center of the screen. And the article surrounded by distracting images, ads, and navigation. This makes it much harder to concentrate on the article.

And here’s “after.”

readability

Centered, clean, simple.

This kind of tool is very useful when you want to use the connectivity of the web, but still maintain a sense of mindfulness and simplicity.

To enable Readability, just go to their site and follow the simple instructions (1. choose your settings, 2 drag the button to your browser toolbar, 3 click on the button when you want to simplify a page).

Incidentally, the new safari 4 browser from Apple has this as a built in option.