Computers with Common Sense?

The whole idea behind products, such as Siri, is to give computers a friendlier face. Much like the computer on the Enterprise in Star Trek, you converse with the machine and get intelligent answers back much of the time. The problem is that computers don’t currently have common sense. A computer really doesn’t understand anything anyone says to it. What you’re seeing is incredibly complex and clever programming. The understanding is in the math behind the programming. Computers truly are machines that perform math-related tasks with extreme speed and perfection.

It was with great interest that I recently read an article on the Guardian, Google a step closer to developing machines with human-like intelligence. The opening statement is misleading and meant to bedazzle the audience, but then the article gets into the actual process behind computers that could emulate common sense well enough that we’d anthropomorphize them even more than we do now. If the efforts of Professor Geoff Hinton and others are successful, computers could potentially pass the Turing Test in a big way. In short, it would become hard to tell a computer apart from a human. We very well could treat them as friends sometime in the future (some people are almost there now).

Articles often allude to scientific principles, but don’t really explain them. The principle at play in this case is the use of sentiment analysis based on words and word n-grams. You can build a sentiment analysis by using machine learning and multiclass predictors. Fortunately, you don’t have to drive yourself nuts trying to understand the basis for the code you find online. Luca and I wrote Python for Data Science for Dummies to make it easier to understand the science behind the magic that modern applications seemingly ply. Let me know your thoughts about the future of computers with common sense at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Global Wireless Internet

We live in an exciting time. The Internet makes it possible for all sorts of information exchange to occur at speeds that have never been seen before. The only major obstacle still in the way is ensuring everyone can access the Internet from any location. That’s why stories like the recent ComputerWorld offering, “SpaceX working on micro-satellite network for Internet access” and the LiveScience offering, “Google Invests Billions on Satellites to Expand Internet Access” fascinate me. I live in a rural community where the Internet connection options aren’t always the best and certainly not of the high speed variety found in major cities. Anything that helps me work faster and gain access to the Internet with fewer delays and downtime is welcome.

What astounds me is the assertion in the article that 60 percent of the world still has no Internet access at all. I imagine some percentage of the world doesn’t care because it doesn’t have computer access either. However, it would be nice if the rest of the world would have a choice at least of accepting or rejecting Internet access as the case might be.

Of course, Americans (and many other parts of the world) assumes that everyone wants Internet access. After having had first hand contact with more than a few groups who are doing just fine without the Internet, I think the assumption is invalid. In fact, many of the articles I read in magazines such as National Geographic and Smithsonian tell me that there are cultures that are actively working hard to retain their identity, which doesn’t involve any sort of Internet access. Be that as it may, it would still be nice if they could access the Internet sometime in the future, should they wish to do so.

I’m looking forward to the day when worldwide Internet access is not only available, but available at high enough speed so that everyone can enjoy the advanced features the Internet has to provide. The satellite networks I’ve been reading about bring a lot of promise with them. Even though some people have said that no amount of bandwidth will ever be enough, I think there is a level of performance that will provide the kind of performance people need to achieve common goals. Anything over this base amount would help people realize wants, versus needs. For example, finding a doctor is a need, playing a high end video game probably falls more into the want category.

How do you feel about the expansion of Internet access across the world? Are there technologies other than satellites that we should be exploring (as far as I know, satellites are the only technology being using right now to bring the Internet to truly remote locations)? Let me know your thoughts about Internet connectivity at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Technology Hoaxes Galore

Looking for insane uses of technology has given me no limit of mirth in the past. Whenever I need a good laugh, I’ll look at someone’s interpretive use of technology that couldn’t possibly ever work. Sometimes it makes for good entertainment, as in futuristic movies (where it can’t be proven that the technology won’t work that way someday), but some offenders just look silly.

I read an article some time ago and recently read it again today because it really did bring home the absurd use of technology in some situations. In this case, the author is pointing out the odd and nonsensical uses of technology in crime shows. You can read 6 Howlingly Unrealistic Hollywood Portrayals of Law Enforcement Using Computers for yourself to see if your favorite show makes obvious errors in computer use. The fact is that most people buy into these computer usage scenarios, even if they know better. There is a point where artistic license for the sake of making a show or movie entertaining ends and these shows definitely jump the shark. It would be just as easy to create a convincing scenario that might not be precisely true, but close enough to reality to make for a better program. (I recently did a review of Gravity—a movie that does the job right.)

However, you don’t have to look to the entertainment industry for examples of technology hoaxes (or gimmickry, such as Google Glass, that should be a hoax). The most recent example of such silliness is the Amazon.com plan to deliver packages less than five pounds via drone. A number of industry pundits enthusiastically embraced the technology—I’ll spare them the embarrassment of a public mention here. One person who wasn’t fooled in the least is John Dvorak who lampoons the attempt as nothing more than an advertizing stunt (and he does name names).

The act of perpetrating technology hoaxes isn’t new and you can count on more of them appearing in the future because people will remain gullible enough to believe them. (If I’m really concerned about a particular hoax, I’ll check it out on Hoax Busters or Snopes.com.) Using artistic license to explore what could be true is entertaining and definitely within the purview of good fiction. Purposely creating a hoax for the purpose of fooling the public into believing something that can’t ever work is something else.

At some point you have to point out the hoax for what it is. What is your view on technology hoaxes? Which technology assertions do you see as a potential hoax today? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Guessing At What Your User Wants Doesn’t Work

Web-based applications seem determined to embrace a form of automation that really doesn’t make a lot of sense and it’s causing more than a little woe for end users. Personalization, the act of guessing what a user wants based on previous activity, is a serious problem. At one level, personalization is actually costing vendors sales. For example, because of my previous searches on Amazon, I couldn’t find a product I really wanted. Amazon kept suggesting items I didn’t want or need. I ended up buying the product on another site and only later found I could purchase it on Amazon for less money. (Not to pick on Amazon too much, I have the same sorts of problems with other sites such as Google.)

Adding personalization to an application is supposed to help a user find items of interest, but we often need to search for something other than the usual item or may not even know what we want. In these situations, personalization actually gets in the way. A recent article, “Personalization is collapsing the Web” expresses the idea clearly by pointing out that people are sometimes ill-informed about current issues because personalization hides relevant news from view. The problem is so prevalent that it now has a name, the filter bubble, as described in “Content Personalization: How Much Is Too Much?” Users can’t find the information they need and vendors are losing sales due to the filter bubble created by various search engine vendors such as Microsoft (in Bing).

In order to provide personalization, sites must track your every move. It isn’t just the National Security Agency (NSA) that snoops on you, but just about everyone else on the Web as well. To some extent, any suggestion that you have any privacy on the Web is simply unrealistic. However, there comes a point at which the snooping, categorization, and misinformed suggestions get to the point of ridiculous and savvy users start searching for alternatives. One such alternative espoused by writers such as John Dvorak is DuckDuckGo. At least it doesn’t track your every move or provide you with suggestions that you don’t need. The prying can even take odd turns, such as the woman who was arrested for researching a pressure cooker on Google.

Guessing, even if the guessing is informed by previous activity, usually won’t work for an application. In fact, it’s probably a bad practice for a lot of reasons. Here are the things that you should consider when thinking about adding personalization to your application.

 

  • Guesses are usually wrong because few personalization engines can actually understand user needs successfully.
  • Personalization can cost an organization money by hiding products, services, or information that a user really needs.
  • Wrongful suggestions reduce the confidence the user has in the application.
  • Tracking the user makes the user feel spied upon.
  • Time and resources required to track a user and offer personalized suggestions could be better spent by making the application faster, more reliable, and more secure.


Odd as it might seen, I have never yet encountered a situation where personalization was an aid to anything other than making me leave the site for a location that isn’t personalized. When viewing a news site, it’s better to see the top stories of the day and drill down into the less sensational stories as needed. In most cases, what I really need is a good search engine that helps me find what I want, once I know what it is. Let me know your thoughts about personalization at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.