A.I. Enablers Gear Up to Assault Intellect

Perhaps you haven’t noticed the investor class getting all gung-ho these days over Artificial Intelligence (AI). Only a couple of decades ago, these same people dismissed AI because it wasn’t very useful yet. But that’s all changed due to advances in machine vision and learning, and now VCs, hedge funds, and most of the rest of the usual big-money suspects are salivating over prospects of automating most of the rest of the economy, even including agriculture.

Thanks to its clot of institutions of higher learning, Boston—my fair city—is littered with tech startups and factories that churn them out. They and the Hub’s cloud of serial investors have created a knot of compressed energy, the nexus of which one can find at a suite in Kendall Square—epicenter of Boston’s tech scene, featuring outposts of Google, Oracle, Facebook and Amazon, pharma firms like Merck and Novartis and a host of biotechy startups fed by MIT’s biomedical research complex, augmented by its AI and Media Labs—where every Thursday evening prime movers get together for suds and savvy strategizing at private oasis called Venture Café. Continue reading “A.I. Enablers Gear Up to Assault Intellect”

How Technology Stakeholders Lose

An excerpt from a work in progress, a book called The Silica Papers: Who Technology Is and What She Wants, a set of essays that looks into what we can expect from this strange brave new world.

Our addictions to technology, especially of the digital sort and especially among the young, are manifest, but they aren’t entirely technology’s fault. Nor are they just the result of falling unto temptation, although practicing a bit more mindfulness and self-discipline wouldn’t hurt. Few of us ever asked for this stuff. We got it whether we wanted it or not, dreamed up by inventors and shoveled at us by the marketplace, packaged to titillate. And even what we think of as the good stuff often has a seamy underside that tries to hook us and then takes what it wants from us while we’re mesmerized. Technology won’t be denied, but the particular shapes it takes are fabricated by other forces that may not have our best interests at heart. Here are two stories of how our economy shapes the tech scene that in turn shapes us.

The Water Cooler Has Ears

For starters, you might not know that online social media is older than the personal computer. Forty years back, you only needed a computer terminal, a modem, and a telephone to participate in collaborative messaging apps called electronic bulletin board systems (BBS). They ran on minicomputers, were noncommercial, and staffed by volunteers (called SysOps). Some relics of that era still exist, but as the Net unfolded, BBS’s begat Usenet, then Reddit, Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. piled on, demonstrating that computer users crave real-time online contact—the core social media value proposition. But sooner or later, almost all proprietary social media platforms succumb to Wall Street discipline to monetize our personal data, relentlessly upgrade, piling on features we never wanted or needed, and stalk us wherever we roam.

Continue reading “How Technology Stakeholders Lose”

State of Emojincy⚠

Today we celebrate the release by Sony Pictures of “The Emoji Movie,” rated PG (for saucy language). Rush to see it before it sinks without a trace. One look at the animation’s trailer told me it’s everything I hoped it wouldn’t be. Okay, the characters look authentic and are well voiced by prominent actors, but finding Patrick Stewart reduced to playing a pile of poop  was particularly depressing. Basically the entire film is a promo for the eponymous app plus others for Google, Facebook, YouTube and DropBox. It is meant for children, of course, but the the protagonist is pathetic and the plot is a downer. Critics were sad-faced, to say the least, with reactions ranging from  to  to . Writing for rogerebert.com, critic Peter Sobczynski ended his review with

“The Emoji Movie” may be as depressing of a film experience as anything to come out this year but if the [lack of positive] reaction of the kids that I saw it with is any indication, there may be hope for the future after all.

We can hope against hope. The very fact that an emoji movie exists alarms me, but that it’s propaganda for big Internet brands hardly comes as a surprise. I guess I should get used to seeing more of that.

Continue reading “State of Emojincy⚠”

Go Solve Yourself

Having noted that there are seven billion human beings now weighing down the planet, most struggling for subsistence, the question that keeps corporations up at night is “How can we turn these poor wretches into consumers?” And more often than not the answer is “tether them with technology that we’ll constantly monitor and update.”

Due to the dispersed nature of talent and resources, high-tech expertise nests in niches, nooks, and crannies in all sorts of places, pursuing separate goals that may or may not be related. To maximize the market potential of up-and-coming makers and capitalize on it, corporate chiefs, technologists, government policy makers, non-governmental organizations, and academics have learned to meld minds to find ways and means to get the downtrodden up to speed in the digital economy. Many hard-striving institutions of higher learning have assumed the guise of problem-solvers-to-the-world to hone the bleeding edge of innovation to razor sharpness, and no one does it better than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Continue reading “Go Solve Yourself”

With Light Saber Toolbox Getting Started

[A little-known Star Wars fact: As an apprentice Jedi, Yoda paid his dues by serving as a technical writer. The following text is the first part of the only example of his work that has wormholed its way to us. It’s a user’s manual for installing, calibrating and using the software that light sabers need to function. In addition to his other formidable exploits, Yoda as a great technical communicator remembered will be.]

 

For purchasing Light Saber Toolbox®, thank you. For any application of a light saber—even opening packages—essential it is. Simple and pleasurable this guide the installation and operation of the toolbox makes. In it you find

  • Background – About your light saber
  • Installation – How the code to bootstrap
  • Control Logic – General operating principles
  • User Interfaces – Two of them, your choice
  • Self-Tests and Diagnostics – If trouble you encounter
  • For More Information – Learn more, you always can

Know we do that Light Saber Toolbox many generations of Jedi knights has faithfully served (some without upgrades, even). And you too it will if with the Force you abide. Continue reading “With Light Saber Toolbox Getting Started”

Catch of the Day

Flash fiction from a while ago, refurbished and scanned for malware

As usual, Max was working late. Not so usual for the pair of quality engineers who had invaded his cubicle, waiting to be noticed. “Earth to Max,” one of them finally annouced.

       “Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said,” he murmured, looking up from his tablet. His glasses were fogged from running through thickets of text and chasing after hyperlinks as he panned his face over to his two coworkers. His complexion seemed paler than usual.
       “I was trying to finger an entity that entered our room,” he said by way of an excuse. “Some of us think it’s an NSA droid.”
       His tone was hushed even though they were alone on the floor. Lakshmi asked “How can you tell it’s an agent, and how do you know it’s NSA?”
       Max glanced back to his screen. “It fits a profile, the way it insinuates itself. MrEd ID’ed it as the type that showed up in May trolling for Wikileaks sources.”
       Rob reiterated. “Anyway, I asked you how the tests were coming along. We need to validate the release tonight.”
       “It’ll happen. But this thing that barged into the chat room calling itself SkyRocket spooks me. Has to be disposed of.”
       “You’re sure?” Lakshmi asked, eyes imploring. “Can’t it wait?”
       “For what?” Max snapped back. “For them to bust us before we finish collecting evidence from the agency?”
       “About…?”
       “Can’t go there, Lakshmi. You know that. Just assume it involves the surveillance state peeking up your address.”
       Lakshmi sighed. “Okay, okay. We know you hack for freedom, but must you handle this thing now? We only have twelve hours to wrap testing and upload the release, you know.” Her fingers drummed out Helter Skelter on Max’s desk.
       Max was adamant. “Somebody needs to fire off Skyrocket, and I think I know how.” He punched some keys, stuffed his tablet into his backpack, and struggled up, his chair and his limbs creaking in unison. “Gotta go. Back in a few hours to mop up.”
       “Where are you going?” Rob asked. “Home?”
       “Norway, actually” was Max’s reply. “TTFN.”
       They stared after Max as he padded down the corridor. They had dropped by his cube to dope-slap him back to work. It hadn’t worked.
       Rob growled “I guess we gotta run his test code, if we can figure out how. Let’s hope it doesn’t find too many bugs.”

Max hurried through the parking lot to his car, unholstering his cell phone to dash off a message. When a response beeped he cranked the engine and lurched onto the highway. Fifty minutes later his wheels were two counties away. His mind was elsewhere, but the GPS kept him on course.

At daybreak, Lakshmi and Rob were still in his cubicle sorting through test logs when Max waddled in clutching a coffee cup.
       “How was Norway?” inquired Lakshmi. “Catch any fish?”
       “Big ones,” Max purred through a yawn.
       “Cut bait,” Rob demanded. “Where did you really go?”
       “I needed to visit a friend of mine. He has this really obscure tap into the Net. I couldn’t risk using my connection.”
       Lakshmi tossed her hair. “In Norway, right?”
       “No, but the proxy server we hooked into is, and it spoofed an IP address for us inside the FBI.”
       “Then what?”
       “So I suckered Skyrocket into a private chat room and told him Israel was collecting certain stuff they had no need to know and offered a few tidbits. When they analyze what went down between us, NSA will see Skyrocket debriefing some rogue FBI agent. Just a little red herring to keep them off balance until we’re ready to reveal all.”
       Creaking into his seat, Max continued, “Now let me run the other tests you should have done while you go fix whatever bugs you found.” Max—or at least his body—was back.

Will Drive for Food and Sex

Q: How did the “sharing economy” become a predatory landscape?

A: It’s simple; Capitalism is a predatory beast. Corporations will appropriate idealism, deceive customers, cheat workers, and squander good will in a New York Minute if doing so accrues value to shareholders and executives.

As Dean Baker wrote in CounterPunch several years ago, “… in their exuberance over the next big thing, many boosters [of the sharing economy] have overlooked the reality that this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law.” He’s right about the criminality but his piece paints sharing with too broad a brush.

There’s an old Russian proverb that Trump and his minions should take to heart: “A fish rots from the head.” It’s redolent of the kind of moral decay that sets in when CEOs mistake market share, earnings and valuation for virtue. The stench that now pervades the entire economy is overpowering to everyone who doesn’t have a financial bubble to wall it out. Continue reading “Will Drive for Food and Sex”

A Cowbird Walks out of a Bar…

For close to five years I have been a member of an online community of writers called for no compelling reason cowbird.com, which grew to encompass 14,000+ writers who put out almost 90,000 stories, all tagged and organized, most with images, some with audio. Members could love and comment on stories and privately message one another. It was a happening place for authors and visual artists

Yesterday, Cowbird turned to stone. The writers and the stories will remain, but authors and readers can no longer interact and no new stories can be posted. Instead of being a living “library of human experience” it’s become the library’s archives. Continue reading “A Cowbird Walks out of a Bar…”

What Would Henry Do?

[Dug out this 2006 essay from my archives because it seems to apply as much now as a decade ago. Only the technology has moved on, not the human species.]

Dedicated to Peter Balen

If life has you feeling more overwhelmed and less able to cope all the time, it might not just be encroaching senility, the accumulation of bad chemicals in your body, or even 9-11. Consider what might connect such random areas of interest as

  • Prescription drug programs
  • Retirement planning
  • Airline deregulation
  • The blogosphere
  • School vouchers
  • Globalization

Continue reading “What Would Henry Do?”