Posts Tagged ‘IBM

16
Feb
11

one more chance for humans?

I’ve been following with interest the “Jeopardy!” programs featuring Watson, the IBM supercomputer designed to play the game. On the first program Monday Watson took an early lead over the human “Jeopardy!” champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but it seemed stumped when the high-dollar questions were reached, and the game ended in a tie between Watson and Rutter. In the second game Watson ran away with the lead.

So what caught my attention this morning was the headline of the article in International Business Times: “Round Two Goes to Watson; Humans Have One More Chance.” So how did the article’s author, Gabriel Pena, mean “one more chance for humans”? One more chance to win “Jeopardy!” ? Or does it mean something more existentially ominous: one more chance for humans before we’re replace by machines smarter than we are?

I don’t think it’s time to panic. And I’m a real skeptic of ideas like the “singularity”: a time in the not-too-distant-future at which computers become so intelligent and superior at controlling systems in our world that we’re irrelevant.

But my wife’s reaction to the prospect of Watson beating some really smart guys is telling. She asked, “So who’s going to loose their job?” Ah, yes! Haven’t we learned a few things during the so-called “Great Recession”? One of them is that people laid off are not being rehired; companies are investing in “productivity” tools rather than jobs. “Productivity” is a code word for doing the same work with fewer jobs.  If you are not the person running the new productivity devices then your job’s in jeopardy for sure. Implementing higher productivity has been a basic economic process for a long time, but Watson’s technology is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Technological productivity advances are like riding on the back of a tiger: if you stay on its back you’re okay, but if you fall off you’re chow. Watson is a productivity system that appears to have made a real stride in being able to take a English language question and parse it into a specific information request better than than earlier question-answering technologies. IBM calls it “open question answering.” The company is going to turn this into commercial procuct and apply it initially in medicine and medical law. It will help researchers or doctors plow through vast stores of unstructured information like journals to come up with answers to their questions more efficiently than anything before.  As and IBM exec, David McQueeney, said to the Washing Post this morning:

“Imagine taking Watson, and instead of feeding it song lyrics and Shakespeare, imagine feeding it medical papers and theses,” he said. “And put that machine next to an expert human clinician.”

With the computer intelligently processing a vast amount of data and the doctor using his or her own professional knowledge to guide and refine a search, McQueeney said, IBM thinks the quality of that diagnosis could be better than what the doctor comes up with alone.

Looks like doctors will be the first up on the back of this tiger.

I have been a skeptic about artificial intelligence for a long time. I’ve been hearing that AI is right around the corner since the ’50s. Lots of claims have been made but, like the rocket-belt, flying car, nuclear fusion, undersea cities, and the cure for cancer, the expected results haven’t been delivered. Watson is by no means and equivalent to human intelligence, but it appears to be an indicator that progress is being made. We’re not about to be made totally obsolete any time soon — if ever — but the “second chance” for many of us is to stay abreast of this emerging technology and use it as our tool rather than have it put us behind the 8-ball.

26
Dec
10

Auguring the future

I can’t help being fascinated by prognostications about the future. My last post was about online jobs for 2011, and the end of the year provokes a lot of crystal ball gazing. Even heavyweights like IBM indulge in exercising their forecasting skills. You’ve gotta pay at least  some attention to what an outfit with such a solid track record has to say. These are things to happen between now and 2015.

  1. Batteries for your gadgets will last up to ten times longer. The batteries will “breathe” or take in oxygen from the air and react with energy-dense metals to generate energy.
  2. In some devices batteries could be replaced entirely by scavenging energy from our surroundings. Watches that maintain a charge by taking energy from the motion of your wrist, as some do today, is an example. There’s a lot of unused energy around; the problem is transducing it.
  3. IBM plans to recycle much of the energy used in data centers to heat buildings and drive air conditioning. Up to half of the energy of data centers today is just to keep the servers cool, and it goes out to the air again through cooling towers. Hey, I might be able to heat my shower water with my home computers?
  4. They’re expecting 3D communication person to person by hologram like Princes Leia in the first Stars Wars movie.
  5. IBM’s looking at “adaptive traffic systems” that’ll personalize your commute,  predict traffic jams and adjust the flow. (It’s kinda discouraging to think that people will still be grinding away their lives on commutes to awful offices. Let’s go with the holograms and Google’s self-driving vehicles.)
  6. Finally, Big Blue predicts that we ordinary citizens will be “walking sensors” equipped with enough environmental sensors in our phones to keep a running data stream to analysts who can use it to do scientific ecological research.

I’m disappointed that IBM didn’t mention health applications of being walking sensors, so I’ll add another prediction of my own: By 2015 we’ll be wired with sensors alright, but many of them will be plastered on us so continuous data can be collected about how our body is doing 24/7. With that I think we’ll be able to get a lot closer to the idea of personalized medicine and personalized health behavior. There are a lot of companies already working on a range of data collection devices and another five years ought to bring much of it into common use.

02
Nov
10

“American Dream” or World Dream?

Last weekend Fareed Zakaria on his CNN show, GPS, did a great set of interviews with four CEOs of major “American” companies: Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM; Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa; Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola; and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. They all opined on the show’s topic : Restoring the American Dream.” I found this an interesting coincidence since my last post was about how an iconic US company, Intel, has become a global giant that is sprinkling the largess of its chip manufacturing business around the world including a community in my own backyard.

I thought the questions from Fareed and responses from the execs did an exceptional job of examining what led up to the current anxiety about the country’s future and of eliciting some thoughtful ideas about what needs to be done to get back on track to a strong economy and national self-confidence. I would encourage everyone to watch the podcast.

Of the four CEOs, the one whose remarks resonated most with me was Lou Gerstner, perhaps because we appear to be about the same age and perhaps have witnessed the same history. He raised some issues I’ve thought about but that I have not seen discussed before. Fareed asked Gerstner if we could get back to the American Dream of the past. Gerstner said:

We come from a world where we sort of  had it made. The American Dream was a reality but it was driven by factors that no longer exist. We were alone in the world after WWII. In fact the war itself got us out of a depression and got us into investments in important technologies. And then we had the cold war; we had Sputnik. We had all these things that drove us to have a common purpose. Today I don’t see that.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s what I experienced growing up. During WWII the major nations in Europe and Asia were knocked flat on their backs. They spent more than a generation recovering from the war. During that time Americans seemed to inflate with the idea of  American exceptionalism.  I think there was a degree of racial arrogance in it as well. Many seemed to think that our Caucasian, post-European culture made us inherently superior to the masses of dark-skinned, black-haired people of the world just struggling to survive. We would always be on top because we were superior and, et sequitur, we deserved to be there.

Sputnik gave the US a great shock for which I will be forever grateful. California, where I was born, had developed a first-rate public education system, and I was drafted into a strong curriculum of math and science in high school. After all, the country needed rocket scientists. I attended University of California schools at a fraction of what kids pay today. Of course, that was also before the taxpayers decided in 1978 through the infamous Prop. 13 they didn’t want to support community education that much with property taxes and precipitated the decline of education in the state.

The other CEOs on Fareed’s show last weekend did a good job explaining how global trade — which was supposed to enlarge America’s power and wealth — turned around to bite us in the butt. It turns out there are a lot of hungry, smart, hard-working people in the world who would like to make the American Dream their dream too. The American Dream is the model for the global middle-class vision.

My takeaway from “Restoring the American Dream” is that today’s families have to greatly enlarge the frame within which they plan for their future well-being. The playing field for prosperity grows more and more level. Thinking just locally about  job security is not enough. Over the horizon there are many millions of children in classrooms and workers in factories aspiring to live affluently. Rising to that level and staying there is going to take a lifetime of foresight and effort.




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