“links” Category

The Successor to Siri and Open Data

The founders of Siri are working on a new service called Viv that can link disparate sources of information together to answer questions:

But Kittlaus points out that all of these services are strictly limited. Cheyer elaborates: “Google Now has a huge knowledge graph—you can ask questions like ‘Where was Abraham Lincoln born?’ And it can name the city. You can also say, ‘What is the population?’ of a city and it’ll bring up a chart and answer. But you cannot say, ‘What is the population of the city where Abraham Lincoln was born?’” The system may have the data for both these components, but it has no ability to put them together, either to answer a query or to make a smart suggestion. Like Siri, it can’t do anything that coders haven’t explicitly programmed it to do.

Viv breaks through those constraints by generating its own code on the fly, no programmers required. Take a complicated command like “Give me a flight to Dallas with a seat that Shaq could fit in.” Viv will parse the sentence and then it will perform its best trick: automatically generating a quick, efficient program to link third-party sources of information together—say, Kayak, SeatGuru, and the NBA media guide—so it can identify available flights with lots of legroom. And it can do all of this in a fraction of a second.

If I understand the advancement they’ve made, the service (1) will allow third-parties to link in their information or service and define what it is in a structured fashion (so Yelp could define their information set as points of interest, user ratings and reviews, and Uber could make their car service available) and (2) the service knows how to connect multiple information and/or services together so that it can answer a user’s question or fulfill their request.

The Wired article linked above provides an example of what this would look like. A user tell Viv that they need to pick up a bottle of wine that pairs well with lasagna on the way to their brother’s house.

Providing a solution to that requires the interaction of many different information sets and services. Viv would (1) use the user’s contacts to look up their brother’s address, (2) use a mapping service to create a route from the user’s current location to their brother’s house, along with some radius along the route with which the user is willing to deviate from to pick up the bottle of wine, (3) identify what ingredients compose “lasagna,” (4) identify what wines pair well with those ingredients, and (5) find stores within the specified radius of the user’s route that carries that wine.

That’s incredibly complicated. If Viv can do that not just for pre-planned scenarios (like Siri and Google Now currently do), but for arbitrary scenarios provided they have the necessary information and services, then they must also have made an advancement in natural language recognition to support it.

What most intrigues me, though, is the founders’ vision for providing Viv as a “utility” akin to electricity, so that any device could tap into the service and use its power. Effectively, what they are trying to build is a structured, universal data source. I wrote about this idea when Apple released Siri in 2012 and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last 5 years. The idea is to structure the world’s data so that it can be retrieved in a useful (read: computer usable) form.

It’s incredibly ambitious. With a sophisticated natural language front-end, users could ask for information on virtually anything and receive it immediately. You could, while cooking (is it obvious I make an application for cooking?), ask for healthy substitutes for butter, or the proper technique for blanching vegetables. The service would also have an API so that other software and services could access it. Imagine a hypothetical research application that allows you to request (not search!) the average temperature for each year in Los Angeles for 1900-2010, and getting back the data, and the data assembled into a chart. And then imagine requesting the average temperature for Los Angeles for 1900-2010 along with the amount of CO2 emissions for each year in the same range. With the data charted.

That’s a rather mundane example, actually. Imagine what kind of analyses would be possible if the world’s data is not only made available, but is immediately available in a structured format, and is constantly updated as the data is produced. There is the potential here, I think, for this to be as important as the advent of the Internet itself.

What concerns me, though, is how will this be made accessible. The article quotes Dag Kittlaus as saying that they envision deriving revenue from referrals made within the service. So, if you buy something through Amazon or request an Uber ride through Viv, they will earn a referral fee for it.

That makes perfect sense and is fairly brilliant. But what about making scientific data accessible? Will that require some kind of payment to access? Will I only be able to access that information through some kind of front-end, like a research application that I’ve paid for (and where the application’s developers pay some kind of fee to get access)? That would certainly be an advancement over where we are today in terms of making data accessible, but it would also prevent incredible innovation that open access could allow. Imagine if Wikipedia was a for-profit operation and, instead of being publicly available, was only accessible through subscription or through some kind of front-end. It would not be nearly the same thing.

It is heartening, though, that they are thinking so deeply about a business model. It would be a shame if such a terrific idea and incredible technology fails (or is absorbed by another company) because they hadn’t considered it. However, I hope they are considering, too, what open access to certain kinds of data (historical, political, scientific) could allow.

August 12th, 2014

Gigafactory

Tesla plans to build a massive new lithium ion factory that would double world production volume. Doing so could dramatically change the car industry:

When Tesla first began working on its Model S saloon barely five years ago, lithium-ion batteries were priced at about $1,000 a kilowatt-hour (kWh). Manufacturers are notoriously secretive about pricing details, but industry insiders hint that prices have now slipped to anywhere from $400 to $750 a kWh. Even so, that means the 85 kWh pack in a Model S costs Tesla between $34,000 and $63,750. A study by the Boston Consulting Group projected that prices would need to come down to $200 or less per kWh to make electric vehicles truly competitive with the more familiar car that relies on internal combustion. The gigafactory would slash these production costs.

Tesla intends to do so, presumably, to reduce cost enough to make an affordable Tesla.

People enjoy making Hyperloop jokes about Elon Musk, but there’s really no one else in the world doing such ambitious work. How can you not love that?

March 4th, 2014

Discriminating Between Discriminations

Julian Sanchez:

I’m perfectly open to the notion that it may be wise and justifiable to extent the protections of anti-discrimination law to groups not currently covered—but I also wish supporters of such reforms would acknowledge that there’s a genuine impingement on associational freedom involved in such extensions, and that no simple sweeping principle can obviate the need for a close examination of the tradeoffs in each case.

March 1st, 2014

Sean Penn Wants Chavez Critics Imprisoned

Sean Penn:

The Oscar-winning actor and political activist accused the US media of smearing Venezuela’s socialist president and called for journalists to be punished.

“Every day, this elected leader is called a dictator here, and we just accept it, and accept it. And this is mainstream media. There should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.”

Not only does Sean Penn defend authoritarianism, but he suggests that critics should be imprisoned for calling Hugo Chavez a dictator.

Lovely guy.

February 22nd, 2014

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February 22nd, 2014

Lowering the Gates

Matt Bischoff on the New York Times’ 10-free-articles-a-month limit:

Since The Times’s mobile products are partially supported by advertising, it’s counterintuitive to drive down the number of ad impressions by cutting off enthusiastic users just as they’re getting excited about the content. Ten articles per month just aren’t enough to justify keeping the apps installed; it’s almost insulting. The proof is in the plummeting App Store ratings as well as in the company’s usage statistics, which I suspect show readers returning less frequently since the change.

I read the Times every morning and have for the past five or six years. So let’s be honest: Not only are their subscription plans inscrutable (separate plans for smartphone and tablet access? Why?), but the new 10 articles-per-month limit is clearly designed to coerce people into subscribing. But instead of convincing more people to subscribe, it’s likely to piss more people off and turn them away from the Times.

It appears that the Times doesn’t have a unified strategy to transition their company to digital. Sad.

February 12th, 2014

Shoddy, Dangerous Thinking (GMO Edition)

Amy Harmon wrote a terrific article for the New York Times about a Hawaiian town’s “debate” over whether to ban genetically-engineered crops, and the insanely stupid things said about them:

A report, in an obscure Russian journal, about hamsters that lost the ability to reproduce after three generations as a result of a diet of genetically modified soybeans had been contradicted by many other studies and deemed bogus by mainstream scientists.

Mr. Ilagan discounted the correlations between the rise in childhood allergies and the consumption of G.M.O.s, cited by Ms. Wille and others, after reading of the common mistake of confusing correlation for causation. (One graph, illustrating the weakness of conclusions based on correlation, charted the lock-step rise in organic food sales and autism diagnoses.)

The left’s global warming.

January 28th, 2014

Building the Insect Drone

Fascinating article in Popular Science about the development of insect-like drones:

They teamed up with Wood, whose lab had since joined Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and together they applied for an Air Force grant. Wood’s group then used an image-capture system to record and analyze fly behavior before, during, and after collisions with glass. By closely observing the positions of the flies’ body parts, they could measure the exact flip and twist of wings and legs. 

When Guiler and Vaneck slowed down the film, they were amazed at what they saw. “I thought the fly would tumble a bit and lose a lot of altitude,” Vaneck says. “But the fly recovery was elegant. It happened so rapidly; it was breathtaking.”

One of the more thought-provoking articles I’ve read in a while. What struck me while reading it is how much we are now learning about life by observing and understanding how the simplest creatures—worms and insects—deal with and thrive in a complex, changing and threatening world. We may be the dominant and most intelligent species, but we have much to learn about how life succeeds. And by casting away the arrogance that being the dominant species engenders, we will learn much, much more.

January 27th, 2014

The LACMA Art + Technology Lab

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has announced an art and technology lab sponsored by Google and SpaceX that will allow artists to experiment with new technologies.

The lab will also feature talks, demonstrations and prototypes for the public.

I absolutely love this, and I’m particularly excited that it’s happening at LACMA—one of my favorite places to visit, and something that could help foster the technology community here in Los Angeles. In addition, I love that they’re facilitating experimentation with technology for the sake of experimentation itself. We need more blue sky projects in technology that aren’t necessarily directly actionable. Those sorts of projects can often be a fountain of inspiration and ideas.

December 30th, 2013

Lulu, the Men Rating App

Deborah Schoeneman wrote a good profile of a men rating application called Lulu, which allows women to “review” men much like Yelp after having gone out with them:

Mr. Brockway has since gotten several more reviews (#DudeCanCook), none quite as glowing as the one written by his girlfriend, but he nonetheless has an exceptionally high 9.8 ranking. “There’s nothing I can do about it except be the best person I can be,” he said, adding: “It inspires guys to be good and treat girls the way they should be treated. Like angels.”

Not all men are so magnanimous about their presence on Lulu, of course. Last summer, Neel Shah, a comedy writer, was at a bar in Los Angeles on a date with a woman who pulled up his profile. “She started reading me these negative hashtags and I was like, ‘Uh, this is awkward,’ ” said Mr. Shah, 30, whose profile has been viewed 448 times and “favorite” eight times for an average score of 6.7. His hashtags include #TallDarkAndHandsome and #CleansUpGood, along with the less flattering #TemperTantrums and #WanderingEye.

Even in the best light, I find this idea—that an application like Lulu “inspires” men to be “the best person” they can be, through the threat of getting a poor review—to have the same problem that “inspiring” people to be good by threatening them with an eternity of torture has: are you really a good person if the central reason you’re doing it is to avoid something negative for yourself?

Lulu, and Lulu’s backers within the article, are lauding something that attempts to control people’s behavior by public shaming and the literal threat of not being able to get a date as a step forward in civility.

That’s gross enough, but I think it’s worse than that. Neel Shah goes on to describe how one reviewer (isn’t that word alone repulsive in this context? A reviewer of the desirability of a person?) said that laughing at his jokes may take some effort, which is a benign enough comment on its own. But it isn’t on its own; that comment is a public comment on someone’s sense of humor meant to be used for deciding whether to date them or not, and it contributes to an overall numerical ranking for them. Not only does Lulu attempt to publicly shame people (and laude them!), it also attempts to quantify things that are inherently unquantifiable. How do you reduce a person’s desirability down to a one through ten score?

December 18th, 2013

Will China restart the space race?

Glenn Reynolds thinks China’s Moon mission could touch off a new space race, and that would be a good thing:

So if the the Yutu rover finds something valuable, Chinese mining efforts, and possibly even territorial claims, might very well follow. And that would be a good thing.

What’s so good about it? Well, two things. First, there are American companies looking at doing business on the moon, too, and a Chinese venture would probably boost their prospects. More significantly, a Chinese claim might spur a new space race, which would speed development of the moon.

In the foreseeable future, the only realistic path toward humanity moving farther into space is through the private sector. If China making a territorial claim on the Moon is what it takes, then I’m all for it.

December 18th, 2013

“Inequality isn’t ‘the defining challenge of our time’”

Ezra Klein:

That doesn’t mean inequality isn’t hurting growth. It just means it’s difficult to find firm proof of it. But if inequality really was the central challenge to growth, would proof really be so hard to come by?

December 18th, 2013

Webydo – Professional Website Design Software (Sponsor)

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December 18th, 2013

The Rocketeer

Michael Belfiore’s excellent profile of Elon Musk:

Thinking it would be pretty cool to land a plant-growth experiment on Mars but finding the cost prohibitively high, Musk started his own rocket company to bring the price down.

Musk is building a space exploration company while much of the technology industry—the self-described home of “disruptive” “innovation”—is building a better way to sext and sell ads.

That might be a little glib, but it’s also largely accurate. How can you not love someone who’s not only built the best electric car in the world, started a successful solar company, and whose motivation story for starting a space exploration story is that he wants to see humans visit Mars?

December 12th, 2013

DNA Encodes Two Kinds of Information

Researchers discovered that DNA encodes two kinds of information, not just one:

Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1960s, scientists have assumed that it was used exclusively to write information about proteins. UW scientists were stunned to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One describes how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell on how genes are controlled. One language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long.

There’s still so little we know about how life, and how intelligence, works. If we are just now discovering something as fundamental as what kinds of information DNA encodes, then our understanding of how DNA passes down meaning across generations is inherently dim. Along with a very incomplete understanding of how the brain (not just human brain) functions, both in the micro and macro level, biological life remains very much a mystery.

December 12th, 2013