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More on AI and the Turing Test May 20, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Architectures, Machine Learning, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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It turns out that most people who care to comment are, to use the common phrase, creeped out at the thought of not knowing whether they are talking to an AI or a human being.  I get that, although I don’t think I’m myself bothered by such a notion.  After all, what do we know about people during a casual phone conversation?  Many of them probably sound like robots to us anyway.

And this article in the New York Times notes that Google was only able to accomplish this feat by severely limiting the domain in which the AI could interact with – in this case, making dinner reservations or a hair appointment.  The demonstration was still significant, but isn’t a truly practical application, even within a limited domain space.

Well, that’s true.  The era of an AI program interacting like a human across multiple domains is far away, even with the advances we’ve seen over the last few years.  And this is why I even doubt the viability of self-driving cars anytime soon.  The problem domains encountered by cars are enormously complex, far more so than any current tests have attempted.  From road surface to traffic situation to weather to individual preferences, today’s self-driving cars can’t deal with being in the wild.

You may retort that all of these conditions are objective and highly quantifiable, making it possible to anticipate and program for.  But we come across driving situations almost daily that have new elements that must be instinctively integrated into our body of knowledge and acted upon.  Computers certainly have the speed to do so, but they lack a good learning framework to identify critical data and integrate that data into their neural network to respond in real time.

Author Gary Marcus notes that what this means is that the deep learning approach to AI has failed.  I laughed when I came to the solution proposed by Dr. Marcus – that we return to the backward-chaining rules-based approach of two decades ago.  This was what I learned during much of my graduate studies, and was largely given up on in the 1990s as unworkable.  Building layer upon layer of interacting rules was tedious and error-prone, and it required an exacting understanding of just how backward chaining worked.

Ultimately, I think that the next generation of AI will incorporate both types of approaches.  The neural network to process data and come to a decision, and a rules-based system to provide the learning foundation and structure.


Google AI and the Turing Test May 12, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Software development, Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Alan Turing was a renowned mathematician in Britain, and during WW 2 worked at Bletchley Park in cryptography.  He was an early computer pioneer, and today is probably best known for the Turing Test, a way of distinguishing between computers and humans (hypothetical at the time).

More specifically, the Turing Test was designed to see if a computer could pass for a human being, and was based on having a conversation with the computer.  If the human could not distinguish between talking to a human and talking to a computer, the computer was said to have passed the Turing Test.  No computer has ever done so, although Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza psychology therapist in the 1960s was pretty clever (think Alfred Adler).

The Google AI passes the Turing Test.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5VN56jQMWM&feature=youtu.be.

I’m of two minds about this.  First, it is a great technical and scientific achievement.  This is a problem that for decades was thought to be intractable.  Syntax has definite structure and is relatively easy to parse.  While humans seem to understand language semantics instinctively, there are ambiguities that can only be learned through training.  That’s where deep learning through neural networks comes in.  And to respond in real time is a testament to today’s computing power.

Second, and we need this because we don’t want to have phone conversations?  Of course, the potential applications go far beyond calling to make a hair appointment.  For a computer to understand human speech and respond intelligently to the semantics of human words, it requires some significant training in human conversation.  That certainly implies deep learning, along with highly sophisticated algorithms.  It can apply to many different types of human interaction.

But no computing technology is without tradeoffs, and intelligent AI conversation is no exception.  I’m reminded of Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation.  It posits that people are increasingly afraid of having spontaneous conversations with one another, mostly because we cede control of the situation.  We prefer communications where we can script our responses ahead of time to conform to our expectations of ourselves.

Having our “AI assistant” conduct many of those conversations for us seems like simply one more step in our abdication as human beings, unwilling to face other human beings in unscripted communications.  Also, it is a way of reducing friction in our daily lives, something I have written about several times in the past.

Reducing friction is also a tradeoff.  It seems worthwhile to make day to day activities easier, but as we do, we also fail to grow as human beings.  I’m not sure where the balance lies here, but we should not strive single-mindedly to eliminate friction from our lives.

5/14 Update:  “Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding “ummm” and “aaah” to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing…As digital technologies become better at doing human things, the focus has to be on how to protect humans, how to delineate humans and machines, and how to create reliable signals of each—see 2016. This is straight up, deliberate deception. Not okay.” – Zeynep Tufekci, Professor & Writer 

The Golden Age of Databases May 10, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Architectures, Software platforms, Software tools.
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Let’s face it, to most developers, databases are boring and opaque.  As long as I can create a data object to call the database and bring data into my application, I really don’t care about the underlying structures.  And many of us have an inherent bias against DBAs, for multiple reasons.  Years ago, one of my computer science graduate students made the proclamation, “I’m an engineer; I write technical applications.  I have no need for databases at all.”

I don’t think this is true anymore, if it ever was.  The problem was in the predominance of SQL relational databases.  The mathematical and logical foundation of relational databases is actually quite interesting, but from a practical standpoint actually setting up a database, whether through E-R diagrams or other approach, is pretty cut and dried.  And maintaining and performance tuning databases can often seem like an exercise in futility.

Certainly there were other types of databases and derivative products 20 or 30 years ago.  My old company, Progress Software, still makes a mint off its OpenEdge database and 4GL environment.  Sybase PowerBuilder was popular for at least two decades, and Borland Delphi still has a healthy following.  OLAP engines were available in the 1990s, working with SQL relational databases to quickly extract and report on relational data.

But traditional relational databases have disadvantages for today’s uses.  They are meant to be a highly reliable storage and retrieval system.  They tend to have the reliable part down pat, and there are almost universal means of reading, writing, modifying, and monitoring data in relational tables.

The world of data has changed.  While reliability and programming access of relational databases remains important in traditional enterprise applications, software has become essential in a wide variety of other areas.  This includes self-driving cars, financial trading, manufacturing, retail, and commercial applications in general.

Relational databases have been used in these areas, but have limitations that are becoming increasingly apparent as we stress them in ways they weren’t designed for.  So instead we are seeing alternatives that specialize in a specific area of storage and retrieval.  For example, the No-SQL MongoDB and MapReduce in general are making it possible to store large amounts of unstructured data, and to quickly search and retrieve data from that storage.  The open source InfluxDB provides a ready store for event-driven data, enabling applications to stream data based on a time series.  Databases such as FaunaDB can be used to implement blockchain.

All of these databases can run in the cloud, or on premises.  They tend to be easy to set up and use, and you can almost certainly find one to meet your specific needs.

So as you develop your next ground-breaking application, don’t find yourself limited by a relational database.  You’re not stuck in the same rut that you were ten years ago.  Take a look at what has to be called the Golden Age of databases.

Why Are We Here With Uber? April 30, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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An interesting study by CNN points out that over 100 Uber drivers have been accused of rape or sexual assault.  Perhaps many more have done so, but CNN has attempted to match reports with actions.  It has to be clear to even the most dense rider that this has to do with the fact that the vetting of drivers is minimal, and there is no follow-up or tracking of driver encounters with the law.

Uber, of course, claims that the drivers are not employees, but individual contractors, so they are not responsible for aberrant behaviors.  And Uber forces riders into arbitration, even for clear felonies.  I am sorry, a felony is not something you can arbitrate.  Even under not-so-new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of progress.  And of course, former CEO (and still board member) Travis Kalanick simply created, enabled, and contributed to this sick culture.

So I have to ask the question: Why are we here?

We are here for a couple of reasons.  First, and probably foremost, Uber customers have supported this behavior.  I recall a viral LinkedIn post from several months ago where a young lady declared, “I don’t care what the company does.  I just want cheap and convenient rides.”

And face it, isn’t that why you use Uber?  You really don’t care that they have a sick corporate culture, or that some small percentage of drivers attack passengers.  You want to get from Point A to Point B with as little friction as possible, and screw the complications.

Second, we are here because Uber knows what you want.  You want those cheap and convenient rides.  And you don’t want to go through the hassles of finding a taxi, or getting a phone number for a taxi company in a new city, or talking to someone, or waiting for a taxi.

Uber gives that to you, because it’s convenient.  That doesn’t make it right.

You can make a difference, if it means something to you.

It means something to me.

The Privilege and Responsibility of Being an American April 21, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Today, I feel the need to define what I believe in.

There, I said it.  There are few things I believe in more than these two ideals.  Let me explain.

The privilege.  We have defined rights, granted at birth and irrevocable.  These rights are defined as human beings, and codified to a limited extent in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  Incidentally, these documents are precious though imperfect, as are their authors.  As are all of us.

I disagree with many people, on many ideals and implementations.  I vigorously defend their right to have different ideals and expectations, as long as their differences do not impede on mine.  That is a gray area, of course.  As long as you have privileges on the same level as me, you are welcome to your ideals.  We don’t force them on each other.

Our privilege is to speak freely.  And act freely.  As long as those words and actions don’t impinge upon the rights of others.  Every single American knows best.  The problem is that our best is only the best for us as individuals, not all of us.  We freely acknowledge that our beliefs may not be universal, or even widely held.  And we are okay with that.

The responsibility.  I have the responsibility to defend the rights and freedoms I have.  I know that millions of Americans have died in doing so.  I wish more Americans would consider service to their country at some point in time, because it can teach all of us something, but my wishes don’t make it mandatory.

We have the responsibility to defend the rights and freedoms of all others.  Not just those we agree with.  As long as those rights and freedoms don’t impinge on those of others.  Once again, that is a gray area.  I served so that all could have these rights.  I wish you would too, but I can’t force that, and don’t want to.

We have the responsibility to treat people with respect, even as we disagree with them.  Let me repeat that.  We have the responsibility to treat people with respect, even as we disagree with them.  We may find common ground, and we will almost certainly find that we agree more than disagree.

We have laws.  The rule of law is vital in any society.  These laws are imperfect, and have evolved over time, hopefully to enable all of us to execute our privileges.  We have the responsibility to help uphold those laws.  Some laws require adjustment over time, and we can work toward adjusting them, as we continue to abide by them.

And I allow for much good in other nations and cultures.  I have seen some of that good, and hope to see more before I leave the mortal plane.  Public transportation is better in other places.  Health care may be better, and is certainly less expensive, in other places.  Taxes may be more fair elsewhere.  The sense of history, the depth of culture, and the kindness of ordinary people everywhere is amazing.

But that by no means denigrates what we as Americans have.  We have created an amazing and unique nation and society.  I don’t want to throw it away.  I really don’t want to throw it away.

Today, I think we as Americans have to put a stake in the ground for what we stand for.  This is what I stand for.  I hope we can meet somewhere.

Don’t Break Things April 20, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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The mantra in tech over the last several years has been “Move fast and break things.”  That culture has been manifested by headliners Uber and Facebook, as well as by countless Silicon Valley startups eager to deliver on what they know for sure is a winning strategy.

It’s long since time that we pushed back on that misguided attitude.  First, no, you don’t have to move fast.  While we retain the myth of the first mover advantage, if you look at history it is very much a myth.  Tech history is rife with lessons of established companies moving into a new area, “validating” that space, and pushing out the pioneering startups (Oracle in SQL databases, Facebook against MySpace, Microsoft in just about every market until about 2005, to cite three well-known examples).

Second, you don’t have to break things.  This wrongheaded attitude represents only a misleading part of a larger truism, that if you are headed in the wrong strategic or product direction, it’s better to know it earlier rather than later.  The implication with “breaking things” is that you don’t know if you are headed in the wrong direction unless you break something in the process.  Um, no.  You know it because you have business acumen, and are paying attention, not because you have broken anything.

It gets worse.  Companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and Zenefits have redefined breaking things to include laws and regulations that are inconvenient to their business models.  I simply cannot conceive of how this comes about.  The arrogance and hubris of such firms must be enormous.

Certainly there are countless laws and regulations that need to be rethought and rewritten as advances change how business might be practiced.  I have always said that the (only) positive thing about Uber was that it drastically reshaped the taxi industry, I think largely for the good.

But ignoring laws and regulations that you don’t like is simply wrong, in any sense you might think of it.  Rather, you work with government entities to educate them on what it possible to advance a particular product or service, and to openly advocate for legal change.

Oh, but that takes far too long for tech companies convinced that they have to move fast.  And they simply can’t be bothered anyway.  See my first point – moving fast is rarely a competitive advantage in tech.

It’s clear that Silicon Valley startups won’t buy into what I say here.  It’s up to us, the customer and the public, to object to such an absurd business mantra.  To date, we the public have either stayed on the sidelines, or even actively supported such criminal practices as Uber’s because of the convenience afforded us by the end result.  This has got to change.

Update:  Case in point, https://qz.com/1257229/electric-scooter-startup-bird-wants-to-make-it-legal-to-ride-scooters-on-the-sidewalk/.  It’s illegal but it’s not stopping the companies.

We Forget What We Don’t Use April 17, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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Years ago, I was a pilot.  SEL, as we said, single-engine land.  Once during my instruction, for about an hour, we spent time going over what he called recovery from unusual attitudes.  I went “under the hood”, putting on a plastic device that blocked my vision while he placed the plane in various situations.  Then he would lift the hood, to where I could only see the instruments.

I became quite good at this, focusing on two instruments – turn and bank, and airspeed.  Based on these instruments, I was able to recover to straight and level flight within seconds.

My instructor pilot realized what I was doing, and was a lot smarter than me.  The next time, it didn’t work; it made things worse, actually.  I panicked, and in a real life scenario, may well have crashed.

Today, I have a presentation I generically call “What Aircrews Can Teach IT” (the title changes based on the audience makeup).  It is focused on Crew Resource Management, a structured way of working and communicating so that responsibilities are understood and concerns are voiced.

But there is more that aircrews can teach us.  We panic when we have not seen a situation before.  Aircrews do too.  That’s why they practice, in a simulator, with a check pilot, hundreds of hours a year.  That’s why we have few commercial airline accidents today.  When we do, it is almost always because of crew error, because they are unfamiliar with their situation.

It’s the same in IT.  If we are faced with a situation we haven’t encountered before, chances are we will react emotionally and incorrectly to it.  The consequences may not be a fatal accident, but we can still do better.

I preach situational awareness in all aspects of life.  We need to understand our surroundings, pay attention to people and events that may affect us, and in general be prepared to react based on our reading of a situation.

In many professional jobs, we’ve forgotten about the value of training.  I don’t mean going to a class; I mean practicing scenarios, again and again, until they become second nature.  That’s what aircrews do.  And that’s what soldiers do.  And when we have something on the line, that is more valuable than anything else we could be doing.  And eventually it will pay off.

It’s Time to Define Just What Freedom Means April 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There are many ways of approaching this topic, especially in 2018.  I choose to do so through professional football.  I am troubled.  Not by actions, but by reactions.  That is kneeling at the national anthem prior to games, and the attendant responses.

Those that criticize call this inappropriate political protest.  I don’t get the political part.  Politics is where we disagree, and agree to disagree.  I cannot for the life of me imagine how anyone would disagree that black men are being disproportionally killed by police in situations where deadly force is not called for.  This is not a political problem, it is a societal one, one that we need to work together to address.

There are almost certainly elements of racism involved in those situations, but I think the main problem is a lack of training of the police.  Being a policeman (or woman) has to be one of the most difficult and stressful jobs imaginable.  They go into ambiguous situations that either start out as violent, or can turn violent at the drop of a hat.  They can find themselves in life or death situations where an immediate decision may make the difference between them getting home, or getting into a coffin.  I think many lack the rigorous and continual training needed to make the right decisions in those situations.

And I’m not sure I even get the protest part.  Unlike protests from my youth, they don’t take over campus buildings, or block streets.  They do so silently.

There are those who also say that it is inappropriate to take such a principled stand while on the job.  As with most professionals, it is difficult to know quite when football players are on the job.  Especially since they can be punished by their employer for some personal behavior, such as drug use or police altercations, that is definitely on personal time.

But here is my biggest problem, and I think one that is fueled by the fantasy football craze.  Too many fans are geared to see players as a set of numbers in any given week.  With the prospect of legalized sports betting, we could see millions of fans who bet on the outcome of individual plays, which serves only to reduce players to how often they deliver on split-second outcomes, perhaps a dozen or more times a game.  They are like inanimate toy soldiers, ours to select and manipulate for our enjoyment and perhaps profit.

But these players aren’t numbers.  They are thinking human beings, certainly on a similar plane as all of us.  They have perspectives and beliefs that are just as valid as anyone else.  I think it appropriate that we hear their voices.

Now, to freedom.  We live in a country where millions of soldiers, policemen, firemen, and others who serve have died.  I would like to think that they died for a larger ideal.  I believe strongly that that ideal is that we can express ourselves freely.  Declining to stand for the national anthem is one way of doing so.

I am a military veteran.  Not standing for the national anthem is not how I might call attention to an issue.  But I will vigorously defend the right of anyone to do so.  That is what freedom means.