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Artificial Intelligence and the Real Kind July 11, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Uncategorized.
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Over the last couple of months, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to robots, artificial intelligence, and the potential for replacing human thought and action. A part of that comes from the announcement by the European Union that it had drafted a “bill of rights” for robots as potential cyber-citizens of a more egalitarian era.  A second part comes from my recent article on TechBeacon, which I titled “Testing a Moving Target”.

The computer scientist in me wants to say “bullshit disapproved”. Computer programs do what we instruct them to do, no more or no less.  We can’t instruct them to think, because we can’t algorithmically (or in any other way) define thinking.  There is no objective or intuitive explanation for human thought.

The distinction is both real and important. Machines aren’t able to look for anything that their programmers don’t tell them to (I wanted to say “will never be able” there, but I have given up the word “never” in informed conversation).

There is, of course, the Turing Test, which generally purports a way to determine whether you are interacting with a real person or computer program.  In limited ways, a program (Eliza was the first, but it was an easy trick) can fool a person.

Here is how I think human thought is different than computer programming. I can look at something seemingly unstructured, and build a structure out of it.  A computer can’t, unless I as a programmer tell it what to look for.  Sure, I can program generic learning algorithms, and have a computer run data through those algorithms to try to match it up as closely as possible.  I can run an almost infinite number of training sequences, as long as I have enough data on how the system is supposed to behave.

Of course, as a human I need the imagination and experience to see patterns that may be hidden, and that others can’t see. Is that really any different than algorithm training (yes, I’m attempting to undercut my own argument)?

I would argue yes. Our intelligence is not derived from thousands of interactions with training data.  Rather, well, we don’t really know where it comes from.  I’ll offer a guess that it comes from a period of time in which we observe and make connections between very disparate bits of information.  Sure, the neurons and synapses in our brain may bear a surface resemblance to the algorithms of a neural network, and some talent accrues through repetition, but I don’t think intelligence necessarily works that way.

All that said, I am very hesitant to declare that machine intelligence may not one day equal the human kind. Machines have certain advantages over us, such as incredible and accessible data storage capabilities, as well as almost infinite computing power that doesn’t have to be used on consciousness (or will it?).  But at least today and for the foreseeable future, machine intelligence is likely to be distinguishable from the organic kind.

My Response to Dell Customer Support May 19, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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This gives me no pleasure, but I simply don’t know what happened to this company over the last couple of years.

Ms Athaluri – Thank you for your email.  I have received this computer.  However, you have failed to answer a number of my questions.

  1. Why did Dell promise a response to my multiple questions within 24 hours, yet did not do so.  That written and verbal promise is almost certainly considered an enforceable contract under US law, yet Dell repeatedly failed to deliver.
  2. Why did Dell say on its website that the system shipped on May 10, when in fact it was not received by FedEx until May 17?  This once again is a broken promise.
  3. Why did Dell charge my credit card upon order, rather than upon shipment?  This is certainly against applicable US law.  The customer support rep I talked to said that it only sought authorization; AmEx tells a very different story.
  4. Why could not the telephone representative answer why my system had not shipped when Dell claimed it did?
  5. Why have you not addressed any of my questions?

I am appending this conversation to my complaint with the New Hampshire Attorney General.  And rest assured that this is absolutely the last purchase that this otherwise loyal 25 year Dell customer will be making from this company.

Thank you for nothing.

Peter Varhol

Dell is Terrible in All Parts of its PC Business May 17, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Let me begin by saying that I have bought Dells for 25 years, both for personal and business use. Regrettably, this is the last one.  I met Michael Dell once, now about 25 years ago, in Boston.  He was in his late 20s, and uncomfortably nerdy in his ill-fitting suit.

So let me start with the most recent. I currently have a message on the Dell Support page warning that I am using an outdated version of Internet Explorer, and that all features may not work.  Um, except that the browser is Chrome; in fact, Chrome 50, the most current version.  The screen capture is below.

So, first, terrible IT. Dell should fire them all, except that it probably did and these are the outsourcers.  This is simply an unconscionable embarrassment to any tech company, let alone one such as Dell.

Second, I purchased yet another computer from Dell. Dell claimed to have shipped it a week ago, and provided the tracking number, with the caveat that it likely would not appear on FedEx tracking page for 24 hours.

Okay. Except that FedEx didn’t show it received at their facility for another week.  Even though Dell said they shipped it immediately.  And charged my credit card when the order was placed, not when it seemingly shipped.

I called Dell Support. I sent multiple emails through its Support email.  In all cases, I was promised a response within 24 hours.  Nope, no response whatsoever.

Dell, who do you think you are? If you treat longtime and loyal customers like this, how are you going to treat someone who just occasionally buys a computer?

I realize that you don’t care anymore, and probably don’t want even want to really be in business anymore. But stop treating your customers like they are garbage.  And stop charging credit cards when an order is placed, rather than shipped.  That is a questionable legal and definitely awful ethical practice.  You have no right to be in business.

Dell, it's Chrome, not IE.

Dell, it’s Chrome, not IE.

Apple, Your Argument Has Suddenly Become Lame February 25, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Like many, I tend to lean toward the side of Apple in its current travails with the Federal constabulary in cracking a singular iPhone with an eye toward getting information on terrorist networks, in the US and beyond. But your latest legal move has changed my mind.  Let me tell you why.

On the surface, this seems to be a relatively innocuous request to help find out who a terrorist was in contact with. That is a reasonable goal.  But I appreciate Apple’s argument.  Once you let the camel poke his nose into the tent, the rest of the camel will inevitably follow.  That is not meant as disparagement against anyone; rather, it means that once you open a door to a relatively minor exception, that makes larger exceptions inevitable.  And that is true.

And I strongly believe that our law enforcement authorities have become lazy. Sure, there in fact may be information available on many cell phone calls.  Why should I do real police work when I can issue warrants to tech companies?  But instead they are using this as an excuse to not do real police work, the kind of legwork and research for which our constabulary should be justifiably proud in the past.  As a principle, what our constabulary is doing is wrong.

But in legal filings, Apple is now arguing that they are being required to write code to comply with this court order. With that argument, I call bullshit.  Yes, Apple does have to write some code in order to deliver on the search warrant.  Is it a hardship?  Heck (hell) no.  Is it wrong?  I’m sorry, witnesses and even jury members make some significant sacrifices to support what is (mostly) a fair and honest legal system.  Why can’t Apple?  No, why won’t Apple?

A confession. I don’t necessarily have information on all of the technical nuances.  But with the filing that I cite, I don’t think that matters.

I fully realize that this is a legal argument that is relatively divorced from the larger issues within our Constitution. But I’m sorry, if Tim Cook stands in principle for anything at all, he should never have let this argument be advanced in court filings.  You either stand on principle, or you weasel-worm.  Tim Cook and Apple are now weasel-worming.  I don’t like it, and I don’t think they have to.

At this point, I have to strongly disapprove of Apple. And it brought it on itself.

 

Update:  On the other hand . . .

But Comey insists that there are no broad implications of the FBI’s request. It is simply trying to get into this one particular iPhone. But he said the FBI believes that hypothetical scenario to be an unreasonable argument against Apple’s cooperation.

“What if Apple engineers get kidnapped?” Comey asked rhetorically.

I had to certify that I didn’t use illegal drugs before joining the Air Force. I would have thought that the same requirement applied to the head of the FBI.

No AI Cannot Solve the World’s Biggest Problems February 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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‘AI can solve world’s biggest problems’ – Google Brain engineer.

The headline screamed for a response. The type of work being done with Google Brain is impressive.  It relies on neural networks.  Neural networks are cool things.  I was recently reminded by a new LinkedIn connection of the work and writing that I did on neural networks in the 1990s.

Neural networks are exceptionally good algorithms. They use multiple levels of nonlinear equations, running in parallel and serially, that can approximate a given response to a set of data inputs, then adjust the variables so that each successive pass can result in a slightly better approximation (or it may not; that’s just the way nonlinear algorithms work sometimes).

That may sound like just so much gobbledygook, but it’s not. In the 1990s, I used neural networks to design a set of algorithms to power an electronic wind sensor.  In my aborted doctoral research, I was using neural networks to help dynamically determine the most efficient routings through large scale networks (such as the nascent Internet at the time).

Let’s be clear. What I did had nothing to do with the world’s biggest problems.  The world’s biggest problems don’t already have mountains of data that point to the correct answer.  In fact, they rarely, if ever, have correct answers.  What they have is a combination of analysis, guesswork, and the many compromises made by dozens of competing interests.  And they will never result in even close to a best answer.  But sometimes they produce a workable one.

From my own experiences, I came to believe that having an instinctive feel for the nature and behavior of your data gave you a leg up in defining your neural network. And they tended to work best when you could carefully bound the problem domain.  That is hardly the stuff of something that can solve the world’s most difficult problems.

Neural networks can seemingly work magic, but only when you have plenty of data, and already know the right answers to different combinations of that data. And even though, you are unlikely to get the best possible solution.

I’m Talking About You, Uber September 10, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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The question is what am I talking about. You are so not about a “sharing economy”. Virtually all of your drivers aren’t sharing their daily cars, on their normal day to day business, to accommodate the occasional rider. Instead, they are buying extra cars to turn themselves into the modern equivalent of the taxi driver, without the taxi provided by the company. Calling this the sharing economy is a dangerous misnomer. This is a service, just like a taxi is a service.

But that’s okay, even if you’re not honest about it. At the same time, that’s the drivers’ decisions to make. I don’t think anyone is forcing them into what is essentially a part time business. And most taxi drivers are so-called independent contractors anyway, and are charged by the taxi company for the use of the car.  I am not clear on the economics, but it must work for many.

And certainly the occasional local ride concept was due for some significant disruption. Taxi service is fundamentally stuck in operations that are at least half a century old. It doesn’t work for the consumer any more. Uber works better for the rider (mostly), and can have some advantages for the driver. As well as some disadvantages, depending on decisions made by individual drivers.

The technology makes a difference. You no longer have to call a taxi company; instead, you signal from the app, tell them where you are and where you want to go, and they are generally pretty responsive.

But the technology only enables the work shift you are attempting. My short term guess: you will continue to be pretty successful, because almost everyone who uses taxis also uses smartphones. My long term guess: this is a transitional technology that will be put out of business decisively by the driverless car. I’m sure you’ve thought of that, and are looking to eliminate the middleman; i.e., the driver. This ultimately isn’t a new model for employment, or the so-called sharing economy. You will be first in line for the mass-produced Google car.

I’m not criticizing that, but I am criticizing your fundamental dishonesty in long term goals. You are not about the worker or the so-called sharing economy. You are about the disruption. You continue to lie, but that’s what you’ve done since your inception.

Microsoft Has Lost Its Marketing Mojo August 1, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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I am old enough to remember people standing in line outside of Best Buy at midnight before Windows 95 went on sale. We knew the RTM (release to manufacturing, another anachronism) date by heart, and our favorite PC manufacturers would give us hourly updates on GA (yes, general availability) for their products.

Today, we don’t even know that Windows 10 has been released (Microsoft has said that it may take several weeks to deliver on upgrades and new systems), yet we know the exact date that a new version of iOS hits our devices. I’m searching for a new laptop, and can’t even tell what edition of Windows 10 I might be able to obtain.

This is purely Microsoft’s fault, and it’s sad. It’s sad because the company actually has some very nice products, better than ever I think, yet is at a loss as to how to communicate that to its markets. Windows 10 has gotten some great reviews, and I am loving my Microsoft Band and the Microsoft Health app more each day. But millions of people who have bought the Apple SmartWatch don’t even know that the Band exists.

This failure falls squarely on Microsoft. I’m not entirely sure why Microsoft has failed so miserably, but unless it recognizes this failure and corrects it, there is no long term hope. I can only think that Microsoft believes it is so firmly entrenched in the enterprise that it doesn’t have to worry about any other markets.

I will date myself again, remembering all of the Unix variations and how they believed they were the only solution for enterprise computing. Today, no one is making money off of Unix (although Linux is alive and well, albeit nowhere near as profitable). Unix fundamentally died because of the sheer arrogance of DEC, HP, Sun, and other vendors who believed that the technology was unassailable. It was not, and if you believe otherwise you don’t know the history of your markets, which is yet another failure.

And it also means Microsoft has totally given up on the consumer. I fully expect that there will be no enhancements to the Band, and that it will end-of-life sometime in the foreseeable future. And that too is sad, because consumer tech is driving the industry today. Microsoft was always a participant there, but has given it up as a lost cause.

It’s not a failure of technology. Microsoft never had great technology (although I do believe today it is better than ever). It’s a failure of marketing, something that Microsoft has forgotten how to do.

The Microsoft Band Delivers – Mostly July 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I got a Microsoft Band. I was looking for my next step up in activity wearables, and liked what I read about it on the website. At $200, it is much more than an activity tracker. It includes a GPS, like more expensive sports watches, and integration with your phone provides for the ability to receive notification of calls, text messages, and other phone activity.

When I got it, my first (and pretty much only) disappointment was that it didn’t sync with my phone’s version of Android (4.1.3), supporting only 4.3 and above. My phone wouldn’t allow an upgrade to a supported version. Coincidentally (really), I bought a new phone later in the week, an LG G4, running Android 5.0 (Lollipop).

But the fact of the matter is that the system requirements weren’t clear or obvious, which is a drastic change from older PC-based software. I suppose that it is difficult to deliver or test all phones and OS versions, but this isn’t what I expect from software, even in the era of the smartphone.

But within a couple of days, I came to really like the Band. First, my first night, I received an Amber alert in my area. My phone buzzed, but the Band let me know about it, even including the text message. You can configure it to show incoming calls, texts, and even emails. It’s ease of configurability is really good, much better than most watches or other wearables.  I now depend on it as my first notification of calls if my phone isn’t physically on my person.

And the GPS-based activity tracker is remarkably easy to use and obtain data from. I didn’t read any documentation, yet was able to use it with my running routine within seconds. The results are displayed on the Microsoft Health app, and are exceptionally easy to understand and interpret.

One other minor annoyance – the touch panel simply doesn’t work with a sweaty finger. After a particularly humid run, I attempted to stop my run session, and it simply wouldn’t do so until I dried off my fingers. This limitation may be driven by pure physical reasons, but it makes me think that Microsoft’s user experience (UX) testing wasn’t as good as it could have been.

I find it disappointing that Microsoft can deliver a reasonably compelling product, yet not effectively market or promote it. Apple is rumored to have sold around five million iWatches in its first quarter, with very mixed reviews, yet the downloads for Microsoft Health (required to use the Band) in about a full year are under a hundred thousand, at least on Android. I’m not a Microsoft fanboy by any means, but I do acknowledge when it produces good products.

The Microsoft Band is a good product for people who are seeking the next level up from the Fitbit and other low-end devices, and would be useful to many more people than currently use it. I don’t know just when Microsoft ceased being a marketing monster, but it clearly fails with the Band. Make no mistake – the technology and products remain very good, even outside of the PC space, but Microsoft lost its marketing mojo at some point, and doesn’t seem interested in getting it back.

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