Of Asimov, Robots, Artificial Intelligence and What is a Human Anyway


You might say I have too much time on my hands. I would answer that I never have enough time, but my back injury continues and I have had time to think in a few directions.

Whether it is HAL 9000, remember “I’m sorry but I can’t do that Dave” as an answer to “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” from 2001 A Space Odyssey?

If you haven’t tried it, ask Alexa, Siri, Cortana or whatever your speech interface is to the internet, those famous words. “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” If only Arthur C Clarke was around to experience that.

Damn, I just remembered that they had a 4K restoration of the movie at Imax last month for the 50th anniversary of the movie. I was hoping to find someone to go with and then totally forgot about it. That would have been amazing.

AsimovI collect books and in recent years have given away many books that I was never going to read again, but decided to extend my collections of specific writers and starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I looked at what was missing from my Isaac Asimov collection and amongst others bought a copy of The Bicentennial Man.

Asimov is of course famous for the 3 Laws of Robotics. Ironically a lot of people debunked his laws and said they were flawed and used that to criticise him as being unrealistic or perhaps idealistic, which is a trait of many SciFi authors of the 70’s. However, he knew that himself. In many of his stories, robots disobeyed the laws.

There is a great story in this book called That Thou Art Mindful of Him, in which is a play on Psalm 8:4-6, he also infers in some of the stories that he was Jewish through some of the characters and had a keen sense of humor.

In this story (and I’m sorry for the spoiler) a series of robots are produced and given the capability to become self aware, in effect sentient. They redefine what it is to be human and declare themselves as such.

I played with the thought of Singularity and imagined if autonomous cars could pass the Turing Test 

I also looked at what might happen if they didn’t and what hackers might be able to do.

What I keep coming back to and writers like Philip K Dick, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and many others foresaw 50 and more years ago and similar to where the TV series Humans is heading, is that humans are dangerous to the planet.

Now I like being human and I hope that my descendants will have safe and healthy planet for thousands of years from now and many of my little stories are in jest.

BUT, if climate change, plastic pollution, air pollution, brinkmanship politics, drought, famine, and war are the result of how great and committed we humans fancy ourselves to be, would it not be realistic if an Artificial Intelligence was developed to the point of Singularity and able to continue to learn with or without programmed biases, would their logic determine that the human race should either be limited or allowed to exterminate ourselves?

Kurzweil looked at it a different way and said that Singularity would occur around 2045 and potentially be a synthesis between human and machine, in effect human 2.0. He would be about 98 at that point in time, so it will be interesting to see if he is still around and if he is right.

Maybe Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and many futuristic projects should have the last word. He’s pretty successful and walks the talk. DARPA, Rex Bionics and hundreds of companies, universities and other innovators are developing systems that will be able to think for themselves. Yes, for specific purposes, but they are being created.

It’s interesting that in this clip, they say that Science Fiction is usually about 50 years ahead of its time. So back to Asimov, reading him today, especially a book like The Bicentennial Man, where like Stephen King and others, he talks about his stories, was he in fact prophetic?

Yes, maybe I’ve had too much time to think, but do you think we should be thinking about this. Just imagined if a machine, say a Robocop decided that using facial recognition or perhaps racial recognition, that you were, could be, or could become a criminal and then think about biases that go into programming, often of necessity.

What conclusions could an AI start taking when given some information and some bias and then left to learn on the basis of that starting point? Oh and I didn’t even mention George Orwell. He wrote Animal Farm in 1945. Remember “All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others”? Shutting up now……..

 

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Why Would You Want an Amazon Echo and Who Else is Listening


Amazon EchoHow do you feel about a device that is listening to everything that is being said in your home or office and is connected to the Internet? Especially in this age of cyber terrorism,  when we know that criminals already use tools like Facebook to target people with easy to steal and easy to sell assets.

How do you feel when Gmail bombards you with advertisements for products you have just bought or vacation location deals when you have just returned home from that place? Besides being a waste of time because you already have those things, it shows how Google (in return for giving you free email software and storage) has access to everything you write using their freeware.

So when Amazon had their massive sale on Prime Day, I thought about the Amazon Echo and wondered what I would do with it if I had one and why.

I very occasionally use Siri to save a reminder, a note, perhaps in the car to reduce the risk of having pen and paper in my hand when the lights change, or illegally using my phone because of the inherent risks, even at a traffic light. No joke, my wife has had 2 cars she was driving totalled, both while she was legally stationary at a red light. I’m not saying she could have avoided them, she couldn’t, but the people who hit our cars were certainly not paying attention.

So when I take Siri, and I have to admit it has improved in it’s ability to understand my Kiwi accent, the number of times I have said one thing and Siri has randomly rung a phone number for someone I had no desire to speak with and the fact that Siri has even randomly responded to a sound it heard, when I hadn’t even touched my phone is interesting.

I would love to have an automated home. When I got home last night from dinner in the freezing cold city it was around 6 degrees inside our house and I said to my wife how nice it would be if I could have turned on the heat pump via my phone. It has a timer, but we didn’t know when we would be home and I’m sure we could get an electrician to wire a remote switch into that circuit without having to buy a new heat pump, but I digress.

When everything I write makes a permanent footprint on the Internet and the supplier of that service has access to it all in order to ‘assist me’, I struggle with why I would want another device listening to everything I say.

Imagine living in a country like North Korea where you can be put in jail or worse for just saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, and then having a device that YOU PURCHASED providing access to every word that you said in the ‘privacy of your own home’.

Now I know that Amazon is not a spy agency, they can’t afford for this product to risk your privacy because if it did, they could go broke, but they do want to know what you are interested in and devices like these are supposed to be your personal digital assistant. I used to have an executive assistant in one of my jobs and she knew what I wanted or needed often before I did. It was awesome because I knew and trusted her. this device has to listen, even for the Alexa command to work, so technically it is listening to every word, even if in theory it is identifying most as not relevant.

The biggest issue for me with devices like this, which was also why I digressed a little with the heatpump, is that hacking or cyber crime is easy if you know how,or are prepared to pay someone to do it for you. Whether it is hacking someone’s wireless internal garage door or front door, checking Facebook to see who has a boat in the their back yard AND is on holiday overseas is really simple, because most people don’t know how to or don’t want privacy, because they don’t realise the risk.

I read a CBS story this morning about how some cheap Chinese mobiles are apparently surreptitiously sending information from the mobiles back to China using firmware that was in the phones from the factory.

You could say that Alexa can only be woken by people using the word Alexa, then it starts listening for instructions. So what is the first thing that is going to happen when you buy one of these devices? You’re going to tell your friends about it and show it off, so you are going to be using the word frequently and waking it up frequently and it will start listening.

For now I think I’d at least like to be able to use the fingerprint recognition on my phone and tap a button to turn on an appliance if I can’t be bothered standing up to do something like turn on a light. I am happy that I can have a wireless remote system with security algorithms to do that. I’m not sure I want Amazon or a hacker to be able to listen to everything said in my home and then using data mining tools to look for keywords or information that could be used by criminals, or by advertisers to send me more info I don’t want.

How about you?

 

Why Don’t Grownups Understand?


When you are a child, everyone around you is a potential friend. Someone to play with, have fun with. Language, color, gender, disability, don’t matter. You see them in the playground, looking for someone based roughly on age and height, they make eye contact, they do a sort of ‘I’m open for contact’ dance, getting closer together and then just start playing together. Often they won’t even introduce themselves. Next thing you know they are laughing and playing and bringing more kids into their circle. In many cases the parents stay at a protective distance, but appreciate and encourage this interaction.

I used to love watching kids TV programs like Art Linkletter and Cosby Kids. I think one of the famous ones was used in the What The World Needs Now John F Kennedy assassination tribute, where they asked a kid what racism is and he said “I think it’s when you’re sick.” They asked “what is bigotry, and the answer was “I don’t know what biggory is.”

When WWII, ‘the war to end all wars’ was over, there were famous speeches, saying “this must never happen again”. Today it appears we have learned nothing. It may to some degree be propaganda when we see children carried, walked or driven away from bombing sites. The fact is, they are children and they are victims of man’s inhumanity to man. It continues daily in many parts of the world.

I don’t need to show it, you don’t need to be reminded of the actual scenes. It will be on CNN, BBC, Fox or your other favorite news TV station in the next 30 minutes, day after day.

So here’s my question? How do we go from kids, who understand that differences make us interesting, to adults who think we should all be the same and that to be different is a threat? How do we go from sharing our resources to wanting to take them from each other?

At some point we decide children should think along certain lines. We teach them prejudice, we teach them fear and hatred. We teach them on the street, in our homes, we teach them in our schools and we teach them in our places of worship.

I watched the kids in Gaza on TV last night. I saw the looks in the faces as their bodies and lives were wrenched apart, the confusion, the terror, the blank gazes of minds dazed beyond comprehension They were just playing. They don’t understand. They’re just kids. But I’m an adult and I still don’t understand. Does that mean I haven’t grown up?

One of the real ironies to me is that we all have kids. We have all been kids. We have all been taught prejudices by our parents and those around us.

So here’s a thought. Why don’t we change the curriculum?

Who Can You Trust? Who Do You Trust (Read Time 1:41)


Who do you trust? Who can you trust? With happenings in Auckland, New Zealand mayoral politics recently, the NSA spying, and other revelations, we find ourselves in interesting times. With the invasive growth of social media we live in a world of increasing transparency. Corporates and Governments which have thrived on sharing only what they think people need to know are losing that battle.

I’ve been reading article in The Futurist by Rolf Jensen, Chief Imagination Officer (I like that title!) of Dream Company in Denmark who compares today’s society to the first Renaissance. Gutenberg’s Press accelerated the spread of new ideas, and the golden age sprung out of the middle ages where much of the world was controlled by a religious hierarchy.

FragWe have a similar break-up to political hierarchy’s now, particularly in but not limited to the Middle East and Europe, and like the Gutenberg Press, Social Media is now making important information available to the masses, most significantly in real time. This means that it isn’t possible for governments and corporations to use smoke and mirrors quite so much. With trending information, we can see right past the kaleidoscopic obfuscation to what is really going on.

Here are some interesting statistics that Rolf shared in his article in The Futurist:

  • From Pew Research: In the 1960’s 75% of the US public trusted their Government. In 2010 the result was 25%!
  • The European barometer polled UK voters in 2005 and found a trust level of only 34%. In 2012 that was down to 21%.
  • CEO’s of large corporations are trusted by 45% of the US population (almost double the number that trust their politicians, that’s positive isn’t it?)
  • Gallop says that teachers are trusted by 84%. That’s great news isn’t it. What a shame they get one of the smallest parts of the budget!

Back to social media though, what we are doing is finding groups of people that we do trust and building a new society. We’re sharing knowledge and information in countless ways that have immediacy.

As an example, in my new eBook, Buying a House – Using Real Estate Apps, Maps and Location Based Services, I speak a lot about using social media to research where to live. I cover questions like where to find people who are like you, or people who can tell you about a suburb or area, who have nothing to gain by sharing that information. Who can you trust to give you honest information?

I feel very grateful to live in such exciting times where the power is gong back to the people. Of course ‘the people’ do have to take the power and whilst everyone subsequently had an opinion on Mayor Len Brown’s indiscretions, only 33% turned up to vote in the Auckland local Government elections. I do like the saying ‘You get the Government you deserve’.

So who do you trust? Who do you go to for advice? How are you going to use the information now available to you, to help build the world you want for yourself and your children? How will you contribute?

Comments welcomed.

Forget David Shearer’s Man Ban but What About Teenagers?


David Shearer’s concept of having electorates where only women can be put forward as candidates has been dropped. The man ban is gone. Personally I think the concept was not only wrong because it fails to look at candidates to represent us solely on merit. Secondly, Labour is already 40% represented by women MP’s. Therefore in my opinion, women are not being discriminated against in the political arena at all. If they considered the best for the job gender doesn’t come into it.

What we don’t have in my opinion is sufficient youth representation. When I was at college I was a member of the Secondary School Students Association and got to meet with senior leaders in education including the late Paulo Freire, leaders of world churches and many others. They sought our thoughts on the future, stating that we were going to be the leaders of the next generations, just as politicians say today.

Yet, other than once every 3 years, when there is a youth parliament, which is coincidentally next week, there is very little consideration to what youth think about the issues. Sure, MP’s visit schools and do handshake photo opportunities with children and listen to their concerts etc, but kids actually come up with some great ideas, not convoluted by the complexities that adults have.

So if we want the children to help create their own future and if some of them want to be involved in politics, (I appreciate there are organisations like the Young Nats), if we really care about proportional representation, why not have some list seats (not electorate seats) and invite a few promising teenagers into parliament. They could be studying political sciences or have other skills or interests. Have them plug into their demographic and represent their interests in parliament.

What do you think?

How Do You Keep Up With the Massive Changes Affecting Your Business?


How do you keep up with the changing environment you live and work in? Technology is a moving target as are many other elements that shape our environment. There are so many facets to our industries that constantly change while you are trying to keep your business going the best way you know how. 

There are a  number of options. You can join business groups, buy industry magazines, search the Internet, follow social media and talk to others in your industry. So now you are working a 16 hour day and not necessarily making much more progress. Why? Because you are so focussed on doing Business As Usual and your view is based on your insider knowledge, bias and training.

What else can you do? One option is bring someone like me in as a consultant. As a Futurist I scan data using tools I have learned, my own experience in business and a wide focus on STEEP, whilst also having no skin in your business and therefore an objectivity that is hard to find when you have been making decisions that you are financially and emotionally attached to.

What is STEEP? It is about looking at the world and elements within it from the perspective of a wide range of elements and wild cards which make up the world. These key 5 elements are Society, Technology, Environment, Economics and Politics.

Take those 5 elements and apply them to your Business Plan. What is going on in your world right now in relation to STEEP? How might each element impact on your new product launch or sales plan? I would welcome your comments. 

One of the elements of foresight is being able to find connections between seemingly irrelevant  factoids or situations and understand what they mean. Then on top of that sometimes there are wild cards to be considered. What would happen if……..

When you look at information in isolation there are many risks. People form opinions based on snippets of information without seeing the full picture. They assume other people’s opinions, perhaps also based on bias or limited information. People often form opinions or carry them forward based on old data, often not even knowing that it is old data. For example, you may see a RT on Twitter and think it is current information, when in fact it has been retweeted by people for a week. Think about the disinformation that went around in Boston recently. Once it flies around it is very hard to know which information is current and correct.

Unleashing the Road Warrior

Unleashing the Road Warrior

Currency of information is hard to find these days. When a book comes out, by the time it has been printed it is already out of date. When I published Unleashing The Road Warrior, which took me about 6 months to write, it had a currency of about 2 years. After that, all the technology I wrote about was out of date.

We are frequently bombarded with little pieces of information, parts of stories, brief nuggets of 10 ways to be better at something, or 5 ways to become a social media superstar and double your sales. If only it was that easy.

Is there a simple answer? No, there isn’t. However in today’s world, we are connected to many people who are experts in certain areas. There are also people who maintain they are, when they are not. Start by connecting to people who really do know what they are doing. Ask people you know and trust. Check out their credentials. LinkedIn is a good place to start from a business perspective. Are they well connected? Have they been endorsed or recommended? Do you know people that they are connected with that you can talk to?

There are 3 types of people in the world. Those that make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened. Don’t be in the last group if you want to go forward, but also be careful where you get your counsel from.

As a footnote, if you are in New Zealand, or somewhere else where similar things are happening. Fairfax is said to be closing down in both print and online Computerworld NZ, PC World and Reseller News. So where will you be looking for information on your next technology investment or foray? I welcome your comments.

Census 2013 So What Did You Think?


CensusOur household did it online and I have to say it was a smooth and easy process. The questions we didn’t have to answer were grayed out and we were all done and dusted in no time. Hopefully this means that finally we can hold referendums and vote online in future.

However, to me it was a major missed opportunity to learn more about who Kiwis are, what they do and where. This seemed to be to be simply a modern version of the feudal system where nobility tried to establish how much tax they could claim from their citizens. I love the Census system, always used to use copies of the books the Statistics Department used to put out and have been a keen user of the tables and tool builders on the website over more recent years. This Big Data has a huge impact on where to do business, where to build shops and factories, schools etc and the potential to not require costly double ups of data collection as will remain necessary for many Government organisations.

Here are a few thoughts from me of things that I would have liked to know and would have been easy to include and a few comments on what was included:

Ethnicity. For a country that is so multi-ethnic there were only 8 ethnicities offered and one of them was New Zealand European. That effectively makes it a political question and one that does not allow qualitative or quantitative research. As anyone who has studied statistics knows, most European Caucasians will  select the first option, leaving us with skewed data. How about culture. I know people who will register as Chinese because they look like their ancestors, but were born and raised in New Zealand and in most things they do other than appearance are indistinguishable from any other NZ born person. On the other hand there are people who totally live the culture of their family and do not integrate much with our everyday society.

The question on what languages you can have a conversation in, was easy for people who really don’t speak English, to say they do. This to me is important because we know there are now large numbers of people who will struggle to answer a question like “where is the nearest dairy?” in English.

What is your religion? This to me is very old school. You either belong to a sect or you have no religion. What if you are agnostic, spiritual but don’t belong to a particular church? This would effectively assume that if you have no religion, you do not believe in a higher spirit, God if you will.

I would have liked to know what people’s jobs are. As a futurist, I’m aware that many of today’s roles or job titles didn’t exist 20 years ago and it would be very interesting to be able to identify shifts in trends in employment. Yes, this information is available to IRD, but I want to know these answers and you could argue the same about the table which asks about personal annual income.

The employment questions also didn’t support all options. For example, I am a founder in a couple of start-ups. I am not an employee and I do not draw any money from the companies. I work very long hours in them. But I couldn’t answer the how many hours do you work in your job, because I’m not employed by the companies. These are not family businesses or family farms, although we do have a project creating virtual pets. Because I don’t have a ‘job’ all the options below these questions were grayed out. I was left with the questions of did I apply for a job and if so, how. BTW I also do not get any sort of benefit from the Government.

The only questions on health focused on disabilities that stop you from earning money or require a benefit. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to get more information on conditions such as asthma, diabetes, ADHD, Autism, Cancer etc. where people continue to work or study. Not so much from a single point in time but from a trend perspective. Tie this into geospatial mesh blocks and area units and some very interesting information might have emerged. What about depression and mental health? If we were able to see statistics based on location, what discoveries might that lead to? Perhaps ones that Government doesn’t want to reveal?

They asked how many cars were available to the household, not how old they were, how often they were used, how big the engines were, whether they were NZ new? Yes, again I know this information is collected by other Government agencies, but it is not made available to the public and business in the same way.

Question 32 would have appealed to teachers. In the last 7 days did you work for pay, profit or income for an hour or more. Novopay anyone? How many people worked but haven’t been paid? Many have waited much more than a week, I’ve heard of people who still have pay overdue for months! (No I am not a teacher).

What else would I like to know?

  • Do you have a land-line (that has dial tone)? Because in the event of power outages like earthquakes, they often still work.
  • Do you have a broadband connection? VOIP?
  • How many computers do you have at home that can access the internet?
  • How many mobiles do you have in the household that are connected? How many of those are Smartphones?
  • How many hours a week do you spend: Playing Sport or other outdoor activities? In club or organised activities? Watching TV? Playing computer games? On social media?
  • Do you BYOD to work and use it for work purposes?
  • How often do you buy fast food or eat out?
  • What about savings? What do people do with their money? Are they part of a super scheme like Kiwi Saver? Do they buy stocks (Mighty River Power would like to know)? What was the last big purchase in the last 12 months?
  • How about leisure, do they go away for a holiday? In NZ or overseas? Can they afford one at all? How long for?

There are many more questions that could have been asked like, how easy was it to complete this online? Would you be happy to vote in the next elections online?

So in summing up, its great to finally have a Census again and I’m looking forward to finding out what has changed in New Zealand, particularly as a result of the Canterbury earthquakes, but also information like how many NZ born people have left the country permanently, what is the make up of this country today compared to the last Census.

Congratulations on what appeared to be a smooth online operation, but what a missed opportunity to get some more learning. I think there has been so much focus on finally getting the job done, that there was insufficient focus on getting some highly important and valuable new data. The world has changed so much in 5 years. It appears like Novopay, that not much else has when it comes to taking advantage of 21st Century technology.

What do you think?