Here’s to Staving off Dementia and other Demons


Txt me later - Waiouru Army MuseumI’ve been working on my CV over the last few days as my division and role are being disestablished. On the template there was a field for interests. Now if you know me, you will know I am addicted to learning. I am not happy if I am not developing a new skill, a new understanding or keeping up with the constant state of change in this amazing era I feel privileged to live in.

Why do we need to learn? For a start, we have a massive set of wetware in our skulls, that like any muscle, needs to be exercised. Just like muscle sinews, the dendrites in our brain grow or shrink as they are used or neglected. We have discovered this concept of neuroplasticity, or perhaps more to the point of it, science has proven it exists. We actually knew it all along. The link above has some great ways to grow your brain.

The challenge is to keep learning and my bent is to understand, not just absorb data. We have Wikipedia and Google to do compile the data, we need to understand what it means. We need to be ready to identify our weaknesses and keep pace with change. If we don’t the consequences are dire.

I told someone this morning that I feel like I am living in a science fiction novel. The space race is back on, our oceans, lakes, rivers and seas are polluted. Temperatures all over the globe are reaching extremes, we’re getting rid of plastic bags, the political trend around the world is becoming more nationalistic in many places, as we try to protect something we may not have actually had. Children are rising up and being recognised.

I have to chuckle at this one, because I tried that back when I was a kid. I was lucky to have the opportunity because whilst children were sent to schools and universities to learn, their views were largely ignored. Today they are realising that they can’t let grownups screw up the world that they will inherit.

The challenge was that we didn’t have social media and broadcast systems that allow children on one side of the planet to encourage people on another side of the planet to ban plastic bags. I remember being involved in seminars as a teenager with groups like the World Council of Churches and Paulo Freire, whom I was very lucky to have met and spent time with.

Paulo’s critical pedagogy which is now considered new, included the premise that “Study is not measured by the number of pages read in a night, nor by the number of books read in a semester. Studying is not an act of consuming ideas, but of creating and recreating them”.

That’s how we moved from the Morse Code machine to owning, often more than one smartphone, each with more computing power than was used in the entire Apollo 11 Space Programme.

Successes didn’t happen overnight. For example there were many failures before that light bulb lit up and stayed on. We didn’t stop with that incandescent light, we tried and failed and failed and tried and look at the amazing options we have now. Garden lights powered by the sun that work for years and cost less than $5 each!

So what happens when we stop learning? Have you had the sad experience of having to put a family member into a rest home? What happens in most of those places? They have limited resources and the people in them spend a lot of their time withering away until they no longer know who they are. Yet, we know that playing them music they were once familiar with, can bring them back. Things they learned are still there, but the dendrite connections turned off.

I wonder how we will use that knowledge now that it has been accepted as scientific fact, because dementia is at its highest level in recorded history and I’m not sure it needs to be.

I actually wanted to write about interests and one of mine is linguistics. At various times I have learned and spoken around 8 languages. I formally studied 6 of those. The other one, which I have forgotten was Hungarian, which I learned at 3 because my neighbours at the time only spoke that language. It was easy for me because I already spoke Dutch and English and learned French and German because my parents used it when I was a child, to have a conversation they didn’t want me to understand. Now there’s motivation for a kid to learn something!

I also wanted to talk about conferences, having attended, chaired and spoken at venues in 10 countries around the world, frequently sharing the frustration that most of the people that needed to attend weren’t there, because they were struggling to survive in a changing world and didn’t have time to learn the very things that would save their business. So instead of using Freire’s pedagogy, they kept repeating what they had once been taught, even though it was no longer relevant.

The number of people I have come across who say they know all about their business seems interesting proportional to the number of businesses that are going broke, or the models that are failing because disruptors have delivered what customers were asking the incumbents for, and not getting. So we were frequently preaching to the converted.

I’ll come back to the importance of language in another article, because it is a subject in its own right. Language and linguistics has provided me with a rich career in business and communications. It has taught me much about culture and helped me develop friendships and business relationships around the world.

But haven’t they changed over the decades? My cousins in Holland frequently use words I haven’t heard before and the technology is also now taking us into a whole new area of language, much of which is international, like emojis.

Anyway, I’d like to tell some stories about languages and the value of learning, but you’ll have to watch this space to find them. That’s assuming you still read, but of course you are here. That’s probably a sign of your age, because after writing my latest book targeted at millennials, I realised that many do not like to read at all, but will happily spend hours on YouTube watching educational videos. Maybe one little take away if you are in a business where you want to communicate with people. It used to be simple back in the day.

The things we were taught about in communications decades ago may still work in some niches. The principles still apply, but as Freire said, you have to create and recreate ideas.

So WTS and I’ll BRB 🙂

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……..

 

Who Is Buying Your Personal Information and the Internet of Things?


Who owns your personal information? Who gives companies the right to collect data about you, your family, your friends, your activities, where you live, what you eat, drink, your health, how you travel? Somewhere along the line you probably did, because you didn’t read, or understand the fine print when you signed up for an application, an email newsletter, a loyalty card, or you aren’t worried about your privacy.

There has been much talk about the NSA, and big data monitoring systems in most countries around the world designed to protect us all from terrorism. There has been a lot of talk about how privacy is being eroded with social media. Many of us have the philosophy that if we don’t do anything wrong, we have nothing to hide. But who else is collecting, buying and selling personal information about you?

FuturistA recent story in The Futurist called ‘Connecting with our Connected World captured my attention, particularly when it outlined, from a Wall Street Journal article,  apparently fairly common knowledge, that many retail stores track personal shopping habits using loyalty cards and then resell the data to marketers. The Wall Street Journal article ‘confirmed’ that this same data is now being purchased by insurance companies for the purpose of setting premiums and investigating claims.

With the Internet of Things (IoT), we are now being encouraged to buy fridges with built in bar code readers and wireless connectivity, so that we can scan items we use and feed them to our shopping list. Many of us now have grocery applications, such as the Countdown app, which I have blogged about before in my SoLoMo Consulting blog.These apps monitor what you buy, suggest specials, recipes and even navigate you up and down the aisles of your nearest supermarket so you don’t have to backtrack for things you forgot.

As Richard Yonck of Intelligent Future LLC in Seattle points out in The Futurist, “the rate at which a household consumes sugar, salt, tobacco and alcohol would potentially be an open book.” What could your health insurer infer from that?

It names them

It names them

Combine the information from your mobile apps that know your location, where you have given permission (which is probably half of the apps you use today), your climate control, light controls (that suggest you might be home, or not), fitness apps, social media (freely searchable with tools like Facebook Graph like the example which names people who like Edam cheese,) the direction Google and Apple are heading, to be able to predict what services you may want next based on your context, profile, time and location, your life is an open book today.

The problem with all this big data that we are ‘willingly’ sharing, is that we really don’t know what we are agreeing to or what the data is being used for. I don’t believe we have adequate laws nationally or internationally to protect us from abuse of this data by any agency, business, government department, insurance company, utility company, finance company, the list is infinite.

According to a story in The Public Herald it’s pretty much a free for all. For example they say:

  • Experion sells data updated weekly on new parents, new homeowners and other new event life triggers.
  • Have a read of what information Epsilon sells in this PDF. Who reads Science Fiction novels? Ever wondered why your phone keeps ringing with charities asking for donations? They buy lists.
  • Back to the Public Herald which says that Disney sells data including who bought what, the age and gender of the children, age and occupation of the people who purchased from them and more.

These are just scratching the surface. It isn’t necessarily all bad, the problem is that there doesn’t appear to be any authority tracking who shares what information with whom. The issues come down to informed consent. When you sign a form, enter a competition online with an attractive prize and you click, ‘yes, you can share my information with partners who may have items of interest to me’ perhaps because you think you might have a higher chance of winning the prize, you are losing control of your data.

There are laws designed to protect us from spam, but we often sign away rights without understanding the implications. Companies selling our data will argue that they have our approval to use and share our information. The flow of data will become so convoluted that it will become impossible to know who has what. Big Data companies will consolidate this data also with our ‘implied’ approval.

Governments need to be thinking about this now, if it is not already too late. Of course they arguably need the data as well in order to provide quality health, education and other services, including planning future smart cities. They need as much data as possible, although they don’t in many cases need the granular level down to individual people.

So as a footnote, think about all the cool Internet of Things you are buying over the next couple of years, like exercise devices, remote controlled security cameras and home access, climate control, sleep and snoring monitors, lighting, car telematics, electronic ticketing for public transport and much more, weigh up the cool with potential risk and consider that if legitimate organizations can access your data, so potentially can people wanting to commit crimes. It is already known that burglars steal product to order based on what they find on social media apps like Facebook (had a great weekend on the jet ski and now I’m off to Fiji for a couple of weeks and I’m putting the dogs in a kennel).

Robots to learn human emotions


At the University of Hertfordshire they have been working on a model of children’s early attachment behavior for robots. Their goal is to apply nature and nurture with artificial intelligence so that robots can become caregivers for children in hospital.

“What the Hal?” I thought when I read about this in The Futurist. If you follow my blog, you will have read previous posts such as the one I wrote about Singularity. AI is obviously going to come, but the concept of nurture applied to a robot is something I struggle with, especially with children and even more so sick children who are in pain or stressed.

In principle the idea of a robot that can play games with children, have unlimited patience and intelligence, makes total sense and is a great idea. But when it comes to EQ, I’m not sure how it would interpret immature and potentially irrational behavior.

There have been a number of studies suggesting that children and even teenagers are often unable to understand the consequences of their actions. Many people argue that risk taking is a natural growth path in the development from children to adults. This makes me wonder what would happen if robots learn from children and interpret their behavior as normal. Imagine for example if a robot goes from learning paper, rock scissors, as in this video and then learns to pillow fight or throw objects, from the children.

I’m not being a Luddite, I love new technology, but I do have some concerns about singularity and whilst I would love a robot to vacuum, mow the lawns, cook and do other chores for me, I would prefer them without the emotional senses.

I’ll leave the last word to HAL 9000

Would you like HAL looking after your sick child?

The Smart Connected Home


The home, its technology and its inhabitants are now becoming more and more connected. Many of us now have WiFi networks in the home. We can sit with notebooks on our laps, wireless routers connected to our internet connection allow us to connect entertainment systems, iPads and other network appliances, printers, external drives, Smartphones and more.

Many other devices are now being developed that also offer the benefits of connectivity. For example Internet TV is almost here with products like Google TV being right on our doorstep.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Arthur Anderson offices in Chicago for a glimpse of the future. An example was an intelligent  fridge with a bar code reader that created a shopping list and could automatically send the list to the local grocery delivery company.

Bill Gates had a master plan of having a Windows CE engine in home appliances, creating an intelligent house. Smart Appliances will I’m sure be in the home soon and the idea Gates had was that if they all used Windows CE, they would all have a common platform to communicate not only with each other and with your mobile computer, perhaps your home appliances.

The European Commission has perhaps seen the light in setting up The Hydra Project. “The Hydra middleware allows developers to incorporate heterogeneous physical devices into their applications by offering easy-to-use web service interfaces for controlling any type of physical device irrespective of its network technology such as Bluetooth, RF, ZigBee, RFID, WiFi, etc. Hydra incorporates means for Device and Service Discovery, Semantic Model Driven Architecture, P2P communication, and Diagnostics. Hydra enabled devices and services can be secure and trustworthy through distributed security and social trust components of the middleware.”

This has the potential to reduce the risk of being tied to specific brands of computing, communications and other technology by providing middleware that everyone can work with. Of course the home is only one place that can benefit from this concept. It applies equally to telemedicine (monitoring patients in the home), business automation, security, agriculture, manufacturing, warehousing and pretty much any industry you can think of.

Once again Science Fiction is about to become reality. It’s taken a while, but looks like we are getting there.

The following video shows an e-home controlled by voice or even by your X Box Controller and of course you can control it from your iPhone: