Strong AI has been on my mind a lot lately. We use weak AI all the time and the difference between then two has become more apparent as the limitations, in a particular context, of an application of weak AI (such as Siri) becomes painfully apparent in daily use.
When I was a student at MIT in the 1980s, computer science and artificial intelligence were front and center. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert were the gods of MIT LCS and just looking at what happened in 1983, 1984, and 1985 at what is now CSAIL (what used to be LCS/AI) will blow your mind. The MIT Media Lab was created at the same time – opening in 1985 – and there was a revolution at MIT around AI and computer science. I did a UROP in Seymour Papert’s lab my freshman year (creating Logo on the Coleco Adam) and took 6.001 before deciding to do Course 15 and write commercial software part-time while I was in school. So while I didn’t study at LCS or the Media Lab, I was deeply influenced by what was going on around me.
Since then, I’ve always been fascinated with the notion of strong AI and the concept of the singularity. I put myself in the curious observer category rather than the active creator category, although a number of the companies I’ve invested in touch on aspects of strong AI while incorporating much weak AI (which many VCs are currently calling machine learning) into what they do. And, several of the CEOs I work with, such as John Underkoffler of Oblong, have long histories working with this stuff going back to the mid-1980s through late 1990s at MIT.
When I ask people what the iconic Hollywood technology film about the future of computing is, the most common answer I get is Minority Report. This is no surprise to me as it’s the one I name. If you are familiar with Oblong, you probably can make the link quickly to the idea that John Underkoffler was the science and tech advisor to Spielberg on Minority Report. Ok – got it – MIT roots in Minority Report – that makes sense. And it’s pretty amazing for something done in 2002, which was adapted from something Philip K. Dick wrote in 1956.
Now, fast forward to 2014. I watched three movies in the last year purportedly about strong AI. The most recent was Her, which Amy, Jenny Lawton, and I watched over the weekend, although we had to do it in two nights because we were painfully bored after about 45 minutes. The other two were Transcendence and Lucy.
All three massively disappointment me. Her was rated the highest and my friends seemed to like it more, but I found the portrayal of the future, in which strong AI is called OS 1, to be pedantic. Samantha (Her) had an awesome voice (Scarlett Johansson) but the movie was basically a male-fantasy of a female strong AI. Lucy was much worse – once again Scarlett Johansson shows up, this time as another male fantasy as she goes from human to super-human to strong AI embodied in a sexy body to black goo that takes over, well, everything. And in Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays the sexy strong character that saves the femme fatale love interest after dying and uploading his consciousness, which then evolves into a nefarious all-knowing thing that the humans have to stop – with a virus.
It’s all just a total miss in contrast to Minority Report. As I was muttering with frustration to Amy about Her, I wondered what the three movies were based on. In trolling around, they appear to be screenplays rather than adaptations of science fiction stories. When I think back to Philip K. Dick in 1956 to John Underkoffler in 2000 to Stephen Spielberg in 2002 making a movie about 2054, that lineage makes sense to me. When I think about my favorite near term science fiction writers, including William Hertling and Daniel Suarez, I think about how much better these movies would be if they were adaptations of their books.
The action adventure space opera science fiction theme seems like it’s going to dominate in the next year of Hollywood sci-fi movies, if Interstellar, The Martian (which I’m very looking forward to) and Blackhat are any indication of what is coming. That’s ok because they can be fun, but I really wish someone in Hollywood would work with a great near-term science fiction writer and a great MIT (or Stanford) AI researcher to make the “Minority Report” equivalent for strong AI and the singularity.
I heard a great phrase from Jenna Walker at Artifact Uprising yesterday. We had a Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network Colorado meeting with her and her partner and in the middle of the discussion about their business Jenna used the phrase “digital paralysis” to describe one of the things she thinks is driving the incredible engagement of their customers.
Her example was photography. Artifact Uprising came out of her original experience with photography, the dramatic shift to digital photography on iPhones and picture storage on Dropbox and Instagram, and the massive overwhelming feeling of having zillions of digital photos. In Jenna’s case, it’s caused a slow down of her photo taking (digital paralysis) because she’s overwhelmed with the massive numbers of photos she now has, doesn’t really have the energy to deal with them, and resists taking more because they’ll just end up along with the other zillions in Dropbox.
I totally identified with this. Amy and I have a huge number of digital artifacts at this point – with our enormous photo library being just one of them. The feeling of paralysis in dealing with them is substantial. After a brief tussle the other day over “hey – just share the photo stream with me of the stuff you are going to take today” followed by a struggle to figure out how to do it the way we wanted to do it and still have the photos end up in the same place, tension ensued and digital paralysis once again set it. I sent myself an email task to “spend an hour with the fucking photos on Dropbox” this weekend which I’ll probably end up avoiding dealing with due to digital paralysis.
Yesterday, my friend Dov Seidman wrote a great article in Fast Company titled Why There’s More To Taking A Break Than Just Sitting There. It’s worth a long, slow read in the context of reacting to being overwhelmed digitally as well as in the general intense pace of life today.
As I sat and thumbed through some of the beautiful photo books that Artifact Uprising creates, I could feel my brain slowing down and being less jangly as I settled into observing and interacting with something not-digital. Try it this weekend, and ponder it while you are taking a break. Pause, and explore why you are pausing, how it feels, and what you are doing about it. And see if it impacts your digital paralysis when you end the pause and go back to the computer.
Suddenly anonymous apps are all the rage again. Secret and Whisper are the two that have recently made headlines, but there’s a cockroach like proliferation of them being funded by VCs.
As one of my favorite BSG quotes goes, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
I was generally ignoring this until I read a long post by Austin Hill titled On your permanent record: Anonymity, pseudonymity, ephemerality & bears omfg! It was outstanding and referred to a tweet stream by @pmarca on the same topic.
I’ve been trolled since I first started interacting with other humans online in the mid-1980s. The first time it happened was shocking to me. I was young (under 20), on a Usenet thread, and was part of what I thought was an interesting conversation. I no longer remember what the comment was that shook me up, but it was the equivalent of “go fuck yourself with an axe, chop out your liver, and die.”
Yeah – I wasn’t ready for that. After a few years of being trolled, I learned to completely ignore it. I recall discovering “anonymous coward” on Slashdot and – after thinking someone had come up with a particularly clever user name, I realized that was their label for all “guests” who commented anonymously.
When FuckedCompany.com came out in 2000, it was startling at first, but then it quickly became predictable. If you were part of a company that was fucked, you knew it. But when confidential information started appearing on a daily basis, especially in contexts where companies were trying to do the right thing, it became upsetting. Eventually, like being told to go fuck yourself with an axe, I became numb to it and started ignoring it.
At this point in my life, I realize that it is all just noise. So, for me, I just ignore it.
It’s the same kind of noise that destroys lives. It’s so much easier to be cruel when hiding behind a wall of anonymity. We already know how much easier it is to be cruel over email versus in person. Now put up an anonymous wall. Say anything you want. Release any confidential information you want. Lie about anything, since there is theoretically no way to trace it back to you. You are no longer accountable for what you say or do. You can say whatever you want, whether it is true or not. You can perform systematic character assassination without any consequences.
Every now and then one of the anonymous apps gets hacked. All the user data gets revealed. In the past, there wasn’t enough critical mass of this for anyone to care. But this time around, there might be. And, and Austin says in his post, there is merely the illusion of anonymity here.
“FALSE EXPECTATION OF ANONYMITY: The security model for both these applications is horrendous and irresponsible. The give the user an illusion of privacy, encourage users to say things without the burden of identity (both in good or bad cases) — but then provide no real anonymity or privacy is deceptive.”
Go read the whole thing – I won’t repeat it here. But if you think what you are putting up on these apps is really anonymous, then keep doing it at your own peril.
But why are you doing it? What is the value to you? What is the value to society? What is the value to anyone else? And what is the cost?
This isn’t a moral question. Do whatever you want. But ask yourself the question “why”.
If you think this is new and exciting, just remember all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
I got an interesting email from a friend who has historically been a huge Apple fanboy. I asked him if I could repost it verbatim and he said yes. It follows – I’m curious what your response is to this.
While I’m still very involved with the art world here in Colorado and still working on conservation issues we’ve actually just returned from almost a year away, the last 6 months in India. I realize that a lot of what I see is colored with the lens of India, but maybe that’s helping to make things more clear.
Anyway, in preparation for re-entry after India (we were in rural, south east India, without much electricity so I figured home might be a shock), I started to try and catch up on things. Your blog was one of my tools for this. I read the post on creating the best product, agreed, and moved on. One of the first things I planned on doing once home was to buy a shiny new macbook to replace my 4 year old white macbook. Maybe going to the mall, rather than just buying it online was my first mistake, but the cult of apple and the temple that is that store made me gag the second I walked in there. And while my macbook may be old, my use of apple products is right where they want it to be… had the iPhone5 the 2nd day it was out, mcgyvered the Airtel sim cards to work as nano-sims card in india, have a small film production crew all working on the latest macbook pros and iMacs, iPads and iPods at home… on and on. But in the store, what I noticed was a culture of elitism and insincerity. I had a 4 year old laptop with me, and was treated like a Luddite because I didn’t look up to speed. Insulted, I kept the $4,500 in my pocket, thinking I’d keep the laptop running, which I did. Small thing I know, but my thought was “if apple doesn’t care about me, who do they care about?” Today an even smaller issue illuminated this even more. I went in again, this time to replace the defective “top case/keyboard” from these old white plastic macs, and was told that the machine was now “vintage” (that’s the official apple label), and that they couldn’t replace the “defective part” (also their official language) as they had done in the past, because it is more than 4 years old. I thought that maybe I should just get a new machine and quit belly aching, but I pushed a little just to see what apple thought about a customer like me… and called apple to ask if there was anything more they could do. After a lot of insincere apologies, I asked if there was really nothing they could do. The support supervisor insisted that there was no more senior person to address this issue but that I might try craigslist. I was pretty surprised that apple’s official support process ended with telling the customer to check out craigslist for an old mac to scrap for parts. I’m such a pushover that if he’d offered me $100 credit towards a new macbook, I’d have smiled and bought another apple product.
As I right this, it sounds too much like a rant. But I couldn’t help writing, first to say hello after a long while (I did hear about the 3D printed tooth in Croatia…amazing!) and second to just try an make sense of what apple could possibly be thinking… the “cool factor” is clearly waning, they’re products are overpriced, and now they’re indifferent, even hostile, to customer who regularly spend tens of thousands of dollars on their products. Can they really be thinking that the best product is the one that you replace really quickly with something “cooler” and more expensive? I think this time, I might really go get the chromebook. I can’t be alone, and that can’t be good for them.
I spent two weeks without my iPhone. I was completely off the grid for the first week but then spent the second week online, on my MacBook Air and Kindle, but no iPhone. I got home on Sunday and have had my iPhone turned on the past few days. I’ve used it as a phone, but I’ve largely stayed off of the web, email, and twitter with it. Instead, I’m only done this when I’m in front of my computer. I played around a little with the new Gmail iPhone app (which I like) but I’ve been limiting my email to “intentional time” – early in the morning, late at night, and when I have catch up time in between things.
I don’t miss my iPhone at all. It sits in my pocket most of the time. Every now and then I hop on a phone call and do a conference call with MobileDay. I used it for a map. I checked my calendar a few times.
Yesterday, it occurred to me that I was much more mentally engaged throughout the day in the stuff going on (I had a typically packed day). I had dinner with my brother at night. No phones were on the table, no checking in to Foursquare, no quick scanning of Twitter in the bathroom while peeing. When I got home, I hung out with Amy – no email. This morning, I just spent an hour and went through the 200 emails that had piled up since 5:30pm when I’d last checked my email. My inbox is empty.
There’s some magic peace that comes over me when I’m not constantly looking at my iPhone. I really noticed it after two weeks of not doing it. After a few days of withdrawal, the calm appears. My brain is no longer jangly, the dopamine effect of “hey – another email, another tweet” goes away, and I actually am much faster at processing whatever I’ve got on a 27″ screen than on a little tiny thing that my v47 eyes are struggling to read.
Now, I’d love for there to be a way for me to know about high priority interrupts – things that actually are urgent. But my iPhone doesn’t do this at all in any discernable way. There are too many different channels to reach me and they aren’t effectively conditioned – I either have to open them up to everyone (e.g. txtmsg via my phone number) or convince people to use a specific piece of software – many, such as Glassboard – which are very good, but do require intentional behavior on both sides.
I’m suddenly questioning the “mobile first” strategy. Fred Wilson just had two posts about this – yesterday’s (Rethinking Mobile First) and today’s (A Blog Post Written On The Mobile Web). He’s coming at this from a different perspective, but it’s an interesting meme and thought process.
I don’t actually care about the hardware much – it’s going to evolve very rapidly. As is my way, I’m completely focused on the software. And I think the software is badly lacking on many dimensions. Since so much of the software is happening on the backend / in the cloud, we have the potential for radically better user interaction. But we are far from it.
Fred talks in his second post about living in the future. My future, five years from now, has my “compute infrastructure” integrated into my glasses. I no longer have a smart phone – I simply have glasses. I have no idea if I carry a device around in my pocket or have an implant, nor do I care. Again, the hardware will happen. But I don’t want to live my life having all my emails appears in my glasses. And I especially don’t want a tiny keyboard that I can barely see anymore being my input device.
I don’t know the answer here so I’m going to run a bunch of experiments for v47 of me. I’ll spend some months, like this one, with email turned off on my phone. I’m going to dig deeper into “cross channel” software that helps me deal with the flow of information. I may hack together a few things to help me manage it. And I’m continuing to shove more and more communication online – via email or videoconferencing – and away from the phone in the first place.
What’s missing is my control center. I’ve been looking for it for a while and never found anything that’s close, so I end up with a manual control center in my browser. Maybe I’ll stumble upon it – finally – this year. Or maybe I’ll create it. Either way, my smart phone is officially not working for me anymore.
Marc Andreessen recently wrote a long article in the WSJ which he asserted that “Software Is Eating The World.” I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.
I believe the machines have already taken over and resistance is futile. Regardless of your view of the idea of the singularity, we are now in a new phase of what has been referred to in different ways, but most commonly as the “information revolution.” I’ve never liked that phrase, but I presume it’s widely used because of the parallels to the shift from an agriculture-based society to the industrial-based society commonly called the “industrial revolution.”
At the Defrag Conference I gave a keynote on this topic. For those of you who were there, please feel free to weigh in on whether the keynote was great, sucked, if you agreed, disagreed, were confused, mystified, offended, amused, or anything else that humans are capable of having as stimuli-response reactions.
I believe the phase we are currently in began in the early 1990’s with the invention of the World Wide Web and subsequent emergence of the commercial Internet. Those of us who were involved in creating and funding technology companies in the mid-to-late 1990’s had incredibly high hopes for where computers, the Web, and the Internet would lead. By 2002, we were wallowing around in the rubble of the dotcom bust, salvaging what we could while putting energy into new ideas and businesses that emerged with a vengence around 2005 and the idea of Web 2.0.
What we didn’t realize (or at least I didn’t realize) was that virtually all of the ideas from the late 1990’s about what would happen to traditional industries that the Internet would distrupt would actually happen, just a decade later. If you read Marc’s article carefully, you see the seeds of the current destruction of many traditional businesses in the pre-dotcom bubble efforts. It just took a while, and one more cycle for the traditional companies to relax and say “hah – once again we survived ‘technology'”, for them to be decimated.
Now, look forward twenty years. I believe that the notion of a biologically-enhanced computer, or a computer-enhanced human, will be commonplace. Today, it’s still an uncomfortable idea that lives mostly in university and government research labs and science fiction books and movies. But just let your brain take the leap that your iPhone is essentially making you a computer-enhanced human. Or even just a web browser and a Google search on your iPad. Sure – it’s not directly connected into your gray matter, but that’s just an issue of some work on the science side.
Extrapolating from how it’s working today and overlaying it with the innovation curve that we are on is mindblowing, if you let it be.
I expect this will be my intellectual obsession in 2012. I’m giving my Resistance is Futile talk at Fidelity in January to a bunch of execs. At some point I’ll record it and put it up on the web (assuming SOPA / PIPA doesn’t pass) but I’m happy to consider giving it to any group that is interested if it’s convenient for me – just email me.
I was reminded of the importance of starting with the customer experience while I was watching this brilliant video from WWDC 1997 of Steve Jobs. In the video, Jobs appears to be responding to attack by a troll, but is actually doing something much more interesting. Rather than take the bait and react, he thinks carefully in real time and makes a critical philosophical point about his – and Apple’s – approach to creating new products.
The punch line happens early when he says “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology.” It’s five minutes long and worth watching, if only to see how incredibly durable Jobs’ philosophy has been over the past 15 years.
When I think about the companies we’ve invested in, some of them embody this philosophy deeply in their culture. Oblong, MakerBot, Orbotix, Fitbit, and Cloud Engines immediately come to mind. The entrepreneurs running these companies are completely and totally obsessed with the consumer experience of their products, even though their products embody an incredible amount of technology (in each case, both hardware and software innovations.)
As an investor, I often lose sight of this, especially when I’m working on non-consumer facing companies (e.g. enterprise software companies). But I believe very strongly in the consumerization of IT – namely the notion that innovation in software is now being driven by consumer applications, and correspondingly by consumers, not by enterprise IT organizations and enterprise software vendors. If you accept this, it means that if you are working on enterprise applications, you also need to be obsessed with the customer experience.
When I think about this abstractly, especially in the context of “software eating the world” or my view that the machines have already taken over and resistance is futile, I completely buy the premise that the consumer experience trumps all technical decisions in any context. Apple has proven this throughout the entire customer experience, including being exposed to the product, buying the product, implementing the product, upgrading the product, and getting help with the product. And I think it’s going to get a lot more important going forward.
I’ve worn glasses since I was three years old. I was trying to look at something on my iPad yesterday without them on and I heard Amy burst out laughing with “you really can’t see a thing without your glasses.” True – my eyes are defective. I’ve contemplated getting LASIK’s a few times but chickened out each time – if 42 years of glasses have worked, I expect another 42 will be just fine.
For years I’ve fantasized about getting glasses that have a heads-up display (HUD) integrated into them. This HUD would be connected to a computer somehow, which would of course be connected to the Internet, which would then give me access to whatever I wanted through my glasses. I can’t remember a sci-fi movie over the past decade that didn’t have this technology available and since my jetpack now seems like it’s finally around the corner (I’m hoping to get one for my 46th birthday), I have hope for my HUDglasses.
The pieces finally exist since I’m carrying a computer in my pocket (my iPhone or my Android) that’s always connected to the Internet. My glasses just need bluetooth to pair with my phone, an appropriate display, a processor, a camera, and the right software. Optimally I could control it via a spatial operating environment like Oblong’s g-speak.
I’m interested in investing in a team going after this. The magic will be on the software side – I want to work with folks that believe the hardware will be available, can integrate existing products, are comfortable with consumer electronics products, but are obsessed with “assembling the hardware” and “hacking the software.”
If this is you, or someone you know, please aim them at me. In the mean time, I tried to hunt down Tony Stark but don’t have his email address.
I’m in my car on the way to Aspen for the weekend (Amy is driving – I’m in the passenger seat.). The top is down. It’s absolutely beautiful on I-70 as we travel at a high rate of speed. And I’m sitting here blogging on my iPad.
There is no way to describe this as anything other than magic. I’m in an extremely creative zone of my life and trying to spend as much time as I can working on stuff I really care about. I love the entrepreneurs I work with, my partners are extraordinary, the team that supports us is dynamite, and because of magic technology I have an enormous amount of time and space freedom.
I’m as busy as I’ve ever been, but I’m finding that I can be even more effective now that I’m detached from physically having to be places in order to interact and communicate. Sure – I still have lots of face to face activities and interactions, but I’m starting (finally) to be more focused with it, especially on things and with people I really want to be with.
As I sit here writing this, I realize that I couldn’t have worked this way a decade ago. When I think of what the next decade is going to be like, I get chills of excitement.
I love magic technology. Thank you to all the awesome people out there helping create it!