Saturday, January 2, 2010

I am a meat puppet

First off, most of the thoughts hear are inspired by this great post on the state of machine learning and what is ahead.

I think machines are already smarter than humans and are already coercing the course of human history in certain domains. They just lack consciousness and can't recognize or leverage this ability yet. This may seem like a ridiculous notion, but let us look at how this isn't as absurd as it sounds.

It is a given that computers have revolutionized how we humans do things. The human need to experience and discover information in the world has resulted in computational systems that curate information for humans. Computers have been allowed to provide input into the human existence under the guise that humans have taught them what information they would like to receive.

Examples of computational systems telling humans what to do:
  • Netflix: Deciding what movies humans should watch.
  • Pandora: Deciding what music humans should listen to.
  • Amazon: Inviting humans to exchange money for various objects.
  • Google AdWords (with AdSense): Showing humans things they are most likely to click.
  • Flight Caster: Suggesting to humans what airplane flights they should take.
These systems are self-sustaining (from the perspective of a human, not an age of the universe timeline). As long as the companies who host these systems exist, they will continue to provide input into our human existence. The more input they collect, the more human actions they can suggest. As long as they can suggest reasonable human actions, the company and the system will survive.

Assume these system can do this as humans have taught the system what is reasonable. The case of a competitor taking over is a moot point since it is one computational system replacing another.

The bias opinion of 'humans first' for these data driven systems is false. Once initialized, these systems are self-learning. They suggest actions to humans, and humans will provide input back regarding this action. (example: Rating a movie, that you rented based on a recommendation from Netflix).

In this way, machines tell humans what to do, humans tell the machines what they did, the machines tell the humans what to do again. We think we are in control because we can choose not to do something.

Allow me to demonstrate.
Go find a new book to read.
Do you have a topic or specific book in mind?
  • If you have something in mind, what made you interested in this topic or book. Did you read about it from a site like Digg, HackerNews, Reddit, Slashdot?
If you don't have a book or topic in mind, where do you go to find a new book?
  • The bookstore? (How did the bookstore decide what books to carry?)
  • Call a friend? (Where did your friend hear about this book?)
  • Amazon or some other computer recommendation?

The line between a human driven action and a computer driven action is already blurring. Humans think they are outside of the machines control only because these systems do not exist for all possible human activities.

The only other current limitation of these systems is the ability to receive new information to suggest. Currently this is a 'humans first' action. This too will be blurred as machines are given more ways to collect input from the world. Humans can always create new activities and information, but ultimately what humans learn, influences what they do.

What sources of information do humans use to learn?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The web is broken, please fix it.

This is a rant.

I swear every god damn ad I have seen on the Internet this week is either: "One flat stomach rule." or "Get your economic stimulus check." Both sound like scams. Do Facebook and Digg think I like to be scammed? "Head-on apply directly to the forehead" was cute 2 years ago, now the ad blitzes are just ****ing annoying.

Advertising is broken.

Google makes the big bucks because ads is what they do. Hell they even applied machine learning to advertising. That's right artificial intelligence, people worry about a robotic apocalypse via military means. Little do they know robots will just get us to spend ourselves into oblivion.

Facebook doesn't make money because there is no splash page. You can't show the same rotation of ads to everyone that other sites do. You read the same type of content on every page of Facebook, yet the context of every page is different. Give me ads relevant to my current context and CPM's will go up. If I didn't click on an ad the first time you showed it to me, why would I click on it when it is next to Billy's profile? I have to give them credit for generating ads relevant to me, but give me some variety already! Yes I am a software developer, that doesn't mean every ad I have to see be in regards to "Great company looking for a rock star developer". (Whoever made that ad, I will never find a job through an ad. Job site maybe, but truth be told, if your an 'awesome' company, developers will find you.)

Facebook is broke(n). (You could argue they never had a business model.) (Twitter is following closely in facebook's foot steps).

On the topic of repeated things. I'm sick of seeing old web pages. PageRank worked great when the web was still new, the web is old now, I want recent information (I don't want JavaDocs from 5 years ago, I want the JavaDocs of the latest release.)

The web is old, stinky, and full of noise.

Case in point: is probably the biggest thing to happen to search since Page Rank. Take up to the minute status updates from Twitter, re-rank articles based on Tweet freshness. Dead simple idea, obvious improvement to results, innovation. What's even more ridiculous is that using twitter results has its own crowd sourcing-esque result (How many times was this topic tweeted recently?).

Innovation lives.

Google, stop slacking. You've gotten big and lost your touch. PageRank gave you lots of money, but you can lose market share. It won't be this year or any time soon simply because all the other big names suck. But it will happen unless you focus on being disruptive. Otherwise your next in line after Yahoo. (AOL you are already dead to me).

Facebook: Sell user data, just don't sell it all. Companies will pay big bucks to know what interests a user has, but doing anything more than city/state and user interests is pushing the limits of privacy law. i.e. "Service: I've got this user with this email address, what are they into facebook? Facebook: X has friends playing game Z, follows sports team Y. Or "X' is generally interested in video games and basketball. Or 'X' lives in Dallas. This is the type of stuff that Amazon spends many, many millions of dollars to calculate and track, and users are giving it to facebook for free.

Digg. Use your fancy user recommendation engine to get better ads.

The web is full of noise and it always will be. The methods we use to discover content will consistently improve, and the noise will consistently increase. What will change is the means to sift through it whether it be personal recommendations, editor selections, searches, user recommendations, or whatever comes next.

Ok, that's enough late night rambling.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taming Dragons with Tupperware

Below is a tale of lizards, windows, and Tom being a dork.

I decided I was going to do something productive on an otherwise lazy Saturday.  It had come to my attention earlier in the week that my girlfriend's house is damn cold.  Today, I finally decided to do something about it and went over to her house to seal up some noticeably breezy spots.  

First up were the front windows.  I moved the surrounding furniture back, pulled the blinds up a bit, and found this....

It's the middle of winter, why is this guy (or girl?) not hibernating?  This isn't the first time I have had to evacuate a lizard from the girlfriend's place, but that time the lizard was in the middle of the ceiling and also half the size. (Side note: keep ceiling textures flat otherwise capturing baby lizards on your ceiling becomes very difficult.)

So how to deal with this one...
  1. Shoo it out the window. 
  2. Kill it
  3. Attempt to reason with it
  4. Find a container of some sort and try to catch and release
  5. Leave it there and hope the girlfriend never looks behind the TV
First option, shoo it out the window. The means to open the window are right next to the lizard, the window is screened, and if I try to shoo it, it may very well just run off away from the outdoors and into the tangle of TV cords nearby.  X nay on the ooing shay.

Second option, kill the damn thing.  I tend to avoid violence if at all possible, not to mention I really didn't want to deal with the clean up, especially if I only kinda killed it and it ran away bleeding all over the house.

Option three, try the impossible and hold a conversation with a lizard.  Worth a shot right?

Option four, catch and release.  This would be the preferred method, however I have to find a container large enough to accommodate the lizard (its not huge or anything, but its tail is really long). Also the lizard is right in the corner which makes placement tricky.

Option five, keeps the bugs away right?  So I left it there.

Psyche. (I did give it away in the title.) I went into the kitchen to try and find an appropriate sized container, eventually I discovered a nice rectangular one.  I checked it against a neighboring window sill and it was a perfect fit.  However, I also made another important discovery.  The window had a small metal lip on it so people could open it or something. Whatever its purpose, the lizard's head was directly underneath it so a simple drop was not going to work.

After fetching a green folder (the stiff, thin, flat object that would be slid under the soon to be contained lizard), I stared the lizard down. I said, "Look I know your brain is smaller than my pinky, but it would simply be easier if you mozied out the door.  Why there haven't been more advances in inter-species communication is beyond me."

I grabbed the container and held it over the window sill... 

I hesitated. (It's amazing how much more bravado we men have when the women are watching.)  I contemplated just slamming the container down, but then realized I might injure the lizard and somehow lop off it's tail or kill it. I didn't like that option, and that little guy is going to need his tail once he gets outside.

I slowly lowered the container towards the sill. Slow and steady... Please don't run into the tangle of cords by the TV...  Steady now... Maybe the girlfriend wouldn't mind... almost there... the inner edge dropped onto the metal lip of the window.  Ok, the lizard hasn't moved yet, (maybe reasoning with it worked a little?) I lower the outer edge. I can feel gravity pulling the edge on the window lip. I release...

The last edge of the container falls and the lizard flips out.  It landed on his head! He frantically struggles for a second and then pulls his head back runs to one corner of the container, runs to the next, then stops. 

I notice the lizard's tail poking out through the thin sliver of space between the container and the window sill edge and quickly slide the container a quarter inch in. He shifts to another corner.

Ok, I can breathe a little easier now. I grab the green folder and gently slide it under the container.

I fetch a sturdier magazine to put underneath the folder to ensure that the folder doesn't bend while transporting the lizard outside.

I let him go in some bushes near the house and spent ten minutes feeling awesome while sealing up two small holes underneath the window.