Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing (documentary)

Many thanks to The Turing Century blog for finding this BBC Horizon documentary about Alan Turing on YouTube. The documentary may have first aired in 1992, but it's none the worse for that.
Watch Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Incidentally, isn't it strange you almost never hear Turing referred to as "Dr. Turing" although he had a PhD from Princeton.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Physics of the Future

Whilst researching The Universal Machine I read Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. I'm not usually a big fan of futurology; for example, Ray Kurzweil's pronouncements I find ludicrous. However, I really enjoyed Kaku's book and agree with most of his predictions. I like the way he divides his predictions into three categories: the near, middle and far future; and that he uses this framework to provide a level of certainty for the predictions. We can be certain of near future predictions, like driverless cars, because they are already in the research labs and are be tested on the roads. We can be reasonably certain of the middle future predictions because they represent reasonable progress from near future developments. However, we can't be very sure of far future predictions (about 100 years out) because we do not know what scientific breakthroughs there will be in the meantime. Nobody in 1910 predicted the Internet. The last two chapters of The Universal Machine deal with the future, but unlike Physics of the Future, I restrict myself to the impact of the computer, whereas Kaku's book is more wide ranging. I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

New Alan Turing LinkedIn Group

If you're on LinkedIn you may be interested to know that there is now a LinkedIn group for people with an interest in all things Alan Turing. 2012 is going to be a busy year with events and activities being planned all over the world to celebrate Turing's centenary. The new LinkedIn group is one way to keep in touch with events, share information and connect with fellow enthusiasts.
   To join login to your LinkedIn account and search the Groups for "Alan Turing." The group has an open membership so anyone can join.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Turing Digital Archive

Alan Turing
King's College Cambridge curates The Turing Digital Archive, which gathers together many of Alan Turing's letters, talks, photographs and unpublished papers, as well as memoirs and obituaries written about him. It contains images of the original documents that are held in the Turing collection at King's College, Cambridge. It really is an excellent resource if you have an interest in Alan Turing - treat yourself and have a browse.

Digital piracy goes 3D

Last weekend a friend and I were talking, over a few beers, about the possibility of being able to copy vinyl records by scanning the information in the grooves with a tracking laser and then recreating the vinyl disk using a 3D printer. We both felt that one day this would definitely be possible, but that probably the resolution of the 3D printers wasn't fine enough yet.
    Then, this week I came across an article on Engadget that showed that this had been done.

OK it's not exactly high-fidelity, but clearly this will improve to the state where the reproduction will be perfect. Also this week, in a not unrelated story, the infamous Pirate Bay website announced that it would be hosting physibles, which are digital plans for things that can be downloaded and used to assemble real, tangible objects using a 3D printer. Although 3D printing is still in its infancy we can only assume that it will become more popular as the price of the hardware drops. So soon there really is the possibility of digital piracy applying not just to media but real physical objects as well. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mindblowing Horizon documentary - Playing God

Last night I watched the latest BBC Horizon documentary Playing God and I was amazed. The doco is about Synthetic Biology, a new research discipline that uses artificial man made DNA to create new functionality in organisms. The process seems to be (I'm simplifying), that someone sequences a gene for making a protein (e.g., spider silk), that DNA sequence is stored digitally in a  database "of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems." I'm not kidding, that's a quote from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts based at MIT. Then lets say you want to make goats that excrete spider silk protein in their milk (the example used in the doco), you go to the Registry, download the part that you need and create the DNA from scratch (using some sort of DNA making machine). You then add your new gene to the goat's DNA and presto a goat that makes spider silk!
    Clearly the commercial implications for this technology are vast. Another example, in the documentary was brewers yeast that makes diesel oil from sugar water instead of alcohol. I've always loved Horizon docos since I was a kid because they are one of the few TV docos that don't dumb stuff down. In fact you often have to pay close attention to not get left behind. When I became a professional scientist I then realised that most Horizon episodes function on two levels; first the main topic area, synthetic biology in last night's show, and second a sub-text about the scientific method itself.
    This means that Horizon docos are valuable to all scientists outside of the specific discipline of the main topic. Playing God's sub-text was obviously about ethics. Not just the ethics around us creating life itself, but also the dangers of amateurs playing with this. In a great segment in the doco it showed a community club somewhere in the US of hobbyist who were building their own organisms. The show likened this to computer hobbyists in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, like the Homebrew Computer Club (incidentally the show was incorrect to say Bill Gates started by building computers in his garage; they meant Jobs and Wozniak with the Apple I). Another ethical dilemma was around synthesising diesel - seems like a good idea, oil from yeast, but the yeast needs sugar to feed on, which has to be grown somewhere and that land could be growing food, not sugar to make fuel oil.
   I highly recommend  watching this if you want to blow your mind. I can't seem to find the program on the BBC iPlayer now but it can be downloaded (illegally) from the usual sources. The show's presenter Adam Rutherford has a good article about the subject in the Guardian.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Google will follow you everywhere...

Well at least they plan to track your actions on all of Google's myriad websites and services: Google search, Gmail, Google+, Maps, Places, Scholar, Sites, Calendar, Documents, Wallet, YouTube... Google announced yesterday that from March 1 they will aggregate your activities across all of their products. In Google's press release they say, "The main change is for users with Google Accounts. Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."
    If you don't want Google to track you will have to log out of your Google account and ensure that cookies are switched off in your browser preferences as well. But, if you're logged out of your Google account than most of their services are useless (i.e., Gmail, Google+, Calendar...) so that's not really an option if you use them constantly, as I do. Now this is quite a big change for Google because until now each service has acted as an island. If I schedule a meeting in New York for next week in Calendar  I would not expect to see adverts for NY hotels appear in my Gmail. After March 1 that is exactly what you can expect to happen; this is the "more intuitive Google experience" to which they refer.
    Of course from Google's perspective aggregating and analyzing all your online activity will greatly enhance their ability to target advertising at you. They will be privy to your personal and professional life, your diary, email, documents, viewing habits, everything. If they can successfully mine this data (and if Google can't nobody can) then they should be able to target adverts with greater precision than anyone ever thought possible.
    Will there be a public backlash? I doubt it, most people will just shrug their shoulders and think "I've nothing to hide." I for one though would sleep easier if Google were based in Sweden or a similar liberal social democracy. Imagine how much information the US government will be able to get on an individual if they subpoena Google for their records, which have now conveniently been aggregated into one place.
    You can read Google's press release here or watch the video below.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Resistance is futile!

We are all slowly becoming cyborgs and new research proves it. A a new study conducted by psychologists at Columbia University, the University Of Wisconsin-Madison, and Harvard University has shown that, "We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found." The research proves what many of us have felt for years, we no longer need to remember information, now we remember how to find it.
    When I first started using the Web in the mid 1990s I used to bookmark everything of interest gathering hundreds of bookmarks over the years. However, now I rarely bookmark anything, relying on Google's ability to find anything I need. It's easier (less cognitive effort) to search Google than it is to search through my bookmarks. I still have all those bookmarks but rarely use them (many of the links must be dead now). My use (or not) of bookmarks is analogous to our memories - we used to remember stuff (keep bookmarks) and now we remember how to find stuff (i.e., Google it). You can read the full research report here: Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.
   The final chapter of The Universal Machine, called Digital Consciousness, deals with our ever increasing close relationship with computers. Star Trek's Borg may be science-fiction but resisting a greater dependence on computers is futile.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Stop Online Piracy Act (explained)

You've probably seen all the hullabaloo last week about the US SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) with Wikipedia blacking itself out for a day along with other leading websites like Google and Wired. Like many you me be wondering what's the big deal. Downloading copyrighted material like movies and music albums is illegal and the artists deserve a fair return on their work so what could be wrong with this law?
   Put plainly the drafters of the Act either fundamentally don't understand the Web or they are being malicious. I'm assuming the former since I know that people like Rupert Murdoch of News Corp don't understand the Web. Here's an example. Assume a News Corp publication, like The New York Times, publishes an article on let's say a new Apple product. As an interested tech blogger, I write a piece and use the NYT's article as my primary source, perhaps using some quotes from it and of course linking to the article. All perfectly fine you think, that's how blogs work.
   But no. Rupert Murdoch believes, and he has said this, that to refer to the content of his publications you should require News Corp's permission and presumably pay a fee. This shows a profound misunderstanding of how the Web was designed and envisaged. A central feature of the Web is you don't need the permission of a web page's owner to link to it, all you need is the URL (web address). Including a quotation near the link might be what would stimulate someone's interest to click the link  and should be deemed "fair use." The point of the Web is that it empowers user generated content and user curation. It is not a passive consumption media like the old school publishers would like us to return to - they write it, you buy it and read it.
    Okay, so what's all the fuss. If Rupert Murdoch doesn't want me to link to his publications he can send me a cease and desist order. But no, if SOPA were law News Corp could instruct your ISP to block blogger.com's IP address (and hence remove your access to all blogger.com blogs) and force Google to remove my blog from its search results without there even being a court case. All News Corp would need to do is persuade a friendly judge I had infringed their copyright.
    This is the problem with SOPA it gives Big Media unprecedented powers to shutdown parts of the Web without offering those accused any right to a fair trial.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

iBooks Author review

The iBooks Author interface
Last week Apple announced its plans for educating our youth, at the centre of which was a tool for creating textbooks for the iPad - iBooks Author. You may not know this but education was always held in very high regard by Steve Jobs and though not known for his philanthropy he had as he said "probably given more computers to schools than anyone else in the world."  iBooks Author is a tool to let average folks create interactive multitouch textbooks for the iPad - think of it like GarageBand for books.
    It's available for free from the Mac App Store and there is an update to the iBooks app (iBooks 2) to support some new functionality for textbooks. Once you've created a textbook you can distribute it for free as a download from your website or, and this is perhaps the exciting bit, sell it through Apple's iBook store. If you sell the book for free you don't need an ISBN, but if you sell it for $s you'll have to apply for an ISBN first. The maximum price you can sell an iBooks textbook for is $14.99, and Apple has already done deals with publishing companies such as Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DK Publishing. Just like with the App Store Apple will keep 30% of the price of the book for its trouble. $14.99 is cheap for a textbook so I assume Apple is hoping to change this market, just like iTunes changed the music industry.
A page from The Universal Machine iBook
    Though I have no immediate need to create a textbook I thought I'd download iBooks Author and check it out. I have to say I'm impressed. It's basic look and feel is like Apple's iWorks apps. So if you're familiar with Pages and Keynote using iBooks Author will be a breeze. There are several textbook templates you can choose from and creating your textbook is as simple as importing or cutting and pasting text, images and multimedia into your textbook. iBooks Author is not a tool you'd use to write your text book. You must do that first; gather together your multimedia assets (video, sound files, images, 3D models, charts, tables, etc.) and then use iBooks Author to assemble your textbook.
    As a test I took the preface and first two chapters of The Universal Machine and turned them into an iBooks textbook. This took about an hour, which included learning to use the tool. Once you're ready you can preview your textbook by connecting an iPad to your Mac (did I mention iBooks Author is a Mac only app). When you're done press "Publish" and your completed iBook is ready for uploading to the iBook store or giving away for free from your website.

    All in all it's a very easy app to use and the resulting iBooks look very professional. You could use it for other things than just textbooks, a travel diary of a holiday, wedding albums, and I'm sure people will come up with lots of ways of using this useful tool.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Apple's secret culture

If you've ever wondered how it's possible for a company like Apple to keep its products secret until the day of their public unveiling this fascinating insight tells you how they do it. The Secrets Apple Keeps by Adam Lashinsky shows you how Apple's corporate culture is different to its Silicon Valley neighbours like Google or Facebook. Apple operates internally more like a terrorist cell or the secret service than a college research lab.
   If Adam's article leaves you wanting more you can buy his book from Amazon.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Meet my book's publicist - Jeff Rutherford

Jeff Rutherford
Today the publicist my publisher uses to promote their books contacted me - meet Jeff Rutherford of Jeff Rutherford Media Relations. He's also involved with a company Appetite PR that promotes apps for mobile devices. That's a great company name, and thinking about it, given the thousands of apps being launched almost daily, getting yours noticed must be a challenge - a bit like books really. I'm looking forward to working with him.

A Kodak moment - victim of the digital revolution

You've probably seen the news today, Kodak has filed for bankruptcy and become the most recent victim of the digital revolution that Kodak's management struggled, and failed, for a decade to adapt to. I wrote this in chapter 10 of The Universal Machine a few months ago:

"...they are an example of computers transforming the way we do things. For example, digital cameras have transformed the way we all take and share photos - no more buying expensive rolls of film, taking a few precious photos, waiting for the roll to be full, sending the film off to be developed and finally getting 24 photos back, half of which are blurry and badly composed.  Now we shoot dozens of photos, delete the ones we don’t like, crop, enhance and improve the ones we do, and then share them with our friends on Flickr and Facebook." 

Take a while to think about this transformation. Kodak was a part of everyones' life, their family history. My parents used to have an American couple they knew send them Kodak color Super 8  film  in the 1960s because it was very hard to get in England. My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic - I loved it, it made me feel like an adult since taking photos was serious adult business. I'm sure many of you remember your father (it was always father in control of the camera) taking forever to compose a shot whilst the family fidgeted and smiles froze on faces. You'll also remember the excitement when the developed prints came back in the post or were collected from the chemists. The laughter and groans as prints revealed you looking silly or happy and the ribbing the "photographer" got for every blurred or over exposed photo.
    Those days are long gone. Now photography is more instant than my Instamatic could have dreamed of. I take photographs every day and literally hundreds when I'm on holiday. Separate cameras themselves are even threatened as smartphones include better and better built in photography. My new iPhone has an 8 megapixel camera and is ready to snap a photo in a second. Why would I carry a separate camera? Kodak's moment has passed, but our love of taking photos hasn't.

[PS If you have hundreds of digital photos, particularly treasured ones of your children, please please please upload them to a cloud file storage service. Dropbox, SugarSync, Picasa, iCloud and others are free or inexpensive. You will feel terrible when that hard drive fails or your laptop is stolen with all your photos on.]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Restoring the wartime birthplace of the modern computer

Bletchley Park
There's a very good article in Canada's The Globe and The Mail about Bletchley Park, its wartime role and its restoration. If you're new to the story it's a good introduction. Perhaps, being Canadian, they should have mentioned Bill Tutte though who emigrated to Canada after WWII and was partly responsible for cracking the Lorenz cypher (you can read more about his remarkable achievements here).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Interesting slideshow on Turing

I just came across an interesting slideshow on slideshare posted by Piero Scaruffi via a @stephen_oman retweet on twitter (thanks). The slideshow is interesting because it first positions Turing within the cultural context of the first half of the 20th century and then goes on to make a strong argument that we don't really need intelligent computers, just "a (digital) library big enough and computers powerful enough to search it" e.g., Google. Piero argues that by delegating tasks to computers users (i.e., people) actually become dumber but still able to function intelligently thanks to their reliance on machines.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Conferences dedicated to Alan Turing

Alan Turing Year
As part of the Alan Turing Year celebrations academic conferences all around the world are dedicating themselves to Alan Turing to commemorate his centenary. For example the 20th International Conference on Case-Based Reasoning (ICCBR-XX) which I am co-chairing in Lyon, France in September says: "ICCBR-XX is dedicated to the work of Alan Turing (1912-1954) as part of the 2012 Alan Turing Year, a series of events to commemorate Turing's life and work. We do so here by remembering that were it not for Turing's seminal work in mathematics, computer science, artificial intelligence and bioinformatics this conference would not be taking place."
    For a full list of conferences commemorating Alan Turing visit the 2012 Alan Turing Year.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Surprising Path Of Artificial Intelligence

The last two chapters of The Universal Machine are about the role computers will play in our future. Obviously Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a large component of that and, not coincidentally, a research area I have been involved with since 1985. Consequently I have seen AI go from being the "next big thing," to becoming lost in the AI Winter and now see AI all around me and once again it being lauded as our savior. It's interesting then to see articles like this one by the legendary Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla in TechCrunch chart the history, failure and rebirth of AI (Part 1 of 3 is here).

[As an aside - do you know who wrote the screenplay for the excellent Spielberg/Kubrick movie A.I?  Answers on an email please and you could win a free copy of The Universal Machine]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Artists are inspired by Alan Turing

Laurie Frick – Daily Diary (April)
It's not just computer scientists who are getting into the spirit of the Alan Turing Year, artists are also being inspired by his work in biological morphogenesis, machine intelligence and cryptography. ART (Artists Redefine Turing) is a collaborative "experiment where each artist brings his or her unique capacity for pattern recognition to answer a simple question: How does your work comment on the Centenary of Alan Turing and potential futures of intelligence?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Alan Turing commemorative stamp

The UK Royal Mail is issuing a Turing commemorative stamp as part of the Alan Turing year commemorations.  Bletchley Park (which has its own Post Office) is issuing a special first day cover designed by Rebecca Peacock of Firecatcher Design for the "Turing Bombe" stamp (shown above). The design is based on Turing's work with patterns and their basis in mathematics. The stamp celebrates his genius in creating the "Bombe" machine to speed up the decryption of Enigma codes. The cancel is a facsimile of a Bombe rotor. Two other covers will also be issued using the work of artist Steve Williams as part of the Turing Centenary year celebrations. Funds raised will go the Bletchley Park Trust. This special first day cover can be ordered online here.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Thanks Mom

Mary and Bill Gates
I thought I knew the history of how Microsoft got the contract to make DOS for IBM. For some reason IBM and DEC were unable to agree terms for a contract for an operating system for IBM's new PC so IBM turned to Microsoft who bought QDOS from a Seattle company and rebranded it IBM DOS and licensed it to IBM. What didn't make sense though was why IBM would approach a tiny company, run by a college kid, making BASIC for a kit computer. Hardly the sort of company IBM usually did business with. Then over the holidays I read that Bill Gates' mother Mary was on the board of a company called United Way with John Opel the CEO of IBM. Opel allegedly told Mary IBM were looking for an operating system and she put her son Bill forward - "Thanks Mom"

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why it's kicking off everywhere

"a network can usually defeat a hierarchy" - Paul Mason

Writing in the Guardian and extracted from his book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, this is a very interesting article on the nature of revolution and the power of social media, which elaborates on topics I touch on in chapter 11 Web 2.0 of The Universal Machine.

ISBN 978-3-642-28101-3

Today I've learnt what The Universal Machine's ISBN number is (ISBN 978-3-642-28101-3) and the book now has pre-publication information on the publisher's website. The estimated publication date is May 5 and the book will retail for €24.95. Of course given the state of the Euro who knows what that will buy in May, but currently that's $32.29 (USD). This is all one more step on the road to publication.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Alan Turing Year

The Alan Turing Year starts today! You're using a computer to read this so it's time to honour the man who first discovered the concept of the Universal Machine (the computer) and acknowledge his genius.
    Events are planned to celebrate the centenary of his birth all over the world, so where ever you live you can participate. If there isn't an event locally why not organise one yourself.
For information about all the global events go to The Alan Turing Year: http://www.turingcentenary.eu/