Friday, May 31, 2013

Watson in your pocket

IBM's Watson deep Q&A system that famously beat the two best Jeopardy players in a million dollar challenge a couple of years ago is now being commercialised as originally intended. IBM learnt a big lesson from their champion chess playing system Deep Blue, namely, "so what's the use now?" Deep Blue may have beaten Gary Kasparov but that was all it could do. Watson was always intended to be a proving ground for a new form of artificial intelligence that would enable people to ask unstructured questions in their own words and get relevant answers from a deep corpus of knowledge. Watson has already been tested with oncologists and now it's heading into customer service. The MIT Technology Review reports that, working in the cloud, you'll soon be able to access Watson from your smartphone; companies like the Royal Bank of Canada, Nielsen, and close to home the ANZ are rolling out Watson-based conversation assistants. You can think of Watson like Apple's Siri on steroids.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Everest anniversary

Rob Milne on the summit of Aconcagua
January 8 2003
Today is the 60th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summiting Everest. How the world has changed in that time, even the world of mountaineering. People now regularly phone home from the top of Everest and Skype and they are even talking about installing a ladder on the Hillary Step to ease the congestion.
    Today though I'm going to remember Rob Milne, a remarkable computer scientist who died just short of Everest's summit in early July 2005. Rob was a very keen and experienced mountaineer who was "knocking off" the highest peaks on each continent. Only Everest remained on his list. Rob was to chair IJCAI in Edinburgh in August of that year and his death was a shock to whole AI community. Rob managed to combine his extreme hobby with service to the AI community and running a successful AI company. A remarkable man who is still missed.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Disruptive technologies

The famous consulting firm McKinsey & Co have released a report called "Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy." By "disruptive" they don't mean "bad," they just mean that they will cause profound social and economic changes. For example, the advent of the motor car in the early 1900s was disruptive if you owned a horse stable or were a blacksmith - many blacksmiths actually turned their smithies into garages, sold petrol and became automotive engineers.
   The authors of the McKinsey report considered hundreds of candidate technologies and whittled the list down to twelve all which have shown rapid technological improvement in recent years, have a broad reach across society and have the capacity for great economic and social impact. They are: Mobile Internet, Automation of Knowledge Work, Internet of Things, The Cloud, Advanced Robotics, Next-generation Genomics, Autonomous and Near-autonomous Vehicles, Energy Storage, 3D Printing, Advanced Materials, Advanced Oil and Gas Exploration and Recovery, and Renewable Energy. You'll notice that advances in computer science are integral to most of the twelve technologies. As the report notes "Most of the technologies on our list are directly enabled, or enhanced, by information technology."
   You can download the executive summary to the report or the full report from McKinsey's website.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Do you fancy owning your own parallel computer?

Until recently if you did want a parallel computer you'd either have to build your own (not easy) or have a good sized budget. But that has changed now; chip maker Adapteva has  created a credit-card sized parallel-processing board. This comes with a dual-core ARM A9 processor and a 64-core Epiphany Multicore Accelerator chip, along with 1GB of RAM, a microSD card, two USB 2.0 ports, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, and an HDMI connection. By itself, this board will deliver over 90 GFLOPS of performance, or — in terms PC users understand — about the same horse-power as a 45GHz CPU. You can think of like a Raspberry Pi on steroids. The little super-computer, called Parallella will retail for $99 (USD) you can register your interest on Adapteva's website and on their Kickstarter page.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Has Facebook lost its way?

We tend to assume that successful companies like Facebook get large, wealthy and powerful by making better decisions than everyone else. Consider Facebook's recent decision to buy mapping company Waze for a rumoured $1 billion and to hire ex-Apple mapping team leader Richard Williamson. Clearly Facebook has decided it needs its own mapping functionality and not rely on Microsoft's Bing, in it's desktop product, or Apple's maps on iOS and Google on Android. Is this a good decision? Well on the face of it yes, but really Facebook seems to be the last person in the room to wakeup and smell the coffee. As I noted when discussing Apple's mapocalypse back in September 2012 - location services are going to be really important in the future. Apple couldn't afford to gift this market to Google and Facebook can't either.
   Google became interested in maps back in 2004, when it bought the Australian company Where 2 Technologies. Now this is an example of a good strategic decision. Our computing devices weren't even very mobile in 2004 but Google invested heavily in mapping - this implies great long term vision. Apple's lauded leader Steve Jobs actually made a very poor strategic decision in 2007 when the iPhone launched. Google Maps should never have been invited on board; Apple should have had its own mapping service from the start. This they belatedly corrected in 2012 because they realised they had to.
    So where has Facebook been? Have they all been too busy playing Farmville! If Facebook really wants users to spend all their time online in Facebook, and with Facebook Home that is exactly what they want you to do. Why did nobody in their Menlo Park HQ think "hey guys, we like really need our own mapping app." This troubles me. The Facebook execs clearly aren't always that smart.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The latest on the story of CAD/CAM

The final free public lecture in 2013's Gibbons Lecture series is all about CAD/CAM - the acronym  for Computer Assisted Design and Computer Assisted Manufacturing. CAM involves robotics but CAD is the application of Computer Graphics to Engineering – in fact, at one time it was Computer Graphics but it has advanced far beyond these simple beginnings. Engineering Computer Graphics is the topic of our last Gibbons Lecture on May 23 which will be delivered by Professor Gordon Mallinson from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Auckland. Full details of the time and venue are here. If you cannot attend the lecture will be streamed live and after the event.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Death by Powerpoint

We've all heard the phrase "death by powerpoint" and we've all sat through interminably dull presentations, talks and lectures. However, I came across an article yesterday called "No excuse for boring an audience: Advice on giving technical presentations," which makes the fairly obvious point that usually it's not Powerpoint's fault but the presenters. Borring presenters give borring talks and yes their slides probably suck as well. But people were giving borring talks long before Powerpoint or Prezi.
   The article refers to an essay written in 1985 that makes a very clear argument that it's your responsibility to make your presentation interesting, exciting and fun, and that above all you must be enthusiastic about your subject. If you are going to give a presentation soon I recommend that you read it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

IBM release the worlds smallest movie

The video below is a little stop-motion animation made by IBM. Why would IBM researchers want to make a movie? So they can demonstrate that they can move individual atoms around - that's correct, the little dots that make up the movie are individual atoms!

The researchers aren't just having a laugh, they're actually trying to discover the smallest number of atoms that can store a bit of data. They're aiming to make an atomic memory data storage system. Once you've watched the world's smallest movie watch the "making of the world's smallest movie" for information on how and why it was done.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Computer Games: Friend or Foe? Free public lecture

Our next Gibbons Lecture on 16th May will be delivered by Dr. Burkhard Wuensche from our Department of Computer Science at The University of Auckland. Dr. Wuensche will be discussing the relationship between computer gaming and computer graphics.  Dr. Wuensche has an extensive history of research publications that he often illustrates with whimsical examples.We particuarly like his generated images of rabbits, a bit late for Easter, but cute never-the-less.
    For more information on the venue, date and time visit the Gibbons Lectures website. The lecture will be streamed live and after the event if you cannot attend in person.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Is Siri your best friend?

The NZ Herald today published a very interesting interview with Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and founder and director of the MIT initiative on technology and self. She is very concerned that in interacting with technology people are losing skills in reading each others emotions - "This is a complex dance that we know how to do to each other," she says. It's a dance she fears is being forgotten. In the interview you get a strong sense that she is far from being an apostle of new technology. You can watch her express similar concerns in this TED talk.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Looking at the world through Google Glass

Mashable has published a photo gallery of what the world looks like through Google Glass or rather what Glass looks like in use. Some of the images are slightly distorted by refraction and lens flare but it's clear that the technology works - whether it will be widely adopted is another matter. On one hand wearers of Glass look desperately geeky but on the other hand if it enables people to look up and ahead rather than down and into their hands maybe it will be a good thing.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Oscar winner to give free public lecture in Auckland

Our next Gibbons Lecture on 9th May will be delivered by John Lewis of Victoria
University of Wellington and Weta Digital Research. His talk is titled “Why Academic Research Matters in Visual Effects.  John was a recipient of a 2103 Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science Technical Achievement Award
    He has contributed to the use of computer graphics in films including Avatar, The Matrix sequels, and Forrest Gump. Several of his algorithms have been adopted in the film and games industries and incorporated in commercial graphics software packages. He has interest in rendering images of computer generated humans to make them more life-like – in the following images one is a photograph of a human and the other generated from a computer model – can you tell which is which?

    Full details of the venue, date and time are provided here. If you can't attend the lecture will be streamed live and after the event.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Auckland's transportation problems [rant]

Okay, for years now we've had local and national government arguing over the future of Auckland's transportation infrastructure (similar arguments are taking place in many other cities as well). Is it more roads and cars, or lots more buses, or light rail and trams, or a rail loop, or a combination of all of the above? Then how is it all going to be paid for? Time and time again everyone in the debate makes apocalyptic predictions about the total grid lock that will happen in 20 years time if we do nothing.
    It's essential to prepare for the future, but to do so you must have an accurate idea of what the future will look like. Current planners seem to be completely ignoring the profound impact that self-driving cars will have on the need for transport infrastructure. Now you may be thinking that I'm just another geek predicting robotic vehicles and personal jet-packs. But you'd be wrong. I'm not going to quote articles from scientists or show video of Google's driverless car. I'm going to quote from a recent report by KPMG, called "Self-driving cars: The next revolution."

"An essential implication for an autonomous vehicle infrastructure is that, because efficiency will improve so dramatically, traffic capacity will increase exponentially without building additional lanes or roadways. Research indicates that platooning of vehicles could increase highway lane capacity by up to 500 percent. It may even be possible to convert existing vehicle infrastructure to bicycle or pedestrian uses. Autonomous transportation infrastructure could bring an end to the congested streets and extra-wide highways of large urban areas. It could also bring the end to battles over the need for (and cost of) high-speed trains. Self-driving vehicles with the ability to “platoon”—perhaps in special express lanes—might provide a more flexible and less 
costly alternative."

   Yes, KPMG are predicting up to a 500% increase in road capacity and less need for expensive trains. Basically it seems as if our politicians and planners are like people in 1905 planning how many horse stables will be required in the city in 30 years time and are worried who will collect all the horse pooh! I highly recommend the KPMG report - it's not science-fiction we are on the cusp of a revolution. The car dramatically changed the nature of our society in the 20th Century and will do so again in the 21st. Please wake up politicians and start planning for a future that will actually happen.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The world's first webpage is back online

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
As part of a project to help future generations understand how the world wide web came about, and the way we originally used it. CERN has put the world's first webpage back online at Cern want to hear your experiences of visiting the first webpage. So if you can remember the first time you surfed the web visit the project's website and leave your memories.
    I wrote about the creation of the first website by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in chapter 8 of The Universal MachineI quote:
    In the summer of 1993 I was working with a small team developing expert systems (artificial intelligence software) for the construction industry when Mark came into my office. He was waving a floppy disk and enthusiastically said “Ian, you’ve got to see this! It’s a web browser!” “What’s the Web and why do I want to browse it?” I replied. “It’s really cool, you can see information from all over the world and navigate around it like a web,” he said, so I took his disk and installed a browser called Cello, and then had to install some other network drivers, and after about half a day of lost work I was ready to browse the Web. 
    I launched Cello and I was taken to, which seemed to be the heart of the Web. I then browsed around CERN getting lots of arcane documents about particle physics experiments and committee meetings, and ended up in a Computer Science department at MIT. I browsed around other websites for an hour or so and then put Cello down. Frankly, the Web seemed rather boring.
   The web got better, much, much better.