Tagged: Technology

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Who the what?

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A. Suppose there's a standard recipe for people who want to make coffee: harvest and prepare (or simply buy) some coffee beans, grind them up, boil them for a few minutes, and serve.

B. Suppose a company — let's call it Feurig — declares a patterned approach toward following this recipe:

  • Provide penetrable cups of a certain size containing prepared, ground beans.
  • Provide a ring sized to hold the cup, a mounted pin to puncture the bottom of the cup, a mounted injection nozzle to penetrate the top of the cup, and a hinged apparatus to automate these penetrations when a cup is inserted into the ring and covered by depressing a handle.
  • Provide an encompassing container capable of heating water, detecting its temperature, and injecting that water into the cup at a rate suitable for cooking the bean dust.

C. Suppose Feurig then implements this patterned approach toward following the recipe by making cups and a device to accommodate and process them.

D. Suppose further that a competing company with an interest in making coffee notes Feurig's success in the marketplace and creates a different machine — made from different materials, employing a different heating, monitoring, and injection facility, and penetrating the cup differently.

E. Suppose even further that yet another company makes a cup different from Feurig's but consistent with the scale of the holding ring  on Feurig's machine and capable of being refilled with arbitrary contents (such as tea or sympathy).

What is the API?

The API is not the standard recipe (A) for making coffee: that's an obvious practice deeply embedded in the common culture and widely exercised in industry and among hobbyists.

The API is not the device that Feurig made as an implementation (C) of the patterned approach that Feurig had declared, and it is not the competing machine (D), and it is not the alternative cup (E).

The API is B: a patterned recipe-following approach capable of being realized in a concrete implementation.

F. Suppose now that a complex culture of innovation and competition has arisen around the API defined in B, and that a company — let's call it Deploracle — comes along and buys Feurig.

Deploracle argues that its newly acquired intellectual property extends not just to the physical brewing device its wholly owned subsidiary invented, but also to the abstract pattern to which that device and its successors (and many knock-off devices) conform to ensure interoperability, substitutability, and some other seven- or eight-syllable word.

That's sort of like claiming IP rights not only over the particular car you manufacture, but also over the general idea of exposing a latch to open a door, providing access to a seat, and presenting a wheel, some pedals, and a feedback display to enable intentional control of a driving machine– a contingent set of conventions that declare a patterned approach to the general recipe for driving a car. (Adherence to those declared conventions of capability and method ensure that many automobile manufacturers can make a car, that many people can learn to drive a car, and that people who learn to drive a car can thereby drive any car that conforms to the expectations implicit in that training.)

So Diabetes-Benz lays claim not only to its actual line of cars, but also to the very idea of doing a car in that way, simply because they declared that convention when implementing their car.

Does that seem right to you?

seemright

Puff the Magic Dragnet

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Talking around the edges of what's classified is all the rage these days. See, for example, the commercial for the NSA that ran on 60 minutes tonight.

In that vein, a former employee of Tailored Access Ops explains (within Info Assurance guidelines) what he did at the NSA and why he's ok with it.

Insufficiently discussed in most rants about the NSA is this question: if the only way to find the needles in a haystack is to store the entire haystack, and if you're against storing the entire haystack, and if you insist that it's vital to find the needles, then given the size and growth rate of the haystack, how do you propose doing that?

Some are ok with storing the haystack. That's the status quo.

Some are against the haystack and also don't think finding the needles is all that important. After all, more die at the hands of swimming pools and ladders, etc….

But for those who think proactive action against malevolent actors is desirable, how (apart from surveilling a subset of exhaustive data) shall we winnow them out of an ever-increasing crowd and discern their voices in an ever louder din?

If not this way, then how?

Mickens, A Systems Carol

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If you've been hangin' around here lately, and you're lookin' to cleanse the computer fakery, mistakery, and opaquery from your palate, look no further than the brilliant and hilarious essay The Night Watch, by the hilarious and brilliant James Mickens of Microsoft. Bonus: he's a good writer. Here's his self-blurb from the MS research site:

Excellence. Quality. Science. These are just a few of the words that have been applied to the illustrious research career of James Mickens. In the span of a few years, James Mickens has made deep, fundamental, and amazing contributions to various areas of computer science and life. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest scholars of his generation, James Mickens ran out of storage space for his awards in 1992, and he subsequently purchased a large cave to act as a warehouse/fortress from which he can defend himself during the inevitable robot war that was prophesied by the documentary movie “The Matrix.” In his spare time, James Mickens enjoys life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, often (but not always) in that order, and usually (almost always) while listening to Black Sabbath.

Size Matters

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Qióng: Shīfu Shíjú! Shīfu Shíjú!

Shīfu Shíjú: Qióng, what do you want?

Qióng: Please, tell me why size matters?

Shīfu Shíjú: Idiot! Go finish your chores.

Qióng: I have done them, Shīfu! I am ready to know!

Shīfu Shíjú: Very well. Sit down. Now, first I will show you the way of integers. What is the next digit in this series? 12345…

Qióng: The next digit is '1', Shīfu!

Shīfu Shíjú: How can you say the next digit is '1'? Have you never brought Shīfu a six-pack?

Qióng: The next digit is '1' if the series is 1 through 5 repeating: 1234512345123–

Shīfu Shíjú: Idiot! If you introduce complexities such as grouping and blocks you will never understand! To follow the way of integers, you must not think in cliques and tribes; you must ask yourself what one, all on his own, can contribute.

Qióng: Thank you, Shīfu. Now I will go and rake the yard.

(more…)

You say you want a convolution

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Why bother with artificial intelligence when we're still pretty incompetent with natural intelligence? And yet the fact that a venture is ill advised has never stopped us before.

We aspire to control others without being able to control ourselves.

We judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves.

We take more readily than we give.

Let's talk for a moment about our brain. No, not "our brain" as in us, the crosier of Popehat. (Some blogs have a staff; we have a crosier.) I mean "our brain" as in us, the species homo sapiens somewhat laughably sapiens.

What I want to say is this: we're certainly not going to let the fact that we're baffled by our real brains impede us from trying to build fake ones, right? Perhaps aiming for artifice in matters brainial will help us grasp things actually intracranial.

Of course, if we really knew how to exercise the natural contents of our collective brainboxen, then faced with the prospect of artificial intelligence, we'd all be running around screaming, "No! Stop! Skynet! Nexus!" (Of course, some of us would be doing it with the intonations of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, but hey.) We'd all recognize that if we can so easily rationalize our own hypocrisy, then even if we had an anthrobotic system that was tweaked to honor the n laws of robotics, someone somewhere would hack hypocrisy and rationalization right into it. Next stop, SHODAN.

Anyhow, we are blissfully oblivious to risks. And thanks to functional MRI and kindred advances in technology, such as electron microscopy and laser-scanning light microscopy, we (as a species) now stand at the threshold of understanding the brain's architecture and adaptability. We have begun to recognize that "neural circuits tell activity how to propagate, and neural activity tells circuits how to change". It's a great time to be alive, if only for the advent of much better sci-fi.

So what would a computer program based on the way our brains actually work be like? Not one inspired by cheesy 1980s intuitions about fuzzy logic, but a rigorous adaptation of principles actually embedded in our wetware?

Happily, thanks to Jeff Hawkins (the dude who founded Palm and Handspring) we can now begin to understand the answer to that question.

Recycling the ivories

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Time to deprecate the 88? Here's where old pianos go to die.

Nearly 365,000 were sold at the peak, in 1910, according to the National Piano Manufacturers Association. …In 2011, 41,000 were sold, along with 120,000 digital pianos and 1.1 million keyboards….

Steve Jobs and Machine Beauty

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With the Facebook Timeline just around the corner, and with Steve Jobs shuffling off this mortal coil, I'd like to consider what makes some technologies so different, so appealing.

Last night I asked my art history students what was distinctive about the contribution of Steve Jobs. A few compared him to inventors such as Edison or Tesla. A few looked for an answer in his emphasis on design. I joined the second group and challenged the first by pointing out (as The Economist had already done with great clarity) that Jobs had invented none of the technologies or devices for which he's best known: the mouse-driven computer, the digital audio player, the smart phone, and the tablet. But I also pressed that second group with a follow-up question: if his contribution had to do with design, not invention, then just what was the nature of his contribution to design?

The ensuing discussion was brief and stimulating. After the students had shared their views, I shared mine: I think Steve Jobs emphasized machine beauty with such focus and force that he made the artificiality of devices disappear. Calling him "The Magician", The Economist ascribes to him the ability to connect emotion to technology:

"His great achievement was to combine an emotional spark with computer technology, and make the resulting product feel personal."

Almost. It is the relationship we have with ourselves and our own capabilities that is emotional and personal; Jobs introduced into this already extant feedback loop a device which amplifies our self-signal without getting in our way. Rather than wallow in the narcissism of self-admiration as we see our latent powers amplified, we call the device itself cool. But whenever we call a device cool, what we mean is that it can easily make us more powerful in a way we desire. And that's cool.

What is machine beauty? The clearest and most useful answer to this question comes from David Gelernter (innovator and former patent-holder of the Lifestream technology, which has been at the center of consequential litigation involving Apple). Many stakeholders have by now laid claim to this concept, and perhaps we'll have a post here someday on the idiocy of many software patents, the Peter/Paul problems in patent granting, and the incoherence of the very idea of a software patent. For now, though, I want to bracket out the question of Apple's possible employment of Microsoftian market practices. Gelernter is noteworthy here not just because of his technological innovation, but also because he thinks deeply about the usability of machines, about art, and about beauty.

In his terse, punchy book Machine Beauty, Gelernter proposes a simple definition of the factor that distinguishes great technologies: machine beauty is the well-balanced integration of simplicity and power. Consider technologies that consists of devices. A device may be powerful but not simple; it requires the user to learn, study, and practice. A device may be simple but not powerful; it's hardly worthy of attention, so weak is the signal it delivers. And a device may be neither. But the device that manages to empower the user with virtually no learning curve is machine-beautiful.

The iPhone exemplifies this delicate balance. One day there was no iPhone; the next day there was an iPhone. And on that next day, children and elders, techies and Luddites, the deft and the daft— these were all standing around Apple Store displays and using the iPhone, with no instruction, to do things they wanted to do that they had previously been unable to do so efficiently, transparently, and enjoyably. Machine beauty.

Here, then, is a third question: why do we value technologies that are machine-beautiful?

I think it's easier to frame an answer to this question if we think about technologies in the way I recommended in my earlier post on Rodin's The Burghers of Calais:

I prefer to emphasize that technology always stands in a certain relation to the people who use it: technology is anything that amplifies what the human body can already do. A club amplifies the ability to punch. A gun amplifies the ability to throw. A telephone amplifies the ability to shout. A motor vehicle amplifies the ability to run. Clothing amplifies the protective and insulating qualities of skin. Architecture, oddly enough, is large, static, communal clothing. Telecast media amplify vision or audition. The hard drive and RAM of a computer amplify the ability to remember and to calculate. And so on.

Any technology may be understood this way, and therefore anything that acts as a force multiplier on what humans in general can already do may be construed as a technology.

If we take technology in general as any means of converting our existing capabilities into superpowers, then the appeal of a machine-beautiful device is immediately apparent: the power of the device makes us harder, better, faster, stronger, and the simplicity of the device spares us from having to think too much about the device itself. The technology is a nearly transparent biomodification that empowers us to do with facility from now on what we could do only at great pains before.

The distinctive contribution of Steve Jobs, as I see it, is that he created a post-now class of consumer citizens: the Cybourgeoisie.

Odd intuitions

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Via Bruce Schneier, a good description of a common fallacy:

Imagine you've invented a machine to detect terrorists. It's good, about 90% accurate.

…you receive urgent information … that a potential attacker is in the building. Security teams seal every exit and all 3,000 people inside are rounded up to be tested.

The first 30 pass. Then, dramatically, a man … fails. Police pounce, guns point.

How sure are you that this person is a terrorist?

A. 90%
B. 10%
C. 0.3%