Tag Archives: Technology

Amazon’s Echo

See NYT article below on Amazon’s Echo (and note comparisons to other voice command systems, such as Siri, Google Now, and Cortana:

“If it moves nimbly, keeping ahead of Apple and Google, Amazon could transform the Echo into a something like a residential hub, the one device to control pretty much everything attached to your home.”

Functionality at the moment is:

– telling you the weather
– playing music you ask for
– adding stuff to your shopping list
– reordering items you frequently buy from Amazon
– giving you a heads-up about your nearing calendar appointments
– setting a kitchen timer
– answering the most basic of search queries

Amazon Echo, a.k.a. Alexa, Is a Personal Aide in Need of Schooling

The Amazon Echo, a wireless speaker and artificially intelligent personal assistant, can tell you the weather, play music and reorder items you frequently buy from Amazon, among other things.

THIS week, I asked a friend for help: “Alexa, can you write this review for me?”
“What’s your question?” Alexa responded.
“Can you write this review for me?”
“Review is spelled R-E-V-I-E-W.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That about sums it up.”

O.K., so Alexa isn’t perfect; far from it, in fact. If there is one glaring flaw in the Amazon Echo — the tiny wireless speaker and artificially intelligent personal assistant, a machine that one always addresses with the honorific “Alexa,” as if she’s some kind of digital monarch — it is that she is quite stupid.

If Alexa were a human assistant, you’d fire her, if not have her committed. “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard” is her favorite response, though honestly she really doesn’t sound very sorry. She’ll resort to that line whether you ask her questions answered by a simple Google search (“How much does a cup of flour weigh?”) or something more complicated (“Alexa, what was that Martin Scorsese movie with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro?”).

Other times, she is mind-numbingly literal. One night during the N.B.A. playoffs, I asked, “Alexa, what’s the score of the basketball game?” She proceeded to give me a two-minute, 18-part definition of the word “score” that included “a seduction culminating in sexual intercourse.” Not exactly what I was going for.

And yet, after spending three weeks testing the Echo, I really kind of love Alexa. She is just smart enough to be useful. And she keeps getting smarter. This week, after a long invitation-only preview period, Amazon began selling the Echo to the public. At $179.99, Alexa is more expensive than I’d like. (Subscribers to Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime subscription service could buy the Echo for only $100 during the preview.) But if you’re the type who enjoys taking chances on early, halfway useful tech novelties, the Echo is a fun thing to try.

And if you’re anything like me, after a week with the Echo, you may feel the device begin to change how you think about home tech. It will not seem far-fetched to expect that one day soon, you’ll have an all-knowing, all-seeing talking assistant to control your lights, thermostat, entertainment system and just about anything else at home. In Alexa, Amazon has created the perfect interface to control your home; if it adds some more intelligence, it would be quite handy.

The Echo is a stout, plain-looking cylinder, about the height of a toaster, that you can park just about anywhere you have Wi-Fi access, though it seems most useful in the kitchen. It comes with a remote control that you don’t really need, because after a quick initial setup using your smartphone, you can control pretty much everything the Echo does with your voice. (The remote does have a microphone that allows you to speak to the Echo from far away.) From there, the Echo is terrifically easy to use — say “Alexa” and ask your question.

At the moment, there are only a handful of uses for the Echo. She’s great at telling you the weather, adding stuff to your shopping list, reordering items you frequently buy from Amazon, giving you a heads-up about your nearing calendar appointments, and answering the most basic of search queries.

She is pretty good at playing music, though her main source is Amazon Prime Music, a streaming service that is included with a Prime membership. Prime Music’s selection is dreadfully limited, though, and at the moment, the Echo can’t connect to many other streaming services. Thankfully, with a few quick voice commands, Alexa can connect to your phone like any other Bluetooth speaker. That way, she can take control of music you play from most apps, including streaming apps like Spotify. You can’t call out for specific songs this way, but you can say “Alexa, pause” or “Alexa, next” and she’ll control the tunes playing from your phone.

The Echo is also a very good kitchen timer. Put your cookies in the oven; yell out, “Alexa, set timer for 12 minutes”; and she’s off. It’s far easier than fumbling with buttons on the microwave, especially when you have your hands full.

But wait a minute — can’t you do pretty much all this on your phone, your smartwatch or many other devices? Yes, you can, but Alexa is right there. She’s always plugged in. She’s always listening, and she’s fast. It’s surprising how much of a difference a few milliseconds make in maintaining the illusion of intelligence in our machines. Because Alexa is far quicker to spring into action than Siri, Apple’s digital personal assistant, especially Siri on the Apple Watch, I found her to be much more pleasant to use, even if she is frequently wrong.

Amazon says that it plans to constantly improve the Echo. During the preview period, it added a host of new features, including the ability to control some smart-home devices, built-in integration with the Pandora streaming service, and traffic information for your morning commute. I’m hoping Amazon creates an open system — what developers call an API — for the Echo, which will allow a wide variety of online services and apps to connect to the device. If it moves nimbly, keeping ahead of Apple and Google, Amazon could transform the Echo into a something like a residential hub, the one device to control pretty much everything attached to your home.

At the moment, that dream is far off. But dumb as she sometimes sounds, Alexa may be just smart enough to make it happen.

Apple’s HomeKit

From Business Insider

Apple’s plan to take over your entire home will start in these two categories
EUGENE KIM JUN. 2, 2015, 3:31 PM 202
The first batch of products built on top of Apple’s HomeKit — a framework that helps develop iPhone-controlled home appliances — are finally out. The products range from a lighting dimmer and an air quality monitor to an energy consumption tracker and a door locks controller.

The first HomeKit-based products show which categories will lead the way for the broader shift to a connected-home: home-energy equipment and home safety and security systems. According to BI Intelligence, most of the connected-home devices will first be built in these two areas, as they are fairly cheap and easy to install – making them more accessible for average homeowners.

Smart home-energy devices, such as the Nest thermostat, are expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 74% between 2014 and 2019, while home safety and security systems, led by companies like Dropcam, are set to see a 77% compound annual growth rate by 2019. And with the number of households with broadband internet connections expected to reach 1.2 billion globally, connected-home devices will only continue to grow.

Sensing Cancer

Georgia Tech is pushing the boundaries of sensor applications with this opportunity (in its very early stages):

What if we could sense cancer?
DNA Sensor Detects Cancer

Prof. Amir Saheb, a GT Ph.D. alumni and Dr. Ehsan Najafabadi, who graduated last summer from Prof. Bernard Kippelen’s lab at GT, have collaborated to commercialize aspects of Prof. Saheb’s graduate and professorial research. This DNA chip has 16 sensors capable of detecting up to 16 types of cancer in one pass using novel electrochemical ‘fingerprints.’ Cancer cells have specific methylated gene patterns. These epigenetic traits can be measured by this sensor with extremely high specificity.

This means that in diagnostic tests, such as the PSA, (which looks for prostate cancer) false positives could potentially be reduced by an order of magnitude.

This product, if clinically deployed, will require regulatory approval. Their mentor, Tim Murray, CEO of ViveBio has helped guide the team toward their first diagnostic indication. For more information, please email, ehsan.najafabadi@gmail.com.

Smart Watches

So we are about to find out whether I need to trade in my Rolex and get a Smart Watch. This space is worth watching.

Pebble got to the Smart Watch Space first. Amazing progress:

“What is undeniably true is that Pebble has sold more than one million watches in three years, and six days into a 30-day Kickstarter campaign, has sold another $14 million worth. With that, the company has re-claimed the title (it first took with the original Pebble) as the most funded Kickstarter project ever.”

So my personal history is that start-up companies are very, very lucky to get 3-5 investors. They have 68,000! They are the leader of a new wave of start-ups that are fed by places like Kickstarter.com.

The story is told one way in this amazing depiction of Pebble and its founder:

Pebble and Its Founder

So another way to ask the question is this: are watches and wearables about to merge? As I said in a post last year (http://johncreid.com/2014/10/fitbit/ ), FITBIT owns the 3.3 million wearables market but now we see Pebble selling 1 million watches, and Apple entering very soon. So which is it? A watch? A wearable? or Both?

This article in WIRED (today’s edition!) speaks to this issue:


So Pebble is going hard over on this question to …. it’s a watch, stupid! And therefore it’s all about time – past (what you did), present (what’s happening now, like rain or traffic), and future (like calendar stuff). They have decided to call their new watch “Pebble Time” – and make the user interface manageable by organizing the massive data available by – – – time! They are being maniacal about it – taking their 6,000+ developers and moving the user from “apps” to time – the apps operate in the background but only appear to the user based on time. So if you want to know the game score from Friday night, scroll back to Friday night and poof, there it is. Weather this afternoon? Scroll to this afternoon. Brilliant!

And apparently they solved some really tricky issues. They preserved battery life as they added features. Charge lasts 7 days. They reserved a low price point – unlike Apple, they are less than $200 (Apple is $349+).

Its not that they are abandoning wearables – not at all. Its just that they are leaving this mainly to developers who can build around the Pebbles Operating System.

Great article about the Smart Watch space – and the upcoming launch of the Apple Watch:

Pebble Article

FAB LAB – Update

The subject is digital fabrication.

Here is Neil Gershenfield – MIT Center of Bits and Atoms, Founder of FAB LABS – speaking about FAB LABS to a group of 1000 in Monterrey, California. He speaks about the digital revolution and the new twist – which is to move from two dimensions into three dimensions:

The FAB LAB Talk

He argues that the revolution underway is a revolution akin to mini-computer’s role – they were the bridge between tops-down thinking a la mainframes and bottoms-up thinking represented by personal computers.

The Essence
He was talking about the role of integrating “bits” and “atoms”.

The canon of computer science – prematurely froze the model of compassion, based on what was available in the fifties.

“We still look at fabrication as top down. A revolution is underway that will break organizational boundaries, just as happened with computers, when mainframes gave way to mini-computers, which in turn gave way to personal computers.

My (random) notes:
“Personal fabrication helps make you unique”

These FAB LABS are the cost and complexity of the

“we are now in this mini-computer era of fabrication”

“There is a fabrication divide.”

“a micro-VC fund”

Empowerment: “I can do it!”

$20,000 in equipment
– focused nano-beam writers
– etc

Kelly – my “scream body” – a portable container for holding a scream.

“you can’t segregate digital fabrication”

“how to make almost anything”

The Internet of Devices

Fungible computers – prototype that make small chips and pour them out by the square inch. “Computing as a raw material”

Chemistry as bubbles.

“We all know we have had a digital revolution but what is that? Shannon took us (in the forties) from a phone as a wire that degraded with distance…he proved that if you add information and remove it to a signal, you can compute perfectly with an imperfect device.

Self-Replicating Templating

Laser Micro-Printers

Internet Zero – web server costs $1
(the way it encodes the internet – let’s devices inter-network)

Computers that are tools.

digital communication

analog fabrication

digital fabrication

Deep Learning Update

This TED talk by Jeremy Howard in Brussels, created in December 2014, reveals the staggering progress made in the field of deep learning:

Jeremy Howard’s TED Talk on Deep Learning

In this TED talk, he speaks about:

– Amazon and NetFlicks use machine learning to suggest products that you would like.
_ IBM’s Watson beat the two world champions in Jeopardy
– Google’s car has now driven without a driver over a million miles without an accident.
– Jeffrey Hinton beat all the others, in just two weeks, to identify new drugs.
– Deep Learning learned how to recognize a wide variety of German Street signs.

He demonstrates:

– that computers can see …. image recognition application where 1.5 million pictures of cars are classified, where a human help the machine learn by “training” it to recognize “front”, “back” “angle” etc. He says that there are 16,000 dimensions to the analysis. He asks: can a pathologist look for areas of mitosis? Can a radiologist ….? A second image Stanford application where a computer can look at an image and describe in text, with some success, what is the image about. Humans asked about the text preferred the computer description 25% of the time – he predicts it will pass human performance in less than a year.
– computers can understand …. showing how a Stanford-based approach can read a sentence and understand the sentiment.
– computers can search images …. and match them to text …. he points out that this breakthrough is just in the last few months. The approach by Google searches text tags of the image (and thus is not this)
– that computers can listen ….voice recognition application where an English speaker can have his voice (not another voice) translated real-time into Chinese.
– computers can write ….

He speaks about the exponential growth in understanding which is underway. He believes that in the next five years, machine Learning performance will exceed human learning performance.

He does not believe better education will help. He thinks now is the time to begin adjusting our social structures to accommodate this new world.

He also speaks about applications:
– medical diagnostics through analysis of cancer tissue.

From Wikipedia:
Jeremy Howard
Jeremy Howard (born 1973) is an Australian data scientist and entrepreneur.[3] He is the CEO and Founder at Enlitic, an advanced machine learning company in San Francisco, California. Previously, Howard was the President and Chief Scientist at Kaggle, a community and competition platform of over 200,000 data scientists. Howard is the youngest faculty member at Singularity University, where he teaches data science. He is also a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum, and spoke at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014 on “Jobs For The Machines.”[4] Howard advised Khosla Ventures as their Data Strategist, identifying the biggest opportunities for investing in data driven startups and mentoring their portfolio companies to build data-driven businesses. Howard was the founding CEO of two successful Australian startups, FastMail and Optimal Decisions Group. Before that, he spent eight years in management consulting, at McKinsey & Company and AT Kearney.

Howard first became involved with Kaggle, founded in April 2010,[8] after becoming the globally top-ranked participant in data science competitions in both 2010 and 2011. The competitions that Howard won involved tourism forecasting[1] and predicting the success of grant applications.[2] Howard then became the President and Chief Scientist of Kaggle.[9]

In August 2014, Howard founded Enlitic with the mission of leveraging recent advances in machine learning to make medical diagnostics and clinical decision support tools faster, more accurate, and more accessible. Enlitic uses state-of-the-art Deep Learning algorithms to diagnosis illness and disease.[13] Howard believes that today, machine learning algorithms are actually as good as or better than humans at many things that we think of as being uniquely human capabilities.[14] He projects that the application of deep learning will have the most significant impact on medicine out of any technology during this decade by effectively aggregating data.[15] On October 28, 2014, Howard announced Enlitic’s seed funding round.[16]


The human brain’s wiring diagram – with 100 trillion connections between neurons – is called the “connectome”. The idea has been around since the 1960’s but there is a new explosion in understanding.

The last time there was this much excitement was in 1986 when Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate, was given the entirety of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (this was Isaac Newton’s venue). Brenner published “the Book” where he documented the mapping of a transparent worm and its 302 neurons.

Even so, “The race to map the connector has hardly left the starting line”.

“If the cells and fiber in one human brain were all stretched out end to end, they would certainly reach to the moon and back. Yet the fact that they are not arranged end to end enabled man to go there himself. The astonishing tangle within our heads makes us what we are.”
–Colin Blakemore, a physiologist from the UK

Since 2005, Sebastian Seung at MIT has been trying to map this incredible phenomenon, and NYT Magazine wrote about his work this Sunday, January 11, 2015 (“Mind Games” by Garath Cook). He just left MIT in 2013, and now joins his mentor David Tank at the Princeton Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics.

He started by studying (in Germany, with two graduate students in 2006) the high-resolution brain imaging analysis of Winfried Denk, a scientist who built a device. The device, according to David Tank, imaged brain tissue with enough resolution to make out the connections between individual neurons. The problem was that the images were very blurry and articulating them, mapping each one, etc was a “herculean effort’. So the big problem to solve was – could this task be automated?

Obviously, this relates to the phenomenal leaps ahead in mapping made possible by computer analysis. Another example of this is the Human Genome Project, which mapped the DNA that provides every cell’s genetic instructions. This was obviously breakthrough work, and following after this work was work on Proteome (proteins), Foldome (folding of proteins). Note the U.S. Government has “The Brain Initiative”, which is a 12-year, $4.5 billion brain-mapping project.

So the “connectome” is the brain’s physical structure, which must be mapped. At the same time, a major effort is underway that is separate – namely, to map the areas of the brain that “light up” and therefore are related to certain cognitive functions.

This reference to “physical structure” is meaningful – because people tend to relate to the brain in terms of movement….a dynamic “flow” like a river, and not a physical structure like a river bed.

Haim Sompolinsky studied this structure to understand “aha” moments in learning. This idea relates to an ancient idea- from Plato and Aristotle – that meaning emerges from the ones between things. And in the 21st century, it appears that their is physical terrain that describes this ancient concept: the likes between neurons (note William James described mental processes as associations).

A typical human neuron has thousands of connections. A neuron can be as narrow as one ten-thousandth of a millimeter and yet it can stretch from one side of the head to the other!


Wikipedia on Connectome

NYT Article on Connectome

Santiago Ramon y Cajal – illustrations of neurons and neural networks

Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner mapped the 302 neurons of a transparent worm in the seventies. He wanted to understand how behaviors emerges from a biological system.

EyeWire – online game that challenges the public to trace neuronal wiring in the retina of a mouse’s eye (has 165,000 players in 164 countries).

connectionism – a cross-disciplinary idea that simple units, connected in the right ways, can lead to surprising abilities (memory, recognition, reasoning).

Harald Hess – a genius in creating scientific tools.”MERLIN” – new brain imaging system. Janella Reseach Campus. They believe they will have mapped a fruit fly’s neural network within two years

Google: announced in September, 2014 at the White House that they had launched their own connector project. Tom Dean is a Google Research Scientist, who also works with the Allen Institute. He wants the “Google Earth of the Brain”!!!!