Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The thinking machines (cultural) revolution

Great art can be interpreted in different ways. One person's satire could easily be another's optimistic science fiction. So it was with this blog post about AI...

As a world we are just beginning to get used to the idea that we can build machines that exceed our mental capacities in certain domains.

Arguably not since the age Neanderthal man have we shared or planet with entities that come close to human beings in terms of logic and reasoning power, combined with ability to express that reasoning to other entities i.e. us.

This TED talk gives a neat idea of the capabilities of certain algorithms in terms of analysing images but also working things out for themselves.

As with all revolutions - agriculture, industry, communication, video gaming, the adoption curve looks a little like this...

In the case of AI, safety comes in a number of forms, for example:
  • Safety in believing that your domain has not yet been conquered by AI
  • Safety in hoping that nobody develops a nasty form of AI
  • Safety in believing that the technological innovations coming from AI will not be culturally relevant in your particular circle and therefore aren't an interesting topic of conversation
What about the big questions though, will machines ever possess emotional intelligence, be able to make judgement calls, have morals?

Understandably scientific opinion is split on this, probably more in favour of the no camp. That said, to dismiss thinking machines as ripe only for hard data analysis type tasks strikes me as displaying our natural human arrogance. After all as described in this excellent radio 4 documentary AI has already contributed significantly to our philosophical understanding of our place in the world. Machines are also at the forefront of certain areas of modern artistic expression. Back in 1995 I remember laughing at a friend for giving up his engineering degree to study artificial intelligence. These days I am scrambling to catch up...

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Embedding tweets...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Guardian goes digital first

Today The Guardian announced that it will become a digital-first organisation. This has provoked some great reactions online:

I’d like to congratulate the innovative tech team at the Guardian who have made this transformation possible. I have met a number of them on the London tech meetup circuit and we have spoken recently about their plans to help re-write the organisation like they have re-written their website code. Good luck with it guys!

You can read more on the planned transformation on the press release here

Monday, 22 November 2010

A great day out at #barcampnonprofits

Last Saturday was barcampnonprofits an event bringing together people interested in the social web and how it can help non-profits. Normally an early bird, this wasn't an ordinary Saturday for me and I turned up just in time for the second session.

The talks kicked off for me with a look at social media search tools from my friend Anna. She really managed to keep things simple which was perfect for the audience. For anyone who wants to know more about the tools which are out there for tracking social posts, you can check out I think that socialseek looks cool as far as free tools go. Anna's top tool is Socialmention. Of course, if you want the best in paid social media tracking, look no further than yours truly...

Next up was Val Redchenko with his interesting project kick-off. Hopefully I'm going to help him out testing a machine-learning twitter app which can make recommendations on which tweets to read. It was a lot of fun talking about the capabilities of this type of programme without having to get too worried about the mechanics of the machine-learning process. Any suggestions for a name for our app are more than welcome...

After lunch I was taken on what I will describe as a left-brained charity appeal. Credit goes to Toby Ord for coming up with such an inventive way of promoting charitible causes and doing such a lot of good work. The basic premise is that you use the same method which the NHS uses to define which drugs they should pay for to decide which charity you should support. Turns out that you can buy the most years of quality life for people by sending your money to fight neglected tropical diseases. You can find out more at

Finally the day was topped off by self-confessed minor internet celebrity Ben Walker aka @ihatemornings. He was refreshingly untouched by his notoriety and a good time was had by all.

Thanks to Voice and the other sponsors, this was a really fun event and we made a satifying splash on the interwebs.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Superpower Nation - I've been experimented upon by the BBC...

This afternoon I went to check out superpower nation. This was a live online/offline forum for people from around the world to come together and talk about anything they liked both by speaking and typing. The language barriers were removed using Google Translate.

The plan was it would seem to avoid prompting conversation and allow it to just happen. You can check out some of the results on

The technology certainly did it's job but the absence of any kind of common theme to the conversation led essentially to noise. It also appeared that there were more experimenters than there were guinea pigs.

It would be easy to say this chaos was predictable from experience of human nature, or reading about Douglas Adams' Babel Fish but I would like to be a lot more positive. The more interesting question is where could this technology be used to come to conclusions, make the world a better place? Could micro-events be linked up for the next climate-change negotiation for example? Some form of global debate? I hope such things will evolve organically as we become more used to the technology being available.

Another interesting way to use voice translation would be management training in large global organisations. In my days as a grad student I spent a very rewarding couple of weeks at a graduate training excersise, solving problems working with people from completely different disciplines. An international element would have really put the icing on the cake.

So in conclusion, many thanks to @RoxDog for an intriguing invitation, plenty of hope for the future of Google translate but quite questionable what genuine insight was gained from the Superpower nation experiment.

Perhaps it's just me though, Google and the BBC where pretty happy... Did anyone else go along? What where your thoughts

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Sanitation - a case study for our anti terror operations

Recently, we've been hearing a lot of noise from politicians about the level of risk of a terrorist attack. This interview finally presents a more balanced view on this whole issue.

Ted Koppel makes an interesting point saying that President Obama probably did exactly the right thing on Chrismas day by staying with his family in Hawaii. He has then been lured into spending his time doing exactly what Al Quaeda want him to be doing, namely worrying and being seen to worry about Al Quaeda.

This is where the comparison with sanitation comes in. How often does Mr Obama talk about sanitation in America? Not often. Sanitation is sorted, but wherever in the world it is not sorted, lots of people die of cholera etc. as nearly happened in the New Orleans tropical storm.

In the middle ages, sanitation wasn't sorted, people would go into wild speculation about the causes of deaths in cities. I feel we are in a similar situation with terrorism. We are trying hard to understand it, to "be on our guard" or to look like we are doing something about it if we are a politician. In reality, the only people who can do anything about it are secret agents, who by their very nature are secretive. The politicians cant tell us what the secret agents are doing so they have to "change the level of threat" even with no logical evidence that there is a greater threat.

Personally, I am happy for security measures to be increased, in a slow and invisible way. I would have been quite happy for the expenditure being put into Bushes war on terror to all be spent on covert operations, infiltration of terrorist cells, whatever help the Yemeni government needs.

All of these covert operatives would be the silent heroes of the fight against terrorism. Just as the binmen and sanitation engineers are the silent, un-talked about heroes of our streets.

This would leave the rest of us to get on with our lives as normal, and where possible laugh at the stupid people who have nothing better to do than blow themselves up. I can tell you one thing for a fact... I don't think that there is any more chance of me preventing a terrorist attack now than there was when we we at a moderate risk of one occurring. This is to say, nothing that a politician has said about terrorism recently has added anything to our collective common sense. This begs the question why do we need to be told anything? The whole think smacks of the useless protect and survive public information films of the 1970s.

Monday, 16 February 2009

A better shade of grey

When I lived in Durham you could stand on Prebends bridge and see this view of the cathedral. Etched into the stonework are Sir Walter Scott's words

"Grey towers of Durham
Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles
Half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot
And long to roam those venerable aisles
With records stored of deeds long since forgot."

Since moving from a southern-like city in the north to a northern-like town in the south I have been in search of an equivalently evocative poem about Didcot's very own grey towers.

Kit Wright has put forward his attempt to the BBC's verse competition. Check it out here, It starts with

"What vasty thighs outspread to give thee birth," and gets better with lines like

"DIDCOT, thou bugger!"

It's certainly a source of much inspiration, find out more about Didcot through Demontrout's piece here and longtalljohnny's post a while back.