Into the Sunset

 Posted by at 3:31 PM  Tagged with: ,
Feb 262011

Columbia.  Challenger.  Discovery.  Atlantis.  Endeavour.

This Thursday marked the 39th and final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and there’s some rather unique footage of the launch, taken mid-air from a nearby commercial flight.  This is the first of the fleet to be retired as the shuttle program draws to a close in 2011.  Endeavour and Atlantis are scheduled to make their final flights in April and June.  Challenger and Columbia were tragically lost in 1986 and 2003.

The five ships inspired a nation, and a planet, for decades, and their retirement is worthy of note.  The mere silhouette of a space shuttle is an icon capable of evoking a sense of wonderment in children and inner-children alike.  The names of these five vessels declared our mission, still in its infancy, to extend humanity’s reach and understanding as far as our abilities could take us.  And the teams behind each shuttle launch–made of astronauts, scientists, engineers, and countless others–represented the best we had to offer.  Even in the wake of costly and devastating mission failures, brave volunteers were lining up to be the next representatives of humanity to experience and explore the newest frontier.

Discovery will ride off into the sunset (in a way nothing else really can), and it’s an occasion worthy of note.  A program designed to ferry humanity into the future is now becoming a part of our past.  These storied spacecraft will give way to new vehicles, new technologies, and new discoveries.  And as excited as I am to focus on the spaceships of tomorrow, there will always be some nostalgia for the first fleet of shuttles, and gratitude for their gift of inspiration.

Our New Computer Overlords

 Posted by at 11:25 PM  Tagged with: ,
Feb 222011

So I’m sure all my readers are familiar with the exploits of Watson by now (for those of you living on a cave in Mars, Watson is a mechanical Jeopardy champion built by IBM).  I’m not going to rehash what everyone’s saying about what an amazing leap forward Watson represents (though it is pretty amazing).  I do, however, want to note a few things:

The Real Score

Watson not only beat two humans, but beat them in a way that more or less solidifies mechanical dominance in the field.  The fact that there were two human players likely worked AGAINST the human side, a fact which not many people seem to be aware of.  Saying it was 2-on-1 is misleading; in Jeopardy there aren’t any teams.  And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Ken and Brad had a lot more in common–in every way–than either of them did with Watson.  So it’s easy to imagine that some questions clearly fall in the “easier for humans in general” category, while others fall in the “easier for computers in general” category.  So Ken and Brad were competing for the same pool of dollars, while Watson had singular dominion over the low-hanging robot fruit.  Now, that said, even if both human players had wagered their full earnings during that final Final Jeopardy, Watson still would have beaten the SUM of their scores by over $10,000.  And that’s the real metric: how does Watson do against humans in general, not how does Watson do in a free-for-all where humans are more likely to beat each other out for points than beat out a computer.

The Real Challenges

There’s a lot of talk about how Watson will change the future of many industries.  And it might.  In fact, technology like this almost certainly WILL change the future, and it’s absolutely worth paying attention to.  Jeopardy was a great field test for Watson, but there are key differences between the game show and industry applications.  First and foremost, the buzzer.  Watson could get to a buzzer in 10 milliseconds.  Human players aren’t quite that fast.  I wonder what the score would have been like if every player had a full minute to answer the question, and everybody answered every question.  Would Watson’s silly answers have proven to be more of a handicap?  Because when people talk about revolutionizing fields like tech support and medicine, a high accuracy rate is MUCH more important than an extra minute of speed (if that’s not obvious, think about which you’d prefer in a medical diagnostician, which is the kind of application people are suggesting).  I’d like to see Watson’s next challenge be in a situation that more closely approximates the kind of applications its designers envision.

The Real Winners

Watson may have won the match, but Watson doesn’t really have the ability to understand that.  It’s not that kind of artificial intelligence.  So let’s look at the real winners:

  1. Engineers and researchers at IBM.  Best.  Resumes.  Ever.
  2. Humanity as a whole, minus the people who will lose their jobs to a Watson-like system
  3. Ken Jennings.  This guy finally beat his arch-rival Brad for second place, got $300,000 in prize money (50% more than Brad, though half of all human earnings went to charity), and proved himself a class act.  He’s also once again a major national figure.  I highly recommend reading his post-game piece in Slate.  It’s filled with good humor, keen observations, and some quite quotable quips.
  4. Fans.  That was awesome to watch.

The Real Losers

OK, those were the winners.  Who lost?

  1. Ken and Brad.  Sorry, guys.
  2. Everyone who’s going to get outsourced to a computer.  This is an especially important category of losers, because unlike past victims of technological advancement (like the typewriter mechanics who lost their jobs to computers), this revolution may not create that many jobs.  If you can replace an entire call center with a few Watson installs, you might lose 100 unskilled positions for every 5 computer engineering/computer science positions.  Economists are going to keep a close eye on this one, and it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, but this has some society-shaking implications that I don’t think we’ve seen yet.
  3. Google.  Watson isn’t ACTUALLY competing against humanity, not yet.  This was a game.  It’s competing against technological providers of answers.  So watch out, online data sources.  Google, Bing, IMDb, Wikipedia, WebMD…they all just got a little wake-up call, whether they know it or not.  You’ve got a lot of lead time, but business as usual won’t be a viable business forever.

Bottom line: we got a glimpse of the future last week.  And it was pretty fantastic, bordering on fantastical.  I, for one–in addition to welcoming our new computer overlords–can’t wait to see what comes next.

The Future is Contagious

 Posted by at 2:43 PM  Tagged with:
Feb 172011

With all the attention being given to Egypt, it’s easy to overlook how many other countries are dealing with similar issues.  While oil-financed dictators are going to be more resilient to internal revolutions, Egypt is giving people a glimpse of what is possible, along with a taste of the fight for self-determination.  One of the goals of this blog is to keep the “big picture” in mind, so without further adieu, a soon-to-be incomplete list of countries that have evinced Egypt-like tendencies in the past couple weeks:

Tunisia, of course, was the first nation to oust an unpopular ruler.  The country continues to struggle to reshape itself.  Stephen Colbert recently speculated that the only reason this story isn’t more popular than Egypt’s is that Tunisia is harder to find on a map.  I think people just like Egypt because of the pyramids, but given my Jewish heritage, I’m not about to suggest that Tunisia add a pyramid construction program to their public works budget.

In Libya, protests are being met with violence.  Interesting to note, even CNN is getting information about these protests from “social media sites” (cited in the first sentence of the linked article).

Bahrain is being called on to exercise restraint, as pro-democracy protests continue.

People are saying Iran won’t be the next Egypt (and in the short-run, I tend to agree), but opposition groups are growing, and a key opposition leader did just mysteriously vanish…

Protests are spreading in Iraq.  I can’t believe we spent over 700 billion dollars liberating that country, when it turns out we could have just gotten everyone there a smartphone and a Twitter account.  (For a cost comparison, we’ve spent enough on the Iraq war to buy everyone on the planet an internet-ready phone.)

The King of Jordan, who, protesters say, has way too much personal power, dismissed his cabinet (though that hasn’t stopped the demonstrations).

Yemen‘s president has been trying to make some concessions to avoid more protests and civil unrest, though to be honest, he’s been totally phoning it in.  No one’s buying it, and protests are extending into their second week.

Counting Egypt, that’s eight (8) countries worth keeping an eye on.  Someone should send dictators a PSA: the future is contagious.

Feb 102011

A report by the National Academy of Sciences has gotten some attention this week, pointing out some of the causes of low female participation in the sciences and other math-heavy areas in higher education.  I don’t want to bore you with statistics, so I hope you’ll trust me when I relate the finding that female participation starts out low and gets lower at each successive level (PhD, starting professorships, tenure-track positions, tenured positions).

Part of this has been attributed to choices (women tend to be more people-focused, so they go into medicine and life sciences while men are more object-oriented and go into fields like math, physics, and let’s say computer science to bring my pun full circle).  Another chunk of this has been attributed to the increased difficulty in achieving tenure while having babies.  (For those of you who don’t know, many tenure-track positions basically work like this: “In X years we’ll ask experts in your field how much you’ve contributed, and if it’s a lot, you’ve got a job for life, and if not, you’re fired.”)  I’m not sure why this applies to sciency and mathy fields more than others, but it’s still a fair critique of academia in general.

The ensuing coverage of this NAS report has dragged another report into the discussion–a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  And this is where things get interesting: one recommendation that’s been getting a lot of attention is to provide certain benefits to female scholars who wish to pursue both a family and a tenured professorship.  This would include potential benefits like part-time options and an extension of the tenure clock in the event of a birth.

One of the fundamental laws in economics and public policy is the Law of Unintended Consequences (though that’s a little dramatic).  The basic principle is this: people respond to incentives, but not always in the way you expect or want them to.  I think in some families, these extra benefits for women will actually HURT the female’s career.  And here’s why:

Plenty of professors are married to other professors.  There’s a lot of good reasons for this, including not having a life, being huge nerds, compatible intelligence levels, and spending most of your 20s and/or 30s so financially destitute that you can’t compete in the real-world dating market with all the well-to-do bankers, consultants, kindergarten teachers and convenience store clerks.  So what happens when Mr. and Mrs. Professor decide to procreate?  They geekily combine some genetic material, wait an appropriate gestation period, and voila, out pops offspring.  Now they have to decide who’s going to do most of the caretaking for said offspring.  For a whatever reasons, usually the woman gets most of these duties (I imagine it’s some combination of predisposition and not trusting the man to keep anything alive for more than a week).  But not always.  Sometimes the father is the primary caretaker, and other times it’s an even split.  But what happens when females–and ONLY females–get these benefits the GAO is recommending?  The happy couple now has a strong incentive to choose the female.  While the benefits make pursuing a career and family easier, they don’t completely negate the damage done by taking a break from work.

Simply put, the benefits would lessen the damage done by taking time off to care for children, but if offered only to women, one might reasonably expect the number of women suffering damage to increase.  How long do you think it will take quantitatively-oriented PhD-holding professors to figure out that the government just awarded women a comparative advantage in caring for babies?  My guess is not that long.

So while it may be counter-intuitive, if you want to help women with these benefits, offer them to men who want to spend extra time with their kids too.

Egypt’s Hidden Hero

 Posted by at 10:10 PM  Tagged with: , , , ,
Feb 092011

You’ve probably read something about Egypt in the newspapers over the course of the last two weeks, unless you’ve been on Mars (in which case I’m totally jealous).  There’s been a lot of great reporting on a lot of great stories about the people of a nation demanding reform.  There’s also been a lot of analysis of underlying causes.  Mubarak’s self-serving policies and institutions are certainly reason enough for a civilian population to cry out for reform.  Egypt’s lack of oil, political scientists and foreign policy commentators have noted, makes revolution more likely than in the petro-dictatorships of nearby totalitarian regimes.  Roger Cohen of the New York times tells an interesting story involving cultural shifts and improvements in priorities.  But there’s an unsung hero in all of this, without which all the cultural shifts and petro-politics and oppressive policies would amount to business as usual.  And that hero is: social media and telecommunications technology.

That’s right.  Technology many Americans (especially parents) find intrusive and annoying is making possible a populist revolution half a world away.  This revolution is a story which, by some accounts, began with a facebook page.  Organizers certainly have efficaciously leveraged the power of social media to coalesce their movement in ways that would have been impossible a mere decade ago.  While the recent eruptions may have been somewhat sudden, the momentum has been building for years, as tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of like-minded people have been finding allies in their quest for change, preparing for this moment.

It’s hard to underestimate the impact of this connectivity within a restless population.  When people with feelings of discontentment are alone and isolated, they do nothing.  When assembling can be dangerous, the required motivation is often prohibitively high.  When communication is difficult, efforts are slowed, stopped, or never started.  But communications technology has been a game-changer.  It’s easy to find like-minded people; it’s easy to have free discussions; it’s easy to be connected and to feel connected.  It’s easy to have safe meetings; it’s easy to stay in touch; it’s easy to coordinate efforts; and it’s easy to see the numbers, and in them the strength, of a movement.

The Egyptian government is aware of the changing face of revolutionary forces.  It’s no coincidence that they basically kidnapped a Google executive (then lied about it, and eventually–under pressure–released him).  It’s no coincidence that the government attacked the telecommunications access of 80 million people in their efforts to fight back.  And it’s no coincidence that the most heartfelt voices of the Egyptian people are not being first relayed in the form of letters and interviews, but rather, in all kinds of tweets.

The Egyptians have a powerful ally in technology, and its power only increases with time.  The voice of the people is easier to hear today than it was yesterday, and it is growing ever louder.  Unless leaders learn to listen better, I can promise that Egypt is only the beginning.