Judgment Day?

Judgment Day? (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 3/28/13)

 Every once in a while, you come upon a headline that makes you scratch your head.  No, I’m not talking about the Wired.com article this week, “Want to Make an Alligator Angrier Than Normal” (uh…why?) or the Cnet article “Your next phone’s screen will be incredibly strong.”  (Really? Like, duh.)  The headline that really made me wonder if we are traveling aboard some unstoppable force toward an immovable fate was another Wired story, “Darpa Sets Out to Make Computers That Can Teach Themselves.”

First of all, did these guys NOT see Terminator?!?  Remember, the whole SkyNet artificial intelligence thing becoming self-aware and trying to wipe out mankind?  You know, John Connor?  Arnold?  “I’ll be back?”

 Apparently none of those things ring a bell.  Instead, DARPA kicked-off a 46-month development effort called Probabilistic Programming for Advanced Machine Learning, or PPAML.  According to Wired, Program Director Kathleen stated that the goal of the program, “is that future machine learning projects won’t require people to know everything about both the domain of interest and machine learning to build useful machine learning applications.”  DARPA wants to make it easier for non-experts to build machine-learning applications.

Now, I get the jist of the principle.  While in college, I developed some very crude genetic alogrithms, which I suspect are related to instantiations of PPAML components, to solve some relatively simple orbit trajectory problems.  While extremely computationally intensive, the genetic algorithms were effective in optimizing solutions without the need for multi-dimension calculus, least squares linearization or even knowledge of orbital mechanics theory.  These algorithms can get you to the “what” without knowledge of the “how”, or even more importantly, the “why.”

From one point of view, these algorithms let us explore the art of the possible.  Instead of just dreaming the future, machine-learning can quantitatively show us what can be real.  The process of discovery can be better managed as computers help navigate between true discovers and dead-ends.  These are powerful tools that can move us forward a great deal.

On the other hand, a path to knowledge without full understanding creates long-term problems.  Subject matter experts are important in every field in order to guide organizations along the healthiest path.   No matter the program, the age-old “garbage in, garbage out” principal applies.  Somebody needs to ensure garbage doesn’t go into the machine.  

Unless, of course, the machine itself gets to a point where it starts making garbage-in, garbage-out decisions for itself.  In that case, we’ll have to change the name of PPAML, to “Please Pray, All May Be Lost.”

An Augusta First – BTW, I heard my first college joke about GRU this week:

A UGA student, a Georgia Tech student, and a Georgia Regents student all go into the men’s room (yes, they’re all guys…roll with it). 

The Bulldog does his business, then washes his hands, then completely dries his hands with a truly profligate amount of paper towels.

“Georgia Bulldogs are trained to be thorough,” he explains.

The Rambling Wreck does his business, then washes his hands. But he uses a minimal amount of paper towel, while making sure his hands are as completely dry as the Bulldog’s. 

“Yellow Jackets are trained to be thorough and efficient!” he explains.

The GRU student does his business, and walks out without washing his hands!

Flabbergasted, the UGA and GT students demand an explanation.

“Jaguars don’t pee on their hands.” 

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker




Freedom 1, NSL 0

Freedom 1, NSL 0 (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 3-21-13)

It’s pretty easy to close your eyes and imagine a Nazi or Communist Party official presenting a letter to a business owner and saying (with a sinister accent), “You would provide a great service to your country by providing us with certain information on one of your particular customers.”  Of course, we’ve all seen this played out in the movies hundreds of times.  The requested service to country is not optional.  In addition, this service to country is something you should be proud to perform in private.  “After all, discretion is a virtue.  When people start talking, things can get messy.”

This is the imagery I remember during civics classes at Evans High in the 1980’s.  Freedom and liberty were esteemed values, and a very clear difference was drawn between us and past tyrannies.  Little did we know that while we were discussing freedom, the representatives we sent to Washington were authorizing the scenario described above.  National Security Letters issued by the FBI compel the disclosure of customer records.  The letters then prohibit the recipient from disclosing the receipt of the letter, much less any information that might have been provided.  The Patriot Act greatly expanded the authority of the Letters, and their use has exponentially increased.  According to the Electronic Freedom Foundation (eff.org), almost 200,000 Letters were issued between the years 2003 and 2006.  That’s 200,000 searches without judicial oversight and with no opportunity for appeal or protest.

On March 14, the Federal District Court in Northern California struck down the National Security Letters.  The court held that the gag order and resulting restriction on public discourse violated the First Amendment, and the review procedures violated the separation of powers.  The ruling will likely be appealed, but for the time being, score one for the good guys.

Set to Stun – A hundred years ago, energy beams and particle weapons were under the sole jurisdiction of the science fiction writer.  The rationale for this jurisdiction is pretty obvious – the physics behind these devices had yet to be discovered.  In 1917, Albert Einstein first worked out the basic theory of stimulated emissions.  However, it took until 1960 to create the first optical device.  Nowadays, Light-Amplification-by-Stimulated-Emission-of-Radiation systems, or Lasers, are ubiquitous.  We see these systems on every computer mouse, high-precision weapon sight, ultra-fine cutting tool, or as a device to torment your cat as it futilely attempts to trap the red dot.

Science fiction fans all recognize that while the laser is all well and good, it’s the phaser that represents the pinnacle of weapons technology.  While a laser is capable of cutting or welding, the phaser provides the capability to stun, kill or vaporize its target, or if allowed to overcharge, the phaser can produce a devastating explosion.  In addition, a phaser serves as valuable tool for expedition teams.  At low settings the phaser can be used to heat rocks to provide warmth.  At higher settings, the phaser can shatter landscapes in order to clear or block paths, whichever the situation may dictate.

In reality, the physics between lasers and phasers are quite similar.  Both systems obey the same rules of quantum physics regarding their basic quanta – photons when dealing with light, phonons when dealing with sound.  The technology to manage the stimulated emissions of coherent phonons has only recently been developed.  A group out of NTT Basic Research Laboratories in Japan recently announced a device that utilizes the stimulated emission principle to produce a coherent vibration within a material, or a “sound” laser, or a “phaser.” 

So start your clocks everybody.  It took 50 years for the laser to go from prototype to practice.  Will the phaser follow the same path?  Only time will tell.

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker


Next After “X”

Next After “X” (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 3/14/13)  

Next After ‘X’ – Even after 2-1/2 years, I still love my Droid X.  It was the first phone that I owned that I didn’t have to do a battery yank every day.  The picture quality is great for a mobile, and to this day, I’m still amazed at how often you need to take a quick snapshot or video.  The other absolute requirement, GPS and Google Maps, was also an unforeseen necessity.  I can’t count the number of times that my Droid got me where I needed to go.  Browsing has always sucked, but let’s face it, browsing wasn’t the strong suit of the iPhone 4 or any other device with a 3.5” screen.

So why am I telling you all this?  About a month ago, I was on my way to an appointment when I noticed that my Droid wasn’t connecting to GPS.  Turns out, something went flaky on the RF, and the mobile hotspot isn’t working either.  A couple of weeks later, like a cancer, an air-bubble-like spot appeared on the display.  Finally, the unthinkable happened – the phone froze-up, and I had to yank the battery to reset.  I can deny it all I want, but the reality remains:  My phone is about to die.

Anyone is this same situation has two choices:  Get an iPhone or get something else.  Well, I guess a few folks may opt for the corporate-issued Blackberry, but that’s not really an option for me.  First, the qwerty keyboard is practically impossible to use considering I only have half my right thumb.  Secondly, I successfully navigated the 1990’s once.  Why do it again?  Any-hoo…my wife, my father, my brothers and virtually everyone that works at CMA has an iPhone.  I understand its ease of use, its simplicity, its ability to integrate with my MacBook Air and still bring a high level of productivity into the business world.  Every person who asks for a mobile phone recommendation, I tell them, “Get an iPhone!”  So you should not be surprised that my first choice for a new mobile will be…the Samsung Galaxy S4.

The debut of the GS4 is March 14 (uh, today).  Interestingly, Samsung is more tight-lipped regarding the GS4 than Apple was about the iPhone 5.  Rumors include a 5” 1080p display, a 13-megapixel camera, quadcore processor and Jelly Bean.  All of these are tech spec improvements from the GS3.  In addition to the new features that Jelly Bean brings, Samsung is rumored to be including eye-tracking software that allows the user to perform certain tasks by moving their eyes.  Tres cool!

I hope the debut of the phone will be as cool as it appears to be.  If not, that’s OK.  I’ll get an iPhone.  Honestly, the more concerning issue will be the change of data plans.  I’m grandfathered into the Verizon’s old unlimited data plan.  Kiss that bye-bye.  Maybe I’ll go check out other carriers.  Just between you and me, the pink T-Mobile chick is much more persuasive at selling mobile service that the “Can you hear me now?” guy.

SXSW – Having lived in Austin for 7 years, the dates for South-by-Southwest will be permanently stamped on my calendar.  SXSW originally started as a backroom music festival and overrun by the tech industry.  It’s now one of the premier media festivals in the world.  Events include a full-blown film festival, music festival and technology developer conference, all packed into a downtown with about 20 square blocks of bars, restaurants and other nightlife.  With the 50,000-student University of Texas forming its core, the city of Austin celebrates its counter culture (“Keep Austin Weird” is an unofficial motto) and doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. (“Don’t Mess with Texas” is not a motto – it’s a philosophy.)

Without a Twitter or Foursquare making headlines, no doubt this is an off year for the festival.  I understand that Al Gore had a talk about creating the Internet, and Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, showed a video of rocket technology designed return launch vehicles back to the launch pad.  But the biggest star of the conference is not a famous celebrity or businessman.  It’s not even a rising director, musician or entrepreneur.  The star of SXSW is an Internet sensation that no doubt you’ve seen.  She has the expression of a father kicked out of bed for the 2 am feeding, or a wife who just found out that poker night is more important than date night, or a child who has discovered for the first time that stuff costs money.  Yes, you know who I’m talking about.  The star of SXSW 2013 is named Tardar Saunce, but we all know her as Grumpy Cat!

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker


Minions, Robots and World Domination

Minions, Robots and World Domination (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 3-7-13)

Ever since the movie “Despicable Me” was released, each member of my family has expressed an overwhelming desire to reign over an army of minions.  Let’s face it – who wouldn’t?  With just a few minions around the house, imagine what you could accomplish.  Doing laundry or cooking meals would be a thing of the past.  A playing partner for Mario Carts or Just Dance would always be available, and willing to do “whatever is necessary” to beat your parents (or children, as the case may be).  And, of course, if one weekend you ever felt the urge for world domination, the huggable band of one- and two-eyed, banana-colored goof balls could easily throw together a few nuclear weapons and a rocket-propelled delivery system for you to intimidate your neighbors.

Alas, however, minions are in very short supply in Augusta, notwithstanding our own downtown GRU.  (Just for the record, if Minions are not selected as the official mascot for Georgia Regents University, it will be the most tragic lost opportunity for college school spirit and tradition since Admiral Ackbar was denied the mascot position at Ole Miss.)  So what is an aspiring megalomaniac to do when minions cannot be found?  The answer is easy – Evil robots.

Unfortunately, the production of an army of evil robots does not occur overnight.  If the 10,000-hour rule is to be observed, many years must be spent studying, creating and maturing the necessary production skills.  You must learn integrated circuits, radio frequency (RF) communications, digital logic, controller programming languages, 3D printing and a host of other design and manufacturing tools.  Each tool is designed to build and integrate the different components and subsystems, the totality of which results in a unified creation whose individual parts are indistinguishable and inseparable from the whole.  If you want to own the capacity to reshape the world, you must first become a Maker.

Technology is the realm of the Maker.  The Maker depends on technology as their primary tool to transform ideas into a physical creation.  For example, a hundred-years ago technology enabled widespread availability of oil paints in tubes, freeing the impressionist to create a new genre of art.  Fifty years ago, technology enabled the widespread availability of electronic musical instruments, freeing rock stars to create a new genre of music.  Twenty years ago, technology enabled the widespread availability of microprocessors and network communications, freeing our whole society to increase productivity and awareness through the Internet.  More recently, technology enables the widespread availability of circuit boards, RF transceivers, and small scale manufacturing platforms such as 3D printing.  What will the visionaries do with these new resources?

More specifically, what will you do with them?  How are you going to improve your life?  More importantly, what contributions are you going to make to improve everyone’s life?

Are you interested in becoming a Maker, but you just don’t know where to start?  Well, step one is kind of obvious – Google it!  Try “How to become a maker”, and you’ll find several great online articles to get you started.  Another great reference is SparkFun Electronics (www.sparkfun.com).  SparkFun provides all the raw materials for Maker projects, and it’s website provides several pre-designed projects and tutorials to help newbies get off the ground.  Finally, get involved in the local hackerspace.  You already know about the TheClubhou.se.  Go check them out.

Shout Out – We would like to give a big shout out to Exponent Design Works, LLC.  This Augusta-based creative technology company won the initial ideation stage of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Apps for Vehicles Challenge. The smartphone application they presented, Fuel Economy Coach, teaches drivers good habits that will improve their vehicle fuel economy – saving the users money and decreasing the negative impact on the environment through reduced emissions.  As one of only eight national finalists, Exponent Design Works was awarded a $2,000 cash prize along with access to industry experts to help further the development of the app.  The design team is working feverishly on the next phase of competition to deliver a prototype app by March 15.  Good luck!

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker