Chamath Palihapitiya could throw a wrench into AI heavyweights

It’s always good to keep an eye on what Chamath Palihapitiya is up to. He has been building a team of ex-Googlers, and is supposed to be after the next generation of computing. A $10 million startup, to be sure!

This could signal a lot of things, depending which pair of lenses you put on. It probably has a lot to do with AI – Artificial Intelligence. For instance he hired away eight of the ten people at Goggle working on a secret project involving a chip with AI. He has poked fun at Watson, the IBM cloud-based machine learning application.

Watson, as you might be aware turned tables on Jeopardy and Go (the 2,500-year-old game), but has machine learning entrenched in many sectors from genomics to industrial safety. Google’s machine learning project, known by its bland name, Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), is underway.

Pahlihapitiya talks of ‘probabilistic‘ software that is changing how we depend on devices – a great shift from ‘deterministic’ software based on “if-the” sequences. Watch how he explains how machine learning and II is transforming, and will up-end computing. I bet Watson took in every word of this.



Balloons could add new flavors to the ‘Cloud’ and Digital Democracy

Most of you know how I dislike the word ‘cloud’ as a catchall for anything accessed online. So how about getting used to balloons? As in Google’sProject Loon that has been in the works for some two years, and now is supposed to be set to launch in Sri Lanka.

It’s a crazy, heady idea. Sri Lanka will be the first country to get ‘universal Internet access’ as TechCrunch put it.

I just got back from Sri Lanka, and did an extensive train and road trip with the family. I experienced first hand what connectivity is –and is not. The new, fast highways are obviously connecting more people to more opportunities. The Telcos are providing easy-to-get (via a scratch card) low-cost bandwidth for smart devices. There is growing free Wi-Fi presence in towns as diverse as Galle, Anuradhapura, Kandy and some places in Jaffna; even on a train we took to the hill country! Access does get spotty and sluggish at times, but the appetite for connectivity is growing in leaps and bounds.

And now balloons!

Here’s why I welcome this. Not for the obvious reasons, such as giving everyone including tuk-tuk drivers or election monitors the ability to tweet or upload pictures – which could be useful in and of itself.

Education: First sorely needed bandwidth to homes, schools and offices will change the game. I was at one outstation school, and the science teachers had to use a dongle to get online. ‘Universal access’ for schools would change the dimension of how learning takes place beyond the Google search. Young people could be empowered to create content and not just consume it. It’s about time schools got a better deal when it comes to connectivity. Why haven’t the telcos given schools a better deal? What will they do now?

Political participation. Sri Lanka has demonstrated that despite the dismal examples of governance, that democracy and citizen participation works. ICTA reported recently that “Sri Lanka has shot up to 74th position in the United Nations E-Government Survey of 2014, after climbing 41 places since 2012.” Nalaka Gunewardene goes into rich detail about how Digital Democracy is at work. Beyond elections, this will affect transparency and accountability, when everyone has an uplink, a camera and a voice.

There are obviously several more examples, which some of you might like to add. Please do!

Will there be a backlash against the Cloud?

There’s this amazing device sold on Amazon: a two-pack outdoor waterproof surveillance camera, for just $19.50 (with free shipping is you use Prime). Menacing looking. But it has one problem.

It’s fake.

Its a deliberate fake –supposedly for people who want to pretend their property is under surveillance.

Don’t you love it? We love to be watched so much we will pay money to pretend we are doing it ourselves. Couple that with the NSA-Snowden scandal, and this story about a Houston, Texas family’s baby monitor being hacked, and it’s enough to make some people long for the pre-digital age.

The Snowden scandal has new embarrassing ramifications, in the UK. The Guardian reporter’s partner was detained in Heathrow, and had his digital devices confiscated.  But it got worse. The British government demanded the newspaper smash its hard drives in the basement, under supervision. The Guardian called it “a pointless piece of symbolism.”

Which makes you wonder if people’s social media habits are going to nose-dive when they realize that we do pay a price for a surveillant society. Do we really need this darn euphemism called the Cloud? For every good story we get about being able to track down the bad guys (the Boston bombers were, after all, tracked down within a few hours because of …cameras) you get a surveillance-off-the-wall story. Incredibly worse than the baby monitor hack.

Presence Orb, is a British company that conducts what it calls “presence analytics” happily reported that hundreds of thousands of pedestrians who walked past recycling bins in London had been ‘stalked’ by the bins, which recorded the unique ‘MAC address’ of their smartphones. A bit of a hue and cry, and the government demanded it stop doing this. It did. Surveillance of people bad, bad, bad.

Smashing hard drives, very, very, good.

There’s a good reason (I now discover) I carry a small, scruffy notebook. My useful stuff is in the Cloud. My important stuff is in my pocket.

Grade your Press Release – if you have the stomach for it

There’s a neat web service for checking to see if your Press Release is full of #!*! or if it carries standard elements such as contact numbers, URL’s and keywords that match up with links.

Word Cloud based on iPhone's Press Release in 2007It’s called Press Release Grader. A cut-and-paste site that grades your release instantly.

What I liked most about it was the visual rendering of a Word Cloud, which displays words larger if they are used more often etc. It also points to gobbledygook words –there were 7.

Since Apple’s iPhone 2.0 is all the rage this month, I used one of the first iPhone releases from January 2007 about ‘reinventing the phone.’ It got a grading of 44 out of 100, and had the readability level for a 3-year undergraduate.

You can see the report here.

I don’t think the value of this is to score high, or to gloat, but to get you to understand what you could be missing, or overdoing. What constitutes a perfect press release? No human or piece of software could tell you that. There are guidelines and must-haves that a ‘Grader’ like this will help you remember to use. But as my friend and author Linda VandeVrede reminds us, a press release should serve the one audience it is targeting: the media.