Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Little Realism Goes a Long Way

Watching TV shows often requires the suspension of disbelief — that is, a willingness to press pause on one’s critical faculties in order to believe the unbelievable. Realism often must be secondary to story, in other words. This very often is necessary when computers are used to advance plot lines, when programmers and hackers alike can bang away on their keyboards and produce tremendous results in seconds.

One need look no further than such shows as The Blacklist orScorpion, which feature keyboard cowboys who can hack into systems at the drop of a hat, hook into GPS systems, or employ some other technobabble gimmick to track the badguy and save the day. This use of computers has been commonplace as long as computers have been around.

“The patterns are not just with recent tech –20 years ago, MacGyver was doing very unlikely tech things, as did the A-Team and so many others — just with different tech,” said Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.

“A brief suspension of disbelief has helped storytellers since well before Shakespeare,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Impossible TV

What can be done with a computer on some TV shows requires more than a basic suspension of disbelief. In some cases, what fictional computer whizzes can accomplish borders on the miraculous.

With many TV shows, it’s likely that accuracy isn’t the writers’ primary concern, said Jay Rouman, a computer network engineer who has worked with computers since the late 1970s.

“I stopped watching Scorpion after they had a convertible chase a commercial jet down the runway with an Ethernet cable dropped out of the jet,” Rouman told TechNewsWorld.

Beyond the fact that the takeoff speed of the jet could be well over 200 mph, the fact that the cable was even so readily available could be something that occurs only in the imagination of a TV show writer.

“It just happened to be on board and plugged into the master computer,” recalled Rouman. “I’ve been in data centers where couldn’t find an Ethernet cable that would give you Internet connectivity!”

Brave New World

A new wave of TV shows have been creating more realistic situations, ditching the meaningless technobabble for more accurate computer jargon. Instead of murky plot devices, actual programming is displayed.

TV shows such as AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s Silicon Valley focus on the exploits of computer programmers — with the former highlighting the first tech boom of the 1980s and the latter taking place in the modern day.

The shows are very different in tone. Halt and Catch Fire is a workplace drama with soapy elements, while Silicon Valley, which was created byBeavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, follows the more traditional comedy formula.

Yet computer programming is key in both shows. Each is full of realistic jargon, and close observers will see actual code on the screens, which certainly has made the shows appealing to those in the world of tech.

“The culture around technology is also magnificently depicted in Silicon Valley,” added Purtilo.

“Sure it is stylized, just as any cartoonist must emphasize a subject’s few key features in order to tell a story — but they get it right,” he explained.

“Maybe we don’t know specifics of Pied Piper’s fabulous compression algorithm, but I’ve watched a room full of geeks self-segregate around ‘tabs versus eight spaces’ or ‘vim versus emacs’ questions,” Purtilo observed. “It’s hilarious because that is what we do, and accurate details just help us project ourselves into those situations more readily.”

Manufactured Support

What I think is funny in this market is that most people can look at two companies, see the difference in their performance, and not learn the fundamental lesson — even though it has been repeated over the decades.

Microsoft and Apple are cases in point, because Apple was very successful under the initial founders, then was unsuccessful after the founders left, was successful again when Jobs came back, and now is struggling without him. Microsoft was very successful under Gates, struggled when Gates left, and is successful again now that it is run by someone very much like Gates.

The core magic is this: having someone who is running the company who both understands the technology and understands either the customer’s current needs — or how to manipulate customers to need what you make.

I’ll focus on that this time and close with my product of the week, which has to be the amazing Microsoft Surface Studio, which is arguably what Apple should have shipped.

Steve Jobs Was Unique

I get why Apple struggled to find a replacement for Steve Jobs — not only after he died, but also earlier, after he initially was fired. The guy was unique. After reading a number of books on his life and on his presentation and product secrets, it became clear to me that what made him different was that he both understood technology well enough to direct his firm and understood people well enough to convince us that what we wanted was what he built.

He was absolutely correct in believing that it was stupid to use focus groups as a planning exercise. He understood that people don’t know what they want, and that the successful company is the one that can manipulate them into wanting what it builds.

He became CEO of the decade and built the most financially successful firm in the current age — yet there isn’t another firm in the market that even comes close to emulating his model.

Now the reason we don’t see this model emulated is that if Steve Jobs were to apply for a job at any tech company today with the resume he had at Apple’s beginning, he would not be hired. I think you could say the same of Bill Gates, which really points to what I think is a fundamental problem with the current hiring process.

People who might rise to run a firm like Jobs ran Apple and Gates ran Microsoft can get to the CEO position only if they form their own firms, and right now getting VC money without a degree would be nearly as impossible as getting hired would be.

What I don’t get is why firms don’t have a process specifically designed to bring in passionate creative types who have high IQs but who didn’t do well in schools — or why schools that specialize in creating CEO types, like Harvard, don’t find a better way to find and certify them.

From Jobs vs. Ballmer to Nadella vs. Cook

What also is fascinating is that after Apple’s board saw how Jobs stepped all over Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, it went ahead and replaced Jobs with someone more like Ballmer.

Cook and Ballmer are both good managers. They’re great with numbers, they’re hard workers, and they both love their firms. However, neither has a creative bone in their bodies. They aren’t even remotely charismatic, and the only customers they readily identify with are corporate customers, which is particularly problematic for Apple, which doesn’t really serve that customer base.

In effect, Nadella is very similar to Gates, and Cook is very similar to Ballmer — granted, without the famous temper — and the end result is that Apple has dropped into decline and Microsoft is surging again, albeit with Azure and Web services, which luckily is where the excitement is.

Warring Announcements

It was fascinating to watch the Microsoft and Apple hardware launches last week. The Microsoft launch was focused tightly on creators, Apple’s historic core base, while the Apple launch didn’t seem to focus on users at all. Apple presented a collection of features that don’t seem to be sourced in any clear customer need.

For instance, I’ve never seen customers ask for a flexible secondary touch screen, particularly when the product lacks a primary touch screen. Also ironic is the fact that folks leaving the Microsoft event lusted after both the new Surface Book and, particularly, the Surface Studio, while those at the Apple event seemed disappointed they’d have to settle.

Machine Churns Out AI-Generated

In honor of Halloween, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab launched the Nightmare Machine website, which allows visitors to vote on AI-generated horror images created via an open source deep neural network algorithm developed last year.

Scientists from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) collaborated on the project.

The Nightmare Machine features some 200,000 images of normal human faces that were fed into the neural network by MIT researchers and CSIRO’s Data61 digital and data innovation group.

The neural network algorithm transforms images of normal-looking human faces into those with the characteristics of cinematic zombies, such those featured in the popular AMC TV show, The Walking Dead.

To date, the Nightmare Machine has collected more than 300,000 individual votes, along with user responses suggesting that the digitally modified photos can be quite terrifying indeed.

Portraits and Landscapes

In addition to faces, the Nightmare Machine is able to take postcard perfect images of famous landmarks — New York City’s Statue of Liberty, Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, or Paris’ Louvre Museum, for example — and transform them into utterly terrifying settings.

The Nightmare Machine transformed this image of the Statue of Liberty into the spooky rendering shown above.

The way the Nightmare Machine transforms the images is explained in the paper, “A Neural Algorithm of Artistic Style,” published last year by researchers Lean A. Gatys, Alexander S. Ecker and Matthias Bethge — all of the Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Tubingen, Germany.

The photos can be manipulated to evoke an emotional response based on utilizing predetermined filters, the researchers noted.

Traditional photo-manipulation and editing tools, such as Photograph, offer an array of stylish tools. Likewise, the Nightmare Machine features its own stylish flare, highlighting the not-so-subtle differences between a “haunted house” versus a “fright night” or “toxic city” treatment.

Each is something that would be worthy of a lingering bad dream, and all highlight the way an algorithm can adjust its nightmarish effects in very different ways to induce particular feelings in viewers.

“This technique for using deep neural nets to analyze what constitutes a scary scene and then apply a ‘scariness filter’ to other photographs can be used in a wide range of other applications,” said Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Gothic Architecture

However, the key to what constitutes something that is truly scary may be in keeping it subtle — perhaps by employing a thus a suspenseful build-up evocative of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft rather than depicting a zombie-inspired bloodbath.

“The scariest of these applications is applying just a little horror to everyday scenes or even news items — not enough to identify what is scary, but enough to sway the emotions of a viewer,” Teich told TechNewsWorld.

“These techniques can apply to real-time video as well, so a scene can be made progressively more or less scary to direct a viewer’s or player’s attention and interaction with scenes,” he added.

Not Every Day Is Halloween

The researchers at MIT and CSIRO used Halloween to show off the ability to transform the beautiful into the horrific, but the technology’s designers also laid out how it could be used in other creative ways.

The frightful images are a Halloween-inspired application of a “general purpose AI machine designed to elicit human reactions,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

“I would not be surprised if on Feb. 14, there will be a press release with the MIT AI Love Machine designed to make people feel romantic,” he told TechNewsWorld.

However this technique could be used in other emotional contexts as well, “so that the entire human emotional range can be manipulated subtly and in real time while viewers are watching their newsfeed, advertisements, or playing a game,” suggested Tirias’ Teich.

“It will make immersive content that much more engaging, sticky — and perhaps much more addictive,” he observed.

The applications for this could this could be many fold, “especially for the entertainment industry — ranging from movies to VR,” said Entner. “All in all, we are early on, and this is designed to drive attention to the work MIT is doing.”