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First, we will bring ourselves to computers. The small- and large-scale convenience and efficiency of storing more and more parts of our lives online will increase the hold that formal ontologies have on us. They will be constructed by governments, by corporations, and by us in unequal measure, and there will be both implicit and explicit battles over how these ontologies are managed. The fight over how test scores should be used to measure student and teacher performance is nothing compared to what we will see once every aspect of our lives from health to artistic effort to personal relationships is formalized and quantified.

 

[…]

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that, because computers cannot and will not “understand” us the way we understand each other, they will not be able to take over the world and enslave us (at least not for a while). The bad news is that, because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can “understand.” Their dumbness will become ours.

 

from: David Auerbach, N+1.  read it all.   

 

I love this piece.  Brilliant synthesis.  Hard to prove… just have to watch it all unfold.

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A friend gave me this problem a couple of weeks ago:

What is the longest word you can type on the QWERTY keyboard with just your left hand using the proper position?

I love problems like this.

Especially because I get to toy around with Mathematica and use features that day to day I may not interact with for biz problems.

Finding the solution required only a tiny bit of code.

alpha = “”;
ourdictionary = “”;
alphabase = {“q” | “w” | “e” | “r” | “t” | “a” | “s” | “d” | “f” | “g” | “z” | “x” | “c” | “v” | “b”};
alpha = StringExpression[alpha, alphabase];

Code

n = 0;
dictionarycount = 0;
ourdictionary = DictionaryLookup[alpha];
While[n < 20 && Length@ourdictionary > 0,
ourdictionary = DictionaryLookup[alpha];
alpha = StringExpression[alpha, alphabase];
n++;
If[Length@ourdictionary == 0, Print[{Length@ourdictionary, n – 1}];
Print[DictionaryLookup[alpha[[;; n – 1]]]]]]

The Answer(s):

{“aftereffects”, “desegregated”, “desegregates”, “reverberated”, “reverberates”,”stewardesses”}

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Now that both the iPad and Wolfram|Alpha iPad are available it’s time to really evaluate the capabilities of these platforms.

Wolfram|Alpha on the iPad

Wolfram|Alpha iPad

[disclaimer: last year I was part of the launch team for Wolfram|Alpha – on the business/outreach end.]

Obviously I know a great deal about the Wolfram|Alpha platform… what it does today and what it could do in the near future and in the hands of great developers all over the world.  I’m not shy in saying that computational knowledge available on mobile devices IS a very important development in computing.  Understanding computable knowledge is the key to understanding why I believe mobile computable knowledge matters.   Unfortunately it’s not the easiest of concepts to describe.

Consider what most mobile utilities do… they retrieve information and display it.  The information is mostly pre-computed (meaning it has been transformed before your request), it’s generally in a “static” form.   You cannot operate on the data in a meaningful way.  You can’t query most mobile utilities with questions that have never been asked before expecting a functional response.  Even the really cool augmented reality apps are basically just static data.  You can’t do anything with the data being presented back to you… it’s simply an information overlay on a 3d view of the world.

The only popular applications that currently employ what I consider computable knowledge are navigation apps that very much are computing real time based on your requests (locations, directions, searches).    Before nav apps you had to learn routes by driving them, walking them, etc. and really spending time associating a map, road signs and your own sense of direction.   GPS navigation helps us all explore the world and get around much more efficiently. However, navigation is only 1 of the 1000s of tasks we perform that benefit from computable knowledge.

Wolfram|Alpha has a much larger scope!    It can compute so many things against your current real world conditions and the objects in the world that you might be interacting with.   For instance you might be a location scout for a movie and you want to not only about how far the locations are that you’re considering you want to compute ambient sunlight, typical weather patterns, wind conditions, likelihood your equipment might be in danger and so forth.  You even need to consider optics for your various shots. You can get at all of that right now with Wolfram|Alpha.  This is just one tiny, very specific use case.  I can work through thousands of these.

The trouble with Wolfram|Alpha (its incarnations to date)  people cite is that it can be tough to wrangle the right query.   The challenge is that people still think about it as a search engine.   The plain and simple fact is that it isn’t a web search engine.  You should not use it as a search engine.  Wolfram|Alpha is best used to get things done. It isn’t the tool you use to get an overview of what’s out there – it’s the system you use to compute, to combine, to design, to combine concepts.

The iPad is going to dramatically demonstrate the value of Wolfram|Alpha’s capabilities (and vice versa!). The form factor has enough fidelity and mobility to show why having computable knowledge literally at your fingertips is so damn useful.  The iPhone is simply too small and you don’t perform enough intensive computing tasks on it to take full advantage.  The other thing iPad and similar platforms will demonstrate is that retrieving information isn’t going to be enough for people.  They want to operate on the world.  They want to manipulate.  The iPad’s major design feature is that you physically manipulate things with your hands.  iPod does that, but again, it’s too small for many operations.   Touch screen PCs aren’t new, but they are usually not mobile.  Thus, here we are on the cusp of direct manipulation of on screen objects.  This UI will matter a great deal to the user.  They won’t want to just sort, filter, search again.  They will demand things respond in meaningful ways to their touches and gestures.

So how will Wolfram|Alpha take advantage of this?   It’s already VISUAL! And the visuals aren’t static images.  Damn near every visualization in Wolfram|Alpha are real time computed specifically to your queries.   The visuals can respond to your manipulations.  In the web version of Wolfram|Alpha this didn’t make as much sense  because the keyboard and mouse aren’t at all the same as your own two hands on top of a map, graph, 3d protein, etc.

Early on there was a critical review of Wolfram|Alpha’s interface – how you actually interact with the system.  It was dead on in many respects.

WA is two things: a set of specialized, hand-built databases and data visualization apps, each of which would be cool, the set of which almost deserves the hype; and an intelligent UI, which translates an unstructured natural-language query into a call to one of these tools. The apps are useful and fine and good. The natural-language UI is a monstrous encumbrance…

In an iPad world, natural language will sit back-seat to hands on manipulations.  Wolfram|Alpha will really shine when people manipulate the visuals and the data display and the various short cuts. People’s interaction with browsers is almost all link or text based, so the language issues with Wolfram|Alpha and other systems are always major challenges.  Now what will be interesting is how many popular browser services will be able to successfully move over to a touch interface.  I don’t think that many will make it.  A new type of services will have to crop up as iPad apps will not be simply add-ons to a web app, like they usually are for iPhone.  These services will have to be great in handling direct manipulation, getting actual tasks accomplished and will need to be highly visual.

My iPad arrives tomorrow.  Wolfram|Alpha is the first app getting loaded. and yes, I’m biased.  You will be too.

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Investigating causal factors instantly is not only possible it’s GREAT!

Check this graph out… think there’s a relationship?

GM revenue vs US Carbon Emissions

cool. very cool.

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Whether it’s “valid” or not humans (and probably most animals) make associations of new, unknown things with similar-seeming known things.  In fact, this is the basis of communication.

In the case of discussing new websites/services/devices like Wolfram|Alpha, Bing, Kindle, iPhone, Twitter and so on it’s perfectly reasonable to associate them to their forebears.  Until users/society gets comfortable with the new thing and have a way of usefully talking about it making comparisons to known things is effective in forming shared knowledge.

My favorite example of this is Wikipedia and Wikis.  What the heck is a wiki?  and what the heck is wikipedia based on this wiki?  Don’t get me wrong – I know what a wiki is. But to someone who doesn’t, hasn’t used one, and hasn’t contributed to one it’s pretty hard to describe without giving them anchors based on stuff they do know.  “Online Encyclopedia”, “Like a Blog but more open”…  (for fun read how media used to talk about wikipedia, more here)

More recently is Twitter.  What is it like?  A chat room? a social network?  a simpler blog? IM?  right… it’s all that and yet something different, it’s Twitter.  You know it when you use it.

Just like in nature new forms are always evolving with technology.  Often new tech greatly resembles its ancestories.  Other times it doesn’t.

In the specific case of Wolfram|Alpha and Bing/google… they share a common interface in the form of the browser and an HTML text field.  They share a similar foundation in trying to make information easy to access.  The twist is that Wolfram|Alpha computes over retrieved information and can actually synthesize (combine, plot, correlate) it into new information.  Search engines retreive information and synthesize ways to navigate it.  Very different end uses, often very complimentary.  Wikipedia uses humans to synthesize information into new information, so it shares some concepts with Wolfram|Alpha.  Answers.com and other answer sites typically are a mash up of databases and share the concept of web search engines of synthesizing ways to navigate data.

All of these are USEFUL tools and they ARE INTERCONNECTED.  None of them will replace each other.  Likely they will all co-evolve. And we will evolve our ways of talking about them.

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