Turkeys + Dinner Plates = Thanksgiving: Google Tries to Make Machine Learning a Little More Human

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

Google CEO Sundar Pichai told investors last month that advances in machine-learning technology would soon have an impact every product or service the company works on. “We are rethinking everything we are doing,” he said.

Part of that push to make its services smarter involves rethinking the way it’s employing machine learning, which enables computers to learn on their own from data. In short, Google is working to teach those systems to be a little more human.

Google discussed some of those efforts at a briefing Tuesday at its headquarters in Mountain View, California. “We’re at the Commander Data stage,” staff research engineer Pete Warden said in a reference to the emotionless android in the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. “But we’re trying to get a bit more Counselor Troi into the system”—the starship Enterprise’s empathetic counselor. …

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Billions Of Online Ads Are About To Die A Well-Deserved Death

From my Forbes blog:

Businesses that run annoying ads on your smartphone and laptop are about to get a rude awakening.

Not only are online ad blockers quickly gaining in popularity, now two very big companies will soon offer us new ways to avoid in-your-face video and animated ads, pop-ups, and other intrusive ads that plague our online existence.

Today, Sept. 1, Google will start blocking ads that use Adobe’s Flash software, employed widely by video advertisers, in its Chrome browser. And as early as next week, Apple is expected to release its new mobile operating software for iPhones and iPads that will allow the installation of apps that keep ads from appearing in its Safari Web browser.

These developments suggest a new era in which you’ll finally be able to zap annoying ads like those in the video above. For a variety of reasons, it’s unlikely that ad blocking alone will cause advertisers and publishers a big problem. But the fact that the two biggest forces in mobile phones are both cracking down on annoying ads means the online ad business is about to change in a big way. …

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Behind The Would-Be Siri Killer Facebook M, A Battle Over AI’s Future

Facebook M

Facebook M

From my Forbes blog:

Facebook’s test release today of a digital assistant inside its Messenger app is a shot across the bow of the Internet’s biggest companies: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.com. It’s also the latest salvo in a high-stakes battle over the ways artificial intelligence should transform the way we live and work.

Facebook M is intended to allow users of Facebook Messenger to pose any query or service request in natural language and get a personalized answer immediately. The key wrinkle that sets it apart from Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana is that there’s a team of human “trainers” who will step in when the machines aren’t quite up to the challenge.

So far, it’s only available to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay Area, and its timing and scope are unclear. But judging from a brief post by VP of Messaging Products David Marcus, Facebook M is clearly a major bid in a quickening battle to be the virtual assistant of choice, taking on not only Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, but also a raft of upstarts such as Luka, Magic, and Operator.

And in the mobile age, virtual assistants could prove to be the key product that will define which companies dominate the next decade of online services, just as search was for the past decade. “Whoever creates the intelligent assistant will be the first place people go to find things, buy things, and everything else,” former AI researcher Tim Tuttle, CEO of the voice interface firm Expect Labs, said last week.

But what’s even more interesting in the bigger picture is how Facebook M plays into a longstanding, fundamental battle over how artificial intelligence should be employed–one that has recently come into sharper focus. … The upshot: Until and unless AI gets so good that machines can anticipate what we want, people will remain a key component of truly intelligent online services.

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Here Comes Wall-E For The Warehouse: A Conversation With Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

From my Forbes blog:

The little robot follows Melonee Wise around a makeshift warehouse as she picks up boxes of cereal and packages of soap and drops them into a crate atop the machine. Freight, as Wise’s startup Fetch Robotics calls it, may be a machine, but its careful tracking of her movements recalls nothing so much as a dutiful dog.

The robot, which Wise demonstrated in a mock warehouse in a corner of the company’s San Jose headquarters, is one of two wheeled models introduced by Fetch in April as a way to automate warehouses and manufacturing buildings. While Freight is intended as an aid to human workers, the namesake Fetch has a single arm that can pick items off a shelf and drop them onto Freight, potentially replacing people.

Wise’s company is one of several robotics companies betting that robots, which have slowly found homes in auto plants and retail warehouses, are finally ready to roll out in much larger numbers. The CEO says in an interview I conducted for a recent profile of the young roboticist and entrepreneur that smaller and faster computers, improvements in artificial intelligence, and cheaper sensors are all combining to make robots cheaper (in Fetch’s case, tens of thousands of dollars) and more capable.

Fetch is one of the most closely watched robotics startups thanks largely to Wise, a key contributor at the seminal robotics incubator Willow Garage, where she helped design and build several models, and a team of robotics veterans she has assembled. Fetch, which in June raised a $20 million round of funding from Softbank and previous investors Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has sold a few robots to pilot commercial customers. But Wise has bigger ambitions to create a platform on which software developers can create new applications. “They have a chance to create the backbone of autonomous robots,” says Shasta Ventures Managing Director Rob Coneybeer.

The blunt-speaking Wise, whose voice suggests a mellower version of the comedian Paula Poundstone, talked about how she got into robotics, what she hopes to accomplish at Fetch, how she aims to compete against Google and other companies snapping up robotics companies and talent, and the challenges of fulfilling her dream of a robot in every home. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: How did you decide to focus on that particular area, given that you’ve been trying all along to build for pretty broad application, even in the home?

A: At Willow, we spent two years trying to figure out what the next thing in robotics would be. The first year we tried to understand if there was any play in the home. The answer was a resounding no.

Q: Why?

A: The expectations are too high and the price tolerance is way too low. So people would love to have a robot that would do their dishes or tidy their house, but they want all of that for $500 or less. Even when you challenge that notion by saying, well, you know the Roomba you bought last month was $850, they’re like, oh no, I bought that on sale.

There was this big hype about at-home telepresence. Everyone wants to put telepresence inside someone else’s home, like their mother’s, but no one actually wants it in their home. They don’t like the privacy challenges.

Q: What’s attractive about logistics and manufacturing?

A: We strongly felt that logistics and materials handling and manufacturing was very scalable. There’s a strong need for it. One of the things that sold me on it is there’s a 600,000-person job gap right now for logistics and manufacturing. They just don’t have enough people right now. Turnover is really bad. They also want to increase performance, and people have a rate limit. They get injured. There’s shrinkage. When you pile all these things up, there’s a great case for robots. …

Read the complete interview.

A Deeper Look At The New Google

From MIT Technology Review:

Before Apple’s Steve Jobs died in 2011, he told Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page that his company was trying to do too much. As Page later told the Financial Times, he replied, “If we just do the same things we did before and don’t do something new, it seems like a crime to me.” Yet Page also acknowledged that Jobs was right in one sense: he could manage only so many things before too many would get lost in the shuffle.

Those twin desires—to do new things regardless of how weird and unrelated they seem to Google’s core search and advertising business, and yet still find a way to manage them to fruition—explain Page’s surprise announcement Monday that he was creating a holding company called Alphabet. It will separate Google’s lucrative ad-related businesses, including Android mobile software and the video site YouTube, from the company’s wide-ranging efforts on self-driving cars, human longevity, Internet access balloons, the Nest connected-home devices, and more, each of which will probably become discrete subsidiaries.

But the move, while cheered by investors, is just the first step to fulfilling the company’s long-standing goal to “make Google a long term success and the world a better place.” In the view of several management experts, Alphabet will be successful only if the individual projects and companies can be successful enough on their own to be spun off into freestanding companies eventually. The new corporate structure enables that to happen, but it surely doesn’t guarantee it.

First, it’s important to dispel the assumption that Page and cofounder Sergey Brin have created something like the Berkshire Hathaway of the Internet, an updated version of Warren Buffett’s conglomerate. “The comparison is silly,” says Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Buffett, he says, invests in existing, undervalued companies, a bit like a mutual fund—precisely the opposite of Alphabet’s VC-style focus on risky new ventures like Calico, which wants to somehow fight aging. ….

Read the complete analysis.

Spelling It Out: The Real Reasons Google Will Become Alphabet


From my Forbes blog:

Google CEO Larry Page never fails to surprise. Google just renamed itself Alphabet, creating a holding company that includes the search company (Google) and a bunch of others that no one could figure out why it was doing. Page will be CEO of Alphabet, Google cofounder and executive-in-charge-of-cool-stuff Sergey Brin will be president, and senior VP Sundar Pichai becomes CEO of Google.

It sounds like a big deal, and in a sense it is always a big deal when a company changes its name and corporate structure. But in other ways, not much has changed, because Google has essentially run its far-flung collection of businesses, from its Calico human longevity company to its X lab that’s working on Internet balloons, self-driving cars, and drone product delivery to investment arms Google Ventures and Google Capital, pretty independently already.

Either way, the move raises a few questions:

* What’s the big idea?

Well, it’s probably not just one idea, but let’s start with one: This will keep left-brain investors happy, or at least happier. They’ve always been wary of all the non-search, non-advertising businesses Google has entered, and their inevitably uncertain prospects have no doubt weighed on the shares if only because they’re much more of a cost for years to come rather than significant revenue generators.

So this is a way for the company, which will now report the core Google business results separately in earnings reports, to make the company’s various businesses clearer to investors. It worked, at least for now: Google’s shares rose more than 6% in extended trading after a nearly flat day today. As Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser put it in a note to clients, “Perhaps there will be incremental value assigned to the totality of the new Alphabet because, undoubtedly, real value exists within the company’s emerging ventures.”

But given that Google rarely seems to make big decisions to please investors, it’s probably best to take Page at his word that the main impetus was to make each business able to operate more independently–and thus more likely to succeed or at least to get the chance to succeed without needing to be related to the core ad business. …

* What’s with the name?

With a funny name like Google, you certainly have to come up with something for the holding company that’s at least a bit whimsical (the URL is abc.xyz) or you will look lame. So that’s one. Another interpretation from an esteemed analyst (my wife): “Are they going to control everything from A to Z?” I wouldn’t bet against their trying.

But as Page puts it in his blog post, the name also fits:

We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search! We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!

Yeah, he’s still a nerd at heart. (And can you tell he’s stoked?!) …

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