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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Why Are You Still Typing On Your Phone – Or Any Other Device?

From my Forbes post:

Only a few years ago, you thought that guy walking down the street apparently talking to himself was off his meds. Now, you’re rocking your Bluetooth headset every day without even thinking about it (even if you still annoy some of us on the train).

But that’s talking with other people, for pete’s sake–are you still phoning with your phone in 2015? Today, you can ask it to do almost anything just by speaking “OK Google” or “Hey Siri”: conduct a search, make a restaurant reservation, send a text, or do almost anything you used to have to type into a search box or tap into an app.

You probably already knew you could try doing all that, but here’s what you may not know: Most of it doesn’t suck anymore. If you haven’t tried Google Voice Search, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or even Amazon.com’s Echo “smart” speaker recently, you may be surprised how much better they’re working than even six months ago. Not only do they seem to understand words better, even in noisy situations, they also appear to produce more accurate results in many cases.

All that’s thanks to big improvements in machine learning, in particular a branch of artificial intelligence called deep learning, that’s been applied to speech recognition in the last couple of years. “Recent AI breakthroughs have cracked the code on voice, which is approaching 90% as good as human accuracy,” says Tim Tuttle, CEO of Expect Labs, which began offering its MindMeld cloud-based service last year to help any device or app create voice interfaces.

It’s great for us smartphone owners, but the stakes couldn’t be higher for companies. …

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With IdeaMarket, Idealab’s Bill Gross Wants To Create 1 Million Startups

From my Forbes blog:

You might wonder if perhaps there are a few too many startups these days, especially if you’re trying to rent a place in San Francisco or buy a house in Palo Alto. Bill Gross doesn’t–not one bit.

Gross’ Los Angeles tech startup incubator Idealab has created more than 125 since its founding in 1996, 40 of them making it to IPO or acquisition. But the company’s founder and CEO thinks he has come up with a way to multiply that sum by about 8,000, to as many as 1 million startups eventually. The new company he’s announcing this morning at the TechCrunch Disrupt startup-launching conference in San Francisco, IdeaMarket, is intended to be a startup marketplace that matches ideas with investors and especially entrepreneurs. “IdeaMarket is the culmination of my whole life,” Gross said in an interview. “It’s turning what I do into a machine.”

Something of a mashup of Kickstarter, Quirky, and XPrize, as well as Y Combinator and other incubator/accelerators, IdeaMarket will let anyone post an idea for a product or service that they don’t have the resources or desire to pursue themselves. They can invest in it, and so can other accredited investors, who may offer, say, $100,000 apiece to entrepreneurs who want to take the idea and run with it. An entrepreneurial team submits a plan for how they’d do that and the investors or IdeaMarket interview the candidates to make a choice. Visitors to the site can vote on them or suggest improvements, or even invest in them once they get accredited.

So far, prominent investors and tech figures have come up with more than 20 ideas. Listed already among 17 ideas with a combined $2.7 million in committed funding are a 3D printer than can print glasses lenses (from Index Ventures cofounder Neil Rimer); an app that tracks your app usage and puts the most-used ones at the top of your smartphone screen (from Google developer advocate Don Dodge); an Uber for trash pickup called Trashnado (from entrepreneur and angel investor Scott Banister); pizza delivery robots (from Gross himself) and (saving the strangest for last), Pray It Forward, “a web-based marketplace for people in times of trouble to quickly tap into the power of group prayer by connecting them with people who will pray for them” (from Affirm cofounder and CEO and former PayPal cofounder Max Levchin). They’re all also investors, along with others such as SherpaVentures cofounder and managing partner and former Menlo Ventures managing partner Shervin Pishevar.

While you can imagine IdeaMarket might spur yet another round of apps that we probably have too many of already, most of which will either wither or get sucked up by Google, Facebook, and the like, Gross is clearly hoping for more groundbreaking ideas as well. …

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Interview: Inside Google Brain Founder Andrew Ng’s Plans To Transform Baidu

Baidu Chief Scientist Andrew Ng

Baidu Chief Scientist Andrew Ng

From my Forbes blog:

Little known outside China, the Chinese search engine Baidu scored a coup earlier this year when it hired Andrew Ng to be chief scientist and open a new artificial intelligence lab in Silicon Valley. Ng, a Stanford computer science professor who headed the Google Brain AI project and then cofounded the online education startup Coursera, is the foundation for Baidu’s plan to transform itself into a global power.

In two wide-ranging conversations at Baidu’s still mostly empty Silicon Valley Artificial Intelligence Lab in Sunnyvale, adjacent to the rocket scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Ng and his lab chief Adam Coates recently outlined their plans at Baidu and their vision of what AI can accomplish. That, as I outlined in a story on those plans, includes everything from improved speech recognition to much smarter robots to truly intelligent personal assistants.

Ng, who speaks in an extraordinarily gentle voice that compels close attention by the listener, seems to realize how much he has to prove, both vs. fast-rising Chinese rivals such as soon-to-go-public Alibaba and global forces such as Google and Facebook that are also betting big on AI, in particular the fast-emerging branch of AI called deep learning. Even before being asked, Ng sought to quash what he called the “stereotype” of Chinese companies as mere copycats of U.S. and other technology companies.

In Baidu’s case, at least, the stereotype may be superficial. But it also seems clear that Ng’s hiring is part of an attempt by Baidu, often called “China’s Google,” to create world-beating technologies that will elevate it to the top tier of global innovators. In this edited version of the interview, he reveals plenty of details about how he plans to help make that happen.

Q: How did you get interested in artificial intelligence?

A: I just thought making machines intelligent was the coolest thing you could do. I had a summer internship in AI in high school, writing neural networks at National University of Singapore–early versions of deep learning algorithms. I thought it was amazing you could write software that would learn by itself and make predictions.

If we can make computers more intelligent–and I want to be careful of AI hype–and understand the world and the environment better, it can make life so much better for many of us. Just as the Industrial Revolution freed up a lot of humanity from physical drudgery, I think AI has the potential to free up humanity from a lot of the mental drudgery. …

Read the rest of the interview.

Startup Ersatz Labs Launches Deep Learning AI In The Cloud (Or In A Box)

From my Forbes blog:

Deep learning, a branch of artificial intelligence that has led to recent breakthroughs in automated image and speech recognition, is the hot new technology among tech giants from Google and Facebook to Microsoft and China’s Baidu. They’ve been spending hundreds of millions of dollars to buy companies and vacuum up talent from universities that are all working on deep learning neural networks, which attempt to mimic how the brain works to improve computing performance on tasks humans do with ease.

Now, a San Francisco startup called Ersatz Labs is formally launching what it calls the first deep learning platform, one that it says any company or researcher can use to do deep learning on the (relatively) cheap. It’s being offered as a service in the cloud and, for companies that want or need to do what can often be mission-critical work inside their corporate network firewall, as a hardware appliance with software installed.

Either way, the upshot of the service is that a whole lot of companies may be able to apply deep learning to their own services to achieve similar breakthroughs to Google’s, Microsoft’s, and others’. The service has been in beta for the past year with 2,200 customers, from Wall Street traders to researchers looking to detect tumors on mammograms to energy companies analyzing seismic data to an iPhone app maker using accelerometers to determine if you’re exercising correctly. “The deep learning methods are established enough that you don’t have to build this all yourself,” says Ersatz Labs CEO Dave Sullivan, cofounder with Chairman Ronjon Nag, who also provided $250,000 in funding. …

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Neuromorphic Chips: Soon, Microprocessors Might Actually Work Like Real Brains

neuromorphic-tr

From a feature story in Technology Review:

A pug-size robot named pioneer slowly rolls up to the Captain America action figure on the carpet. They’re facing off inside a rough model of a child’s bedroom that the wireless-chip maker Qualcomm has set up in a trailer. The robot pauses, almost as if it is evaluating the situation, and then corrals the figure with a snowplow-like implement mounted in front, turns around, and pushes it toward three squat pillars representing toy bins. Qualcomm senior engineer Ilwoo Chang sweeps both arms toward the pillar where the toy should be deposited. Pioneer spots that gesture with its camera and dutifully complies. Then it rolls back and spies another action figure, Spider-Man. This time Pioneer beelines for the toy, ignoring a chessboard nearby, and delivers it to the same pillar with no human guidance.

This demonstration at Qualcomm’s headquarters in San Diego looks modest, but it’s a glimpse of the future of computing. The robot is performing tasks that have typically needed powerful, specially programmed computers that use far more electricity. Powered by only a smartphone chip with specialized software, Pioneer can recognize objects it hasn’t seen before, sort them by their similarity to related objects, and navigate the room to deliver them to the right location—not because of laborious programming but merely by being shown once where they should go. The robot can do all that because it is simulating, albeit in a very limited fashion, the way a brain works.

Later this year, Qualcomm will begin to reveal how the technology can be embedded into the silicon chips that power every manner of electronic device. These “neuromorphic” chips—so named because they are modeled on biological brains—will be designed to process sensory data such as images and sound and to respond to changes in that data in ways not specifically programmed. They promise to accelerate decades of fitful progress in artificial intelligence and lead to machines that are able to understand and interact with the world in humanlike ways. “We’re blurring the boundary between silicon and biological systems,” says Qualcomm’s chief technology officer, Matthew Grob. …

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AI Startup Vicarious Claims Milestone In Quest To Build A Brain: Cracking CAPTCHA

From my Forbes blog:

Can machines think? Not yet. But there is one at least partial test: the CAPTCHA, or “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” those distorted characters you have to type into a website that wants to repel automated programs from spamming or making comments in blogs. Because CAPTCHAs by definition are intended to be recognizable only by humans, they’re widely considered one test of whether a machine can at least display a visual understanding close to that of people.

On Monday, the artificial intelligence startup Vicarious will release the results of a test, shown in a video, that it says shows its early prototype software can solve CAPTCHAs reliably. In particular, two of the three-year-old company’s cofounders, Dileep George and D. Scott Phoenix, say the AI software can solve Google’s reCAPTCHA, the most widely used test of a computer’s ability to act like a human being.

Vicarious team, with Phoenix (left) and George in foreground

Vicarious team, with Phoenix (left) and George in foreground

In the tests shown in the video, the system scans the CAPTCHA and presents a list of possible answers–often topped by the correct one. The company claims it gets 95% per letter on reCAPTCHA, and that it solves reCAPTCHA 90% of the time. That compares with essentially 0% for state-of-the-art algorithms cited in a Microsoft Research paper. Even a solve rate of 1% is considered to beat the CAPTCHA system.

It’s tough for outsiders to assess the company’s technology, since it’s keeping a tight lid on details. George and Phoenix even requested that its location, which is to the east of Silicon Valley, not be identified. When it was pointed out that this was revealed on its employment page, they promptly removed it. The secrecy is understandable, especially given that bad guys who want to beat CAPTCHAs would love to see what they’re doing. …

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