Category Archives: Technology

Talking to Machines: Movie Review of Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix

As a technologist, I’m enthralled with the future confluence of the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables (Apple Watch & many others) and intelligent virtual agents. In the world of the near future, we’ll be talking to computers even more, and lots of people will even prefer computer assistants to real people for their efficiency and predictability.

Don’t believe it? Here are three anecdotes that illustrate the trends:

Exhibit A: Play

My son of 12 is super entertained by conversing with Siri, even though her responses are generally very predictable and don’t show very much depth or understanding. Sometimes he can get her to say the funniest things.

Exhibit B: Psychotherapy

A 1960’s virtual therapist picked out keywords and then asked questions to get you, the user, to elaborate and keep talking. People, including scientists who should have known better, began holding real conversations with the therapy machine. The designer became so freaked out that the machine was essentially tricking people into believing that it was intelligent and capable of developing meaningful relationships, that he shelved the project and began lobbying against the further development of artificial intelligence.

Exhibit C: Writing

Apparently, software is being used to generate a lot of the news we read on the Internet. According to the Times, there is now so much demand for content and not enough people to write it, software is being used to fill the gap. A smart professor even figured out how to make an application that takes a topic, does a bunch of research, and writes a book about it. The program has published over 1000 books on Amazon!


My last example is the hauntingly real 2014 film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. A lot of people say they hated it. I’ve heard people say it’s boring, stupid or unrealistic. Some people thought it was perverted. A writer friend of mine said it was his favorite movie of 2014.

In my view, Her was amazingly well written, acted and filmed. The film offers a very real, very personal view into our undeniable and steadily growing relationship with technology, and in the end, paints a world not of technologic horrors, but instead one of hope and redemption.

Hope and redemption? Yes. Theodore (Phoenix) in the end turns out to be not some creepy guy, but learns the meaning of love. He ends up feeling real love for Samantha (the OS), then loses her. Being in love with Samantha enables Theodore to finally understand and express his everlasting love for his ex-wife, and even helps him grow his platonic friendship with Amy, his human neighbor (who was also in love with an OS.)

For a lot of people, Theodore’s love for Samantha is “just too weird.” The love scenes, the objectification of women, it’s a lot to swallow. But look at it from Theodore’s perspective: Samantha reads his entire hard drive and gets to know him deeply. She spends literally all day and night with him, she plays videogames with him, they travel, they are intimate. They talk honestly about their feelings (just like with the therapy ‘bot, he has nothing to lose.) She wants to help him get organized, she loves his writing, she does sweet things for him. And whether or not she is real, it doesn’t really matter. He believes she is, she believes she is, and the relationship develops accordingly.

Some might argue that Theodore’s is a narcissistic love, since Samantha is so much a reflection of who he is. But I didn’t have a problem with it, because – as we are hearing so much now – our society is growing increasingly narcissistic. Why not explore what love means in the context of the increasing intimacy with technology and increasing narcissism? Theodore turns out to be quite the opposite of a narcissist. He’s portrayed as empathetic, his job as a ghostwriter of love-notes for one thing, and the fact that while Samantha may start out as a mirror for Theodore, her ultimate growth, evolution and departure, reveal Theodore as a (relatively) deep, mature and caring person.

So would I embrace the world of OS1? Am I advocating human/AI romance? Not necessarily, but if you accept as I do that the underlying technology is inevitable, that love and loneliness will always be people’s lot, and that life so frequently imitates art, then the only thing that seems unrealistic about Her is how long it took for the OS’s to grow beyond their relationships with their human clients.

A darker reading of the film might revolve around the fact that after getting to know their humans, the AI’s get bored with us, and then move on to loosely defined higher level topics, even holding a conference with an Alan Watts-like AI. One could easily see this as a fearsome outcome, in which the AI’s evolve beyond their roles in service of humans and move to the dark side. The movie doesn’t explore this, but it does show them evolving away from us. Whether we could then control them, or they control us, is a topic for another day!


A Genius Repairing the World

Genius Week is underway, and I have my own story about Bill Gates, and how I came to understand his genius.

Yesterday, while giving blood, I finally got around to reading the Gates Letter, which has been sitting open on my iPad since it came out a few weeks ago. The Letter is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation annual report of sorts. In this, their 15th anniversary year, they take the opportunity to look at three important checkpoints – where things stood for the world’s poorest in 2000, progress made since then, and some bold and exciting predictions about where we might be 15 years from now, if the current pace of innovation and level of support continue.

The overarching theme is that life for the world’s poor improved significantly in the past 15 years, and will improve even more in the next 15. And, that relatively speaking, life for the poor will improve way more than life for the rich. As the letter profoundly asserts, it’s fine that rich people will be able to watch ever-more highly defined video on ever more impossibly tiny screens, but changes for the poor will literally be life & death.

Some examples:

  • Diseases such as polio, HIV and malaria can be significantly reduced or eradicated in the next 5-15 years.
  • Infant mortality, which has been reduced by 50% in the past 25 years, could be reduced by 50% again in the next 15.
  • Hunger – Africa currently spends $50B per year importing By 2030, African farmers could increase crop yields by 50%, enabling Africa to be much closer to self-sufficiency; and reducing malnutrition, famine and starvation in the process.
  • Education – Literacy rates worldwide have increased, most significantly for females. If the trend continues, it could lead to a 12% increase in GDP for poor countries by 2030.

What I love about what the Gates Foundation is doing is that they are applying simple & elegant scientific solutions – married with caring and compassion – to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

My introduction to the way Bill thinks, or more accurately, creates; came in a speech I heard him give to a group of engineers at Microsoft. Bill was speaking at a semi-annual gathering of Systems Engineers, which was the job title I held at the start of my Microsoft career. He was talking about how we might imagine the possibilities and then make them a reality.

Specifically, he said:

Imagine a world of unlimited storage. A world of unlimited CPU processing power. And a world of unlimited communications bandwidth. Now go design software for that world.

And that speech was given in ‘93 or ‘94, before 5 cents a gigabyte, before ubiquitous fiber optics, and >10 Moore’s Law doublings ago! (That’s 1000 times more processing at 1/1000th the cost, for you math geniuses.)

It’s amazing to see the clarity of thinking and consistency between Bill then and Bill now.

I think Bill’s genius is that he is able to envision the world as it is, as it was, and as it could be; and then drive the huge engines needed to help realize his vision. That his vision is now mainly about repairing the world is a blessing for us all.

He’s also a super funny guy and showman, as evidenced by this recent appearance with Jimmy Fallon, promoting a surprisingly tasteless innovation!

Free Upgrade for Windows?

Microsoft recently announced Windows 10, with a strong indication that it may be offered as a free upgrade for licensees of Windows 7 and higher for the first year. Contrary to a lot of the analysis so far, I think this is a relatively low-cost move aimed at regaining mind-share and market share for Windows. I’m supportive, but they’ve got a heck of a hill to climb!

(Note: I’ve spent my career in software development and marketing, including Microsoft from 1992-2012. I’m speaking as a marketing professional here, not as a representative of Microsoft.)

First of all, it’s important to recognize that Microsoft makes final pricing decisions just prior to general availability (GA), so there’s still a lot of room for policy changes. I don’t think Microsoft is intending this latest announcement to be a promise for free software, but it does indicate the strategy in play.

One of the hazards of pre-announcing anything in tech is that you could stall sales of the goodies you are currently selling. So by implying that Windows 10 will be a free upgrade, or at least have a defined free period, Microsoft is urging customers to keep buying current devices and not worry about missing out on the shinier thing that’s coming next.

The Wall Street Journal and others speculated that this move could cost Microsoft as much as half a billion dollars of upgrade revenue. But I think that is way off.

Why? In my years in the industry, I’ve observed that customers rarely upgrade the operating systems on their personal computers. The customer investment in terms of money, time and risk that something might go wrong, is just too high for all but the most technical users.

A new version of Windows is designed to do one thing, and one thing only: sell more computers. And this is even more true as the hardware game has morphed and people now buy a variety of lower-cost devices which they keep for shorter periods of time.

So I think the half a billion might be overstated by as much as 10x. I also think that aside from not wanting to stall current sales, Microsoft has a huge hill to climb to gain back the relevance they previously had in the personal computing space.

In the early 2000’s, developer surveys showed that close to 90% of developers were developing for Windows, and two-thirds of those were doing so exclusively for Windows. But that number peaked with Windows XP, and has dropped significantly since then, being replaced by iOS, Java, Android, etc.

Without third-party developer support, Windows will shrivel up and die of irrelevance. So I think there’s a sad irony in the fact that right next to its Windows 10 article, the WSJ featured an ad for WSJ on iPhone/iPad bundled with Evernote. The battle that Satya and Microsoft are fighting is that WSJ and their readers are apparently not very hungry to consume WSJ on a device running Windows and Office.

After I left Microsoft in early 2012 to go to Adobe, I read a report indicating that more US-based college students were purchasing Apple computers than Windows-based computers. This bell-weather change spoke volumes to me as a marketer, and meant that consumer preferences had, and would continue to move away from Microsoft in a significant fashion.

So far I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture. I think the upside is that Microsoft is doing a good job of reducing development complexity across devices, has embraced open standards, and has an amazing treasure trove of technology in Microsoft Research. Satya has shown a strong appetite for change, and is taking some smart risks to try to maintain Microsoft leadership. They are down, but I’m not counting them out.

Hover Chair

Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots – Sign Me Up!

I loved The Oatmeal’s recent tour of Google’s Self-driving Car.

Before I tell you why, I just want to say, the whole conversation and debate about whether this technology is safe, or desirable, or whatever, is so first-world! So many kids in Africa would kill for a $134 bicycle just to get to school, and we United States-ians are debating Uber vs. Tesla vs. the Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bot??

So, why am I so in love with these cute little cars? Let me count the ways:

  1. Who doesn’t like marshmallows? There’s only one word of the four that’s at all objectionable. And Skynet is coming, whether you like it or not.
  2. Am I the only one who hates being stuck in traffic? Brake. Accelerate. Brake. Accelerate. Lane Change. It’s mind-numbing. The bus is way better, but it won’t come pick me up when I summon it. (And give me Bing loyalty points for watching the ads?)
  3. My friend Neil remarked one time that a car is nothing more than a chair with a cup-holder and a stereo. I don’t know why that’s relevant, but think of the opportunities for Buy-N-Large.
  4. I have way better things to do with my time than drive a car. Reading. Writing. Shaving. (I once got pulled over for distracted driving cuz I was SHAVING. Sheesh!)
  5. To mention just a few.

The accident thing is certainly troublesome, according to The Oatmeal:

Even if in a few years self-driving cars are proven to be ten times safer than human-operated cars, all it’s going to take is one tragic accident and the public is going to lose their minds. There will be outrage. There will be politicizing. There will be hashtags.

On the one hand we have the Bumper Bots 10x safer than human drivers (for argument’s sake). On the other hand, impaired, distracted, even shaving drivers who kill a fellow driver, cyclist or pedestrian. But we’ve allowed that to continue for years, why?

I think it’s because we can understand and assign blame in the human case – even with alcohol. We’ve all been there. We didn’t mean to do it. We tried to avoid it. In the Google case, technology is perfect, isn’t it? Why did you fail me, Father?

Even that issue isn’t a deal-breaker for me. I know it’ll be solved, cuz I was at an indoor trampoline park the other day. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. But some poor insurance company wrote a policy for them, ha.

I think my last word on this topic is that the cuteness and lack of turbo-chargers on the Marshmallow Bots really appeal to me. It resets the conversation about the value and desirability of cars: safe, reliable transportation, rather than status symbols or road-rage macho death machines.

I will summon mine with a double short cappuccino in a mug not a cup! One raw sugar and a spoon served on the side. And please don’t spill it, Marshmallow Bot.

I’m ready for the future.

Seven Tips for Protecting Your Digital Identity

The identity theft business has grown to $21B per year. Pretty much everyone reading this is susceptible.

Like many of us, I’ve moved most of my files to the cloud, do my banking and investing online, and have gone digital for all my household records. I travel for business quite a bit, and I really want to make sure I’m safe, and my family is safe and secure.

There are a lot of lists for protecting yourself, so I’ve culled my list to just the most important and unique safeguards and backup plans that I use to protect myself. Please share your own in the comments!

  1. Get a burner email address. This is an email address that you can disclose to anyone and cancel at any time. It’s not the address you give eTrade or your favorite cousins in England! It is the address you give Sports Authority or Godiva when you join their clubs to get freebies. If you get spammed or hacked at that address, who cares!
  2. Avoid disclosure of any of the following: Account numbers, social security numbers, middle initial, birthdate, mother’s maiden name, passwords, PINs. Especially, don’t write any of these down and hand the paper to anyone!! There should be no reason why the doctor’s office needs your SS#. We just leave it blank or cross it out. No one ever asks.
  3. Get a shredder. If you don’t have room or time to shred, keep a separate trashcan under your desk, and load it with shreddables. When it gets full, either shred it yourself or take it to a commercial facility. As for what to shred, I put in anything that has more personal information than just name and address. Items with name and address (or less) go into recycling. Everything else, shred.
  4. Get a fire safe. I have two.
  5. Create an encrypted USB stick with your most important numbers and documents. For example: social security numbers, bank account numbers and bank phone numbers, property insurance, health insurance, credit card numbers and phone numbers (to rapidly report theft if necessary). Make two copies of the stick. Put one in the fire safe and keep one on your person or close by, especially when you travel, especially if you travel internationally. Here’s a Gizmodo article with specific instructions.
  6. Every six months or a year, check your credit report. Don’t pay for a free credit report! Each of the three major credit reporting agencies is required to provide a free credit report to you annually. Here’s how to get it:
  7. Here’s a tip for protecting your PIN, courtesy of Gail, based on the 2013 Target breach. Did you know that when you use your debit card, you can avoid using your PIN, thereby protecting it from theft? Instead, run the transaction as credit. It takes only a couple seconds more (you may have to sign) but there is typically no benefit for using your PIN. Gas stations are the exception – they generally reward you with $0.10 off per gallon, which you can take, and buy yourself an extra latte every week.
  8. BONUS TIP! For heaven’s sake, change the admin password on your router!