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Watson Off-Broadway show is born, a cousin of The Boost
|The other night I saw Watson in the theater. This wasn't just the IBM Watson, but a whole posse of them--all played by a single actor. It was a new play, The Curious Case of The Watson Intelligence, which is opening this month off Broadway (a stone's throw from the Port Authority). Written by Madeleine George, it's a engaging group of stories about intelligent helpers named Watson. One helps Sherlock Holmes, another Alexander Graham Bell, and a third is a not-too-distant future version of IBM's Jeopardy machine. It's a question-answering robot that can provide information. It's like Siri or Google voice a couple or three years from now, endowed with fairly primitive empathy "awareness" and more context than today's version.
IBM invited me to the show. I took along a galley of the Boost
, hoping I could deliver it to Madeleine George, because I view her play and my book as first cousins, both progeny of the IBM Watson project. (I had to leave the post-performance panel discussion to catch my bus back to New Jersey.) It was 2011, after I had finished and published Final Jeopardy
, that I felt a certain discontent. I had worked hard on the book, was pround of it, and I thought it wrestled with fundamental questions facing us, such as how are we going to use our minds in the future, and much a part of our "thinking" will be done in conjuntion with a computer of some sort? The book didn't sell all that well. Actually, I think people were interested in the Jeopardy project, but figured they knew enough about it from the TV shows and all of the surrounding publicity and interviews. To many, reading the book probably looked like overkill.
I wanted to reach a broader audience. So I took the advice of a Spanish friend and began writing a novel that takes place in this future. That became The Boost. I just got the galleys this week, and it will be coming out this May or June. In my book, most people (except for the wild) operate networked cognitive chips in their head. It looks at how we store and regard memories and knowledge, and how we network with these chips for friendship and love, while coping with massive surveillance. The template for this world, needless to say, already exists, and some form of the technology, descending from machines like the iPhone and Google Glass, is en route (whether or not it actually goes inside the head).
Madeleine George takes a different tack. While my chip is in the head, her's functions in another person, or robot, who tends to our needs. It's engaging, smartly written and wonderfully acted. I'd say it goes on about a half hour too long. But I can understand why. She has a lot of great material, and chopping out scenes has to be painful.
Probably no surprise, my favorite parts of the play took place in the near future in which a woman, a computer scientist who has left IBM's Watson team, is building a next-generation empathatic and conversational AI. She becomes emotionally entangled with this intelligence, which seems to shift between the machine and humans. Is that happening? Or is it something she feels because she spends her life threading these two cognitive systems?
This was fascinating, and well acted. The same trio of actors also traced other 19th century dramas, both involving helpers named Watson. They were entertaining and kept my attention, but it was the 21st century part that captivated me.
I went to the play with Steve Hamm
, my frend and former BusinessWeek colleague. We edited each other's stories. He now works as a blogger-videoman-content guy at IBM. (His post on the play
) After the play, I was trying to summarize for him my feelings, and I dipped into the spiel we would give each other in the editing process. It goes like this: "You have a lot of great
stuff! Loved the part where (fill in the blank), and also (ditto)....(Changing voice to more somber tone
) I think we need to make it clearer up top where we are taking this story. And actually, instead of covering the whole industry, why not focus on one company, or even one person? Yes, I know you have a lot of great stuff about the marketing angle. That's another story! etc etc.
Long story short: The play about Watson is very good. It has what it takes to be a niche success. But the theme of the human helper isn't nearly as compelling as the other developing intelligence that works in conjuntion with us, cohabiting in our minds. If Madeleine cut out the 19th century scenes and expanded the 21st, it could be a big hit.
Or maybe she could move on straight to The Boost. She'd be great for it.
Photos from France
|We took a week in France, and traveled a lot more than usual in that time. We started in Avignon, drove down to Narbonne, stopping for lunch in Nimes. Then we dipped into the Pyrenees on a personal quest, before hurrying up to Lyon, mostly to eat, and then finishing in Paris.
All in all, a wonderful time. Below, a picture of the best bottle of wine we had on the trip which, oddly enough, was at the worst restaurant, a touristy place with slovenly service in Avignon.
|The second best came at the best restaurant, Le Viverais in Lyon. Some might notice that we ordered the Cote du Rhone in Avignon and wine from the Avignon area when we were dining on the cote of the Rhone. Rookie mistake. Still, no complaints.
|We had a nice last dinner at Astier, in Paris (below), in the 11th arrondissement. The wine list, though, was terrible, at least for those wanting to spend less than $80 on a bottle. We paid about $55 for a Cotes de Rhone that tasted like two-buck-chuck.
Is Bill Clinton today's Joe Dimaggio?
|I was listening to Slacker as I cooked last night, and Mrs. Robinson came on. I remember hearing the song when I saw the movie, The Graduate, before going to summer camp in 1968. The most famous line:
"Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you..."
Dimaggio and Monroe
That got me to thinking about time. When I heard that song, I was 12. Joe Dimaggio had been retired from baseball for 17 years. Lots had happened in the interval. TV was born, and went from B&W to color. Dimaggio had married Marilyn Monroe, divorced her, and she had killed herself. The Kennedy presidency, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, the assassinations. A lot had happened. Rock and Music was just a form of southern blues when Dimaggio retired. Now we had the Doors' Light My Fire, the Beatles' Sgt Peppers, Motown.
These were huge changes. So when Simon & Garfunkel sang about Joe Dimaggio, it evoked values from a distant time. But it was only 17 years. Maybe it seemed far back just because I was young. Did it seem so distant to people who were then in their 50s? I ask, because if you mention a figure from 1996, it seems to me almost like yesterday.
This led me to wonder how 12-year-olds today would regard a historical figure from the 1990s. The world has certainly changed a lot since then. The Internet has exploded, as has 9/11 and all of its repercussions, the Obama election, the global economic collapse. Kids today have been living their share of history. So which name would evoke for them what Joe Dimaggio's did for me?
I thought about sports figures who retired back then. Joe Montana, Cal Ripken? Nowhere close. Michael Jordan? Closer, no doubt. Then I considered a different realm, which led me to Bill Clinton. He was president in a time of (relative) peace and strong economic growth. It was pre-9-11. Is he today's Dimaggio? I have no idea.
A couple of notes, comparing '68 to '51. The number one hit in 51 was Patti Page's Tennessee Waltz. In 1968? The Beatles' Hello Goodbye. (I was going to embed it here, because their outfits are priceless. But the video includes a 30-second Vidal Sassoon ad I didn't feel like hosting.)
Nelson Rockefeller's strange choices
|Imagine living in a place with a view like this with all the money you could ever want. While you're at it, imagine that you have a fabulous art collection, with enormous Warhol portraits of you and your wife, and lots of Picassos, including a set of intricately woven tapestries based on his paintings and overseen by the master himself. Nelson Rockefeller had all that, and he decided to remodel a dank basement at his family estate, Kykuit, to house the collection.
Here in New Jersey, we have a split-level house worth only a fraction of one of Rockefeller's canvases. And yet there is not one room here that is uglier or more depressing than the basement in which he housed his art collection. (One exception might my "office," a converted laundry room.) We were told on our tour of Kykuit yesterday that Rockefeller had the architect Philip Johnson help him design the space. The result is a claustrophic corridon with no windows, ceilings hung at about seven feet and lined with ugly ceiling tiles.
|He had plenty of money to build a beautiful space for his art. He had hundreds of acres with spectacular views of the Hudson, or, looking in the other direction, the family's "reversible" nine-hole golf course bordered by forest. Yet he stored his art in the basement. Maybe it felt "modern" to him, a respite from the old stuff upstairs. Maybe he wanted a quiet place he could wander to in the middle of the night, in his bathrobe and slippers, and have a drink.
The larger point for me is that the beauty we experience has more to do with the choices we make than the resources at hand.
One other note about Nelson. He did what he could to add modern comforts to this grandfather's mansion. He dug a couple of extra swimming pools in the garden (since buried) and installed false book shelves in the study, which open up to show a color television. What a throwback it is. A state-of-the-art from the late sixties, it's probably 25 inches, maybe 27. Again, I thought, this guy had all the money in the world, and he had to watch the kind of TV that people today leave out on the sidewalk, hoping against hope that someone will pick it up.
In Nelson's defense, have to say that he placed statues beautifully.
I went to the last Pirates play-off game...until tonight
|In 1992, we had just moved from Mexico to Pittsburgh, where I would be covering steel and other heavy industries for BusinessWeek. That October, 21 years ago, the Pirates were in the play-offs, and on Oct. 11, I drove with my 12-year-old son from our house in Mt. Lebanon to Three Rivers Stadium. It didn't seem like a particularly auspicious game. The Pirates were one game away from elimination. If they lost, and it looked like they would, it might be years before they got into the play-offs again. Their best player, Barry Bonds, was sure to sign for big dollars elsewhere. Their pitching ace, Doug Drabek, was also on his way out.
|That was the last play-off game in Pittsburgh, until tonight. The Pirates won that game, incidentally, behind Bob Walk (who was the game one winner for the Phillies in the 1980 World Series). The next day the PIrates' young knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, won in Atlanta. The following evening they were one out from going to the World Series when a single by an obscure outfielder named Francisco Cabrera drove in the tying and winning runs for the Braves.
I've just been thinking about the changes in the 21 years since that game.
* Barry Bonds, who was slender and fast that night in Pittsburgh, grew into a Ruthian body several years later, broke the home run record, and lives a life tarnished by the steroids scandal.
* My team, the Phillies, went from the cellar in '92 to the World Series the following year. Then they stank again for about a decade, then got very good, won a World Series, and now stink again. (They appear to run on faster cycles than the Pirates.)
* BusinessWeek lost interest in steel and other heavy industry. I turned to tech. They sent me to Paris and brought me back to New York four years later. In 2009, the magazine collapsed and was sold to Bloomberg.
* My son Aidan, who's never been a big baseball fan, was just starting that year in Mt. Lebanon schools. For the next six years, he did as little school work as possible. He changed, though, and will be returning to the Burgh in a couple months to be a professor at Pitt.
* Go Bucs!
Biking in NYC: FDR's Four Freedoms Park
|Riding bikes in New York yesterday, we made our way onto Roosevelt Island, that little tongue of land in the East River. The southern tip of the island used to be occupied by an 1856 asylum for small pox patients. But in the early 70s, we learned, the Lindsay administration added a few hundred yards of landfill and hired the famous Philadelphia architect, Louis Kahn, to design a park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. (Freedom of expression and religion, freedom from want and from fear.)
Kahn designed the park as an infinity triangle of green, bordered by linden trees and concrete walls and brick walkways. And then he died. (A great documentary on Kahn is called My Architect
) That was in 1974. New York was on the brink of bankruptcy. The park didn't get done. For a few decades, vandals had their way with the old smallpox building. It's now a ruin, but it's "landmarked," in part because its architect James Renwick, also designed St. Patrick's Cathedral.
|Renwick Ruin (Tug44)
For anyone in New York, I'd recommend an excursion to this tip of Roosevelt Island, especially in fall, when the linden trees will turn bright red. It's a beautiful space. There's no traffic.
It struck me that my few minutes on that point of Roosevelt Island was a river experience like no other I've had in New York. The rivers are so huge in NYC that they're usually experienced in the distance. But on Roosevelt Island, you're almost surrounded by surging river, and you get a feeling for the water pouring by. (The current was so strong that if I had tried to swim over to Manhattan, I probably would have ended up around the Statue of Liberty, more dead than alive.) Standing there reminded me of being on the point in Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela form the Ohio, or even on the tip of Ile St. Louis in Paris.
Katie Hafner's Mother, Daughter, Me
When I was at journalism school at Columbia, I had an evening editing class.
This was in the '80s, when New York was a lot more dangerous than it is now. Before the first class, one young woman asked if anyone would be heading north on the 1 train and could walk her to her apartment in Washington Heights. It was an iffy neighborhood by night. Worse, the 181st Streeet station was way down in the ground, and featured a creepy elevator ride to the street. I lived 20 blocks north of there, in Inwood, and agreed to walk her home.
That's how I met Katie Hafner
. Every week we would trek northward together. Stepping out of the elevator, we would drop into a bodega and buy a few bottles of beer, and then drink them in her apartment, and talk. I remember talking about literature. Katie had done her junior year in Germany and loved Kafka. I recall she even had a picture of him, or perhaps a drawing by him, on her wall. I was into the Latin Americans. We probably talked about journalism, too. I don't remember. But I do remember thinking that we were friends, which we were, and assuming that we knew each other. That, in retrospect, was less clear.
I just finished reading Katie's luminous memoir, Mother, Daughter, Me
. She takes us along on a cross-generational adventure
: a year in San Francisco with her elderly mother and her daughter. It sounds simple enough, but these relationships are twisted and frayed by a history that Katie manages to relate with a blend of unflinching honesty and humor. Her mother, an alcoholic, had largely neglected her two daughters as she dragged them from coast to another. She lost custody of them when Katie was 10. Katie's teenaged daughter, Zoe, had lost her father to a sudden heart attack when she was 8, and then suffered through her mother's failed rebound marriage to one of her teachers. She and her mother clung to each other like two shipwreck survivors. When Katie's mother arrives, the San Francisco home simmers with jealously, guilt, and regrets. Each one of them threads back to history, some of which Katie discovers as she does research for the book.
It's a wonderful read. What was especially interesting to me was how Katie and, especially, her mother, communicated through signals and indirect language. They even carried on a war over flatware. And Zoe appeared not to perceive it. As Katie tells it, she was used to more straight-forward communcation. I've met Zoe, albeit briefly, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if she picked up all sorts of signals but chose, for her own reasons, to bulldoze through them.
But we don't get Zoe's analysis on this. In fact, there are very few points, at least that I can recall, where Katie asks the other two protagonists what they were thinking during the scenes she describes. She records the action, along with her own thoughts, but doesn't add this overlay of retrospective reporting. There's a logic to this. We live the scenes and are left to interpret them as we wish, just as we do in our own lives. What's more, there's no guarantee that Katie's mother and Zoe wouldn't edit their recollections. Most of us do.
This aspect is interesting to me because a lot of the work that both Katie and I do involves precisely this type of reporting: Asking people what they were thinking/hoping/scheming when they did something. We know, of course, that people aren't always honest, and we try to overcome that by asking others. But I'm wondering if Katie, after climbing into what I believe to be a loftier realm of writing and reporting, finds it hard to return to the trade we learned together all those years ago.
Just one other point. I think of my 24-year-old self talking to Katie in her apartment about Kafka and Cortazar and that angry editing professor, and I wonder if I asked her even one question about her family. Or if I did what she answered. I have no recollection. It goes to show how little I know my friends. Sadly, that's no great revelation. What unsettled me more as I read the book was the idea that while she has plunged deeply into her own life, distilling it into a wonderful book, my own life marches on uninspected. It's like a blizzard of post-its, snapshots and jottings still waiting to be processed and understood. That might be the greatest gift of Mother, Daughter, Me. It shows us how rich each life can be if we stop and peel back the layers.
Futility of infallibility: Baseball's new machine umpires
|CB Bucknor calls strike three (http://mopupduty.com/)
Here's a snippet of the drama in baseball. Let's say the Yankees are a run down with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. They have the bases loaded. Their best hitter, Robinson Cano, quickly falls behind in count, 0-2. At this point, the pitcher should throw a pitch or two off the plate. Cano, he knows, has to swing even if it's close, because the umpire might call it a strike. The pitch comes at 95 mph. Cano sees that it will be outside, maybe by three or four inches. Will the ump expand the strike zone that much? He has been giving the outside strike all game, but usually only by an inch or two. Still, there's a chance he might call this one a strike, especially if the catcher "frames" it well, catching the ball on the outside of his mitt, making it look closer to the plate than it is. Who knows? The ump might be tired and want the game over. That could influence his judgment. What's more, this ump loves the drama of a called third strike, especially when it punches out a star like Cano. He's famous for his karate-like gestures on these calls, and his bellowing Steeeeeeee-rike! Cano cannot risk taking the pitch. He swings, and manages to spoil it by fouling it off. Now the count is 1-2. The drama continues.
Lots of people are frustrated by this human factor in sports. They want infallibility, and they clamor for machine replays. Starting next year, baseball will allow managers to appeal a few plays per game. In the first year, at least, they won't be able to appeal balls and strikes. But when the goal is infallibility, the human role is going to be under siege. And machines, I have no doubt, will eventually be ruling on the pitches.
For now, umpires' mistakes are part of the game. They represent an element of chance. Machine replay is an attempt to remove this chance from the game. But the entire game is built on chance
. It's chance that places a pebble in the path of a grounder, causing it to hop over the shortstop's glove. It's chance when a shift in the wind turns a lazy fly ball into a cheap home run. Over time, as Greg Hillis points out in a very nice essay
), these lucky breaks even out. The length of the baseball season accomplishes this. Good teams might get bad breaks, and while they might not win six of their next 10 games, they'll win 60 of their next 100. Bad teams get good breaks, but still lose most of the time. The key is to be playing well enough to sustain a blown call, a bad hop, a cheap home run, and still win.
Umps blow calls. It's part of the drama. They are powerful actors in the drama. Delivering their tough calls to machines turns them into functionaries and moves physical baseball one step closer to fantasy sport, or video games. Now that I think about it, that might be where the push comes from in the first place. There's never a blown call on the xBox MLB2K13, is there?
Is every "solved" problem an opportunity?
|It was 15 years ago that Scott Rosenberg blogged about a new search engine called Google. (He recalled it in this blog post.) He point back then was that search was not yet a solved problem, as many thought at the time, and that this new Google could advance the field. That much seems clear now. But the nature of prescient articles: They seem obvious once the world catches up.
This got me to thinking about other problems that might seem solved now, but could actually use a transformational improvement. Some ideas:
1) Spinach cleaner. We have this centrifuge of a sieve that that dries lettuce or spinach in a jiffy. That solves the drying problem, but not the cleaning bottleneck. You still have to wash it leaf by leaf. I make this Chinese spinach salad that scrunches up massive amounts of green stuff and bathes it in a ginger, sesame, soy sauce. It takes me almost a half hour to clean the lettuce. Even then, my wife makes a face as she eats it and says, "a little grit."
2) Rear-view mirrors. There has to be an solution for to blind spots, doesn't there? (I guess this one won't matter for too many years, because humans might not be long for driving these machines.)
3) Touch screens. At some point, we're going to communicate effortlessly with these machines, and our kids or grandchildren will say: Let me get this straight. You actually wiped your greasy fingers on screens (and couldn't see them in sunlight)?!
I might think of more through the day. It's a hot one here in Montclair...
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
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My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
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