Stephen Baker

The Boost
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An online Playboy in a cyberworld swimming in porn
June 22, 2014News

The news industry in the age of the boost (2072) is dead. People with brain implants get most of their news directly from e-commerce companies and governments, and they spend most of their online time in the world of entertainment. For many, this means the virtual world, and a lot of what they're doing in that world involves sex.

This fits into the plot of The Boost. Without giving away too much, think of it this way: if you have vital news to communicate to a large population, where do you find everybody?

This is the business model for a site called Badoink (don't want to link to it by adding .com). Jasper Hammill outlines the strategy in an article in Forbes. The idea is to offer a news and features magazine, and to finance the journalism with links to porn sites. Hammill compares it to Playboy, which published big-time writers and featured great interviews, all of them financed by soft porn. The Badoink site looks like Maxim, which updated Playboy's model for the '90s.

Anyone's guess if this venture will work. Most don't. But I expect news to continue to cozy up with the parts of the entertainment industry people will pay for. That means porn, gambling, sports, games and comedy. 

This isn't entirely new. When Jimmy Carter wanted to reach an important demographic in 1976, he looked to Playboy, but later regretted it. 

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Amazon Fire phone: One step closer to the Boost
June 19, 2014News

Amazon's new phone is out, and one of its features, Firefly, brings it closer to The Boost. Firefly allows a user to point the phone at practically any object, send an image to the cloud, and have it recognized and located in Amazon's warehouses. Hit buy, and it will be at your doorstep in a day or two. It even works with movies and songs. 

In The Boost, where nearly everyone has a brain chip, most artifacts of the physical world are also identified and tagged. There's less need for physical objects, because more and more of our lives occur in the entertainment and communications hubs on the chip. (In fact, much of the physical world looks abandandoned.) But it occurs to me that Amazon, if it continues along the line traced by Founder Jeff Bezos, will one day be looking into brain chips. It's the natural evolution of the brand.

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A presidential birthplace lost to China
June 5, 2014News

A Tiananmen Square anniversary post.

The scenario. Twenty-nine years from now, the Chinese offer their cognitive brain chips, or boosts, to the rest of humanity. This presents a no-win choice to the Americans, who have no similar technology in place. If the Chinese chips prevail, they will rule the next stage of technology, and all of the commerce and information that runs on it. But to take a pass on the chips might mean settling for relative Neanderthal status while the rest of humanity advances into Cro-Magnon. 

This is all history by the time of my story, in The Boost. But as a result of the negotiations that occur between the Americans and the Chinese, China extends its dominance across the Pacific, as the Americans did in the 20th century. And they take over Hawaii--the birthplace of President Obama. If you look at history, maps change, often dramatically. 


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IBM's Watson can't taste what it cooks
March 6, 2014News

Years before he headed up the team to build IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson, David Ferrucci co-authored a book. It's called Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity--Inside the MInd of Brutus, a Story-telling Machine. The idea was to program a computer to recognize various elements of story-telling--from coming up with a plot to creating characters--and then let it start authoring. Brutus effectively assembled words into coherent sentences and paragraphs, Ferrucci later told me. But it had no way of knowing if what it created was any good.

And that's the problem with teaching machines to be creative. To date, they haven't been blessed with good taste. Sad to report, that's even true when Watson ventures into the kitchen. But perhaps it can find a role as a wild and inventive sous-chef. 

Anshul Sheopuri is on the IBM team training Watson for kitchen work. The idea, essentially, is that most humans are locked into cooking with combinations that we know. Tomatoes, for example, go with oregano, and with Parmesan cheese. Someone might try throwing in a pinch of marjoram with that, or an ill-advised turnip. But outside of celebrity chefs, most of us paint with a small and conservative pallet.

IBM's goal is to get Watson to experiment, suggesting combinations most people would never consider. For this, the IBM team has the computer reduce food to its molecular components, and then rearrange them based on each ingrediant's chemistry and what the computer has gleaned from lots of written material about food. It then comes up thousands of new recipes. Based on its readings, it gives each recipe a score for novelty, its quality to blend with other foods (pairing) and "pleasantness."

Of course, this is all academic. For the computer, pleasantness, along with everything else in the universe, is simply a string of ones and zeros that appears to correlate with other ones and zeros that make up its point of reference. It's up to human beings to pick the most promising looking recipes, cook and taste them.

The results include novel blends, such as the sweet and piquant Caymanian Plantain dessert (above). Have to say, though, I glanced at the recipes, and they didn't look as surprising as I would have imagined. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Swiss-Thai quiche on the menu of the Asian fusion restaurant down the road. But the caution could come from conservative humans. Maybe the people on the IBM team picked the recipes that they liked best, and that they figured fellow humans coming up to their food truck at South by Southwest were most likely to enjoy. Watson is hard-pressed, at least for now, to make such judgments. So my guess is that it didn't get a chance to fly its freak flag.

With time, this type of computer chef will be able to incorporate all sorts of other analysis in its recipes, incorporating data about health, disease, prices and supply chain. In fact, those areas are in Watson's comfort zone. Cooking? Well, it's still learning. The problem, from Watson's perspective, is that the boss has this thing called a tongue. 

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Why IBM's Watson is slow out of the blocks
January 9, 2014News

Picture a high school graduate of staggering genius. Her skills are spell-binding, but at this point, she doesn't have any experience in the work place or, for that matter, know anything. What's more, her social skills are abysmal. Now when this prodigy knocks on the door of Citigroup or the Mayo Clinic or General Electric, what can she offer?

Selling such a job candidate is more or less the challenge the IBM team has when they try market Watson to corporate customers. It's a fabulous machine. With its blend of big data retrieval, natural language, question-answering and analytics, It represents cognitive computing, the future of knowledge work. But what job can it do today?

We don't know. In these early days, Watson, just like other newcomers to the job market, will take boring jobs for which it's overqualified. A call center assistant, for example. People see that and wonder what all the fuss is about. Spencer Ante of the Wall Street Journal reports (behind firewall) that Watson's numbers are disappointing, and below projections. IBM is now building an entire Watson division.

But Watson, like that high school prodigy, is still in the development phase. This has to be frustrating to investors who are looking for winners in the next stage of the information economy. But it's just the way things move. It's similar, in a sense, to the early period of the personal computers, when no one knew exactly what they'd do. People said that homemakers would use computers in the kitchen, to keep records of food and manage recipes. Finally, speadsheets and word processing programs gave people a reason to buy the machines. (And then many promptly wondered why anyone would do anything else on a computer, including hitching it to a network.)

The fact is that cognitive computing technology, like Watson, will not only do jobs. It will transform work. In information industries, having question-answering machines on hand, in pockets, always on call, will alter our thinking about knowledge and what we have to know. But we don't yet know exactly how these machines will get from here to there, nor which companies will build them. Changing metaphors, if this is spring training and I'm trying to pick the two teams in the World Series, I'd bet on IBM and Google, one coming from the corporate side, the other from consumers. 

I was quoted in Spencer's story, which got me an invite to Fox Business News yesterday to discuss Watson's challenges. I went in there, got made up and waited and waited while they aired Gov. Chris Christie's never-ending press conference about the Bridgegate scandal. In the end I was bumped. It reminded me of going to Chicago for a day of Numerati events on the day that Gov. Rod Blagoyevich was arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. And then when I was pitching Final Jeopardy and had a nationwide slot on Ira Flatow's Science Friday, most markets pre-empted me to cover the fall of Hosni Mubarak. You might assume that I'm unlucky. I'd just say that news happens on a frequent basis. Going back to Fox Biz today...

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Pyongyang Chronicle: The demise of a trickster
December 14, 2013News

Word that Jang Song-thaek was a trickster emerged the day he was executed, or perhaps the following day. Chronology is always hard to nail down in North Korea. In any case, a 2,000+-word government news release disclosed that in addition to being a gambler, thief, capitalist, careerist and a lesser form of life than dog, Jang was also a trickster. It would seem that the government was unaware until very recently of this fact. You might expect as much. After all, don't tricksters keep secrets? They do. Perhaps better than anybody.

But signs that Jang was a trickster had been evident for years, perhaps decades. Insiders in Pyongyang were aware that Jang was--not necessarily in this order--the dictator's uncle, confidente, coach, and that he was a trickster. At least one person must have seen him lift $4 million from one account or another. They don't have automatic withdrawals in North Korea. People do such work. But such people also know to keep quiet when a trickster who happens to be the second most powerful person in the realm tells them mum's the word. Several others knew that he blew millions in international casinos. People who lose that kind of money get seen. Many of those who saw him at crap tables in Macao later told government inspectors that Jang, surprisingly for such a notorious trickster, lost his millions with good cheer and forbearance. They wished him the best and looked forward to his return. 

So it was known. Jang was a trickster, but largely a discreet one. When his nephew, Kim Jong-um, showed interest in executing criminals and traitors, Jang pointed toward other people, professors and army officers, certainly not to himself. He was not stupid.

It's hard to say, in retrospect, what led to the clapping incident. I should say the non-clapping incident, or perhaps half-hearted clapping one. The leader had spoken. Everyone was clapping. Clapping is what is done. It is loud and enthusiastic, probably more loud than enthusiastic, in truth, but it is carried out whole-heartedly, with solid impact, maximum noise, and preferably a smile. And there was Jang, his expression grim, like that of someone who had lost millions in casinos. He may have been suffering the ravages of a hangover. He was barely touching his palms to each other. People noticed. Among a circle of people surrounding him, morale collapsed. Yes, Jang was a trickster. That much they knew. He was hardly clapping. That was new. 

He was arrested tried and executed the next day, or maybe the following one. Why do tricksters meet such untimely ends? 

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The Boost: Galleys out
December 3, 2013News

Just got a box of these galleys of The Boost. It's coming out late spring. Fun to page through it. I like the pages and the font. It's missing corrections that I sent in yesterday. But I guess that gives meaning to "uncorrected proof." If anyone would like to review the book or turn it into a feature film, please get in touch.

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IBM's Smart Machines details era of cognitive computing
November 14, 2013News

Imagine this. The baby is sleeping upstairs. One of those monitors in her room plays her noises down to the kitchen. The parents can hear her thrash and gurgle. But those sounds are in the background. More prominent is a computer voice that announces: "The baby wet her diapers at 1:23. She's been awake for four minutes." She cries. Is it time to nurse her already? No, the computer says. Her stomach hurts. 

I picked up this idea from the new book from IBM Research, Smart Machines: IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing. It is co-written by John Kelly, the director of IBM Research and Steve Hamm, my friend and former colleague at BusinessWeek.

It's a useful, concise and engaging guide to the future of computing--which is also the future of knowledge, sensing, decision-making and discovery. I read it in about two hours. It led me from employment opportunities for Watson to frontiers of Big Data and the physics of new computing. It's hard to summarize the future of cognitive computing, but these two sentences come pretty close: "In the programmable-computing era, people have to adapt to the way computers work. In the cognitive era, computers will adapt to people."

Now, back to the baby example. Given what we know about data, it really shouldn't be so surprising that machines will be able to decode baby noises. With enough data about the noises babies make, apps will be allow babies to talk to us. Of course, not all babies will use the same noises. I imagine that the program will come with a standard template, and that parents will have ways to correct the machine's early mistakes, helping it to customize its analysis for each baby. And as those fixes make their way to the cloud service, it will grow more sophisticated, just like Google Voice or Siri. 

Another similar challenge, I imagine, will be to interpret the noises and gestures of animals, and to get them also to talk to us. This animal analysis could probably benefit from smell sensors. They could pick up molecules of chemicals signaling an animal's fear, confusion, hunger and sexual drive.

Do we want a machine announcing that Rover is hungry or horny or needs to go out for one reason or another? That could be too much information. But the marketplace will iron out those issues. For now, we at least know from a very good IBM book that the technology is en route.

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How I shamelessly exploited Twitter (and don't anymore)
November 8, 2013News

Five years ago, I was the Twitter guy at BusinessWeek. As Roben Farzad recalled Thursday on Brian Lehrer's show, I wandered around the the offices telling colleagues to tweet. Now, as the new Twitter stock debuts, I barely tweet anymore. The reason: Much as I'd like to, I don't participate anymore in the "nugget economy."

I'll explain. When you tweet, you send out a nugget of information wrapped in self-branding. If people like that nugget, they retweet, and the information spreads, along with the branding. Maybe they respond with interesting information, or a relevant link. Those nuggets can be valuable. When I was at BusinessWeek, nuggets I harvested turned into blog posts and stories. And the branding was vital for me. BusinessWeek was in late stages of collapse, and I needed the branding to promote my post-BW career, and (hopefully) to sell books. My brand, as I saw it, had been locked up in the magazine for 20 comfortable years. But now I needed to fashion it into a lifeboat.

An example of how shamelessly I used Twitter for my own ends. I started on Twitter on Jan. 5, 2008. I was in Steve Rubel's office at Edelman, above Times Square, asking him how Heather Green and I could update our three-year-old story on blogs. (I remember the day because Barack Obama had just won the Iowa caucases, and his face was on every television in the lobby.) Steve urged me to jump onto Twitter. At that point, I remember, he had 2,400 followers. And he asked them with a tweet why @stevebaker should get onto Twitter. Responses poured in. He was clearly at the controls of a powerful tool. I had a book, The Numerati, coming out later that year and wanted some of that network magic. But how was I going to get thousands of followers?

After a month on Twitter, I had barely 100. But then I came up with a plan to leverage my mainstream journalism asset. I would write a BusinessWeek article explaining Why Twitter Matters. But instead of calling up the usual sources, like @jayrosen_nyu, @jeffjarvis, and @biz (Twitter co-founder Biz Stone), I would research the piece on Twitter. I would tweet topic sentences for each paragraph, and the Twittersphere would respond with examples, links, and insights. Hopefully, they'd discuss and argue. Through this process, Twitter would write the story. Word would quickly spread about this story, and people who wanted to participate would follow me. I would catch up to Steve Rubel, or even pass him! I'd be hoisted up in the nugget economy.

It turned out that turning 250 tweets into a coherent article took a lot of work. But it worked. The article went mildly viral and my Twitter following quintupled, finally reaching 1,000. My evil strategy worked. And I even won a minor magazine award for the story. (I'll note, in passing, that traditional journalism awards carry zero weight in the nugget economy, not unless they're branding giants, like Pulitzers. If I were still focussed on nuggets, I'd trade my dusty old Overseas Press Award for 10,000 Twitter followers in a minute.)

Months after that triumph, the economy cratered and BusinessWeek spiraled toward death. I left after Bloomberg snapped it up for barely the price of a Superbowl commercial, and I got a book contract to write about IBM's Jeopardy computer, Watson. Since then, I've been doing books. That has removed me from the nugget economy. Much of what I'm doing is vaguely secret. For instance, I'm co-writing a healthcare book that Penguin will publish next spring. But they're not publicizing it. So I don't either. As a result, I don't generate good targeted nuggets. And my Twitter presence has degenerated into the occasional note about my life, a wine I drank in France, a slideshow from Africa. I'm a scattered Tweeter, virtually lapsed.

Now that I think about it, though, I should jump back on. I have a novel coming out next spring, The Boost. Maybe if I break down the first chapter into 150 nuggets.... No, really, I should get serious about this.

But this social media marketing is so exhausting, don't you think?

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Flickr asks me to stop paying money
May 21, 2013News

A few years ago, I decided that to load all my photos to Google's Picasa. That would be my cloud repository. But then Google tied Picasa into Google+, and suddenly I had to figure out which "circles" I wanted to share with. I screwed up a few times and shared photos with large crowds of strangers. So I bagged the service and decided to pay Flickr $25 for a pro account. Flickr, as Mat Honan details in a Gizmodo post, used to be a cutting-edge social site in 2005, when it was sold to Yahoo. That began its slow descent into irrelevancy. I didn't care about that, though. I just wanted a place to store my photos.

Yesterday, the same day that Yahoo agreed to buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion, I received the strangest email from Flickr. The company virtually begged me to stop paying it money and to switch to its free ad-based service with a terabyte of storage. I obediently complied.

I should mention that Flickr's service of late has been dreadful. The links between Flickr and Apple's iPhoto are a bad joke. But I do manage to store my photos there, and starting today I'll be doing it for free. As Rob Hof notes, the Tumblr acquisition is Yahoo's bid to wrest some social media traffic from Facebook. And the change to a free, virtually limitless Flickr is no doubt part of the same strategy. I have little doubt that Yahoo will start pushing me, the way Google did, to share my photos with my circles of friends.

And I'll push back, or withdraw. It's not that I don't want to share photos. I do. But only about 1% of them. Some of my reluctance has to do with privacy. My friends and family in some of the photos haven't agreed to be posted. The other issue is quality. Most of my photos are boring to everyone but me. Actually, probably half of them bore even me. I keep them simply as historical artifacts. So I want to pick and choose which ones I post. A few might go on Facebook, or on this blog. But the rest of them ascend into this great big shoebox in the sky. For now, it's Flickr.  

Near Hotel Dieu, Ile de la Cite

One of the first photos I uploaded to Flickr, back in 2005, when Flickr was hot. This one is from Paris, in 2002, just before we moved back. I took it with my first digital camera, a Sony that actually recorded photos on a mini CD. That baby, I figure, must be about 13 by now.

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Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
- December 3, 2014

The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014

My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
- February 3, 2014

My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013

Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012

The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012

"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011

Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011

Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011

Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010

The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010

The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010