Realistic-sounding speech

Just over a year ago Google presented WaveNet, a new deep neural network for generating raw audio waveforms that is capable of producing better and more realistic-sounding speech than existing techniques. It’s gotten a LOT better and is now capable of producing natural sounding human voices.

Google is using it for Google Assistant but hard for an old radio guy like me not to imagine this tech replacing radio announcers (are there still radio announcers?)

The robots are here

“My solution is that all robots must be raised for their first few years in Minnesota, where everyone is kind and generous. I assume there are other spots around the world in which the culture evolved to be unusually friendly. Part of the value of your future robot is where it was imprinted with its base personality. Someday the Minnesota Series of robots will fetch top dollar.” — Scott Adams

“When robots start doing all of the medical research, the speed of discoveries will increase a hundredfold. Robots will simply try every idea until someday there is a cheap pill that keeps your body young and healthy. The government will get out of the healthcare field when the cost of medical services becomes trivial, and I think robots will get us there.” — Scott Adams

“Spofforth had been designed to live forever, and he had been designed to forget nothing. Those who made the design had not paused to consider what a life like that might be like.” — Mockingbird (Walter Tevis)

“At some point the real cost of healthcare, energy, construction, transportation, farming, and just about every other basic expense will fall by 90% as robots get involved. It would be absurd to assume we know anything about the economy in thirty years. Nothing will look the same.” — Scott Adams

“The highest-earning professions in the year 2050 will depend on automations and machines that have not been invented yet. That is, we can’t see these jobs from here, because we can’t yet see the machines and technologies that will make them possible. Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted done.” — Kevin Kelly

Self-Driving Trucks

“Since early October, autonomous trucks built and operated by the startup Embark have been hauling Frigidaire refrigerators 650 miles along the I-10 freeway, from a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California.”

“For now, the Embark milk runs are designed to test logistics as well as the safety of the technology. On each trip, a human driver working for Ryder (a major trucking company and Embark’s partner on this venture) heads over to the Frigidaire lot in El Paso, picks up a load of refrigerators, hauls them to the rest stop right off the highway, and unhitches the trailer. Then, a driver working for Embark hooks that trailer up to the robotruck, cruises onto the interstate, pops it into autonomous mode, and lets it do its thing. The truck mostly sticks to the right lane and always follows the speed limit. Once in Palm Springs, the human pulls off the highway, unhitches the trailer, and passes the load to another Ryder driver, who takes it the last few miles to Frigidaire’s SoCal distribution center.”

WIRED

What Mongolian Nomads Teach Us About the Digital Future

“I think we’ll cruise through the future with empty pockets. I won’t need to carry my phone because I should be able to lift up any screen anywhere and have it immediately became my tool, my screen. It recognizes me from my face, voice, heartbeat, and transforms itself into my phone interface. When I am done, I leave that screen where it was. To read a book I pick up any screen. To travel, I pick any car. To use a power tool, I summon it online and it’s in my hand within 30 minutes. And when I travel, why should I drag clothes around? In a nomadix future, the hotel or Airbnb will provide my favorite clothes when I arrive and recycle them when I depart. The environment, if it is rich and well-cared for and understood, shall provide.”

“They get a signal from the air, energy from the sun, and a motorcycle from China. And they can still pack up and move everything in a hour.”

Kevin Kelly writing in Wired

WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

Author Tim O’Reilly says the central theme of this book is understanding how algorithmic systems shape our society. If that’s what you’re after, I recommend two books by Kevin Kelly: The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future and What Technology Wants. Then I’d read Homo Deus and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m sorry, but Mr. O’Reilly’s ideas just didn’t flow. The book felt… patchy. And he seemed overly proud of his personal contribution to the Internet, to Web 2.0, and a bunch of other “innovations.” I don’t question his contributions but isn’t it better if other folks acknowledge them? Anyhoo, here are some passages I underlined:

Our experience is shaped by the words we use.

Abstractions – the process by which reality is transformed into a series of statements about reality.

“For all practical purposes, there is now only one computer.” — Clay Shirky

The first principle of Web 2.0 was that the Internet was replacing Windows as the dominant platform on which the next generation of applications was being built.

Another key to what distinguished the web applications that survived the dot-com bust from those that died was that the survivors all, in one way or another, worked to harness the collective intelligence of their users.

“Global consciousness is that thing that decided that decaffeinated coffee pots should be orange.” — Computer scientist Danny Hill

Once an event occurs, all possibilities collapse into the one reality that we call the present, and then, in an instant, the past. But even the past, seemingly fixed as it appears, is an illusion constantly updated by new knowledge from the present.

A key lesson for every entrepreneur – Ask yourself: What is unthinkable?

“Apps can do now what managers used to do.” — Finnish management consultant Esko Kilpi

More than 63 million Americans (roughly half of all households) are now enrolled in Amazon Prime. Amazon has more than 200 million active credit card accounts; 55% of online shoppers now begin their search at Amazon, and 46% of all nine shopping happens on the platform.

A company is now a hybrid organism, made up of people and machines.

There are more than 2 million apps for the iPhone and they have been downloaded 130 billion times. App developers have earned nearly $50 billion in revenue.

With the rise of GPS, we are heading for a future where speeding motorists are no longer pulled over by police officers who happen to spot them, but instead automatically ticketed whenever they exceed the speed limit. We can also imagine a future in which that speed limit is automatically adjusted based on the amount of traffic, weather conditions, and other variable conditions that make a higher or lower speed more appropriate than the static limit that is posted today.
One of the simplest algorithmic interventions Facebook and Twitter could make would be to ask people, “Are you sure you want to share that link? You don’t appear to have read the story.

Subscription-based publication have an incentive to serve their readers; advertising-based publications have an incentive to server their advertisers.

We are increasingly creating an economy that is producing too much of what only some people can afford to buy.

“The job” is an artificial construct, in which work is managed and parceled out by corporations and other institutions, to which individuals must apply to participate in doing the work.

“There may need to be two kinds of money: machine money, and human money. Machine money is what you use to to buy things that are produced by machines. These things are always getting cheaper. Human money is what you use to buy things that only humans can produce.” — Paul Buchheit (creator of Gmail)

The rich still live in a world where doctors make house calls and personal tutoring is the norm.

“If you want to understand the future, just look at what rich people do today.” — Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist

In a connected world where knowledge is available on demand, we need to rethink what people need to know and how they come to know it.

More than 100 million hours of how-to video were watched on YouTube in North America during the first four months of 2015.

Who will buy the products of companies that no longer pay workers to create them?

Distraction

I’m re-reading Distraction by Bruce Sterling. Published in 1998, it is/was frighteningly prescient.  Here are a few of my favorite excerpts (does that first one remind you of anyone?).

“He’s like a not very bright child who can be deceived and managed, but not reasoned with.”

“The American national character realty wasn’t suited for global police duties. It never had been. Tidy and meticulous people such as the Swiss and Swedes were the types who made good cops. America was far better suited to be the World’s Movie Star. The world’s tequila-addled pro-league bowler. The world’s acerbic, bipolar stand-up comedian. Anything but a somber and tedious nation of socially responsible centurions.”

“It always offended him to hear his fellow Americans discussing the vagaries of “white people.” There was simply no such thing as “white people. That stereotype was an artificial construct, like the ridiculous term “Hispanic.” In all the rest of the world, a Peruvian was a Peruvian and a Brazilian was a Brazilian— it was only in America that people somehow became this multilingual, multinational entity called a “Hispanic.”

“Political reality in modern America was the stark fact that electronic networks had eaten the guts out of the old order, while never finding any native order of their own. The horrific speed of digital communication, the consonant flattening of hierarchies, the rise of net-based civil society, and the decline of the industrial base had simply been too much for the American government to cope with and successfully legitimize.”

“Knowledge is inherently precious even if you can’t sell it. Even if you can’t use it. Knowledge is an absolute good. The search for truth is vital. It’s central to civilization. You need knowledge even when your economy and government are absolutely shot to hell.”

The Nature of Consciousness

“In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Thomas Metzinger about the scientific and experiential understanding of consciousness. They also talk about the significance of WWII for the history of ideas, the role of intuition in science, the ethics of building conscious AI, the self as an hallucination, how we identify with our thoughts, attention as the root of the feeling of self, the place of Eastern philosophy in Western science, and the limitations of secular humanism.”

“Thomas K. Metzinger is full professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. He is the founder and director of the MIND group and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, Germany. His research centers on analytic philosophy of mind, applied ethics, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. He is the editor of Neural Correlates of Consciousness and the author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel.”

“Simply hold your phone to your neck for a minute or two”

In an experiment, the technique was found to be as accurate as a 45-minute echocardiography scan, which currently requires a trained technician operating an expensive ultrasound machine. The smartphone technique measures how much the carotid artery displaces the skin of the neck as blood pumps through it.

To test the app, clinical trials were conducted with 72 volunteers between the ages of 20 and 92 at an outpatient magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facility. MRI is the gold standard in measuring LVEF but is seldom used clinically due to its high cost and limited availability. The measurements made by smartphone had a margin of error of ±19.1 percent compared with those done in an MRI. By way of comparison, the margin of error for echocardiography is around ±20.0 percent.

Full story

“World’s First Android”

Assuming this is an early glimpse of one possible future… how do I feel about it? Mixed, I think. If humans still have some evolving to do — and I sure hope we do — it seems likely such evolution will be in this direction. It’s tempting to slap a “good” or “bad” label on this but such value judgements are human tags and I’m starting to find them irrelevant. Perhaps with time and luck, we can make better versions of ourselves.