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Face it Steve, you need help

March 8th, 2010 by

Steve Jobs by Dunechaser @ Flickr

There are some things in life that are always going to get you in trouble. No matter what you say to try to cover them up, or how much you apologize. Blaming alcohol, stress or even Steve doesn’t work. Trust me.

It’s not a big deal – if we are to believe Hollywood, it happens all the time. The slip of the tongue can happen if you’ve been with your partner for a day or a decade. One day, when you least expect it, you’ll accidentally call her by your ex-girlfriend’s name.

Smugly, I had always considered myself better than this. I like it when people remember my name, so I do my best to remember theirs. Especially my girlfriend’s.

Like I said, I blame stress (or more precisely long hours and a lack of free time). Stress and Steve Jobs.

An Apple a Day
It all started three years ago, when I bought my first Apple. Despite the social stigma that seems to come with the territory, I’m a very satisfied customer (check these comments on Engadget after a major Apple release to see how a blog post looks when burnt to ashes).

Even so, I wouldn’t class myself in the much-maligned category of “Apple fanboy”: I don’t have the apple logo tattooed on my forehead, nor do I worship his holiness Steve Jobs. And if one of Apple’s products is rubbish, I  feel no obligation to defend Steve and his followers out of blind loyalty.

At MacWorld 2009 Apple introduced the iLife 09 suite, which includes new versions of Garage Band, iMovie, iWeb and iPhoto. The latter program convinced me that I was in need of an upgrade. I don’t consider myself an Annie Leibovitz or Robert Doisneau, but from time to time I’m lucky enough to catch some decent shots.

Given that my previous version of iPhoto was way out of date (2006!) and in light of my sprawling, out of control archive, the new features such as geotagging, Facebook/Flicker synchronization and automatic face recognition seemed really promising. With little free time on my hands, I said to myself: why not?

A Case of Mistaken Identity
Alas, the answer to that question came soon enough but also, regrettably, too late. Putting aside the annoying issues of the social network syncing function (slowness, double tagging, uploading errors, impossibility to switch off), the real disappointment was the much-promoted Face Recognition feature.

It is supposed to work like this: you feed in your photo archive and tag a few familiar faces; then an algorithm scans the rest of the pictures for all the recurrences of people tagged, and categorizes them to help you filter your collection using real people as a search criterion. Sounds easy in theory, but in practice, I assure you, it’s not.

First of all, the software only works well if the collection is tiny and the photos are stored locally. Feed it with 30 GB of pictures on an external USB hard disk (not an unusual situation given the diffusion of affordable DSL-R models these days) and your computer will be stuck in that first scan for hours. As one might expect, the agony continues every time new pictures are added, with repeated scans keeping the CPU unacceptably busy for what seems like an eternity.

That would probably be a bearable price to pay if the face-recognition performed flawlessly. But unfortunately, people with completely different facial features and even gender are easily confused by the program. As most of my friends are not cross dressing clones, this is rather disappointing. Things improve somewhat the more manual tagging a user does – but if I have to do it myself, what exactly did I pay for?

The raw truth is that algorithms are nowhere near as good as real people at recognizing human faces and emotions. Something that for me is absolutely crystal clear seems, at times, impossibly difficult for Face Recognition to figure out. It’s not that the programs are useless, it’s just that to be effective they need the help of human instinct and insight.

The solution to this problem has a name and that name is real-time crowdsourcing.

So, dear Steve, if you are reading, I implore you to think about it. For my sake. You have no idea how uncomfortable my couch is. Or how hard it is to explain to your girlfriend how you confused her with your mother.

Small Change, Big Difference

February 28th, 2010 by

Coins by Joe Shlabotnik @ Flickr

Imagine strolling outside at night with a date you really like. Dinner went well, your jokes were funny and you think the two of you connected. But the conversation has stalled. Now, muscling its way into your evening is an awkward silence.

Desperate to find something to talk about, you gaze towards the starry heavens for inspiration. Just when all seems lost, it hits you. A discrete flick of a button later and you are naming constellations like a seasoned astronomer. The night is saved and a happy ending filled with wedding bells, toddlers and mortgage repayments is yours.

Is that an iPhone in your Pocket?
As many readers will know, this technology is no longer limited to the dreams of sci-fi nerds pining for a girlfriend. With an iPhone and downloadable Apps, sci-fi nerds and regular people now have a plethora of powers at their disposal to save the world from doomed dates and boring bus trips.

Marketed as a “pocket planetarium”, Starmap is only one of 100,000 Apps available to iPhone users for a one-off fee. With a massive global market, and a world of innovative programmers, the opportunity for new Apps is endless.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Micropayment Man!
What has caused this explosion of clever applications is not just the development of smartphones like the iPhone, but the superpowers of micropayments. Admittedly, as far as superpowers go, micropayments are rather unexciting (I can’t see Micropayment Man making an appearance at the box office). But it might just be micropayments that bring Batman to your iPhone. This is because it is micropayments that have monetized the personal App industry, incentivising creative programmers to develop the Apps.

The problem with many of the Apps, is that although they’re fun, they’re also pretty useless. Most people are not prepared to pay much for them. This means that the price has to be low and the transaction easy. This is fine for other impulse goods like gum, which you chuck on your bill while you’re paying for your gas. It’s easy and cheap for you, and the gas station makes a few extra cents. But it’s another story if you expect a buyer to specifically enter their credit card number on a strange internet site for that gum. The effort, risk and credit card charge outweigh the need for gum, or even a program that makes light-saber woosh noises every time you move your iPhone. Wooosh.

The other practical difficulty with such cheap goods is that profitability relies on high volumes of tiny margins. In the past, collecting tiny, one off electronic payments from large numbers of buyers was generally uneconomic. Issues like fraud, chargeback and security concerns made transaction costs too high. You don’t need an MBA to see that if your product sells for 20 cents and the transaction fee is 30 cents, you’re not going to get rich any time soon.

Over the course of just a few years has a combination of technical innovation, a development of ultra efficient and reliable platforms, increased access to the internet and growth of consumer trust in online payments has changed all this. Most online shoppers are now familiar with the leading micropayment facilitator PayPal, providing a trusted platform for consumers to use. With this reliable, user friendly platform and an exploding market, the tiny cost of Apps has suddenly become a low risk, obvious decision for consumers.

Kindle-ing and paper up in smoke
And these small online transactions are not limited to iPhone Apps. The Facebook online game Mob Wars is a prime example of a successful use of micropayments. It alone earns $1 million per month in profit.

Currently dominating the e-reading market, the Amazon Kindle is also using micropayment technology to bill users for downloading e-books. I say “currently” of course because of the Kindle-destroyer, the new iPad. With Apple’s multi-touch user interface, full colour screen and internet connectivity, the possibilities for apps and other paid for content seem endless, and the use of micropayments look set to explode.

This is great news for the ailing newspaper industry, which has been quick to realise the potential of this new technology for its business model. Free-to-air TV could also be set to benefit, along with those poor people who still watch free-to-air TV.

Currently, if you watch 4 hours of free-to-air TV, typically including an hour of adverts, you are, on average, expected to spend only a few dollars on the products you see advertised. It’s an annoying waste of time for everyone. Micropayments could allow you to pay a tiny, variable fee to skip the ads (but not be tied to a cable provider that never plays anything you want to see).

Who invited the crowd?
This is great, but it is once you start combining micropayments with other new concepts and technology that the possibilities really take flight. Imagine paying participants for crowdsourcing activities through micropayments: Your iPhotos could be automatically uploaded and then tagged on Facebook just seconds after you say “cheese”. Probably it won’t be long before Apple offers an App called iCash allowing kids the chance to earn money while on the bus (which they could then use to pay for Starmap or the extortionate contract fees most iPhones are tied to).

With people like Rupert Murdoch trying to change how the public perception of paid for content on the internet, coupled with new the exciting new technology and Apps, micropayments look set to become as commonplace as a star in the nights sky. While not your traditional super heroes, maybe it will be Captain Steve, with his trusty sidekick Micropayment Man that not only saves doomed dates, boring bus trips and newspaper industry, but revolutionizes the way we live.

Who will police The Police?

February 23rd, 2010 by

Police appearing at the Xmas party by wili_hybrid

A while back I had a bit of trouble with The Police. It’s not a period of my life I am proud of. Despite it happening years ago, I am only now able to talk about it.

The incident occurred when The Police were involved in the release of the song “Every Breath You Take”. In it, the lead singer Sting opines “How my poor heart aches”. I misheard the lyric as “I’m a pool hall ace,” often repeating the catchy lyric ironically when missing shots in games of pool. No one ever told me of my mistake. I guess either my friends thought I was joking or they were amongst the many others who made the same mistake. Even so, the memory still haunts me to this day.

But despite the evidence this incident provides to the contrary, I still like to think that my understanding of English – even when mumbled – would make me a passable translator. As discussed in the earlier posting by Tommaso on this site, crowdsourcing of translations now gives me that opportunity. Today, with help from enthusiasts around the world, outfits like Italian Subs Addicted provide fast, accurate subtitling of English films and television.

One of the many interesting aspects of their system, especially for a Pool Hall Ace like me, is how it deals with quality control.

Peering Over Your Shoulder
As explained in the earlier blog, Italian Sub Addicted chops programs into small pieces and farms them out to groups to translate. To maintain quality, once completed, each of these pieces is peer reviewed by the other groups involved.

They are not the only ones making use of this peer review system. A couple of years back, Facebook asked users to translate the site from its original English format to other languages. Keen to have Facebook available in their own language, amateur translators signed up in their thousands and did it for free.

Quality control in this case was provided in the form of a voting system that weeded out bad translations. Due to the enormous number of people willing to participate in the voting, this proved highly effective. In fact, Facebook has such faith in the system that has since begun to offer this service to other websites.

Into The Unknown
But even Face-lators (catchy huh?) in their collective thousands may have had a problem deciphering this speech by Donald Rumsfeld. In it he mentioned “known knowns”, “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” and confused the hell out of a lot of people – regardless of whether English was their mother tongue.

I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that our friends at CrowdFlower probably would have got the gist of it. As providers of crowdsourced labor to institutions like Microsoft and Princeton University, they make it their business to provide extremely high quality output using a quality control system called CrowdControl.

CrowdControl works by using Rumsfeld’s known knowns to evaluate just how good people are at identifying known unknowns, if you know what I mean. When they provide microtasks for someone to complete, they include some tasks they already know the response to. If a worker errs on one of these tasks, they are notified, in the expectation that they will learn from the mistake. It also allows CrowdFlower to identify over time who gives results of consistently high quality. The website doesn’t say how continual underachievers get dealt with in the long run; perhaps a notification that lets them down easy: “Things just aren’t working out. Your skills would be better suited to something requiring less intelligence.”

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk won’t even let life’s underachievers get that far. This site exercises quality control through many of their microtasks, or Human Intelligence Tasks as they call them, requiring workers to earn certain qualifications before they can attempt them. Anyone can log on and try to earn these qualifications – and it’s worth doing the study. A quick scan of the site shows that these qualifications are a prerequisite for many of the highest paying microtasks. So stay in school kids!

This is not to say that all crowdsourcing tasks require qualifications, or even the most basic level of intelligence. Some tasks are as simple as indicating whether a person in a photo is a man or a woman. (Having said this, gender differentiation in today’s world is often far from easy).

There are an ever increasing number of microtasks available on the net. From this, we can infer that the quality control systems in place must be working effectively. This is because, regardless of how cheap crowdsourcing microtasks is, companies would not continue to shell out money if they weren’t getting accurate information in return.

In hindsight, I could’ve used some of that quality control around the time of my misdemeanor. A little bit of peer review on my friends’ parts wouldn‘t have gone astray. In fact, it would have saved me a lot of embarrassment if they had taken it upon themselves to police The Police.

Your Country Needs You!

February 14th, 2010 by

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? by Banksy shot by nolifebeforecoffee @ Flickr

Until recently, the options for citizens to participate in government were few and of arguable impact. Besides signing or organizing the odd petition, joining a protest, attending a town hall meeting, or writing a letter to your Minister of Parliament, influencing leadership was pretty much limited to voting during elections (assuming you are lucky enough to live in a democracy at all).

I say, “Until recently” because the times are a-changing. Technology is allowing citizens to communicate with their officials, and for officials to communicate with (and make interesting use of) the citizenry. While private enterprise tends to lead the way when it comes to technological innovation, it seems our cardigan-sporting civil servants have not missed the opportunity to harness the power of new tools and resources – most notably by channelling the lines of communication on the internet into one giant suggestion box.

Yes We Might!
President Obama’s election campaign was memorable for many things, not least of which its deft use of technology and social media to organize supporters. This technophilia has continued in the new administration. Last year Obama experimented with an interactive townhall meeting – a traditional meeting with a live webcast allowing the online audience to participate by submitting questions. All told, more than 100,000 questions were submitted, which is a promising sign for a democracy where participation can be a problem.

Furthermore, in various States a number of local authorities have created portals for people to give feedback on various initiatives over the web. Some allow comment on specific initiatives while others just put the call out for some good ideas.

Naturally, with many voices comes a good deal of white noise. Every political meeting always seems to have a couple of people yelling out “LEGALIZE IT!“ no matter what the issue du jour happens to be. So moderation becomes crucial: filtering out the salient contributions from the spurious, and organising related comments into themes and threads. Fortunately, this is essentially one of those good problems. When it comes to democracy, a rise in the number of participants can only be positive. The potential is undoubtedly there.

But how fast these innovations can deliver a genuine participatory democracy remains to be seen. Voter apathy and general political disengagement are reasonably prominent in many western democracies. It will likely take some time for a genuine sea change in some places. As everyone who has bought exercise equipment from an infomercial knows – having the tools doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will be used.

Fight Join the Power
Governments are beginning to tap into the power of the crowds in more ways than merely creating online suggestion books. And some of them are more than a little troubling. Allow me to outline a couple of examples that might raise a couple of eyebrows, or even the hairs on the back of your neck.

One of the big news threads to come out of last year’s protested “elections” in Iran, was the protesters’ novel use of technology (social media including Twitter etc) to organize themselves and communicate with the media. Well, it seems two can play at that game. The Iranian regime, unable to arrest everyone, has been trying to harness the power of the people in order to limit the power of the people. The government posted photographs of protesters on the web and offered a cash reward (roughly $15) for information helping to identify the people in the photos. It’s a pretty efficient way to do business, but alarming to anyone with respect for the right to peaceful assembly.

That might seem a little like picking on everyone’s favorite international scapegoat, so here’s an example from the good ol’ USA. Texas border security has opened their CCTV feed to the web, allowing anyone to log on and watch the border and report signs of suspicious activity. If enough people notice the same thing, the border police put on their mirror-shades and go to check it out. No monetary award is offered to these online virtual deputies, just the chance to play cops and robbers for real.

Wait ‘Til I Tell Mom!
These examples have a common thread: basically, people tattling on each other. This essentially makes any number of citizens an extension of the state’s executive power. And this combination of the state’s overwhelming power and the power of the snitching masses will seem a little worrying to anyone who’s ever heard the term Big Brother.

With potent tools such as these the obvious question is how far people will allow the state to intrude upon their civil liberties – which is not an easy question as everyone has their own tipping point in such matters. Many might consider the tattling to be a good thing and what is required of a “responsible citizen” is rarely clear-cut. For example, hopefully most of us would call the cops if we witnessed a murder, but many of us would balk at snitching to the nearest parking warden when we happen upon on tardy meter-feeders. The line falls somewhere in the middle but unfortunately not in the same place for everyone.

Careful What You Wish For…
So government use of technology and crowdsourcing clearly has great potential when it comes to getting citizens involved in democratic processes; but raises some concerns in other areas. It is one thing to ask people what they think and ask them for suggestions, it is another thing entirely to ask them to get involved in executive functions exercising (and potentially, vastly increasing) the state’s power and ability to impinge upon our lives. It will no doubt prove interesting to see the ways (both good and bad) in which these developments unfold.

A Ray of Sunshine

February 6th, 2010 by

Rays of Light by FR Antunes @ Flickr

Sometimes the world seems like a terrible place. Grabbing our attention from newspaper billboards are stories of natural disasters and terrible violence. But amid the bleak news coverage of human suffering, there’s often a silver lining which demonstrates the brighter side of life and the human spirit. These are the uplifting stories of victims surviving in rubble for two weeks, and the relief efforts which find them.

Although far from the horror and heroics of those actually in Haiti, one such story that brightened my mood showed how people far away from ground zero are able to make a direct contribution to relief.

The website is enabling offsite volunteers to sift through masses of real-time information mentioning Haiti (from texts, twitter, bloggers, news etc) to find actionable information about problems on the ground in Haiti. The volunteers can translate information, verify data and map new items in an information system (Ushahidi) which ultimately gets to the major NGOs and aid workers in a position to help directly. NGOs like Oxfam, the Clinton Foundation, Plan International, and American Red Cross are this minute benefiting from Ushahidi data in the field in Haiti.

At a relative’s work last week, they organized a bake sale – which is a somewhat more traditional way to help those in need in Haiti (and from which I again benefit indirectly). This is all well and good and hopefully when the money in the cookie jar eventually finds its way to the right pockets it will make a difference. But I have a feeling that the chance to take part in efforts that directly help people on the ground would, for some of us, taste just as sweet.

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