Hans D. Baumeister

Hans D. Baumeister

Advantages of a Machine Brain

There is a lot of hype right now about Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the machine intelligence and the pending Singularity.
Wether or not humans will begin to implant digital contraptions in their bodies and in their brains is up to the future - at this point, we can only speculate. Though I have to say, the idea of accessing the internet directly from my brain - without having to use a computer or tablet - is a compelling thought.

Personally, I believe the bigger issue at hand - and one we have to seriously consider very soon - is this: Given the ability to interconnect at „will”, and imparted with the objective to achieve a particular goal, machines with partial „thinking” capability will always outdo their human creators. Wether or not they are able to generate higher „thinking-throughput” is probably only secondary - it is their ability to network instantly and widely that will give them the advantage.

Anyone with even average social skills will realize, no later than 35 years of age, that the social / business network is half of the rent. Without knowing „whom to call for what”, even a highly skilled knowledge worker would soon hit uncrossable boundaries.

Give your iPad 15 the verbal command to research a particular subject, and what will it do? It will instantly thread many parallel searches on the Web to retrieve this information. It will also contact all the devices it „knows”, either because you have „paired it” with a particular device (perhaps, because that device belongs to your history professor) or because it has „met” that device in previous searches. This is called „collaboration”, something humans have done since day one, albeit not particularly efficiently.

The „root of all evil” isn’t money, in my humble opinion, it is the complexity of trying to convey your ideas, dreams and wishes in a verbal language that restrains you from communicating efficiently. Add to that the interpretability of language (again, because it is imprecise) and you get? Bad communication.

Not so with digital devices. Sure, at this point they are restricted to protocols that human beings conceived and constructed for them. Communication seems to work pretty well using these „languages” already. Give it a few more years, and you may find protocols that are constructed dynamically through „learning by doing” within the grid.

The only thing that represents a limiting factor - once this state of being has been achieved - is the throughput of the Web in the future. We already have throughput issues in certain places, as much of the traffic on the Internet is already not generated by humans anymore, but by machine2machine communication and data spiders.

And finally, we retain one important function that, at least for now, is completely in our hands: we can always pull the plug if it gets too „hot”.

Glass Sponges

Yesterday evening, I watched a program I had recorded off ARTE a few days ago, about Biomimikry. While the concept of biomimikry isn’t particularly new (i.e. looking at how nature does things to make human engineering better), it is now, apparently, taking off not only in engineering, but also in architecture.

But what amazed me most is a section of the film that talked about glass sponges - creatures living in depths of up to 1.000 meters that produce an endoskeleton made of pure glass. The fascinating thing about this glass is: it seems by far more durable than any glass made my humans.

How on earth do you fabricate glass without a kiln? Well, that is certainly something scientists are now trying to find out. Interestingly, according to the film, about 5% of all CO2 emissions produced by mankind stem from the production of glass and cement. Being able to produce glass without the heat would really make the material that much more „green”.

The film goes on about the special structure, in which the sponge puts his skeleton together. It looks a bit like a hair curler with diagonal strands every four squares or so, along with little „U”-shaped things jutting out that connect some of the crossings. When scientists did stress-testing on constructions made of plastic that increased in complexity from that simple hair curler (basically a tube made of longitudinal strands and regularly crossing rings) to the actual structure of the sponge’s skeleton, they realized a giant increase in resistance to crushing.

The sponge also uses the optical characteristics of the skeletal glass to transmit light. It has some very special glass structures at the base, where luminescent bacteria grow, and distributes this light throughout its body so that it actually glows in the complete blackness of the deep sea.

Bizarre Train Story

After a successful business meeting, my colleague and I went back to „Copenhagen H”, the central train station, to catch the train to the airport.

We checked the electronic billboard, the next train would be at 12:41h on platform 5. Down to platform 5 we went. Sure enough, the monitor on that platform indicated the same thing. Unfortunately, the monitor displayed some other, later train just a few minutes into the wait. There was some announcement, which the locals apparently understood better than us foreign folk, because quite a few folks went back up the escalator, apparently to change to another platform.

We rode the escalator up as well and checked the electronic sign right next to the entrance to the platform. It now showed the train to the airport to be leaving from platform 26. This was quite a walk - strangely down the same platform we had just left. So back down we went, and we started following the signs to platform 26.

We ended up going up an elevator (that played eerie, cut-off pieces of marching music), over to the next elevator and back down (more eerie music). There we were - at platform 26 (it felt more like platform 26 1/2) - and all alone. The color monitor on the platform did indicate that this was the right one to the airport, so we waited. According to the printed timetable (without platform numbers, mind you), the next train would leave at 13:01h. Fine.

The weather had turned quite soggy and cold, so we stood under a small, roofed waiting area. The departure time came and went, we felt like someone would be hiding behind some pillar for Candid Camera. The next train was due at 13:21h, so we went the same way back that we had come (eerie music and - yes, you guessed it - eerie music).

Once back down on platform 5, we were happy to see that the 13:21h train to the airport was expected to leave on that platform (as per the monitor). Unfortunately, de-ja-vous hit when, just a few minutes before the train was due to leave, the display once again changed. No announcement this time.

This time, however, we had located a monitor that showed a list of the next trains to leave the station, and here, the train to the airport had now changed to platform 4. Up the escalator we went, down the next (it was more like running), and just as we got to the bottom of the escalator, the train to the airport entered the station.

It is good to see that this stuff happens in other countries as well, though I would have preferred not to participate in the little spiel.

Dangers of Xing and LinkedIn

Professional networks such as Xing (mostly Germany) or LinkedIn are excellent tools to support the care and feeding of one’s network. No discussion there. I’ve been an active member of these sites for many years, and not only have I found interesting connections to use both professionally and privately, but these sites are - of course - a favorite amongst headhunters as well.

Currently, a notion hit me that I haven’t considered - ever - when adding new connections to my networks. The concept crept into my head recently, when an ex-colleague from a previous employer contacted me to re-connect on Xing. Apparently, he had lost some connections due to a technical issue; in any case, he wanted to re-connect.

This colleague is a key account manager at my previous employment and, as it happens, that company is a direct competitor to my current employer.

One feature of network sites like Xing and LinkedIn is their „network news” broadcasts. You’ll get a weekly email update of what is happening with other people you are linked to. While this may be entertaining and mostly harmless for technical or administrative folks, if you’re very close to sales - like I am - then „person x is now connected to person y” may broadcast much more about your sales activities to your competition than you might like!

Think of it this way: every time you connect to a new potential (or existing) customer, that connection is broadcast to every sales person working for the competition that is linked to you! Not a good idea, really, is it? Alternately, you might just send them an email, telling them what accounts you’re currently working on!

I haven’t found a way to turn that broadcast off, neither on Xing or LinkedIn, so until I do, I certainly won’t be adding any more people to my network whose nose shouldn’t be stuck in my business activities.