Google AI Blog: Google Duplex: An AI System for Accomplishing Real-World Tasks Over the Phone

Google’s AI has gotten so good, it’s scary.

A long-standing goal of human-computer interaction has been to enable people to have a natural conversation with computers, as they would with each other. In recent years, we have witnessed a revolution in the ability of computers to understand and to generate natural speech, especially with the application of deep neural networks (e.g., Google voice search, WaveNet). Still, even with today’s state of the art systems, it is often frustrating having to talk to stilted computerized voices that don’t understand natural language. In particular, automated phone systems are still struggling to recognize simple words and commands. They don’t engage in a conversation flow and force the caller to adjust to the system instead of the system adjusting to the caller. Today we announce Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.

Source: Google AI Blog: Google Duplex: An AI System for Accomplishing Real-World Tasks Over the Phone

Goldman asks: ‘Is curing patients a sustainable business model?’

When I first confronted my GERD stomach issues a few decades ago I had a choice: I could simply take an antacid pill each day for life or I could get surgery to fix it. The pill would’ve been easy, painless, and relatively inexpensive but I chose the surgery simply because I didn’t want to be dependent on Big Pharma.

This Golden Sachs analyst’s remarkable candor shows, in a nutshell, what’s wrong with a capitalistic health care system. What’s good for the patient is not always good for the investor. In fact, pretty frequently it’s not.

If you had any illusions about the true motivation of the medical industry you should now know the truth.

Wall Street greed is often why we can’t have nice things.

Goldman Sachs analysts attempted to address a touchy subject for biotech companies, especially those involved in the pioneering “gene therapy” treatment: cures could be bad for business in the long run.

“Is curing patients a sustainable business model?” analysts ask in an April 10 report entitled “The Genome Revolution.”

“The potential to deliver ‘one shot cures’ is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies,” analyst Salveen Richter wrote in the note to clients Tuesday. “While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow.”

Source: Goldman asks: ‘Is curing patients a sustainable business model?’

Pahrump-based radio host Art Bell dies at 72 – Las Vegas Review-Journal

North Carolina native, talk show pioneer, and fellow explorer Art Bell has passed away, or as we in the amateur radio field say, W6OBB is now a “silent key.”

I started listening to Art Bell’s Coast to Coast show back around 1995. Much of what I heard was off-the-wall nonsense but some of it was truly amazing. Life-changing amazing, in fact.

He was always a gentleman on the airwaves, no matter whom was his guest. In the depths of those dark nights you always felt like you had a friend out there, somewhere in the desert of Nevada.

Thanks for all the stimulating conversation and for shining a light on some of the most interesting topics imaginable.

He was awake when most of the country was asleep, cultivating a loyal following while sharing his fascination with the unexplained on his nighttime paranormal-themed show.

For the better part of two decades, longtime late-night radio personality Art Bell was his own producer, engineer and host of his show, “Coast to Coast AM.” He later launched his own satellite radio program from his Pahrump home after retiring from full-time hosting duties in 2003.

On the airwaves, Bell captivated listeners with his fascination for the unexplained, such as UFOs, alien abductions and crop circles. He died Friday at his home at the age of 72.

“As he begins his journey on the ‘other side,’ we take solace in the hope that he is now finding out all of the answers to the mysteries he pursued for so many nights with all of us,” Coast to Coast said in a statement Saturday.

Source: Pahrump-based radio host Art Bell dies at 72 – Las Vegas Review-Journal

Facebook caught spying on conversations again

I was in need of wheelbarrows for a company project two weeks ago, so I pulled up the webpage for the Lowe’s hardware store on my work computer and perused their offerings. A day later, just like magic, Facebook presented me with a Facebook ad from Lowe’s featuring the same brand of wheelbarrows I looked at! The social media company made the connection between my work computer and my personal phone, even though I was not logged into Facebook on my work computer when I made the search. Apparently I had left some Facebook cookies behind on my work computer and Lowe’s webpage uses Facebook integrations to read those cookies.

Lowe’s wheelbarrow ad on Facebook

Creepy? Perhaps for some, but at least I can understand how this magic was done. I might not necessarily like Lowe’s sharing my searches with Facebook but I understand how and why it happened. I chalk this up to good, clean, targeted advertising. It’s fair game.

But there’s apparently another, more nefarious kind of targeted advertising done by Facebook, whether or not they care to admit it. A friend had lunch with a colleague yesterday and they were waiting for their meals when his colleague casually mentioned that his car was in need of a new ignition coil. Upon returning to his office, my friend checked Facebook and was astounded to find a Facebook ad for an ignition coil!

What are the odds of this happening by chance? I mean, I know that a recent story on this by Digg has pointed to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon as a possible explanation. This theory might apply to more common phrases or objects, like cat food, but ignition coils? How often does anyone ever utter the words “ignition coil” in their lifetime? Saying I hear it maybe once every ten years would be generous. It’s pretty damn uncommon phrase.

An ignition coil ad, surely just a coincidence


My friend insists that he never searched for ignition coils, typed it in, or did anything active that would’ve drawn the ad to him. He also was not on any WiFi networks at the restaurant and had no other overt ties to his colleague and their conversation. While it may be possible his colleague Googled it at the restaurant my friend doesn’t think so, and certainly he didn’t use my friend’s phone to do it. The odds against this being coincidence are simply staggering.

I’ve seen the video of the couple who talked about dog food and summoned dog food ads to their Facebook page. That’s interesting to be sure, but I don’t know these people the way I know my friend. I can certainly vouch for my friend’s honesty.

The Facebook app has been banned from my phone since I caught it using the photos on my phone that I didn’t share to send me ads. That was too creepy for me, but it appears that listening in on what people say now feeds the social media giant’s insatiable appetite to know everything about you.

Are you frightened yet?

How a group of neighbors created their own Internet service | Ars Technica

When you live somewhere with slow and unreliable Internet access, it usually seems like there’s nothing to do but complain. And that’s exactly what residents of Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington state, were doing in late 2013. Faced with CenturyLink service that was slow and outage-prone, residents gathered at a community potluck and lamented their current connectivity.

“Everyone was asking, ‘what can we do?’” resident Chris Brems recalls. “Then [Chris] Sutton stands up and says, ‘Well, we can do it ourselves.’”

Doe Bay is a rural environment. It’s a place where people judge others by “what you can do,” according to Brems. The area’s residents, many farmers or ranchers, are largely accustomed to doing things for themselves. Sutton’s idea struck a chord. “A bunch of us finally just got fed up with waiting for CenturyLink or anybody else to come to our rescue,” Sutton told Ars.Around that time, CenturyLink service went out for 10 days, a problem caused by a severed underwater fiber cable. Outages lasting a day or two were also common, Sutton said.Faced with a local ISP that couldn’t provide modern broadband, Orcas Island residents designed their own network and built it themselves. The nonprofit Doe Bay Internet Users Association (DBIUA), founded by Sutton, Brems, and a few friends, now provide Internet service to a portion of the island. It’s a wireless network with radios installed on trees and houses in the Doe Bay portion of Orcas Island. Those radios get signals from radios on top of a water tower, which in turn receive a signal from a microwave tower across the water in Mount Vernon, Washington.

Source: How a group of neighbors created their own Internet service | Ars Technica

Amazon built its hyper efficient warehouses by embracing chaos — Quartz

Good look at how Amazon takes advantage of randomness in its warehouses.

Amazon has completely redefined warehouse efficiency and customer convenience. Through its Prime membership, it has promised tens of millions of customers free two-day shipping on more than 100 million products, and, last year, it shipped 5 billion items to them. “That was the major innovation,” says Daniel Theobald, who cofounded a warehouse robotics company called Vecna in 1998 and counts major retailers and logistics companies as clients. “As soon as people realized, you can order something and get it tomorrow, that turned the industry upside down.”

The core of this disruptive efficiency, though, is not Amazon’s automated shelf-moving warehouse robots, which is the innovation that gets the most attention. And it isn’t, on its surface, something that you would associate with a well-oiled machine. It’s not even a breakthrough technology. In fact, some version of it was already in place when Alperson worked in Amazon’s early warehouses.

What makes Amazon’s warehouse work is the way they organize inventory: with complete randomness.

Source: Amazon built its hyper efficient warehouses by embracing chaos — Quartz

“This Is Serious”: Facebook Begins Its Downward Spiral | Vanity Fair

Years ago, long before Mark Zuckerberg became Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder reached out to a friend of mine who had also started a company, albeit a considerably smaller one, in the social-media space, and suggested they get together. As Facebook has grown into a global colossus that connects about a third of the globe, Zuckerberg has subsequently assumed a reputation as an aloof megalomaniac deeply out of touch with the people who use his product. But back then, when he only had 100 million users on his platform, he wasn’t perceived that way. When he reached out to my friend, Zuckerberg was solicitous. He made overtures that suggested a possible acquisition—and once rebuffed, returned with the notion that perhaps Facebook could at least partner with my friend’s company. The chief of the little start-up was excited by the seemingly harmless, even humble, proposition from the growing hegemon. Zuckerberg suggested that the two guys take a walk.

Taking a walk, it should be noted, was Zuckerberg’s thing. He regularly took potential recruits and acquisition targets on long walks in the nearby woods to try to convince them to join his company. After the walk with my friend, Zuckerberg appeared to take the relationship to the next level. He initiated a series of conference calls with his underlings in Facebook’s product group. My friend’s small start-up shared their product road map with Facebook’s business-development team. It all seemed very collegial, and really exciting. And then, after some weeks passed, the C.E.O. of the little start-up saw the news break that Facebook had just launched a new product that competed with his own.

Source: “This Is Serious”: Facebook Begins Its Downward Spiral | Vanity Fair

How Insulin Became Unaffordable | Harvard Political Review

This is appalling. People are dying because they can’t afford insulin.

The U.S. health care is broken. Only single-payer will fix it and I will support any politician who supports it. No one should die over profits!

On May 20, 2017, Smith turned 26, aging out of his parents’ insurance. Because he was a single man with a decent job, Smith didn’t qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. The most inexpensive plan Smith and his mother could find on the Minnesota exchange was around $450 per month with a $7600 deductible. Smith could have afforded the monthly premiums, but the deductible made the plan too expensive. Although the family had been researching plans for Smith since February, he had to go off of health insurance entirely.

When Smith went to the pharmacy to pick up his insulin in early June, the bill was over $1300 without insurance. He couldn’t afford the medicine that day, and decided to ration his remaining insulin until he was paid. Smith did not tell his family that he was adjusting his carbohydrate intake so he could lower his dosage.

“He knew the signs of being in trouble with his diabetes,” Smith-Holt told the HPR. “But when your body starts shutting down like that, you’re not making very clear, rational decisions.”

On June 25, Smith went to dinner with his girlfriend, where he complained about stomach pains. It was the last time anyone saw him alive. He called in sick to work the next day. On June 27, Smith was found dead in his apartment.

Source: How Insulin Became Unaffordable | Harvard Political Review

Cheap Renewables Keep Pushing Fossil Fuels Further Away From Profitability – Despite Trump’s Efforts

Rapid cost declines made renewable energy the United States’ cheapest available source of new electricity, without subsidies, in 2017. In many parts of the U.S., building new wind is cheaper than running existing coal, while nuclear and natural gas aren’t far behind. As renewable energy costs continue their relentless decline, they keep pushing fossil fuels further from profitability – and neither trend is slowing down.

This dynamic is apparent in the decade spanning 2008-2017, where nearly all retired U.S. power plants were fossil fuel generation, and was capped by utilities announcing 27 coal plant closures totaling 22 gigawatts (GW) of capacity in 2017. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts coal closures will continue through 2020, potentially setting an all-time annual record in 2018.

Source: Cheap Renewables Keep Pushing Fossil Fuels Further Away From Profitability – Despite Trump’s Efforts

Raleigh’s in the Running for Amazon’s HQ2. But Do We Really Want the Damn Thing? | Wake County | Indy Week

IndyWeek pretty much repeats what I’ve been cautioning about Amazon HQ2 landing in Raleigh. Be careful what you wish for.

There’s been something surreal about watching cities all over the country prostrate themselves before Amazon in hopes of landing HQ2, the company’s second headquarters, which will employ some fifty thousand workers and pump $5 billion into the local economy over the next two decades. Newark has offered the internet behemoth $7 billion in incentives. Philadelphia offered as much as $2 billion over ten years. Missouri offered in excess of $2.4 billion (which wasn’t good enough; Amazon rejected bids from Kansas City and St. Louis). Other cities that have made their incentive packages public aren’t far behind. For those that haven’t—including North Carolina—it’s difficult to imagine that figure not reaching the billions.

Source: Raleigh’s in the Running for Amazon’s HQ2. But Do We Really Want the Damn Thing? | Wake County | Indy Week