Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Being LED In The Right Direction

Last week, I had an unexpected education in the world of lighting.  We bought a new chandelier for our dining room, and it had the Compact Fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.  The problems with CFL (or any fluorescent for that matter) are, one, they have mercury in them and so are toxic, and must be disposed of responsibly, and two, they flicker and are a source of eye irritation and headaches to say the least.  So, being a savvy consumer, I know that LED bulbs (Light-Emitting Diodes) consume a fraction the power of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, produce less heat, and are environmentally more acceptable, not to mention they last a very long time (supposedly - more below).  So, LED bulbs it was (5 for the fixture), and boy, it would be nice to have a dimmer switch, so I bought a LeGrand dimmer switch from Lowes that says it works with CFL and LED bulbs.

Since we are in the middle of remodeling our bathrooms, we had investigated light fixtures, and found our first lesson:

Ensuring Long Bulb Life

While at a Lowes, we asked a helpful gentleman (who turned out to be a US service veteran, thanks for your service!) about bulbs, and why it seemed that some fixtures bulbs burned out quick, while others they lasted years.  He said his dad, who was an electrician, taught him some important knowledge.  You know that metal tab in the back of the socket?  That is an electrical lead.  It is spring-loaded so that it pushes against the bulb lead and makes good contact.  However, we are taught to screw things in tight, which pushes the spring-loaded metal back.  Then, electricity runs through it, which warms it up, so the metal gets used to the new position, and eventually doesn't make good contact with the bulb lead.  When the leads don't make good contact, it can "stress" the bulb with an inconstant supply of electricity - and LED bulbs are electronic components as opposed to simple wires, so they are much more susceptible to issues arising from poor electrical quality.

To solve this problem, every time you change a bulb, I learned, you should use something non-conductive like a sharpened pencil, and pull the tab up.  When you put the bulb in, don't tighten it, just screw it in until it lights up.  I found that this fixed a "broken" light socket in our kitchen fixture, and it has improved the quality of light produced by the bulbs that did work.

Matching a Switch to a Bulb

In purchasing a dimmer switch for my new chandelier, I was aware that the dimmer had to work for LED bulbs.  However, I was not aware that different bulbs work differently with different switch models (let alone manufacturers).  We did have one bulb that didn't light properly, so it turned out to be a really good learning experience that instead of just returning it to Lowes, I called GE (the bulb manufacturer).  The first thing they asked me was to go to their web page that listed a long list of their bulb products, and for each group of products, a list of switch models that they tested.  The results of the tests were color coded: Green if it worked perfectly, Yellow if there was buzzing or flickering at lower voltages on the dimmer, and Red if it simply didn't work or damaged the bulb.  I told her it was just one bulb, but she insisted, because long-term, a badly-made switch can damage bulbs, and end up being expensive to replace bulb after bulb (these were expensive bulbs to begin with).

Next, I took each of the dimmer switch models that were shown Green for the type of bulb I had, and searched - they didn't have a single one.  I searched - and they had in stock a few of the recommended models.  So, on to Home Depot.

While there, we found Ecosmart brand LED bulbs, same form factor and same description, for a lot less.  So, we bought a set to try them out.  At $6.50 per bulb, the GE were pricey compared to $2.67 per bulb Ecosmart.

What we found, as usual, is that if you spend more money, you usually get a better product.  The GE bulbs produced a much more natural light (even though both used the same terminology and description and similar specs), and performed much better with the switch recommended by GE.  Weird that Home Depot doesn't sell the GE bulbs, and Lowes doesn't sell a switch that is recommended by GE.  Both bulb brands were warranted for 5 years, and given a 13 year life estimate; but the GE bulbs went down to completely dark at the bottom end of the dimmer switch, and did NOT buzz or flicker (like they did with the LeGrand switch from Lowes).  Frankly, when you take the cost of the bulb over 13 years, the difference is negligible, and I would rather have something I am happy with.

LED Light Fixtures

At the hardware store, we saw some really beautiful and cool light fixtures that are LED.  They are in really neat shapes, with the light coming down through curved acrylic bars or some other exciting shapes and material.  However, we asked some questions and noticed some massive shortcomings.  One thing we are constantly aware of these days is the serviceability and lifetime of a product.  Another is the packaging.  All products, I wish the packaging were completely recyclable and reduced to minimal packaging.  This is the major shortcoming in federal lawmaking.  However, for these LED fixtures, we noticed that they are made with special bulbs built into them.  And, the bulbs are not replaceable.  This is a big no-no nowadays!  It is bad enough (way bad) that printers are cheap, and after a few years stop working, and are so expensive to fix that nobody fixes them and just buy new, and throw "away" the old ones.  But what happens after the 5 year warranty, when (not if) the proprietary built-in bulb goes out?  You are going to replace the whole fixture?  That is just insane.  As cool as they look, I would only buy them if they had replaceable bulbs.


So, gone are the old days where you get any switch you like, any bulb you like, and just put them in.  And, it does make sense if you think about it.

A dimmer switch is really a small circuit board, and so the quality of the electronics and design and lab testing are really much more important than a simple on-off switch or even an old style dimmer switch that used an electronic pot to vary the output voltage.  Also, the LED bulbs are small circuit boards with diodes on them, and again the electronics, design and testing are important.  The quality of the products take a lot of R&D to perfect, and since we are talking electricity flow, that has to be conditioned and smooth as well.  So, it is important that a dimmer switch be made of sufficient quality to feed good "clean" electricity to the bulb, and the bulb be designed properly to respond to the varying voltages supplied by a dimmer switch.

So, we found that the Lutron switch worked much better than the LeGrand (for about the same price), and the GE bulbs were far superior in light quality to the Ecosmart.

Monday, April 29, 2019

"Smart" is the new "e" and "i"

Remember my post 7 years ago about the vogue-ness of using in-letters to start words?  Apparently my prediction was wrong, just flat out wrong.  I was thinking linearly, like what's the next letter, when I should have been thinking off the curve - what's the next word?  And that word has become "smart" - as in smart watch, smart phone, smart office (yes I actually just read that in an actual, published article).  For crying out loud, PLEASE let's stop using that!  It is way NOT smart.

First of all, calling something smart just because it has a processor on it is a labeling gimmick just like e and i (see above article).  They aren't smart - because if they were actually able to have artificial intelligence, that would scare the (smart) pants off me!  So something has a chip on it and some firmware that lets it take input and alter its behavior.

Second, is it really smart to be covering our lives in computing hardware?  This Internet of Things (or IoT), processors in our speakers, processors in our TVs, and more - this is ushering in, at the very least, an age of George Orwell's 1984, where it is easy for the government, hackers, or what have you to spy on every aspect of your private life.  And that's the least of it.  At worst, with machine learning and AI come self-awareness and then self-preservation, and I tell you, machines will enslave humanity - and we will willingly give in to them.

So the big fad today is smart this and smart that.  And the common theme in product marketing is to call things like they aren't (sound like 1984??).  As in, not smart is called smart.

Aw man, am I just a weirdo shouting into the wind?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Virus Alert

Virus Alert!

I don't know if you are a fan of Weird Al Yankovic, like our family is.  If you are a fan and have been listening to all of his music, you have likely heard this song.  If you haven't, I highly recommend finding it on your music service and listening to it.  Stop reading right now, and go and listen.  Go ahead!

Now, welcome back.  I think now that you've heard it, you will understand my technical take on this: as we listen to this, I tell the kids which warnings in the song are possible, and which aren't.  While listening to my playlist at the gym this morning, it came on, and it occurred to me that more of the warnings in the song are possible now, than when my kids were younger.  Let's make a list of these warnings, and identify which ones actually may happen, and which ones may not.  I think you'd be surprised, what an expert's analysis indicates.  I am also going to predict which ones may become possible in the next few years, with Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things (always wondered what IoT stood for??).

First, the Feasibility is on a scale from 0 (Impossible) to 5 (Absolutely possible).  Then, I establish a feasibility now, as of 2019, as well as in the future (meaning probably in the next 10 years, but really any time).

# Warning Feasibility Now Future Feasability
1 Translate your documents into Swahili 5 5
2 Make your TV record "Gigli" 1 3
3 Neuter your pets 0 2
4 Give your laundry static cling 1 5
5 Make your computer screen freeze 5 5
6 Erase the Easter eggs off your DVDs 0 0
7 Erase your hard drive and your backups too 2 5
8 And the hard drives of anyone related to you 1 3
9 Make the paint peel off your walls 0 1
10 Make your keyboard all sticky 0 0
11 Give your poodle a hickey 0 0
12 Invest your cash in stock in Euro Disney 5 5
13 Tie up your phone making crank long distance calls 1 3
14 Set your clocks back an hour 2 5
15 Start clogging the shower 0 0
16 Give you a permanent wedgie 0 0
17 Legally change your name to Reggie 1 2
18 Mess up the pH balance in your pool 0 3
19 Melt your face right off your skull 0 0
20 Make your iPod only play Jethro Tull 0 3
21 Tell you knock-knock jokes while you're trying to sleep 1 5
22 Make you physically attracted to sheep 0 0
23 Steal your identity and your credit cards 5 5
24 Buy you a warehouse full of pink leotards 5 5
25 Cause a major rift in time and space 0 0
26 Leave a bunch of Twinkie wrappers all over the place 0 0
27 Email your grandmother all of your porn 5 5

Did any of them surprise you?  For those whose feasibility values changed, let's discuss my reasoning behind that:

2. Make your TV record "Gigli

Since many of us use streaming TV services, it is quite possible that a hack of them will make it record shows you have no control over.  Whether or not Ben Affleck and J Lo will be on that recording, well, that's another matter entirely.

3. Neuter your pets

"What?" you may say, "You are crazy!"  Believe it or not, I think services like picking up your pet and having things done will become more of a thing, as people get more and more reliant upon technology, and pay less and less attention to the details of life.  A simple hack would make it possible to order a neuter service, have them come and pick it up, and pay for it too.

4. Give your laundry static cling

"Now I know you're whacked!" you say.  But wait!  Think of the IoT.  This brings more and more things connected, and if you get the "smart" devices (which I refuse to), a hack could control them.  The device manufacturers, as has been shown, are not security experts, nor do may do even the basic due diligence (shame on them!).  Heck, the phone system Caller ID is still stuck back in the 1990's vintage protocol it originally was devised with.  I absolutely believe that appliance manufacturers do (and will) drop the security ball, and let hackers do things like maliciously control their devices, even to changing dryer settings and giving your clothes static cling.  And, I fully have faith in Human nature, that there are hackers out there who will do it just to laugh at it.  So I give this one a 1 now, simply because most people don't have smart laundry machines yet, but as they do, it will become absolutely feasible.

7. Erase your hard drive and your backups too

Obviously erasing your hard drive is certainly one of the things viruses can do; but your backups?  If you use online backup services, this can be a risk as well.  I'd say, definitely could happen.  I put a higher future feasibility simply because I believe more people will go to cloud backups.

8. And the hard drives of anyone related to you

Definitely - as social media security has been a big issue lately, and Facebook, for example, has fallen way short of protecting user privacy, this is a big and growing risk.

9. Make the paint peel off your walls

Bear with me here.  You know how they have smart lightbulbs, and smart outlets?  Smart paint.  It will be a thing.  Yeah, not very likely, so I didn't put it as a 5.  But who knows?

13. Tie up your phone making crank long distance calls

What is a "long distance" call?  We almost don't know anymore!  International calls are still costlier, but even calls to Canada and Mexico are treated as domestic US calls nowadays.  Anyhow, as our "telephone" devices become computers, I say the risk becomes higher that this is more likely.

14. Set your clocks back an hour

Don't even get me started on Daylight Savings Time - just abolish it and be done with it.  Until then, yes, as clocks are more and more connected (I use my Apple Watch and "phone" as a clock almost entirely), they are more and more open to this risk.

17. Legally change your name to Reggie

While I admit that would be tragic, I don't think this is very likely.  However, state run records systems where you change your name legally are certainly electronic, and therefore vulnerable.  I'd give this a low but real risk.

18. Mess up the pH balance in your pool

Yeah, you know where I'm going with this one.  IoT.  As great as it may seem to connect everything, I think we need to think more about A) should we, and B) how do we do it, because if we do it in a way that is off-the-shelf, it becomes widely open and widely vulnerable to the same security flaws that everyone and everything else suffers from.  So, is the pool management system connected via WiFi?

20. Make your iPod play only Jethro Tull

What's wrong with Jethro Tull???  And besides, Apple security is primo, so they can't hack that!  But seriously, when I think of iPod, I mean any music playing device - including Alexa, Home Pod, Google Assistant, let alone your "phone."  I'd say this could become more and more possible over time, as things get more and more connected.  Indeed, look at the Apple products, all interconnected and working together.  If someone changes a playlist on one device, all the devices using that account are synced.

21. Tell you knock-knock jokes while you're trying to sleep

Yup.  Alexa.  Home Pod.  Etc.  You already heard of the flaw that let an Alexa user broadcast continuously what was going on in their home to someone else without their knowledge?  Imagine when (not if) someone figures out how to hack Alexa, and exploits some vulnerability.  I think it is quite possible, and growing over time, that they could get it to suddenly blurt out knock knock jokes (among other things) in the middle of the night.

So, that's my analysis, and yes, Weird Al is a visionary!  Rock on!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Java No Longer Free

 Java Release Update Notice

Has anyone seen this?  Back when Oracle purchased Sun Computers, and therefore got ahold of the rights for Java, the biggest thing everyone was afraid of was that they would start charging for it.  Here it is, and they are going to do that.  Basically what it says above is that, as of 2020, everyone will have to pay for the technology, and if you are a person who just happens to use a program they got that was written in Java (think Minecraft), well then you will have to buy it, or arrange for some kind of update arrangement with the person you got your software from (i.e. they will pay for it).

True, the long slow decline of Java has begun, and with more and more newer browsers not supporting it, and the security concerns inherent with the Java platform, this really may not be a bad thing.  But, the disruption is nevertheless real.  If you are a company using corporate mission-critical applications that rely on Java (which there are a lot of), then you will have to now budget for Java updates with Oracle.

My prediction is that this policy will help hasten the demise of Java. And that, I think, is a good thing. This is an overbearing, bloated platform that has been riddled with security holes since day 1.  All the effort to close those holes has led to a crazy patchwork of incompatibilities and technical support nightmares. Let it die let it die, let it shrivel up and die.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Scams and The Wild Wild West of the Internet

Above is a real e-mail from my Inbox.  We all know that scams abound, and that scammers are getting smarter about them.  However, the really really really really really dumb ones like above still come through.  Poorly-worded English, and really plain ask for money without any background or research.  The fact that these e-mails are still being sent, to me, would seem to indicate that they must work at some level.  So, that leaves me to wonder, what brain-dead individuals with socially-stunted interpersonal skills would fall for such a thing that says "We awaits your contribution" from some random e-mail address that may or may not even be someone that they know?  Would it be some elderly person?  I kind of doubt that many elderly have e-mail if they don't understand the dangers of it, and who can send them letters; and if they do have e-mail, I doubt that they have much money to be able to pay any scams if they don't understand these things (they probably already lost that money through some other scam).

Recently, I began a charitable endeavor, and networked through people I know to talk to corporate task forces responsible for remitting charitable donations to the community.  On the call, they asked me how I know my contact (a VP of the company), and if I really did talk to him - because they are getting people who research their company, learn the names of executives, and use those names to say they were referred by them, to try to garner credibility for the scam.  And this isn't a really big company to begin with.  That's how aggressive and researched and intelligent some of these scammers have become.

All the more surprising to see the old "I am a prince with millions of dollars trapped in offshore accounts, and I need your help to move it" type of scam even be attempted.

Some very clever e-mails try to look legit.  For example, my wife and son got emails claiming that their e-mail was hacked, their password was such-and-such (a password they had used on some site that had actually been hacked), and that they need to transfer bitcoins to this account if they wanted to avoid their social media (all of them) and others being controlled.  This was blatantly idiotic, but had some intelligence behind it as it used an actual hacked password from somewhere else on the presumption that they use the same password everywhere.

Phone Call Scams

There are many phone call scams, too.  Again, they seem so stupid to me, that I wonder at the level of people who fall for them.  They are typically of the type that says things like "This is Card Services, we can help you lower your credit card interest rate" (hilarious they call my kids who are too young to have cards...), or "Don't hang up" (I immediately hang up).  Every once in a while, I get a call that says they are from Microsoft (in an Indian accent) and that they were notified a virus was detected on my PC (I have Macs).  So, why are these calls so prevalent today, and what can we do about them?

First, let's look at WHY these occur.  On the driving end, many of us eventually fall for these scams and it is very cheap to attempt them, so if even a small percentage of marks fall for the scam, it more than pays for itself.  On the enabling end, people are using 2 very old, ancient technologies with absolutely no or little security to communicate.  These are e-mails and telephone.

Most e-mail systems support POP and SMTP, which are mail protocols developed in the 1960s and not updated much since.  Some security has been added, but they are typically optional, and depend on each mail server being set up with those security options enabled.  For example, requiring the sender to authenticate to the server (e.g. enter a name and password) is optional when a mail server is set up.  If you look at the POP protocol, it was designed with the Internet way back, when the entire purpose of the Internet was to provide a system of interconnectedness between computers that could survive a nuclear war, and possibly an entire city being destroyed, and yet still function and route traffic.  Thus, POP relays e-mails from the originating server, through any number of intermediate servers, until it finds the destination server.  The originating server is in charge of whether or not it requires authentication, and then the e-mail goes along its merry way.  If some scam artist or criminal sets up an e-mail server, it finds other e-mail servers to relay through, and some sort of trust is established such that no real security is in place.

In order to fix this issue, it would require a whole new e-mail system that requires senders to authenticate who they are, and a trust between each mail system that each individual mail system has vetted its users for illicit activities.

Now let's look at telephone systems.  Back around the 1970's and 1980's, they were developing a Caller ID system.  In this system, if you think about how telephones worked back then, one switch the caller was connected to routed the call based on the number he dialed, to another switch, and so on until it reached the final telephone terminal.  All of these systems were over copper wires with electricity, using old "analog" signals.  They broadcast tones over these signals that were the precursors to digital, called DTMF tones, to communicate the phone number dialed to the switches.  So, on top of this ancient and very simple system, they created a protocol that would work with all these old phones, that basically says the calling phone gets to say who it is (as in "Hello, my number is 555-111-2222") and that is relayed to the receiving phone.  Absolutely no security, no way of verifying that's who it really is.  So anyone can put anything they want.  And guess what?  That's the Caller ID system still in place today, globally.  So guess what?  Anyone can say they are calling from any number, there's nothing that forces them to prove via a more secure system they are who they say they are.

Supposedly, phone companies have been working on a solution to this, but this is really where government regulation has dropped the ball and not forced them to do it by a certain date.

So, because of this massive lapse in security and regulations on behalf of the public good (thanks, Government), it's a wild west out there for scammers.  They can do anything they want and get away with it - and they have systems that generate a phone number that looks like it is local to you, and that's who it says they are calling you from.  Then, when you call it back, it is either an invalid number, or someone's phone, but they never called you.

Tips to Handle Spoof Calls

The vast majority of these calls are computerized, because that's the way to make it so cheap that it costs them almost nothing to try to find stupid, gullible people to give them their money.  So, knowing that these are stupid computers, it is pretty easy to figure out if this is a real person or a computer.  Answer it, and don't say anything.  If you were calling someone and they answered and it was total silence, what would you do?  You'd say "Hello?  Is anyone there?"  However, computers wait for someone to start talking.  Typically when you answer a phone, you say "Hello?" so it waits for some sound, and then it starts its scam.

If you don't make a noise, it will hang up shortly, and you know it was a robocaller.  If someone says something, you know it's a person.

Should you block the number?  Not likely to help.  Like I said, they can say they are calling from any number, and their software picks a random local number every call, so forget trying to block callers.

How does the phone company help?  There are apps for your phone that try to identify callers - but again, this only works for those who legitimately give their Caller ID.  This is actually a large enough list, so it is helpful.  A third-party app, Mr. Number, will identify incoming callers and show whether they are a telemarketer, debt collector, or suspected spam caller.  Similarly, your cellular carrier offers apps that do the same, and there may be some additional numbers in its registry that Mr. Number doesn't have, so I have both AT&T Call Protect and Mr. Number installed.  Contact your cellular carrier and ask them what apps they have to help protect you from unwanted spam calls.

What about long-term?  In the United States, you can contact your Congressional representatives in the House and Senate, and pester them (yes, over and over and over) to introduce and support legislation that will correct this issue.  Namely, force Internet mail providers to switch to a new system that is secure, and force phone providers to vet their caller ID and force it to be both more secure, and transparently notify users when it is not security authenticated the caller ID is genuine.

They say that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," meaning the more you complain and say something, the more the problem you are complaining about is likely to get addressed.  Congress already knows this is a big issue, but they are slow moving, and typically need a push.  Just because I say to do it at a Federal level, doesn't mean you can't attempt something at the State level as well, but to be really effective, the FCC has to regulate it since it is by definition an interstate system.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Russia, Iran and Others Social Media Exploits

Image result for russia facebook posts
The news has been riddled in recent years with the national spy agencies exploiting social media to influence outcomes.  While it is obvious that the Russian state has hacked American interests, and sought to influence political outcomes via social media, and now it comes out that Iran has done the same for a long time, I am fairly certain that the United States government is no less culpable.

However, let's take a step back.  True, if someone could hack into an election system, they could modify the vote count and therefore have an alternate result reported.  They would have to hack into literally tens of thousands of separate systems to get that done.  But let's go back to social media.  How many people actually believe what they read on social media?  True, a lot of people are initially duped by scams, but eventually the truth comes out.  Also, just like the health effects of fast food, it is widely known that posts on social media are just unreliable in their veracity.  And yet, the press is all over the fact that nation states have sought to influence the public through social media.

What is going on here?  Are these spy organizations misdirecting their efforts in a non-effective manner?  Is the news (and the social media platforms themselves) overstating their influence?  Or, do people actually believe what they see and read on social media?  (For example, celebrity deaths have been reported on Facebook, shared and reshared, only to have the dead celebrity post that they are not, in fact, deceased.)

First of all, I would personally caution anyone from believing anything they see on social media, unless they research and personally verify it.  For example, let's say someone posts about the IRS suing you for back taxes.  Check out Snopes to research and debunk many seemingly-plausible myths that are out there.

Second of all, it is a much grayer area when posts are done about opinions rather than facts.  Think about this - as people, we tend to filter everything we see and hear.  That filter says, if we agree with it, we listen to it, and if we disagree, we don't.  So someone makes a statement, and you agree - you then are more likely to listen to other things he says, thinking that this is someone with whom you have some kind of background of agreement.  And vice versa, if that person says something you disagree with, then everything he says isn't worth listening to.

If that were the sum of all Human capability, we would be in a very sad state indeed, probably still hunter-gatherers who haven't progressed to agriculture or civilizations.  If all you get your news from is news sites that you "like" because they say the right thing, then you are limiting your knowledge and awareness of the world.  Furthermore, what if the US Congress were peopled by representatives who only listened to those who had the same ideas?  Wait, it mostly is?!?!?  It wasn't always like that, and think to the people whom we admire most - these were people who listened to, and respected, those whose opinions differed from their own, but whose primary central commitment was to the discourse, to listening to you, to expressing their views, and coming to an understanding.

Lastly, and mostly of all, I want you to consider this.  Think of our town, our city, our state, our country, even the world as a family.  A nuclear family.  There are a lot of dynamics in a family, people do things that upset others, and they get angry, say things that are hurtful sometimes.  Yet, as family, we have a common survival, a commonality of living together.  And, as a healthy relationship, we listen to each other, we forgive each other our transgressions, and we ask for forgiveness when we realize we transgressed.  That healthy existence is being threatened, for political means, by others who have as their goal the downfall of our country.  They want to sow discord, have us fighting and disagreeing, and they love it when they hear that their little innuendos, insinuations, and machinations have caused us to fight.  They hate it when we work things out and make our own lives better.  These are the forces at work, when political actors are trying to sabotage how we function as a civil society.  Remember, the Constitution of the United States established a limited-power central government just so that we can be stewards of our own politics, and that we can have our own overarching goals of working together and working things out.  And remember that many are jealous of our country, and are righteously outraged by the transgressions against our own Constitution that we sometimes perpetrate.  They think that our society is rotten, that we are weak, and that they can bring us down from the inside by making us fight over our disagreements.

Are they right?

Friday, May 12, 2017

Myth and Reality - The Truth and Dangers with Artificial Intelligence


The inspiration to write this post came when I logged onto our Salesforce account, and was presented with the marketing banner, "Meet Salesforce Einstein, AI-powered CRM for everyone."  It occurred to me that AI is the new Cloud, the new IoT.  As such, its use has become commonplace in the news, articles, advertising - everywhere, and most assuredly, its meaning has become vague, evoking the yearning for the "latest and greatest" while dire warnings from science, science fiction, and business are becoming more urgent and public.

This publicizing of a technical term creates a great opportunity - to raise awareness, both of what it is and what it can become, and to hopefully inspire some action.


In Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence (or AI) is a term that has been thrown around since at least I was in college back in 1990 (as a Bachellor's in Computer Science from University of Michigan).  I have found that, until the last year or so, it has been a pretty technical term that those of us in the industry seem to intuitively understand.  However, now that its use has become ubiquitous in the day of "smart phones" and massively-capable mobile devices, I feel that its use and meaning may have become watered down and obfuscating much in the same way that the term Cloud has become prior to it.  I'd like to clear that up.

First of all, we have Hardware (or the physical parts of a computer that you can touch), and Software (or the instruction code that is bundled up into a thing that performs tasks and makes the hardware useful).  AI is software, for sure, but not all software is AI.  This is in much the same way as putting a hard drive on the Internet and calling it a Cloud isn't really a Cloud, but a Cloud-accessible storage.

So what are the basic elements that make it AI?  I would say that it requires a few things:

  • Capability to "learn"
    • What do we mean by learning?  This is so intrinsic to what it is to be a Human, that we almost don't have a precise grasp on it.  We try something - and we fail, or succeed, and that outcome gives us a certain level of understanding that we didn't have before, and we use that to inform our future decisions.  So if we turn left while driving, and hit a wall, do we refrain from turning left thereafter?  No, but we do look and examine the conditions first (is there a wall?) before attempting a turn, either left or right.
    • The ability of animals to learn ranges from very simple (think insects) to extremely complex (think primates, dolphins, whales, elephants let alone us Humans).  Software learning could consist of building a database of "facts" and using those to make decisions, but learning on anything but the level of an ant is much more complicated than that.  It is comparable to reprogramming ourselves based on input, not simply cataloging the results and using them.  We can learn new skills, for example, that we didn't have before (these range from mental to physical skills, and combinations thereof).
  • Recognition via senses
    • We have our various senses:  touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, kinesthesis, time, and more.  We can recognize, for example, with sight a color (say red), in various light will be different actual colors, but we still recognize it as red because of the context of the ambient light.  We are far, far more nuanced than that simple example, recognizing faces, even similarities between faces (oh, you look like his daughter), and more.  AI commonly consists of pattern recognition, sometimes using what is called a neural net as a computing construct to build history and analyze input based on that history.  You've seen the sci fi shows that do facial recognition, where they pull up all the cameras in a city and search for someone (they are really close to that now in reality), and perhaps have set up a sign-on with the PS4 camera so that when you show your face, it logs you on.
  • Language
    • If you have tried to learn a different language, or even delve into the depths of your mother tongue, you will know what a crazily complex thing Human languages are!  However, AI will be able to understand, at least at a rudimentary level, spoken and written language.  What do we mean by "understand?"  Yes, understand the explicit meaning of words, if not the implicit meanings ("what do you mean, yes honey I love you?  Are you mocking me?").  Intonation, inflection, even body language are things that are probably way off, but they undoubtedly will be coming - if we continue on the path we are on now in AI research.
  • Decision-Making
    • As I said earlier, cataloging the outcomes of actions and making decisions based on those outcomes and current input, is a very small part of decision making.  If you don't think that's true, then you aren't a Project Manager - a very highly skilled profession that requires years of training and experience to pull of successfully, even with highly skilled learners that Humans are.  But some form of adaptive decision making is part of a true AI solution.
  • Morals
    • A set of limiting and/or guiding principles, the violation of which are thought of as horrific and punishable, also must be included in a true AI.  Think Isaac Asimov's rules on robot behavior.
    • What if these moral limiters could be bypassed (e.g. the robot's eyes turn from blue to red)?  What if some unscrupulous developer excluded them altogether?  What if someone hacked them?


So, it would seem we are pretty far off from C-3PO, Human-Cyborg Relations, right?  Yes and no, yes some things we have very far to go (hey, they are still struggling with a 2-legged robot keeping its balance), and in other things they have made huge advancements.  However, now, before things get too far, is the time to step back and ask important social questions, like why, or should we?  Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX (among others) thinks that achieving some of these key AI milestones is merely a matter of a couple decades away (or less).  And he should know - he is involved in a lot of technology development, including self-driving cars.

Am I predicting all doom and gloom?  You know the old saying, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  It starts out with cool things like mobile phone assistants, but then it progresses to clerks who can take your order and deal with dissatisfied customers (in a mostly dissatisfying way), to robotic assembly lines that can fix their own production issues - but suddenly, something happens.  Skynet becomes self-aware, and determines that Humans are a scourge to be wiped out.  Frankly, I cannot see any progression of AI that doesn't end in some catastrophic, cataclysmic struggle for existence.  That's the stupidity of being Human - we push and push and push, knowing that we are pushing off the cliff, but it's someone else's responsibility, someone else's problem.  That's right, the aliens are projecting an SEP field on us!  I have endless faith that Humans are self-destructive to a small or large degree, depending on how successful you are.

Does AI have to progress to the point where machines become a danger to us?  Let's look at things this way.  Computers are already so complex, that there is probably not a single person on this planet anymore who can comprehend the full set of what is going on there.  That means, the product is beyond the understanding of any individual.  The complexities that arise mean that we don't fully understand the consequences.  We don't fully grasp the potential - and all we can see is what the Sales and Marketing people want us to see.

As a self-confessed tech geek and tech aficionado, I am warning us all that this is a bad path.  There is no good ending for this.

In the Media

AI is in the media on an almost daily basis.  From self-driving cars, to smart homes, electronic assistants (Alexis, Siri, Cortana, and Hey Google), to even things we don't think of like traffic lights and telephone call routers, AI to some basic level has been here for decades.  However, it has reached a point where technology, research, and capabilities have expanded tremendously - and this brings up danger signs.

What, am I saying that the latest military top secret project will become Skynet (think Terminator)?  Or that the people in charge will bypass authentication and set things to automatically run without safeguards will enable the digital world to enslave humanity (think Brian Herbert's prequels to Dune)?  Yes, as a matter of fact, even though that may sound farfetched and outlandish, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, 2 of the world's foremost minds in business, technology and science, are warning just such a thing.  I have agreed with that assessment wholeheartedly for about 30 years, as a computer expert who has been developing and implementing automation solutions that help make businesses run better and faster.

What's the Answer?

Get rid of computers!  Yeah, right.  The only way that will happen is by circumstances outside of our (Humanity's) control.  So if that's not an option, do we stop research on AI?  I know 2 high profile brilliant people who would say so, and I strongly urge a complete and total ban on AI.  Machines should not do the above, and it should be enshrined in our laws, our religions - or, if not, we risk extinction.  Maybe even having governmental or non-governmental review boards to review software for signs of AI, and enforcement to punish perpetrators of a newly-defined crime, a crime against Humanity's future.

I have read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction.  Of all the books I have read, my hands-down favorite are the Dune series by Frank Herbert and son Brian Herbert.  Especially piercingly prescient, the father's series takes place thousands of years after the Human race barely avoided extinction from its self-induced machine overlords (the subject of the son's prequels).  In the myriad of planetary systems, thousands of distinct cultures and civilizations descended from Earth - each and every one of them has a basic law at the core of all religions, government, society - Thou Shalt Not Create a Thinking Machine.  In the books, Humans learned their lessons about the boundaries of technology - and had achieved faster-than-light interstellar travel, vast technological marvels, and more - all without a machine more intelligent than a calculator.  True, that's a novel - and true, computers are fast, capable, and people spend money on faster and more capable.  But at some point, all of these warnings will come to fruition (not may, WILL).  And we will have to repeat the lessons of the universe of Dune - if we survive.