September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
More from Smithsonian.com
June 1, 2012
Voice recognition software, most of us would probably agree, is a pretty cool thing. But the talking to machines part–be it smartphone, TV screen or dashboard–well, not so much. Asking advice of a device? Reeks of geek. Enunciating each word so you can be understood? How cool can you really be?
But Apple, true to form, has taken this head on by hiring three icons of cool to star in their latest ad campaign for Siri, the voice of the iPhone 4S. There’s Zooey Deschanel (Adorable Cool) and John Malkovich (Cerebral Cool) and Samuel L. Jackson (Ultimate Cool), and all make engaging in wordplay a with a phone seem the sport of gods.
Critics, nonetheless, point out that in real life, Siri is neither as responsive nor all-knowing as she’s portrayed in commercials. You, too, I’m sure, are shocked to hear this. Others see the whole thing as ripe for parody–see Zooey’s brother Jooey do a Funny or Die version of Zooey’s and Siri’s rainy day together.
No matter. Siri has become a lead singer in the robot chorus, the “You Got Mail” voice of a new generation.
It is fashionable in some circles to suggest that Siri isn’t Steve Jobs-worthy, that if he were still alive, Jobs would have pulled it off the market or, at the very least, never would have approved such a high-profile ad campaign for so flawed a product.
But as Jobs’ successor, Tim Cook, said earlier this week, iPhone 4S owners like Siri. According to a survey released in March, almost 90 percent say they use it at least once a month. And keep in mind that Siri, one of the very few Apple products said to be in beta when it was released, won’t celebrate her first birthday until October. She’s still learning language and, even more importantly, just beginning to tap the potential of artificial intelligence.
Siri will likely be a centerpiece of Apple TV, expected to make its debut in December. But chances are, the place where talking to machines will go mainstream is in our cars.
Drive, she said
Sure, that’s already happening, but you still have to switch to robot speak if you want to be understood. And even then there’s no guarantee. That will start to change this summer when some new models will come equipped with something called Dragon Drive!
It’s the invention of Nuance Communications, a Massachusetts-based company that’s become a powerhouse in the voice recognition business. (It’s widely believed to be the brains behind Siri.) Nuance and voice recognition in cars took a big leap forward last week when the firm announced that Dragon Drive! will be able to tap into the cloud.
What this means is that the system will dramatically ramp up its computing power and memory capability. And that means that the voice in your dashboard will become more Siri-like and allow you to actually converse with it. No more monosyllabic shouting. The day is coming when you’ll be able to casually mention that you feel like some Allman Brothers and seconds later “Whipping Post” will come pumping through the speakers.
The key is how well we’re able to teach machines context and pragmatics–how language is used in social situations. And that’s tricky business. For starters, even the most sophisticated voice recognition device needs to wait for a human to finish speaking so it’s able to parse and interpret the whole sentence. Then there’s the “theory of mind,” the ability to understand that other people can have different beliefs and intentions than our own. As far as we know, only humans can do this.
A recent study by two Stanford psychologists can give you a sense of what’s involved in helping machines intuit. Researchers Michael Frank and Noah Goodman set up an online experiment in which participants were asked to look at a set of objects and then select which one was being referred to be a particular word. For instance, one group of participants saw a blue square, a blue circle and a red square. The question for that group was: Imagine you are talking to someone and you want to refer to the middle object. Which word would you use, “blue” or “circle”?
The other group was asked: Imagine someone is talking to you and uses the word “blue” to refer to one of these objects. Which object are they talking about?
The responses helped the researchers get a clearer picture of how a listener understands a speaker and how a speaker decides what to say. From that, they developed the kind of mathematical model that can expand and refine a computer’s thought process.
Said Frank: “It will take years of work but the dream is of a computer that really is thinking about what you want and what you mean rather than just what you said.”
A manner of speech
Here are some more recent developments in voice recognition:
- Siri goes silent: IBM tends to be real nervous about corporate secrets from getting out, so it now forbids its employees from using public file transfer sites, such as Dropbox. But it also has a ban on the use of Siri in the office because security execs worry that someone, while talking to their phone, could reveal sensitive info that ends up on Apple’s servers.
- Take that, Apple!: Samsung launched its new Galaxy X III smartphone in London this week, and while its big touchscreen is getting a lot of attention, it also features new voice and face recognition software.
- Do what I say, not what I do: And Samsung’s not stopping there. It recently filed a patent application for a robot that understands human speech. The robot would be able to adjust its “listening” capabilities to take into account ambient noise that might interrupt or disrupt commands it’s been given. It would also be able to recognize who’s speaking to it, even if the background noise is very loud.
Infographic bonus: You think your car is computerized now. Wait until it’s completely plugged into the Internet. Get the lowdown on what a connected car can do.
January 26, 2012
Last week Steve Jobs came back to life. Or at least his aura did. At an “education event” in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Apple proclaimed that the time has come to “reinvent the textbook” and who better to do it than Apple. The mythic leader himself had put a Jobsian spin on the matter during one of his interviews with writer Walter Issacson for the best-selling biography, Steve Jobs. Textbook publishing, Jobs pronounced, was “an $8 billion industry ripe for digital destruction.”
Let the sacking begin.
In a time when your cell phone can tell you the weather forecast and your car can give you directions, textbooks can feel so, well, unresponsive. They’re not all that different from what they were like when people were riding horses to work, except they cost a whole lot more. They’re still are a pain to keep current, still get dog-earred, still can make you feel like you’re lugging around bricks.
Enter the iPad. Apple’s solution, naturally, is to replace textbooks with sleek, light, nimble iPads and its big announcement last week was that it’s rolling out a new version of its electronic bookstore called iBooks 2, and filling it with titles of its new partners, some of the biggest textbook publishers in the business. The e-books will cost $14.99 each, a pittance in this business, and be a breeze to update. Plus, they’ll be interactive, with touchscreen diagrams, audio and video. And you’ll be able to do word searches.
Apple even has research to back up its contention that the iPad blows away the conventional textbook as a teaching tool. A study done in a California middle school last year found that almost 20 percent more students (78 percent versus 59 percent) scored ”Proficient” or “Advanced” in Algebra I courses when using an iPad.
So it’s all good, right?
Well, there is the matter of how you ensure that every kid has an iPad. Even if Apple offers a discount below the $500 price tag, most public schools aren’t exactly flush with cash these days. And not everyone has been dazzled by Apple’s innovation. Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, a program that helps intergrate technology into the classroom, says that for all the bells and whistles, what iBooks brings to education is more tweak than reinvention. It still treats students as consumers, whereas technology at its best, says Martinez, encourages them to be creators.
Blogger Steve McCabe, writing in “Tidbits,” which covers Apple products, goes even farther. He hopes that in future iterations, Apple’s textbook software will allow more personalized learning where the content will be able to interact with the student–Siri turns tutor–instead of just the other way around. For now, McCabe argues, Apple is offering students an experience not all that different from a CD-ROM in the 1990s.
Steve Jobs is rolling over.
The new college try
Even more dramatic changes in education are bubbling up at the college level. Last month MIT announced the launch this spring of a new initiative called MITx, which will allow people around the world to take MIT courses. For free.
Getting an MIT education at no charge seems like one sweet deal, although it’s not quite that simple. The course selection will be fairly limited, at least initially, and a MITx student won’t be able to earn a degree, but simply a “certificate of completion.” It’s also possible that there will be an “affordable” charge for a certificate. But unlike other online courses the university offers, the MITx platform will give students access to real online labs–not just simulations–and student-to-student discussions. It’s open source software and MIT expects other universities and high schools around the country will eventually end up using it.
That will only swell the latest wave of free online learning, pioneered by websites such as Academic Earth, which began streaming videos of lectures by professors at the country’s top universities almost four years ago and now has Bill Gates among its biggest fans, and Khan Academy, the brainchild of MIT graduate Salman Khan, who began making his conversational video tutorials in 2005 and now has more than 100,000 people around the world viewing his lessons every day. (See Khan’s recent interview with Forbes to see where he thinks all this is headed.) There’s Codeacademy, which teaches coding newbies how to build apps.
And now add a new player called Udacity, which has its own curious history. Last fall Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who’s also been leading the development of Google’s driverless car, sent out an email to a professional network saying that he would offer his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course–the same one he taught at the university–online without charge. Within days 10,000 people had signed up; eventually 160,000 would, including an unusually large contingent of Lithuanians and several Afghans who skirted through war zones to get to Internet connections. When the course ended in December, 248 people had earned perfect scores; none of them was an official Stanford student.
Things apparently got a little tense when Thrun let Stanford administrators know about his plan to offer his class for free. So it’s no surprise that he decided to leave the university and go out on his own. He describes using technology to make free, high-quality education available worldwide as “like a drug.”
Next month Udacity will offer its first two courses, “Building a Search Engine” and “Programming a Robotic Car.” Not for everyone, but available to anyone.
Video Bonus: Watch Sebastian Thrun’s talk at the recent Digital Life Design conference and hear how his decision to teach free courses felt like a choice out of The Matrix.
August 25, 2011
It will be a long time before we see again a CEO go out with all the attention that Steve Jobs has received from a chorus of worshipful essays, blogs, slideshows and videos in the past 24 hours.
There’s no question Jobs has been that rare thing—an innovator who understood the ripple effect of the cult of personality. He was as much a logo as a CEO. But that doesn’t take away from his accomplishments as a marketer, businessman and trendsetter.
Here’s a smattering of the tributes, in print and images, to Apple’s core:
Tim Fernholz, Good: “He earned his place in the pantheon of American innovators with iconic products like the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. He developed a global production system to build the company’s products cheaply and at high quality. iTunes revived the music industry, while the App Store created a whole new software market.”
James Surowiecki, The New Yorker: “Contrary to corporate mythology, most C.E.O.s could be easily replaced, if not by your average Joe, then by your average executive vice-president. But Jobs genuinely earned the label of superstar. He did so by making Apple a company that, time and again over the past decade, created industries out of whole cloth.”
Derek Thompson, The Atlantic: “Making ideas marketable and universal is what Jobs has done for most of his career. Steve Jobs has been called the Edison of our time. That’s even truer than it seems. His genius (not unlike Edison) is the mainstream application of existing ideas, rather than original invention. ”
Andrew Leonard, Salon: “But for me, Jobs’ career signifies something more primal—his comeback saga is a story of redemption, a fantasy epic in which a great king is toppled, but through force of will and grit and brilliance fights his way all the way back to the throne, and inaugurates an even greater empire. It’s hard to think of parallels. Muhammed Ali, maybe.”
Farhad Manjoo, Slate: “But Jobs’ achievement wasn’t just to transform Apple from a failing enterprise into a staggeringly successful one. More important was how he turned it around—by remaking it from top to bottom, installing a series of brilliant managers, unbeatable processes, and a few guiding business principles that are now permanently baked into its corporate culture.”
Of course, there are a few contrarian views, such as this Advertsing Age piece by Ken Wheaton, “Steve Jobs Isn’t THAT Awesome.” He pulls out some of Jobs’ stumbles, such as his annoying stubborn refusal to allow Adobe Flash in his products. (Then again, Edison had his loony invention of concrete houses.)
But wait, there’s more.
The New York Times pulled together this gallery of Jobs’ patents. And Huffington Post rolled out slideshows of 10 products that defined his career and some of his better quotes. There also are photo collections of Jobs through the years and one on MIT’s Technology Review website, titled “Steve Jobs: Secret Sex Symbol.” The latter comes complete with a soundtrack, the ’70s hit, “Dream Weaver.” I kid you not.
There are plenty of video snippets out there, but the one that does Jobs the most justice is the commencement speech he delivered at Stanford in 2005.
Or you could just save yourself a lot of clicking and check out Fast Company’s mashup of lines from the Jobs’ lovefest.
So if you happened you get into an elevator and it’s just Steve Jobs in there, what would you say to him?