Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Machines are Learning

Imagine for a moment if you could see the billions upon billions of data points flowing throughout our world.  As our society has embraced more digital ways of being, we generate vast amounts of data.  Each one of us, as we engage with digital tools, lay down trails of data that say something about events, places, and who we are.  Within the mysterious realm of Artificial Intelligence (AI) lies the magic of Machine Learning of ML, a science of data and algorithms that act on it.

Riders of buses in the Greater Vancouver area were frustrated that Google Maps, and other apps relying on Translink’s online data feed, predicted earlier arrival and departures by over 5-minutes the majority of the time. They were often standing in the rain or dark longer than they would like waiting for a bus that from their perspective was late.  By partnering with Microsoft, Translink was able to bring together numerous historical and real time data feeds including traffic and weather data, and develop a machine learning algorithm to improve predictions by 75%.  Annually Translink experienced 252 million bus trips over 200 routes with 1500 buses.  There new AI made 20000 predictions per day.  This is the power of cloud computing scale machine learning delivering goodness to people.

In the Seattle area, there are numerous traffickers in the sex slave business.  Victims are lured into slavery by being told no one cares and there is no hope.  Seattle Against Slavery built Freedom Signal Victim Outreach and Buyer Deterrence, an AI solution in Microsoft’s Azure cloud.  This system indexes online ads, reviews pictures, lifts phone #s, victim age, and other information enabling advocates to send text messages of hope and help to hundreds of potential victims, letting them know there is a way out.  Law enforcement use Intercept ChatBots to post decoy trafficking ads online and wait for buyers to respond.  The bots, built with Language Understanding, a component of Azure Cognitive Services, converse with prospective sex slave buyers, probing their intentions and ultimately disrupting upwards of 10000 searches per day to buy sex with children!

It is now possible to gain reasonably accurate understanding of how people feel about a brand, an event, a person, etc.  This example demonstrates how a sentiment analysis tool, another machine learning example, scours Facebook and Twitter posts about Uber and presents evidence of how people feel about Uber from a price, safety, service, and other factors.  This is a valuable tool for a brand.  This would be a valuable tool for teachers to use in analyzing student work or employers to analyze how their employees feel about their workplace, etc.  But, this could potentially be weaponized by political campaigns and used to inject material into the social media stream to influence and change people’s sentiments towards a party or candidate.  With Microsoft into the Sentiment Analysis game as a cloud service (here), we will see an developers use sentiment analysis to create interesting apps in the future.  Bots may become indistinguishable from humans – this could certainly become problematic as well as provide useful services. 

I hope the future uses of machine learning systems tend to be more for good than bad!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

It is becoming rather cloudy out there

I remember in the early 1980's working as a programmer for a Fisheries & Oceans research station writing code on VAX 11780 mini-computers and being amazed that people could use my programs on their terminals anywhere in the building and get this, at the same time!  Those were the days where we would plan and prepare for a couple of months prior to executing a Fortran compiler upgrade.  New VMS operating system upgrades might occur every couple years.  We’re talking slooow innovation cycles.

Fast forward to 2019 and it’s a whole different world.  I was watching a recorded session recently about Microsoft’s Azure Cognitive services.  I’ll share one example.  Let’s say someone, maybe your boss who has privileged access to important systems, accidentally deletes a core database containing 100’s of thousands of invoice records and it turns out the backup has never worked.  Seriously, this happens.  Fortunately, there was a practice of saving PDF copies of invoices in a folder, with a subfolder for each year.  Perfect, now you can hand enter all the data for the past 15 years and that might take you the rest of your working days!  There has to be a better way.  Enter Cognitive Services.  With this collection of cloud based machine learning (ML) tools, you can create a workflow that reads the PDF files, determines from the text, tables, etc. the data structure, create the database, and read the 100’s of thousands of invoices extracting their data and storing it in the newly auto-constructed database in an hour perhaps!  This is amazing.  And, every month it just gets smarter.

As we store more and more of our documents, emails, calendars, tasks, and other data in the cloud, in this case Microsoft’s, more capabilities are possible by mining the connections and relationships of people to content and to each other.  For instance, Microsoft’s Cortana now has the ability, using cloud artificial intelligence (AI) services, to schedule and coordinate meetings for you, with others.  We all know how challenging this is when we do it ourselves or we ask our assistants to do it for us.  Cortana, not us nor our assistants need to spend our time in this way.  Cortana communicates with your colleagues to negotiate optimal meeting times.  You will be presented with the best outcome when Cortana finishes the task.

Back to my earlier comment about the slow pace of change.  When you adopt a platform in 2019 such as Microsoft Office 365 which provides online Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, among other tools, stuff just automatically updates and improves every month.  O356 also learns what you work on, who you share and communicate with, building a rich graph of interactions.  You spend less time looking for content and people and more time just getting the work done and communicating.  The cloud is working tirelessly on your behalf.

These are obviously just a few of the many examples I could share.  I could write about car share services, Tesla car updating, maps, social media, and the list goes on.

I remember a school superintendent in the early 1990s talking about the importance of becoming a life long learner because things were continuously changing.  I don’t think even he could have anticipated the cloud computing phenomenon we are now experiencing.

Maybe you have a cloud computing story you could share in a comment.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Technology and Ethical Dilemmas

My new iPhone and Surface laptop both provide a facial recognition (let’s call this FACE) method of identifying myself for access (logon).  I use Keeper, a password and other confidential information manager and it too leverages FACE.  When I need to log into an app or website, I am offered Keeper as a source for the username and password and when I choose that, Keeper uses my face to login and look up the app or website, and offer the credentials to fill in.  Super convenient! 

FACE is or will be used to customize customer experiences. For example, you walk into your home, it welcomes you by name, adjusts the heat and lights, and perhaps it pushes your favourite digital pictures and art to the wall frames, and selects your favourite streaming station to pipe through the house A/V system.  Or, you walk into a mall, and the screens, which are everywhere by now, start presenting ads to you based on your social media behaviors and past shopping activities.  FACE is being used to find suspicious people and criminals through sophisticated search algorithms that mine video captured by the millions of surveillance cameras installed in cities around the world. 

I do pause and wonder about these developments.  Who is looking out for our privacy needs?  Government and corporate control and invasive activity has never been easier.  Also, do we really want to be targeted in public spaces with advertising?  Do we really want our house to know us and customize our experiences based on past patterns?  Sounds robotic and predictable.

Another technological wizardry I rely on every day is location information.  My wife and I were recently enjoying the sunshine on Oahu.  We wanted to find certain types of restaurants.  I enter Italian Restaurants and Google Maps kindly presents the options in either distance or stars order for us to browse, read the reviews, and make our choice.  Once we chose a venue, tap the walk icon for directions, we then set out to the restaurant.  We also used Maps to find jungle hiking trails and more remote beaches.  We could read others comments about their experiences there and obtain driving directions. 

I love that photos on my phone encode the location.  It’s cool to browse my photos by starting with a world map and seeing clusters of photos on the various continents I’ve visited and being able to drill in and see the exact place a picture was taken, 8 years ago. I use Strava to track my mountain bike rides.  It collects location, speed, elevation, and if I had a wearable device, it would include performance data such as heart rate.  Location on phones your kids carry with them can be fed to a family portal so parents have comfort knowing where their kids are.  An Alzheimer patience can be equipped with a location tracking device so that loved ones that wander off can be found.  So much magic.

Technological wizardry brings about amazing new capabilities at a faster and faster pace.

However… there are significant dilemmas attached to these capabilities, the dark side to progress so to speak.

With FACE, their are potential privacy violations.  If a database in which data representing your face is stored, becomes hacked and the data stolen, you have a huge unresolvable problem.  If your password or credit card are stolen, you can change your password and cancel your card.  You cannot get a new face!  Wherever your face is used for identity, the thieves can now use your face data to be you.  Face data in the hands of a corrupt government or corporation could be used to control every thing you do.  With millions of cameras already in force, the ability for this to happen is a reality already.  As more commerce and interactions are tied to FACE, the more control points there are.

Location tracking has privacy violation implications as well, I suppose more from a creepiness perspective if you’ve gone nowhere inappropriate but if you are visiting places you wouldn’t want others to know about and that information escapes your control, well… it could be bad for you.  Again, a corrupt government or corporation could use this data to track you down or to control services you can access.  For instance your health or insurance benefits may be tied to how often you travel to certain places or the routes you take to get there. 

A possible solution to all of this may be new security methods, perhaps built on the blockchain where each individual completely controls access to their information.  I know that policing organizations in the interest of “security” don’t like the idea of individuals ability to hide their activities completely but we need to ask ourselves what the balance of security vs privacy and personal safety should be. 

I’m not claiming to have answers but just thought it useful to think out loud a bit about these rapidly developing and adopting technologies.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Network Effect

I have always been a highly social person, an extravert I suppose.  Those personality ass

essments always put me into that sort of category.  I’m a Yellow-Red for instance. 

I’ve made it a priority to reach out internally and externally to people like me and different from me, within the public and private sectors, to build relationships, share ideas, dream, lament, argue or debate, etc.  I knew I was pretty well connected but this recent transition period, sabbatical of sorts, has really highlighted how my network really works.

So many people reached out through LinkedIn, Twitter, and email asking to get together for coffee, lunch, and to see how I was doing.  They shared such positive and affirming comments with me which really helped with getting through this period and to help me figure out what’s next. 

I had well connected friends reaching inside the organizations they work for to see what opportunities there might be that are a good fit for me.  They introduced me to other people who may be able to help.  Everyone was so generous with their time and energy (and money, thanks for all the free coffees and lunches – my turn now!).  You know who you are – thank you so much for being in my court!

I will highlight one friend in particular who is very well connected.  He said that if I wanted to go solo as a consultant he would help me write a business plan and get started – he introduced me to LEAN Canvas.  If I was interested in a role with a particular company, he would get me an introduction to the right people.  He also said that he would reach inside his company to his leadership team to brainstorm an opportunity they might create for me.  You know who you are – thank you so much!

I now have a most exciting role with Softlanding as their Virtual CIO (vCIO) and I really must thank Mat and Shaun from Softlanding for reaching out and believing in me.  I look forward to working with you and the team on exciting initiatives.

Thank you to my LinkedIn network friends and colleagues for your kind, reassuring, and affirming comments in response to me announcing my new role.  I really appreciate you.

If you are reading this and have not yet made it a priority to build a meaningful network, I encourage you to start today.  It just may change your life’s trajectory!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Time to Shift Learning

I received an email recently from LinkedIn Learning offering me a free course on creating infographics using PowerPoint.  So, I decided to give it a go.  I surprised myself by learning new techniques for working with icons, shapes, graphics files, layouts, charts, among others, in PowerPoint.  Did you know that you can merge shapes using union, combine, fragment, intersect, subtract to create new or modified shapes.  One example was to use a lightening bolt shape to ‘cut’ (subtract) from a few letters in the word (a shape) “MIGRAINE”.  It emphasized the pain this represents.  Cool hey.

Since I currently have flexible time available to me, I allowed this free course to prompt me to sign up for 1-month of free LinkedIn Learning! I have wanted to learn Lean and Six Sigma processes for some time so I dove into these topics first.  I was granted my Lean Foundations certificate today.  I will be going deeper into some aspects of this as my interests lead me.

I’m reading a book, recommended by my friend Steven titled Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think.  We are bombarded through the news media, social media, and by friends and family about how bad things are in our world.  According to the authors, most people around the world (they have lots of evidence) are less capable than a chimpanzee of choosing correct answers about world trends and statistics!  We learn and accept incorrect information and perceptions about reality, all the time.  I would like to be more knowledgeable and able to speak more intelligently about reality, especially in these “troubling” times.  This requires ongoing learning.

It’s interesting how when I start to learn in one domain, I get pulled into other seemingly unrelated domains.  For example, I started reading a book on Six Sigma (public library e-book), then added Factfulness (Kindle), then Blockchain (public library e-book), and finally a collection of books on Lean related practices (Kindle).  I’m also learning about Lean Canvas as a way to write business plans – this through blog posts and articles, also free.  I’m now switching amongst these topics depending on what I want to progress with next.  It still amazes me that these books are obtained digitally and instantly.  This in itself would not have been possible without Lean practices being applied to reengineer the supply chain!

Learning is essentially free, other than us investing our time.  YouTube videos of how to assemble, repair, accomplish, ____ (fill in the blank) are free.  Information is often free as are training courses.  Even if you choose to pay for learning materials, as I did for a couple of books, they are substantially less costly when obtained digitally.  Digital continues to change the game for learning and so many other aspects of our lives!

I don’t know exactly where my learning journey will take me but my goal is to gain new and useful knowledge that I can apply both professionally and personally.  I am putting into practice a Lean principle or Kaizen specifically, to continuously improve myself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Delightful Technology

A friend of mine introduced me to the idea of delighting users of technology.  I don’t know about you but that is not always my experience when using a website, app, or some tech hardware.

I bought an iPhone XR recently and I surprised myself.  I thought I would not care much about the facial ID feature – I was wrong.  It is a delightful experience.  Your messages are secure until you look at them.  You need to enter a password into a website, no problem, allow your face to grant access to your favourite password vault to send the password.  Similarly I now use Apple Pay with my VISA to tap and pay – again my face authorizes the transaction.

Full disclosure, I’m a Microsoft fan.  Their CEO, Satya Nadella, has led a transformation and my opinion is that the result is a company that creates delightful software.  It may not start out that way but their change cadence, driven by agile and cloud computing, continuously (monthly) just makes software and experiences better.

I was recently leading a digital transformation initiative and we adopted Microsoft Teams to support digital workplaces.  While we were piloting and then implementing Teams for various groups, committees, working groups, matrix groups, the stuff that frustrated people about the tool, regularly was addressed and missing features added.  It’s the first time I’ve led something like this where the end result was unknown but definitely better, delightful.

Companies and governments are onto this.  I was speaking with the CIO for Public Services and Procurement Canada recently and she talked about the transformation work for Canadian government.  It was a little shocking to learn that I, as a citizen, can not visit a government website, change my address or other profile details, and expect the change to find its way through all government agencies.  I would have to contact all the agencies which have my information and have it changed for each.  Okay, this is not delightful, but it will one day be possible to accomplish through a single contact.

Delightful experiences with technology are becoming a differentiator for companies and public sector entities.  I think those that get it and do it, will win!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Play the Disruption Game

Do you ever go down memory lane and think about all the things that were normal then that are very different now or gone completely?  I find myself reflecting on the past while I consider the present and how different the future will be.  We live in truly interesting times don't we.

I haven't been writing in this space much in the past few years.  I kind-of lost interest in writing about what I've been up to, what I've been thinking, or what I've been speculating about.  However, I was watching an interesting clip from Doc James Whittaker @docjamesw recently where he talked about the past, present, and future and it inspired me to write again.  I don't know that this will become a habit again but there is this post at least.

James mentioned playing the disruption game.  This game involves taking an industry and thinking about how it could be disrupted in the future by technological advancements.  As you know, technology is probably the most disruptive phenomenon weaving through history.  In our life time it has been the digital form that has relentlessly disrupted everything we know.  A quick side story... my wife and I just underwent a little kitchen reno replacing counters, sink, faucet, and installing back splash.  When the contractor came to estimate the back splash he asked if we wanted
to cover over the jack for the phone.  Even though we had switched from 'home phone' to iPhone a few years ago, it did cause us to pause before answering.  We knew we would never use it again but when we sell would the new owners care?  We decided 'tough luck' for them :-) and had the back splash cover over the jack.  This is just a small example of disruption of the traditional phone business.

It was only a few years ago that I wrote about autonomous cars, back when there wasn't a lot of buzz about this.  Fast forward to today, and many people are writing about, speaking about, and speculating about the future of this disruption.  I read recently that Tesla is installing in all future models all the hardware and sensors necessary for fully autonomous driving.  Over time, their software will be updated and delivered wirelessly to gradually transform their cars from human driven, machine assisted to machine driven, human assisted to machine driven and likely human hands-off.  I mention this idea to friends, colleagues, and family and most are not comfortable with the idea and say they will never let a machine drive.  I say that will be a gift and make our roads far more safer and driving, er, transporting, more productive with our time.

So, imagine with me the future where cars drive themselves and humans are mere passengers.  I get up, get ready, have breakfast, brush my teeth, grab my lunch and coffee and head out the door.  I get into my car, and sit down for a relaxing drive into the office.  My car detects that I'm ready to go and quietly starts off (it's all electric by the way).  It auto connects with my smart device (aka phone), looks into my calendar and sees that I am indeed headed to work.  It calculates the optimal route given current weather conditions, traffic patterns, and known accidents.  The car can see all routes simultaneously to my office in Vancouver including every vehicle on the road, how fast they are traveling, what road work is going on, etc.  It has 360 degree visibility all the time.

I arrive at my office and my car parks in one of the spots and 'reaches out' it's plug to a charging station.  I head into the office.  30 minutes later, my car 'wakes up', unplugs, and heads out of the garage.  Where is it going you might ask?  Well, my car is registered into the VanCity Car Share Coop and someone asked for a car with the # of seats mine has available and my car was the nearest one available.  Off it went... my car picked up and delivered passengers throughout the morning parking itself on side streets here and there when it wasn't needed.  Knowning from my calendar that I have a 1:15 appointment at a school, it arrives back at the office out front, messages me 5 minutes before arriving, and waits for me to get there.  I get in and it takes me to my appointment.  It sees that I plan to be there an hour so makes itself available for callouts in the area within a 10km radius.  And so the typical work day goes - I make money from owning a car rather than just spending money and leaving it idle 90% of the time!

With autonomous driving vehicles, many things will be disrupted.  There will be far fewer (if any) accidents which will lead to very low cost insurance or will there be none and a small residual is built into the price of the car and the rental callout fees?  Fault of course will be the car manufacturer, not the owner.  Fault is an interesting problem here.  If a human is driving and a dilemma occurs say where two small children run out in front of you and on the right is a cliff and the left is a crowd of 12 people, what decision will the human make?  Will they stay the course and kill the two children, swerve left into the crowd perhaps killing and injury many, or sacrifice themselves off the cliff?  What would an autonomous car decide?  Great question...  it's dilemmas like this that need accepted solutions before the autonomous car will be accepted.

So, less accidents will mean less health care for accident victims.  This will lead to fewer clinics, fewer hospital beds, fewer nurses, doctors, and other health care workers.  Fewer painkillers will be needed.  People might drink more alcohol after work because they don't have to drive.  There will be no taxi drivers, Uber drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers.  Car ownership in cities will likely be non-existent.  Why own if you have on demand access?  There will be fewer fuel stations.  With fewer car owners there will be fewer parking lots, spots, and garages.  Fewer meter maids, fewer traffic cops, fewer court cases and thus fewer lawyers and judges.  There will be fewer car washes, tire shops, automotive repair garages, and fewer dealerships.

I wonder if there will be dealerships?  People that do buy will likely do this online.  I bought my last two vehicles by picking models, colors, and options online and emailing back and forth with a salesperson.  Why not do it all online.  Perhaps test drives will be done with Oculus Rift, HoloLens, or some other virtual or augmented reality experience.  This will lead to fewer sales people, business managers, etc.  Someone will still need to repair and service the cars, at least until robots are capable.

You get the point... one quite miraculous change... the autonomous driving car, will disrupt many associated, loosely or otherwise, businesses and occupations.  I wonder what new jobs might be created as a result.  You watch, I bet some version of this story will play out over the next 10-20 years.  20 years from now someone will read this blog post and think 'wow, that was prophetic!' :-)