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.