Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Coming soon: Machines with a mind of their own

Subodh Varma | TIG 

    This new year promises to be big on digital technologies, with many things that got started earlier coming together finally. Here are some example of how ‘coming together’ can lead to a big bang… 

Big data has been around for some time. It is being collected through a swathe of sources — from satellites to software codes, from gigantic machines like the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to aggregates of small datasets like Amazon’s back office operations, and of course from your mobile devices and RFIDs. One estimate puts the total data produced every day in 2012 at a mind boggling 2.5 exabytes, that is, bytes that number 25 followed by 17 zeros. 
    But how does it affect you and me? Among all the data being generated, there is a small but very significant subset of personal data. This could be by Twitter, Facebook or your email, or even by wearable devices like your Google Glass. Then there is your shopping activity, in fact all your activity on the Net. 
    Link all this big data generated by everybody to a cloud based computing machine, which links it to the “internet of things”, and there you have two products. One is the environment tracking you all the time, telling you your location, nearest places you can visit if hungry, physical parameters like temperature and updating you about cricket (or football) scores, even as you track the traffic situation. And the other is companies tracking you. Whether you like this or not, this is what is coming this year. 
    But, isn’t all this happening already? It is – but in advanced industrial societies. Now, with the mobile and tablet revolution, it is destined to enter the big bad third world too. 

Just to give an example, consider the smartphone. Worldwide mobile phone sales to end users totaled 455.6 million units in the third quarter of 2013, according to Gartner, Inc. But what is noteworthy is that smartphones accounted for 55% of this, notching up sales of 250.2 million units. Where are sales growing strongest? In Asia/Pacific in both markets — the smartphone segment with 77.3% increase and the mobile phone segment with 11.9% growth. “Sales of feature phones continued to decline and the decrease was more pronounced in markets where the average selling price (ASP) for feature phones was much closer to the ASP affordable smartphones,” said Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at Gartner in a statement. 

Machine learning is another thing to watch out for. We are used to the technological limit of machines — they will perform as much as the programmer has fed them, no more, no less. But there are signs of a new wave of machines that will interact with humans, other machines and the environment and learn new things. All the 
big data companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook have hired top experts to develop ‘cognitive’ systems of this kind. One specific application is smart devices, another is natural language processing, especially spoken natural language. This will help machine understand and respond to verbal commands more and more – tying up with the internet of things. 
    Another field poised for take-off is the brain-machine interface — how to control machines with your brain and nerves and conversely, how to receive inputs from machines. Using brain waves (recorded as EEG) to control computers or wheelchairs and implanting chips in brains to do the same has been already demonstrated, Nitish V. Thakor, professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University told TOI. But, these are a one way street: brain sends signals that are decoded to control a computer or a robot. The big challenge is how to get information back to brain? 
    “Early results reported this year open doors to achieving bidirectional BMI. We are not there yet, as it requires considerable engineering and scientific work,” Thakor said. 

Finally, this coming year may see the rise of better more intelligent, more human robots. A recent robot Olympiad held in Miami, US, displayed the rather limited capabilities of some of the most advanced robots in the world – they were clunky, barely managed to walk and fumbled around with basic tasks that any human could do in a jiffy. One indication that things are going to change is that Google, Amazon and Apple have all spent millions this year on robotics. Google bought eight robotic companies, Amazon announced plans to deliver packages through drones and Apple invested heavily in factory robots. 
    So, get ready for a future full of machines.


Source::: The Times of India, 01-01-2014, p.21,

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