Sunday, March 06, 2011

Men Against Machines = Inspiring Television!

The only scheduled, upcoming Canadian astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is Chris Hadfield, currently training for his long duration stay in 2012-2013, when he will become the first Canadian ISS commander.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Unfortunately, after Hadfield, it looks like Canadian astronaut activities are going to wind down for the foreseeable future.

At least, that's what Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean seemed to be suggesting last week when he was in Toronto for the University of Toronto Space Program, which focused on "Current and Future Prospects."

My interview with Dr. MacLean is included with the March 2nd. 2011 article "Growth in Space Utilization to Benefit Canadians" on the website.

Of course, it's fair to note that robots and satellites have always made good business sense for Canada. Machines generally cost less than people and can be "commercialized," "productized" and more readily turned from automated process and data collection tools into useful business ventures with consistent, reproducible returns on investment.

But sometimes, robots can also remind us of the need to remember that our scientific and commercial activities cannot thrive without the ability to engage the people and tell a good story.

For example, according to blogger Shelley Palmer, in her February 17th, 2011 article "Man vs. Watson: The IBM Jeopardy Challenge," the key takeaway from the recently televised challenge on the popular Jeopardy television program between the International Business Machines "Watson"  supercomputer and several humans isn't that machines are taking over or are more capable than people.

The key takeaway is the importance of showmanship in popularizing innovation. According to Palmer:
IBM's current Watson preparing for Jeopardy 2011.
If you’re a student of innovation, or just want to learn about how important showmanship was to Industrial Age innovators, do a little research about the World’s Columbian Exposition aka The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla duked it out for the right (and the contract) to light up the fairgrounds with electric lights.  Although Tesla and Westinghouse ultimately won, the real winner was science and innovation – for the first time in history; people saw (in a dramatic fashion) how electric light bulbs were going to change our world.

It is in this spirit that we should look at the IBM Jeopardy Challenge.
Palmer believes we should congratulate IBM for building a machine that inspires, informs, enlightens and entertains. She thinks we need more of these demonstrations in order to popularize science and technology.

Thomas Watson Jr. IBM president 1952-1971.
She may be more right than she knows.

According to the February 16th, 2011 CNET News article "Despite reports, Watson did not crash during 'Jeopardy' taping" the IBM computer had serious performance issues during the show and seems to have shut down several times which stretched out the taping to four hours, an unusually long period for a Jeopardy taping.

It seems that the human producers needed to go out of their way to condense the shut downs into a typical fast paced entertaining episode, just like all the other Jeopardy programs.

Now that's entertainment!

Speaking if which, as I recall my television history, being able to talk directly to a computer normally turns out to be a distinct advantage for the human. Just ask James T. Kirk, the fictional captain of the iconic Starship Enterprise from Star Trek who's second best conversational skill (after seducing alien women) was his ability to totally ruin a computer simply by talking to it.

As described in the science fiction fan website "Den of Geek" article "Captain Kirk's Five Favorite Weapons" this happened countless times during the run of the original series:
William Shatner as Capt. Kirk 1966.
In Return Of The Archons, an unseen computer called Landru, programmed to “destroy evil”, governs the planet – until Kirk convinces Landru that it itself is evil, at which point it explodes.

In The Ultimate Computer, when the experiment M-5 takes control of the Enterprise, Kirk appeals to the guilt that its human-derived personality feels over the deaths it has caused, making it drop its defensive shields as an act of suicide.

In The Changeling, Kirk tricks an alien probe that believes it is perfect into realizing that it has made an error – and as a result, it destroys itself.
The tension in these 1960's television programs comes from the interaction between people and machines in the very same way that the recent Jeopardy contest did.

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek 2002.
Without host Alex Trebek and contestants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, there would have been no compelling television to highlight this demonstration of IBM innovation that Watson represents.

Even the US "Defense Department wants to be better storytellers" according to the March 6th, 2011 post of the same name on the Diatribe Media site.

The article reports on recently concluded Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET) workshop, held on February 28th with three goals:
To survey narrative theories – understanding the nature of a story and what makes one up.

To better understand the role of narrative in security contexts – asking what role stories play in political radicalization and how they influence participants in politics. 

To survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools...
So if Canada wishes to remain in the forefront of space focused and scientific activities, we may just need to go about hiring some of our own swaggering showmen to promote innovation and drum up public support for ongoing, consistent science and technology funding.

And for those who don't believe that television shows and storytellers have anything to teach us real people, it's worth noting that the first person to beat Watson in a game of jeopardy was a politician who tells good stories, which also seems to be a large part of what it takes to be a starship captain.

Check out the March 5th, 2011 article "Rush Holt beats supercomputer" if you'd like to learn more.

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