Turning all that noise into something useful

Let's follow the thread from rudimentary phone to these odd thinking machines we call smartphones

“Come here, Watson, I Want You!”

Spoken by Alexander Graham Bell on March 10, 1876, these famous words were clearly audible over Bell’s demonstration telephone. Watson arrived breathlessly from another room, proving that the device worked.

His patent in place, Bell went on to refine his telephone that, in its later iterations, has recently become the so-called smart phone, a device with computing capacity greater than the computers that put men on the moon!

It’s amusing to watch old movies in which people used to crank old wooden wall-mounted telephones to create a ring, or spent long seconds dialing again and again, like Robert Redford in All the President’s Men less than 50 years ago.)

The idea of machines that think stimulates questions such as, “What, exactly, is thought? Is it always conscious? (Indeed, though we seem to direct it when we choose to think about something, is much of our thought partly or even completely unconscious?)”

When one thinks about them, these are tricky ideas. Further, if a computerized device can manage many of the tasks we once assumed were products of thought, is that device thinking? And what kinds of benefits does such “thinking” promise?

Businesses and governments rely on enormous quantities of data to inform their planning and decision-making. (Note the distinction between ‘data’ and ‘information;’ data becomes information when with appropriate analysis it yields insights and understanding. Prior to that occurring data is just noise.)

Data is growing at a 40 per cent compound annual rate, and is projected by Oracle (2012) to reach 45 zettabytes (45 sextillion bytes) by the year 2020. Globally 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily, with 90 per cent created in the past two years alone. Yikes!

In a world where data is accumulating exponentially, it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the facts that are truly useful. To turn all this digital racket into usable information requires enormous analysis and filtering to eliminate the useless (by far the most of it with respect to any particular problem) and to isolate the essential.

Many computer companies are diligently applying themselves to this problem. Notably IBM is betting its corporate future on its analysis software platforms and access to cloud-based data for business purposes. Because of the potential for enormous benefits, numerous other companies are pursuing similar paths.

IBM became even more well known when its platform designed to use natural language known as Watson soundly defeated two of the longest winners in Jeopardy history in 2011, tripling the score of ‘his’ nearest human competitor.

Now IBM is proposing Watson to work ‘his’ analytic magic in fields from medicine to music, and from business to birthday parties. In a recently televised interview between Watson and Ken Jennings, winner of more than $1 million on Jeopardy, Watson conceded that he didn’t understand sarcasm yet, but also informed Ken that he was learning Japanese and helping doctors diagnose cancer. Pretty impressive!

Alphabet, Inc. (known to most of us as Google) is working on analytics platforms to solve such problems as traffic congestion. And the Bartlett School of Planning offers postgraduate degrees in applying analytics to creating so-called ‘smart cities,’ dealing with spatial planning, urban regeneration, infrastructure planning, housing and transport.

In Berkeley, California, robotics researchers are creating robots that ‘learn.’ BRETT (Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks) has so far begun to master the art of folding towels through practice, much as a child does (seemingly trivial, but something far more complex than we realize while we’re whipping our laundry stacks into shape, and indicative of more complex achievements to come).

How might we use big analytics here in the northwest? Imagine a fleet of drones monitoring traffic patterns in Terrace, or mapping infrared radiation from leaky buildings.

Consider a Watson analytics link being used to assist city planners and advise vital institutions like the Northern Health Authority, or the teaching staffs of our schools, college and university.

IBM is currently marketing analytics based on Watson’s natural language to users large and small.

The company is inviting interested people to “try it for free” at < http://www.ibm.com/analytics/watson-analytics/analytics-for-all>. So far more than half a million users have taken IBM up on the offer.

Where might analytics take Terrace? Watson, come here, I want you!

Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.