Wednesday, February 08, 2017

7 myths about AI

Big Blue beat Kasparov in 1997 but chess is thriving. AI remains our servant not master. Yet mention AI and people jump to the far end of the conceptual spectrum with big-picture, dystopian and usually exaggerated visions of humanoid robots, the singularity and the existential threat to our species. This is fuelled by cultural messages going back to the Greek Prometheus myth, propelled by Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus) to nearly a century of movies from Metropolis onwards that portray created intelligence as a threat. The truth is more prosaic.
Work with people in AI and you’ll quickly be brought back from sci-fi visions to more practical matters. Most practical and even theoretical AI is what is called ‘weak’ or ‘narrow’ AI. It has no ‘cognitive’ ability. I blame IBM and the consultancies for this  hyperbole. There is no ‘consciousness’. IMBs Watson may have beaten the Jeopardy Champions, Google’s AlphaGO may have beaten the GO Champion – but neither knew they had won.
The danger is that people over-promise and under-deliver, so that there's disappointment in the market. We need to keep a level head here and not see AI as the solution to everything. In fact, many problems need far simpler solutions.
AI is the new UI
AI is everywhere. You use it every day when you use Google, Amazon, social media, onine dating, Netflix, music streamming services, your mobile and any file  you create, store or open. Our online experineces are largely of AI driven services. It's just not that visible. AI is the new UI. However, there are several things we need to know about AI if we are to understand and use it well in our specific domain, and in this case it is teaching and learning.
  1. AI is ‘intelligent’
  2. AI is all about the brain
  3. AI is conscious
  4. AI is strong
  5. AI is general
  6. AI is one thing
  7. AI doesn’t affect me
1. AI is not ‘intelligent’
I have argued that the word ‘intelligent’ is misleading in AI. It pulls us toward a too anthropomorphic view of AI, suggesting that it is ‘intelligent’ in the sense of human intelligence. This, is a mistake as the word ‘intelligence is misleading. It is better to see AI in terms of general tasks and competences, not as being intrinsically intelligent, as that word is loaded with human preconceptions.‘intelligence’
2. AI is not about the brain
AI is coded and as such, most of it does not reflect what happens in the human brain. Even the so-called ‘neural network’ approach is loosely modelled on the networked structure of the brain. It is more analogy that replication. It’s a well work argument but we did not learn to fly by copying the flapping of birds’ wings and we didn’t learn to go faster by copying the legs of a cheetah – we invented the wheel. Similarly with AI.
3. AI is not cognitive
IBMs marketing of AI as ‘cognitive technology’ is way off. Fine if they mean it can perform or mimic certain cognitive tasks but they go further, suggesting that it is in many senses ‘cognitive’. This is quite simply wrong. It has no consciousness, nor real general problem solving abilities, none of the many cognitive qualities of human minds. It is maths. This is nit necessarily a bad thing, as it is free from forgetting, racism, sexism, cognitive biases, doesn’t need to sleep, networks and doesn’t die. In other words AI is about doing things better than brains but  by other means.
4. AI is weak
There is little to fear from threatening independence and autonomy in the short term.  Almost all AI is what is called ‘weak’ AI, programmes, run on computers that simulate what humans can do. Strong AI is the idea that it actually does what the brain does. My own view is that we are very firmly at the ‘weak’ stage but that the distinction is actually on a spectrum, like cool to hot. That’s not to say that ‘strong’ AI is not on its way, just that it’s not here yet.
5. AI is narrow
AI applications do specific things well and general things badly. They play chess and GO well but that piece of AI does very little else.  That is nit to say that AI will not get to the position of being a general problem solver. It will just atke time. We can see, from driverless cars, that an array of sensing, decision making and learning software can do remarkable things when working in tandem.
6. AI is not one thing
Far from being one thing, AI is many things. There are also many different approaches to AI. This is well covered in Pedro Domingos’s book The Master Algorithm, with chapters on Symbolists, Connectivists, Evolutionists, Bayesians and Analogizers. From the learning perspective, there’s machine learning (supervises and unsupervised), reinforcement learning and  and deep learning. Other ways of looking at AI is through areas of problem solving, such as NLP (Natural Language Programming) or robotics. There are many other ways of slicing the AI cake. The important point is to see it as a set of very different technologies or tools that solve problems.
7. AI doesn’t affect me
In practice AI is very good, often better than humans, in very narrow applications and domains. The most pervasive example is Google, which is brilliant at searching for relevant links and information – whether it be websites, scholarly papers, images, videos, audio, maps and so on. This has revolutionised how we store, access and use media and knowledge. It was a huge pedagogic shift. Another specific, but immensely powerful use, is in buying, where Amazon’s algorithmic power constantly recommends and shapes our buying habits – especially in books. Then there’s social media, where the algorithmic power of personalised news shapes out timelines on facebook or Tweets. On top of this are the algorithmic recommendations on Netflix and many streaming music sites. AI is the new UI. Most of our online experience is shaped by AI, as it gets to know us better and delivers a better service. We live in the age of algorithms.
AI is the wonder of our age. Something so exciting that it tends to produce extreme reactions in commentators. This is fine but we must, for the moment not fall into dystopian or utopian visions of what it can achieve. We must be realistic. That is not to say we should be complacent. We have already seen the power of AI to transform online services, automate factories and seriously impact employment. Political shocks, like Brexit and Trump can, I believe, be partly attributed to this phenomenon. We must therefore be vigilant on regulation and its political consequences. 

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Elon Musk – the Bowie of Business

Having just finished Morley’s brilliant biography of Bowie, it struck me that Musk is the Bowie of business. Constantly reinventing himself; Paypal hero, Tesla road warrior, Solar City sungod, Starman with Space X and now the sci-fi Hyperloop hipster- and he’s still only in his forties. Strange fact this but the first Tesla car was codenamed DarkStar.
But let’s not stretch Bowies leg warmers too far. Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk is magnificent for mostly other reasons. It’s about Musk the man, his psychology. There’s a manic intensity to Musk, but it’s directed, purposeful and, as Vance says, it’s not about making money. Time and time again he puts everything he’s made into the next, even weirder and riskier project. Neither is he a classic business guy or entrepreneur. For him questions come first and everything he does is about finding answers. He despises the waste of intellect that gets sucked into the law and finance, as he’s a child of the Enlightenment and sees as his destiny the need to accelerate progress. He doesn’t want to oil the wheels, he wants to drive, foot to the metal, the fastest electric car ever made then ride a rocket all the way to Mars. As he says, he wants to die there – just not on impact. Always on the edge of chaos, like a kite that does its best work when it stalls and falls but then it soars.
Time and time again experience tells me, and I read, about actual leaders who bear no resemblance to the utopian model presented by the bandwagon ‘Leadership’ industry. The one exception is Stanford’s Pfeffer, who also sees the leadership industry as peddling unreal, utopian platitudes. Musk has a string of business successes behind him, including PayPal, and is the major shareholder in three massive, public companies, all of which are innovative, successful and global. He has taken on the aerospace, car and energy industries at breathtaking speed, with mind-blowing innovation. Yet he is known to be mercurial, cantankerous, eccentric, mean, capricious, demanding, blunt, delivers vicious barbs, swears like a trooper, takes things personally, lacks loyalty and has what Vance calls a ‘cruel stoicism’ –all of these terms taken from the book. He demands long hours and devotion to the cause and is cavalier in firing people. “Working at Tesla was like being Kurtz in Apocalypse Now”. So, for those acolytes of ‘Leadership’ and all the bullshit that goes with that domain, he breaks every damn rule – then again so do most of them – in fact that’s exactly why they succeed. They’re up against woozies who believe all that shit about leading from behind.
So why are people loyal to him and why does he attract the best talent in the field? Well, he has vision. He also has a deep knowledge of technology, is obsessive about detail, takes rapid decisions, doesn’t like burdensome reports and bureaucracy, likes shortcuts and is a fanatic when it comes to keeping costs down. Two small asides – he likes people to turn up at the same time in the morning and hates acronyms. I like this. His employees are not playing pool or darts mid-morning and don’t lie around being mindful on brightly coloured bean bags. It’s relentless brainwork to solve problems against insane deadlines.

You may disagree but he does think that it is only technology that will deliver us from climate change, the dependence on oil and allow us to inhabit planets other than our own and his businesses form a nexus of energy production, storage and utilisation that, he thinks, will save our species. He may be right.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Corbyn is right - proud that my fat cat pay campaign against the CIPD paid off

Corbyn has come under attack for his wibbly-wobbly performance on top pay. Oh how some liberals I know, who pretend to care about the poor, mocked him on social media. But for me, he was on the money. To my mind, this needs urgent attention. First use the lever of public funding and contracts, second use ratios (around 20:1 with checks on range), along with caps.
The blog is mightier than the sword
Not a lot of people know this (to be said in Michael Caine accent) but in 2010 I was single-handedly responsible for slashing fat cat pay in a major institution, through blogging. It was the CIPD. I read the accounts and pointed out that the CEO salary was just short of £500k. Not bad for an organisation whose commercial revenue had plummeted (down 23%), research contracted and ridiculed (down 57% & report pulled), magazine imploded (down 83%), investment returns bombed (down 74.7%) and a membership who were angry and alienated about a command and control culture that left them with less services and starved of cash. There was also the issue of an odd and overpriced acquisition (Bridges Communications) and a blatant falsehood on her CV on the CIPD website. It seemed outrageous that the leading organisation in 'personnel', that often opines on exective pay, should be taking such liberties. You can read this in detail here.
This caused a shitstorm. The CIPD Chair chipped in to defend the claim but it simply exposed the fact that the fat cat stuff had been going on for years, when it was shown that the previous CEO, Geoff Armstrong, had also eared a cool half a million. You can read the ludicrous defence here.
What happened next was comical. Personnel Today picked up on my Jackie Orme story and laid out the case with a link to my blog along with an official response from the CIPD and got a survey going (see story here). Does CIPD CEO deserve £87,000 bonus? Result : NO 94%, YES 6%! Pretty conclusive and things changed very quickly. To cut a long story short, the current CEO of the CIPD, Peter Cheese, earned £250k last year. Result.
This is one of the reasons I never ever joined the CIPD and never will. I have a healthy distruct of membership organisations that usually turn into not serving their emmbers but the staff of the institution itself. Needless to say, from that day the CIPD has never invited me to any event or conference or involved me in any project. It was worth it. Call them out - it can work as they hate the publicity. The moral of this story, is to use the power of the pen to attack these people personally and the Remuneration committees that support these extortionate salaries (and bonuses) (and other benefits). Believe me, it is extortion. I’ve been on these boards. It is literally extortion from the public purse.
The first target should be the Universities. The pay at the top has sprinted ahead of the pack. Last year the Russell group got an average 6% pay rise taking their average annual package to an average of £366,000. All of this on the back of the widespread and indefensible exploitation of part-time and low paid teaching staff. This is a disgrace. There’s also the issue of minimum wages right at the bottom. Don’t imagine for one minute that academe is in any sense a beacon of equality or morals. They’re rapacious at the top. Given that they receive huge amounts of public money, a large chunk through student fees, which is in effect government backed loans, which they are not responsible for collecting, we have an easy lever here. Get those ratios working or your funding gets questioned.
I’ve also been a Trustee on some very big educational charities. They pull every trick in the book. On the whole these are low growth high reward environments, where bonuses are awarded for the merest fart of effort. If the law changes on pensions, they’ll simply give top-up cash awards to compensate the CEO. Imagine doing that for all employees? It would simply negate the whole point of tax adjustments. Then there’s the inevitable remuneration consultancies, who basically lie about benchmarking to keep the whole show on the road. It’s easy - you say that the average salary in this field is X – so we need a minimum of X. That simply reinforces the falsehood and perpetuates the upward spiral. It literally keeps the whole fat cat thing going. It’s both mathematically stupid and morally bankrupt. Let me tell you, these charities largely exist on the back of Government grants and the pay at the top can be obscene. The worst are Healthcare organisations but education is a close second. The Charity Commission is populated by establishment figures who keep the whole racket going. It has the teeth of a geriatric and agility of a slug.
This is a big one. Annual salaries to charity chiefs can rise to sums in excess of £830,000. The worst are healthcare trusts but many are guilty here. There should be an immediate cap on these golden goodbyes. It’s disgusting that the people who often trim organisations through staff cuts, with little compensation when they leave, are led by those who literally raid the coffers when they leave. In Local Government, this is often because they’re sacked or out of favour. This undermines voter faith in democracy.
Ethical punishment
For audit companies and consultancies that play the tax evasion game, and are found to be encouraging others, let’s cut them out of access to the public pie. If you’ve been setting up Luxembourg companies to evade UK tax – then sorry, UK business doesn’t come your way.
But the big levers are funding, contracts, jobs and gongs. Let me explain.
Government funds business in all sorts of ways with subsidies and financial support for research, marketing, innovation, R&D tax credits and so on. These could be linked to ethical considerations around pay, especially for CEOs. Deloittes were recently cut out of Government contracts for six months, due to a leaked memo. The same principle could be applied to measures on pay. Companies could also be disbarred from hiring Civil Servants, who give access to Government ministers and contracts. You've probably never heard of Avoba, but it is the advisory committee responsible for business appointments. The DfE has always been guilty of this revolving door problem. A good example id David McVean, who went to E-ACT, an academy chain which was slammed last year for failing its pupils. Claudine Menash Jones is another academy migrant, this time at the King's Group. These were Director level Civil Servants. The last measure would really hurt them and that's disbarrment from the Honours list. Education bods LOVE gongs. The very thought of a garden party  turns them into fawning fools. There's no end of possibilities here, all it takes is some imagination and balls.

Let’s apply some reason, metrics and funding pressure on both the private and public sector on fat cat pay. This hurts no one but sets moral and fiscal standards for organisations that make employees and voters feel that they’re in a democracy that cares about merit. We can then focus on increasing security of employment, minimum wages rises an, in general, reducing inequality.

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Monday, January 09, 2017

The future of parenthood through AI – meet Aristotle Mattel's new parent bot

Parents obviously play an important role in bringing up and educating their children. But it’s fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. Parents tend to face this this, for the first time, without much preparation, and most would admit to botching at least some of it along the way. Many parents may work hard and don’t have as much time with their children as they’d like. Few escape from the inevitable conflicts over expectations, homework, diet, behavior and so on. So what role could AI play in all this?
AI wedge
Domestic broadband was the first edge of the wedge. Smartphones, tablets and laptops were suddenly in the hands of our children, which they lapped up with a passion. Now with with the introduction of smart, voice activated devices into the home, a new proxy parent may have arrived, devices that listen understand and speak back, even perform tasks.
Enter Aristotle
Enter Aristotle, Mattel’s $300 Aristotle assistant. They may have called it Aristotle as both his parents died when he was young, that he was the able teacher of Alexander the Great or, that Aristotle set the whole empirical, scientific tradition that led to AI going. To be honest, what’s far more likely, is that it sounds Greek, classical and authoritative. (Aristotle's view on education here).
It’s a sort of Amazon Echo or Google Home for kids, designed for their bedrooms. To be fair, the baby alarm has been around for a long time, so tech has been playing this role in some fashion, for a some time, largely giving parents peace of mind. It is inevitable that such devices get smarter.
By smart, I mean several things. First it uses voice, to both listen and respond. That’s good. I’ve noticed, in using Amazon Echo, how much I’ve had to speak carefully and precisely to get action (see my thoughts on Echo here). There may come a time when early language development, which we know is important in child development, could be enhanced by such AI companions. It may also encourage listening skills. Secondly, it may encourage and satisfy curiosity. These devices are endlessly patient. They don’t get tired, grumpy, are alert and awake 24/7 and will get very smart. Thirdly, they may enhance parenthood in ways we have yet to imagine.
One aspect of the technology that does appeal is its personalized voice recognition. It knows the child’s voice. This could be useful. One area that could lessen embarrassment on both sides is timely sex education and advice. This could satisfy the child’s natural curiosity without the angst that child-parent communications could involve, as long as the child knows it is confidential and the parent is in control. As the child gets older, got a dispute over a fact? Amazon Echo or an Aristotle, may sort it out. Stuck with your homework, these devices will inevitably be able to help. There’s already an app, Photomaths, the app that students love and teachers hate, that you simply point at a mathematics problem, and it not only gives you the answer but all the steps in between. Few parents would be able to do this. Similarly with other subjects and languages. There’s no reason why the knowledge of the parent should limit the ability of a child to learn. The important thing is not to let such devices become substitutes for the horrific Tiger Mom experiences, hot-housing kids with endless exercises. Learning could be done in a measured fashion. And what parent wouldn’t want such a device to become an alarm, especially on school days?
The Arostotle device is designed to allow you to track feeds, wet nappies and so on, even buy the necessaries. What could also be useful is the availability of a source for good advice on parenting. I can still remember the times when one of my kids got ill - the sheer panic and worry. We had twins and would have loved good advice, mainly on what not to do – like tell the one who came out first that he was the oldest (big mistake as from that moment on he used it as a psychological weapon). In retrospect, having some intelligent advice on hand would have been useful. For example, being able to track and give you feedback as a parent when you’re overindulging them, pushing them too hard. I could see it helping parents hold back when they want to live vicariously through their children, see themselves as their kid’s best friend, think they’re perfect (sure sign is when they tell you that Josh or Sara is ‘gifted’), dealing with conflict, reminding you to be nice to them and make sure they feel loved and protected.
Not unproblematic
Now there are clearly potential problems in this area; the idea that this dehumanizes the normal parental role, that it could be used as a substitute for real love and care, the data issue and the possibility of surveillance, then governmental intervention for bad parenting. Some of this is a bit scary.
But relax, most of this has been a thought experiment. However, I’m pretty sure, that as the technology gets better, and this Mattel product already has machine learning and good natural language processing, there’s a high probability that some of the above ideas will be realized. Is there any parent who hasn’t, at some time, yearned for some help, some support? It’s easy if you have that support but what about single parents, parents with little or no family support, parents who have children with special needs? At the far end of the spectrum I could even see such support being given to mothers who suffer from post-natal depression. Pre- and post-natal advice, in situ, personalised?The promise is not to replace parents but help parents survive the inevitable storms. Time will tell.

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Friday, January 06, 2017

First flirtations with Alexa (Amazon Echo)…. 10 interesting uses in learning

I’ve spent the last few years working with AI, with WildFire and CogBooks, but here it is, in my home folks, on my kitchen table. First impressions? Looks good, a Space Odyssey-like column in black and my first encounter is quietly weird – a moving circle of blue light, a HAL-like halo appears, then a female voice. I say 'Hello', she says 'Hi'. I’m non-plussed by the gender voice farrago – a sort of ‘damned of you don’t, damned if you do’ argument. What I’m really interested in, is whether it is of any use. So a few ‘get to know you’ questions seemed appropriate.
Where are you?
I’m here and my head is in the cloud.
Where do you come from?
I am designed by Amazon. They’re based in Seattle, Washinton.
Are you a man or a woman?
I’m female in character.
Volume was a little low so… 
Turn up volume.
She did!
How tall are you?
I’m just over 232 millimeters.
How wide are you?
My diameter is 7.6 centimeters.
What weight are you?
I’m just over 1 kilogram.
What do you like?
I like to read.
How do you feel today?
I’m very well thanks.
Ok, let’s up the ante – everybody does this and I have to say, it felt a little  transgressive… I sware at her....
That’s not very nice to say.
Ok, tell me a joke
What does a house wear? A dress.
Several fairly anodyne jokes later….
OK, enough of the small talk…
First up… let’s not to compare Alexa to a human. It’s all too easy to do the ‘but she can’t do this… or that…’ thing. I’m not looking for a life companion, or a friend – I want to see if she’s useful. This is the first time I’ve used voice recognition in anger, woven into my life, so I’m keen to focus, not on problems but potential. So far, the voice recognition is damn good. I have a strong accent, that doesn’t throw her, and variations on the phrasing of questions seem to work (not always). There's a real problem with near-sounding homophones, but you learn to be more precise in your pronunciation. Next line of enquiry, ‘time’.
You can ask it the time or date, even holiday dates, number of days until a holiday and so on.  The sort of practical stuff we all need.
What time is it?
Bang on.
What date is it?
Day of the week and date.
When is Burn’s Night?
Burns Night will be on Wednedsay 25 January 2017.
How many days to Burn’s Night?
There are 19 days until Burn’s Night.
The timer functions are also neat, as these are often annoyingly fiddly on your cooker or alarm clock. How often do you pop something in the oven and either ‘look to check’ or suddenly smell the charred remains?
Set a timer for 10 minutes
Set a second timer for 20 minutes
How much time is left on my timer?
Then there are the alarm functions.
Set alarm for 7.30 tomorrow morning.
All good, just ask, it confirms the time – done.
Beyond this, she integrates with Google Calendar, reminding you of what you have to do today, tomorrow…
To do lists
To do lists are neat. I use a small notebook but for household stuff, a shopping list or to do list in the kitchen is neat. We can all add to the list. My gut feel, however, is that this will go the way of the chalkboard – unloved and unused.
OK, let’s pause, as future uses are starting to emerge….
Use 1 – Work and Personal Assistant
Only a start but I can already see this being used in organisations, sitting on the meeting room table, with alarms set for 30 mins, 45 mins and five mins, in an hour long meeting. Once fully developed, it could be an ideal resource in meetings for company information – financial and otherwise.
In fact, it struck me just playing around with these functions, that Alexa, as it evolves, will eventually make an ideal PA. Managers, according to a recent Harvard Business Review survey, spend 57% of their time on admin. Room for improvement there I think and an admin assistant seems likely. I've written a much longer piece on AI and management here.
Gives SkyNews summary bulletin. Oddly it’s always sport – not that I mind but I need to sort that one out.
Good summary of the weather for the day. I really liked this. You can ask for today’s or tomorrow’s weather, the current temperature outside, time of sunset, whether it will rain and so on. Useful.
Ask it simple questions such as, Who is? What is? Where is? And curt answers come. What is more useful is the next level ‘Wikipedia’ stuff. You get extended pieces on any topic. Now that’s neat - a talking Wikipedia.
Use 2 – Informal learning in the home
Stuck me that it would be good to get the educational ball rolling on a subject with a child – more a parent-child thing. Not the hideous hot-housing, Tiger Mom thing but gentle informal learning, where you speak to your child and get Alexa to help.
Use 3 – Educational games
There’s lots of basic educational games being developed for Alexa, for that around the kitchen table learning. Could be fun.
Use 4 – Classroom assistant
I could even see this being used in the classroom. I’d be interested in seeing it used with kids who have autism and other learning difficulties. Apart from being intriguing, on a serious note it does force you to pronounce words well then listen, does lots of maths, English and knowledge stuff. Early experiences seem quite positive… “You know that you have added an amazing resource to your classroom when students introduce their parents to “Alexa” at Back to School night. As if Alexa is another member of the class. I was able to experience this wonderful, and pretty hilarious, situation many times a short while ago”. This could go far, especially when strong support and lessons are delivered with personalised feedback, as it recognises that particular child’s voice, towards Teaching Assistants.
Use 5 – Special needs
It's use in SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) is, in my view obvious, but I'm not an expert. Accessibility is an important issue here and we can speak before we can read and write. For kids with dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ADHD, I'd love to get the view of specialist teachers about its potential.
This intrigued me… She adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides, no matter how large the numbers, and handles negative numbers. Also does indices, roots, factorials. I have to say, she’s one fast calculator. It will give you pi to as many decimal places as you want.
On formulae, it will tell you how to work out the area of a triangle. Even gave me the quadratic formula on request. On probability she will choose random numbers - give me a number between x and y – and roll a dice (any number of sides), pick a card and flip a coin. Then there are unit conversions, currency conversions and measurements.
What impresses me is the lack of latency. This matters in learning, where you don’t want long, unnatural pauses. I’m still uncovering stuff here…
Use 6: Learning maths
Teaching basic maths, conversions, units and probability, and so on, either in the home or in the classroom. Nothing fancy, just the basics. I’ve taught maths and it ain’t easy, especially with kids who don’t want to learn. I think this non-judgmental maths assistant thing could be useful, with personalized, sympathetic teaching.
Word definitions, spellings (handled that old classic – antidisestablishmentarianism – with ease), synonyms can all be asked for. There are some problems with near homophones such as ‘quartz’ and ‘courts’. You’ll encounter this quite quickly. Easily remedied with a rephrasing of the word. There are audiobooks and, of course, going back to Wikipedia, lots of background stuff.
Use 7: English skills
Given the effort you have to make to converse – pronounce your words, think about what you’re about to say, when Alexa moves from monologue to dialogue, this could be a boon for the language development of young children.
Use 8: Learning German
At the moment Echo is only available in US and British English but you can also change the language to German from your app. This is neat as you can ask questions in English and get German replies to any question. Language learning will surely be possible. That informal learn and practice while you’re doing other things in the kitchen. Teaching basic English. Word games, daily words, unlimited access to literature. It struck me that as someone who is learning English, this could be a great way to improve your pronunciation. Duolingo is already using bots, surely this is the next step?
Use 9: Inquiry
You can ask Alexa questions and there’s a good chance you’ll get a good reply.
What is the chemical symbol for ? Yip.
What is the chemical name for salt? Yip.
What is the chemical formula for water? Yip.
Quickly trickles out but you can see the direction of travel here….
How many bones are in the human body? Yip.
What is photosynthesis? Yip.
What does DNA stand for? Yip.
What is the capital of (country, state, counties)? Yip.
What is the population of (countries, cities)? Yip.
What is the area of (country, continent)? Yip.
What is the longest river in the word? Yip.
I know it’s all about facts but it’s a start but here’s where it gets interesting. You have access to Wikipedia. Simply say Alexa, Wikipedia and name a topic. I’ve been using this like crazy. Imagine when Alexa not only has the breadth and depth of an expert in any subject, as well as the patience, ability to read your voice and react to your personal learning needs. Imagine this 24/7. Imagine this for free.
Use 10: Podcasts and audiobooks
I like podcasts. I’ve been listening to the In Our Time Radio 4 podcasts on history, science and philosophy for years. I like the fact that you’re hearing world-class experts give their takes, without pre-packaged images. You’re mind remains your own and can focus on the ideas. This is distilled knowledge at its best. Audiobooks are the next step up. So for the short stuff – there’s podcasts galore, through Tunein and other services and there are more books than you’ll ever read.
Tons more
Of course, there’s tons more – any radio station you want, ordering taxis, pizzas, getting the phone number of a local business or restaurant. With Spotify, you get that music on-demand thing, as songs and artists come into your head. There’s lots of controls here even down to who sang what song, names of band members and so on. What movies are playing? It lists movies playing locally, tells me about the movie. However, usefully, she will if prompted, give me the names of the actors and, most useful of all, an IMDb rating. For general movie knowledge it will answer questions about who played what role.
Think AI not device
The important thing here is not the device but Alexa and the AI, or rather a range of AI techniques, that lie behind Alexa. NLP (Natural Lnaguage Processing) is striding forward. We will see Alexa technology pop up in all sorts of contexts - in cars, TV, watches, you name it. This is about deep-seated changes in technology not the surface devices.

OK all of the above has been without adding any new ‘skills’ – my first encounter. There are literally hundreds of these skills available. This is merely an echo of what’s coming. Listen carefully and you’ll hear whispers of the future. AI’s been in your life for a while – Google, social media, Amazon, Netflix… What’s new is that AI is here, a real presence, in your home. This is only an audio device, and not unsurprisingly that’s its strength – radio, news, weather, quick questions, audiobooks, podcasts. But it’s a natural form of communication and learning. Like most tech it gives back what you put into it. For me, it’s all down to habit. Sure Alexa is handy, convenient even, but you need to put the effort into make her work for you. By way of background information, I've written a piece on the role of voice in learning, and why I think it matters. More reports on Alexa will come as I get to know her better….

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