Friday, January 23, 2009

Now That's Using Your Noggin

Remember that SETI screensaver from the early days of the Internet? Brilliant, right? Harness unused CPU cycles from desktops around the world to solve a hard problem broken into bits. But we didn't find aliens. Or if we did, no one told us. And we probably sucked more electricity out of the wall causing global warming which may have increased our need for an alien lifeline. But that's not the point.

There's another company who's business is founded on applying the exact same principle. Google. They have hundreds of thousands if not millions of cheap servers breaking down search and other computational heavy problems into tiny bits and then reassembling them to get the answer. They call the algorithm MapReduce and have given a watered down version to the world in the open-source Hadoop. And when you get hired by Google they ask you, "What problem would you solve if you had limitless computational power?" Now that's employee onboarding!

But there are lots of problems computers are terrible at solving. Image recognition. Language recognition. Complex pattern matching. But the human brain is pretty good at these tasks. (Great book on this is On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins). What if you could coordinate a massive human effort to solve these problems? What if you could get everyone in line more than the North Koreans? What problem would you solve?

Well, like many great technological movements, the pornography industry has figured it out. You can now get free, quality porn on the Internet if you just solve some "Captchas" for them. Captchas are those letter scrambles that make sure you are human when you go to Ticketmaster or register for a new service. Here is an example:

Well, if you can get someone to crack these, you can start doing nefarious things like infiltrate and spam people on other services or reserve those tickets I want. Since that makes money, it's a different revenue stream for the porn industry. Not quite legal though. And certainly not admirable.

But look to our scientists. They have taken a similar principle and applied to protein analysis. And it's an app called FoldIt. How cool is that? By getting users to solve 3D problems folding proteins you are actually contributing to a medical database about how to target proteins with drugs.

Imagine if every turn of your Rubik's cube contributed towards a cure for AIDS? Now that's pretty cool. It would be even better if you abstracted the problem so you didn't know that it was a protein problem.

What would you do if you had unlimited human analysis and a way to incentivize them to apply it?

  • Find anomolies in the US budget? The new accounting test and game brought to you by Obamatronics
  • Choose the hottest person in America. Facebook profile challenge creates a trillion page views and makes the company profitable through contextual ads for beauty enhancement products. Ok. Less cool. More fun.
  • Transcribe all the video in the world? Language learning game brought to you by the Google Library project.

There are some cool problems we could solve and we have barely touched the surface.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Big O: Aspirational, yes. Inspirational, no.

Lest you think the last one was a fluke...

I may have been one of the only people who watched Obama's speech and felt it missed something. It was so refreshing to listen to an eloquent president, let alone one who can at least speak the language. And sure, the speech was honest about our challenges. It made us proud to be Americans and of our history. It assuaged us into thinking "we" are up for the challenge. Other than the workers taking reduced hours to save another's job, what is really being asked of the American people? And who is "we"?

There were millions of people on that lawn, more watching their TV sets at the workplace with each other, huddled in the lobby of the Chelsea Market and standing in Times Square. But while we all left feeling better about being Americans, I think we all left alone.

Part of me yearned for a cheap parlor trick. "Look to the left, look to the right, we all stand together and will rise up as one. These are the people in whom we trust and who will bring us out of this. Our fates are in each others hands. " I felt like there was such an opportunity to connect us and tell us how we can help.

But I don't think he knows yet. There is such momentum with Obama, the idea more so than the man. But while we have participated and elected Obama, it was only an election. Obama is still just a promise. And I think, if played right, Obama is a responsibility.

How do you take this speech and convert it into action. How do you take the principles of grassroots empowerment, galvanizing the influencers and turn it into meaningful action?

How do you move from making us aspire to be better Americans to inspiring us to act?

Big O may not know yet. But don't worry, America. Trevor's got a plan. More on that later.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Beginning: It's the End of the World as We Know It

Hello everyone. Been a long while since I last wrote my blog, but it is has been itching at me every week, maybe even every day as new ideas come into my head and I say to myself, “Man, I should really blog about that.” But it’s a new year. And I got my final reminder today from a good friend and an extra nudge tonight. So I am back. Now you might think that with this much thought this post will be pure brilliance, but the reality is that this will be like any other post, special in its own way, but no specialer. That’s right. I said specialer.

It’s also good timing in that I heard an inspirational talk with Naomi Wolf this week. While made famous by her feminist contribution, The Beauty Myth, Naomi (who I have met socially) was discussing the tremendous threat to democracy we are currently facing. At first glance, her theory that the US is on the path to a totalitarian state was most easily dismissed as conspiracy theory. Our confidence in democracy is not easily shaken. But she then outlined the predictable elements of the demise of the democratic society, using Germany, Russia, Italy, Greece and many other countries as examples. Here are some common examples and they are eery:

Creating an external threat to focus fear. Iraq. The never ending War on Terror.
Setting up civilian surveillance without judicial review. Hello Patriot Act.
Military presence in major cities. We are now in violation of the constitution by having more than the National guard in our cities. Count em, 20K troops. And the military is training our police now.
Voter suppression. Calling an active campaign dedicated to voter suppression “voting irregularities” is disingenuous.
Setting up interrogation bases above the law. Suspending habeas corpus. Holding citizens without allegations. Torturing prisoners. Gitmo.

Now it’s been clear to me for sometime that Bush’s assault on the constitution has been very real. All my life I have been taught as the basis of privacy that you can’t wiretap without a warrant. And yet, we have conceded these tenets of our democracy so easily. Hell, we even openly violate the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention! Who is America?

Now, I always thought it was because Bush was an autocrat, and a bumbling idiot of one. Just a guy who says god talks to him and thinks he is above the law. Perhaps his idiocy disguised a much more malevolent plot. Perhaps as he said in one of his final press conferences we always “misunderestimated” him. Is it really that hard to believe that you could tilt the balance of our delicate democracy to systematically favor the party in power? Hint: look up Gerrymandering or the recent punitive actions against bi-party lobbyists.

Have we not felt like we have lost our voice? Our impact? With no bid contracts, cronyism, the polarization of the 2 party system resulting in a tyranny of the majority, has the government not been so subverted by special interests that we can legitimately question our democratic ideals?
Could this all have been orchestrated? Planned in a way to secure power for a few individuals? Perhaps their goal was much more malevolent.

Now the election of Obama certainly gives us hope. But perhaps this great achievement was in part made possible by the information age with cell phone cameras, YouTube uploads, and a culture of citizen reporting catching the very irregularities that could swing elections. And believe me, Obama will need us to push any meaningful change. He is 1 man, 1 gun. We are millions, his ammunition.

To reclaim our democracy, we must continue to embrace our ability to make our voices heard. To challenge the threats we too easily have come to accept. To protest meaningfully. To pressure our representatives into action. To force our agenda through State and National Referenda. If the Morman church can sneak Prop 8 into liberal California, what could a city like New York do? Or your local community. Or Obama’s email list. And if New York can do it, maybe all it takes is one Michael Bloomberg. One man convinced to push. It starts with you.

Are you ready to push? It sounds hard because you don’t know how. Naomi’s new book, Give Me Liberty, A Handbook for American Revolutionaries is about showing you the way to make that voice heard. We are the ones who have handed over our democracy. Maybe, just maybe, the threat is so serious that it is time we take it back.

God forbid we go into the annals of history grouped with the citizens of early Nazi Germany writing in our diaries, “I don’t have to speak up yet. It couldn’t get worse.”