Starting A Blog For Beginners

§ March 2nd, 2014 § Filed under Future Tech § Tagged , § No Comments

sabfbMany people may have the right talent to write articles or maybe express their opinions where many people will one hundred percent agree with them. What will make your blog site popular is by expressing thoughts that people want to hear or most likely publicize something that many people think of but have not mentioned in public yet. When starting a blog, you need to decide what your niche will be. You can write something about animal rights or being vegetarian. More than twenty percent of the whole world’s population is vegetarian. Let us say, you already know what to write and you have plotted what you want your site to looks like. However, because of the lack of your knowledge with HTML, it prevents you from starting. Basic tutorials can be found all over the internet.

There are many bloggers in the internet that are beginners as well. Sometimes, the appearance of your blog site does not matter but what it contains. However, not all people think like that so it is better to beautify your page layout if you want to be featured. Starting a blog may be hard in the beginning but as you keep blogging, you can actually learn from it and maybe meet fellow bloggers that can share ideas and opinions with you.

Helpful Ways To Create A Blog After Planning

If you want to create a blog, you will need to make a thorough plan first. Planning will include writing down all the coding that you will possibly need. Also included in this phase is remembering the proper placement of codes. For the best outcome, always refer to a guide about blog making. The books about guides on how to create a blog in simple steps will give aspiring bloggers an idea on how to arrange them properly. The second phase is by illustrating what you want your blog to look like. Do you want outline in it or maybe a moving gif image of your blog site’s logo? Whatever your preferences are, they are equivalent to a code.

After you have illustrated what you want your blog to look like, you are almost ready to create a blog. The next phase is by writing down your codes and then trying it on your notepad. Save the file in the format “document title [dot] HTML” and then run it using your browser. The result is what your output is. If you are satisfied with the output then the next thing you need to do is choose your blog maker. After so, you have to learn how the blog maker works.

Are You Familiar With Currently Non-Collectible Status?

§ February 12th, 2014 § Filed under Money Issues § Tagged , § No Comments

yfcncsPaying taxes can be challenging for many people, especially if they do not see this as an obligation until the IRS comes to the door. On the other hand, some people cannot pay their taxes due to various financial losses, so they must look for proper IRS tax relief. The currently non-collectible status cannot be applied on anyone, but it can help with the debts, so it is recommended to learn more about it.

In order to be a part of this category a taxpayer should not own any type of property, and the IRS cannot levy taxes. Moreover, the income of the taxpayer is unstable, so he is not able to pay taxes he owes. There may be also a situation where the income of the taxpayer is too low, so he cannot meet normal life needs. Some people think that falling into this category means they do not need to pay taxes ever again, but actually, the payments get temporarily suspended. People with this IRS tax relief are always monitored, because the IRS wants the see if there are any changes in financial status. The best thing about this status is that a person who has it for over ten years can have all taxes and penalties erased, for good. More great information is here.

Do You Need An IRS Tax Relief Attorney?

Dealing with the IRS can be hard, especially for those who have no idea what to do. Without any knowledge and experience, instead of finding the right IRS tax relief, people end up in more debts than ever. That is why it is recommended to have a professional for this matter, and finding the attorney is what everyone should do.

The most important thing is finding the attorney who will make everything easy, and will make the IRS look so reasonable. Taxpayers do not need more debts on their back, so they must find an affordable attorney. Some of them charge the flat rate, and others a fixed rate, but it is better to ask around in order to avoid hidden costs. The flat rate is usually used for cases with large similarities, so the work becomes routine. Nonetheless, some situations require specialists only, and those are people who have an experience working on the tax law cases. It is crucial to prepare many questions about the case, prices and also see what kind of relationship the attorney has with the IRS. The IRS tax relief is designed to help people in need, but it is still hard to get some settlements, and that is where attorney jumps in.

What Types Of Tax Problems One Can Face?

People who end up in tax problems believe they can easily get rid of them thanks to proper IRS tax relief, but the truth is – once the journey begins, it may never end. Knowing about types of problems one may get into is what everyone should do, even though the financial situation is better than ever.

The first type of problem is connected to payroll taxes, and they can appear in a second, so the IRS will make sure he gets everything the taxpayer owes. One must check if the documents are up to date, and even typos can be fatal, so the employer should go through those documents once in a while. The IRS tax liens are usually placed upon a property of a taxpayer, so it cannot be sold or transferred on someone else. This is how IRS makes sure they will get all the payments needed. Nonetheless, it is better to avoid this situation, and the only way to do it is pay taxes on time. The IRS levy lets the IRS get the back payments from the checking or saving account of the taxpayer, and this can cause a huge financial problem. The only way to get an IRS tax relief or prevent this situation is to be truthful, and provide all documents required.

Sensing From Above

§ January 30th, 2014 § Filed under Future Tech, Robots § Tagged , § No Comments

I think not a lot of people really understand exactly what technology the government has in order to watch citizens. In fact, I think if everyone knew, there would probably be riots in the street. I was reading the other week about surveillance stuff in a recent Popular Mechanics, which I’ve always loved since I was a little boy (I remember my Dad had stacks of them, as well as Popular Science) – too bad the world they predicted never came to be – and some of the satellite technology that they are working with are actually completely amazing.

Drones like this could be the prospectors of the future!

Drones like this could be the prospectors of the future!

Not only that, but as you know, everyone is talking about drones. Really, I don’t see much difference between these and basic radio control planes. I mean, the technology that these things are holding is obviously light years above anything else, but at its base, these are basically just toys. Toys that are monitoring the American public relentlessly, of course, but they are basically toys nonetheless. Why anyone would be shocked at this, I have no idea.

One of the things that really amazed me about some of the drone setups was the fact that they were using Hyperspectral imaging systems like this one, mounted on the drone, to do full analysis of what was happening on the ground. Obviously, the potential applications of this are pretty unlimited, but one of the ones I’ve heard talked about is the fact that because hyperspectral imaging can detect differing electromagnetic signatures, it can also detect different geological structures. Where am I going with this? Well, how about a prospecting system that runs these things 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and looks at millions and millions of square kilometers.

Naturally, hyperspectral imagers aren’t going to detect everything – the fact is that so many minerals are similar enough that you simply can’t differentiate between them over large areas of land. It just can’t be done. On the other hand, there are some mineral compounds that are different enough – diamonds come to mind – that you can actually pick them out.

Now, these imaging systems still aren’t perfect. But companies like Surface Optics are working on the development of these imagers from airborne “macro”-scale devices to bringing up that resolution. Consider it like a first-stage digital camera. Back in the days when everything was 640×480. This is how far hyperspectral and multispectral imagers are along. Meaning there is definitely a ton of room for these to grow.

What will be the most interesting thing about this for Artificial Intelligence developers is to take these imagers and teach the system ITSELF to detect geological aberrations. That way, you could launch a system on a drone to cover a massive amount of land, and then get more focused on actually prospecting the areas that kept on showing up in airborne scouting reports.

The future is now with this stuff.

Some Interesting Notes From MIT

§ November 16th, 2013 § Filed under AI § No Comments

At MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, a robot baby’s touch points toward consciousness and maybe a sense of soul. On hand is the lab’s resident theologian, Dr. Anne Foerst, to help explore what we can and cannot know about ourselves and the machines that one day may keep us as pets.

“You’d better come look at Cog!” said Matt Williamson, so Anne Foerst, the resident theologian of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) lab, left her computer and raced down the corridor to see what had made Williamson, an expert on building robot arms, so excited.

aiAt the AI Lab, one can never sure what to expect. Downstairs, in the leg lab, they’ve built stork-like robots that, contrary to conventional wisdom, could run and leap long before they could walk. Along another corridor is Kismet, a remarkably cute robot head with luxuriously long eyelashes that actually does what Furbies only pretend to do: Kismet “learns” from reading human facial expression and reacts “emotionally.” Next door, in the Media Lab, there’s a computer “rabbi” that seems to respond to human problems with the empathy of a true rabbi. But Cog is special: A baby boy — albeit oversized and not yet bouncing — who can make eye contact with humans, play with them, toss a ball, and bobble a Slinky back and forth.

What’s Cog’s secret? Unlike classic AI robots, in which a single computer brain runs separate mechanical systems, Cog is built with “Embodied” AI, meaning that every joint is an independent thinking machine. Each joint in Cog is, by itself, fairly simple, designed to interact in simple ways with the joints around it. But from the series of simple joints the complexity within Cog grows enormously fast. More importantly, each joint in Cog is also “imbedded” in the outside world. In other words, each joint not only interacts with other joints but takes cues directly from the chaos of life. That makes the robot’s behavior unpredictable even to its creators. In short, Cog is designed to interact with the world and learn in the same ways that human babies do. And Cog works, at least a lot better than any conventional robot. That’s what makes Cog so fascinating and so scary.

This particular day with Anne Foerst, Cog would prove to be even more.

Foerst, 33, is the kind of real life character that Michael Crichton might make up on one of his best days. She’s a German theologian (Ph.D., Ruhr-University Bochum) as well as an MIT-level computer whiz. Her position at the lab is part of a seemingly unlikely collaboration between two hugely different venues of higher thinking: Harvard’s comfortingly neo-Gothic Divinity School and MIT’s harshly cubical AI Lab.

One of her colleagues is Harvey Cox, the renowned Professor of Religion at Harvard (and an advisor to this magazine). Cox understands humans as distinct from the rest of creation because of our relationship with God, because of our cognitive abilities, and because of our capability for ethical judgment.

Another colleague is Rodney Brooks, Director of the AI Lab. Brooks feels comfortable understanding humans as “meat machines.” While Brooks doesn’t treat other people like machines, he is confident that AI researchers will eventually build robots that are as conscious and soulful as we think we are — as well as a whole lot smarter. A joke around the lab is that some future generation of Furbies will keep us as pets.

Foerst’s training and position make her an ideal explorer to be smack in the middle of some of the largest questions ever to be explored by science. Her own goal is to get a better handle on what science can and cannot tell us about who we are.

When Foerst came to the lab four years ago, one project she expected to work on was skin and touch for Cog. Why? As both a theologian and a computer scientist, she is “fascinated by the ambiguities of skin, one of the largest organs of the body and a source of sensuality and separation, pleasure and pain. Babies shrivel and even die for lack of caresses. Through touch, babies learn both about their own embodiment and the outside world.” Foerst explains that when you touch a baby’s open palm, it clenches its fist, and when you touch the outside of the baby’s hand, the hand withdraws. These simple actions, “hardwired” into the baby’s brain, allow the baby through trial and error to begin understand both itself and the world around it. So one of her goals at the lab was to help recreate such a learning system in Cog. But, after four years, the project had gotten nowhere. Until that day.

What had happened was this: To help build Cog’s arm coordination, Matt Williamson put “touch” sensors on the robot’s belly — in large part just to give Cog’s hand something to aim for. But Foerst didn’t know that (and even Williamson got a lot more than he expected). So Cog would touch the sensors, a programmed activity. But the appearance was that Cog was exploring his body not as a conscious brain activity or as a visual activity but as an embodied activity — just the way a newborn does.

Says Foerst, “We know that the behavior of human babies is far more primitive that what we project into them. Here the same thing happened. Cog’s programmed activity appeared extremely anthropomorphic. Cog looked so alive! The experience was for me unnerving.”

Moments of Mystery

It turns out, says Foerst, that virtually everyone involved with Cog has experienced similar moments in which the robot did something breathtakingly lifelike — moments that have had the character of real mystery until a closer look at the interactions between the computers processors has provided a scientific explanation for the seemingly “human” behavior. As robots like Cog get more complex, such mysteries will come more often and become more difficult to understand.

But even now, says Foerst, these moments of apparent mystery in Cog’s behavior raise enormous theological questions: Is our respect for human intelligence only caused by our non-understanding of the phenomenon? Do we assign dignity to humans only because we are too complicated to analyze completely? If and when we come to understand ourselves fully, will we lose our self- respect? And, ultimately, if a “conscious” and even “soulful” robot is around the corner, what is a religious person (in her own case, a Lutheran) to believe?

Before we can begin to truly understand such questions, let alone to begin to answer them, the first step, she says, is to take a enormous (and for this article, very brief) step backward.

Sorry, ancient philosophy again…

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers like Plato have distinguished between two fundamentally different, yet equally important “speech acts:” Logos and Mythos. Logos relates to empirical data and to physical reality. In other words, logos answers the “how” questions. The “how” of anything can be discussed even by widely different groups of people and, eventually, one position will be proven right or wrong by empirical evidence.

Mythos, on the other hand, relates to our interpretation of reality. Mythos answers the “why” questions, and such questions are always answered with reference to a larger symbolic narrative that cannot be verified by scientific evidence. Unlike the universal logos, mythos is personal and cultural. Our myths are a mere fiction or even a lie to those who do not share them. So, Plato would say that Christianity falls into in the realm of mythos, and so does Buddhism, and so do all the new techno-theologies currently emerging from AI and the Internet.

The Greeks understood logos and mythos to be separate and distinct — and that humans need both. They also under stood them to be interrelated. Our mythos shapes the way we perceive the empirical world and, at the same time, our insights into the empirical world gradually change our current mythos. If our mythos stops being convincing, it is because a new narrative has emerged to replace it.

That, explains Foerst, was roughly the way the Greeks separated science from faith, and it held up pretty well until Enlightenment philosophers set about freeing the world from the tyranny of superstition. Even questions of ultimate meaning, they argued, should boil down to hard, empirical evidence — pure logos. Certainly, theologians have not been not immune to the attraction of pure logos. On the contrary, they have often led the charge by trying to use science to prove the existence of God.

But the need for myths cannot be so easily obliterated. So, says Foerst, what has happened, instead, is that our classic religious myths have largely replaced by a series of myths created by science. Right now, technologies have become for many people the new way of expressing myth. The leading edge of this new thought are the various sects of “techno-pagans,” who see computers as models of how human minds work and the Internet as the future of our consciousness.

What’s the point of this all-too-quick history? Seeing the computer as a metaphor for the working of our brains is a very powerful. We all do it w hen we speak of our brains being “hardwired” or “programmed.” But to assume, for example, that Cog’s version of consciousness or the Internet’s have any real meaning for humans is actually a leap of faith — pure mythos. We do not know and perhaps can never know how much these replicas we create actually tell us about who we are. We humans must recognize this leap of faith and be very careful about of how much power we give robots or any other technology over our own self understanding.

That doesn’t mean religious people can’t learn from AI research or that AI researchers can’t learn from our wisdom traditions. The dialogue is important for both sides. But we have to recognize that it takes place in the mythos realm. It’s an interreligious dialogue, and can only be undertaken gently, with open hearts, and good intentions. Demonstrating the importance of this gentle dialogue is what Anne Foerst is trying to accomplish in her bridge between the AI Lab and the Divinity School. And, as it turns out, that’s one reason she’s been pushing all these years to get skin on robots. Why? Because robot skin may be the genesis of a “conscious” robot, and that robot in turn may reveal powerful new insights into the wisdom of Genesis.

Rabbinical AI Theology 101: Genesis 3:21

Once again, we’ll have to trample roughshod over some beautifully complex thought, but one fairly classic reading of the story of The Fall deals with the ambiguity of knowledge. Adam and Eve have the power to make decisions but lack the perfect knowledge of God, so they make a bad decision: They eat from the Tree, get evicted from the Garden, and are saddled with pain and death. So a great human quest, at least from this interpretation, is to seek complete knowledge. If we could just know enough, we wouldn’t do harmful things, and we could live forever with God.

This fairly classic reading dovetails with the thrust of classic AI. If we could build a powerful enough computer or plug into a large enough Internet, we could know everything for the good of everyone, and maybe even make ourselves immortal. But what’s fascinating is that, while such thinking has created computers that can beat even the best humans at chess, it has so far made lousy robots. Sifting more information at ever higher speeds and in ever larger nets is apparently not what human life or consciousness is about.

As Foerst points out, both this classic reading of Genesis and classic AI are examples of mythos that don’t hold up very well given the current logos. So part of her work has been to focus on a much richer interpretation of Genesis proposed by a fourteenth century rabbi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and brought to her attention by the modern theologian Norbert Samuelson. The interpretation is rooted in a seemingly innocuous passage: “And God JHWH made garments of skin for the man and his wife and clothed them.” Genesis 3:21.

Meditating on this passage, the rabbi came to believe that God would neither kill animals in the Garden of Eden nor sew clothes for Adam and Eve. To the rabbi, both the killing and the sewing seemed ungodlike activities, so he proposed that what really happened is that God gave Adam and Eve human skin. Thus, the story of the Fall illustrates not just estrangement from God because our knowledge is incomplete but because our knowledge is experienced through our bodies and is, therefore, always ambiguous.

Sexuality, the rabbi noted, symbolizes this ambiguity: For example, the relationship between Adam and Eve in the Garden is never described as an erotic one. However, the term used to describe Eve’s desire for the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge is explicitly sexual. So sexual desire is first aroused in the context of knowledge. Another example is the Hebrew word jada, which means both “to recognize” and “to sleep together,” and hints toward the idea that all human knowledge is embodied. Or to put it in Foerst’s mythos/logos terms, in our most embodied human activity, making love, the logos is that we engage in an act of mutual satisfaction and/ procreation. The mythos is that through our bodies we come to truly know each other and to know God.

Embodied AI now takes the rabbi’s idea of embodied knowledge seriously. With robots like Cog and Kismet this ambiguity of embodied knowledge is being built right in. Says Foerst, as more skin is spread over them, the robots will likely seem more like our own children, and provide more of those breathless moments in which we seem to glimpse who we are and where we came from.

The logos is that future robots will likely be smarter, more capable, and perhaps even more sensitive and sensible than we are. The mythos is what we make of it. We can believe that we are demeaned by machines that seem to replicate us all too well. But we can also see our creations as reminders that, while there are things we cannot know, the most likely path to wisdom is not to become more disembodied like computers but to become more embodied, more human.

Customers Love A Good Site

§ November 2nd, 2013 § Filed under Robots § Tagged , § No Comments

Oh, that Jill. she has a special talent for making customers feel all warm and cozy. With her in-depth knowledge, thoughtful questions and almost uncanny ability to predict what kind of laptop a shopper will want, Jill, a service representative on cozone.com Inc.’s e-commerce site, often gets the undying gratitude of online customers tied up like a pink valentine.

In fact, recently Jill received this customer love note:

“Dear Jill,

Your overview about notebooks is AWESOME. I realized over the holidays that I need to buy a new notebook, but felt overwhelmed at the task. Your notes give me confidence that I can figure out and find what I need. Thanks!”

You’d think all this praise would be enough to make Jill blush. And it probably would if Jill were human. But she’s not. Jill is a virtual shopping assistant.

Her face does happen to belong to a member of cozone.com’s ad agency, but that is as lifelike as Jill gets. Behind the pretty face is actually a heady stew of predictive modeling, demographic and psychographic statistics, and Bayesian pattern recognition algorithms.

All the number-crunching of ones and zeros add up to Jill being smart enough to act like any small-town salesperson who would get to know her customers and offer them recommendations. It may be cold statistics churning behind that smile, but the only thing that the online customer experiences is Jill in her get-to-know- you mode as she asks questions such as, “Do you travel a lot?” or, “Will a child be using this computer?” It all adds up to Jill coming across as, well, a Web site visitor’s best friend.

That may seem like a touchy-feely goal for online transactions. But establishing that kind of deep connection with customers is exactly what many next-generation e-businesses are after. The problem is that it has been difficult to establish a level of trust between a consumer or business partner when all they have to relate to is a Web site built on CRM (customer relationship management) applications that flip through cold, hard data in the background. To humanize the interaction, enterprises are giving their Web sites face lifts-or more accurately, face consolidations.

The Jill persona is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind that bright, friendly image, savvy e-businesses are integrating customer information stored in CRM and ERP (enterprise resource planning) back-end applications. But building a Web site with personality isn’t easy. It requires stitching together multiple tools such as Silknet Software Inc.’s Trusted Advisor-the technology behind Jill-as well as intelligent search engines, e- mail management, Web chat and call-back buttons to give the site its own charm. Because there is no one software suite that does it all, it usually falls to the IT department to write the code that brings it together.

clagsAnd as companies such as Sun Microsystems Inc., DaimlerChrysler Corp., Proflowers.com and Porsche Cars of North America Inc. work on creating a single corporate identity for customers and partners to relate to, they’re running into another challenge: persuading division managers-who are sometimes reluctant to relinquish control of customer information-to buy in to the idea.

Ultimately, however, creating a friendly corporate persona on the front end and pooling data on the back end means customers avoid having to deal with a corporation’s separate business divisions, which can all have distinct Web personalities, log-ins and passwords. They get more self-serve options and quicker answers, and e-businesses get tighter customer relationships and lower support costs.

Experts say it’s crucial for businesses to determine what technology is needed to put those relationships together now, before competition eats their lunch. “I do believe that although we’re on the leading edge now, and [some of this technology] is rudimentary, a year from now things will be significantly different,” said Peggy Menconi, an analyst with AMR Research Inc., in Boston. “Personalization will be past making the screen look the way you want it to. You’ll see more and more of these virtual assistants.”

Some companies, such as DaimlerChrysler, are working toward such intimate customer relationships. The company is installing online technologies based on Ask Jeeves, Ask Jeeves Inc.’s natural language search technology. The tool will be customized into a corporate persona similar to Dell Computer Corp.’s “Ask Dudley,” which allows users to type technical service and support questions in using plain English to receive instant answers.

It’s all about creating a customer relationship based on trust. “It’s a relationship with the Web,” said AMR’s Menconi. “It doesn’t surprise me that [Jill] gets mail. Rather than being a cold search engine where you put in Boolean logic, she asks questions a real person would ask you.”

Just another pretty, virtual face?

Proflowers.com, an online florist, is now in the process of evaluating Silknet’s Trusted Advisor-a set of technologies and services that can be used to produce a virtual online persona. Jonathan Sills, vice president of strategy and product development at Proflowers.com, in San Diego, said a virtual salesperson makes sense, particularly in the flower business, where a purchase isn’t just a transaction-it’s an intimate experience. “We ship an emotion, not a flower,” Sills said. “Every element of our customer experience should reflect that touchy-feeliness.”

A key part of creating a Web site with personality is doing the research it takes to imbue virtual sales personas with the kind of expertise that will keep customers coming back. An example of that research is Silknet’s Trusted Advisor division’s visits to CompUSA Inc.’s stores, where researchers eavesdropped on exchanges among experienced salespeople and customers. The result was Jill, a persona they developed specifically for cozone, which is CompUSA’s Internet spinoff. For Proflowers.com, the research will involve visiting florists to do similar research.

Based on technology developed through research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Trusted Advisor uses mathematical curves that assign value to shopper responses, such as whether the site visitor has children and how the visitor self-ranks his or her knowledge. An online persona-aka “bot”-such as Jill then presents products tailored to a customer’s needs, along with third-party reviews and articles.

So do sites with these personas actually manage to sell all that much more than a straight configurator or search engine-enabled site? Jill’s creators say yes.

“We’ve seen healthy conversion rates” in converting browsers to buyers, said David Fowler, vice president of marketing for Silknet. “It’s doubled in Version 2.2 of Jill.”

But comprehensive, next-generation CRM has been a tough row to hoe for many companies. Despite the current consolidation trend among CRM vendors seeking to gain more product functionality, no CRM suite today can deliver both the front-end virtual persona and integrated customer information on the back end.

“There really is a lot of concern about whether you go with a point solution that manages one aspect of CRM, such as something that deals with e-mail management really well, or do you go with one that covers the whole spectrum,” said Proflowers.com’s Sills. “I haven’t seen one out there that can do everything we need to do with customer relationships at the same level of proficiency as the point solutions.”

That’s meant that Proflowers.com has had to write custom code to tie together its CRM environment, which includes Kana Communications Inc.’s Kana Customer Messaging System e-mail management tool as well as LivePerson Inc. technology, which enables “call me now” requests to be typed online alerting a company representative to phone the customer back (see story, below).

Proflowers.com also uses Personify Inc.’s Personify Essentials, a system that links visitor or behavioral data with tracked customer data, such as items purchased, amount of purchase, length of time since previous purchase and items viewed.

Tinkering with the n-tier

At DaimlerChrysler, getting cozy with customers has meant that Mike Mortan, senior manager of interactive communications, has had to get his hands dirty tinkering with every application to retrofit them into state-of-the-art n-tier architecture, a setup that allows Web site user interfaces to be changed without having to fiddle with a long string of code.

Standard site architectures have coding all the way down into the database; when one word in the interface is changed, the code has to be reworked back to the database. N-tier architecture separates codes into levels, each of which can be modified separately. What this means, Mortan said, is content can be changed quicker and is therefore more nimble at responding to customer needs.

The outcome of the tinkering will be a Web site that will not only greet visitors by name but will get downright chummy, asking, for example, “Hey, how’s your Jeep running? You know, you’re due for a tuneup. You want me to set up an appointment now?” Mortan said this ability to schedule service online will be launched later this year, even though it’s not something customers want yet-but Mortan says they soon will.

“As we know, things change quickly on the Web,” pointed out Mortan, in Auburn Hills, Mich. “As we move to the future, a big part of personalizing customer experience on the Web will be knowing [customers] well and knowing when they’ll be ready to shop again, plus their buying habits and shopping and lifestyle preferences. We’ll be able to push to a consumer relevant info they’re interested in, as opposed to making a Web site that’s meant for the masses.”

DaimlerChrysler is also plugging in the friendliness fix of a natural language search engine. The company’s Ask Chrysler is a tool that’s based on Ask Jeeves’ Ask Jeeves Corporate Service. Why not just put in a simple search engine? They just don’t have any personality, Mortan said.

“This [involved] humans sitting down and looking at the Web site as a potential consumer and really writing answers and pointing the questions to the actual Web site where the answer would be found,” Mortan said. “[Where] other products use fuzzy logic to do that … we wanted the ability to sit down as if you had another person on the other end of that scene and open up dialogue through natural language.”

A virtual foot in a virtual mouth

Despite the lure of this type of customer self-service, e- businesses should be aware that they can easily backfire and blow up the site’s credibility. That’s because such transactions require data in ERP and CRM systems to be available so that online visitors actually touch the data in enterprises’ back ends. Unfortunately, many businesses aren’t at liberty to tweak long-standing back-end systems at will.

That’s the case at Porsche Cars North America, which is piloting a relational vehicle/customer database that would provide transparency from a browser into the AS/400 back end to access information such as a car’s service history and a customer’s lifestyle, including how many vehicles a customer has and even how many children.

What hamstrings an effort like that is that the legacy systems- including the half-dozen databases through which information flows sluggishly-can’t be changed, since they’ve been adopted by Dr. Ing. h. c. F. Porsche AG as worldwide standards, according to John Jacobs, manager of Porsche Cars North America’s dealer and field systems, in Atlanta.

“There’s a lot of one-to-one relationship marketing aspects we can leverage with a CRM initiative,” Jacobs said. “[For example,] we could provide service reminders, [set up] service appointments. … [But] we can’t touch that legacy code and modify it for our own use because it upsets the apple cart for the international implementation.”

To get that information to flow more freely, at least for dealers, Porsche has licensed Jacada Ltd.’s Jacada for Java, a tool that applies graphical interfaces to huge databases of information and ERP applications, eliminating the need to rewrite code or move data off the mainframes.

But even after businesses figure out how to hook up legacy systems for next-generation CRM, they still have to make sure their back-end data is squeaky clean, experts say. After all, even Jill gets the occasional less-than-charming e-mail, such as one from a customer who found her technical knowledge lacking. “Several things can make [these personas] annoying,” AMR’s Menconi said. “[Companies] put up bad info, or they don’t update it, so they have old info that’s no longer relevant.”

A company such as Sun knows all about exposing its problems publicly. Like many large companies, Sun initially lurched onto the Web with all its divisions dangling. Fixing that situation so that customers could access one Sun and get what they need without getting shunted from division to division is the reason that Sun created its eSun initiative a year ago.

Uniting disparate divisions will spare Sun’s customers pain and save the company money. For example, an order status check costs about $20 when a customer calls Sun, but just pennies when done by a customer online, according to Bobbi Burns, director of Web commerce at Sun. First, however, Burns had to be able to present customers with information from multiple back-end systems. And that meant she had to fight to get divisions’ upper management to let go of their online fiefdoms. “It was a nightmare,” said Burns, in Chelmsford, Mass. “We were asking divisions that were traditionally very independent and used to making their own choices to do something new. It’s perceived as a threat and a taking away of power.”

It took the eSun initiative six months, even with upper management’s support, to get buy-in to the new deal. Now the challenge is to present Jill-style customer recognition in the world of business-to-business, which is far more complex than business-to-consumer relationships.

For example, presenting customized product catalogs so that customers don’t buy products that would be incompatible with their networks can involve five levels of employee access and buying authority. A service contract may be relevant only to a subset at a company, and information may be off-limits to some employees.

“Having multiple customer management systems gets difficult,” Burns admitted. “We have to make sure we can tie systems together with common identifiers and not have to replace them all at once.”

So why go through the angst? Because customers won’t be putting up with online enterprise schizophrenia much longer. “Our customers know what they want and don’t want to spend time calling someone,” Burns said. “They want access right away … and they want to work with one Sun.”

So where should businesses start to give their online personalities some charm? AMR’s Menconi said the first thing to do is to look at a site from the customer’s point of view and design CRM features accordingly. That means letting customers do whatever they want to do quickly and easily-forget the sticky site syndrome; get them out quickly and only upsell subtlely.

Next, make sure you clean up before you open up. Dirty data is just an embarrassment. Last, don’t wait, because “there’s too much at stake,” Menconi said.

After all, you don’t want to catch Jill winning the hearts of customers on a competitor’s site.

Don’t let them drop before they shop

Consumers want self-service on e-commerce sites that allow them to complete as much as they can, as fast as they can. But businesses have to stitch together a crazy quilt of applications to cover all their visitors’ needs, since no one suite offers all the coddling required for a good customer relationship. Here are some of the functions that will satisfy CRM needs:

Research products: There are many solutions to choose from, but some businesses are using natural-language technology to make sure Internet newbies don’t get scared off by Boolean logic. *(products include: Ask Jeeves, Edify and iPlanet)

Create order: Let customers view products before dumping them in shopping carts, or your site will be littered with abandoned carts. *(products include: Calico, FirePond and Trilogy)

Search solutions: Smart technology takes note of what a visitor is researching and will then use predictive modeling to determine what they might buy. *(products include: Ventix, Silknet and Inference)

Check order status: Link-ups to delivery channels such as FedEx are de rigueur. *(products include: netDialog and Silknet)

Dispatch engineers: The ability to call for service help online is rare but will soon be a must-have feature. *(products include: IET, eDispatch.com and PointServe)

Online buddies vs. big brothers

The Catch-22 in today’s e-economy is that on one hand, to build a deep and lasting relationship with customers or partners, you need to know as much about them as possible. On the other hand, many people are fed up with their personal information being bandied about, since it often results in an e-mail box full of spam. Here is what e-businesses need to collect and analyze to turn the Web site into a visitor’s trusted assistant:

Basic profile. Name, e-mail address, billing and shipping addresses, phone number(s), whether they’re part of a household (for business-to-consumer interactions) or employees of a business (for business-to-business).

Preferred method of communicating. Do visitors prefer communicating via phone, e-mail, Web chat or face to face? Do they prefer different channels at different points in their transactions?

Quality of interactions. If Web site visitors are going away frustrated, you better know about it, and you also better know when and why it’s happening in a transaction.

Are You Enlightened? Searle Is!

§ October 28th, 2013 § Filed under Robots § Tagged , § No Comments

John Searle’s Mind, Language and Society engages the forces of darkness that threaten the continuation of the Enlightenment. It rebuts sharply those pragmatist, antirealist and postmodernist arguments which seek to convince us that we say nothing true — or nothing to any point, or nothing interesting — when we incline, as many of us still do, to say that enquiry and reflection strive to, and sometimes do, arrive at thoughts, theories, or statements that are true or false depending on whether the world is or is not as such thoughts represent it. There are facts to which true statements correspond and there are objects (as well as properties and relations) to which our words refer. Searle urges both correspondence to independently existing facts and reference to independently existing objects as features of our interactions with the world.

Searle’s thought is distinctive in that he has long advocated that it is an error to regard these ancient homilies as belonging to common sense. Common sense, according to Searle, delivers itself in the form of beliefs such as that if we want folks to be nice to us, we have to be nice to them, or that if it is very humid, moderately high temperatures can be very uncomfortable. But the existence of a mind-independent reality and the referentiality of our talk and thought belongs to what Searle calls the Background. What is tricky about the Background is that when we philosophise about it, we have no choice but to carry on in a way that makes it appear that we are evincing deep-seated beliefs. But the correct outlook is that these things lie so deep, are so much taken for granted, so much something whose denial never so much as occurs to us, that none of our ordinary cognitive words, such as believe, know, take for granted, assume, presuppose, be certain of, are appropriate to them. Perhaps Wittgenstein in his late work On Certainty is urging something akin to this. He might even have touched on it in his early work when he made the enigmatic distinction between what can be said and what cannot be said but only shown.

Searle characterises these Background matters as “default positions”, by which he means that those who dispute them have to make the running in philosophical debate. It is not that nothing can ever happen which might remove something from the Background and put it up for grabs, even finally dispose of it. But it is so hard to make this happen that those who challenge default positions have to start all the ball-rolling and the rest of us only need to rebut challenges. Searle does acknowledge that most of the great philosophers got that way by attacking default positions and he hints that his own attachment to philosophy is a little embarrassed by that.

ssSEARLE IS SCRUPULOUS, though his tongue is tempted toward his cheek, to distinguish between rebutting the arguments of the anti-realists and postmodernists, and diagnosing adherent of these arguments as a cultural phenomenon. He thinks diagnosis is called for because the arguments are so bad that it is hard to believe that they can be what sustains the animus against an independent and objective reality. This reviewer, anyway, is inclined to agree with Searle. I will leave it to those who read this book to appreciate most of the detail of Searle’s rebuttals and use most of my allotted words to applaud and even elaborate Searle’s diagnostic efforts.

Searle rightly remarks that the main impetus to idealism or anti-realism has been that realism carries with it a problem about whether the representations we arrive at through perception, memory and inference are reliable and true. This generates global scepticism, always there when philosophy is there, but more prominent since Descartes imagined his powerful and deceptive Evil Demon, and revivified by the Demon’s modern counterpart, the Brain in the Vat. Idealism, classically exemplified by George Berkeley, overcomes scepticism by reducing the content of claims about independent material bodies to the evidence for those claims. Thus tables and chairs are understood by Berkeley and later idealists or phenomenalists as really being more or less regular and organised bits of sensory experience, something available to brains in vats. J.S. Mill said that material objects were “permanent possibilities of sensation”. This also comes to reducing truths about what exists to truths about evidence for them. Since scepticism thrives on the gap between evidence and what it is evidence for, scepticism is thereby overcome; but the price is idealism in one or other of its guises.

Searle, following one of his mentors, John Austin, is happy to rebut scepticism with the observation that it is a mistake to infer from the fact that two experiences are intrinsically alike while one is veridical and the other not, that there really is no such thing as veridical experience in the first place. For who says that in order to determine that experience A was veridical and experience B was not, I may exploit only the resources of the two experiences and not rely on further or prior tests and observations? This is a developed version of the point, often made against Descartes, that he appears to be inferring from the fact that any experience can be deceptive, to the conclusion that all experiences can be. But this is a bad inference. No-one would say that because any runner can win the race, they all can.

Searle observes that these days, the anti-realists (let me use that tag for pragmatists, idealists, linguistic idealists, social constructionists, postmodernist textualists), do not seem to lean so much on scepticism (I think they fall back on it more than Searle suggests), but on an array of other arguments which are shot through with confusions. There is, first, the argument that if you encounter something from a point of view or a perspective (to use the fashionable Nietzschean term) you do not really encounter reality. Then there is the idea that since we have to use words to say what we think, the things we think about are somehow linguisticised or (might one say?) cultured (like a pearl!). Arguments of this genre are often accompanied with sneer caps, as when we are told of “Reality As It Is In Itself”, that it is a notion to be dispensed with as rather adolescent in the growth of thought through Hegel and the pragmatists to the wisdom of various more recent luminaries such as John Dewey, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. It is fair enough to confront all this with Gottlob Frege’s observation that, of course, you cannot wash the wool without getting it wet. He meant to imply that even if that is so, you have no business to infer that wool does not exist independently of being wetted.

Searle does not use the following example, but he ought to have. It captures most of the point he is after about the way anti-realists confuse words and the world. Some years ago (in the New York Review of Books) I read: “The Pacific Ocean was an invention of 19th century cartography”. It is to me one of the mysteries of intellectual life why some thinkers feel the urge to talk in such a silly way. Cartographers do not invent oceans any more than astronomers invent galaxies. This point holds even if, as I reckon is so, dividing up the waters of the earth into so and so many oceans, seas, lakes, ponds and puddles will lead to borderline cases and a degree of conventionality, though it is almost certainly not as arbitrary as setting out the borderlines among, say, states of Australia.

The mistake involved in that example is of the exact same kind as would be made by someone who expected a river to be blue because blue is the colour used on maps for rivers; or, even sillier, the mistake someone would make if he expected Annabelle to be lovelier than Gertrude because “Gertrude” was a repellent sounding name to him and “Annabelle” a lovely one.

Searle’s rebuttals are effective. But his diagnosis should sting. He judges that the anti-realists are moved by dislike of the idea of a reality to which their thoughts are answerable, some of them seeing the idea of such a reality as the last bastion of the tyranny of an omnipotent and authoritative divine being. (This is very cute, enabling indubitably secular, naturalistic and pro-enlightenment thinkers such as Searle to be tarred with brush of spiritualism.) This dislike, especially in academic life, involves a hatred of natural science. What better way to put science in its place (or remove it from its place) than to say that chemistry and physics too are texts and what they speak of is not really different from fictions? This animus against science, Searle suggests, is not merely envy and dislike, but a will to power. Power is, in a sense, asserted over reality itself (it is a social construction). But equality of status and power, within the academy and in society, is also sought, even if the way to get it is to reduce the prestige of science.

IT IS WORTH REMARKING that Richard Rorty, the most famous pragmatist walking the earth today and a frequent critic of Searle, is on record as saying that the intellectual credentials of literary criticism are on a par with those of biology or physics. I once met a structuralist literary analyst who insisted that her analyses of literary texts (or the texts of matchbooks and T-shirts) were “scientific” and that she had no interest in questions of value, such as what makes Shakespeare so much better than Joyce Kilmer, and no interest either in the truth or falsity of the claim that Shakespeare is better. That conversation took place nearly thirty years ago and structuralists in English departments were claiming kinship with the objectivity of science. That “us too” move was the beginning of the envy of science that Searle speaks of; the idea was, to repeat the point, that humanists were also scientific. Post-structuralism gives up the claim that literary analysis is objective and scientific, but also assimilates the two domains by saying that science is a branch of literature, and by insisting that not even physics is, or can be, objective in the way realists think it is. What has gone on here is interesting. It used to be that the humanities acknowledged a serious difference between what they did and what natural science did; but this acknowledgment was not a matter of accepting some inferior cultural status. It was a matter of the difference between the pursuit and growth of knowledge and the pursuit and growth of sensibility. The humanities also sometimes saw themselves as the major carriers of high cultural traditions. Reason was important and available all round, just as it is available in ethical life via the difference between good reasons and bad reasons for acting or via the difference between emotions that are appropriate and rational instead of inappropriate and irrational.

That happy accommodation was an offspring of enlightenment, no doubt midwived by economic and political liberalism, with its attachment to pluralism and tolerance. J.S. Mill’s awakening to poetry and his recovery from despair, with the aid of Wordsworth, are a marvellous example of the possibility and importance of finding a harmonious relation between science and sensibility. “Only connect the prose and the passion,” says Margaret Schlegel in Howards End. Many of us who got our educations in the fifties lived under this happy dispensation. Many philosophers during the last thirty or so years have been much concerned to criticise those who see a far more radical and sharp divide between reason and emotion than is really visible there.

Even so, it is a sort of Romantic revival, this envious hatred of science that Searle diagnoses. Mill did not lose respect for Newton when he gained so much from Wordsworth. But others, Keats and Blake in the lead, Shelley not far behind, saw Newton as a great beast, a destroyer of sensibility, prophet of a meaningless and mechanical reality, no decent abode for the spirit. Keats (here I follow Mark Abram’s book The Mirror and the Lamp), said that poets were the only real discoverers of truth and (more famously) that truth was beauty. Blake’s loathing of Newton is well recorded. Mill was on the side of mutual respect, as Coleridge seemed to have been, and Wordsworth too. But the depth of the divide between poetry and philosophy (which should be construed in this context as including physics, whose name used to be “natural philosophy”) has reasserted itself at the end of our century.

It has done so in a remarkable way. No Keatsian claim to be the only genuine seekers after truth, no Blakean horror at the meaningless world urged by materialist philosophers; rather a poisoning of the wells of reasoned inquiry by casting suspicion on the motives and putative power-playing of those one criticises. Cultural studies, the newest kid on the academic block, is making its way by claiming to descry causes and motives behind ideas and arguments in a way even more blatant than the Marxists and Freudians of yore. Marx and Freud were as much offspring of the enlightenment as Diderot, Darwin and Bertrand Russell. Their diagnostic moves would normally be prefaced by evidence or argument of a straight kind against the positions or theses they took issue with. Freud surely had an opinion of what was unconsciously sustaining Jung in his views. But he urges the superiority of his own theory in a way that conforms (well enough) to the norms of objective enquiry and proper intellectual debate, even if, with hindsight, we can see in Freud (as we almost always can with any thinker) instances of blindness, oversight or pigheadedness in defence of his own views.

I have devoted this review to the beginning and the end of Searle’s book. In between we are given succinct representations of views for which Searle is well known, written for educated non-philosophers. And well done it is. We are given his views on consciousness and intentionality (the name given to the directedness or the “aboutness” of thought and feeling), and the centrality of this to the nature of the mind as a biological phenomenon. We are given a good taste of Searle on language and speech acts, for which, as I opened by mentioning, he is widely known outside philosophy. Further, we get Searle on human institutionality and on the constructed nature of social institutions (nothing to do, except via gross muddle, with the doctrine of the social constructedness of reality) and the centrality of language to the existence and nature of the social or the institutional. Searle even has a go at explaining to us the nature of money, a secular mystery if there ever has been one. This belongs to Searle’s latest ventures beyond philosophy of mind and language into the realm of philosophy of social science. It is very useful to get clear about the difference between things whose very existence and nature are constituted by our minds and our practices, such things as votes and money, and things which, while our having concepts of them is an outcome of human life and mentality, nevertheless exist and have their nature independently of our minds; such things as rocks.

Bots Kicking Ass Out There

§ October 22nd, 2013 § Filed under Robots § Tagged § No Comments

What our noggins do far better than today’s fastest supercomputers is “pattern recognition,” allowing us to remember faces or appreciate the beauty of a sunset. Kurzweil boldly predicts that 30 years from now common computers will have this capability and others, including consciousness and the ability to have emotional and even spiritual experiences.

robotsJudging by the most visible application of artificial intelligence today–intelligent agents–I wouldn’t bet my PC on this. Intelligent agents are software routines designed to retrieve the information you need and perform actions for you based on that information automatically. Also called bots (as in robots), intelligent agents are fascinating in their potential, less so in their current incarnation.

Although bots today can perform research, chat with you, gather news, play games with you, and track stocks, many of the most popular are used by consumers and businesses for comparison shopping over the Web. There are dozens to choose from. Like search sites, which use similar technology, most bots are free.

Shopping bots work simply enough. You type in the product or brand you’re interested in, and the bot tries to find Web merchants offering it at the lowest price. Then you surf to the merchant’s site. I’ve used bots to shop for some time now, more or less successfully.

One problem is that most bots offer only product pricing information, ignoring the other factors, such as a site’s ease of navigation, product quality, warranty, service, shipping charges, delivery time, and whether the product is in stock. Nothing will sour you faster on bots than going to a site a bot suggests only to find, after filling out a detailed order form, that excessive shipping costs make the product more expensive than at other sites.

Sometimes bots don’t perform as advertised. The price a bot lists may not be the same as the price the Web merchant’s actual selling price. Or the lowest price the bot turns up may be higher than what you’d pay in person at your local Wal-Mart.

Regarding bargain hunting, just as in the off-line world, it’s good practice to be wary of a Web merchant offering a price significantly below the norm. Opt instead for sites offering a competitive price along with indications that your shopping experience will be trouble-free.

Another problem is that bots typically aren’t comprehensive. It’s not always their fault. Some shopping sites block bots from accessing their pricing information for fear of diminishing their brand image. But bots are often selective in which shopping sites they’ll search and list. Some list results first from sites they have marketing affiliations with, then from nonaffiliated sites. Others list results only from their affiliated sites. For these and other reasons, sometimes you can’t find products you know are out there.

Still, the best bots today, used judiciously, can save you money over retail without your having to leave the comfortable perch in front of your PC. Examples include general-interest bots such as mySimon at www.mysimon.com, Yahoo Shopping at http://shopping.yahoo.com, and Bottomdollar.com at www.bottomdollar, com and specialized bots such as CNET Shopper at www.shopper.com, MortgageQuotes.com at www.mortgagequotes.com, and InsWeb at www.insweb.com.

Right now, all bots can typically do is try to find good deals for you. You have to do the rest. Work is under way though on interactive bots that can, for instance, negotiate price and other variables and place orders without your involvement. For more information on bots in general, check out BotSpot at www.botspot.com.

Bots, or intelligent agents, will certainly get smarter, as will information technology as a whole. Whether computers will outsmart us is a question that will be answered only as the future boots up.

AI Is Far From Just A Dream

§ September 30th, 2013 § Filed under AI § No Comments

In anything we do, we jump to a higher level of performance when we learn to work with patterns rather than merely mastering details. Today, a compelling application of business computing is one that has made this leap.

dcWe see the power of patterns in human performance of tasks, whether the task is driving a car or playing chess.

The driver-education student feels overwhelmed with details; the experienced driver integrates images, sounds and “road feel” to go faster with less conscious effort.

The novice chess player sees individual pieces; the expert sees the board as a unit. Experienced players can memorize board patterns more easily than novices (but only when the patterns are in real games).

Memorizing random layouts is just as difficult for chess experts as it is for inexperienced players, proving that raw memory power is not the difference. The difference is in learning to see a purpose and a direction–in the same way that we learn to recognize a whole printed word rather than having to spell it out.

In similar ways, we can improve the performance of our systems and networks with the aid of pattern-oriented diagnostic tools that are modeled on neural networks. Based on current understanding of brain processes, these tools are abstract nets of relationships, not physical connections.

It’s possible to “hard-wire” a neural net for higher performance, once a task is well-defined, just as it’s possible to replace any software with hardware if the economics make sense. Neural nets are at their best, though, in situations where tasks are continually redefined–an environment like the one that faces most of today’s enterprise IT system builders.

Neural net programming finds unsuspected patterns by analyzing data rather than matching data against predefined rules. Earlier this month, reported on early results from Computer Associates’ neural agent (“neugent”) approach to server fault analysis; on our desktops, IBM’s neural-net virus scanning technology reduces our vulnerability to entire families of malicious code.

Moving beyond IT systems, we can use pattern-oriented monitoring of news and advertising media to assess our companies’ business environments. Public relations agencies, such as Medialink Worldwide, are becoming increasingly technical in their methods of “seeing the board, not the pieces”–as that concept applies to products or industries.

Earlier this month, Medialink announced that it received an exclusive worldwide license to use the InfoTrend technology, a patented technique developed by David Fan at the University of Minnesota. “Analysts ‘train’ the technology to ‘read’ for issues and messages that are important for a particular client or industry,” said the company’s report on InfoTrend analysis.

It’s an effort for IT dinosaurs to expend the vast computing resources involved in pattern-based solutions. We’re used to the idea that limited memory dictates one pass through the data rather than holding it all in memory for in-depth study. Seeing the whole scene is the difference between doing the old stuff faster and doing the new stuff that can make the biggest difference.