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#431424 A ‘Google Maps’ for the Mouse Brain ...

Ask any neuroscientist to draw you a neuron, and it’ll probably look something like a star with two tails: one stubby with extensive tree-like branches, the other willowy, lengthy and dotted with spindly spikes.
While a decent abstraction, this cartoonish image hides the uncomfortable truth that scientists still don’t know much about what many neurons actually look like, not to mention the extent of their connections.
But without untangling the jumbled mess of neural wires that zigzag across the brain, scientists are stumped in trying to answer one of the most fundamental mysteries of the brain: how individual neuronal threads carry and assemble information, which forms the basis of our thoughts, memories, consciousness, and self.
What if there was a way to virtually trace and explore the brain’s serpentine fibers, much like the way Google Maps allows us to navigate the concrete tangles of our cities’ highways?
Thanks to an interdisciplinary team at Janelia Research Campus, we’re on our way. Meet MouseLight, the most extensive map of the mouse brain ever attempted. The ongoing project has an ambitious goal: reconstructing thousands—if not more—of the mouse’s 70 million neurons into a 3D map. (You can play with it here!)
With map in hand, neuroscientists around the world can begin to answer how neural circuits are organized in the brain, and how information flows from one neuron to another across brain regions and hemispheres.
The first release, presented Monday at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Conference in Washington, DC, contains information about the shape and sizes of 300 neurons.
And that’s just the beginning.
“MouseLight’s new dataset is the largest of its kind,” says Dr. Wyatt Korff, director of project teams. “It’s going to change the textbook view of neurons.”

http://mouselight.janelia.org/assets/carousel/ML-Movie.mp4
Brain Atlas
MouseLight is hardly the first rodent brain atlasing project.
The Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle tracks neuron activity across small circuits in an effort to trace a mouse’s connectome—a complete atlas of how the firing of one neuron links to the next.
MICrONS (Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks), the $100 million government-funded “moonshot” hopes to distill brain computation into algorithms for more powerful artificial intelligence. Its first step? Brain mapping.
What makes MouseLight stand out is its scope and level of detail.
MICrONS, for example, is focused on dissecting a cubic millimeter of the mouse visual processing center. In contrast, MouseLight involves tracing individual neurons across the entire brain.
And while connectomics outlines the major connections between brain regions, the birds-eye view entirely misses the intricacies of each individual neuron. This is where MouseLight steps in.
Slice and Dice
With a width only a fraction of a human hair, neuron projections are hard to capture in their native state. Tug or squeeze the brain too hard, and the long, delicate branches distort or even shred into bits.
In fact, previous attempts at trying to reconstruct neurons at this level of detail topped out at just a dozen, stymied by technological hiccups and sky-high costs.
A few years ago, the MouseLight team set out to automate the entire process, with a few time-saving tweaks. Here’s how it works.
After injecting a mouse with a virus that causes a handful of neurons to produce a green-glowing protein, the team treated the brain with a sugar alcohol solution. This step “clears” the brain, transforming the beige-colored organ to translucent, making it easier for light to penetrate and boosting the signal-to-background noise ratio. The brain is then glued onto a small pedestal and ready for imaging.
Building upon an established method called “two-photon microscopy,” the team then tweaked several parameters to reduce imaging time from days (or weeks) down to a fraction of that. Endearingly known as “2P” by the experts, this type of laser microscope zaps the tissue with just enough photos to light up a single plane without damaging the tissue—sharper plane, better focus, crisper image.
After taking an image, the setup activates its vibrating razor and shaves off the imaged section of the brain—a waspy slice about 200 micrometers thick. The process is repeated until the whole brain is imaged.
This setup increased imaging speed by 16 to 48 times faster than conventional microscopy, writes team leader Dr. Jayaram Chandrashekar, who published a version of the method early last year in eLife.
The resulting images strikingly highlight every crook and cranny of a neuronal branch, popping out against a pitch-black background. But pretty pictures come at a hefty data cost: each image takes up a whopping 20 terabytes of data—roughly the storage space of 4,000 DVDs, or 10,000 hours of movies.
Stitching individual images back into 3D is an image-processing nightmare. The MouseLight team used a combination of computational power and human prowess to complete this final step.
The reconstructed images are handed off to a mighty team of seven trained neuron trackers. With the help of tracing algorithms developed in-house and a keen eye, each member can track roughly a neuron a day—significantly less time than the week or so previously needed.
A Numbers Game
Even with just 300 fully reconstructed neurons, MouseLight has already revealed new secrets of the brain.
While it’s widely accepted that axons, the neurons’ outgoing projection, can span the entire length of the brain, these extra-long connections were considered relatively rare. (In fact, one previously discovered “giant neuron” was thought to link to consciousness because of its expansive connections).
Images captured from two-photon microscopy show an axon and dendrites protruding from a neuron’s cell body (sphere in center). Image Credit: Janelia Research Center, MouseLight project team
MouseLight blows that theory out of the water.
The data clearly shows that “giant neurons” are far more common than previously thought. For example, four neurons normally associated with taste had wiry branches that stretched all the way into brain areas that control movement and process touch.
“We knew that different regions of the brain talked to each other, but seeing it in 3D is different,” says Dr. Eve Marder at Brandeis University.
“The results are so stunning because they give you a really clear view of how the whole brain is connected.”
With a tested and true system in place, the team is now aiming to add 700 neurons to their collection within a year.
But appearance is only part of the story.
We can’t tell everything about a person simply by how they look. Neurons are the same: scientists can only infer so much about a neuron’s function by looking at their shape and positions. The team also hopes to profile the gene expression patterns of each neuron, which could provide more hints to their roles in the brain.
MouseLight essentially dissects the neural infrastructure that allows information traffic to flow through the brain. These anatomical highways are just the foundation. Just like Google Maps, roads form only the critical first layer of the map. Street view, traffic information and other add-ons come later for a complete look at cities in flux.
The same will happen for understanding our ever-changing brain.
Image Credit: Janelia Research Campus, MouseLight project team Continue reading

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#431058 How to Make Your First Chatbot With the ...

You’re probably wondering what Game of Thrones has to do with chatbots and artificial intelligence. Before I explain this weird connection, I need to warn you that this article may contain some serious spoilers. Continue with your reading only if you are a passionate GoT follower, who watches new episodes immediately after they come out.
Why are chatbots so important anyway?
According to the study “When Will AI Exceed Human Performance?,” researchers believe there is a 50% chance artificial intelligence could take over all human jobs by around the year 2060. This technology has already replaced dozens of customer service and sales positions and helped businesses make substantial savings.
Apart from the obvious business advantages, chatbot creation can be fun. You can create an artificial personality with a strong attitude and a unique set of traits and flaws. It’s like creating a new character for your favorite TV show. That’s why I decided to explain the most important elements of the chatbot creation process by using the TV characters we all know and love (or hate).
Why Game of Thrones?
Game of Thrones is the most popular TV show in the world. More than 10 million viewers watched the seventh season premiere, and you have probably seen internet users fanatically discussing the series’ characters, storyline, and possible endings.
Apart from writing about chatbots, I’m also a GoT fanatic, and I will base this chatbot on one of the characters from my favorite series. But before you find out the name of my bot, you should read a few lines about incredible free tools that allow us to build chatbots without coding.
Are chatbots expensive?
Today, you can create a chatbot even if you don’t know how to code. Most chatbot building platforms offer at least one free plan that allows you to use basic functionalities, create your bot, deploy it to Facebook Messenger, and analyze its performance. Free plans usually allow your bot to talk to a limited number of users.
Why should you personalize your bot?
Every platform will ask you to write a bot’s name before you start designing conversations. You will also be able to add the bot’s photograph and bio. Personalizing your bot is the only way to ensure that you will stick to the same personality and storyline throughout the building process. Users often see chatbots as people, and by giving your bot an identity, you will make sure that it doesn’t sound like it has multiple personality disorder.
I think connecting my chatbot with a GoT character will help readers understand the process of chatbot creation.
And the name of our GoT chatbot is…
…Cersei. She is mean, pragmatic, and fearless and she would do anything to stay on the Iron Throne. Many people would rather hang out with Daenerys or Jon Snow. These characters are honest, noble and good-hearted, which means their actions are often predictable.
Cersei, on the other hand, is the queen of intrigues. As the meanest and the most vengeful character in the series, she has an evil plan for everybody who steps on her toes. While viewers can easily guess where Jon and Daenerys stand, there are dozens of questions they would like to ask Cersei. But before we start talking to our bot, we need to build her personality by using the most basic elements of chatbot interaction.
Choosing the bot’s name on Botsify.
Welcome / Greeting Message
The welcome message is the greeting Cersei says to every commoner who clicks on the ‘start conversation’ button. She is not a welcoming person (ask Sansa), except if you are a banker from Braavos. Her introductory message may sound something like this:
“Dear {{user_full_name}}, My name is Cersei of the House Lannister, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms. You can ask me questions, and I will answer them. If the question is not worth answering, I will redirect you to Ser Gregor Clegane, who will give you a step-by-step course on how to talk to the Queen of Westeros.”
Creating the welcome message on Chatfuel
Default Message / Answer
In the bot game, users, bots, and their creators often need to learn from failed attempts and mistakes. The default message is the text Cersei will send whenever you ask her a question she doesn’t understand. Knowing Cersei, it would sound something like this:
“Ser Gregor, please escort {{user_full_name}} to the dungeon.”
Creating default message on Botsify
Menu
To avoid calling out the Mountain every time someone asks her a question, Cersei might give you a few (safe) options to choose. The best way to do this is by using a menu function. We can classify the questions people want to ask Cersei in several different categories:

Iron Throne
Relationship with Jaime — OK, this isn’t a “safe option,” get ready to get close and personal with Sir Gregor Clegane.
War plans
Euron Greyjoy

After users choose a menu item, Cersei can give them a default response on the topic or set up a plot that will make their lives miserable. Knowing Cersei, she will probably go for the second option.
Adding chatbot menu on Botsify
Stories / Blocks
This feature allows us to build a longer Cersei-to-user interaction. The structure of stories and blocks is different on every chatbot platform, but most of them use keywords and phrases for finding out the user’s intention.

Keywords — where the bot recognizes a certain keyword within the user’s reply. Users who have chosen the ‘war plans’ option might ask Cersei how is she planning to defeat Daenerys’s dragons. We can add ‘dragon’ and ‘dragons’ as keywords, and connect them with an answer that will sound something like this:

“Dragons are not invulnerable as you may think. Maester Qyburn is developing a weapon that will bring them down for good!”
Adding keywords on Chatfuel
People may also ask her about White Walkers. Do you plan to join Daenerys and Jon Snow in a fight against White Walkers? After we add ‘White Walker’ and ‘White Walkers’ on the keyword list, Cersei will answer:
“White Walkers? Do you think the Queen of Westeros has enough free time to think about creatures from fairy tales and legends?”
Adding Keywords on Botsify

Phrases — are more complex syntaxes that the bot can be trained to recognize. Many people would like to ask Cersei if she’s going to marry Euron Greyjoy after the war ends. We can add ‘Euron’ as a keyword, but then we won’t be sure what answer the user is expecting. Instead, we can use the phrase ‘(Will you) marry Euron Greyjoy (after the war?)’. Just to be sure, we should also add a few alternative phrases like ‘(Do you plan on) marrying Euron Greyjoy (after the war),’ ‘(Will you) end up with Euron Greyjoy (after the war?)’, ‘(Will) Euron Greyjoy be the new King?’ etc. Cersei would probably answer this inquiry in her style:

“Of course not, Euron is a useful idiot. I will use his fleet and send him back to the Iron Islands, where he belongs.”
Adding phrases on Botsify
Forms
We have already asked Cersei several questions, and now she would like to ask us something. She can do so by using the form/user input feature. Most tools allow us to add a question and the criteria for checking the users’ answer. If the user provides us the answer that is compliant to the predefined form (like email address, phone number, or a ZIP code), the bot will identify and extract the answer. If the answer doesn’t fit into the predefined criteria, the bot will notify the user and ask him/her to try again.
If Cersei would ask you a question, she would probably want to know your address so she could send her guards to fill your basement with barrels of wildfire.
Creating forms on Botsify
Templates
If you have problems building your first chatbot, templates can help you create the basic conversation structure. Unfortunately, not all platforms offer this feature for free. Snatchbot currently has the most comprehensive list of free templates. There you can choose a pre-built layout. The template selection ranges from simple FAQ bots to ones created for a specific industry, like banking, airline, healthcare, or e-commerce.
Choosing templates on Snatchbot
Plugins
Most tools also provide plugins that can be used for making the conversations more meaningful. These plugins allow Cersei to send images, audio and video files. She can unleash her creativity and make you suffer by sending you her favorite GoT execution videos.

With the help of integrations, Cersei can talk to you on Facebook Messenger, Telegram, WeChat, Slack, and many other communication apps. She can also sell her fan gear and ask you for donations by integrating in-bot payments from PayPal accounts. Her sales pitch will probably sound something like this:
“Gold wins wars! Would you rather invest your funds in a member of a respected family, who always pays her debts, or in the chaotic war endeavor of a crazy revolutionary, whose strength lies in three flying lizards? If your pockets are full of gold, you are already on my side. Now you can complete your checkout on PayPal.”
Chatbot building is now easier than ever, and even small businesses are starting to use the incredible benefits of artificial intelligence. If you still don’t believe that chatbots can replace customer service representatives, I suggest you try to develop a bot based on your favorite TV show, movie or book character and talk with him/her for a while. This way, you will be able to understand the concept that stands behind this amazing technology and use it to improve your business.
Now I’m off to talk to Cersei. Maybe she will feed me some Season 8 spoilers.
This article was originally published by Chatbots Magazine. Read the original post here.
Image credits for screenshots in post: Branislav Srdanovic
Banner stock media provided by new_vision_studio / Pond5 Continue reading

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#430668 Why Every Leader Needs to Be Obsessed ...

This article is part of a series exploring the skills leaders must learn to make the most of rapid change in an increasingly disruptive world. The first article in the series, “How the Most Successful Leaders Will Thrive in an Exponential World,” broadly outlines four critical leadership skills—futurist, technologist, innovator, and humanitarian—and how they work together.
Today’s post, part five in the series, takes a more detailed look at leaders as technologists. Be sure to check out part two of the series, “How Leaders Dream Boldly to Bring New Futures to Life,” part three of the series, “How All Leaders Can Make the World a Better Place,” and part four of the series, “How Leaders Can Make Innovation Everyone’s Day Job”.
In the 1990s, Tower Records was the place to get new music. Successful and popular, the California chain spread far and wide, and in 1998, they took on $110 million in debt to fund aggressive further expansion. This wasn’t, as it turns out, the best of timing.
The first portable digital music player went on sale the same year. The following year brought Napster, a file sharing service allowing users to freely share music online. By 2000, Napster hosted 20 million users swapping songs. Then in 2001, Apple’s iPod and iTunes arrived, and when the iTunes Music Store opened in 2003, Apple sold over a million songs the first week.
As music was digitized, hard copies began to go out of style, and sales and revenue declined.
Tower first filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and again (for the last time) in 2006. The internet wasn’t the only reason for Tower’s demise. Mismanagement and price competition from electronics retailers like Best Buy also played a part. Still, today, the vast majority of music is purchased or streamed entirely online, and record stores are for the most part a niche market.
The writing was on the wall, but those impacted most had trouble reading it.
Why is it difficult for leaders to see technological change coming and right the ship before it’s too late? Why did Tower go all out on expansion just as the next big thing took the stage?
This is one story of many. Digitization has moved beyond music and entertainment, and now many big retailers operating physical stores are struggling to stay relevant. Meanwhile, the pace of change is accelerating, and new potentially disruptive technologies are on the horizon.
More than ever, leaders need to develop a strong understanding of and perspective on technology. They need to survey new innovations, forecast their pace, gauge the implications, and adopt new tools and strategy to change course as an industry shifts, not after it’s shifted.
Simply, leaders need to adopt the mindset of a technologist. Here’s what that means.
Survey the Landscape
Nurturing curiosity is the first step to understanding technological change. To know how technology might disrupt your industry, you have to know what’s in the pipeline and identify which new inventions are directly or indirectly related to your industry.
Becoming more technologically minded takes discipline and focus as well as unstructured time to explore the non-obvious connections between what is right in front of us and what might be. It requires a commitment to ongoing learning and discovery.
Read outside your industry and comfort zone, not just Fast Company and Wired, but Science and Nature to expand your horizons. Identify experts with the ability to demystify specific technology areas—many have a solid following on Twitter or a frequently cited blog.
But it isn’t all about reading. Consider going where the change is happening too.
Visit one of the technology hubs around the world or a local university research lab in your own back yard. Or bring the innovation to you by building an internal exploration lab stocked with the latest technologies, creating a technology advisory board, hosting an internal innovation challenge, or a local pitch night where aspiring entrepreneurs can share their newest ideas.
You might even ask the crowd by inviting anyone to suggest what innovation is most likely to disrupt your product, service, or sector. And don’t hesitate to engage younger folks—the digital natives all around you—by asking questions about what technology they are using or excited about. Consider going on a field trip with them to see how they use technology in different aspects of their lives. Invite the seasoned executives on your team to explore long-term “reverse mentoring” with someone who can expose them to the latest technology and teach them to use it.
Whatever your strategy, the goal should be to develop a healthy obsession with technology.
By exploring fresh perspectives outside traditional work environments and then giving ourselves permission to see how these new ideas might influence existing products and strategies, we have a chance to be ready for what we’re not ready for—but is likely right around the corner.
Estimate the Pace of Progress
The next step is forecasting when a technology will mature.
One of the most challenging aspects of the changes underway is that in many technology arenas, we are quickly moving from a linear to an exponential pace. It is hard enough to envision what is needed in an industry buffeted by progress that is changing 10% per year, but what happens when technological progress doubles annually? That is another world altogether.
This kind of change can be deceiving. For example, machine learning and big data are finally reaching critical momentum after more than twenty years of being right around the corner. The advances in applications like speech and image recognition that we’ve seen in recent years dwarf what came before and many believe we’ve just begun to understand the implications.
Even as we begin to embrace disruptive change in one technology arena, far more exciting possibilities unfold when we explore how multiple arenas are converging.
Artificial intelligence and big data are great examples. As Hod Lipson, professor of Mechanical Engineering and Data Science at Columbia University and co-author of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, says, “AI is the engine, but big data is the fuel. They need each other.”
This convergence paired with an accelerating pace makes for surprising applications.
To keep his research lab agile and open to new uses of advancing technologies, Lipson routinely asks his PhD students, “How might AI disrupt this industry?” to prompt development of applications across a wide spectrum of sectors from healthcare to agriculture to food delivery.
Explore the Consequences
New technology inevitably gives rise to new ethical, social, and moral questions that we have never faced before. Rather than bury our heads in the sand, as leaders we must explore the full range of potential consequences of whatever is underway or still to come.
We can add AI to kids’ toys, like Mattel’s Hello Barbie or use cutting-edge gene editing technology like CRISPR-Cas9 to select for preferred gene sequences beyond basic health. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
Take time to listen to skeptics and understand the risks posed by technology.
Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, and other well-known names in science and technology have expressed concern in the media and via open letters about the risks posed by AI. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has even argued tech companies shouldn’t build artificial intelligence systems that will replace people rather than making them more productive.
Exploring unintended consequences goes beyond having a Plan B for when something goes wrong. It requires broadening our view of what we’re responsible for. Beyond customers, shareholders, and the bottom line, we should understand how our decisions may impact employees, communities, the environment, our broader industry, and even our competitors.
The minor inconvenience of mitigating these risks now is far better than the alternative. Create forums to listen to and value voices outside of the board room and C-Suite. Seek out naysayers, ethicists, community leaders, wise elders, and even neophytes—those who may not share our preconceived notions of right and wrong or our narrow view of our role in the larger world.
The question isn’t: If we build it, will they come? It’s now: If we can build it, should we?
Adopt New Technologies and Shift Course
The last step is hardest. Once you’ve identified a technology (or technologies) as a potential disruptor and understand the implications, you need to figure out how to evolve your organization to make the most of the opportunity. Simply recognizing disruption isn’t enough.
Take today’s struggling brick-and-mortar retail business. Online shopping isn’t new. Amazon isn’t a plucky startup. Both have been changing how we buy stuff for years. And yet many who still own and operate physical stores—perhaps most prominently, Sears—are now on the brink of bankruptcy.
There’s hope though. Netflix began as a DVD delivery service in the 90s, but quickly realized its core business didn’t have staying power. It would have been laughable to stream movies when Netflix was founded. Still, computers and bandwidth were advancing fast. In 2007, the company added streaming to its subscription. Even then it wasn’t a totally compelling product.
But Netflix clearly saw a streaming future would likely end their DVD business.
In recent years, faster connection speeds, a growing content library, and the company’s entrance into original programming have given Netflix streaming the upper hand over DVDs. Since 2011, DVD subscriptions have steadily declined. Yet the company itself is doing fine. Why? It anticipated the shift to streaming and acted on it.
Never Stop Looking for the Next Big Thing
Technology is and will increasingly be a driver of disruption, destabilizing entrenched businesses and entire industries while also creating new markets and value not yet imagined.
When faced with the rapidly accelerating pace of change, many companies still default to old models and established practices. Leading like a technologist requires vigilant understanding of potential sources of disruption—what might make your company’s offering obsolete? The answers may not always be perfectly clear. What’s most important is relentlessly seeking them.
Stock Media provided by MJTierney / Pond5 Continue reading

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#430667 Welcome to a More Discoverable ...

This week we’ve rolled out our first major round of improvements to Singularity Hub since our ground-up redesign last December. If we did it right, you’ll find that discovering the technological goodies you come here for is much easier, and so too are other Singularity University offerings you might be interested in.
The first and most major change is in the way Hub’s navigation is structured.
The previous categories in our header (Tech, Future, Health, Science) have been replaced by a single page, Topics, which profiles the most popular tech topics across our site. The featured topics in this menu will be updated regularly based on article performance, so you can keep up with what’s trending in AI, biotech, neuroscience, robotics, or whatever is making the biggest splash most recently.
Rolling our hottest topic category tags into one header dropdown allowed us to create greater focus on some of our newest and best offerings.
Our header now prominently features In Focus, which includes articles on how leaders can make the most of today’s accelerating pace of change by learning to think like futurists, innovators, technologists, and humanitarians. We’ve always been technological optimists, and we want to to make it easy for leaders to find the stories that help make hopeful problem-solvers of us all.
We’ve added a section for Experts, which features leaders in the Singularity University community and showcases their thought leadership including interviews and books. In Events, we highlight Singularity University’s global library of local happenings and summits.
Lastly, we’re excited that our growing original video efforts—from our Ray Kurzweil series to our weekly tech news roundup posts—now live under a central Videos section on Hub. This also gives us a place to highlight our favorite video posts from around the web, including the sci-fi shorts we love so much.
Cruising through the rest of Hub, particularly our homepage, you’ll find a much greater variety of content options, including new stories, top stories, event coverage, and videos. In short, it’s everything a homepage should be. On posts, we’ve tried to keep things as clean as possible, and we put a lot of hours into laboriously streamlining our content tagging structure, making it much easier for you to click through category tags into other stories you might like.

Here’s what @singularityhub looked like 2 years ago, 2 weeks ago, & today. Check it out: https://t.co/7cmlTJwc7d pic.twitter.com/jDayIEIFNv
— Singularity Hub (@singularityhub) July 13, 2017

You’ll also see greater visibility into Singularity University events, along with clearer ways to keep up with Hub and SU both, from simple email newsletter signups to callouts for the SingularityU Hub iOS app and events like SU’s Experts on Air series.
We hope you enjoy the ever-evolving, ever-improving Singularity Hub, and we’d love to hear your feedback. Feel free to tweet us, and let us know your thoughts. You can also pitch us or email us. And as always, thank you for your support. Continue reading

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#430658 Why Every Leader Needs a Healthy ...

This article is part of a series exploring the skills leaders must learn to make the most of rapid change in an increasingly disruptive world. The first article in the series, “How the Most Successful Leaders Will Thrive in an Exponential World,” broadly outlines four critical leadership skills—futurist, technologist, innovator, and humanitarian—and how they work together.
Today’s post, part five in the series, takes a more detailed look at leaders as technologists. Be sure to check out part two of the series, “How Leaders Dream Boldly to Bring New Futures to Life,” part three of the series, “How All Leaders Can Make the World a Better Place,” and part four of the series, “How Leaders Can Make Innovation Everyone’s Day Job”.
In the 1990s, Tower Records was the place to get new music. Successful and popular, the California chain spread far and wide, and in 1998, they took on $110 million in debt to fund aggressive further expansion. This wasn’t, as it turns out, the best of timing.
The first portable digital music player went on sale the same year. The following year brought Napster, a file sharing service allowing users to freely share music online. By 2000, Napster hosted 20 million users swapping songs. Then in 2001, Apple’s iPod and iTunes arrived, and when the iTunes Music Store opened in 2003, Apple sold over a million songs the first week.
As music was digitized, hard copies began to go out of style, and sales and revenue declined.
Tower first filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and again (for the last time) in 2006. The internet wasn’t the only reason for Tower’s demise. Mismanagement and price competition from electronics retailers like Best Buy also played a part. Still, today, the vast majority of music is purchased or streamed entirely online, and record stores are for the most part a niche market.
The writing was on the wall, but those impacted most had trouble reading it.
Why is it difficult for leaders to see technological change coming and right the ship before it’s too late? Why did Tower go all out on expansion just as the next big thing took the stage?
This is one story of many. Digitization has moved beyond music and entertainment, and now many big retailers operating physical stores are struggling to stay relevant. Meanwhile, the pace of change is accelerating, and new potentially disruptive technologies are on the horizon.
More than ever, leaders need to develop a strong understanding of and perspective on technology. They need to survey new innovations, forecast their pace, gauge the implications, and adopt new tools and strategy to change course as an industry shifts, not after it’s shifted.
Simply, leaders need to adopt the mindset of a technologist. Here’s what that means.
Survey the Landscape
Nurturing curiosity is the first step to understanding technological change. To know how technology might disrupt your industry, you have to know what’s in the pipeline and identify which new inventions are directly or indirectly related to your industry.
Becoming more technologically minded takes discipline and focus as well as unstructured time to explore the non-obvious connections between what is right in front of us and what might be. It requires a commitment to ongoing learning and discovery.
Read outside your industry and comfort zone, not just Fast Company and Wired, but Science and Nature to expand your horizons. Identify experts with the ability to demystify specific technology areas—many have a solid following on Twitter or a frequently cited blog.
But it isn’t all about reading. Consider going where the change is happening too.
Visit one of the technology hubs around the world or a local university research lab in your own back yard. Or bring the innovation to you by building an internal exploration lab stocked with the latest technologies, creating a technology advisory board, hosting an internal innovation challenge, or a local pitch night where aspiring entrepreneurs can share their newest ideas.
You might even ask the crowd by inviting anyone to suggest what innovation is most likely to disrupt your product, service, or sector. And don’t hesitate to engage younger folks—the digital natives all around you—by asking questions about what technology they are using or excited about. Consider going on a field trip with them to see how they use technology in different aspects of their lives. Invite the seasoned executives on your team to explore long-term “reverse mentoring” with someone who can expose them to the latest technology and teach them to use it.
Whatever your strategy, the goal should be to develop a healthy obsession with technology.
By exploring fresh perspectives outside traditional work environments and then giving ourselves permission to see how these new ideas might influence existing products and strategies, we have a chance to be ready for what we’re not ready for—but is likely right around the corner.
Estimate the Pace of Progress
The next step is forecasting when a technology will mature.
One of the most challenging aspects of the changes underway is that in many technology arenas, we are quickly moving from a linear to an exponential pace. It is hard enough to envision what is needed in an industry buffeted by progress that is changing 10% per year, but what happens when technological progress doubles annually? That is another world altogether.
This kind of change can be deceiving. For example, machine learning and big data are finally reaching critical momentum after more than twenty years of being right around the corner. The advances in applications like speech and image recognition that we’ve seen in recent years dwarf what came before and many believe we’ve just begun to understand the implications.
Even as we begin to embrace disruptive change in one technology arena, far more exciting possibilities unfold when we explore how multiple arenas are converging.
Artificial intelligence and big data are great examples. As Hod Lipson, professor of Mechanical Engineering and Data Science at Columbia University and co-author of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, says, “AI is the engine, but big data is the fuel. They need each other.”
This convergence paired with an accelerating pace makes for surprising applications.
To keep his research lab agile and open to new uses of advancing technologies, Lipson routinely asks his PhD students, “How might AI disrupt this industry?” to prompt development of applications across a wide spectrum of sectors from healthcare to agriculture to food delivery.
Explore the Consequences
New technology inevitably gives rise to new ethical, social, and moral questions that we have never faced before. Rather than bury our heads in the sand, as leaders we must explore the full range of potential consequences of whatever is underway or still to come.
We can add AI to kids’ toys, like Mattel’s Hello Barbie or use cutting-edge gene editing technology like CRISPR-Cas9 to select for preferred gene sequences beyond basic health. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
Take time to listen to skeptics and understand the risks posed by technology.
Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, and other well-known names in science and technology have expressed concern in the media and via open letters about the risks posed by AI. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has even argued tech companies shouldn’t build artificial intelligence systems that will replace people rather than making them more productive.
Exploring unintended consequences goes beyond having a Plan B for when something goes wrong. It requires broadening our view of what we’re responsible for. Beyond customers, shareholders, and the bottom line, we should understand how our decisions may impact employees, communities, the environment, our broader industry, and even our competitors.
The minor inconvenience of mitigating these risks now is far better than the alternative. Create forums to listen to and value voices outside of the board room and C-Suite. Seek out naysayers, ethicists, community leaders, wise elders, and even neophytes—those who may not share our preconceived notions of right and wrong or our narrow view of our role in the larger world.
The question isn’t: If we build it, will they come? It’s now: If we can build it, should we?
Adopt New Technologies and Shift Course
The last step is hardest. Once you’ve identified a technology (or technologies) as a potential disruptor and understand the implications, you need to figure out how to evolve your organization to make the most of the opportunity. Simply recognizing disruption isn’t enough.
Take today’s struggling brick-and-mortar retail business. Online shopping isn’t new. Amazon isn’t a plucky startup. Both have been changing how we buy stuff for years. And yet many who still own and operate physical stores—perhaps most prominently, Sears—are now on the brink of bankruptcy.
There’s hope though. Netflix began as a DVD delivery service in the 90s, but quickly realized its core business didn’t have staying power. It would have been laughable to stream movies when Netflix was founded. Still, computers and bandwidth were advancing fast. In 2007, the company added streaming to its subscription. Even then it wasn’t a totally compelling product.
But Netflix clearly saw a streaming future would likely end their DVD business.
In recent years, faster connection speeds, a growing content library, and the company’s entrance into original programming have given Netflix streaming the upper hand over DVDs. Since 2011, DVD subscriptions have steadily declined. Yet the company itself is doing fine. Why? It anticipated the shift to streaming and acted on it.
Never Stop Looking for the Next Big Thing
Technology is and will increasingly be a driver of disruption, destabilizing entrenched businesses and entire industries while also creating new markets and value not yet imagined.
When faced with the rapidly accelerating pace of change, many companies still default to old models and established practices. Leading like a technologist requires vigilant understanding of potential sources of disruption—what might make your company’s offering obsolete? The answers may not always be perfectly clear. What’s most important is relentlessly seeking them.
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