Bullshit Detector Prototype Goes Live

I like writing about cool applications of technology that are so pregnant with the promise of the future, that they have to be seen to be believed, and here’s another one that’s almost ready for prime time.

TruthTeller PrototypeThe Washington Post today launched an exciting new technology prototype invoking powerful new technologies for journalism and democratic accountability in politics and government. As you can see from the screenshot (left), it runs an automated fact-checking algorithm against the streaming video of politicians or other talking heads and displays in real time a “True” or “False” label as they’re speaking.

Called “Truth Teller,” the system uses technologies from Microsoft Research and Windows Azure cloud-computing services (I have included some of the technical details below).

But first, a digression on motivation. Back in the late 1970s I was living in Europe and was very taken with punk rock. Among my favorite bands were the UK’s anarcho-punk collective Crass, and in 1980 I bought their compilation LP “Bullshit Detector,” whose title certainly appealed to me because of my equally avid interest in politics :)

Today, my driving interests are in the use of novel or increasingly powerful technologies for the public good, by government agencies or in the effort to improve the performance of government functions. Because of my Jeffersonian tendencies (I did after all take a degree in Government at Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia), I am even more interested in improving government accountability and popular control over the political process itself, and I’ve written or spoken often about the “Government 2.0″ movement.

In an interview with GovFresh several years ago, I was asked: “What’s the killer app that will make Gov 2.0 the norm instead of the exception?”

My answer then looked to systems that might “maintain the representative aspect (the elected official, exercising his or her judgment) while incorporating real-time, structured, unfiltered but managed visualizations of popular opinion and advice… I’m also a big proponent of semantic computing – called Web 3.0 by some – and that should lead the worlds of crowdsourcing, prediction markets, and open government data movements to unfold in dramatic, previously unexpected ways. We’re working on cool stuff like that.”

The Truth Teller prototype is an attempt to construct a rudimentary automated “Political Bullshit Detector, and addresses each of those factors I mentioned in GovFresh - recognizing the importance of political leadership and its public communication, incorporating iterative aspects of public opinion and crowd wisdom, all while imbuing automated systems with semantic sense-making technology to operate at the speed of today’s real world.

Real-time politics? Real-time truth detection.  Or at least that’s the goal; this is just a budding prototype, built in three months.

Cory Haik, who is the Post’s Executive Producer for Digital News, says it “aims to fact-check speeches in as close to real time as possible” in speeches, TV ads, or interviews. Here’s how it works:

The Truth Teller prototype was built and runs with a combination of several technologies — some new, some very familiar. We’ve combined video and audio extraction with a speech-to-text technology to search a database of facts and fact checks. We are effectively taking in video, converting the audio to text (the rough transcript below the video), matching that text to our database, and then displaying, in real time, what’s true and what’s false.

We are transcribing videos using Microsoft Audio Video indexing service (MAVIS) technology. MAVIS is a Windows Azure application which uses State of the Art of Deep Neural Net (DNN) based speech recognition technology to convert audio signals into words. Using this service, we are extracting audio from videos and saving the information in our Lucene search index as a transcript. We are then looking for the facts in the transcription. Finding distinct phrases to match is difficult. That’s why we are focusing on patterns instead.

We are using approximate string matching or a fuzzy string searching algorithm. We are implementing a modified version Rabin-Karp using Levenshtein distance algorithm as our first implementation. This will be modified to recognize paraphrasing, negative connotations in the future.

What you see in the prototype is actual live fact checking — each time the video is played the fact checking starts anew.

 - Washington Post, “Debuting Truth Teller

The prototype was built with funding from a Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund grant, and you can read more about the motivation and future plans over on the Knight Blog, and you can read TechCrunch discussing some of the political ramifications of the prototype based on the fact-checking movement in recent campaigns.

Even better, you can actually give Truth Teller a try here, in its infancy.

What other uses could be made of semantic “truth detection” or fact-checking, in other aspects of the relationship between the government and the governed?

Could the justice system use something like Truth Teller, or will human judges and  juries always have a preeminent role in determining the veracity of testimony? Will police officers and detectives be able to use cloud-based mobile services like Truth Teller in real time during criminal investigations as they’re evaluating witness accounts? Should the Intelligence Community be running intercepts of foreign terrorist suspects’ communications through a massive look-up system like Truth Teller?

Perhaps, and time will tell how valuable – or error-prone – these systems can be. But in the next couple of years we will be developing (and be able to assess the adoption of) increasingly powerful semantic systems against big-data collections, using faster and faster cloud-based computing architectures.

In the meantime, watch for further refinements and innovation from The Washington Post’s prototyping efforts; after all, we just had a big national U.S.  election but congressional elections in 2014 and the presidential race in 2016 are just around the corner. Like my fellow citizens, I will be grateful for any help in keeping candidates accountable to something resembling “the truth.”

Petraeus as Ozymandias

I only met David Petraeus once before he came to CIA, in 2006 at U.S. Central Command while he was winding up his tour as commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command Iraq (acronymically pronounced “minsticky”), and before he took command of MNF-I or CENTCOM, or the war in Afghanistan for that matter. I briefed him on something topical going on (I was still working at DIA at the time) and we certainly didn’t talk long. In fact I came away with only one impression: not so much about him, but about his already-well-commented-on entourage of “Petraeus guys.” He had a reputation as a fast-moving reformer, but it was an outsized group of admirers, I thought, who showed not respect for him, but devotion – even awe.

They weren’t alone; the man’s been compared as a military leader to “Ulysses S. Grant, John J. Pershing, George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower” – and that was by his own boss! (That’s the comparison made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen last year when Petraeus retired from the military to join CIA.)

So, yes, news that the Director of the CIA had resigned because of an extramarital affair hit DC like a thunderclap yesterday.  Check out the volume of this twitter search for the prevailing phrase people uttered when they heard the news: “Holy shit.” It was almost comic that the news broke the same day that the new James Bond film opened in DC. Its plot features an intelligence agency director under personal assault and its title mirrors the mood of many in Langley today: “Skyfall.”

I’m not surprised by the fact that a powerful man was having an affair – heck, I did marry a divorce lawyer after all.  The news won’t affect intelligence operations immediately; the professionals at CIA and the intelligence community are still going about their business and tend to look forward to the horizon, not backward. Meanwhile journalists are already delving into the particulars of this peculiar turn of events. Pundits (and the Congressional intelligence oversight committees) will be exploring any linkages or ramifications of this scandal for the Benghazi investigations, and the candidates for Petraeus’s replacement are already making their direct or whisper campaigns known, in emails already bcc’ing around the Beltway. More on that in due time.

I only have two observations now, one larger in scope and one quite small, at human scale. The first is the question of what the scandal says about the intelligence security practices in our modern national security state. Petraeus held the highest security clearances. He earned the confidence of the President, the trust of his silent warrior employees, the endorsement of the U.S. Senate (94-0!) and the faith of a nation that had cheered his battlefield successes in the Iraq surge and in Afghanistan. Yet the CIA’s confidence in its director was undergirded not only by the Petraeus resume, but by our national security infrastructure of clearances, polygraphs, and professional investigators. Forget the question of one man’s integrity – he was living a lie, big-time, and we missed it. Completely. There will be many questions asked about what that means for other high government clearance-holders, but for now there’s a feeling prevalent in DC akin to what happens when a law-enforcement crime lab discovers shoddy mistakes: all previous convictions are under suspicion and, sometimes, verdicts are reversed. Something to ponder about CIA institutional analytic or operational judgment over the past year….

Secondly, I’m struck by the ironies in the personal side of this affair. David Petraeus grew up as a literature-loving son of a New England village librarian. I know this because I read his biography – yes, the hagiographic book All In: The Education of David Petraeus written by the woman at the center of the affair. Now I may be one of the few in DC who actually read the whole book when it came out – as in, I didn’t just flip through the index looking for the “good parts.”

The book has the literature-loving Petraeus actually quoting poetry at a pivotal point in his life. At his change-of-command ceremony, giving up his praetorian position in Afghanistan, Petraeus gave a thoughtful set of remarks and then chose to quote several lines from an obscure poem by young British soldier John Bailey, serving in Afghanistan in 2008. I say “obscure,” because until today the poem itself appears in only one spot on the Internet: a small U.K. site devoted to British war poetry.  Did poetry-lover Petraeus find the poem there himself, or was it simply good staff/speechwriter work? These are the words Petraeus used, in his “emotional” farewell to the wars he had led, and to his chosen career as a military leader:

And what is asked for the service we give?

No high praise or riches if we should live,

Just silence from friends, our name on a wall,

If this time around, it is I that fall.

- from “The Volunteer” by John Bailey

When Petraeus read out that poem, he was standing like Caesar astride a narrow world, a four-star general having “won” two wars in distant ancient lands and commanded USCENTCOM, whose mission area sprawls across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Perhaps this poetry lover knows Percy Bysshe Shelley well; perhaps like me in school Petraeus read Shelley’s Ozymandias, based on the ironic life of Ramesses II, mighty Egyptian pharaoh. One account writes, “Ramesses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of Records all by himself: he built more temples, obelisks and monuments; took more wives (eight, not counting concubines) and claimed to have sired more children (as many as 162, by some accounts) than any other pharaoh in history. And he presided over an empire that stretched from present-day Libya to Iraq in the east, as far north as Turkey and southward into the Sudan.”

Yet Ramesses is mostly forgotten now, and Shelley’s poem about him captures the fall of great men in a short, powerful sonnet. When I first heard the news about Petraeus from my wife, this is the poem I thought of, and I believe its irony pairs with the lines Petraeus quoted quite sadly.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Tech Trip to Argentina

With Luis Ruvira, President of the Argentine American Dialogue Foundation, after my speech at the Argentine Council on International Relations

I’m traveling in Argentina this week, on a trip sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in their official Speaker’s Program. The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires had requested of DoS an American technology speaker “who can talk about technology innovation and bleeding edge kinds of things.  The goal is to highlight the role that innovation and technology plays in creating a better society.” I was delighted to accept the invitation when asked by my friend Lovisa Williams of the State Department’s Internet Steering Committee.

Most of the trip is being spent in Buenos Aires, second largest city in South America – so large it is constitutionally recognized as an autonomous federal entity alongside the 23 Argentinian provinces, with its own government ministers and municipal administration. I am also enjoying side visits to Rosario and La Plata, large cities and provincial capitals. I’ll write about several aspects of the trip separately.

Working together to cram in a series of whirlwind meetings have been my excellent co-hosts, the U.S. Embassy and the respected Argentine American Dialogue Foundation. Below are the highlights of the visit, plucked from my official agenda:

Monday 9/19: Meeting with the Minister of Education for Buenos Aires city and visit to the Escuela Gauchos de Guemes school which is studying the social and educational benefits of having given each child their own netbook. Tour of the Universidad Abierta Interamericana (UAI) (the Open InterAmerican University), visiting their robotics labs, meetings with engineering students, and a separate meeting with authorities from the university and national civil servants. Meeting with Pedro Janices, National Director at the National Office for Information Technologies (executive-branch component of the President’s Office; Pedro has been called “the Argentine CIO,” and has worked with the first U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra.)

Tuesday 9/20: Public speech at the Argentina Council for International Relations (CARI, one of the most important think tanks in Latin America), topic: “Governments 2.0 and the impact of new technologies.” Lecture at the American Club of Buenos Aires, with participating companies from the American Chamber of Commerce of Argentina, members from the academic sector and public servants (including the Head of International Relations of the National Ministry in Science and Technology). Tour of the Supreme Court of Argentina, meeting with Deputy Chief Justice Highton, who was the first woman appointed to the Court (under a democratic government).  Videoconference lecture on “Innovation and Government” at the National Technological University (UTN), transmitted live to 13 campuses of the University in the interior of the country.

Wednesday 9/21: Trip to Rosario, second largest city in Argentina and capital of Santa Fe Province. Visit and tour of largest tech firm in Rosario, Neoris; lunch with Neoris Latin American President Martin Mendez.  Meeting with the Secretary of Production and Local Development for the city of Rosario, subject “Creating conditions for local technology-industry growth.” Meeting with Rocio Rius of the Fundacion Nueva Generación Argentina (Argentina New Generation Foundation). Lecture at the Universidad Abierto Interamericana (UAI) campus in Rosario on new technologies and their impact on government; audience of authorities and students from UAI and other universities, faculty from the Engineering School, and also local public servants.

Thursday 9/22: Trip to La Plata, capital city of Buenos Aires Province.  Meeting with Governor Daniel Scioli (Vice President of Argentina 2003-2007) and other provincial civil servants, including Undersecretary of Institutional Relations, Director of Interministerial Relations, and Chief of Cabinet.  Public Lecture at the National University of La Plata, guest of Dean of the Informatics Faculty.

Friday 9/23: Participate in opening ceremonies in Buenos Aires of the IX Congreso Internacional en Innovación Tecnológica Informática (CIITI, Ninth International Congress on IT Innovation). Visit to Universidad Argentina de la Empresa, (UADE, Argentine University of Enterprise), meetings with faculty/students from Government, Law, and Engineering departments, and tours of laboratories. Lecture at the American Club of Buenos Aires. Meeting with Director of the Business School at Argentine Catholic University, and Dean of the Faculty of Economic Sciences. Private meeting at Embassy with U.S. Ambassador Vilma Martinez. Panel speaker on “Ciberculture Y Gobierno” (Cyber-culture and Government) at the IX Congreso CIITI with international panel.

I’ve been on several other State Department-sponsored trips before (to Mexico and, many years ago near the end of the Cold War, to the Soviet Union), but I must say that this frenetically busy jaunt through lovely Argentina may be my favorite. I’ll write more over the next few days.

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Virtual recipe stirs in Apple iPad, Microsoft Kinect

Who says Apple and Microsoft can’t work together?  They certainly do, at least when it involves the ingenuity of their users, the more inventive of whom use technologies from both companies (and others).

Here’s a neat example, “a just-for-fun experiment from the guys at Laan Labs” where they whip up a neat Augmented Reality recipe: take one iPad, one Kinect, and stir:

Some technical detail from the Brothers Laan, the engineers who did the work:

We used the String Augmented Reality SDK to display real-time 3d video+audio recorded from the Kinect. Libfreenect from http://openkinect.org/ project was used for recording the data coming from the Kinect. A textured mesh was created from the calibrated depth+rgb data for each frame and played back in real-time. A simple depth cutoff allowed us isolate the person in the video from the walls and other objects. Using the String SDK, we projected it back onto a printed image marker in the real world.” - source, Laan Labs blog.

As always, check out http://www.kinecthacks.com/ for the latest and greatest Kinect hacks – or more accurately now, the latest cool uses of the openly released free Kinect SDK, available here.

There are several quiet projects underway around the DC Beltway to make use of the SDK, testing non-commercial but government-relevant deployments – more detail and examples at the appropriate time. We will eventually release a commercial SDK with even more functionality and higher-level programming controls, which will directly benefit government early adopters.

In the meantime, I may report on some of the new advances being made by our research group on Computational User Experiences, who “apply expertise in machine learning, visualization, mobile computing, sensors and devices, and quantitative and qualitative evaluation techniques to improve the state of the art in physiological computing, healthcare, home technologies, computer-assisted creativity, and entertainment.” That’s a rich agenda, and the group is in the very forefront of defining how Natural User Interaction (NUI) will enhance our personal and professional lives….

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Kinecting Communities

On April 16 I will be speaking at the Mobile Citizen Summit in Washington DC (registration still open), which brings together “practitioners across the  government, nonprofit, advocacy, and political spaces—the kinds of  people who develop the strategy and the tools to reach, engage, educate,  and enable citizens across the country and around the world.”

But I’m going to be talking about “mobile” in a different way than others still use the term, i.e. they focus on a handheld device, while I will be focusing on the mobile citizen. As I have said before I don’t believe our future involves experiencing “augmented reality” by always holding up little 3-inch plastic screens in front of our faces. Natural user interfaces and immersive computing offer much more to how we access computational resources – and how technology will help us interact with one another. Here’s an example, in a story from the past week.

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Air Everything

Like many people, I was very impressed by a video over the weekend of the Word Lens real-time translation app for iPhone.  It struck with a viral bang, and within a few days racked up over 2 million YouTube views. What particularly made me smile was digging backwards through the twitter stream of a key Word Lens developer whom I follow, John DeWeese, and finding this pearl of a tweet (right) from several months ago, as he was banging out the app out in my old stomping grounds of the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s a hacker mentality for you :)

But one thought I had in watching the video was, why do I need to be holding the little device in front of me, to get the benefit of its computational resources and display? I’ve seen the studies and predictions that “everything’s going mobile,” but I believe that’s taking too literally the device itself, the form-factor of a little handheld box of magic.

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The wikileaks label ticks off Wikipedia cofounder

Note from Lewis: I have commented on the latest Wikileaks outrage elsewhere (Facebook, Twitter), making clear my thoughts for what they’re worth.  Briefly, they summarize in pointing out that the U.S. Government has now allowed a dynamic to emerge without challenge: an “acceptable” intermediary between Traitor and Public. The original insider-threat individual who ripped the 251,000 cables and all the other previously leaked Iraq war data would likely not have been able to simply provide that to the New York Times personally and have it immediately published; they might have turned him in themselves. But the miraculous creation of a self-appointed, self-sanctified group like Wikileaks has allowed motivated groups like the Times & the UK’s Guardian to proclaim that their hands are clean. I find it outrageous. But the government did not press the point after the first major release (Iraq war data) with any forceful intent, so now we’re simply going to see this continue – until an Administration gets serious with criminal charges including treason for anyone involved, right up the chain of those stealing/mediating/publishing classified information.

 An online friend, Larry Sanger, today posted some very thoughtful remarks from a unique perspective – as a cofounder of Wikipedia who obviously is offended among other things by the misleading use of “Wiki-” in the Wikileaks name.  But he makes some other profound points as well. He offered to have them reposted, which I have done below. Reader comments are welcome, either below or as always by email.

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Tearing the Roof off a 2-Terabyte House

I was home last night playing with the new Kinect, integrating it with Twitter, Facebook, and Zune. Particularly because of the last service, I was glad that I got the Xbox 360 model with the 250-gigabyte (gb) hard disk drive. It holds a lot more music, or photos, and of course primarily games and game data.

So we wind up with goofy scenes like my wife zooming along yesterday in Kinect Adventures’ River Rush – not only my photo (right) but in-game photos taken by the Kinect Sensor, sitting there below the TV monitor.

Later as I was waving my hands at the TV screen, swiping magically through the air to sweep through Zune’s albums and songs as if pawing through a shelf of actual LP’s, I absent-mindedly started totting up the data-storage capacity of devices and drives in my household.  Here’s a rough accounting:

  • One Zune music-player, 120gb;
  • 2 old iPods 30gb + 80gb;
  • an iPad 3G at 16gb;
  • one HP netbook 160gb;
  • an aging iMac G5 with 160gb;
  • three Windows laptops of 60gb, 150gb, and 250gb;
  • a DirecTV DVR with a 360gb disk;
  • a single Seagate 750gb external HDD;
  • a few 1gb, 2gb, and a single 32gb SD cards for cameras;
  • a handful of 2gb, 4gb, and one 16gb USB flash drives;
  • and most recently a 250gb Xbox 360, for Kinect. 

All told, I’d estimate that my household data storage capacity totals 2.5 terabytes. A terabyte, you’ll recall, is 1012 bytes, or 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) bytes, or alternately a thousand gigabytes.

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Playing with virtual data in spatial reality

For the past few months, when I’ve had visitors to Microsoft Research on the Redmond campus one of the things I’ve enjoyed demonstrating is the technology behind the new system for Xbox 360 – the controller-free gaming and immersive entertainment system that Microsoft is releasing for the holiday market in a month or so. In particular, I’ve enjoyed having Andy Wilson of MSR talk with visitors about some of the future implications in non-gaming scenarios, including general information work, and how immersive augmented-reality (AR) could transform our capabilities for working with information, virtual objects, and how we all share and use knowledge among ourselves.

We’re further along in this area than I thought we’d be five years ago, and I suspect we’ll be similarly surprised by 2015.

In particular, there is great interest (both in and out of the government circles I travel in) in the “device-less” or environmental potential of new AR technologies. Not everyone will have a fancy smartphone on them at all times, or want to stare at a wall-monitor while also wearing glasses or holding a cellphone in front of them in order to access other planes of information. The really exciting premise of these new approaches is the fully immersive aspect of  “spatial AR,” and the promise of controlling a live 3D environment of realtime data. Continue reading

Mix, Rip, Burn Your Research

You’ve done research; you’ve collected and sifted through mounds of links, papers, articles, notes and raw data. Shouldn’t there be a way to manage all that material that’s as easy and intuitive as, say, iTunes or Zune – helping you manage and share your snippets and research the way you share and enjoy your music?

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