Bing vs Google, the quiet semantic war

On Wednesday night I had dinner at a burger joint with four old friends; two work in the intelligence community today on top-secret programs, and two others are technologists in the private sector who have done IC work for years. The five of us share a particular interest besides good burgers: semantic technology.

Oh, we talked about mobile phones (iPhones were whipped out as was my Windows Phone, and apps debated) and cloud storage (they were stunned that Microsoft gives 25 gigabytes of free cloud storage with free Skydrive accounts, compared to the puny 2 gig they’d been using on DropBox).

But we kept returning to semantic web discussions, semantic approaches, semantic software. One of these guys goes back to the DAML days of DARPA fame, the guys on the government side are using semantic software operationally, and we all are firm believers in Our Glorious Semantic Future.

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DARPA crowd guru gets a new lab

It’s been a little over two years since I came back to the tech private sector from my government service, and it’s great when we have other folks take the same path, for it improves the knowledge of each side about the other. Today we’re announcing that Peter Lee, currently the leader of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Activity’s innovative Transformational Convergence Technology Office (TCTO), is joining Microsoft to run the mighty flagship Redmond labs of Microsoft Research.

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The scientist who gave DARPA ChemBot a holographic Twitter

If that title seems a bit LSD-fueled, the subject matter warrants it. Here comes some Chemistry gone wild!

First, have a look at this bizarre video. It stars a soft robot, or chemical robot – “ChemBot.” Even the experienced geeks at IEEE Spectrum are calling it “by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we have ever seen.”

This particular prototype by iRobot and University of Chicago researchers was just unveiled, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems this past week. (More on the conference here.) It was built in response to DARPA’s interest in chemical robots, a program run by Dr. Mitchell Zakin.

The DARPA “ChemBots” page describes the program as creating “a convergence between materials chemistry and robotics through the application of any one of a number of approaches, including gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.”

What’s the anticipated DoD mission use? In DARPA’s words, “With ChemBots, our warfighters can gain access to denied spaces and perform tasks safely, covertly, and efficiently.”  Or, as CNet’s “Crave” gadget blog puts it, “the weird little blob inflates and deflates parts of its body, changing size and shape–and scaring the living daylights out of us. We don’t know exactly when ChemBot will join the Armed Forces, but we can only beg: please, oh please, keep it away from us.” :)

 Does Mitch Zakin Dream of Electric Sheep?

With that kind of geeky appeal, this video has been gathering some Internet buzz over the weekend, appearing on several tech blogs. But the better story is the scientist behind the science. Several of us have been following Mitch Zakin’s work for a while, primarily because he is also the PM for the Programmable Matter Program — the “novel physics” of “a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external command.”

There is revolutionary promise for such composability in multiple fields, not just defense. Zakin described it several years ago in a speech as “a concept so simple, yet so revolutionary that it pushes even the DARPA envelope. A vision that has profound implications for how we think about chemistry and materials. A vision that could provide our warfighters with meaningful technological surprise.”

Zakin is a demonstrably brilliant scientist, of the sort you expect to find at DARPA. Indeed, in that same speech (“The Next Revolution in Materials“) which he gave at DARPA’s 25th Systems and Technology Symposium a couple of years ago, Dr. Zakin said: “I joined DARPA because it is unfettered by conventional wisdom.” 

One area where he has been exploring beyond traditional boundaries is in developing “the infochemistry project,” which combines the powers of chemistry and information technology. In an exotic illustration, Dr. Zakin is directing a research program on “Chemical Communications,” which I’m not sure I fully understand but which sounds like some sort of holographic persistent Twitter:

The Chemical Communications Program is exploring innovative methods to develop self-powered chemical systems that can encode an input string of alphanumeric characters (i.e., a message), convert the message to a modulated optical signal, and transmit it repetitively to a receiver. 

The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a small replicator device, with the form factor of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or cell phone that―

  • Permits the user to input an arbitrary 60-character alphanumeric message.
  • Translates the message into an appropriate set of modulated chemistries.
  • Embeds these chemistries into a disposable substrate (the transmitter).
  • Ejects the substrate for deployment.

The replicator device will enable warfighters to generate disposable optical transmitters in real time, each with a user-specified message.  It will be compact, lightweight, and powered by batteries or solar cells.                        – DARPA website, Chemical Communications Program

With projects like these under his belt, Zakin is credited with reviving the chemistry discipline at DARPA, which had fallen away over the years. But now he’s scheduled to leave the agency in 2010. He is uncertain where he’s heading, but perhaps he can be persuaded to spend some time with like-minded souls in Microsoft Research; I suspect many there would find his infochemistry approach very appealing.  

An interesting profile of Dr. Zakin in the journal Analytical Chemistry notes that “Academia is one option. Venture capitalism is another. Zakin has launched so many basic science research projects that have the potential of becoming commercial products that he says, ‘it’s almost a sin not to look at all that from the other side.’ ”

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Test for Prediction Markets: They Say Obama, but Polls Say It’s Tied

Fact: According to the latest Rasmussen poll released Saturday July 12, and promptly headlined by the Drudge Report, “The race for the White House is tied. The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Saturday shows Barack Obama and John McCain each attract 43% of the vote.” Newsweek is reporting a similar result in its own poll, with Obama moving down and McCain up (“Obama, McCain in Statistical Dead Heat“), and other polls increasingly show a similarly close race.

Analysis: I’ve been tracking the growing divide between two quite different methods purporting to offer statistical predictive analysis for the November presidential election. Polls are saying one thing, but Prediction Markets are saying another. 

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Innovation in Robotics: Government Uses?

Fact: Last week’s Automatica 2008, the big international robotics and automation trade-show, had “over 30,000 trade visitors from around 90 countries,” visiting 900 exhibitors’ booths, according to the conference wrap-up

Analysis: When I spoke recently at an IARPA conference in Orlando, and was asked to give a glimpse into Microsoft’s vision of R&D trends, one of the possibly surprising areas I highlighted was robotics.  We’re making a major push in that area, for reasons that might not be intuitive based on an old-fashioned impression of what Microsoft offers in the government realm.  More on the intelligence community’s potential use below.

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How to Find Research: Here, There, Everywhere

FACT: The Washington Post today has a story in the Business section (“Intelligence Agency Joins U-Md. Research Center“) about the relationship between IARPA and the University of Maryland, the location of the planned new IARPA headquarters. 

ANALYSIS: UMd has a set of valuable relationships with the public- and private-sector national security community, and the IARPA startup is just the latest agency to benefit.   Proximity is key, for research and bureaucracy.  In Maryland’s case, IARPA Director Lisa Porter told an IEEE interviewer last month that “It’s nice not to be sitting right next to one particular agency. It’s also nice to be near a university because we’re sending a message that we want to bring in nontraditional partners: academia, industry. It sends a nice message that we’re embracing the broad community to help us solve these challenging problems.”

I lament sometimes that Charlottesville (home to my undergraduate alma mater) is a good two hours away from DC, as even that distance puts a frustrating limit on the amount of joint work that winds up being done with Virginia faculty and students. 

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Pentagon’s New Program for Innovation, in Context

FACT: According to an article in today’s Washington Post, the Pentagon has announced “the selection of six university professors who will form the first class of the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellows Program. The professors will receive grants of up to $600,000 per year for up to five years to engage in basic research — essentially a bet by the Pentagon that they will make a discovery that proves vital to maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military.”

ANALYSIS: This new program is an innovation from DoD’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), and since tomorrow I’ll be at Ft. McNair for a two-day conference sponsored by DDR&E on Strategic Communications, I’ll congratulate John Young and his staff for the good idea.

But the Post article falls short in two ways: one immediate (it leaves out key information about next year’s program and the upcoming deadline!) and one longer-term (it ignores the overall context of federal support for R&D).  I’ll fill in the blanks below.

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