Burning Man, Artificial Intelligence, and Our Glorious Future

I’ve had several special opportunities in the last few weeks to think a bit more about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its future import for us remaining humans. Below I’m using my old-fashioned neurons to draw some non-obvious links.

The cause for reflection is the unexpected parallel between two events I’ve been involved in recently: (1) an interview of Elon Musk which I conducted for a conference in DC; and (2) the grand opening in London of a special art exhibit at the British Library which my wife and I are co-sponsoring. They each have an AI angle and I believe their small lessons demonstrate something intriguingly hopeful about a future of machine superintelligence

Burning Man meets the British Library,

Burning Man meets the British Library: “Crossroads of Curiosity” by artist David Normal

Onstage with Elon Musk, AFCEA Symposium,

Onstage with Elon Musk, AFCEA Symposium, “Revolutionary Changes in Intelligence”

Let’s take my experience as a snapshot case study, first with Elon Musk setting up the theory and hypothesis on the perils of “Strong AI” where artificial general intelligence could lead to Superintelligence. The “glorious future” in my title is of course an ironic reference to an idealized paradise of robotic perfection.

My 90-minute conversation with Elon onstage at the recent AFCEA Intelligence Symposium was wide-ranging and covered technology areas he’s currently leading work in – space, transportation, energy, innovation in general – but he wanted to lead off with Artificial Intelligence. He began by reiterating some of the arguments he and others like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have been making on the potential dangers in “summoning the demon” of Strong AI. (You can read “AI or Not AI?” for quick background, and I recommend Nick Bostrom’s recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.)

DSC_6424 (3)I had a string of questions on the AI topic, focused on implications which he and others haven’t addressed yet, at least publicly. I won’t give Elon’s answers – the session was off the record – but they were thoughtful and quite compelling.

(Maybe you should register to attend the next AFCEA event, so you don’t miss out again.)

Here’s one of my questions, on an under-examined implication of the current AI debate:

Shepherd: “AI thinkers like Vernor Vinge talk about the likelihood of a “Soft takeoff” of superhuman intelligence, when we might not even notice and would simply be adapting along; vs a Hard takeoff, which would be a much more dramatic explosion – akin to the introduction of Humans into the animal kingdom. Arguably, watching for indicators of that type of takeoff (soft or especially hard) should be in the job-jar of the Intelligence Community. Your thoughts?”

If your appetite is whetted and you do want to tap the world’s greatest AI experts for the current state of their work, you can’t do better than looking at their own presentations at a secluded conference earlier this year in Puerto Rico hosted by the Future of Life Institute, a group which studies the challenges in ensuring the safety of AI systems, in an effort to counter dystopian developments. I found it difficult to dismiss the anxiety evident among several of these brilliant folks. UC-Berkeley’s Stuart Russell tweaked any skeptics who pooh-pooh AI worries, with this slide bearing a reminder from the early days of atomic research:

Russell on AI

But let’s not get too AI-gloomy.

Instead, let’s turn to the parallel story from the arts, born at the very human Burning Man festival. I’m a fan of California artist David Normal, an innovative painter and installation-artist long active in Burning-Man circles. I like his work precisely because it demonstrates the incredibly complex, densely-layered inventiveness of a highly literate creator. One Los Angeles art critic’s review of an earlier San Francisco exhibition by Normal captures what caught my eye:

…the work is inspired by a set of influences as disparate and random as the content of the scenes themselves. The artist’s zoomorphic forms are inspired by Northern Renaissance masters, for instance, and his muscular figures and contorted poses are reminiscent of early Mannerism, as if Timothy Leary had come in and rearranged Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. There are numerous other archaic referents to be found in this curious puzzle–Normal’s Chemical Imbalance, for example, is composed around the form of the Kaballah, and contains quotes from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and an Escher lithograph. It is this dizzying and complex fusion that Normal calls Crazyology–taken from a Charlie Parker song, the term is more than just a title of the exhibit, it is intended as a description of the mishmash of influences in the artist’s work. Normal explains: “The list of art techniques and philosophies that exploited and exulted in the irrational is a long and distinguished history that I would sum up as Crazyology….When people ask me what my style is, I say, Crazyology, and that way I have my own term for my work, and I can also refer to all the great crazy stuff that has inspired me – Surrealism, Punk, Dada, Pop Art, Psychedelic Art, etc.”

As fans of that kind of bushy-dendrite complexity, this summer my wife Kathryn and I have joined the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the Burning Man Arts Foundation in funding a major exhibition at the British Library through November 2015, entitled Crossroads of Curiosity. (Here’s information if you’re planning a London visit, which I highly recommend, and here’s a link to more photos and videos of the exhibit opening with Burning Man founder Larry Harvey and British Library Chief Executive Roly Keating.)

At face value, the new installation is stunning but straightforward: four 8-foot-by-20-foot massive lightboxed murals incorporating rich imagery from the Library’s digitised collections, mounted on the BL’s grand Piazza. It is described in the catalogue as “a series of dramatic tableaux featuring provocative juxtapositions of vastly different times, places, and peoples.”

Another photographer in the Crossroads of Curiosity

20 June - Crossroads of curiosity 01The pieces were first shown last fall at Burning Man 2014, where they were centrally arrayed on the ordinal compass points around the 105-foot-tall Man himself in the desert at Black Rock City (photo at right during their installation there).

But the story of how they came to be – their inspiration – is as interesting an element of the art as the visual images themselves. You see, there’s a man-plus-machine creation story…

A Mechanical Curator Lights Up the Desert

Several years ago the Digital Research Team and British Library Labs under the mighty Mahendra Mahey teamed up with Microsoft Research/Azure (while I was working there) to use their cloud infrastructure to work on a collection of 65,000 high-quality scanned books which were digitized through a partnership with Microsoft and the British Library a decade earlier. What to do with them? One idea from the BL Labs Technical Lead, Ben O’Steen was to set loose an algorithmic bot programmed to recognize pages which had an image or illustration, and digitally clip each one to save separately. The “Mechanical Curator” was born, and the resulting collection was eye-opening. Earlier the group at the BL had decided to do something generous: release the images for free public domain use. As spelled out in late 2013, their intent was to spark the creative imagination of others:

“We have released over a million images onto Flickr Commons for anyone to use, remix and repurpose. These images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft who then generously gifted the scanned images to us, allowing us to release them back into the Public Domain.

“The images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of.

“Which brings me to the point of this release. We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these ‘unseen illustrations’. The images were plucked from the pages as part of the ‘Mechanical Curator’, a creation of the British Library Labs project. Each image is individually addressible, online, and Flickr provies an API to access it and the image’s associated description.

“We may know which book, volume and page an image was drawn from, but we know nothing about a given image.”

So the algorithms weren’t semantic, or “knowing.” They weren’t capable of characterizing the images, much less “understanding” them. The algorithm never raised an eyebrow, squinted its eye at an illustration and murmured “Now, that’s promising…”

In fact, it’s not surprising that the bot was assiduous but dumb. The state of computer-vision image-recognition is improving thanks to recursive deep-learning algorithms but not yet beyond childlike abilities. See “On Welsh Corgis, Computer Vision, and the Power of Deep Learning” on Microsoft’s AI research and “Welcome to the AI Conspiracy” on Google, Yahoo and Baidu. Adult-level semantic understanding is certainly not approachable today, even in the single focused domain of image recognition.

But the technical spadework was done with the BL collection, for others to build on. Ben O’Steen, the project’s technical lead at BL Labs, made all his code freely available on GitHub. for the million-plus JPEG2000 image files and associated OCR XML metadata [see here for technical info].

Most importantly, the collection was now available to the eyes of the global crowd, via Flickr. I met a student of information science volunteering work at BL Labs, Wendy Durham, who captured the back-story:

In December 2013, BL Labs and Digital Research Teams released 1 million algorithmically snipped images from 65,000 digitised books on to the Flickr Commons. Since then, the British Library Flickr Commons photostream has amassed a staggering 260 million views.

“Just a week after the release, one of those viewers was David Normal, a collage artist from California, interested in 19th century illustration for his work. Following a Facebook posting about the British Library Flickr Commons launch from the guitarist of the punk band ‘Flipper,’ David was thrilled to discover the serendipitous size, quality and relevance of the photostream content with his plans for a project he had organised with the annual arts festival ‘Burning Man’ in the Nevada desert, USA…

In the desert – click for more photos from Burning Man

“After initially creating four 3 ft. by 8 ft. paintings, David transformed them into four 8 ft. by 20 ft., double sided and illuminated light boxes that were built around the base of the Burning Man statue, forming the centrepiece of the event. Over 70,000 people came to the event and saw the work…”

That telling leaves out an important step, though: What images to pluck from the photostream? And how to arrange them in a way that would create “art”? Here’s where the human element enters. Insert magic here, one might say.

The Spark of Human Creativity

Normal described that creative element in an important lecture in the British Library’s Chaucer Room last fall; I’ll excerpt the details which begin about 6 minutes into the video.

[While planning for 2014 Burning Man with BM director Larry Harvey] “he and I batted this back and forth and came up with the idea of a crossroads of curiosity, that would expand the idea of a cabinet of curiosities, out from just the rectilinear presentation of objects in a case, to be being sets of dramatic tableaux, that are a collection of human dramas and human phenomena.”

“So I was looking for 19th century illustrations, and it was only shortly after that that I learned of the British Library’s release into the Flickr Commons of over a million images. So that was really a kind of stupendous thing for me… Once I had that in hand, I was extremely inspired, because I had just an endless amount of collage material to work with to create these pieces.”

“Working with the British Library’s collection, I began to make the collages, and what I would do is just go searching through the database, just looking at one image after another, about the same way as if I was going to go through a book looking at every illustration in the book, and then I would mark the images that I liked. So it was a very entrancing process. I would sit there for hours, just clicking one image after another, sometimes going through a hundred or two hundred images without seeing anything that was of interest to me – and at other times being in kind of a vein, of things that I liked; and I would favorite all these out.

“I collected something like a total of 3,000 images. And then I would begin to select the ones that I liked best.

“People always ask me, ‘Why did you select the certain things that you liked?’ and a lot of times the things would just go together. I mean, I believe that the machine-gun and the skunk were just side by side with each other in the Flickr favorites page, so it was just sort of obvious, the work had already been done for me. But the Afghan warrior here, he was close by, and so he ends up – I decided to put him on, riding the skunk… the background ended up getting filtered out, and so in the process of making the collages I experimented quite a bit… I did so many different versions. Some elements didn’t end up in the final piece. For instance, I had a troubador with an elephant head…and while that might have been good, he just didn’t seem to fit in [Audience laughter]. So these became the raw material from which I painted, the collages actually became sketches.”

Lightbox prototype, 21'x18', 2011. Original painting oil on canvas, 2010.

Lightbox prototype, “The Human Tree.” 21’x18′, original painting oil on canvas, 2010.

By the way, at about the 10-minute mark David goes into some technical discussion of the innovative lightbox materials and procedures he invented for this project and earlier lightbox exhibits; if you’re a fan of advanced electrical/fabrication techniques you’ll enjoy it. My wife and I own one of his earlier small lightbox prototypes “The Human Tree,” which hangs in our Music Room (left).

Like many artists since the dawn of Impressionism (and every -ism since), David Normal isn’t quite sure how to explain in words his train of creative thinking – because it’s not a logical procession. Again from his lecture:

“At Burning Man, people came around and were fascinated by the work, they spent a lot of time trying to decipher what the meaning of these strange images was. I took to giving what I called ‘Docent Tours,’  where I would walk people around from image to image, and explain the imagery and what it meant to me. The reason I call it a docent tour is because I actually don’t really have much better of an idea of what the imagery means than anybody else [audience laughter]. I mean, I made it, but it wasn’t like it was made with some sort of, you know, didactic purpose, that it’s supposed to explain something to somebody. Rather, the images are very much expresssions of [pauses] – oh, of something that’s just energetic – how shall we say – It’s not a specific  – emotional… You know it’s not specifically confined to something that I can put into words. But I do put into words! And I’ll explain this to you soon, when we go and look at these prints I brought with me….”

Certainly the essence of the creative arts is ineffable, and it is impossible to capture or even describe fully the remarkable human inspiration and boundary-jumping leaps which trace the advance of human intellectual history. Some analysts today drive a debate on whether human-level AI will demonstrate the “same” human-like spark. (See for example “Creativity: The Last Human Stronghold?” by the thoughtful technologist and AI observer Israel Beniaminy on attempts to program machine creativity in poetry, art, math, and science.)

But it’s difficult to believe in a human-challenging degree of “intelligence” when the British Library’s Mechanical Curator never came up with the idea of putting the Afghan warrior riding on the skunk; the algorithm would never ponder a collage with an elephant-headed troubadour – much less realize that it “just didn’t fit in.”

The computers never suggested looking to Burning Man for inspiration, or turning paintings into lightboxes, or having a huge party to open the exhibit with Burners from across Europe, Taiko drummers, atonal chant singers and the London’s ultrahip DJ Yoda, all dancing on a Library Piazza bearing banners celebrating the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta housed inside, symbolizing man’s insatiable determination to win and protect his liberties.

To make the connection of my two themes explicit: Elon Musk came up with the unconventional idea behind his startup SolarCity while driving to the desert for Burning Man in 2004. His inspiration wasn’t a self-optimizing algorithmic feedback calculation but instead the very human notions of radical self-expression and radical self-reliance reinforced at Burning Man. And even earlier, in 2002 no recursively learning business algorithm running (then or now) would EVER have recommended that a businessman should create a scrappy rocket startup SpaceX to take on Lockheed, Boeing, and the challenge of Mars settlement.

In short, no programmer knows how to encode an AI with audacity. I doubt we ever will. Remember those old Apple advertisements with their call to “Think Different”? That’s humanity’s saving grace. We alone are able to create new and independent meaning from the complexity of the world (and “big data”) around us.

Will Superintelligence Supersede Humans?

I follow in detail the latest AI research and advances, and speaking as someone who has written about “autonomous killer robots” for years, I’m glad that the debate is reaching the mainstream, and can recommend reading several recent pieces:

My bottom line is the same feeling I have about a world with nuclear weapons; it’s not that I am skeptical of the dangers – it’s just that I remain optimistic of our ability to avoid or overcome the dangers.

I’m less interested in what the machines will do on their own, because I see evidence across history – ancient and continuing – of humanity’s ability to invent and then control by further invention. We’ve done it with the most awesome and fearful technology imaginable – the power of atomic and nuclear fission. Our ability to invent new technical, political, and social means of dominating our own Golems should stand us in good stead even with AI.

Call it insight, or the ineffable human spark, whatever it is we have it – and there’s enduring power in thinking the unexpected. David Normal saw a serendipitous art in siting his exhibit where it is: as he explains, “It’s actually placed literally (no pun intended) over 5 stories of books that are housed underneath the piazza – likely the very books from which the collage material was derived.”

What computer would get that joke?

Young Americans and the Intelligence Community

IC CAE conferenceA few days ago I travelled down to Orlando – just escaping the last days of the DC winter. I was invited to participate in a conference hosted by the Intelligence Community’s Center of Academic Excellence (IC CAE) at the University of Central Florida.  The title of my speech was “The Internet, 2015-2025: Business and Policy Challenges for the Private Sector.” But I actually learned as much as I taught, maybe more.

First, several surprises I learned while preparing for my presentation. UCF is now the nation’s second-largest university, with over 60,000 students (second only to Arizona State University). The size of the undergraduate/graduate student population obviously translates into a robustly diverse set of student activities. Among those we met with were several leaders and members in the Collegiate Cyber Defense Club (see their site at HackUCF.org), which has hundreds of members, weekly meetings, and is fresh off winning the national 2014 Collegiate Cybersecurity Championship Cup, beating out more than 200 schools based on performance in competitions throughout the year.

LS speaking at IC CAE conference

IC CAE conference, photo by Mike Macedonia

Another surprise was the full extent of the umbrella activity within which the conference was organized.  The UCF IC-CAE is one of several such centers (overall info page here) established over the past decade, since a 2005 congressionally-mandated mission “to increase intelligence community job applicants who are multi-disciplinary, as well as culturally and ethnically diverse [via] grants to competitively accredited U.S. four-year colleges and universities to support the design and development of intelligence-related curricula.” There are some two dozen colleges now participating, including Duke, Penn State, and Virginia Tech.

One more significant thing I learned: young Americans today are not hostile to the nation’s intelligence mission and those who perform it. In fact, I published a short piece today at SIGNAL Magazine on some startling recent poll results, which I reviewed while preparing for the UCF visit. From my piece:

NSA’s negative coverage [over the past two years] was driven by a long series of front-page stories covering Edward Snowden’s leaked documents, including their impact on technology giants such as Facebook, Apple, Google and others. Many pundits have opined that young American millennials are horrified by the revelations and angry at the NSA for “domestic spying.”

Yet the 2015 national survey by the respected Pew Research Center asked specifically about the NSA, and it reveals that, “Young people are more likely than older Americans to view the intelligence agency positively. About six in 10 (61 percent) of those under 30 view the NSA favorably, compared with 40 percent of those 65 and older.”

 – excerpt from “NSA’s Biggest Fans are Young Americans

I didn’t know much about the IC-CAE program before my campus visit, but it strikes me overall as a valuable channel for the Intelligence Community to remain in close sync with the nation’s values and societal changes.  And, as I wrote in SIGNAL, I learned that “students at the nation’s second-largest university reflect the Pew poll findings, and on balance hold a positive view of the intelligence community and its efforts in the national interest. They admire our nation’s intelligence professionals, and they’re supportive of a robust foreign-intelligence collection program.”

I’ve posted the slides that accompanied my talk below, though of course much of the discussion isn’t reflected in the slides themselves. Smart audience, insightful questions.



I must mention that the other presenters at the conference were great as well. In sum it was an enjoyable and enlightening experience, and it was reassuring to observe that America’s next great generation will be eager and expert recipients of the reins of national security.


Insider’s Guide to the New Holographic Computing

In my seven happy years at Microsoft before leaving a couple of months ago, I was never happier than when I was involved in a cool “secret project.”

Last year my team and I contributed for many months on a revolutionary secret project – Holographic Computing – which is being revealed today at Microsoft headquarters.  I’ve been blogging for years about a variety of research efforts which additively culminated in today’s announcements: HoloLens, HoloStudio for 3D holographic building, and a series of apps (e.g. HoloSkype, HoloMinecraft) for this new platform on Windows 10.

For my readers in government, or who care about the government they pay for, PAY CLOSE ATTENTION.

It’s real. I’ve worn it, used it, designed 3D models with it, explored the real surface of Mars, played and laughed and marveled with it. This isn’t Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” Everything in this video works today:

These new inventions represent a major new step-change in the technology industry. That’s not hyperbole. The approach offers the best benefit of any technology: empowering people simply through complexity, and by extension a way to deliver new & unexpected capabilities to meet government requirements.

Holographic computing, in all the forms it will take, is comparable to the Personal Computing revolution of the 1980s (which democratized computing), the Web revolution of the ’90s (which universalized computing), and the Mobility revolution of the past eight years, which is still uprooting the world from its foundation.

One important point I care deeply about: Government missed each of those three revolutions. By and large, government agencies at all levels were late or slow (or glacial) to recognize and adopt those revolutionary capabilities. That miss was understandable in the developing world and yet indefensible in the United States, particularly at the federal level.

I worked at the Pentagon in the summer of 1985, having left my own state-of-the-art PC at home at Stanford University, but my assigned “analytical tool” was a typewriter. In the early 2000s, I worked at an intelligence agency trying to fight a war against global terror networks when most analysts weren’t allowed to use the World Wide Web at work. Even today, government agencies are lagging well behind in deploying modern smartphones and tablets for their yearning-to-be-mobile workforce.

This laggard behavior must change. Government can’t afford (for the sake of the citizens it serves) to fall behind again, and  understanding how to adapt with the holographic revolution is a great place to start, for local, national, and transnational agencies.

Now some background… Continue reading

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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