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What’s Old Is New Again: The Rise of Chat Bots. Again.

Tin Robots

Image by the Wikimedia Commons

Apparently text-based UIs are making a come-back.  Supposedly as a backlash to complexity and the overload of “apps” – but what’s coming back isn’t terminal mode – so put away that vt-220 you’ve had squirreled away in the attic in case you’re suddenly teleported back to 1987 and forced to program in VAX Pascal again in your college terminal room.

No, the old-new hotness is text-chat with Agents, er, I mean “Bots.” Yeah… basically an updated take on the text chat-bots that we’ve all come to hate when they annoy us when we’re just trying to re-up our car insurance, or browsing some e-commerce site.

So, what’s really going on here?

First a little of the chat-bot back-story…

Chatbots – or just ‘bots – have been around for decades. They got their start almost simultaneously in two staples of the early Internet: MUDs/MOOs and Internet Relay Chat or “IRC” networks. The first is pretty well-known to online adventure and role-play fans; here ‘bots were created as guides and other non-player type characters to interact with people in these online virtual worlds.  They continued in more graphical forms in MMOGs like WoW of course, but interacting with a real chat-bot in something like LambdaMOO or TinyMUD was much, much more fun. More clever repartee, less hack & slash.

IRC is the granddaddy of distributed Internet chat and bots have been around there longer than almost anywhere else. IRC bots are pretty much everywhere in the programmer oriented universe of IRC.  They maintain channels, kick off bad-actors, and perform basic info tasks like take note of continuous server (CI) activities and code repository updates; perform Google searches and weather looks ups and more.  On newer systems like Slack – which is really a souped up IRC service with an excellently implemented UI  –  bots are often a way to answer in-channel questions or help ‘noobs get settled into the swing of a new corporate culture.

These bots have been traditionally been very limited in their capabilities because writing anything other than simple pattern-response type systems is really, really hard.  A well written bot is a  limited form of expert system.  Actually capturing knowledge in expert systems (as the CYC project showed) — is really hard and ultimately incredibly brittle. There are just so many edge cases in any body of knowledge and the bigger the rule set the slower the system. Although, there have been some really interesting attempts at making chatbots more user friendly – One of the most common uses a system called A.L.I.C.E. which is bot development environment written in AIML (the AI Markup Language). It’s at the root of many of the chat-bots used in e-commerce systems today, but it turns out attempts at having a natural language conversation with a scripted system gets tedious (for the humans) very very quickly.

So, what’s the deal? Why ‘bots?  Why text? Why now?  In a nutshell,  practically infinite storage and almost free processing power has made deep learning cost-effective to deploy. That ability to throw almost infinite computing resources at a problem has finally allowed analysis of both background data (think: inventories, traffic data, stocks, airline flight availability, restaurant reviews, and weather just to name a few) and user activity data (think: every single thing you do on-line and every non-cash transaction you ever do…) and turn into something brand new: Deep learning ecosystems.

Once you have the ability to create effective infinitely deep, self-organizing pools of deeply searchable info, you no longer have the structural limitations of previous agent systems … and with the computing power available you also have the ability to personalize all of this in real-time.

Add this to impressive advances in natural language processing and we have the ability to deliver just-in-time utilities that deliver information/services inside the flow of other interactions like chat/messaging that feel a lot more like you’re talking to another human. This is why these bots are being delivered inside the context of existing messaging systems like WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook’s Messenger. It’s a nice constrained environment where the humans already converse with each other in short, targeted interactions.

Sounds great; so, what’s the catch?

Well, like most things on the internet – the catch is that these are products of companies whose sole interest is in making a profit. The cynical-but-true assertion that “when the product is free, the product is you” has been a staple of life on the Internet for a long time.  Facebook is free because they sell ads based on your personal relationships and things you say to your friends/contacts.  Google is free because they sell ads based on your search history, and even the contents of your email if you’re a Gmail user.  The list is endless. As long as you understand and agree to this tradeoff – and you are cognizant of the risks to your personal transactional information – life is, if not “good,” pretty darned convenient, and we’re willing to live with the trade-off even if it’s unsettling if we think abut it too hard.

However, Chatbots as they go from the simple service oriented Q&A (e.g., “Siri, what’s the weather in San Francisco today?” or “”Echo, buy me some more paper towels and 4 boxes of mallowmars!”) to the deeply conversational the dynamic gets a lot more interesting…    Suddenly we’re living inside the storylines of SciFi film AI  like HerAI: The Artificial Intelligence and Ex Machina.

The upside is ‘whoah! …way cool tech, maaaan! We’re living in the future!’ The downside is the lack of ownership of your relationship with these things.  You are again being mined for your value as a consumer.  In other words: Web4.0 is “Product: You” but with AI that can out-predict you and, in fact, out-think you.  Oh, and there will be hundreds of companies buying and selling info about you and your family as you interact with these things to reinforce more and better models to do this.

Now, of course the ‘bots envisioned by Facebook and others are the first generation of deep-learning powered marketing proxies – it’s a way to have always-on order-takers and learn more and more about customer tastes/preferences (and a way to not pay actual humans, by the way… just saying’…).  There will probably be lots of missteps and annoyances as really badly written bots annoy the hell out of people for the first year or so.

But as these things get smarter, the big question no one is yet addressing is: “What happens when these agents get really personal?” What happens when people start to confide in these bots, even inadvertently?  What if you tell a bot you’re really depressed? What if tell a bot you find your co-worker attractive? What if these corporate AIs infer this (and more) from long term analysis of your conversations and interactions? Will they sell you out to a)drug companies, b) Google/Facebook/Tinder/Match, c) the HR department, d) The Man or e) All of the Above …?   It sort of begs the question: who is looking out for you?

Wanted: My Majordomo

Even if these 1st gen bots operate flawlessly, there will still be a need for a bot (or any army of bots) that are owned by individuals and whose sole job is to run interference for real people.  In effect to dis-intermediate the marketing bot-army and act solely for, and in the interest of individuals.  These bots may also act as intelligent gatekeepers to content and even sentinels for things like firewalls and privacy systems to keep out intruders (think: black-hat hackers, businesses and — yes — even governments) out of your stuff.

What form will this take? I am pretty sure its first incarnation will be a stand-alone appliance (I am working on one). Its next generation may well be a bonded service that comes with service level agreements (SLAs) and has the ability to adapt as corporate bots get smarter and more crafty in their attempts to get to the users these “majordomo bots” protect.

These things will happen… the only questions are: Will you get to control the use of your online data?  Or,will big businesses use their clout to try to stop you from maintaining your rights as an individual and reduce you to just some kind of online making target..?

In retrospect, I could have titled this post “Chatbots – Threat or Menace?”  I could have — but we’re not there yet.  This technology is new and it’s not clear where it’s going yet.  And as a developer of these technologies myself I am not really as down on all this as this coda might seem… but given the never ending quest for new markets and more profits, it’s a fair question and a debate that needs to happen.

We all (I do it too) get wowed very easily by shiny new technology.  It’s cool stuff.  Chat bots connected to these deep learning system represent a huge potential new leap in what we can do with our technology, a lot of it really good; but with any new leap we need to be proactive on the side of managing downside risks.. and not just for businesses but for ourselves.

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The Future is Bespoke


bespoke |bəˈspōkpast of bespeakadjective [ attrib. ] chiefly British (of goods, especially clothing) made to order: a bespoke suit.• (of a trader) creating made-to-order goods: bespoke tailors.

We’re in a really interesting inflection point again in technology.  Despite what you may have read, it’s not all about chat-bots being subverted by Internet trolls, or the not-good-for-anyone-really so-called “gig economy,” or even the flameout of a lot of the yummy (but overpriced) grub-on-demand startups… it’s about the reappearance of actual bespoke manufacturing and how that may well fundamentally accelerate business/product development cycles and the creation of new businesses.

TechCrunch has a really interesting piece today on micro-manufacturing – which is the idea that instead of huge manufacturing plants serving hundreds of clients – that a more efficient route for many businesses will be local, small batch facilities.  TechCrunch posits the idea that the time of off-shored, mass production and of trying to manage global supply chains, remote production lines (esp. in China), etc is  coming to an end and that we’re seeing an across the board local manufacturing renaissance.

They give a number of reasons for this, but the big take-aways are IP theft (again, mostly in China), management burnout and the availability of tools to do short run production that don’t require multi-million dollar plants yet that still give companies fast-turn production capabilities with agility that even Asian contract manufacturers can’t approach.

This is truly revolutionary if it can be harnessed… (spoiler alert – it can) but before we get into that, how did we get from a position where no one in their right mind would on-shore manufacturing – especially electronics – to the idea that there’s money to be made in doing it local and doing it small?

Thank Your Local Hipster

No, seriously. Hopefully you haven’t sprayed your artisanal coffee all over your laptop. Despite their haughty, fixie-riding, pumpkin-scone-eating, overly-precious attitudes and pretentiousness… hipsters really did set the stage for an artisan renaissance that is going to reach out and shake the manufacturing economy up in a fundamental way.

All snark the expense of hipsters aside, so what are we really talking about here?  High-value local design and manufacturing.

In a nutshell, if you’ve ever seen Bladerunner, you probably remember the scene when Leon and Roy pay a visit to Hannibal Chew — who is a specialist in custom artificial eyes that are put into replicants.  Chew makes superhuman eyes and sells them to the Tyrell Corp.  Other specialists make artificial animals, from Owls to snakes. The point here isn’t Bladerunner in particular it’s the super-specialization in the high-value creation of things that need to be delivered just in time and are not amenable to large volume production. (Yeah. Bladerunner is a pretty dark example to use… but it’s on point and pretty unforgettable.)

Okaaaay…. so…how did we get here? Where is this going, exactly?

Well, back in 2006 a little Internet book seller launched a product that fundamentally changed the dynamics of service creation on the Internet and in effect launched the Web2.0 era. That company was, of course, Amazon, and the product they launched was Amazon Web Services (AWS). With AWS, what used to be a commitment of ~$100,000/year or more in instantly obsoleted hardware, co-lo fees for cramped racks and obscenely high bandwidth charges turned into a few hundred per month to launch a product serving millions. The cost of trying out an idea was reduced to a few weeks/weekends of coding time and a credit card.  Best of all if your idea failed you shut it all down and tried something else:  No fund-raising, no VC pitches, no ISP contracts, no hardware fire-sales and contract kill-fees at your data center. Conversely, if things went well, scaling up was as easy as adding more virtual servers – seems pretty obvious now, 10 years on, but in 2006 it was the stuff of SciFi made real.

2006 to 2010 saw thousands of new online services, but it also saw some other pivotal events: release of the Arduino, the birth of the Maker Movement (and the first MakerFaire), and the realization that if you wanted to make something cool, something unique …even, dare I used the term —  something artisanal, there might well be a micro-niche you could fill.  Maybe even a nascent paying market you could capitalize on.  And, you could — without having to try and compete in the hotter-than-the-sun App marketplace — be all indie, and cool, and well.. a smug, aloof, cooler-than-thou Hipster. (…see! It did come back around…)  .

The ability of people to tap their inner self-idealized artisan has powered the post web2.0 DIY movement.  It started in tech but quickly branched out to the kinds of things people have always done – from traditional crafted goods like sweaters and socks to artisanal coffees, custom bikes, art, t-shirts, … the works.  And by the 2010’s there were lots of your fellow hipsters who were clamoring for the most cool, the most artisanal of whatever what the “it” thing of the moment.

Don’t believe me? Go look at Etsty – they saw an artisanal marketplace being totally ignored by eBay (in ~2006 eBay was all about selling your old junk) and made a market place for arts and crafts.

I don’t need to recount the whole history of the maker movement and all its innovations and its democratization of previously inaccessible technologies like computer-controlled milling machines (commonly called “CNCs”), vacuum formers for making molds and formed plastics, to plasma-cutters and the like. These are tools that can be found in many local TechSpaces around the country, but the availability of all these goodies lead directly to the development of crowd funded services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo that saw a need to help all these makers to reach wider audiences by building actual businesses.  Suddenly people could make cool tech in their basements, seed a market, build a brand, and completely bypass traditional funding sources and go directly to early adopters to help bootstrap their businesses.

Build Local / Ship Global

So.. what does this mean for micro-maufacturing and how is it going to shake up the economy? Maker-spaces/TechShops are a nascent form of local manufacturing systems.  Some maker-spaces allow companies to contract to use their equipment for small run use, but this is a secondary “back-filling” use of such spaces in order to keep expensive rental spaces and expensive leased tools in use as much as possible. It is however incompatible with running a manufacturing business; it doesn’t scale for small manufactures since they need reliable access to be able to fulfill contracts.

However, like most things, these developments take time but the advancement in tooling is well underway. With  everything from CNCs like the OtherMill  and 3D printers (MakerBot, LulzBot and a host of others)  to the creation of small-scale Pick and Place machines like the FirePick Delta we are fast approaching a point where small-scale manufacturing will be cheap to create and very highly profitable to operate.

These people are the “arms-merchants” to this new economy. They are priming the pump for the very companies that TechCrunch references as trying to find something better: a new way to realize their products without worrying about having their IP stolen before their products even get to market, without having to have an outpost in Shenzhen, or becoming best friends with every TSA and border guard across 15 timezones. However, the logistics infrastructure that enabled the globalization of large form manufacturing is also the friend of the vanguard of the new micro-manufacturing movement.

For a great example of the kind of companies this movement is creating, look at AdaFruit. They make use of this global logistics capabilities to get millions of parts to people around the world to the tune of a reported $40MM per year. They’re another arms merchant – but to DIY Makers and designers. AdaFruit sells amazing little modules that implement everything from simple connector assemblies to whole micro controllers that can be used to prototype new devices (look at the article previous to this one – I use many of their controller modules in my IoT projects) or even as the building blocks of complete systems used in shipping projects.  And they do this in NYC where electronics manufacturing hasn’t exactly been a staple of the economy since the death of Radio Row in the 1960s.

So how do we get there?  Like most things, it’s going to take a few bold experimenters to start with what they can get – often a combination of last-gen, used, after market equipment – along with some of the current leading edge of available small maker gear like the OtherMill .. and probably some home-grown ingenuity to fill in whatever gaps remain.  It will be cool to watch this develop – the barriers to entry to small, local profitable manufacturing are falling.  Tomorrow it’ll be fast-turn circuit boards …. next up, those designer eyeballs.

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Build it and They Will Notice..

MakerSpace-Hubs-749x400Oh, cool, the kind folks over at AdaFruit took notice of my little IoT side projects and posted a nice little summary on the AdaFruit Blog.

(I didn’t even know about it but was browsing their blog and saw the cover shot on their main blog page – my first thought was “Oh, neat – someone had the same idea I did about how to connect multiple wings to a Feather board” … then I realized I was looking at a shot that included my own hand in the picture. duh 🙂 )

More (a lot more) on this project in coming posts….

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Swift on Android as a “1st Class Language?”


According to NextWeb, Google has blessed Apple’s Swift  (which is now open source) as a first class language for Android development. (wait.. wut?!?)

Seems odd given the lack of love between Apple and The Goog these daze.. but I can give you 8 billion and three reasons that this is a brilliant, money saving and possibly strategic move for Google.

Then first 8 billion reasons are measured in dollars — US$8B is, IIRC, the amount that Oracle is claiming in “damages” from Google for their “illegal” use of Java APIs to power its Java clone Dalvik which is the heart of Android development.  Let’s not get into the fact that APIs shouldn’t be copyrightable since they represent merely an interface rather than actual functionality. Imagine if manufacturers could copyright doors styles, the number of lug nut holes and positions on tires, and any other kind of common specifications that allow for the interoperability of every day objects. Nothing would work.  This is a poor use of Oracle’s vast resources. They need to start creating new products and innovating.  (Note: innovation is cheaper than litigation. Seriously. )

The last 3 reasons adopting swift is a great move for Google are around simple practicality:

  • Let’s be frank: Everyone (eventually) loathes Java.  Java used to be a lot of fun to write… well back in 1997. It’s become the COBOL of development languages.  Everything is so. freaking. heavy.  Oy. Vey. Its also buggy as all hell. Daily root canal is more fun prospect.
  • The world, for better or worse is moving towards very strongly typed functional languages. Java is a strongly typed language… but it’s not a functional one.. and if you try to use it as such you’re twisting yourself in knots for no great effect.  Oh, and you’re still writing in Java.  Also Swift has a benefit of looking a lot like Javascript — which makes it easier for a vast number of web developers (no picking on WebDevs – it’s not 2001 anymore, ok?) a large number of whom have never thought to touch a compiled language like Java or ObjC less reluctant to give it a try.  All wins — both for Apple and Google.
  • Apple has the greatest mind-share of any mobile platform.  There may be 3-4x as many actual Android phones out there, but 98 cents of every mobile dollar is spent on Apple platforms …iOS as a platform is just a lot easier to write for – as long as you follow the rules on how to adopt size classes, you don’t much care what device the end-user has.  Google probably rightly is betting that if they make it easier to switch than fight (to flip the script on an the old Tarrytown cigarette ad) iOS developers might be more willing to port their apps if they’re not already on a cross platform dev environment like Unity if they can literally reuse the huge majority of their existing code.

Will Google eventually drop Java for Android?  I dunno’ … but given Apple’s open sourcing of Swift — and their amazingly aggressive inclusion and adoption of outside fixes and languages enhancements —  there’s suddenly a lot more reasons for people who formerly thought of Swift as an Apple-only ‘ghetto’ who are now going to get their feet wet and see what the hoopla is about.

(Personally I come at it from the other side — I’ve been a developer on Apple platforms for decades — from 6502 assembler + Integer Basic, to 68K Assembly/Pascal/ObjPascal/MacApp/etc, to ObjC and now Swift —  and now that Swift is available on Linux I am champing at the bit to not have to write in JavaScript or Python for my server-side stuff ever, ever again. My only problem will be patience. It’s really not ready for production. …yet.)

Blahhhging. Again.

Wow… it’s been a long time since anything has been written here.  Pardon the mess while I clean up this thing and get it ship-shape.   Lots of new things to talk about… and some interesting projects to share/document.

Stay tuned.