What Ray Kurzweil Is Doing at Google

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1. What Ray Kurzweil is doing at Google: teaching computers to read.

"So IBM's Watson is a pretty weak reader on each page, but it read the 200m pages of Wikipedia. And basically what I'm doing at Google is to try to go beyond what Watson could do. To do it at Google scale. Which is to say to have the computer read tens of billions of pages. Watson doesn't understand the implications of what it's reading. It's doing a sort of pattern matching. It doesn't understand that if John sold his red Volvo to Mary that involves a transaction or possession and ownership being transferred. It doesn't understand that kind of information and so we are going to actually encode that, really try to teach it to understand the meaning of what these documents are saying."


2. An ingestible sensor system that can detect if TB patients have taken their medicine.

"The system consists of a 1.0 mm×1.0 mm ingestible sensor and an on-body wearable sensor. The ingestible sensors are activated by gastric fluids, independent of the acidity level, and communicate unique identifying signatures to the body surface. The system uses a conductive method of communication and not radio-frequency which ensures the information is confined to the body of the user, thus preserving privacy. The on-body sensor counts the number of times each unique signature is received. For this study, the ingestible sensors were attached to inert tablets and co-ingested with the TB medications. The system recorded the date and time of an ingestion event after a unique signature was received ≥10 times. The ingestible sensors are designed to communicate for approximately 7 minutes after which they are inactive and get eliminated in the feces. The system is capable of identifying and differentiating among multiple simultaneously ingested sensors."


3. How hard is it to avoid having your pregnancy detected by data companies? Very, very hard. (Oh, and the algorithms begin to think you're a criminal.)

"First, Vertesi made sure there were absolutely no mentions of her pregnancy on social media, which is one of the biggest ways marketers collect information. She called and emailed family directly to tell them the good news, while also asking them not to put anything on Facebook. She even unfriended her uncle after he sent a congratulatory Facebook message. She also made sure to only use cash when buying anything related to her pregnancy, so no information could be shared through her credit cards or store-loyalty cards. For items she did want to buy online, Vertesi created an Amazon account linked to an email address on a personal server, had all packages delivered to a local locker and made sure only to use Amazon gift cards she bought with cash."


4. The hypothetical neuroanatomy of the humans in China Miéville's The City and The City.

"In China Miéville’s The City & The City, citizens of the grosstopically overlapping cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are taught from birth to 'unsee' the architecture, people, events, and surroundings of the other city. Despite the terminology, unseeing is not just limited to the sense of vision, but to all other senses as well, and as such citizens must also 'unhear' and 'unsmell' stimuli from the other city... Specifically, I will cite evidence from the brain lesion literature that shows that damage to specific brain regions affects the ability to attend to, remember, or be aware of certain stimuli, as well as brain imaging studies on attentional 'blinks' and the role of ongoing brain activity in awareness, perception, and memory."


5. The plan to brighten the moon.

"Somewhere between tongue-in-cheek pranksterism and an elaborate design fiction proposal, the so-called FOREO Institute—connected to FOREO, the beauty products firm—has a plan for "transforming the surface of the moon." Just make that thing brighter! Think of the effect this might have on the cosmetics industry, what with all the weird new ways light will bounce off people's skin. But it's not about selling new lines of make-up; no, it's about saving the world billions of dollars in electric bills."


Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip:

begging the question. Founding a conclusion on a basis that needs to be proved as much as the conclusion itself: Fox hunting is not cruel since the fox enjoys the fun.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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