Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Web Secret 548: the free energy principle

Karl Friston is the foremost neuroscientist in the world and on a short list to eventually win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He has published more than 1,000 academic papers since the turn of the millennium.

I had never heard of him until I read an article in the December 2019 Wired Magazine: The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI. Let me summarize what may be Friston's greatest contribution to human knowledge.

It's called the free energy principle and it aims to explain how the human brain works.

Friston believes that the best way to think of the brain is as a probability machine. The idea is that brains compute and perceive in a probabilistic manner, constantly making predictions and adjusting beliefs based on what the senses contribute. The brain is an “inference engine” that seeks to minimize “prediction error.”

In seeking to predict what the next wave of sensations is going to tell it—and the next, and the next—the brain is constantly making inferences and updating its beliefs based on what the senses relay back, and trying to minimize prediction-signal errors.

Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.

A single-celled organism has the same imperative to reduce surprise that a brain does. According to Friston, any biological system that resists a tendency to disorder and dissolution will adhere to the free energy principle—whether it’s a protozoan or a pro basketball team.

When the brain makes a prediction that isn’t immediately borne out by what the senses relay back, it can minimize free energy in one of two ways: It can revise its prediction—absorb the surprise, concede the error, update its model of the world—or it can act to make the prediction true.

If I infer that I am touching my nose with my left index finger, but my proprioceptors tell me my arm is hanging at my side, I can minimize my brain’s raging prediction-error signals by raising that arm up and pressing a digit to the middle of my face.

Why should you care?

The free energy principle is also a theory of mental illness. When the brain assigns too little or too much weight to evidence pouring in from the senses, trouble occurs. Someone with schizophrenia, for example, may fail to update their model of the world to account for sensory input from the eyes. Where one person might see a friendly neighbor, a schizophrenic might see a demon.

If you think about psychiatric conditions, and indeed most neurological conditions, they are just broken beliefs or false inference—hallucinations and delusions,” Friston says.

So: The free energy principle offers a unifying explanation for how the mind works and a unifying explanation for how the mind malfunctions. It stands to reason, then, that it might also put us on a path toward building a mind from scratch.

And that dear reader, is where I leave you.

Read the article.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Web Secret 547: Do you know why robots are here?

One of my sons works for a startup accelerator.

Accelerators typically help startups find seed investments, connections, and mentorships, as well as teaching them how to pitch their companies, etc. to accelerate growth.

The other day he sent me this 2 minute video link with the rubric: "the fastest growing enterprise software company in history."

Because I am a remarkably unobservant person, I watched it the first time without understanding:

Did you get it?

Watch again: the executives at UiPath are explaining how robotic automation allows them to pursue other challenges. Meanwhile, in the background, their computers are completing tasks at warp speed without their input.

The robots are automating even complex tasks and use machine learning to accelerate these processes even more.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Web Secret 546: A Dark Consensus

About a month ago, the New York Times published an article "A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley."

Essentially, the article is about how technologists in Silicon Valley are struggling to limit the screen time of their children. They believe "the benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high."

I believe this issue is possibly the greatest facing the parents of the under 18 generation.

Here are two practices of the parents in the article:

1. Daughters, ages 5 and 3, have no screen time “budget,” no regular hours they are allowed to be on screens. The only time a screen can be used is during the travel portion of a long car ride or during a plane trip.

2. Children aren't allowed to have cellphones until high school, are banned from phone use in the car and severely limited at home.

Of course the difficulty is that other children may have cell phones and tablets, and it is easy to go over to a friend's house after school and use their devices.

I liked the approach of this technologist:

" phones until the summer before high school, no screens in bedrooms, network-level content blocking, no social media until age 13, no iPads at all and screen time schedules enforced by Google Wifi that he controls from his phone. Bad behavior? The child goes offline for 24 hours."

But the reality is that opinions about best practices limiting screen time are all over the spectrum. Some parents believe that all children should learn to code at an early age. Others don't believe in strict limits arguing they watched TV all the time as a child and still became successful.

There is a dearth of research on the subject, in part due to the lightning speed with which technology evolves. As soon as we establish best practices, we are faced with a new evolution. Watch out when virtual reality is perfected and we can disappear into worlds that have no reality.

In the interim, EAPs have the opportunity to develop lunch and learn programs about how to limit screen time. And individual counselors can develop this expertise to help their clients of all ages.

Many grownups have a problem with screen time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Web Secret 545: Sextortion Scam

In the past couple of months, thousands of people (possibly millions) received the following disturbing email: (Note: email exactly as it is sent, weird grammar and English included.)
"I am aware of one of your passwords: Lets get directly to point. Not a single person has compensated me to investigate about you. You do not know me and you are probably wondering why you're getting this e mail?

actually, I actually installed a software on the adult vids (sex sites) site and you know what, you visited this web site to have fun (you know what I mean). When you were viewing videos, your internet browser initiated working as a Remote control Desktop that has a key logger which provided me access to your display screen and also web cam. Right after that, my software program collected your complete contacts from your Messenger, FB, and email . After that I created a double-screen video. 1st part shows the video you were viewing (you've got a good taste haha . . .), and 2nd part shows the view of your webcam, and its u.

You do have only 2 alternatives. We are going to understand these types of choices in aspects: 1st solution is to disregard this message. In this case, I am going to send your actual video clip to just about all of your contacts and thus you can easily imagine about the disgrace you feel. Not to mention should you be in a relationship, just how it will eventually affect?

Number two choice will be to pay me $3000. We will think of it as a donation. As a consequence, I most certainly will without delay eliminate your videotape. You will keep going on your daily life like this never happened and you will not hear back again from me.

You'll make the payment through Bitcoin (if you do not know this, search for "how to buy bitcoin" in Google)."
When I first heard about this scam, I read dozens of articles explaining it and offering suggestions on how to handle it. The best of these was "Sextortion Scam: What to Do If You Get the Latest Phishing Spam Demanding Bitcoin."

Here are the recommendations:

1. Do not pay the ransom.

2. Don’t panic. Contrary to the claims in your email, you haven't been hacked (or at least. This is merely a new variation on an old scam which is popularly being called "sextortion." This is a type of online phishing that is targeting people around the world and preying off digital-age fears.

3. What makes the email especially alarming is that, to prove their authenticity, they begin the emails showing you a password you once used or currently use.

Again, this still doesn't mean you've been hacked. The scammers in this case likely matched up a database of emails and stolen passwords and sent this scam out to potentially millions of people, hoping that enough of them would be worried enough and pay out that the scam would become profitable. Think Facebook hack or any of the dozens of major hacks you have heard about before.

4. If the password emailed to you is one that you still use, in any context whatsoever, STOP USING IT and change it NOW! And regardless of whether or not you still use that password it's always a good idea to use a password manager.

5. And of course, you should always change your password when you’re alerted that your information has been leaked in a breach. You can also use a service like Have I Been Pwned to check whether you have been part of one of the more well-known password dumps. (Note: every single one of my email accounts was compromised in one or more data breaches - often from sites I had never heard of.)

6. Do not ever respond to this type of scam. If possible, don't even open the email.

7. Moving forward, enable two-factor authentication whenever that is an option on your online accounts. Yes, I know this is a pain in the neck.

8. One other thing to do to protect yourself is apply a cover over your computer’s camera. A small strip of electrical tape will do.

You've been warned.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Web Secret 544: Sash Bag

Sometimes a company uses social media and email so brilliantly, I drop to my knees in awe. And I am compelled to share their story so you can learn from it.

I am talking about you, Sash Bag.

Sash Bag started off as a very small company on Kickstarter in 2016. In fact, they were looking for a mere $29,000.

Ultimately, they raised $81,737 from 738 backers. Still pretty much small potatoes.

So how in the world did they raise $1,019,486 from 4,914 backers on Kickstarter just two years later!?

No, they didn't go on Shark Tank.

And yes, they do have a great product. And provide outstanding customer service.

But their success is the result of so much more.

They made inspired use of Facebook and communication to their backers.

As they raised more and more money, they shared their success and offered more and more perks to their crowdfunders. As it appeared that they were going to hit $1,000,000 - they promised to throw a party for everyone who had invested - if they broke the million dollar mark.

They created a sense of community among the users of their product and they were completely transparent and inclusive about the process by which they source and create their bags. For example, they made videos of the factories in India where they source their Ikat fabric.

They shared the joy of their success and their gratitude to the Sash Sisterhood - women (and even a couple of men) - from every walk of life and all over the world.

Oh, and that Million Dollar Sash Bash is taking place February 23rd, 2019.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Web Secret 543: Gapminder

Gapminder is a non-profit venture that promotes sustainable global development and achievement by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels.

Boring, you say?

Think you know basic facts about the people who inhabit the world?

No and no.

First, take the Gapminder Test, 13 questions, 45 seconds per question. If you pass the test, you are qualified to become a Gapminder and you will be honored with the Gapminder Facts Certificate 2018.

The questions include:

In the last 20 years the proportion of people living in extreme poverty worldwide, has...? followed by 3 multiple choice options


How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years? followed by 3 multiple choice options.

I scored a 35%.


The Gapminder folks imagined the world as a street. All the houses are lined up by income, the poor living to the left and the rich to the right. Everybody else somewhere in between. Where would you live? Would your life look different than your neighbors’ from other parts of the world, who share the same income level?

It is all visual - they visited 264 families in 50 countries and collected 30,000 photos.

Start here.

Be amazed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Web Secret 542: AskWonder

Many years ago, my brother founded and was the CEO of a company called FIND.

This was pre-Internet.

Companies paid FIND a yearly retainer in exchange for the ability to ask questions - any question under the sun.

Of course most of the questions were business oriented:
  • What is the market for bubble gum in Argentina?
  • How does the Palomar Observatory clean its telescope?
  • What is the best restaurant in Singapore to entertain a business client?
In 2018, the majority of these questions could be answered in seconds, if not minutes, by simply typing a query into Google. Or even asking Alexa.

But for most of FIND's existence, these questions were answered by looking up information in books, staring at a microfiche on a scanner, or calling people on the phone.

I first worked for FIND as a 16 year old intern. My days were spent traveling to libraries around Manhattan with a heavy bag of nickels, finding reference materials, and then making photocopies of articles in books, for hours at a time. It was extremely tedious.

Later, as a 21 year old, I researched the answers to questions, poring through encyclopedias, calling subject experts around the world, and sending interns on missions to dig up information.

This hands on education requiring me to profoundly understand the primary sources behind information has made me the ace researcher that I am today. I can literally fly through the web to locate the answers to questions. I worry about the young people who don't viscerally understand where information comes from and are thus more likely to be fooled by fake news and other forms of Internet disinformation.

FIND later merged with Guideline, Inc, was acquired in 2007 by Infogroup, and then merged with Opinion Research Corporation, eventually becoming defunct.

Today a new company has taken up up the mantle left by FIND. promises to answer any question in 24 hours or less. They use the Internet, algorithms and thousands of researchers scattered around the globe to provide their services.

Good ideas get reinvented.