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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Future of Artificial Intelligence: Optimistic or Ominous?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 11, 2014

If computers become smarter than we are, will they just keep us as pets or is civilization doomed? And if artificial intelligence fully surpasses ours, will that change what it means to be human?

Kurt Andersen's Vanity Fair article "Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence" probes these questions. He starts by asking Siri, the artificial intelligence (AI) app on his iPhone "What is the Singularity? Siri replies, "A technological singularity is a predicted point in the development of a civilization at which technological progress accelerates beyond the ability of present day humans to fully comprehend or predict." Some futurists predict Singularity by 2050. Some brilliant scientists and scholars differ on what that might mean, and possibilities are being explored in popular films.

In the movie "Transcendence," Johnny Depp stars as an AI genius trying to create an omniscient machine that also has a full range of human emotion. Terrorist Luddites poison Depp's character, but his consciousness is uploaded to the cloud leading survivors to wonder whether the disembodied intelligence is really him. The Spike Jonze movie "Her," set in the not too distant future, explores human-machine interaction as a man falls in love with an artificially female and surprisingly fickle computer operating system. Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who founded computer science in the 1930s, is also the subject of a recent movie. "The Imitation Game" is based on Turing's life, his work cracking the Nazis' Engima code, and his fascination with AI. The title is based on Turing's proposal for a test that would provide proof of when computers can pass as humans.

Andersen interviews Ray Kurzweil, who in 2005 wrote The Singularity Is Near, and who is Google's director of engineering, leading a research team trying to create software that would communicate in a fully human way. Kurzweil is also the co-founder, with Peter Diamandis, of Singularity University based at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley and funded by what Andersen calls a "digital-industrial-complex pantheon: Cisco, Genetech, Nokia, GE, Google." Diamandis is an Ivy League educated entrepreneur whose book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, lays out a utopian future in which technology makes a healthy environment and social harmony possible.

Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer who now works at Microsoft Research, told Andersen he thinks machines might become convincingly human some time before the end of this century. Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wrote in the MIT Technology Review that "The Singularity Isn't Near." Kurzweil disagreed in response. In an interview with Anderson, Allen says neuroscience research shows many complexities of the human brain are still mysterious and the scale and scope of the "known unknowns" remain vast, so he doubts human-capable AI will happen soon. He says the deeper we look into natural systems the more we have to expand our knowledge and theories to characterize their detailed operations, and he calls that the complexity break.

Some scientists worry about technological superiority. Jaan Tallinn, who helped create Kazaa and co-founded Skype, thinks technology may not benefit us if we lose control of its development. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors and founder the space travel company Space X, calls AI "our biggest existential threat." 

Lanier's most recent book, Who Owns the Future, is about politics, power, economics and jobs. He's not afraid smart machines will enslave us. He told Andersen he's worried that machine owners-digital big business-will use technology to impoverish and disempower the middle and working classes. Andersen writes that in Lanier's skeptical view, today's big data and mass market AI "amount to a stupendous con." The crowd sourced digital powerhouses, like Google, YouTube and Facebook, Lanier asserts, "are Tom Sawyer, and we're whitewashing their fences for free because they've bedazzled and tricked us into thinking its fun." Read the provocative Vanity Fair article, with thoughtful interviews and commentary, here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  science  technology 

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Intuition and Technology: Out of Sync

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 27, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 26, 2014

BMW engineers were so successful in creating a silent automotive interior that customers complained. They missed engine roar and road noise. So BMW spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop an audio algorithm to generate engine noises to be played through the car's stereo system. BMW claimed its system accurately replicated engine sounds over the full range of RPMs, operating conditions and speed.


David Pizarro, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell, cites BMW's expensive reversal of its initial engineering achievement as an example of what happens when our intuition and our technology are out of sync. In fact, Pizarro argues that our social and moral intuitions increasingly fail us as we are confronted with fast-paced changes in science and technological innovation. In a lecture at, Pizarro describes how subjects in an experiment on trustworthiness quickly engaged with a robot called Nexi that had very limited facial features and movements and visible wires. The robot, with its unmistakable mechanical appearance, had been programmed with nonverbal cues experimentally associated with trustworthiness.


"Within 30 seconds people were actually talking to Nexi as though she were a human being, in fact saying things that were quite private," Pizarro said. He added that some participants even thought Nexi was a technologically advanced talking robot, "when in reality there was a graduate student behind the curtain, so to speak." Pizarro quoted early psychological research indicating our social intuitions build in intentionality and agency, even when they're not there. During a discussion after the lecture, economist Sendhil Mullainathan, recalled stories in Everett Rogers' book Diffusion of Innovation, describing how people adopt new technologies in ways that are congruent with older intuitions. When Indian farmers started using tractors, for example, they went to the tractor every night and put a blanket over it.


We want to kick the vending machine that doesn't deliver the candy bar and bellow at the computer when Windows delivers the blue screen of death. We feel bad if a computer game stops playing with us. When we get those pop-up ads based on an earlier purchase or search, we get a creepy feeling that someone has been watching us and reading our email. And that's even when we know about algorithms that generate personalized ads.


"We don't have intuitions for algorithms," Pizarro said. "As technology advances, there is no way in which we can rapidly generate new intuitions. So...when we hear about self-driving cars, we get nervous, even though we're certain that percentage-wise this would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It just doesn't feel right." Pizarro fears some new technologies may be stifled by old intuitions that have evolved from earlier eras. We could end up making erroneous moral judgments about technological advances with the potential to cure diseases and improve lives. By the way, a Car and Driver story by K.W. Colwell explains BMW is not the only auto manufacturer to pipe fake sounds to the drivers.


Pizarro believes we have yet to define what constitutes an error in judgment in many areas of emerging technology. For instance, he asks, does the impersonal nature of drones and robots in war constitute an immoral action? Is the problem the lack of human agency? How does one figure out acts of omission vs. acts of commission when technical tools are involved?


What about genetically modified humans? The New York Times reports that with mitrochondrial manipulation technology, the nuclear material can be removed from an egg or an embryo of a woman who has an inheritable mitrochondrial disease and inserted into the healthy egg or embryo of a donor whose own nuclear material has been discarded. The resulting child would have the genetic material of three people. The federal Food and Drug Administration is considering the issue.  

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  technology 

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Making “Best” Even Better

Posted By Jeff Cohn, Thursday, June 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 19, 2014

The dictionary defines bestas "of the highest quality, excellence, or standing.” From this comes best practices, which Wikipedia defines as "a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means.” The definition continues, "a ‘best’ practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered.” What happens to our drive for improvement when we hear a practice being referred to as best? I think there is a natural tendency to think only about the first part of the definition and assume that our work is done. Couple that withthe fact that many things referred to as best practices are developed elsewhere and "shared” with us for us to "adopt.” Often these decisions are made near or at the top of our organizational hierarchies, and the challenge becomes one of implementation: "do what worked for them and it should solve our problems too.”

I met a colleague this week that arrived at her current healthcare role via a pathway that brought her to Silicon Valley. She has been struck by the tendency for healthcare workers to look to their "superiors” for permission prior to trying something new. She stated that things were quite different in the IT world. People, recognizing situations in which improvements were needed, took the initiative to try to make changes and then inform their bosses about the results of those experiments. There was a culture of ongoing improvement that included and, in fact, relied on the idea that for many of our problems, we’re going to have to discover solutions that work for us.

I believe that our organizations and communities need a learning approach to improvement. We may learn that someone else’s best practice is exactly what we need, and then enthusiastically go about implementing it. We may find that we can improve that practice as "improvements are discovered” that the originators hadn’t found. Maybe those improvements are intimately intertwined in the relationships, processes, and culture of our particular organization/community. In that case the improvement works for us and won’t work for others. For this reason we may learn that what was a best practice for someone else actually isn’t useful for us, because the "superior results” were intimately intertwined with someone else’s relationships/processes/culture and are not transferable to ours. We may actually discover that there already exist superior results that work for us- our internal best practices, our positive deviants, whose practices our organization/community will embrace once they are able to discover them from their peers. And, finally, we may find that we have to create our own solutions through an iterative process of innovation, experimentation, and continuous learning.

There is a clear link with all of this and how leadership occurs. A focus on imported best practices is consistent with a traditional hierarchical leadership model, as "solutions” flow down into the organization from above, leaders providing both the vision of what needs to happen and how to do it. The learning approach requires what Plexus Institute Board member Mary Uhl-Bien, PhD calls complexity leadership. Formal leaders create the conditions for the emergent learning necessary so that those who own the work can make decisions most useful for them. They provide a general vision and acknowledge there is no clear path for getting there, enabling and supporting the multiple possible "hows” that may work in local contexts. For me, organizations embracing this approach to improvement have the potential to go beyond best practices and become truly best.

Tags:  catching butterflies  cohn  community  leadership  organizations  technology 

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Love, Money and Soul Mates Online

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love, in its many varieties, is big business, and it’s not just the flowers, candy and jewelry that sell well on Valentine’s Day.

Meeting and mating go on all year. Money can’t buy love, but it can buy a chance to meet potential lovers and spouses. About 30 million people--that’s 10 percent of the U.S. population--visit dating sites on a monthly basis, according to Nielsen, the market research firm. A Wall Street Journal Market Watch story by Quentin Fottrell reports that the internet dating industry is now worth about $1.2 billion, a 4 percent increase from a year ago. Fees have risen along with increased use and popularity., which charged $9.95 a month when it opened in 1995, now charges $36 a month. EHarmony, launched in 2000, now charges $60 a month.

Not too long ago, the story notes, couples who met online didn’t mention that at their weddings. Now online dating is main stream, and the fastest growing segment of online daters is baby boomers---people over 50 years old who are more likely than younger people to be widowed or divorced. The AARP started a dating site for seniors in January.

Online dating services offer opportunities to meet just about every sort of partner. There are sites where singles can seek other single Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, artists and environmentalists. There are dating sites targeted toward athletes, farmers, and amputees. There are even sites for very vain hotties. is a sight people can only use if members considered them gorgeous enough to be voted in. Many tout algorithms they say will match potential partners according to interest, intelligence, values, beliefs and any number of personality traits.

There are also coaches to meet specialized romantic needs. A Wall Street Journal piece by JoPiazza describes widows and divorcees deciding to date after long term marriages. Flirting doesn’t always come naturally to those who haven’t done it in decades. And some needs are complex, such as coaching needed by formerly Hasidic men and women who are just entering the dating pool.

A market research company reports that more than half of American online daters lie on their profiles, according to Fottrell’s story. While most paid sites try to weed out sexual predators and scam artists, there are few ways to detect the small lies people tell to burnish their imaged or cover flaws. Some deceptions go beyond shaving off a couple years and a few pounds. caters to married customers looking to cheat on their spouses. The site's motto is "Life is short. Have an Affair” and it boasts 17,850,000 members seeking extramarital adventure. AshleyMadison CEO Noel Biderman told ChicagoNow that many singles sites are overrun with married men who lie about their status and that monogamy is obsolete anyway.

Reuben J. Thomas, assistant professor of sociology at the City College of New York, told a writer for that internet dating is successful because "with technology eroding the face-to-face social scene, it's rare for people to accidentally meet in real life anymore.” Even kids know love can be outsourced. When students in an eighth grade class in New Jersey were asked to write an essay describing how the internet would make their lives different from the lives of their parents, one wrote, "You can get a new husband or wife online. Our parents had to go to bars for that.” The comment  wasn’t unusual.


Happy Valentine’s Day! Jorge Parada, medical director of the infectious disease unit at Loyola University Health System, told The "Mid-February is usually the peak season for infectious diseases, such as the seasonal and H1N1 flu, mononucleosis, colds, and coughs." So instead of kissing, sharing dessert, or cuddling by the fire, he suggests the best valentine is getting and giving the gift of a flu shot. He insists that really says "I love you.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  networks  technology 

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Some Computer Games Can Save Lives

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 31, 2013

Humans enjoy competitive play, and scientists are designing computer games to engage that desire and tap talent for solving complex research problems.

The game Phylo is an online pattern matching puzzle game that will give researchers a better understanding of genetic codes, and may help identify the origins of genetic diseases. "Games for Science," a story by Dan Cossins in The Scientist Magazine, explains that multiple sequence alignment (MSA) is used to identify functional elements in the genome and possible disease triggers. Jerome Waldispuhl, a bioinformatician who created the game with , notes the human brain is very good-even better than the best computers-at recognizing and sorting visual patterns and realizing when a general rule is broken.

A Wired story by Mark Brown outlines what players are asked to do. They look at blocks of different colors that represent the different letters of the genetic code A,C,G and T, for adnine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, and they have to line up as many of the same colors as possible, avoiding gaps that represent mutations. Within months of its release in 2010, Phylo had 12,000 registered users and 3,000 regular players. A story in PLoSONE reported that the gamers outdid computers in matching up disease genes. Its creators say Phylo is pure game, and players don't have to be versed in science. Try Phylo yourself here.

The Scientist Magazine says Foldit, created by biologists and computer scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle, was the first and possibly the most influential of the crowd-sourced research games. Players have to work out the three dimensional structures of proteins by folding virtual chains of amino acids. Players are presented with a visually disorganized mass of shapes representing the amino acids in a protein, and they use a cursor to assemble them into a stable structure that uses the lowest amount of energy, just as molecules do in real life. Designers tested players to see whether they could replicate structures of proteins puzzles scientists had already solved-and they did. In 2011,players made a breakthrough. Scientists had been trying for a decade to solve the structure of Mason Pfizer Monkey virus that causes an AIDs-like disease in monkeys. The gamers did it, and not all of them were scientists. Watch Lucy Walker's animated documentary on how a game team solved the challenge.

The Cure is a serious, biology based card game designed to help fight cancer. It's a bit like poker, except that you don't know the rules when you start. As you play the game, you both learn and teach the rules. It's another game that helps identify patterns and determine how they can combine and reproduce. The game is designed by The Scripps Research Institute. Data provided by players may help predict which cancer cells are likely to metastasize and how quickly, and that information could help treat patients diagnosed with cancers.

The Scientist Magazine story, here, tells about other research games as well as games designed to enhance several levels of science learning. Games with animated characters that help children with autism learn social and behavioral skills also are described.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  games  innovation  technology 

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A Community Wellness Laboratory

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lake Nona, a planned community within the city limits of Orlando Florida, is being hailed as a living laboratory for learning how we can be and stay healthy. Planners say a carefully designed Lake Nona Medical City, already anchored by six major institutions, will create a complex of medical practice and research that fosters innovations in disease prevention and new insights into wellness. Fast Company's fastcoexist calls Lake Nona one of the top 13 health stories of 2012.

The community is already home to the Orlando VA Medical center, the University of Central Florida's Health and Sciences Campus, and the Sanford-Burnham Medical research Institute. Thad Seymour, president of the Lake Nona Institute, told Fast Company he expects the community of 7,000 residents will grow to about 50,000 as the "innovation cluster" develops. Lake Nona home sales have been brisk, despite a weak housing market in the state. The Lake Nona Institute, a nonprofit supported by private and corporate donations, governs the community's heath, wellness and technological initiatives. The community is being developed by the Tavistock Group, a private investment company.

At a recent Lake Nona gathering of executives from hospitals, pharmaceutical, insurance and technology companies, and universities and research centers, Seymour told the Orlando Sentinel that "the greatest innovations have happened at the intersection of disciplines" and that "we're hungry to learn from other smart people doing interesting things in other places." The Sentinel story quoted one attendee, Daniel Kraft, MD, a pediatric hematologist and executive director at FutureMed, as saying some years hence a colonoscopy may be performed by swallowing a pill and a hand-held device used at home may determine eyeglass prescriptions.

Johnson & Johnson's Wellness and Prevention, Inc. is working with the Lake Nona Institute to conduct a longitudinal study of health and wellness of people living and working in Lake Nona. The goals include an improved understanding of modifiable risk factors for disease, reduced incidence of chronic disease, reducing participants' RealAge by ten percent, a health model for the rest of the country, and a new data base of health information. The study would examine biomarkers and genetic assessments that predict the likelihood of disease, and online personal health assessments of participants that look at life style impact. Interventions through a variety of local health care settings would be available, potentially offering insights on improved provision of care.

Learn about new world-wide toilet technology, new devices and new apps, and some beyond Star-Wars inventions that protect and improve health in the fastcoexist story about new developments in 2012.

Tags:  apps  buscell  community  complexity matters  health  technology 

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"Crowdsourcing" and Crisis Mapping: Technological Ingenuity Makes it Happen

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, May 29, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
After the disputed election of President Mwai Kibaki in December 2007, violence and looting swept the normally stable country of Kenya, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands. News from conventional sources was temporarily unavailable. In the midst of the chaos, a small group of tech savvy young Africans created a real-time reporting system that has since been used for relief efforts in other crises and natural disasters.

Erik Hersman, a self-described geek and power networker who grew up in Kenya and Sudan, tells the story in a TED interview. In three days time, Hersman, Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan native with a Harvard law degree, and Juliana Rotich developed free software that allowed anyone with a cell phone to report what was happening on the ground to a website where the collective information was available to aid workers and relief agencies. Ushahidi, which means testimony in Swahili, has simplified technology so that any one can use it, and it takes advantage of what Hersman calls the "default device of Africa,” the mobile phone. Some 59 percent of the world’s cell phones were in the developing world, according to a 2006 Washington Post story, making cell phones the first communications technology in history to have more users in the developing world than in industrially developed countries.

Ushahidi uses crowdsourcing to gather information during unfolding crises. Listen to Jeff Howe, one of those who coined the term, for a discussion of crowdsourcing. Ushahidi can collect information from hundreds of people. A web administrator receives the information, and can call back some contributors seeking verification, send out a blast alert to a large number of people, post the information on a web page with location information from Google maps, or do all three. It has been used to help coordinate relief efforts after earthquakes in Peru and China, to monitor Indian elections, and to track swine flu. Ushahidi has received a $200,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation.

A team led by Patrick Meier, a doctoral fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, posted an analysis of crisis mapping during the post election violence in Kenya. The team found that mainstream media reported actual death counts before citizen journalists, but did not report incidents and early warnings that led to the deaths. Citizens reported early violence before main stream media. Ushahidi reports documented important violent events mainstream and citizen journalists missed, and also covered a wider geographical area.

Hersman’s vision is not only to have real time reporting used for humanitarian aid around the world. His team is working on a "crowdsource filter” that he thinks will be able refine and weigh information and allow system administrators to determine the probability of its accuracy. It’s interesting, he observed, that this innovative technology is coming from Africa, from young smart developers in places one wouldn’t expect.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  innovation  technology 

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To Heavenly Litterbugs: Take Out The Trash Or Be Fined for Space Pollution

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Space JunkHow dangerous could a bit of litter the size of a corn kernel be? In outer space, very. A minuscule fleck of paint traveling at orbital speed can smash the windshield of a space satellite. And NASA mathematicians say something as small as a grain of sand can have an impact equivalent to the power of a bowling ball moving at 100 miles per hour.

The volume of space junk orbiting 1,000 kilometers—some 621 miles—above the earth is burgeoning and posing a growing risk to millions of dollars worth of orbiting weather, communications and surveillance satellites from countries all over the world. The stuff includes old rocket boosters, derelict space craft and random pieces of technological equipment.

Mathematical analysis by two Stanford University researchers suggests if space programs around the world were forced to remove their own trash, the increasing chance that a live satellite would be damaged by passing debris would be vastly reduced.

Lawrence Wein, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Management Science at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Andrew Bradley, a doctoral student at Stanford’s Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, say nations should be required to comply with existing rules against space littering and face fines and taxes if they don’t. Their paper, "Space Debris: Assessing Risk and Responsibility,” was recently published in Advances in Space Research.

The danger was highlighted recently when a derelict Russian satellite and a working American commercial communications satellite collided in outer space, sending clouds of speeding debris into orbits 300 to 800 miles above the earth. It was the first such collision, but not the first danger. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station had to take refuge in their escape capsule March 12 as a piece of flying junk whizzed by. NASA officials explained the astronauts did not have time to maneuver out of the way because the small size of the debris—five inches long—and its elliptical orbit made it hard to track.

The Chinese deliberately blew up one of their own satellites a year ago, adding to the junk. A Wall Street Journal video, with narrative noting there may be millions of pieces of man made litter in space, illustrates the magnitude of the unpredictable risk.

A Stanford Graduate School of Business release says NASA has suggested creating space equipment to lasso some of the junk fragments and drag them closer to the earth’s atmosphere, where friction would burn them up. But Wein says there is no cost effective way to do that. He explains that all satellites are supposed to have enough fuel to propel them downward when their life cycle ends, but international compliance is only about 50 percent. NASA requires junk removed within 25 years of its launch, and the European Union wants more regulation.

"It appears that if full compliance of the 25-year spacecraft de-orbiting guidelines can be achieved within the next few decades and (if) no anti-satellite weapons are used or tested…the lifetime risk of debris…may be sustainable at a tolerable level,” they write in their paper. They suggest fees and fines for violators, but concede "the political and economic issues associated with establishment of such fees are fairly daunting.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  technology 

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