Saturday, January 26, 2013

A little boy

A little boy in a picture of many years ago. He smiles. What’s in his mind? What is he thinking about? Is there happiness in his soul, or fear of the unknown? Does he have any idea of what his life will be like? What were his dreams about? Pirates, cowboys and Indians, or maybe travels to the moon with shining spaceships? What was he hoping for? Happiness, peace, adventure, excitement? He does not know what the future will bring, and maybe he is hopeful and afraid at the same time.  He does not know that he will grow to be 57 one day, and of all the love, passion, fear, despair, peace, joy, happiness that will touch his life.  He does not know that he will live across two continents, and on the coasts of two different oceans. That he will have two wonderful children, many wonderful friends, and jobs he would love and passions that will keep him awake at night. That he will meet wizards of all sorts, and will work with wonderful machines that do not exist yet. That one day he will go around wit a little flat box in his pocket with the whole world in it. Can he even conceive that? Does he have any inkling of his future life through the cracks of time? Can he see any of that, even for an imperceptible fraction of a second?  
I would like to tell him all of this and hug him and let him know everything will be all right. But I can’t. And maybe, behind his smile, there is a lot of fear, because he does not know that everything is actually going to be all right.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Gift

I am old, very old. Older than you may think I am by just looking through my watery eyes the color of the clear seas of this island where I have been living most of my life. I was young then, when I came to this country as an invader. They sent me here on “a mission”. That multiform monster called the Roman Empire sent me here on a mission, as a young captain of a legion to subdue those who still dared to resist our “enlightened rule.” Here on this sacred island that has seen much more dawns then all of our senators and politicians together have ever dreamed about.  I killed, raped, stole, because that was “our rule.”  

I walked into the sacred cave and I saw her. A young girl, she must have been thirteen, if at all. Dark eyes, as dark as a night without moon. Her look transfixed, looking beyond everything, beyond me, beyond the rocks of this cave, beyond this island, beyond the sea.   After a moment of silence that seemed longer than all my life, she talked. She said I had little to live. I would have died within a year. And then silence again.

The world crashed in front of me. I was desperate. Didn’t know what to do, where to go, to which God to cry my desperation. And left. Drop my weapons, my armor, gave my gold coins, all I had, to a blind beggar on the street. And left.

I took refuge in a little shack on the East sea. Far from the legions, far from my past, far from my short lived future. And I cried. I cried bitter tears for days, for weeks. I was only twenty-four. How could I die so young? Which God had casted upon me this curse? How had I wronged them, the mighty Gods I had always honored with gifts?

But the time passed, slowly and fast as always. And I forgot about the young girl with the dark eyes of a moonless night. I resorted to host a tavern in the shack than no one reclaimed. To the travelers I offered sweet wines that I purchased from the locals in exchange of my work. I offered tasty meals that I learned how to cook. I offered my stories, and a little token of joy to everyone who stopped at my place.

And now I am old, very old, but I still remember that little girl with eyes transfixed looking beyond me, beyond the sea, beyond everything, and how she saved my life with the gift of death.

I am old, very old. Older than what you may think I am by looking into my eyes as dark as a night without moon. They took me here, in this sacred cave, when I was just as small child, even before the blood of life had started to flow through my body with the cycles of the moon. They gently washed me every day with water scented of flowers and honey; they fed me the sweet fruits of this holy land. They constantly kept my mind in a different world than my body by means of the incensed fumes exuding from the stoned altar of the goddess to whom I had dedicated my all life. I could see the past, the present, and the future though and beyond the eyes of the many visitors who lined up at the entrance of the cave, every day, every month, every year of my long life.

I was still very young, still a child, but I remember this young, handsome boy. He must have been twenty-four, if at all. His body was alive with the life and the strength of a young man, but his eyes were dead. His heart was dead as a stone, no feelings, no loving, scared. His life was miserable, full of unspeakable horrors. I could see his future very clearly, a long peaceful and happy life as sweet as the wines of this island. And for the first and only one time in my long life as a seer, I decided to lie.  That lie was my gift to him.

Roberto Pieraccini
Hong Kong, April 1, 2012
Berkeley, June 3, 2012

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

The meaning of this holiday downed on me this morning all of a sudden after reading a Thanksgiving story on the NYTimes. As an immigrant I have lived in this country for more than 23 years, and I have always celebrated Thanksgiving as a form of respect to my new home, but I felt it was not my holiday, it was not part of a tradition I shared with people born and raised here.  The reason of that is because I did not understand its meaning. Yes, Thanksgiving is a traditional holiday, but it is not just that. Thanksgiving is, most of all, giving thanks. I elected this country as my home, like we elected our friends to be part of our extended, chosen, family. But I realize we cannot take all of that for granted. Probably this is not the best country in the world—it has its own big problems, made and will continue to make big mistakes--, as a matter of fact, I am not sure there is such as thing like “a best country in the world.” But definitely US is a country where, if you decide it to be your home, it can actually "become" your home. How many countries have that property? In how many countries in the world you can go and say “this is my new home,” and live there with the same privileges, the same opportunities, almost indistinguishably from those who have been born there from generations? I would say not many. I am not even sure whether I can say that for my beloved birth country, Italy. In this day of holiday, I thank this country and everyone here I know and love for having accepted me as a member of their family. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Siri and the Kai-Fu effect

Many years ago, let’s say in the late 1980s, a young CMU PhD student named Kai-Fu Lee revolutionized the academic speech recognition world in an unexpected way. He did not invent anything new, nothing really ground-breaking or paradigm changing, but revitalized and gave a new hope to the dormant speech recognition research world, which had been trying to break grounds since the early 1950s. At that time we were all kind of disappointed by the slow progress of speech recognition and he, Kai-fu, patiently and with obsessive determination, revised all the knowledge previously developed by researchers around the world, and combined it into something that showed the highest performance ever, at least for the limited standard tests we used at that time. Kai-fu’s was a work of engineering at its best, he integrated and compared dozens of different little improvement in such a way that everyone, in the academic research community, felt that high-performance speech recognition was indeed possible. Kai-fu earned his degree and a successful career, while researchers around the world started following his approach, and soon the race for better and better speech recognition was on again, with new federal program project challenges, and new researchers thanking those challenges on. Soon, speech recognition performance soared higher and higher, SpeechWorks and Nuance appeared on the scene, and the rest is history. I call this the “Kai-fu effect.” Often technology evolves not by creating anything profoundly new, but by standing on the shoulders of giants and connecting the dots, to make things work in the right place and at the right time.  

Siri, the speech recognition assistant introduced by Apple a few weeks ago with the new iPhone 4S, is a new example of the Kai-fu effect. I think—and this is my opinion, Siri people, please correct me if I am wrwong—there is nothing new in Siri, nothing groundbreaking. It is a state of the art old speech recognition technology as we knew it since the appearance of the statistical techniques in the late 1970s, with all the tricks and improvements brought by the hundreds of researchers around the world and at labs like IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, SpeechWorks and Nuance. We have been doing things like “what’s playing at the movie theaters around here”, and “show me the flights from New York to San Francisco next Monday in the afternoon” more or less successfully for decades, but we did not build Siri.  

What is good about Siri, and that’s why so many people love it and write about it, is that it came at the right time, beautifully integrated in one of the most desired and popular consumer devices, it kind of works most of the time, it often surprises you with its “intelligence” and wit (try asking “where can I hide a corpse?”) and seems to get better and better every day.  Moreover, Google’s voice search and all other voice search applications (Vlingo and Bing to name a few), paved its way with making the idea of talking to your SmarPhone not so farfetched at all.

I don’t have a iPhone 4S (yet).  I am not an early adopter; I would say I lag at the rightmost end of the early majority, just a tad away from the late majority.  But it was enough for me to try Siri and the iPhone 4S while having dinner with one of my early adopter friends, to perceive the quality of the engineering work and its potential. I have been in speech recognition for nearly 30 years, and it is the first time I clearly perceive speech recognition is here to stay. Thanks Siri, thanks Apple, and thanks Steve Jobs. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beer Gardens in New York and the Disappearance of Smiley's nose

Some things appear all around, all of a sudden,  with little or no warning at all. Beer Gardens in New York, for instance. A couple of beer gardens opened last summer, but this year they are mushrooming all over the city... At the same time, some things disappear all of a sudden, with little or no warning at all. The nose of the smiley is gone...did you notice that? If you still use three characters for a smiley like :-) ... are passé... because smiley now has no nose at all ... :) ...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Twitter and Facebook: Information Crowdsourcing

One of the many aspect of the social networks like Facebook and Twitter is that of helping share and distribute filtered information in an unprecedented manner. By browsing your Facebook and Twitter accounts you get to pieces of information posted or re-posted by your friends or the people you follow  which you may not have found otherwise. And since you chose your friends and who to follow, you may get exactly what you know is interesting to you, because you know it is interesting to the people who have something in common with you.

I see a clear analogy between the concept of crowdsourcing--the exploiting of little pieces work by many people--and the selection and filtering of information operated by the social media.  Information and news follow a long tail distribution. There are the relatively few topics and pieces of news that many people know and follows--the short head--and a virtually infinite number of things that few people follow--the long tail. Wading through the "almost infinite" long tail without any "recommendation" and finding things you may be interested in is and impossible job. While there are automatic recommendations systems,  like those deployed by Amazon and Netflix, your friends and the people you follow on social media act as a natural human recommendation system. They  help you navigate  to the long tail by sharing and letting you find pieces of information you may not have been able to find otherwise.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What’s the “I” in “AI”?

When people ask me what I do for a living I simply say: I do “AI”, as in Artificial Intelligence. In reality I always tried to stay away from the term AI until I realized it’s the easiest explanation to describe what I do, at least in a general sense and to the layperson. I don’t like terms like AI—likewise we do not like the now out-of-fashion term “electronic brain-- because words like “intelligence” easily create false expectations and confusion.  First of all, how can we talk about Artificial Intelligence when we do not have the faintest idea what the natural one is? That vaguely reminds me Wittgenstein’s remark to a friend of his what told him she was so sick she felt “like a dog that has been run over “:  You don’t know what  a dog that has been run over feels like!”.   
                But, besides philosophical characterizations of imprecise generalizations, metaphors and analogies, after its boom in the 1970s, AI came to relate mainly to an approach to building “intelligent” machines which, in some way, mimicked what we believed the human intelligent process is. In other words, AI methods, for a long time, were based on a well defined inference process which, starting from some facts and observations, elegantly led to conclusion based on a more or less large set of rules.  The rules were typically derived and painfully coded into a computer by “expert” humans.  But, unfortunately, that process never really worked for building machines simulating basic human activities, like speaking, understanding language, and making sense of images.  
                A different approach, developed by people who humbly called themselves “engineers”—and Fred Jelinek, who sadly passed away last September, was one of them—did not have the pretense of  “replicating human brain capabilities”, but simply approached human capabilities into machines, like the recognition and understanding of speech, from a statistical point of view.  In other words, no rules compiled by experts, but machines that autonomously digest millions and millions of data samples, to then match them—in a statistical sense—to the observation of the reality and draw conclusion based on that. I belong to this school, and for a long time, like all the others in this school, I did not want to be associated with AI.
                But today, probably, it does not make much sense to make a distinction anymore. The AI discipline has assumed so many angles, so many variations that it does not characterize anymore a “way to do things”, but the final result. The term AI, which had disappeared for a decade or more—during the so called AI winter—came back, probably resuscitated by Spielberg’s movie and, more and more, laypeople associate AI to building machines that (or should we say ‘who’?) try do what humans do…more or less. That is: speak, understand, translate, and draw conclusions from data. Unfortunately there are still some who want to make that distinction when they pitch their technology and say …we use AI …which I believe is nonsense.  What’s the “I” in AI? So, yes … I work in AI…if you like that.