The Wonder, October 19 - Silent Doctors, A.I. Novelists, and the Fastest Camera Ever

INblog, technology, the wonder|BYsf appworks

A Weekly Snapshot of Life-Changing Technology

Happy Friday!

This newsletter is about recognizing the people, organizations, and nations who use technology to improve other people’s lives. Paul Allen was a force for this mission. Born in Seattle to a library exec and a teacher, he met a younger Bill Gates in school and, after seeing a new Altair computer kit on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine, he had a revelation – computer prices would drop and software would be necessary. So at 22, he and Bill Gates founded Micro-soft. He came up with the name.

Paul Allen was considered the brains of the partnership, while Gates was the marketing whiz. They were ‘true partners’ and ‘dear friends’, according to Gates, who also noted that ‘personal computing would not have existed without him’. Allen acknowledged the friendship and partnership, but he also accused Gates of ripping him off by scheming with Steve Ballmer to reduce his shares in the company.

Things got really interesting after he left Microsoft. He set up a private investment firm and started making big bets on real estate and space. He won big. He bought the Portland Trail Blazers, an NBA team now valued by Forbes at $1.3B, for $70M back in ’88. He bought 80% of Ticketmaster for $242M, then sold half of it for $209M a few years later.

He began using his fortune to fund scientific endeavors, including $100M to brain research and $25M to the search for extraterrestrial life. He was the sole investor behind SpaceShip, a suborbital commercial spacecraft that climbed to an altitude of 377,591 feet in 2004. In total, he gave more than $2B towards the advancement of science, technology, education, wildlife conservation, the arts, and community services. In 2010, he became a signatory of The Giving Pledge, promising to give at least half of his fortune to philanthropic causes.

He loved Jimi Hendrix and taught himself to play the guitar. He had lavish parties where guests had to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. His mega yacht was known through ports around the world and was grand enough to have two helicopter pads.

He was single, never married, never had kids, generous and excessive, extravagant and private, and above all, passionate about technology and eager to improve the world around him.

He died on Monday after his third fight in 30 years with cancer.

Now on to the Wonder.

Silent Doctors

Amazon patents a new Alexa feature that knows when you are sick and offers you medicine.

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Andrew’s Take: We thought about building a smart mirror that could scan your face and body daily and look for variations or changes that could be warning signs of sickness. Maybe listening to how often people cough would have been easier. We certainly didn’t have the business sense to think about using that info to sell medicine, which might have provided the incentive to lure investors. In either case, the earlier you can diagnose something, the better your treatment options are, so we’ll take this tech however we can.   

Darius’s Take: Predictive health is so cool! With more and more sensors and AI built into the home and onto the body, the idea that a powerful system can be monitoring our health and body functions in real time is extremely reassuring.

A.I. Novelists

Novelists are starting to use A.I. programs to help them write.

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Andrew’s Take: “The bison are gathered around the canyon’…what comes next? He hits tab. The computer makes a noise like ‘pock’, analyzes the last few sentences, and adds the phrase ‘by the bare sky.'”

I know Darius is going to hem and haw about the degradation of art as it loses some of its human elements, but I think of this from the perspective that everyone in the world is a writer. We don’t all have the same level of creativity or inventiveness, but many of us can recognize good writing. Tools that can help people compose by suggesting components can lead to a world where more people express themselves and create compelling narratives, and that’s a better world in my view.

Darius’s Take: Andrew nailed it – this feels a bit too automatic for my taste. Good writing is only good because we can recognize that it is better than average. If computers start writing based on algorithms that tell them what readers want to see, we’ll end up with more sterilized, normalized forms of writing. It’s kind of like ads on Facebook –  they all start to look the same at some point.

Fastest Camera Ever

A new camera that can capture 10 trillion frames per second can capture light in slow motion.

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Andrew’s Take: “Wow, this is super cool”, I thought…but I couldn’t figure out why at first. I could tell it was a breakthrough, but I had to dig quite a bit before understanding how much of a breakthrough it was. And here it is – this new camera literally makes it possible to freeze time to see phenomena – even light – in extremely slow motion. This technology will power a generation of super microscopes. I’m not sure exactly what scientists will see when they look into these scopes, but I know it will be something they have never seen before.

Darius’s Take: Scientists had a sort of ‘hack’ for seeing light move before – we could repeat a pulse of light over and over and capture images at slightly different times to simulate what one ray of light might look like. It sort of worked, but the margin of error was high. With this single-shot real-time camera, we can better understand how light moves as it passes through things, broadening our understanding of space, time, and life.

Today I learned...

…about Jaron Lanier, who at 13 convinced a university to allow him to enroll in graduate level courses and at 16, built a canoe that he sailed from Florida to Venezuela. He is considered a founding father of the field of Virtual Reality.

Thanks for reading! We’ll see you next week.

-Andrew and Darius