March 04, 2011  |  permalink

Now It Can Be Told: How I Beat IBM’s Watson (When Jennings and Rutter Couldn’t)

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It already feels like a million years ago (have the machines taken over yet?), but it’s been barely twelve months since I schlepped to IBM’s Eero Saarinen-designed research campus in Westchester to spar with Watson, it’s then-secret, now-famous Jeopardy!-playing supercomputer. I thrashed him three times only a week after he’d gone undefeated against his human opponents, and I’ve been dining out on it ever since. If you want to hear the story (and it seems everyone does) I wrote about the experience for both Fast Company and McKinsey Quarterly, noting in each story that Watson had me playing his game in no time, hop-scotching all over the board and racing to find Daily Doubles ahead of him. This was not new. As I noted in the McKinsey Quarterly story:

I was hardly the first person to try and beat a computer at its own game rather than stick to a human one. World chess champion Garry Kasparov, in the third game of his match with IBM’s Deep Blue in May 1997, chose to open with the esoteric Mieses Opening1 in a deliberate attempt to drag the computer out of its well-practiced repertoire of openings. It worked, but required Kasparov to abandon his repertoire as well. The game eventually ended in a draw.

Kasparov lost that match three games later in crushing fashion, leading Newsweek to dub his defeat “The brain’s last stand.” Rather than be embittered by his loss and computing’s subsequent hostile takeover of chess, Kasparov has become a proponent of man–machine collaboration. In “freestyle” tournaments, human–computer teams running the most basic commercial software have managed to crush the best chess programs on the market, which in turn had crushed most grand masters. “Having a computer program available during play was as disturbing as it was exciting,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books.

“The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory,” he added. “It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine, and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.”

Jennings tried similar tactics against Watson, but the machine was simply too fast. You could tell Jennings was ticked, but at least he didn’t cry like Kasparov. As I predicted for Fast Company before the match:

So that’s my strategy, and it worked for me. But Jennings and Rutter will be facing a much tougher opponent—you would think Moore’s Law alone would have made Watson that much tougher by now—and he, in turn, will be battling much better players than I. But I had one other advantage they won’t—I felt no pressure to win, let alone on national television with a $1 million first prize on the line. The computer doesn’t feel it either, and this time around, that gives him the edge.

My money’s on Watson (although just how well he buzzes with his new electro-mechanical “hand” is anyone’s guess). I just hope the humans don’t cry this time. That would be so like us.

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February 20, 2011  |  permalink

Nokia’s Jetsetter

From The Financial Times’ mini-profile of Nokia’s new-ish CEO and “burning platform” memo author Stephen Elop:

Mr Elop has been criss-crossing the world on business flights – nearly 60 since starting the job – as he gets to know a company that still has by far the industry’s widest global reach.

When the CEO of the world’s largest telecommunications platform company needs to hop a flight a dozen times per month to discover just how bad things have gotten, that’s a pretty powerful testament to the need for face-to-face contact. Or at least an iPhone.

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February 11, 2011  |  permalink

China’s Mall of the Emirates

I’m in transit at the moment in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on my way home from a few days in Dubai, where I split my time between smarter cities and airports, alternately learning everything there is know about the former from Pacific Controls CEO Dilip Rahulan and chatting amiably about the latter with His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al Maktoum, who chairs Dubai’s airports, department of civil aviation, and Emirates Airlines. One thing I couldn’t help but notice on this trip (besides the view from the bar on the 123rd floor of the Burj Khalifa) was the ubiqutious packs of Chinese tourists. They snaked endlessly in lines at the airport, crowded the lobby of my hotel while waiting for tour buses (I heard more ni haos on this trip than as salam alaikums) and carried a minimum of four shopping bags everywhere they went.

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As it turns out, I was in Dubai for the confluence of Chinese New Year and the Dubai Shopping Festival, when everything in the tax-free emirate is discounted still further. I describe the increasing trade and tourism links between China and the Arab world at some length in Aerotropolis, arguing that Chinese foreign direct investment may ultimately help Dubai’s economy get back on its feet. Tourism from China to the UAE has soared since the emirates landed on China’s “approved destination” list in the fall of 2009. Chinese tourism to Dubai soared 57 percent in the first half of last year, totaling 81,900 tourists in all.

The numbers should be even higher this year with Egypt out of the picture. The National reported a week ago that “hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers throughout the Emirates are reporting a surge in Chinese visitors ringing in the Year of the Rabbit…Some might also be extending their stay in the UAE instead of continuing on to planned trips in troubled Egypt, experts say.”

This is just a taste of what the rest of the world can expect. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization estimates there will be 100 million tourists departing China annually by the end of this decade – an estimate one Dubai economist I spoke to considered laughably conservative. The National also described how the emirates are rolling out the red carpet:

Luxury retailers say the rise in Chinese visitors started last year and they are expecting a wave of shoppers.

“The Chinese clientele is coming to Dubai, which was not seen before,” says Valerie Chapoulaud, a president of Louis Vuitton who oversees southern Europe and the Middle East.

Businesses are pulling out all the stops to attract more visitors than last new year and convince them to boost their spending, with special promotions that run for a couple of weeks into the Lunar New Year, even to the end of the month.

Many hotels are offering special meals and a la carte menus, while others have rolled out golf, spa and overnight packages for guests who visit over the next couple of weeks.

The retailer Bloomingdale’s says it plans to double its number of Chinese-speaking staff to cater for a growing number of customers.

“China is a massive market,” says Mr Goddard, and the Chinese New Year period is “going to be a huge opportunity for getting Chinese nationals to the Middle East. Anything that promotes the Chinese market would be good for the long term.”

Global spending by tourists from China was up 17 per cent in 2009 from 2008 to US$43.7 billion (Dh160.5bn), according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

Once again, Dubai profits from its neighbors’ misfortunes. Last month (i.e. before January 25th), New Silk Road author Ben Simpfendorfer spoke with Egyptian tour operators hoping to win a larger piece of the China action:

The CEO of an Egyptian tour company made a similar point to me this week in Cairo. He said the government has done a good job of increasing tourist arrivals to Egypt from just a few million to 13 million in the past decade. But he wondered whether the figure might have been 30 million if more money had been spent on tourism infrastructure. “What we need is some Chinese investment”, he said wishfully.

It’s interesting then that some of the new floating hotels travelling between Cairo and Aswan are “made-in-China”. So China is at least making such investment cheaper.

But what about Chinese tourists? They are anecdotally visiting Egypt in growing numbers. But from a relatively low base. They also prefer discount packages, and I hear that Brazilians, for instance, still outspend them significantly. It doesn’t help that Chinese tourists are more likely spend money on luxury goods, such as Louis Vuitton bags, while travelling abroad. And for that, it’s better to visit Dubai, not Cairo.

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February 09, 2011  |  permalink

Aerotropolis: The Book Trailer

Cue the portentous voiceover: “In a world…”

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February 01, 2011  |  permalink

Hi there.

Hi there. No doubt you’re reading this because you saw my op-ed in the February 1st edition of The New York Times. Love it or hate it, I sincerely hope you’ll stick around long enough to learn a little more about why America needs to reinvest in aviation if it hopes to compete in a truly global era.

The full-length explanation is contained in my book, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next (with John D. Kasarda), which explores how air travel has shaped the fates of cities and regions more than anyone ever thought possible. The book comes out a month from now, on March 1st. If you’d like to learn more about it, please read this excellent summary/review by Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of Great Powers and a contributing editor to Esquire. Or you can just skip straight to Amazon to pre-order it here (and yes, there’s a version for the Kindle).

If that’s not enough to convince you, please check out this interview about the book published in Surface magazine last year. Or just wait to hear me on tour – here’s a list of readings and events.

As for the arguments put forth in the op-ed, I wrote a piece about NextGen and its potential savings in terms of fuel and carbon emissions for Fast Company in May 2009. And to those who would argue that winning the future depends on cornering the market for high-speed rail rather than the air, think again. China, which has invested more heavily in HSR than anyone, is also making a bid to upset the Airbus-Boeing duopoly with a jumbo-jet company of its own – and has strong-armed General Electric into helping it. The most ambitious, most difficult, and most rewarding (in terms of exports) machine to build is an airliner, and China signals the ultimate aim of its ambitions by trying to corner that market as well.

But if you still think I’m crazy, you might be right. After all, there is that time I lived in airports for a month…

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February 01, 2011  |  permalink

Reach for the Skies: My NYT op-ed

(Originally published in the February 1st, 2011 edition of The New York Times.)

IN his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama talked about why things like high-speed rail and faster Internet connections were critical to American prosperity. But he left out the fastest, safest mode of transportation available: aviation.

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It may be hard to imagine flying as anything other than a nightmare of packed planes, crumbling airports, canceled flights and increasingly invasive security. But these are all signs of how far our system has fallen. In fact, of all the transportation options available, aviation is the one with the greatest potential to improve the economy and Americans’ well-being – though it will take major new investments to get there.

From 1975 to 2005, while global gross domestic product rose 154 percent and world trade grew 355 percent, the value of air cargo climbed 1,395 percent. Today, more than one-third of all goods by value, some $3 trillion, is carried in the bellies of planes. These goods are the high-tech, high-value products that Americans want to make – clean-energy technology, electronics and biomedical devices – and they are key to the president’s goals of doubling exports and revitalizing our economy.

(Read more at NYTimes.com)

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January 26, 2011  |  permalink

Final Jeopardy

Excerpt from Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything presented without comment:

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The real problems started when Watson found itself facing Greg Lindsay, a journalist and a two-time Jeopardy champion. Lindsay, thirty-two, spent much of his time at the University of Illinois on the Quiz Bowl circuit, where he occasionally ran into Ken Jennings. In order to spar with Watson, Lindsay had to sign David Shepler’s nondisclosure agreement. IBM wanted to keep Harry Friedman and his minions in the dark, as much as possible, about Watson’s strengths and vulnerabilities. And Friedman didn’t want the clues escaping onto the Internet before they aired on television. This meant that even if Lindsay defeated Watson, he wouldn’t be able to brag about it to the Quiz Bowl community. For his crowd, this would be the equivalent of besting Kobe Bryant in a one-on-one game of hoops, then having to pretend it hadn’t happened.

Even so, Lindsay came with a clear strategy to defeat Watson. He quickly saw that Watson mastered factoids but struggled with humor and irony, so he steered clear of Watson-friendly categories. He figured Watson would clean up on Name that Continent, picking out the right landmasses for Estado de Matto Grosso (“What is South America?”) and the Filchner Ice Shelf (“What is Antarctica?”). The category Superheroes Names through Pictures looked much more friendly to humans. Sure enough, Watson was bewildered by clues such as “X marks the spot, man, when this guy opens his peeper” (“What is cyclops?”). Band Names also posed problems for Watson because the clues, like this one, were so murky: “The soul of a deceased person, thankful to someone for arranging his burial” (“What is the Grateful Dead?”). If the clue had included the lead guitarist Jerry Garcia or a famous song by the band, Watson could have identified it in an instant. But clues based on allusions, not facts, left it vulnerable.

More important, since the currency they were playing with was worthless, he decided to bet the maximum on each Daily Double. If he blew it, he lost nothing. And since he wasn’t on national television, his reputation wouldn’t suffer. As he put it, “There’s no societal fear.” Yet if he won his big bets, he’d be positioned to withstand Watson’s inevitable charges through categories it understood. “I knew he would go on tears,” Lindsay said. “I had to build up big leads when I had the chance.” He aced his big bets and ended up thrashing Watson three times, once scoring an astronomical $59,999 of funny money. (The Jeopardy single-game record was $52,000 until Ken Jennings crushed it, winning $75,000 in his thirty-eighth game.)

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December 29, 2010  |  permalink

GE & The Future of Aviation (With Chinese Characteristics)

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High-speed rail advocates love to point to China as an example of a country turning to trains instead planes or roads to move a billion people around – without realizing China’s leaders are ordering everything on the menu to keep its factories humming. China has laid as many miles of high-speed railroad track in the last five years as Europe did in the last two decades, sure, but it’s also adding 30,000 miles of highways – creating an interstate systems larger than the United States’—and building or expanding 200 airports… and the cities around them.

But which of these three things is the first among equals? I believe it’s the air, naturally. As ambitious as China is when it comes to exporting its high-speed rail expertise, it doesn’t quite compare to its intention to break the duopoly of Airbus and Boeing when it comes to large airlines. If that doesn’t strike you as that big of a goal, then keep in mind that Boeing is America’s largest exporter. China hopes to make inroads into that market with the Aviation Industry Corp.‘s C919, a Boeing 737/Airbus A320 competitor. AVIC unveiled the first life-sized mockup of the plane last month; it’s scheduled to enter service sometime in the middle of this decade.

The C919 and China’s aviation market is so huge that GE is willing to surrender its autonomy in China for a piece of it—which it believes is the key to unlocking the entire country. The lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal has the details:

General Electric Co. is finalizing plans for a 50-50 joint venture with a Chinese military-jet maker to produce avionics, the electronic brains of aircraft. The deal with Aviation Industry Corp. of China would give GE access to a Chinese government project aimed at challenging Boeing Co. and Airbus in the civilian-aircraft market…

General Motors Co. established a joint venture this year with SAIC Motor Corp., its longtime partner in China, to produce and sell their no-frills Wuling-brand microvans in India, and eventually in Southeast Asia and other emerging markets as well.

The two deals show China Inc.‘s growing international ambitions, as well as its increasing leverage over foreign partners. To make the GE deal happen, GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt made an extraordinary concession, agreeing to fold into the venture all of GE’s existing world-wide business in nonmilitary avionics…

...GE has such high hopes for China that Mr. Immelt has called it “our second home market.” Two years ago, Mr. Immelt said China revenue would double to $10 billion by 2010. But last year it reached just $5.3 billion.

GE saw working with AVIC as a chance to boost its avionics business, which has lagged behind Honeywell International Inc. and Rockwell Collins Inc. The planned venture, to be based in Shanghai, has been chosen to supply China’s planned C919 jet, which has the potential to grab a big slice of the Chinese civilian-aviation market. Boeing estimates that market will be worth more than $400 billion over the next 20 years, second only to the U.S…

GE executives say the AVIC deal is their closest cooperation ever with a Chinese partner. GE has 45 people in China on the project now, and it is hiring or moving several hundred more people there, even before final terms are hammered out.

AVIC, which makes fighter jets and helicopters in addition to civilian products, has ambitions outside of China. “For the aviation industry, there is no regional market, only the global market,” the company said in a statement. “AVIC’s strategy is to actively integrate itself into the industrial chain of the world’s aviation industry, and to become a truly global company.”

This is just the beginning. As I wrote in Aerotropolis: “General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt talks openly about using China’s airports as a trea sure map pointing the way to hundreds of billions of dollars in power, water, and rail projects to follow. “The Chinese are beginning to shift growth out of the major metropolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing and move into tier- two cities,” explained GE’s point man in China, Steve Bertamini. “We figure in the next five- year period, the Chinese government is going to spend two trillion dollars on infrastructure projects. We think there’s probably a good chunk of that, let’s say at least half, that has some GE opportunity.””

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December 29, 2010  |  permalink

The Father of Deregulation, RIP.

Alfred Kahn, the economist, former Civil Aeronautics Board chairman, and the father of airline deregulation, died yesterday at the age of 93. It was Kahn who sold Congress (and especially Sen. Ted Kennedy) on the idea of ending the CAB’s government monopoly on airline routes and pricing, allowing any airline to fly wherever, whenever and for whatever price it chooses. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was time when Pan Am or TWA or Eastern had to lobby for the right just to start flights between New York and Mexico City—which Eastern won after its chairman Eddie Rickenbacher supposedly sent a man to Washington with $120,000 in cash for the GOP.

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Kahn argued that what we fondly, if erroneously remember as the “golden age” of travel—of lobster thermidor and coffee-tea-or-me at 30,000 feet—was a case of massive mispricing, and that consumers would be best served by competition between the airlines. Their service was too good and too expensive, and they had little reason to innovate. Sen. Kennedy – and eventually President Jimmy Carter – listened, the latter signing the Airline Deregulation Act into law on October 24, 1978. With the exception of Prohibition, never had an industry been so upended overnight. As I wrote in Aerotropolis:

The government would no longer set fares or assign routes, and had removed all legal barriers to competition. The immediate effect was to drive down prices as new entrants forced the incumbents to match their discounts. Even today, after oil spikes, baggage fees, and hundreds of grounded planes, the cost of flying on a per-mile basis is barely half of what it had been, adjusted for inflation. Estimates of passengers’ annual savings range as high as $20 billion. The airlines’ massive losses have been our personal gain.

Deregulation made the triumph of the plane over all other means of long- distance travel inevitable. The price of air travel compared to trains and driving has declined steadily since 1960, when it cost twice as much as either. By 2000, however, air travel had thoroughly beaten both on a per-mile basis. Our travel preferences had been erased and were being rewritten: the shortest distance between any two points in America was the path to the nearest airport.

This arrangement has its pluses and minuses. The Wall Street Journal captured the latter nicely with the headline on its insta-obit: “Stuck in an Airport? Blame Alfred Kahn.” But one of the quotes included in the obit captures precisely what’s wrong with American aviation and why it can’t compare to the foreign carriers leapfrogging ours every day, whether Emirates or Jet Airways or Cathay Pacific, or why flying from Asian to American airports “is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones” as Tom Friedman complains on a regular basis. Kahn explained why in his testimony to Congress in 2000:

“There are, I think, two things to be said about the fact that [a deregulated airline industry] has also been accompanied by a marked increase in discomfort and congestion: first, that it was precisely the failure of regulation to offer travelers a low-cost/lower-quality product that was its greatest failure; and, second, that this deterioration in the quality of the air travel experience is a consequence, in important measure, of the failure of government to provide the optimal infrastructure – specifically, air traffic control and airport capacity – and to price it correctly.”

In other words, we are still flying every day in a system designed for regulation, despite the fact that hasn’t been true for more than thirty years. Kahn’s point makes perfect sense when you stop to consider how many hubs in America have been opened since deregulation (the answer: one, Denver’s in 1995) and that we use GPS receivers on our iPhones to get us around while airlines make do with air traffic control technology that’s more or less unchanged from 1938.

Despite what the WSJ says, this week’s post-holiday travel nightmare isn’t Kahn’s legacy, but the result of the airlines’ attempt to circumvent it. As U.S. Airways CEO Doug Parker cheerfully explained last month to a roomful of several hundred frequent fliers, the surviving legacy carriers have adopted cartel tactics in order to survive, tacitly agreeing to keep a lid on seat capacity and matching each other’s fees. The former is the reason why thousands of travelers will be spending New Year’s Eve with their families, even if they never intended to. It’s a shame Kahn had to live long enough to see that.

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December 28, 2010  |  permalink

Thomas P.M. Barnett Reviews Aerotropolis

(Author, analyst and Esquire contributing editor Thomas P.M. Barnett reviewed Aerotropolis in his weekly column for World Politics Review on December 6th, 2010.)

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H.G. Wells’ futuristic 1933 classic, “The Shape of Things to Come,” predicted a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity’s recovery would depend on the airplane as the primary mechanism for both travel and political rule—the benevolent “dictatorship of the air.” The book reflected Wells’ prescient fears of catastrophic world war and his faith in technology’s capacity to tame mankind’s worst instincts.

A book due out in March entitled, “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” is the closest thing to a real-world vision to rival that of Wells. The book, written by journalist Greg Lindsay, is based on the visionary ideas of business professor John Kasarda, a latter-day Wells who dreams of building future cities around airports instead of the other way around.

At first blush, it’s easy to be repulsed. Who wants the noise and the architectural “charm” of the hotels, office buildings and warehouses that congregate around such transportation hubs? The simplest answer is jobs. What rules in today’s globalized economy is accessibility and speed, and modern airports are its fastest connection points—the physical embodiment of our increasingly e- commerce-driven world. Yes, the vast bulk of trade still goes by sea, but already one-third of its value travels by air. Indeed, the value of air cargo has grown more than four times faster than global trade over the past several decades.

When you think about it, there’s plenty of evidence from America’s own historical experience to support Kasarda’s vision. Prior to the Civil War, railroads were built between existing cities in the region east of the Mississippi river. But check out the map west of the Mississippi and you’ll spot a far different pattern, with cities clustered along railroad lines. Modern bedroom communities and suburbs likewise reflect this logic, with towns that sprang up primarily by virtue of their commuting distance—by car—from the downtowns of central cities.

Examples of quasi-aerotropolises in the U.S., writes Lindsay, can already be found in the business corridors that surround Chicago’s O’Hare airport (half a million jobs within a five-mile radius), the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (400,000 jobs) and Dulles International Airport (200,000 jobs) in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. Cities and regions that make the monumental commitment to building and maintaining an international air hub will prosper. Take Atlanta, for instance, whose Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the largest employer in the state of Georgia. But cities that take a pass—like Boston did in the 1980s, when it rejected the idea of a Dulles-style behemoth out in the sticks—suffer competitively.

» Continue reading...

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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