Dyson on Vacuums, Electric Cars, and “Air Knives”
For all the press and celebrity Silicon Valley tech CEO’s garner as inventors of new technologies, it amazes me that Sir James Dyson remains comparatively hidden in relative obscurity (see below). The engineer whose namesake company is revolutionizing how electricity and air interact in productive ways has far more tricks up his inventive sleeve than just a new take on the vacuum. From blade-less fans to electric cars (!) to turning “air knives” into material-free gates/doors, Dyson is a modern day Edison. Rather than the kind of inventiveness that turns data into dollars through a smartphone app, Dyson continues to use mechanical engineering to invent physical things that make aspects of life actually better.
CEO’s Facing the Music
The first CEO to face a criminal indictment this past week was Theranos founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. The news is hardly surprising given both the scale of the investor fraud Holmes and her boyfriend/COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani pulled off — over $700 million in funding raised — as well as the potentially life-endangering fraud perpetrated on the patients and doctors who used Theranos’ now invalidated blood tests. As if that wasn’t enough, Holmes had made a habit of hoodwinking more than a few politically powerful players, whether as investors, board members, or as public relations props.
Three days later, it was Rupert Stadler’s turn, as the first criminal shoe to drop in the Volkswagen diesel-emissions cheating scandal fell on the CEO of Audi, the German luxury car maker owned by VW. Unlike Theranos’ Holmes, Stadler was actually arrested and remains behind bars, but not for acts associated with the cheating. Rather, Munich prosecutors allege that Stadler’s detention was necessary to prevent him from exerting improper influence on witnesses as the scandal is still being investigated.
It will be interesting to see if these criminal charges stick and result in long-term prison time, something that has eluded everyone involved in the 2008 financial meltdown and hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Is the Alexa Prize Doomed to Failure?
The rules for Amazon’s now annual contest are pretty straightforward: “just create a chatbot using Alexa that can talk to a human for 20 minutes without messing up, and you get a $1.5 million prize (with $2 million in other grants and prizes).” This article is not only an interesting look into the challenges of AI-assistant programming and machine learning. It is also a remarkable mirror reflecting just how amazing the human brain is, with it’s ability to organically learn all the rules (hard, soft, unwritten) of speech and deliver it endlessly in an engaging way before it can do basic addition.
Reading vs Audiobooks vs Animation
Speaking of the brains of kids, this NPR article highlights a new study coming out of my own backyard down at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. By using fMRI scans of children at around four years old, researchers mapped how engaged the various centers of the brain are when presented with stories in one of three formats: audio only, a storybook with illustrated pages and an audio voiceover, and an animated cartoon.
The most interesting part of this isn’t in the conclusion of which medium is best (it should be obvious), but why. As my professional educator/reading expert Wife has explained many times before, there are many layers of skills that are developed well below the surface as a child is passively sitting on a parent’s lap, listening to a story. These skills are necessary for not just reading and comprehension, but also language development and critical thinking. By reading to your young kids on a regular basis, you are doing cognitive programming work that the Alexa Prize teams can only dream of!
Blockchain Uses Beyond Bitcoin
When most people hear the word “blockchain,” eyes either glaze over or they simulate the rotating wheels of a casino slot machine. There are a lot of explainers out there attempting to clarify the benefits of blockchain, but such conversations inevitably move from how the technology works (distributed ledger, etc) to crytocurrencies like Bitcoin, and end with some vague references to sectors that could benefit from the technology.
A recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business aims to more clearly lay out just how this hard-to-grasp technology can actually impact things like foreign aid delivery and medical record portability and protection. I was dumbfounded to read that the state of Montana (!) pioneered putting blockchain technology to use as the means for voters to cast absentee ballots in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, down in Texas, the City of Austin is using blockchain technology in its delivery of social services to its homeless population. Who would’ve guessed that cowboy country would be the forefront of the blockchain implementation revolution?