Just A Phone Call?

You may have already seen the Google AI Assistant clip of Google CEO Sundar Pichai explaining Google Duplex in which a programme calls a hairdressing salon and books an appointment.  Very clever it is too and one can immediately envision some useful applications. There will be unintended consequences, not least of which will be people talking and connecting less, other than digitally.

Atlas; Boston Dynamic’s robot is turning into a right old show-off

You may also have seen the clip from Boston Dynamics of their latest clever robot doing things which look less and less robotic.

It is when your imagination fuses Google AI and the BD robot together that you think, “what if?” (and not in a good way). Throw in quantum computing into the mix and the 'they can do what?' curve steepens.

The only way those two will talk to each other is if they happen to meet over Tinder

The only way those two will talk to each other is if they happen to meet over Tinder

The generally accepted estimate that 25% of all white collar jobs will be replaced by AI or robotics by 2030 looks out of court to me. It is not even in the right postcode. Manual low skilled and skilled jobs will also be decimated. This will create social tension with a declining percentage of the populace enjoying a greater share of wealth. Voters will be bought off for perhaps ten years with the widespread introduction of minimum living allowances which hitherto have been unthinkable for politicians. That will only delay the "villagers with their pitchforks," moment. Our direction of travel has implications for all parts of our lives and society has yet to engage directly with the downside rather than just the upside to accelerating advances in technology. 

I don't see myself as a Luddite. I can see terrific benefits which technology will bring, especially in medicine, materials and levelling the playing field for developing nations. Yet a big part of me yearns for much that we have already lost. I am also nervous about unrestrained and rapid change, sometimes profoundly so. 

Market Quants; Kill or Cure?

This brilliant VPRO documentary on Quants should be required viewing for all involved in markets.

The problem with heckling from the cheap seats is that the rest of the audience can get bored pretty quickly and stop listening. Then you get thrown out. It’s the old ‘cry wolf,’ thing. I kind of feel like that about shouting from my soapbox about quants and all they have spawned in markets from HFT’s, trading Algo’s, to derivative and structured product modelling. I’ve watched their growth from all the way back when index arb models lit the fire that turned into a market conflagration in 1987 to the subprime CDO models that did so much to destabalise the financial system in 08 through to the occasional flash crashes we see today.

The simple fact is that very few managers and certainly no boards have the first clue about what the quant ecosystem that plumbs their banks together is capable of. Nor do they understand the assumptions made in those models or how vulnerable the models are to human error or abuse, either internally or externally. The video clip above is very well worth watching. It is a very straight forward reality check; a reality check from the practitioners themselves; ‘it is clear that a major rethink is desperately required if the world is to avoid a mathematically led meltdown.’

Apple Schmapple

Apple's Chief Watch Architect 

So with the usual schmaltzy fanfare Apple come out with a watch. Hurrah I can hear you say, or rather those left who are not suffering from technology fatigue resulting from this curious modern enslavement to the geeks in Cupertino. The curious thing is, ten years ago everyone, (well Nokia mostly and boy did they lose the plot), was talking about convergence. That is, phone, diary, email, games, browser, camera and the rest all on the same device. If I’ve got this right, they’re now trying to persuade us to go back to the old set up of multiple devices, one that I never left in the first place.

I'll mostly be sticking with my £70 Seiko thanks

I've tried many watches over the years. The best was my bog standard but fondly remembered Army issue G10 watch, the worst were expensive Swiss watches which to my mind are just a narcissistic con, ($400 and 4 months for a service; what?..... and they never kept good time). I think I’ll pretty much ride this Apple thing out as well. Anyway, as a friend commented this morning, “it’s not for our generation to have an opinion, just to pay for the wretched things.”

Quantum Computing; Gamechanger

What in the devil are the boffins cooking up now?

Quantum Computing is a pretty mainstream subject in both the academic and research communities, (which I guess are really the same thing), but has yet to ping popular imagination. It will. 

Anyone laughing will be thrown out of the class

I described it to the kids thus, “Believe me kids; this thing is going to be a game changer. The way you look at me blankly when I say my first computer had 128k of memory……… had no mobiles, no internet, no switch cards, (there was something infinitely more elegant about paying a restaurant bill with a cheque), no digital photography, had to go to the television to change channels, no satellite television, no GPS … blah blah – well, your kids will do the same because they’ll be from the Quantum Age, not the old fashioned Digital Age.”

My understanding of Quantum Computing is close to that of a babbling 9 month old baby but I’m tracking it and working my way up toward being a fully functioning and coherent 24 month old toddler in computing terms. If you're the same, the introductory video above presents a starter for ten.

There are lots of resources available on the web for those who care to look but this piece by Ilyas Khan, CEO of Cambridge Quantum Computing serves as a pretty good orientation piece for us non scientists and sets the scene perfectly,

2015 - the year of Quantum Computing

Richard Feynman, the great American physicist, famously popularised the notion of Quantum Computing in 1982. In the 3 decades since that time, the prospect of a computer that captures, manipulates and controls sub-atomic particles in a manner such that data can be encoded and retrieved in ways that expand beyond ready comprehension the complexity of computational problems, and deliver results in time frames that seem more akin to science fiction than fact, has remained largely elusive. Research and development has been the domain of university labs and occasional multi-agency projects, with an obvious and understandable concentration of energy around matters of national security given the fact that quantum communications will render obsolete existing methods and devices.

That things were starting to change only gradually became apparent in the past 24 to 36 months. A startling series of engineering advances and the slow realisation that large corporations have been allocating serious resources to this sector has meant that a quantum computer is no longer seen as belonging on the pages of a science fiction novel.

The pace of change (or at least the pace at which new advances have received a public audience) has shifted rather dramatically. Time chose to adorn a cover page with a quantum computer just about a year ago and within the last quarter of 2014 Microsoft, Google, IBM and Toshiba all announced, commented on or unveiled aspects of there Quantum Computing projects.

When quantum computers emerge into common usage (and it is now only a question of when, not if), the machines will benefit from developments in quantum mechanics that span the post second world war period. From the monumental shift of understanding represented by quantum tunnelling (Brian Josephson won a Nobel prize for his work in this area and this link to an article in Physics World is very accessible ), to IBM's Bennett who is credited with the reversible gate  , or the advances represented by Shor's algorithm  and Kitaev's work on toplogical quantum computing, the past two years in particular have seen a convergence of academic work with early commercialisation.

Despite this, the vast majority of us are blissfully unaware of these developments that have been described as having an influence on human kind that will ultimately rival that of the industrial revolution. Perhaps Arkwright's machine and Stephenson's engine were equally remote from people's everyday lives when they were first unveiled.

There is no way in which the hugely diverse (and hugely competitive) work that is being done by corporate organisations and governments who are in a race, can be hidden for much longer. They are in a race not only to be first, but a race not to be left behind.

The Chinese factor looms large in this context. China has officially stated that there is simply no budget (note, not that there is no limit to a budget, but that there is simply no budget and whatever is required to be spent will be spent) and the longest and most advanced quantum communications link has been completed in China through a "pipe" that links Beijing with Shanghai. The Chinese project on Quantum Computing is not only large and well funded, but also covers much more than national security. Watch out for a great deal more news emerging from Chinese groups.

The early front runner in making actual machines is a North American effort that is funded by the private sector (Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs and VC firm Draper Fisher amongst others) and In-Q-Tel the investment arm of the CIA. After three years during which the company has endured the brickbats of academia for not being able to adequately and consistently display quantum speedup, D-Wave in late 2014 promised a new version of their quantum computer with a 1024 bit CPU that they claim will radically alter the landscape. Regardless however of D-Wave, the stakes are now considerably higher. Microsoft, through their effort named "Station Q" have already built an initial operating system that they have named LiquI> (pronounced liquit with the notation fashioned after the symbol for the Ket Vector). Google have gone public with their ambitious effort led by John Martinis described by Technology Review as "changing computing forever and perhaps in financial terms, the most obviously significant efforts were announced by IBM in a US$3bn effort.

Companies as diverse as Intel, Qualcomm, CISCO and Toshiba have their very futures at stake and whilst its not obvious how they are reacting, the one thing that is very clear is that they have stopped simply "observing". And finally, in perhaps the truest sign that quantum computing is no longer an academic exercise, a clutch of start ups have come into existence with more almost certainly to emerge.

2015 will be the year that Quantum Computing comes into the mainstream, and we all need to know what is happening.

Ilyas Khan (Cambridge Quantum Computing)  


Apple iPhone 6; Did you forget to order them Vodafone?

Vodafone and Carphone Warehouse comparison for 64GB iPhone 6




I ordered an iPhone  upgrade from Vodafone a week ago, "delivery within 7 days sir." No it isn't. They haven't got any and have no clue when they will. Some quick investigation revealed that Carphone Warehouse do have 64GB iPhone 6's in space grey in stock. Thing is, how do Carphone Warehouse manage to sell them more cheaply, (and with a better data offering), on the Vodafone network than do Vodafone themselves.

That's nuts but what is even more nuts is that the Vodafone shops are full, are still selling phones they don't have to idiots like me who are too idle to shop around, and neither Vodafone nor apparently their customers care. 


Another Clever Bloody Machine

You have to adopt a sense of bemusement when looking at the huge fanfare that has greeted the announcements surrounding IBM's Watson programme. Developed originally to answer questions on the US television programme "Jeopardy," it is designed to answer questions in natural language. IBM has stood off from the whole internet thing and done not very much at all for the last fifteen years in terms of the revolution that has happened, at least in consumer facing products, then wham!, along it comes with a behemoth that will know everything about everything. 

Well, it's going commercial now and it will make Siri look like a toddler finger painting compared to Rembrandt. 

It's aimed at businesses to help them interact more efficiently with customers and it has to be said, it wouldn't be difficult to improve on call centres in New Delhi and Newport but we will inevitably be speaking to more machines. Just think though, what it could do for education, the mind fizzes.

Two thoughts in passing, what on earth is Paxman going to make of it on University Challenge and you don't suppose the clever geeks at IBM have just invented Skynet......... do you?



careless talk.jpg

OK so it's not wartime but some readers who travel and work with sensitive material may care to look at Silent Circle, an app that encrypts phone calls and texts. It is beyond logic that after all that we have learned in the past year about the insecurity of mobile communications regulators, corporate IT departments and managements are not on top of the problem. 

Knowing that the Chinese have 40,000 individuals who work for the PLA and who’s daily job is to penetrate Western organisations at every level, might, you would think, be a wakeup call but not so far. Corporate rest-of-the-world must develop a digital Cold War attitude to the Chinese and for that matter, all the other black operators out there. People who know tell me Silent Circle is as good as is openly available

Henry V & Mr Carothers

Happy St Crispian's Day incidentally as we salute Henry V and the yeoman of England who, with the help of the English Longbow and some bad weather, eviscerated a much larger force of Frenchmen at Agincourt on this day, 1415.

Enquiring minds may also have noticed that it’s also the anniversary this weekend of the announcement to three thousand women at the 1939 New York World’s Fair of the invention by Wallace Hume Carothers of nylon. I can’t find any record of how the three thousand women reacted to the news that Mr Carothers employers, DuPont, were about to change the world forever but I can report with confidence that generations of men have been cheering ever since.


Clear & Cool

One of the fuming irritants of the South West Trains Commuters life is, "delays because a lorry / bus / crass bloody idiot has driven into a bridge. Delays are expected and passengers are advised to seek alternative methods of transportation on the homeward leg of their journey." Like what, we sprout wings and fly to Haslemere? In this instance though, the fault doesn't lie with SWT but Network Rail might choose to investigate the innovative Australian approach above. Probably not suitable for our small bridges under rural railway lines but then again, why not? 


Incidentally, a big "Be Safe!" to all out there with the terrible fires.