Dave, who knows more than a bit about this sort of complex computer mumbo-jumbo, pointed out that Watson likely isn’t actually processing the questions semantically, but rather basing its answers on statistical relationships. Though this doesn’t significantly change the things I address in my post, its an important distinction to make.

This evening was the first airing of the long-awaited Jeopardy! match between two of the game’s most successful players and Watson, a question-parsing supercomputer developed by IBM. It’s obvious that big Blue wouldn’t have given the go ahead for an official match until they could be relatively sure of a victory (or at least holding their own), that knowledge doesn’t make watching this machine play any less impressive. At least judging from what I’ve seen, Watson seems to be pretty on-par with the best human players, if not a little bit better, though that got me wondering about how much of the computer’s ability was due to its processing, and how much benefit it got from it uniquely non-human characteristics.

Our lab does a lot of work on investigating how things like emotion, anxiety, and stress influence learning, memory, and cognition. We often do this by having study participants answer a series of general knowledge trivia questions under different experimental manipulations. Put simply, our research and that of other labs has shown that stress of being in a test environment, anxiety about getting the answers right and, and focus on negative emotion if you get an answer wrong, all contribute to a person doing significantly worse in these kind of situations than others who aren’t as stressed, worried, or sensitive to negative feedback.

Add to those relatively high-level concerns the fact that humans are easy to distract, have different reading speeds, make inconsistent muscle movements, and are subject to things like being hungry or tired. Compare these facts to a computer who never needs to eat or sleep, has only one possible goal (answering questions), and doesn’t have any feelings to be hurt or things to worry about.

Suddenly bringing a human to a trivia fight might not be the best idea.

Of course, there are many areas where humans have a leg up on our robotic competition, particularly when it comes to “creative” thinking, language use, and joking. That being said, Watson seems to be surprisingly good at the kind of word-play problems that are common on Jeopardy!, which might be a good indication of how close it is to our level of ability.

Looking at the big picture, competing on a game show is unimportant compared to the possible real-world applications of a technology like Watson. As computers become more and more able to do things historically only done by humans, an obvious question is when that all-important line is crossed and the computers are better at being us than we are.

Though there are many ways to determine where this point is, and equally as many arguments against any particular measure, lets stick with Jeopardy! for a second. The way I see it, to be better than a human at answering trivia questions, Watson only has to be as good as the best human player, at least in terms of “thinking” ability. In a game between Watson and a human champion with exactly equal semantic-processing/question-answering abilities, the computer will always win. Because Watson doesn’t care if it gets a question wrong, but Ken Jennings really doesn’t want to be beaten by a computer. Because Watson will always hit the buzzer at exactly the right time, and Joe Human might slip. For all the reasons I talked about above, Watson doesn’t have to be any smarter than a human to beat us.

How-To: Add Your Baruch Email to Gmail

For whatever reason, the higher ups at BCTC decided a few years ago that instead of using a traditional email solution, they would outsource the email accounts for all Baruch faculty, staff, and students to the horrible, terrible, awful Windows Live Mail service. So bad is the current email situation that the vast majority of students and staff don’t even use their school addresses, which can be a problem when most official Baruch communication goes to that account. Furthermore, there is no way to set the Live account to automatically forward new messages to a different address (a option which appears to have been intentionally removed by the Baruch admins).

The good news is that there’s an easy way to integrate your Baruch email into your existing Gmail account. Messages sent to your Baruch address will automatically show up in your Gmail inbox, and you’ll be able to send messages from your school address without having to log into your Baruch account.

Because not everyone feels comfortable with all this newfangled interweb stuff, I’ve outlined the steps below.

1. Log into your Gmail and click on Settings in the top-right corner.

2. Click on the Accounts and Import tab in Settings.

3. Under Check mail using POP3, click Add POP3 email account.

4. Enter your full Baruch email address. (e.g. john.doe@baruchmail.cuny.edu)

5. Gmail will automatically fill in your username and select the email server settings. Enter your Baruch password.

Optional: If you want to continue accessing your Baruch email the traditional way, enable Leave a copy of retrieved messages on the server, otherwise each message will be deleted from your Baruch account once it has been downloaded to Gmail.

These are the only steps necessary if all you want is for messages sent to your Baruch address to appear in Gmail. If you also want to be able to send messages from your Baruch address from within Gmail, follow these few extra steps.

6. Also on the Accounts and Import tab of Settings, under Send mail as, click Send mail from another address.

7. Enter your Baruch email address.

8. An email with a confirmation code will be sent to your Baruch address (and should now show up in Gmail). Click the link in the email or copy the code into the set-up dialog.

8. Select Send through Gmail (The only difference between this setting and sending through the Baruch server is that some old versions of Outlook will display messages from your Baruch address sent through Gmail as “From you@gmail.com on behalf of you@baruchmail.cuny.edu” The reasons for this have to do with the way spam filters work.)

And there you have it. No more dealing with the painful Baruch email interface, and no more missing important school emails. This process also works for other email accounts as well, not just Baruch (but obviously some of the settings would be different).

Through the Wash

A few months ago, my buddy Chris and I were “shootin’ the shit,” as one is want to do, and he mentioned that he just found a jump-drive that he had accidentally sent through the washing machine. Unsurprisingly for those of us who know their way around electronic circuits, after drying the thing out, it worked. Despite this, we thought it might be fun to see what else could survive a trip to the laundromat, and decided to build Through the Wash.

With video reviews featuring the comedy talent of the Geek Comedy Tour 3000 team, we think Through the Wash has the potential to be a hit– but we need your help, so check it out and spread the word!

Mibbit is web-based IRC for your iPhone

One of the things I’ve been sorely missing since I switched from my old Sidekick II to my iPhone is the ability to hop on IRC and kill some time. On the Sidekick, I took advantage of the downloadable shell client and a remote server with a command-line IRC client installed, but on the iPhone, no such luck.

I was expecting to have to wait until June of this year when Apple starts allowing third-party applications on the device, but out the woodwork has come Mibbit, an iPhone compatible AJAX web application which provides the full IRC experience– arguably better even than that which I had with my Sidekick. Mibbit even manages to provide pre-join scrollback to help users catch up on conversation they may have missed– something I’d like to see in my desktop client as well.

While there are certainly some flaws with the Mibbit+iPhone union– its hard to type and read chat at the same time– it’s certainly a site I’ll be adding to my home screen.

Behind the LOLcat: Schrodinger’s LOLcat

Schrodinger’s LOLcat

A few days ago, I was listening to a podcast lecture on the basics of quantum cryptography when I got into a discussion about the nitty-gritty of the subject with my friend Justin.

dantekgeek: exponential on a regular computer, but reasonable time on a quantum computer, right?
justinwick: Right right
justinwick: assuming ur in ur quantum computerz, giving them enuff qbitz
dantekgeek: hahahaha
justinwick: 🙂
justinwick: schrodinger’s lolcat

I quickly searched flickr for a suitable image, and came across Kevin Steele’s fantastic “a box for every cat.” Some quick work in Skitch, and Schrodinger’s lolcat was born.

I figured my circle of friends would get a kick out of it, and that maybe it would be picked up by BoingBoing, but could never have predicted the amount of exposure my little creation has received.

Others had the idea long before I came across it, but for whatever reason, it was my LOLcat which gets all the glory. This puts me in kind of a weird position; On one hand, I don’t want to be seen as taking credit for an idea that was already floating in the ether, but the fact remains that we did create this thing without knowledge of prior-art, and I think that should count for something.

I want to make clear that I couldn’t have made this thing on my own, and it was only through the spirit of the meme, my conversation with Justin, and Kevin’s photo that this thing came to fruition. I am but one small robot on the LOLcat assembly line.

I’m in talks with Justin and Kevin about possibly printing up some t-shirts, but nothing is guaranteed– we might choose to just let this thing stay online, where it was born, and where it belongs.


Despite his shoddy pirate technique and library and content library management, my younger brother really does have quite good taste in music– a fact which I often fail to acknowledge due to sheer laziness. He introduced me to Pendulum a few weeks back, and this evening assisted my discovery of Basshunter.

I listen to a lot of great music, and I’m sure you readers do as well– so what makes this Basshunter fellow post-worthy?

Geek cred.

Not only is his music some excellent upbeat eurodance, but the themes are about as nerdy as you can get. His first international hit, Boten Anna, tells a tale of mistaken identity involving an IRC bot, and his second single is a sort of techno tribute to Warcraft 3 mod “Defense of the Ancients” and voice-conferencing application Ventrillo– complete with sound samples from the game mixed in.

For fans of dance and geeks alike, Basshunter is definitely worth checking out. Below is the video for Vi sitter i Ventrilo och spelar DotA

“Bit Literacy” & Good Experience Meet-Up

Mark Hurst, User Experience expert and author of the new book, Bit Literacy is hosting a seminar and reader meet-up in NYC this coming Wednesday, May 23rd. The seminar is $40, and includes a copy of the book. Unfortunately, I get into the city too late for the seminar, but I’m hoping to make it to the meet-up later in the evening. Let me know (via the spiffy new contact page) if you’re planning to be there, and we can meet-up!

Use Numerals– Not Words– For Better Usability

It’s always nice when a something comes out that backs up something you’ve been asserting on your own for ages, especially when that thing seems to be common sense. According to eyetracking data from a recent study, numerals (27) catch user’s attention more than words of the same meaning (twenty-three). Things that are ‘out of place’ (numerals) always stand out from their environment (words), so it makes perfect sense that the same should be true for text. This is a concept I’ve tried to incorporate into my designs for a while now, and I think it really does make a big difference in helping users glean useful information from content.

[via InfoDesign]