Monthly Archives: October 2013

Apple Should Have Made iWork Truly Free

In one of its standard product-release events, Apple announced last week an upgrade of it’s line of tablets. The iPad Mini will have higher resolution, and the full-size iPad will be slimmer — to the point of having its name upgraded to iPad Air. Both devices will have better processors and faster internet connections.

Since technology gadgets tend to get smaller and faster, most people were not impressed by last week’s event. Nick Bilton at the New York Times even complained that the Apple event itself was boring, since it followed the same routine of previous ones, designed around the showmanship of the late Steve Jobs.

Mr. Bilton has a point. Nevertheless, Apple in fact announced something interesting and genuinely new last week: the new version of the Mac OS X operating system (called Mavericks) is now free of charge, as it is the iWork suite — a set of softwares aimed at competing with Microsoft Office — for anyone who buys a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad.

The free release of iWork with new devices is very welcome, but Apple would have caused more impact — an actual impact — if it had made the suite free as in “free speech,” not just free as in “free food.” I’m referring, of course, to free software as defined by the Free Software Foundation: a software that allows the users freedom to run, study, copy, modify, improve, and redistribute the product.

The philosophy of free software has been around for about three decades now, and has great audience in software development and academic circles. Besides the appealing features of no charge and freedom to tweak the software to comply with the particular needs of users, proponents argue that there are more subtle advantages with respect to the so called “proprietary software.” According to free software guru Richard Stallman, for instance, free software implies that “much wasteful duplication of system programming effort will be avoided,” so that the effort “can go instead into advancing the state of the art”.

There’s in fact a lot of duplication in what concerns software for office usage, as not only Apple (with iWork) but at least Google (with Docs) and Sun Microsystems (with Open Office) have products similar to Microsoft Office.

Some Mac, iPhone and iPod users will undoubtedly benefit from a free-of-charge, compatible, well designed, office suite, but the chunk of market interested in using a free version of Microsoft Office has likely already been taken by existing high-quality free products, such as Google Docs. Given Apple’s large asset of worldwide developers, and the reach if its products, not only the company but our entire society would do better with an office suite that is truly free.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

Websites Should Be More Willing To Connect Brands With Consumers

In a Terms of Service update released last week and to be effective on November 11, Google announced it’ll start using Shared Endorsements on it’s advertisement network. It’s similar to Facebook’s Sponsored Stories, launched back in 2011: users that reveal their liking of, say, a brand, might serve as pitchmen for it to their friends in an eventual ad.

The most appealing aspect of the approach is that it resembles the word-of-mouth effect, a powerful advertisement strategy in real life. Another possible reason for Google’s move is the fact that Facebook has already experimented with the option, so online social-network users should by now be more open to the idea. Finally, the search giant might be just adopting the competitor’s approach out of the fear of missing online ad money’s migration to social.

But Google shouldn’t bother copying Facebook.

First, because, although the ad format is relatively successful — Facebook made about $4 million per day out of Sponsored Stories by the end of Sep 2012 — users complains eventually led Zuckerberg’s company to decide dropping the feature. In fact, Facebook was subject of a class action for using Sponsored Stories without permission.

Second, while advertisers are indeed becoming more faithful about social websites, simply adopting a competitors format is not guaranteed to grab their attention if the website doesn’t have an appealing audience — which still is the case of Google Plus.

Third, the word-of-mouth effect is very difficult to implement, for the nuances of influence in real life are too complex to simulate — specially since the psychology of online interactions differs from that of face-to-face relationships.

The main problem with most online ads is that the websites portraying them seem to be sorry to show ad content, instead of proudly trying to connect brands with consumers. Most websites are afraid of bothering users by asking them directly about what kinds of products they would like to hear about, and instead try to guess what they want based on their online behavior — a task difficult even for a human expert.

Consumers are eager to learn about new products. Besides, people who ever tried to get their business to reach an audience understand how important advertisement is. These users would probably not mind spending a few minutes telling a website what kinds of ads they’d like to see.

If a website were to show quality ads, if it were really willing to put business in contact with consumers, and vice-versa, perhaps users would be less afraid of releasing personal information. And if Google Plus were the one to do so, perhaps people would finally seriously consider using it. Copying Facebook’s approach certainly won’t do it.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

Gap Between Real and Fictional Robots Not as Narrow as It Should

Residing in one of the bizarre neighborhoods of the internet is the webpage of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, whose purpose is, in NYTimes’ Catherine Rampell words, to “research a ‘Terminator’-like scenario in which supercomputers rise up and destroy their human overlords.” How far exactly are we from such scenario? This month, according to BBC “‘Terminator’ self-assembling cube robots” have been revealed by MIT.

But don’t freak out just yet. In the Terminator films, an android is made of a certain material that can re-assemble itself, assuming different shapes when in liquid state. What the researchers at MIT made, despite impressive, is merely a conceptual project: a set of cubes that can configure themselves in different patterns, using internal flywheels for movement and magnets for connection. What it does best is providing further evidence for how far reality and fiction are in robotics.

Although the state-of-the-art in automation does pose an economical challenge, there’s too much discourse about the threat of intelligent machines, and not enough work on actually creating them. Of course robots are threatening, but so are gunpowder, uranium, and rocket science. There are many examples of the use of technology for bad purposes, and of the struggle to keep them off the hands of unprepared individuals, but if one looks at history without cynical bias, one can’t help noticing how much it have improved our overall quality of life.

Here’s a very short list of robots that would be mostly welcome, and that are far away from reality. (1) Housekeeper. It’s only threat would be perhaps giving too much time for the owners to compose bad songs to eventually become mainstream. (2) Firefighter. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, in 2012 there were 83 on-duty fatalities in the country. Wouldn’t it be nice if dangerous rescuing missions were performed by an army of robots? (3) Car-repairer. (4) Loan mower. (5) Farmer. (6) Cab-driver. (7) Personal dance instructor.

The problem of robots turning against humans is nonsense — now and for many decades to come — and any honest person who ever tried to do something on Artificial Intelligence will confirm. Let science fiction people wonder about it, but let’s not get seriously over dramatic yet. As for the economic threat, it is real but only because we are in such rudimentary times that so many human individuals still have to make a living doing repetitive, boring tasks — precisely the things robots are very competitive at; and should actually be doing.

Intelligent robots are a needed, welcome future. And criticism is not only premature, it’s damaging, for it focus attention on unrealistic downsides, thus pushing that future further away.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

The New Richard Dawkins

I rarely idolize writers or public personalities in general, but last month I found myself in a long line at Kimmel Center to get my copy of Richard Dawkins’ new book signed. The talk at NYU was part of a series of appearances to advertise the launching if his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, in which he describes some events that led to his well known intellectual position, and in particular to the writing of The Selfish Gene, the book that turned him into global celebrity in the 70s.

I still have to read the book, but there’s already something to say based on his talk at Kimmel, and an extended interview he gave the day before to John Stewart at The Daily Show. Namely, that Dawkins’ discourse got milder, less combative, and reaches to broader concerns, rather than simply to ridicule religious practices — what he is most famous for, since the publishing of The God Delusion in 2006.

Dawkins has certainly made a lot of religious enemies, but he also caused controversy among atheists. Critics argue that the scientist ignores the social and psychological benefits provided by religious practice, focusing simply on attacking beliefs, dogmas, rituals, and sacred scriptures.

Although I agree with the criticism, I think people like Richard Dawking, and books like The God Delusion, are necessary. As I wrote in a previous article, they provide support to individuals who want to get rid of religious superstition, and need help understanding why it is alright to do so. But in the article I also point to the lack of support to atheists after the religious ties are broken. That is, while it’s straightforward to see what is wrong with blind faith, no alternative is provided, and the atheist is left to deal with major life questions traditionally approached by religion (such as ethics, will, and purpose) all by himself.

Dawkins new discourse indicates he’s aware of these issues. It can be seen, for instance, in one of the highlights of his interview at The Daily Show, when John Stewart asks about the consequences of knowing that man is just “individual genes fighting for their own survival.”

“Natural selection working at the level of genes has put our bodies here and our brains here,” Dawkins replied, “but our brains are capable of taking off and departing from, cutting ourselves adrift from the dark side of our Darwinian heritage. You don’t have to be pessimistic and say we’re only a machine for our genes. We rise above that. We’ve got big brains, we’ve got culture, we’ve got art, we’ve got music, we’ve got poetry, we’ve got science. We’ve left behind the wild world in which our genes were naturally selected.”

I hope the author will further discuss these topics on upcoming publications. For, as in the case of religious criticism, a secular approach to them is also necessary.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)