DeepMind takes baby steps, but this is significant

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When, a year ago, Google bought, for a reported $400M, a small and previously little known British artificial intelligence startup called DeepMind, the acquisition was widely reported, the general press essentially saying; “Gosh golly, these tech type geniuses are, like .. wow! And they get rich too!”(1,2).

Technical news sites concentrated more on the reasons Google would be interested in such a company, connecting it with Google’s buying spree of robotics firms and pointing out that artificial learning could be useful in its core business of selling (more or less) accurately targeted advertising.

But last week’s publication in Nature of a paper by the DeepMind team claiming that their software has been able to learn to successfully play 49 early video games points toward something much more profound than this – because the software they produced has learned to play the games without any previous information about what the games were, or what success consisted of. The only inputs were the screen itself (exactly what a human would see) and the score, and the only outputs from the software were valid actions that could be produced by the game controller. From nothing more than repeated ‘plays’ the software ‘discovered’ strategies for success, and in a quite number of cases (29!), learned to play the game better than humans can.

‘But these are trivial games’, you might say; computers have been able to beat the world champion Chess players for years, and are now making progress even at the game of Go. And you’d be right, but the difference is in the way the software learned to play.

XKCD comics – gotta read them all!

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Aside

I love C2!

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Noodling around after posting the post just before this one, I have been allowing C2.com to take me where my curiosity leads. In the immortal words of Calvin (late C20th Watterson incarnation, rather than C16th French theologian – ain’t reincarnation wonderful?);

Boy-o-Boy-o-Boy-o-Boy!

A few of my finds…

Semantic Web

Frame Problem

Delete Me

– Inclusion here indicates no judgement as to the correctness of any of the points of view on the pages – merely that they are interesting. The informational and argumentational density of these pages is just gorgeous!

 

Costing coding work – and the value of experienced intuition

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OK, I’ve come to an impasse with what I’m doing at the moment – banging my head against a particular wall for a few hours too long.

Time to move on to another topic; pull out the mental list of all the things that need to be at least thought about in order to move our startup forward.

IP, MVP, business model, data protection, regulatory environment, legal structure, read more about Scrum/Agile, marketing strategy, logo design, data structures, UX prototyping …  …  … …  (…:::!!!!)

OK, here’s one: how much money are we going to need to spend on coding to get to a scalable MVP launched?

Big question! Cost estimation is a big deal in traditional bricks-and-mortar architecture, too, so I’m aware that this is not a subject to be taken lightly or fudged. A frequent and serious pain point in construction projects is when project estimate costs rise significantly AFTER the client is committed. Whatever else happens when this occurs, confidence and morale are dented, usually badly.

Construction clients want to spend as little as possible while statutory consents are at risk, and one way to spend less up-front is to do lightweight cost estimation (on the back of lightweight specification) and hope for the best. Of course, even if they have misgivings about these estimates, consultants are often unwilling to rock the boat at an early stage, not wanting to be the messenger that gets shot. Less scrupulous players have even been known to downplay cost risk until the client is committed, and then milk the situation (‘Oh, you wanted us to do the roof? Oh no, we never included for that. Yeah, yeah, I know you need a roof – rainin’ innit? Let me see what I can do for ya. Not gonna be cheap though – you wouldn’t want to skimp on a roof, wouldja?’).

So my approach to construction projects is almost always to convince clients of the value of making a larger-than-typical effort at the early stages to address all the likely risks – I’d rather have a client cancel early than go into something that is going to turn into hell for everyone. If they come up with another project in a few years perhaps they’ll remember me as that honest chap who saved them from getting burned.

So, can I do this with software?

It seems not. In fact, it seems not, big-style. Continue reading

… eating glass, staring into the abyss

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I was talking to my friend Mark van Harmelen of Hedtek (of whom more in a later post) about setting off on this path, and he gave me this quote from Elon Musk;

Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.

This was meant kindly, of course; did I really want to put myself in this position, this level of stress?

There are two parts to a response to this; firstly, do I believe that this really what it’s like?

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Tools – FilemakerPro

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At a time when new web-based tools that help with one aspect or another of the development cycle pop up every other week, and when the number of free development environments is so large that choosing between them might be seen as a job in itself, it might seem odd to be promoting a database aimed at non-technical users as a prototyping environment – especially when it will be 20 years old next birthday. Factor in the cost – at around £280, it’s easily 100 times the cost of a typical app – and you might be wondering about my sanity.

But as I kicked around the options for getting a working MVP of our health/fitness app to the point where I can show potential users and investors something that actually works, and which will communicate the value of what we have imagined through hands-on use rather than verbiage, I was finding it hard to stay positive.

The options seemed to boil down to two:

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Tools – Prototyping on Paper

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ClimateActivateMe Prototype on Paper

My friend Ross (an excellent illustrator and creator of animated shorts, by the way – look here – and here for more) suggested I have a look at POP – Prototyping on Paper. I did, and it’s fantastic. Very simple and intuitive to use, and you get testable results with clickable links, fast.

Here’s a proposal I made for the September 21 People’s Climate March (to which I hope you will be going – look here). Once I’d drawn the wireframes, this took about an hour and was my first real use of the app.

Back

I have been, as they say, AFK for a few months. Away but not idle. In addition to finishing off my long-in-the-making sustainable doctor’s surgery in Herstmonceux, East Sussex (the new pharmacy is growing behind the hoarding just visible top right);

HIHC View from East

Herstmonceux Integrated Health Centre

I have also completed a course in programming Android apps through Coursera,

Tartan designer android app

Tartan designer android app

and written a full-on software spec for a friend’s e-commerce site (you will be happy to know that there is no picture to go with this one…).

And, in the last 6 weeks, I have been working away on what looks as if it will progress from a shiny idea into a real attempt at a digital startup, which I am modestly going to keep quiet about for a while longer.

This last ushers in a new phase of this blog, then, which will likely have fewer long posts about events, and more short posts about things that have come up as I talk to the many kind people I am pestering for critical comments/constructive advice/words of wisdom. Time to put some of the things I learned last year into practice….

Startup Productivity Tools event 28th Nov

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This event was put on by Tech Meetups, an international setup with events all over the world – the first of theirs I’ve attended.

I was unfortunately late, so I missed the presentation from HootSuite, who aim to allow management of multiple social media campaigns. My loss.

PRESENTATIONS

ProdPad: As I arrived, Janna Bastow was presenting a tour through the set of tools offered by ProdPad, the startup she founded with her partner, and which they have successfully bootstrapped. ProdPad offers a suite of services clustered around the earlier stages of product development for teams – starting with ideas, offering tools for capture and management, for gathering comment and feedback on them, all recorded and transparent to all stakeholders – specific permissions can be given to users outside the organisation.

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Aside

PitchMark: full disclosure pitching without fear?

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This post from Newspodge brought PitchMark to my attention – a service that attempts to offer confidence to content creators and inventors by acting as a time-stamped repository of record, and backup legal support. The service isn’t free, but although it doesn’t look expensive, in the age of freemium everything it perhaps looks so at first. Close investigation of exactly what it offers will be important – the devil is in the detail with this sort of thing.

This is perhaps something that could be built-in, or partnered with, the Co-Founder Jamming idea.

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