Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas 2008

Happy Christmas (War is Over) from 1971 is one of my favorite videos of all time. It's appropriate for the season.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Remarks on Good to Great

I read the classic Good to Great by Jim Collins (2001). Collins and his team looked for the common thread among 11 companies that generated average returns for 15 years or more, then took off and produced great results for 15 years. Good to great companies find the sweet spot along three dimensions:
  • They know what they can be best at
  • They are passionate about what they do
  • They understand where their profits come from and they measure the right thing
Finding the sweet spot is an iterative process. So, rather than sitting down in an offsite one week and hammering out a strategy, their process is one of ongoing discussion. In fact, getting the right people precedes getting the right strategy - once you get the right people the rest will fall into place. None of the companies that went from good to great had a "star quality" CEO. Instead, the leaders of these companies were driven but humble, and they tended to take little credit for themselves when things went well.

Great book. I'll read this again in a few years for more inspiration.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Aiko, the humanoid robot

In 1996 I attended the IROS robotics conference in Osaka, Japan as part of a group of grad student robotics researchers. We toured the robotics labs at Tokyo University (Todai). There were a lot of student projects in humanoid robots.

Here's a video of a recent humanoid robot project. It's similar to the student projects I saw, but a bit more advanced. Aiko can read (apparently) and visually track objects, react to touch, and process some natural language. Note the command language the inventor uses to control the robot: "Aiko, Japanese mode." "Aiko, trace object." These are verbal equivalents to pushing buttons on a control panel.

The entire effect of the lifelike mask, loud mechanical motors whirring, and stilted conversation is a little creepy. I think this demo is relevant to the "Uncanny Valley" hypothesis. I know it's a popular idea, that if we make our machines more "lifelike" then people will trust them and accept them, but I'm not seeing any evidence for that. I mean, look how things turned out in Blade Runner.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sitting out the recession in MBA school

US business schools have reported a big increase in the number of applicants to MBA programs. Apparently a lot of workers have decided to deal with the recession by returning to school and preparing for the day the economy turns around.

Of course, if you're a recent MBA graduate then this fallback plan isn't available anymore, as homeboy James Williamson of Durham, NC discovered. Driving a taxi in NYC is a tough way to earn a living until companies start hiring again.

As I've mentioned before, I'm in the part-time MBA program at NC State, with one year to go before graduation. Things will turn around before then, right?

Friday, December 5, 2008

IBM's Next Five Big Things

This press release from IBM claims that speech recognition for the Web will be a hot technology within five years. As I mentioned previously, IBM has been dedicating some effort to speech recognition. It's a nice idea, I'd like to see it happen, but it's usually a good idea to be skeptical of claims for any speech recognition application.

Here's a slicker presentation on the material in the press release, with a little different spin. The "web" use would be for automatic speech translation, apparently. Automatic translation has been a dream for decades, and in fact it's one of the original AI research projects. I'd like to get a chance to talk to someone in IBM speech research about this.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wordsmithing: putting band-aids on gunshot wounds

I get this request frequently. "This prompt is giving us trouble. Can you wordsmith it?" It often comes up when a call flow is out of order in some fundamental way, but the client company doesn't want to redesign it. The wordsmithed prompt is supposed to alert the caller that something strange is going to happen and to prepare them for it.

IVRs have to work really well to work at all. Customers' tolerance for ambiguity and confusion in an IVR is far less than for a web form with similar functionality. Wordsmithing a broken call flow is about as helpful as treating gunshot wounds with band-aids.