Tell Me a Story, Robot

February 11, 2020

Make it a story of great distances and starlight…”– Robert Penn Warren from Tell Me A Story

If you’re reading this, then you’re a reader, That’s obvious, even tautological (nice word!). What I really mean is that you’re most likely a lover of books and good stories. But when someone says, “Tell Me A Story,” they are not talking about reading and writing. They’re talking about speaking and listening. Telling stories out loud is more primal. It runs in our DNA, and it was really the way stories were enjoyed and passed down up until the time of the Bible and other foundational texts like the Iliad and Gilgamesh. Even then, very few people could afford those painstakingly, handwritten manuscripts, so they were recited – enter the dawn of the audiobook. Read on and join me on a journey into Text-To-Speech(TTS) and the burgeoning tech effort to turn robots into storytellers.

Bedtime Stories

As parents, we have dutifully passed down the telling or reading of stories to our kids at bedtime. The tales delight and calm them, planting the seeds of pleasant dreams. Maybe this explains the popularity of podcasts and audiobooks. We have a relatively new platform for the dissemination of the spoken word with the surprise and delight of stories well told.

I grew up addicted to the spoken story with Mystery Theater on the radio. My parents’ generation listened to shows like The Shadow and Our Miss Brooks. And almost everyone has heard the famous Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. As an adult, my love of audiobooks dates back to Books on Tape that started up in the 1970s – BOT is still around. On my long work commutes, great stories whisked me away to distant places and triggered my imagination, shrinking my perceived commute time to nothing.

Audiobooks, Podcasts – Give Me More

Now that I am a writer, of course I would make my novels into audiobooks – NOT SO DEAD audio appeared in early 2018 and NOT SO GONE earlier this year. That journey began with interviewing ten narrators/actors to do the fourteen different characters. Since by now my wife, Amy, and I listened to hundreds of audiobooks in the years since Books on Tape, we had a good ear for what makes a great narrator. You don’t want an overly dramatic narrator – that would take away from the story – but you do want an actor who knows when to speed up with the action and emphasize specific words. And you don’t need a man who can sound perfectly female when he is performing a woman’s part – only slight changes in pitch and cadence will do the trick. The narrator is really a midwife who helps readers give birth to their own personal experiences of the story.

Charles Levin Author

Text-To-Speech – Is It Any Good?

With this in mind and being kind of a techy myself, I was intrigued when invited to beta test a voice synthesizing program from the well-funded tech startup WellSaid. Text-to-speech (TTS) is a rapidly-growing field of machine learning with many players from start-ups to the likes of Google, vying for the lion’s share of the projected $3 billion TTS market. Could TTS replace human narrators at much less cost? Would the quality be there?

WellSaid’s YouTube demo was impressive. So as a beta tester, I had the opportunity to try it myself. I inputted my text, selected from one of three digital narrators, and a human-like voice read it aloud. Here are the first few sentences of the first chapter of NOT SO DEAD done by the Voice Synthesizer – compare them to my human narrator,  HERE. What do you think (please leave a comment below)? I also tried Google’s TTS which boasts of 100 voices to choose from in more than 20 languages. You can try your own Google TTS experiment for free here.  My opinion: for a straight reading of the news or maybe even for advertising voice-overs, it’s fine. The words are pronounced correctly, but TTS has a way to go for storytelling. Human audiobook narrators are safe for now. Storytelling requires a great deal of nuance in the tone and emphasis to deliver an exceptional audio experience. And for the foreseeable future, that appears to be way beyond the current software wizardry.

In fact, it took decades beyond landing a man on the moon to reach 99% accuracy with Speech-To-Text (the flip-side of TTS) aka turning your voice dictation into the written word. The futurists had no idea that the task was more complex than a moonshot, but Speech-To-Text eventually got there. Take this a step further and maybe we writers and creators need to look over our shoulders as Artificial Intelligence can actually write and create fiction and do it well. So well, that when Open AI created a very powerful content creation program, it scared them and they shut it down. Similarly, who thought computers could beat the world’s top chess champion or the top Go master and they did. What does all this mean for our future? I’m not sure, but I will be watching and listening and still writing with anticipation. In the meantime, I don’t believe anything will replace Mom or Dad reading you Good Night Moon before bed anytime soon.

Happy reading! Or should I say listening…

— END —


Can Hackers Attack Our Power Grid Right Now And Who Cares?

November 7, 2017

Infrastructure Is Exposed

The short answer is ‘Yes.’ Hackers can take down our power grid right now. How they can do it and why they haven’t done it yet should be a concern for all of us, not just the government or utility companies. As we’ve seen in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, loss of power can lead to fires, explosions and untold human suffering. It’s not the 1800s anymore. We are not set up as a society to function without power for our homes, businesses and national infrastructure.

Hackers and the Grid - NOT SO DEAD - Charles Levin Thrillers Author

So how can our power grid be attached by hackers? In for my latest novel, I explore a few of the incidents that have occurred and could occur. For example, most people don’t realize that Iran has already hacked one of our hydroelectric dams in Rye Brook, New York – the Bowman Dam incident.Using the internet and sophisticated tools, Iranian hackers actually took down the power at that dam. You can read more about it here.

Russia has, in effect, been using the Ukraine as a laboratory for infrastructure hacking, They have blacked out the capital city of Kiev several times over several days. We know they are enemies, but I believe Russia has bigger plans and what better way to test your capabilities than on a weaker foe.

Well you say, why not just disconnect our utilities from the Internet? Iran did that in 2010  by isolating their nuclear centrifuges from any external connections. Allegedly the U.S. and Israel still managed to hack into the centrifuges and set back Iran’s nuclear fuel production by years with the now famous Stuxnet virus.

Hackers and the Grid - NOT SO DEAD - Charles Levin Thrillers Author

Hackers And Social Engineering

How could we do that? I talk about that at some length in NOT SO DEAD. The key to the majority of successful hacks is ‘social engineering.’ For example, talented social engineers, aka hackers, calls your office, gets someone in administration, claims to be you and says, “Oh, I forgot my password and I’m on the road. Can you tell it to me?” More than half the time the admin will oblige. Really. Or too many people use ‘Password’ as their password. In the Stuxnet case, we had a confederate on the inside slip a flash drive, with the virus, into one of the networked computers that controlled the centrifuges inside the Iranian nuclear facility. The world and the Iranians might never have ever figured it out had not the virus somehow leaked out onto the Internet and been tracked down by some security experts.

Clearly, personal vigilance and training for yourself and your organization are needed to prevent socially engineered hacks and identity theft. But what about the bigger, more serious infrastructure vulnerabilities? Well despite our current leadership’s head in the sand on this issue, the U.S. does have the Defense Department’s Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) with 6000 dedicated people fighting the Cyberwar both offensively and defensively. We clearly need more and better people and tools, despite being a world leader. China has already stolen highly classified technology, Russia has hacked our elections, and even North Korea wrecked havoc with Sony’s internal files. All documented and proven.

Mutually Assured Destruction

So if Russia or some other foreign power has the ability to attack our power grid in a big way, why haven’t they done it yet? The answer may be in an age old paradigm from the Cold War and Nuclear Threats, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction.’ Russia knows that if they did to us what they are doing in Ukraine, we would retaliate. I believe the U,S. already carried out some cyber retaliation to the Russian election hacking that has not been reported, butt sent a clear message to the Russians. “You mess with us and we can make you pay.”

So for now, both sides or I should say all major nations are building up their arsenals and their skills, just like the Cold War nuclear build up, both to prevent a major infrastructure attack and to carry one out if need be. Scary, yes. It’s the world we live in. What can we do besides being vigilant in our own security practices? Support and elect people with a will to believe in science and prepare the army, both for our own protection and to lead us into a safer future.

For more:
Bowman Dam Incident
Stuxnet Cyberattack on Iran
Switch A Country Off


What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology?

July 24, 2017

What is a Quantum Computer?

I am writing about Quantum Computing now, because I see the beginning of something big that will impact all our lives soon. I had the same premonition about PCs when I got my first Osborne Computer in 1981 and was on the Internet before there was ever a web browser or a Yahoo or Google.  So let’s explore what Quantum Computers are, what they can do and what they could mean for you and me.

What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology? D-Wave 2000, Charles Levin Thriller Author, Quantum Computing

First, Quantum Computers are here now and can solve problems and anticipate outcomes up to a thousand times faster than traditional computers. Here’s the techy definition, but keep reading:

“quan·tum com·put·er, noun
plural noun: quantum computers
1. a computer that makes use of the quantum states of subatomic particles to store information.”

But what the heck does this mean? Bits vs. Qubits. The simple explanation is that Quantum Computers use a whole different paradigm for achieving results at lightning speed. On the one hand, the fundamental building blocks  of traditional computer code are 1’s and 0’s – BITS. So their state is either ON – a 1 or OFF – a 0. Consequently, traditional computers solve problems in a sequential way: if A then B then C . . . So their speed is based on how fast they can do these sequential calculations. There are things like parallel processing that allow these machines to walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s still walking.

On the other hand Quantum Computers (“QCs”) can see 1’s and 0’s at the same time! QUBITS. So instead of solving a problem sequentially, QCs can simultaneously attack a problem from multiple different directions. You can get way deeper into how it works, but this gives you the basics.

What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology? Bits vs, Qubits - Charles Levin Thriller Author

Why Do We Care About Quantum Speed?

Quantum Speed means we can solve really complex problems fast enough to matter. For example, take the example of the emerging technology of self-driving cars. Volkswagon and D-Wave Systems, one of the first commercially available QC systems, successfully tested optimizing the routes of 10,000 taxis in Beijing simultaneously to reduce traffic congestion. Unless you can do this fast in realtime, the information becomes useless. If you’re in a taxi, it needs to know to take the next left before it reaches the intersection and traditional computers, even supercomputers, may not be fast enough to do that.

This kind of QC computing power can handle other kinds of very complex data-intensive problems, like predicting weather patterns, catching terrorist needles in a global haystack, cracking encryption, predicting financial trends, space exploration, genetic research and more.

What Does The Quantum Computing Future Look Like?

Besides attacking and solving the big data, complex problems mentioned, QC gets really interesting when combined with Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). I mean how does a traditional computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, beat the world champion chess player at chess, or Google’s AlphaGo, beat the world champion at the game of GO? The programmer who wrote the code for these machines is not a better chess or GO player. The only way these AI machines exceed the most skilled humans is by Learning. And by learning, just like the Beijing taxis, the machine must recognize patterns, optimize, and return results fast.
Finally, remember when computers, that were less powerful then your cellphone, filled large air-conditioned rooms? Certainly one of the obstacles with QC is that the machines rely on superconductivity. That means to move electrons at super high-speeds, the QC is housed inside a refrigerator set to less than one degree above Absolute Zero (-273 degrees Fahrenheit!). But who knows? Maybe we’ll be carrying Quantum Computers in our pockets one day too. That be years off, but why, in the very near future, couldn’t your current cellphone connect to a Quantum Computer? You send it the problem, it crunches the numbers at quantum speed, and sends you the answer instantly. Cool, eh?
For more on this subject, as well as future posts on biological computers, quantum biology and Deep Learning, join our mailing list and you’ll be the first to know when these new posts are available.
Until then, my self-driving car is waiting . . . .
For more articles and video, here are a few interesting links:
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The Approach of Web 3.0 – What Is It? and What Can You Do?

July 28, 2009

In case you didn’t know that there were different design iterations of the internet, there are, and we’re approaching number 3. So what is Web 3.0? Well to understand the newest form of the Internet, you have to understand how it’s evolved over time. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll rely on how Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the web-browser) describes the Internet. Essentially, Web 1.0 was the read-only web in which content was created and produced by a small group of people. Web 2.0 (the current iteration) is the read-write web. With tools like blogs and social media, Web 2.0 gave us a huge influx of user-created content.

Web 3.0 is more like the read-write-execute web. This is known by a number of different names, such as semantic web, ubiquitous computing (sometimes called “everyware” – now that’s a good pun), or cloud computing. There are really 3 major points to Web 3.0:

User Created Software: In web 3.0 we have tools which make it simple for users to craft and execute their own software and programs.

Electronic Browsing: Web 3.0 also contains the notion of more organized content, perhaps through content-tagging. Put more simply, the web thus far has been designed for readability by people. With web 3.0, content is more easily automatically browsed by computers, making it easier for systems to function through the internet. This makes the web more like a database, and allows for non-browser applications. Leading us to our next point:

Integration with Devices and Hardware: The combination of numerous applications and algorithmic browsability by computer makes web 3.0 the first iteration of the internet that will become truly integrated with our everyday lives beyond the computer screen. We already see basic forms of this, such as video streamed from a computer to a tv, or the picture frames which display a slideshow from an online photo album. Now imagine this in more complex applications, such as a refrigerator which knows when you run out of a certain kind of food and sends an order to a online grocery delivery service. Or even just imagine being able to control everything that plugs into a wall in your house from a single screen. The possibilities are very nearly endless. With enough creativity, one can look at the various objects in any given room and think about how it could benefit from an internet connection.

Other Benefits

There a number of other benefits which should greatly increase the overall user experience with the web. For example, with all the Internet properly organized, the user is provided with a much more meaningful search. If your input is specific enough and what you’re searching for exists, you should be able to immediately find it. And because of the connectivity with hardware, you should be able to search through every existing electronic database. This has become known as “semantic search”. Besides search, there’s also the idea of being constantly “plugged in”. The internet could follow every step of your life. Imagine instead of just seeing ads on facebook based on which groups you’ve joined, seeing ads on tv based on what you just bought at the store. The applications for this technology are endless. To quote the Wall Street journal, “From using easy gestures to grab any piece of information from the Web to having powerful computers in the palm of your hand to being able to quickly dip into complex social networks to getting real-time information from across the globe as it happens, Web 3.0 is an era when computing could become as integrated and invisible as electricity and just as important.”

How Can I Be On The Forefront?

As a business-person it’s crucial to stay on top of every development in the ever-changing landscape of the internet. Web 3.0 is coming about bit-by-bit, we won’t all be downloading the big upgrade from our suddenly outdated web 2.0 anytime soon. So you have time to update your technology and strategy along with the development of the internet. Almost any business has a way they could integrate their hardware with the newest forms of the internet. For example, perhaps you could employ GPS-tagging, something applicable to location-based services such as anyone who ships packages. Bar-code enabled content would be another forward-thinking step. Essentially the goal of all this is to make you and your products more semantically searchable. Currently this is all might be speculative thinking, and the development comes through people acting on that speculation, by innovating and integrating. The best tip here is to be creative when it comes to applications of the Internet and in doing so, be on the cutting edge of the web.

If you want to brainstorm some possibilities together, please contact us info@outofchaos.com


How Twitter Can Make History

June 25, 2009

Time for us to enjoy another video from the great intellectual resource that is TED. This time we’re watching Clay Shirky, a veritable “internet philosopher”, talk about the internet as a new form of media, and its place in our world. Or rather, our place in its world. I’m posting it here because it interestingly parallels the very first post I made on this blog.

Disclaimer: The video is about 17 minutes long. In the interest of appeasing our ever shrinking attention spans and the lack of free time in the work day, I’ll give you a quick summary. Read it with the knowledge that Mr. Shirky does a much better job presenting his points, and with the plan to watch the video later.

Basically, Shirky starts off by talking about the evolution of technology as a social tool. He describes how social technology, from the printing press to the telephone to the television, are effective either as 1 to 1 communication or as 1 to many communication. The Internet is the first vestige of many to many communication. He also explains how Internet’s nature is to absorb all other past forms of media, which we see occurring now and will surely see in more abundance in the future.

Mapping the Internet

Mapping the Internet

According to Shirky, the key to the “many to many” communication of the internet is the fact that it allows everyone to be both a producer and a consumer of media. Whereas with something like television, a message was crafted and then distributed from a relatively small group of producers to the wider consumer audience, with the internet, anyone can say anything they like, and anyone else can receive that message. The benefits of the simultaneous consumer/producer role was evidenced through the recent earthquakes in China. Shirky explains how citizens using the internet were the first to report the earthquakes which China traditionally tries to cover up. We also see the benefits of social internet through the protesting in Iran. Our traditional media outlets have been cut off from reporting in Iran, and as a result, social media through the internet has become a primary source of information.

Purposeful Twittering: Iranians Twitter Too

Purposeful Twittering: Iranians Twitter Too

Shirky concludes with the idea that what used to be the monologue of media, the producers forming a message which they distribute to consumers, is now a dialogue. What’s more, the dialogue is only part of a larger conversation among the audience as a whole. Now this huge audience of amateurs, a group substantially larger than the professional elite, can talk to one another en masse. Shirky postulates that as a result of this, the majority of our media, now and in the future, will be produced by the amateur crowd.

Shirky’s conclusion is that the internet as a new form of communication is less about the traditional methodology: craft a single message, send it to the masses, and more about creating environments for fostering groups of people who then converse.

The final question Shirky asks to end his talk is one which you as someone interested in marketing on the internet should consider, both as a producer and a consumer: As someone trying to reach people, how do you take advantage of this new media environment?

I think that’s a question we’re constantly endeavoring to answer through this blog, and a problem Pathfinder is consistently solving for its clients.


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