Computer

Meet the People Who Train the Robots (to Do Their Own Jobs)

SAN FRANCISCO — What if part of your job became teaching a computer everything you know about doing someone’s job — perhaps your own?

Before the machines become smart enough to replace humans, as some people fear, the machines need teachers. Now, some companies are taking the first steps, deploying artificial intelligence in the workplace and asking their employees to train the A.I. to be more human.

We spoke with five people — a travel agent, a robotics expert, an engineer, a customer-service representative and a scriptwriter, of sorts — who have been put in this remarkable position. More than most, they understand the strengths (and weaknesses) of artificial intelligence and how the technology is changing the nature of work.

Here are their stories.

Rachel Neasham, travel agent

Ms. Neasham, one of 20 (human) agents at the Boston-based travel booking app Lola, knew that the company’s artificial intelligence computer system — its name is Harrison — would eventually take over parts of her job. Still, there was soul-searching when it was decided that Harrison would actually start recommending and booking hotels.

At an employee meeting late last year, the agents debated what it meant to be human, and what a human travel agent could do that a machine couldn’t. While Harrison could comb through dozens of hotel options in a blink, it couldn’t match the expertise of, for example, a human agent with years of experience booking family vacations to Disney World. The human can be more nimble — knowing, for instance, to advise a family that hopes to score an unobstructed photo with the children in front of the Cinderella Castle that they should book a breakfast reservation inside the park, before the gates open.

Ms. Neasham, 30, saw it as a race: Can human agents find new ways to be valuable as quickly as the A.I. improves at handling parts of their job? “It made me feel competitive, that I need to keep up and stay ahead of the A.I.,” Ms. Neasham said. On the other hand, she said, using Harrison to do some things “frees me up to do something creative.”

Ms. Neasham is no ordinary travel agent. When she left the Army after serving as a captain in Iraq and Afghanistan, she wanted to work at a start-up. She joined Lola as one of its first travel agents. Knowing that part of her job was to be a role model, basically, for Harrison, she felt a responsibility for Harrison to become a useful tool.

Founded in 2015 by Paul English, who also started the travel-search site Kayak, Lola was conceived as part automated chat service and part recommendation engine. Underlying it all was a type of artificial intelligence technology called machine learning.

Lola was set up so that agents like Ms. Neasham didn’t interact with the A.I. much, but it was watching and learning from every customer interaction. Over time, Lola discovered that Harrison wasn’t quite ready to take over communication with customers, but it had a knack for making lightning-fast hotel recommendations.

At first, Harrison would recommend hotels based on obvious customer preferences, like brands associated with loyalty programs. But then it started to find preferences that even the customers didn’t realize that they had. Some people, for example, preferred a hotel on the corner of a street versus midblock.

And in a coming software change, Lola will ask lifestyle questions like “Do you use Snapchat?” to glean clues about hotel preferences. Snapchat users tend to be younger and may prefer modern but inexpensive hotels over more established brands like the Ritz-Carlton.

While Harrison may make the reservations, the human agents support customers during the trip. Once the room is booked, the humans, for example, can call the hotel to try to get room upgrades or recommend how to get the most out of a vacation.

“That’s something A.I. can’t do,” Ms. Neasham said.

Diane Kim, interaction designer

Ms. Kim is adamant: Her assistant doesn’t use slang or emoji.

Her assistant, Andrew Ingram, also avoids small talk and doesn’t waste time on topics beside scheduling her meetings, she said.

Ms. Kim isn’t being tyrannical. She just knows her assistant better than most bosses, because she programmed him.

Ms. Kim, 22, works as an A.I. interaction designer at x.ai, a New York-based start-up offering an artificial intelligence assistant to help people schedule meetings. X.ai pitches clients on the idea that, through A.I., they get the benefits of a human assistant — saving the time and hassle of scheduling a meeting — at a fraction of the price.

It’s Ms. Kim’s job to craft responses for the company’s assistants, who are named Andrew and Amy Ingram, or A.I. for short, that feel natural enough that swapping emails with these computer systems feels no different than emailing with a human assistant.

Ms. Kim’s job — part playwright, part programmer and part linguist — didn’t exist before Alexa, Siri and other A.I. assistants. The job is like a translator of sorts. It is to help humans access the A.I.’s superhuman capabilities like 24/7 availability and infallible memory without getting tripped up by robotic or awkward language.

Even in the narrow parameters of scheduling meetings, it takes a lot of machine learning to break down emails for a computer. For example, setting a meeting for “Wednesday” is different than setting a meeting for “a Wednesday,” as in any Wednesday. X.ai breaks down emails to its component parts to understand intent.

The automated response is where Ms. Kim takes over. Her job is to imagine how…

Do You Really Need a Mouse Pad?

Computer mice have been around in one form or another for the better part of 50 years (or longer, based on your definition of invention), and for most of that time they’ve been paired with mouse pads. But modern optical and laser mice can track on just about any surface, unless you’re somehow using your computer on a sand bed. So do those nerdy-looking pads even serve a purpose anymore?

Yes, actually. A mouse pad isn’t technically necessary these days, but there are some obvious and serious benefits of using one, even if you’re not spending a lot of money on a fancy “gamer” model.

When Did Mouse Pads Start to Disappear?

Some computer users used to simply roll their ancient ball-driven mice along a desktop, presumably using their other hand to shove spears at woolly mammoths. But before the advent of optical mice, mouse pads served some very important functions: not only did they offer a smooth and predictable tracking area, they helped keep the tracking ball clean of dirt, skin oils, and other gunk.

An old-fashioned mechanical mouse ball mechanism. Note the horizontal and vertical rollers.

Microsoft and Logitech later introduced consumer-grade optical mice, which ditched the physical roller mechanism for a tiny and low-powered optical sensor and LED combo, around the turn of the century. These offered more consistent tracking on almost any surface (as long as it wasn’t reflective or transparent, like glass) without the possibility of dirt and oil buildup on a conventional ball. A few years later, laser-equipped mice erased even those limitations, and now you can get an inexpensive mouse that will track on more or less any surface.

Microsoft’s Intellimouse Optical, believed to be the first commercial optical mouse, circa 1999.

Consequently, mouse pads began to fall out of fashion. Since optical and laser mice don’t actually contact the surface that they’re tracking (except for the feet of the mouse, which isn’t part of the tracking mechanism), there’s no operational downside to using your desk, or your lap, or the spare…

How Do You Determine the Time It Takes a Program to Fully Load at Startup?

There are few things as frustrating as turning your computer on and having it take forever to fully load up, so how do you find out which programs are slowing everything down? With that goal in mind, today’s SuperUser Q&A post has an easy solution for a curious reader’s problem.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Sergey Larin wants to know how to determine the amount of time it takes for a program to fully load at startup:

There are some programs that automatically start whenever I boot my Windows 10 computer and I would like to shorten the amount of time it takes for my system to fully load and be ready to use. I would like to find out which programs are slowing my computer down when it boots and delay their start, especially if…

How to Make Windows Troubleshoot Your PC’s Problems for You

Windows includes a variety of “troubleshooters” designed to quickly diagnose and automatically solve various computer problems. Troubleshooters can’t fix everything, but they’re a great place to start if you encounter a problem with your computer.

Troubleshooters are built into the Control Panel on Windows 10, 8, and 7, so practically all Windows users can take advantage of them. On Windows 10’s Creators Update, most troubleshooters are now available through the Settings app.

Windows 10

If you’ve installed Windows 10’s Creators Update, you’ll find these in Settings. Navigate to Settings > Update & Security > Troubleshoot.

As of the Creators Update, the following troubleshooters are available here: Blue Screen, Bluetooth, Hardware and Devices, HomeGroup, Incoming Connections, Internet Connections, Keyboard, Network Adapter, Printer, Playing Audio, Power, Program Compatibility Troubleshooter, Recording Audio, Search and Indexing, Shared Folders, Speech, Video Playback, Windows Store Apps, and Windows Update.

If something isn’t working properly on your PC, the associated troubleshooter may find and fix the problem for you.

Select the troubleshooter you want to run and click “Run Troubleshooter”. Many troubleshooters will run automatically and fix problems they find, while some troubleshooters will suggest various fixes you can choose whether to apply.

The Settings interface doesn’t list every available troubleshooter. For example, it omits the Background Intelligent Transfer service, Windows Media Player DVD, Windows Media Player Library, and Windows Media Player Settings troubleshooters.

These are still available if you need them—they’re just buried in the Control Panel. To find them, open the Control Panel, type “Troubleshoot” into its search box, and click the “Troubleshooting” icon.

Click “View all” at the left side of the Troubleshooting pane and you’ll see a full list of available troubleshooters.

Windows 7 and 8

You’ll find these tools in the Control Panel on Windows 7 and 8. You’ll also need to use the Control Panel if you’re using Windows 10’s Anniversary Update or an earlier version of Windows 10.

Navigate to Control Panel > System and Security > Troubleshoot Common Computer Problems. On Windows 7, click “Find and Fix Problems” instead.

You’ll see a list of the most common troubleshooters you might need.

These aren’t the only available troubleshooters. Click “View All” in the sidebar to view a full list of troubleshooters. Here’s a list of the troubleshooters you…

5 Quick And Easy Ways To Encrypt Your Life Safely In Less Than An Hour.

The use of mobile and computers’ become so common that we probably don’t even know our personal information secretly leaks to others.

Just try to recall how many public figures’ personal information or photos leaked to the public over the last 10 years. And look at what’s just recently happened to Emma Watson and Amanda Seyfriend with their private photos on the phone got hacked.

In fact, the leakage of personal information has become so easily that even the FBI director covered his personal laptop’s webcam with a piece of tape. He suggested us to cover our in-computer webcam with a tape because this is an essential security step that everyone should take.

Director James Comey said during a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,[1]

“There’s some sensible things you should be doing, and that’s one of them. You go into any government office and we all have the little camera things that sit on top of the screen. You do that so that people who don’t have authority don’t look at you. I think that’s a good thing.”

So, how what do we do to protect our privacy and encrypt our life?

Doubling up the safeness – Use two-factor authentication for your email account.

Lots of our social media or online tools accounts are connected with our email account. If your email account gets hacked, besides having your email information and contact list leaked, all the other connected accounts will…

Why Do Some Mac Apps Need to “Control This Computer Using Accessibility Features?”

Some apps, like Dropbox and Steam, will ask to “control this computer using accessibility features.” But what the heck does that even mean?

The wording is confusing, to say that least. What does this permission actually grant? Basically, this gives the app in question the ability to control other programs. Apple outlines their advice here:

If you’re familiar with an app, you can authorize it by clicking Open System Preferences in the alert, then selecting the checkbox for the app in the Privacy pane. If you’re unfamiliar with an app or you don’t want to give it access to your Mac at that time, click Deny in the alert.

But that just leaves more questions. Why do you have to give this permission at all? What does giving this permission mean—will such applications really “control this computer”? And why is this called “Accessibility” access, instead of just system access? Let’s break this down.

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Why Do I Have to Do This?

The process of enabling Accessibility Settings is a bit convoluted. You need to open System Preferences, then head to Security & Privacy > Privacy > Accessibility. From there you need to click the lock icon in the bottom-left corner, enter you password, and only then can you grant your application access.

So why do you have to do this? The answer, in short, is to protect your security.

By default, Mac apps are self-contained, and can’t change the way you interact with the system or other applications. This is a very good thing. It prevents sketchy things from happening, like games you’ve downloaded logging your keystrokes or malware clicking buttons in your browser.

But some applications need to control other applications to…

15 Female Mathematicians Whose Accomplishments Add Up

In many periods of history, women have been discouraged from applying their minds to mathematics—but a few persevered. The world-altering contributions of these 15 notable female mathematicians include making hospitals safer, laying the groundwork for the computer, and advancing space flight.

Hypatia (c.355–415) was the first woman known to have taught mathematics. Her father Theon was a famous mathematician in Alexandria who wrote commentaries on Euclid’s Elements and works by Ptolemy. Theon taught his daughter math and astronomy, then sent her to Athens to study the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Father and daughter collaborated on several commentaries, but Hypatia also wrote commentaries of her own and lectured on math, astronomy, and philosophy. Sadly, she died at the hands of a mob of Christian zealots.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Emilie Du Chatelet (1706–1749) was born in Paris in a home that entertained several scientists and mathematicians. Although her mother thought her interest in math was unladylike, her father was supportive. Chatalet initially employed her math skills to gamble, which financed the purchase of math books and lab equipment.

In 1725 she married an army officer, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatalet, and the couple eventually had three children. Her husband traveled frequently, an arrangement that provided ample time for her to study mathematics and write scientific articles (it also apparently gave her time to have an affair with Voltaire). From 1745 until her death, Chatalet worked on a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia. She added her own commentaries, including valuable clarification of the principles in the original work.

Sophie Germain (1776–1831) was only 13 when she developed an interest in mathematics, one that could be blamed on the French Revolution. Since the fighting raged around her home, Germain could not explore the streets of Paris—instead she explored her father’s library, teaching herself Latin and Greek and reading respected mathematical works. Germain’s family also tried to discourage her academic leanings. Not wanting her to study at night, they denied her a fire in her room, but she lit candles and read anyway, bundled in blankets.

Since women’s educational opportunities were limited, Germain studied secretly at the Ecole Polytechnique, using the name of a previously enrolled male student. That worked until the teachers noticed the dramatic improvement in the student’s math skills.

Although Germain never worked as a mathematician, she studied independently and wrote about the subject. She is best known for her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, considered at the time to be one of the most challenging mathematical puzzles. A 17th century mathematician named Pierre de Fermat claimed he could prove that the equation x^n + y^n = z^n had no integer solution when n was greater than 2, but his proof was never written down. Germain proposed a new way of looking at the problem.

Germain also became the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences, for writing about elasticity theory. Today that prize is known as the Sophie Germain Prize.

4. MARY SOMERVILLE

Thomas Phillips via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Mary Somerville (1780–1872) was born in Scotland, and was not particularly interested in academics as a child—she only attended school for a year. However, when she encountered an algebra symbol in a puzzle at age 16, she became fascinated with math and began studying it on her own. Her parents tried to discourage her, worried that her intellectual preoccupations might drive her insane. (At the time, a popular theory held that difficult study could damage a woman’s mental health.) But Somerville continued to study, teaching herself Latin so she could read earlier versions of works by Euclid.

She also corresponded with William Wallace, a professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and solved mathematical problems posed in contests, winning a silver prize in 1811.

Somerville’s first husband did not encourage her interests, but when he died, she remarried. Her second husband, Dr. William Somerville, an inspector of the Army Medical Board, was proud of her work in mathematics and astronomy. For her work translating a book titled Celestial Mechanics and adding commentary, she was named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Physicist Sir David Brewster called her “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe—a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” When John Stuart Mill petitioned the British government for women’s votes, he filed his petition with Somerville’s signature first. She was proof that women were men’s intellectual equals.

Alfred Edward Chalonvia Wikipedia // Public Domain

The next time you download some electronica, you may want to remember Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852). Lovelace was born during the brief marriage of poet George, Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, Lady Wentworth. Her mother did not want her to be a poet like her father and encouraged her interest in mathematics and music. As a teenager, Ada began to correspond with Charles Babbage, a professor at Cambridge. At the time, Babbage was working on his ideas for a calculating machine called the Analytical Engine, now considered a precursor to the computer. Babbage was solely focused on the calculating aspects, but Lovelace supplied notes that helped envision other possibilities, including the idea of computer-generated music.

Lovelace also translated an article about the Analytic Engine by French mathematician Louis Menebrea. Her notes include an algorithm showing how to calculate a sequence of numbers, which forms the basis for the design of the modern computer. It was the first algorithm created expressly for a machine to perform.

Lovelace was a countess after her marriage, but she preferred to describe herself as an analyst and a metaphysician. Babbage called her “the enchantress of numbers”—but she might also be called the world’s first computer programmer.

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) is best known as a nurse and social reformer, but a lesser-known contribution of hers continues to save lives. In her efforts to improve the survival rates of hospital patients, Nightingale became a statistician.

When the “lady with the lamp” returned from service during the Crimean War, she expressed sadness about how many soldiers had become sick and died while lying in the hospital. “Oh my poor men, who endured so patiently,” she wrote to a friend. “I feel I have been a bad mother to you to come home and leave you lying in your Crimean graves.”

As part of her plan to reform hospital care, Nightingale began gathering statistics. The figures she gathered indicated that a lack of sanitation…

Happy Birthday, Sinclair ZX81 Computer!

Despite its limitations, the ZX81 was a revolution, because it cost just £49.95 in the U.K.—massively cheaper than anything else on the market. It was also available in normal retail stores, rather than specialty computer shops.

It really was the people’s computer, and for many it was their introduction to home computing and computer programming. Incidentally, at that cheap price, it was a kit you assembled at home (a soldering iron was required). You’d have to pay an extra £20 if you wanted a pre-assembled unit. In the U.S., the fully-assembled unit cost $149.95.

The ZX81 was also expandable. You could upgrade it from its RAM using an…