Wednesday, August 17, 2016

In The Age of Approximation

Please note that this article is one year old…and that in the meantime Microsoft was sued for the way they rolled out their new omniscience machine

Lots of talk about Windows 10; I like this article from Ars Technica about the necessity for (what may seem like) excessive data collection integrated into the platform. But therein, we see the changing face of computing as one leveraging approximation over precision (a la Olfaction).

Olfaction as a model for the future of software development? How about the present.

Siri needs to know the names of your contacts to be able to set up calls or send messages. Cortana needs to know when and where your appointments are to tell you when you need to leave the home or office to get to them.

But there's a deeper reason: the software powering these capabilities is fundamentally heuristic, using approximation and guesswork to generate its results. Traditionally this wasn't the case; a hardware keyboard with no autocompletion doesn't need any fancy heuristics, it just needs to directly map key presses to characters. But speech recognition, software keyboards of all kinds, and handwriting recognition don't have this precision. The software driving these things has to construct and evaluate a range of different possible interpretations and then pick a most likely option among those interpretations.

This is the way of olfaction. Within the impossibly complex chemosphere, the nose-brain must approximate in order to make sense. The ultimate need for flexibility is reflected in the design of the receptor patch that receives vaporous molecules - some receptors code for specific odor molecules, some for many, and some for nothing at all. Even at the outset, olfaction is a game of ambiguity.

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