Have you ever had a day when someone says something simple and rather innocuous yet in your mind it spurs deep contemplative and philosophical thoughts for days on end? No? Well, you are going to hear about my experience anyway.
A couple months ago I was talking with someone who was about to regularly receive the weather “product” generated at StormTrak9 (product=forecasts, audio, text, video). When it came to information about the wind, they said “don’t worry about the wind unless it is something major, and if it is, just say it will be a windy day”. For a lot of people out there, this is probably the way they view a lot of weather information. Most people who live a typical American lifestyle (commuting to work, living in an urban/sub-surban environment, buying food at the grocery store, receiving entertainment through a screen, etc.) the direction and speed of the wind is of little concern, yet you will still see this data on our forecast graphics here a StormTrak9. It is in our phone forecast. It is on our “current forecast” on waow.com. You might wonder why we still mention the wind given that most people could care less (unless it is significant). The reason is that our viewing area is a bit different than the rest of the country. We still have a stronger agricultural tradition. Many people (but not the majority) enjoy hunting, fishing, camping, boating, gardening, and various outdoor activities that are reliant upon the wind direction and speed. At times when we have not included the winds in the forecast, we have gotten calls and emails pleading with us to include the detailed wind information.
Because I am a meteorologist, I enjoy the outdoors, and grew up on a dairy farm, I regard the winds as highly relevant to my daily activities. It is hard to come to grips with the fact that most people do not, and the number keeps growing every year. Besides the fact that most people do not care much about detailed wind information, there is also a trend toward more personalized weather data delivery. Most of you reading this blog post know of several websites or services that will give you the wind direction and speed at the click of the mouse or the tap of your touchscreen. When you need timely information, there is no need to wait to hear it on the radio or watch for it on TV. I suppose it is nice to get that information while eating supper in front of the TV, but it is not usually absolutely necessary.
This revelation about the lesser need of wind information naturally flowed into thoughts about media and technology in general. I realize that I am in an industry undergoing a disruptive upheaval. It is interesting to view radical change from the inside but it can also be unsettling at times. I suppose it is similar to the automation revolution that is ongoing in manufacturing. Just as the horse-and-buggy, typewriter, and film camera have faded into the background, so will the traditional TV weather broadcast and all of the detailed information held within. When I started in the business in the mid 1990s, it was near the pinnacle. Most people watched TV and in Wisconsin, most people’s lives were still connected to the weather enough that detailed information was valuable. Viewers wanted to see the almanac information. They wanted to know the wind direction and speed. They even demanded to have sunrise and sunset times displayed on the weather graphics.
My how things have changed. Not only on the consumption end, but on the production end. Most of my daily routine used to consist of analyzing weather charts and producing a forecast. Now I spend more time broadcasting than forecasting. The process of developing a forecast is highly automated. In reality, I only put the finishing touches on weather information that is generated around the world every hour of the day. I use my local knowledge to increase the accuracy and relevancy of the forecast in Northcentral Wisconsin. The main challenge in broadcasting weather information in the present day is to get the consumer’s attention. There are multitude of outlets for weather information and we here at StormTrak9 try to get our forecast out into the info-sphere in as many places as possible. The other challenge is earning a living off of that information stream. As newspapers have found out, it is tough to compete with “free”. The same challenge is hitting TV. With weather information (and information in general) becoming a cheap commodity, it is harder to generate revenue. I used to be paid to produce a forecast and broadcast it on TV. I did well because I enjoy telling the daily “weather story” and I am a good forecaster. That “service” is not as valuable as it used to be (based on my salary adjusted for inflation, lol) and thus we are branching out, trying to find where people are looking for weather informati0n and in what form they want it.
The upheaval of traditional media is nothing all that special against the backdrop of technological progress – just another stone in the stream that the water flows around. You join the stream or you get left behind. I am sure many of you already have experiences with “technological unemployment” and automation (feel free to share your story in the comment section). It can be difficult to deal with if you are not prepared, and we should be prepared for even more in the near future. Our technology is being woven ever more intimately into the fabric of our existence and no one is sure how things will end up. Will more progress eventually lead us to utopia? or Dystopia? Will computers take over the world(seriously)? I’ll leave you with a quote from someone who framed the process better than me. Remember that this prescient text comes from 1997!
The Great Flood
Computers are universal machines, their potential extends uniformly over a boundless expanse of tasks. Human potentials, on the other hand, are strong in areas long important for survival, but weak in things far removed. Imagine a “landscape of human competence,” having lowlands with labels like “arithmetic” and “rote memorization”, foothills like “theorem proving” and “chess playing,” and high mountain peaks labeled “locomotion,” “hand-eye coordination” and “social interaction.” We all live in the solid mountaintops, but it takes great effort to reach the rest of the terrain, and only a few of us work each patch.
Advancing computer performance is like water slowly flooding the landscape. A half century ago it began to drown the lowlands, driving out human calculators and record clerks, but leaving most of us dry. Now the flood has reached the foothills, and our outposts there are contemplating retreat. We feel safe on our peaks, but, at the present rate, those too will be submerged within another half century. I propose (Moravec 1998) that we build Arks as that day nears, and adopt a seafaring life! For now, though, we must rely on our representatives in the lowlands to tell us what water is really like.
Our representatives on the foothills of chess and theorem-proving report signs of intelligence. Why didn’t we get similar reports decades before, from the lowlands, as computers surpassed humans in arithmetic and rote memorization? Actually, we did, at the time. Computers that calculated like thousands of mathematicians were hailed as “giant brains,” and inspired the first generation of AI research. After all, the machines were doing something beyond any animal, that needed human intelligence, concentration and years of training. But it is hard to recapture that magic now. One reason is that computers’ demonstrated stupidity in other areas biases our judgment. Another relates to our own ineptitude. We do arithmetic or keep records so painstakingly and externally, that the small mechanical steps in a long calculation are obvious, while the big picture often escapes us. Like Deep Blue’s builders, we see the process too much from the inside to appreciate the subtlety that it may have on the outside. But there is a non-obviousness in snowstorms or tornadoes that emerge from the repetitive arithmetic of weather simulations, or in rippling tyrannosaur skin from movie animation calculations. We rarely call it intelligence, but “artificial reality” may be an even more profound concept than artificial intelligence (Moravec 1998).
The mental steps underlying good human chess playing and theorem proving are complex and hidden, putting a mechanical interpretation out of reach. Those who can follow the play naturally describe it instead in mentalistic language, using terms like strategy, understanding and creativity. When a machine manages to be simultaneously meaningful and surprising in the same rich way, it too compels a mentalistic interpretation. Of course, somewhere behind the scenes, there are programmers who, in principle, have a mechanical interpretation. But even for them, that interpretation loses its grip as the working program fills its memory with details too voluminous for them to grasp.
As the rising flood reaches more populated heights, machines will begin to do well in areas a greater number can appreciate. The visceral sense of a thinking presence in machinery will become increasingly widespread. When the highest peaks are covered, there will be machines than can interact as intelligently as any human on any subject. The presence of minds in machines will then become self-evident. – Hans Moravec
Have a happy Halloween weekend! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under new media, Science, Technology
This post was written by jloew on October 29, 2010