Artificial intelligence birthday present

On February 16, 2011, a supercomputer called Watson won the Jeopardy! game show on national TV, playing against the top human champions.

It was a feat designed to draw comparisons to the famous 1997 defeat of chess champion Gary Kasparov by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue.

And it got some journalists thinking about artificial intelligence. Richard Powers wrote in a NYTimes editorial:

This raises the question of whether Watson is really answering questions at all or is just noticing statistical correlations in vast amounts of data. But the mere act of building the machine has been a powerful exploration of just what we mean when we talk about knowing.

It was also a reminder that spectacle matters when it comes to teaching the public about computer science and encouraging students to study it. One CS professor reported that several new students showed up to a departmental party to watch the Jeopardy! showdown.

As for the technology itself, I think Powers puts his finger on it: “Information is growing many times faster than anyone’s ability to manage it, and Watson may prove crucial in helping to turn all that noise into knowledge.”

iPad 2 will cost $399

I decided I would make some predictions about the upcoming iPad 2, since it’s hard to remember in retrospect what I (and the rumors) got right. Predicted iPad 2 specs:

  • Updated design that is slightly thinner and slightly lighter.
  • Same screen dimensions and resolution, but display is slightly brighter and fused to the front glass.
  • Slightly longer battery life.
  • Low resolution front-facing camera for video chat.
  • Low resolution rear-facing camera for augmented reality applications.
  • Dual-core A4 processor (“A5”?) clocked at about 1 GHz.
  • 512 Mb of memory.
  • SSD storage options of 16, 64, and 128 Gb.
  • Ships with iOS 4.4 (iOS 5 waiting until iPhone 5).
  • Supports to-be-announced iMovie for iPad ($9.99).

But I’m also going to go out on a limb and predict that Apple will cut the entry-level price of iPad 2 to $399.

Why is this possible?

From a component perspective, the iPad really is essentially a big iPod Touch. iPod Touches currently cost $299 for 32GB of storage. I can find component estimates for the latest iPhone 4 and the original iPad.  The main differences are (iPhone vs. iPad):

  • display ($38 vs. $95)
  • case ($20 vs. $35)
  • battery ($6 vs. $18)

The most expensive part by far in the original iPad was the touchscreen display, estimated last April to cost $95. This cost was largely due to the 9.7-inch capacitive touch sensor having only entered mass production just for the iPad. A year later, with tens of millions of these larger touch sensors manufactured, the cost has presumably come down dramatically, even when offset by new technology that fuses the display to the front glass panel. Let’s estimate that the touchscreen part now costs roughly $65 ($27 more than the iPhone retina display).

Assuming the other component prices are comparable to the iPod Touch (which seems reasonable to me, since they are essentially the same chips), the total price differential is just $48. So even with a large margin of error, it seems that Apple can afford to price the iPad at a retail price premium of just $100.

Steve Jobs has repeatedly said that Apple wants to price the iPad very competitively. The product’s tagline is still: “A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price.” If they can afford to cut the price further, I think they will.

There is also some recent believable speculation that Apple will release another line of iPads in September. This will likely be a premium line with a higher entry price point (perhaps $599) that includes a retina display and correspondingly upgraded processor, graphics chips and memory. In other words, selling a cheaper iPad does not limit Apple’s ability to sell expensive iPads in the future, just as selling cheaper iPods and Macs has not limited Apple’s ability to sell more expensive lines of iPods and Macs.

Apple’s primary advantage in the tablet market is software, not hardware. By carefully optimizing iOS software for the specific chips built into iOS devices and by nurturing their platform of media, apps, and services, Apple has managed to squeeze an incredible amount of customer value out of relatively cheap and underpowered hardware (made even less expensive by Apple’s strategic use of cash reserves). I believe we have only scratched the surface of what is possible on the software side, even when relying on just the basic hardware of the original entry-level iPad.

Apple has stated that they do not currently know how to make a quality laptop for less than $999, but if they did, they would. It looks like they do know how to make a quality iPad for $399, and if they can, they will. The iPad does not need better hardware specs to be high-quality. Unless Apple has dreamed up truly amazing new functionality (which they occasionally do), I think consumers will prefer a lower price for an already high-quality product. A $399 iPad will really be hard for competitors to beat.

Update: Most of my co-workers think Apple will release a new iPad at $499 and lower the price of the original iPad to $399, as they have been doing with iPhones and have done in the past with some Macs. They don’t think there is much incentive for Apple to cut prices on the latest, greatest iPad. I wouldn’t be surprised if my co-workers are right. However, I still think my scenario above is not out of the question.

Update 2: My co-workers got it mostly right; the iPad 2 was launched with the same prices as the original. Original iPads are available starting at $399, but only while supplies last.

Just a big iPod Touch

The funny thing about the critics who derided the iPad as “just a big iPod Touch” is that they were exactly right. They just came to the wrong conclusion. The amazing thing about the iPad is that it has the same simple and intuitive touch-optimized functionality as the iPod Touch. But it’s bigger, so it’s that much more useful and that much more fun.

This was pretty clear to us at Omni from the beginning, since we had never been very satisfied with most (conceptual) versions of our apps that fit on an iPhone-sized display. By contrast, we loved our iPad-sized translations almost immediately.

This is what happens when voters don’t understand economics

In college I never understood why you were allowed to be a Political Science major without taking any Economics courses. Isn’t it true that money is power? Isn’t politics primarily concerned with protecting and distributing wealth? There are some social issues like education or abortion that seem at first to fall outside of the realm of economics; but Freakonomics shows us how even there, quantitative economic analyses yield important insights.

I only took one Political Economy course and no pure Political Science classes, so arguably I didn’t try very hard to find answers to these questions. But at the very least, I didn’t see how you could have a complete discussion of political issues without bringing economics into it.

In a previous blog post I mentioned a brilliant history teacher who didn’t understand the importance of campaign finance reform. Was he a product of an educational system that allowed people to take no economics classes?

In a heretofore-unrelated line of thought, I also couldn’t understand how Republicans managed to get re-elected by working class voters after repeatedly cutting taxes for the wealthy and cutting services for the working class. I wasn’t satisfied with the easy answer, “there are a lot of dumb people in this country.”

One of my co-workers grew up in rural Indiana. He said he started voting Democrat after moving to Seattle, but his family all voted Republican. Why? He said they weren’t dumb, but “they just don’t know any better.” I was still left wondering, why not? And what exactly don’t they understand?

What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank essentially describes how most of “conservative America” does not believe economics is an important part of politics. The Republican rhetoric is as follows. Anyone who tells you that you deserve more money is insulting you by insinuating that you don’t have enough money (and by extension, insinuating that you are a failure). And anyone who makes arguments based on economic theory you don’t understand are pretentious “elites” who are simply inflating their own egos and insulting you by insinuating that you’re dumb. Why else would they be talking about math, when the issues that really matter are moral issues that they disagree with you about, like abortion and the right to bear arms.

What really struck me, in other words, is that the Republican narrative crucially depends upon widespread ignorance of basic economic theory.

From this perspective, Bill Clinton’s famous rallying cry “It’s the economy, stupid” seems in some ways genius (put the focus back on economics); but also feeds easily into the rhetoric (“he’s calling you stupid”).

Frank points out that the amazing thing about Marxism and Communism historically is that they got everyday people interested in economic theory. Today in America that is not the case. Economics is being systematically belittled by politicians. The system is really quite extraordinary—politicians funded by the wealthy get elected by the working class majority to enact “morally correct” policies which actually turn out to benefit the wealthy. All of this while blaming other politicians for the actual deteriorating prospects of working class Americans.

My case for why we should teach Economics 101 in the first year of high school has never been stronger.

Prejudice against applied science

C. P. Snow wrote in 1959:

Pure scientists have by and large been dimwitted about engineers and applied science. They couldn’t get interested. They wouldn’t recognize that many of the problems were as intellectually exacting as pure problems, and that many of the solutions were as satisfying and beautiful. Their instinct… was to take it for granted that applied science was an occupation for second-rate minds.

I have found this unspoken prejudice to still be alive and well in academia. All through my education, my teachers and colleagues and culture at large contributed to my notion that software engineering was a boring occupation for second-rate minds. No one said that to me directly, just as no one says “black people are inferior to whites.” But both can be implied in the everyday ways that people talk about each other.

Of course, now that I am a software engineer, I indeed see that much of what we work on is as intellectually exacting as pure science, with solutions as satisfying and beautiful.