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The Wallace Effect II

June 29, 2013

About a year into this project (three plus years ago), I wrote a post about a program called "StatsMonkey,” which wrote sports stories based on the game’s stats – and didn’t do a half bad job of it.  I realized then that I needed to get crackin’ on the book because at that rate, real AIs were going to come along before my fictional one.  Like Darwin seeing Alfred Russell Wallace’s work, and realizing that Origin of Species had better not sit in a drawer much longer, it was do or die time.

Well, long after that, I finally finished the book.  And not, it appears, a minute too soon.  A viable form of the book’s commercial version of Alex just hit the streets.

Netflix has unveiled a talking, human-like interface named “Max,” who greets subscribers with a game-show host’s exuberance and invites them to play irreverent games, such as “Max’s Mystery Call” and “Celebrity Mood Ring.” It seeks to inject humor into the analytical process of offering viewing suggestions — and to further differentiate the service from competitors such as Amazon.com or Hulu.

… “People have wide tastes,” said Todd Yellin, Netflix’s vice president of product innovation. “When they talk to Max, he finds out what they’re in the mood for.”

…“Our job, as the peanut butter to Netflix’s chocolate, was to bring all of the numbers of the recommendation algorithm to life, layering on top of it a voice, a personality,” said Jellyvision Founder and Chief Executive Harry Gottlieb. “A huge part of the effort was about creating a character, with Max, who is not your typical movie reviewer on ‘Good Morning America.’ It’s more like a friend talking to you.”

… “Before, these were boxes that did jobs for you. Now they are really entities with a personality. Mobile devices and tablets are becoming so popular, these kinds of attributes are becoming more and more important,” said Abeer Alwan, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. “I think there is more acceptance and more admiration for what these machines can do.”

Writers scripted thousands of lines of dialogue – sentence fragments that could be stitched together dynamically, so Max appears to be conversing with the Netflix subscriber and reacting to what’s happening on the TV screen.

“Max seems aware of what you did last session with Netflix, or the time of day, saying, ‘Here’s a lunchtime suggestion,’ ” Yellin said. “I think part of the magic is going to be using creativity and technology to expand these branches and make them feel more sentient.”

Yeah.  Wow.  So I was right on target.  Now all I have to do is get someone to read the book…

I’ve sold two copies so far, well, three if you count the one I sold myself.  I’ve started putting out some hopeful emails (BoingBoing, Irene Pepperberg, and Jaron Lanier so far), but I’m not sure what else I can do.  That is, what I can do.  I didn’t spend the last four years cultivating Twitter followers or building a vast social network or becoming a BMOC at Goodreads or, yeah, anything other than working a job and writing. 

So the book may fail, may sink under the waves.  But I’ve made a sort of peace with that, having realized last night that, you know?  The person who could write this book is not the person who could sell it.  If I had that skill set to be out there in the world with a never-ending cataract of social contacts…I never would have understood the appeal of Alex, never would have got into Caroline’s head, and the book wouldn’t have been what it is.  So it goes.

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