AI designed by Microsoft’s Canadian-based deep learning team plays perfect game of Ms. Pac-Man


AI designed by Microsoft’s Canadian-based deep learning team plays perfect game of Ms. Pac-Man


Reading a Microsoft blog post about a new artificial intelligence designed to play the perfect game of Ms. Pac-Man, I couldn’t help but think about playing a tabletop version of Atari’s classic video game as a kid in the entertainment centre of a hotel in Brandon, Manitoba, which happened to be next to the pool.

My sister and I would swim in the pool, then get out and run across the deck into the games room, dripping wet. We’d plug quarters into the machine, sit down to play, and –surprise, surprise – start receiving tiny electrical shocks whenever our wet fingers touched the metal part of the joystick just below the red knob.

The funny thing is, that didn’t keep us from playing. Every time our hands slipped down we’d get a little jolt of pain, but we’d keep going. Our brains registered the negative feedback, but categorized it as minor (i.e. non-life threatening) and overrode the impulse to stop in favour of the pleasure of playing and the desire to win.

A similar type of human-like intelligence seems to be at work in an AI created by Maluuba – a deep-learning start-up based in Waterloo, Ontario that was acquired by Microsoft earlier this year – which has been designed to achieve the maximum score of 999,990 playing the Atari 2600 version of Ms. Pac-Man.

The AI uses a “divide and conquer” method that involves some 150 separate AI agents working on distinct tasks. Each one is assigned as specific objective, such as eating a particular pellet. But all of the agents’ objectives – and their strategies to achieve them – are routed through a single top agent that takes a broader view and chooses a course of action. The top agent doesn’t choose how to act based on the majority of agents’ recommendations – it’s not going to steer Ms. Pac-Man into an approaching ghost just because it’s the shortest route to a bunch of pellets – but rather what’s most likely to achieve the ultimate objective of winning the game.

In my mind it’s kind of like a prime minister listening to advisors with different viewpoints before determining how to proceed based on a broader understanding of multiple problems.

This type of AI learning is called reinforcement learning, in which individual agents receive positive and negative feedback based on the choices they make. They’re programmed to try to achieve more positive feedback than negative, but the top agent makes the final call – meaning some agents’ desires go temporarily unfulfilled in pursuit of a grander goal.

Games are used in AI research because they tend to require human-style decision making, and Ms. Pac-Man is particularly well suited for AI learning due to the unpredictability of its constantly changing game situations. But the potential applications for AI trained on games go far beyond achieving high scores. As the Microsoft post points out, an AI that cuts its teeth on Ms. Pac-Man could go on to make complex decisions in business environments – such as coming up with call lists for sales executives by prioritizing clients based on known information about their histories and schedules – that end up saving human resources valuable time.

As for me, I’m keen to know what decision Maluuba’s AI master agent would have made in the position I found myself in as a kid receiving negative feedback in the form of electric shocks. What would it have deemed more important: avoiding minor physical discomfort, or enduring the pain to gobble up that last pellet to get to the next level?

I didn’t end up scoring anywhere close to 999,990 that day back in the 1980s, but I like to think Maluuba’s Ms. Pac-Man-crushing AI would nonetheless have approved of my choice to endure.
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The Obama Presidency: A Case of Double Standards


Article written for

As then President-Elect Obama planned his transition to the White House, the challenges facing the United States were overwhelming. 800,000 jobs were being lost per month with an unemployment rate approaching 10%.

The Auto Sector, which employs thousands – was facing a dire financial situation. The Finance and Banking sectors were dealing with the consequences of sub-prime lending. In addition to the economic recession, the United States was involved in two wars that cost thousands of lives and and billions of dollars. Welcome to the Whitehouse, Barack Obama.
While no leader is perfect, it is hard to deny that America and the world economy has improved from the Great Recession of 2008. The American economy has produced over 75 consecutive months of job growth. Obama led many reforms on Wall Street, small business financing, and investments in new industries while increasing America’s energy independence.
20 million Americans now have access to health care due to the Affordable Health Care Act (known as ObamaCare). This has helped stabilized Medicare funding for years to come.
However, if you listen to much of the debate across North America (including Canada) – you’d think nothing has changed since 2008. The key question normally asked after any political leader serves out their term is: “Are we better now than we were 8 years ago?”By all measures, America is better. Not perfect, yet it is better. But Mr. Obama’s legacy is already being attacked by many as if they forgot about 2008.
Let’s go back to 2008. If Mr. Obama was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that was losing market share, with revenues decreasing rapidly, no innovation agency and profitability shrinking – he would be under constant pressure from shareholders. Now fast forward to 2016. If that same company under his watch improved market share, increased sales, invested in R&D/innovation, and increased profitability by almost 70% – he would be hailed as a brilliant CEO. Mr. Obama would be in line for massive stock options and bonuses. Mr. Obama would be a compared to similar CEOs who turned struggling companies around.
Yet, so many continually attack him. Right wing/conservatives have a list of complaints about Mr. Obama. And many on the left would have liked to see more aggression towards Wall Street and some more drastic shifts in foreign policy.
But the double standard that Mr. Obama has had to deal with is all too familiar to many Black Canadians and Americans. How many times are we put in a near impossible situation, deliver positive results yet are still criticized? How many times have we been punished for taking risks where many of our colleagues are rewarded? How many times are we labelled as rude, arrogant, cocky when we speak of our accomplishments, whereas our colleagues are viewed as confident. And yes, Canadians – we are talking about our experiences in Canada as well.
The difference in how many view President Obama vs. President-Elect Trump – is proof of this double standard. The fact that the President of the United States receives little credit for getting America out of the worse economic crisis since the 1930’s – is a reflection of the double standard many Black Canadians/Americans face in their day to day lives.
Despite this constant double standard, Mr. Obama has continually demonstrated class, elegance and a sense of humour. For that, both he and Mrs. Obama deserve respect and admiration from all of us


R.I.P Prince- Truly a Cultural Icon


The world lost cultural icon – Prince.    While millions loved his music, let’s not forget about his efforts to address social and economic justice.

This article was taken from CNN.

Prince wasn’t just a renowned artist. He was also an advocate for a more inclusive tech community.

It was this belief that inspired Prince’s friend Van Jones to start YesWeCode, a nonprofit in Oakland, which is at the forefront of a movement to get more young minorities involved in technology.

The YesWeCode initiative, which is part of Jones’ Rebuild the Dream charity, is on a mission to teach 100,000 low-income youths to write code.
The idea grew out of a conversation Jones had with Prince after the 2012 killing of black teen Trayvon Martin.

“Prince said … ‘A black kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a thug. A white kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a Silicon Valley genius,'” recalled political activist Jones in conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday.

“Let’s teach the black kids how to be like Mark Zuckerberg.”

YesWeCode is one of many organizations working to diversify tech. Their goal is to create economic opportunities for kids of color — and help build a generation of tech talent that companies can tap for years to come.

Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity is no secret. It’s apparent in the staff makeup of some big tech companies.

Take Facebook, for instance. Just 1% of its tech workers are black. It’s only slightly better — 3% — in non-technical roles. In 2014, 2.9% of Facebook’s new hires were black, according to its latest EEO filing. It’s a similar story at many other tech companies.
And the problem is also present in the funding pipeline, which helps determine which entrepreneurs get investments.

According to data culled by Richard Kerby at Venrock, 2% of partners at venture capital firms are black. That affects the kinds of entrepreneurs who get funding. “I don’t look like Zuck,” Matt Joseph, a black entrepreneur who spoke out about the issue, tweeted in March.

For black women, things are particularly bleak. A recent report found that black female founders made up just .2% of all venture capital deals from 2012 to 2014.
For all the grim statistics, there are also success stories.

Take Mamadou Diallo, a 17-year-old young man from Harlem who was recently offered a full ride to Stanford.

Diallo was introduced to coding at age 14 through a weekend coding course. He took it because it promised a free laptop — but it exposed him to a world he’d never seen before.

It’s kids like Diallo that Prince wanted to help. Prince used his widespread appeal to promote YesWeCode and other initiatives. He headlined the ESSENCE Festival in 2014, where YesWeCode was launched with a youth-focused hackathon.

But Jones said Prince didn’t boast about the work he did. He helped support Rebuild the Dream and donated to other organizations like Eau Claire Promise Zone in South Carolina, which helps prepare community kids for college.

“He really believed that young people could change the world,” said Jones, who is a CNN commentator.

Prince was a teen when his career got started, one of the reasons why he was so passionate about helping the younger generation find success.

“He believed in the Black Lives Matter kids so much — and he had a dream for them,” Jones said. “He said, ‘I hope that they become an economic force. I hope that they use their genius to start businesses.'”



Why General Motors Is Investing $500 Million in Lyft


General Motors is investing $500 million in Uber competitor Lyft, the automaker announced Monday. The money makes up half of a $1 billion funding round that leaves Lyft valued at $5.5 billion.

Why is GM, one of America’s Big Three automakers, investing in an on-demand ride-hailing company? After all, the more people use services like Lyft, the less they’re likely to buy cars of their own.

The answer: Driverless cars. “We see the future of personal mobility as connected, seamless and autonomous,” said GM President Dan Ammann in a statement. “With GM and Lyft working together, we believe we can successfully implement this vision more rapidly.”

The “future of mobility” concept is gaining lots of steam in Detroit. Ford CEO Mark Fields, for instance, has been talking about what he calls “smart mobility” for at least a year. The Dearborn, Michigan company is experimenting with projects like car-sharing apps and Internet-connected bicycles. It has also opened an office in Silicon Valley, along with other car companies.

Taken together, these moves and others represent an acknowledgement among automakers that our relationship to vehicles and transportation is on the verge of a potentially massive paradigm shift. For decades, a big part of the American dream has been a house in the suburbs with one, two or even three cars in the garage. But self-driving cars stand to upend all that. Why would anybody spend tens of thousands of dollars on a vehicle that sits idle for most of its life, when they could just hail a self-driving car with the tap of an app instead?

And that’s what the GM deal with Lyft is all about. GM, still recovering from a costly and brand-tarnishing recall over faulty ignition switches, gets access to Lyft’s technology as well as more clout with Silicon Valley engineers seeking the most interesting jobs. That will help it compete with Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Tesla and the rest.

Meanwhile, Lyft gets some of the funding it badly needs to compete with Uber. Investors say Lyft’s bigger rival is about 10 times more valuable; Uber is using its massive war chest to do its own autonomous car research as well as expand at a nearly incomprehensible pace. The GM deal should help Lyft extend its life as a smaller but still potent number two in the ride-hailing space.