It would be an understatement to say there’s been a long build-up to the moment when Voyager 1 ventures into interstellar space: scientists thought the probe was on the edge back in 2010, and we’ve been waiting for the official milestone ever since. Researchers contributing to an American Geophysical Union journal now believe that the spacecraft may have crossed that symbolic border months ago. Measurements from August 25th onwards show a steep drop in the detected volume of cosmic rays from the heliosphere, just as the extrasolar rays are picking up. Spectrum measurements from the period also mirror those of interstellar regions. On the surface, the clues strongly imply that Voyager 1 has passed the limit of our solar system’s influence. NASA, however, disputes the claims — the agency notes that its vehicle is still traveling the magnetic highway, and it won’t have officially escaped the surly bonds of the Sun until the magnetic fields shift. We won’t break out the champagne and party streamers, then, but the dispute underscores just how close we are to having another human-made object roaming the galaxy.
NASA satellite Voyager 1, at 36 years young, is the first man-made object in recorded history to enter interstellar space. Moreover, it’s apparently been doing so for around one year — NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced as much this afternoon, and explained how they were tipped off. “We have an instrument on board which can measure the density of ions, the plasma which is out there,” Voyager project scientist Ed Stone said in a prepared video. “In March of 2012, it turns out there was a massive eruption from the sun which eventually reached Voyager 1 in April of 2013. When that blastwave reached Voyager 1, it caused the plasma around Voyager to vibrate or oscillate in a certain particular tone. Literally the sounds of interstellar space.”
The satellite was originally launched in September 1977 in the interest of studying our own solar system as well as the interstellar medium. Having checked the first of those goals of its list, Voyager 1 is apparently head down on the second one. The satellite was thought to have reached interstellar space some time ago, but now NASA says it’s really for sure. We wish it the best of luck exploring the icy void of space between solar systems. Remember to bring a towel!
The word “evolution” tends to conjure up images of early hominids dodging predators on the veldt as they inch — agonizingly slowly — toward modern humanity. Most of those popular images of evolution are steeped in antiquity because, well, evolution takes ages, right? Well, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford involving the humble chicken suggests evolution doesn’t always take as long as you might think.
“Our observations reveal that evolution is always moving quickly,” Oxford’s Professor Greger Larson said. “But we tend not to see it because we typically measure it over longer time periods.” In this case, the team peered closely at the mitochondrial DNA of White Plymouth rock chickens (members of a carefully cultivated lineage, no less). As far as current scientific knowledge is concerned, the makeup of an individual’s mitochondrial DNA changes about 2 percent every million years. Since this line of chickens has only been pecking away for about 50 years, there shouldn’t have been any mutations in their mitochondrial DNA — instead, the researchers found two.
As it happens, these chickens’ DNA was really full of surprises. See, that sort of genetic material is usually only passed from mother to offspring. In very rare cases, that DNA will sometimes be inherited from the chicken’s dad, an event called “paternal leakage”. Scientists long thought that such leakage was a once-in-a-blue-moon sort of thing, but the fact that researchers spotted it within a single group of these chickens it’s a just a little more commonplace than expected.
Nest’s programmable thermostat has just turned four, and the company marked the anniversary with the debut of its third-generation device. Four years ago, thermostats were still boring blocks stuck to your wall and while programming them was already possible, it was always a painful process. Once you’d fixed your temperature schedule with an endless collection of up- and down-arrow keypresses for Sunday through Monday, that selection remained fixed, with the very thought of changing the schedule leading to cold sweats. Typical configurable settings included a schedule for cool, heat and occasionally vacation mode. I’ve lived with one for ages and it has run faithfully, always following the schedule I made when I first set it up many seasons ago. I’ve coveted the Nest thermostat since launch and so, when I was recently offered an opportunity to use the newest version at home I jumped at the chance to see if it would really make a noticeable impact on my world.
I live in Canada and my hometown of Ottawa gets pretty damn hot and muggy in the summer, and bitterly cold in the winter. With a yearly temperature swing from minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit to the mid-90s without factoring in humidity, we worry and talk an awful lot about the weather. But because of this swing, we’re constantly cooling or heating our homes to combat the elements, which means energy cost is always a concern. One of Nest’s selling points is that the device can purportedly save you 15 percent yearly on cooling and 10 to 12 percent on your heating bills. Unfortunately, the new Nest arrived in the few weeks a year where days and nights are generally comfortable here, so the savings discussion won’t factor into this story too much. I’d really need to compare the upcoming winter to last year’s to get an idea of how it fares when heating.
Before I received the unit, the Nest team suggested I use a compatibility widget on its website to ensure my current heating system wouldn’t run into any issues during my install. In a pinch, Nest can direct you to professional installers nearby if you’re not up to the challenge. My installation was relatively simple: After shutting off power to the furnace from the breaker box, I only needed to strip four wires (your mileage may vary), pull them through the hole in the base, use the base’s built-in level to make sure it went on the wall nicely and then screw it down tightly. I also opted to use the trim plate to hide the marks left by the previous thermostat package, although it definitely looks better without. Also, if your toolbox isn’t exactly overflowing with gear, the Nest package includes a small, high-quality screwdriver to help get the job done — this isn’t your typical IKEA Allen key. Once plugged in and powered up, I set up my Nest account, entering WiFi info and a few home details right from the device. With that out of the way I just had to use it, and wait for it to learn my home’s heating and cooling patterns.
We’ve settled into a rhythm over these last four weeks and it does genuinely make the right choices most of the time. When I got up at 6AM in the early days after the install, I’d typically spin the dial to warm things up to 67 degrees; now it has that figured out for me. When I leave the house and set the Nest to “away,” it doesn’t seem to affect my schedule, which is good because I was initially worried those gaps when I was gone would wreck the Nest’s “learning.” I also appreciate the ability to change the temperature from my phone if I’m feeling cold while watching a film in the basement.
One other handy feature I found is that I can set a PIN to lock others out from manually changing the temperature outside of a range I preset. Some members of the household have been known to cool the house to the mid-60s on warm days. But as an example when things don’t run perfectly, I was recently up really, really early and fired up the furnace at 3:30AM. Unfortunately, it seems the Nest took that morning to heart, because I was woken the next morning by the furnace starting at about the same time, suggesting it was adapting to my “new” schedule. You can manually edit blips like this out, of course, although I was surprised that a one-time event affected my schedule so drastically.
While my experience so far has been positive, I did run into an odd situation after the Nest had been mostly set to off for a couple weeks because the weather was perfect. It turns out that in some four-wire installations like mine, the thermostat’s charge can run down. Unlike traditional units that use little to no power or run using AA batteries, the Nest needs more juice to power its display, WiFi and so on. How it gets a charge is through oscillating the furnace by turning it on and off really quickly to charge (when running full-time, it charges constantly). Typically, while it charges in this mode, your furnace won’t care and neither will you, but in my case it resulted in a buzzing sound I could hear from a couple feet away. I spoke to a Nest technician about this and he suggested I install a C-wire (a common wire that delivers 24V to the Nest all the time from your furnace), which would get rid of the issue. As a bonus in rare situations like mine, Nest will reimburse some or all of the cost to have that work done. In my case, the problem apparently corrected itself before I even had a chance to install a C-wire; it hasn’t made that buzzing noise since.
The Nest’s physical updates in this iteration are minimal, with a larger, more pixel-dense display leading the charge ahead of a less obtrusive housing. The display size has been bumped up to 2.08 inches from the previous gen’s 1.75 and the housing is a scant five-hundredths of an inch thinner. The display’s pixel density also gets a bump to 229 ppi, which is about 25 percent higher than the last gen.
Ultimately, though, you’d be unlikely to notice these changes if the Nest were swapped out while you weren’t home, but then again, some functionality improvements might catch your eye. The thermostat now features something called Farsight, which uses the larger display to show more info now that it’s easier to actually see from a distance. It also wakes up when it catches movement from much further away (up to 20 feet), instead of requiring someone to be within a few feet. I keep my Farsight mode set to an analog clock, but it will alternatively display the time or target temperature if you choose. This feature isn’t very useful to me because my thermostat is mounted on a wall I don’t spend much time looking at, but I do notice the time flash on as I come down the stairs.
Day to day, who notices their thermostat? Nobody. But I quickly found that something to which I never gave a second thought rapidly became a fun diversion. What temperature is the house now? Does it know I’m away? Is it learning my schedule? It will even remind me when the furnace filter needs changing, something I forget to do and that really affects heating and cooling. I can see the benefit to my lifestyle without even factoring in the savings yet.
Still, that’s not to say it’s perfect. It’s not always as smart as promised, and the price is still high at $249. I also think that remote temperature probes to help balance winter heat and summer cooling would be handy; heck an enhanced Nest Protect could even help out here. Even better might be control over airflow in the house based on where you are. Watching a film? No problem, we’ll just heat the basement and once you head up to bed the warm follows you there — and while it’s at it, why not shut off the lights, too? Ultimately, the Nest does seem to get it mostly right: I’m a big fan of the convenience plus the fact that I may reap some financial reward through energy savings adds a bonus. But more than that, it’s one of the first smart home products I’ve lived with that isn’t solving a problem that doesn’t exist. The Nest’s such a solid improvement over my old thermostat in every possible way, that my biggest question leaving this month of testing isn’t should I keep it, but rather why did I wait so long to try one?
Thanks to the rise of small action cameras, camera stabilizers (aka gimbals) are becoming more portable than ever. Amazon has plenty of these coming from random Chinese brands, but most are either poorly designed, or only a partial solution to your problem. For instance, they often lack a handset mount for those who need a live screen. There are also gimbals that use smartphones as the camera, but I’ve yet to come across one with raving reviews; the current options appear to be more of a nuisance due to their awkward calibration and erratic stabilization. So unless you’ve tried one and are certain that it works well with your phone, your best bet is to go with a dedicated camera gimbal.
In terms of full-featured gimbals, we have only two compelling options so far. The first one is the Aetho’s Aeon, which takes a GoPro and has its own display, but it won’t arrive until early next year. This leaves us with DJI’s latest creation, the Osmo, which we first saw back in January. This device features a 4K camera module similar to the one on the company’s flagship drone, the Inspire 1, and it can house your smartphone as a viewfinder on the side. But it isn’t just about the hardware, because like the company’s drones, the Osmo also has a full-featured companion app for greater versatility. Let’s see if this fancy package is worthy of its $649 price.
This may be DJI’s first attempt at making a hand-held gimbal, but it’s already by far one of the best, if not the best, solutions in the current market. Great stabilization, intuitive software and comfortable grip make this a fun, complete package.
The Osmo consists of four parts: a Zenmuse X3 three-axis gimbal with a camera, an ergonomic handle with all the control buttons, a 10.8Wh battery and a phone clamp. In total this weighs about 538 grams (1.19 pounds) according to my scale, which is still quite manageable when you add a smartphone to it, but you can get this down to 422 grams (0.93 pound) if you remove the phone holder. The package also includes a lens cap plus a wrist strap for safety measures, as well as a cute little carrying case that may fool your friends into thinking you have a tiny ukulele inside.
For those who are already flying an Inspire 1, its Zenmuse X3 module needs no introduction. This fan-cooled gimbal-camera is powered by Sony’s 1/2.3-inch 12-megapixel sensor that can record videos of up to 4K resolution — 4,096 x 2,160 at 24fps or 3,840 x 2,160 at 30fps/24fps, to be exact — with a maximum video bitrate of 60 Mbps. If you want a smoother video, you can go up to 60fps at either 1080p or 720p, or even do slow motion with 120fps at 1080p. As with the drone version, you get a 20mm f/2.8 lens with a 94-degree field of view. The gimbal is also where you insert your microSD card, which needs to be of at least Class 10 or UHS-1. Obviously, the faster the write speed, the better. In my case, DJI supplied a 16GB Panasonic microSDHC UHS Speed Class 3 card with our review unit, and it’s worked well for me so far.
While the default gimbal-camera module on the Osmo and the Inspire 1 share the same name, there’s a catch: You can’t use Osmo’s module on the drone; it only works the other way around. According to DJI, the main difference between the two is that the one on the Osmo has a mechanical structure that’s optimized for hand-held use, including the way it flattens for storage, the orientation of its tilt motor and other small changes inside the camera and gimbal.
Much like the Inspire 1, the Osmo is also compatible with the higher-end Zenmuse X5 and X5R gimbals for some Micro Four Thirds action, but you will need to buy an adapter for them.
The detachable, metallic phone holder hangs onto the left side of the handle via a screw thread mount. It clamps onto your smartphone by way of two corners on one side and the middle of the other side. All three contact points, as well as the parts touching the back of the phone, are padded with soft plastic, so there’s no need to worry about the clamp scratching your phone. The biggest device I managed to slide in there was the 6-inch Oppo R7 Plus, which comes in at 158mm tall and 82mm wide, so the equally tall, but narrower iPhone 6s Plus will fit just fine, although it may be a struggle if it’s in a thick case.
While we’re here, I should add that DJI also offers a range of accessories for the Osmo, including an extension rod, tripod and straight extension arm — as well as universal, bike and vehicle mounts. Most of these can be installed on the Osmo in the same way as the phone holder.
This leaves us with the handle, which houses a stereo microphone, a 3.5mm audio jack for a lavalier mic, a screw mount at the top for the gimbal, a battery that goes in from the bottom and several buttons plus a couple of LED indicators dotted around the thumb and index finger areas. Thanks to the soft grip and thoughtful curvature, the Osmo is easily one of the most, if not the most, comfortable hand-held gimbals to hold. When placed in hand, your thumb can easily reach the slider for power, a flat joystick for maneuvering the camera, a capture button for still photos and a video-recording toggle.
On the other side, there’s a trigger button that provides three functions: Hold down to lock the camera’s orientation, double-tap to re-center the gimbal and triple-tap to swing the camera back for a selfie. Yes, you may as well call this the world’s most expensive selfie stick. If needed, the gimbal does allow minor adjustments by hand; just avoid twisting too hard and thus accidentally locking the gimbal. Don’t worry, this is all explained in the app’s tutorial, which gives us a nice segue to the next section of this review.
When you’re feeling adventurous, the Osmo functions just fine without the DJI Go app on iOS and Android, but that does require some guesswork and you’ll also miss out on a lot of features. Most importantly, this is where you set your photo aspect ratio, video resolution and video frame rate. You can also use the app to adjust your gimbal’s parameters and re-calibrate it when necessary. To link up, simply turn on the Osmo, connect your phone to the gimbal’s WiFi hotspot and then launch the app.
Once you’ve entered the camera view, you can toggle between the still-camera and the video-recording interfaces. These come with common quick settings like white balance, ISO and exposure compensation. You can also tap on the screen to set an exposure reference point, or hold down and move your finger around to control the gimbal. Additionally, there are mode-specific features like slow-motion toggle (1080p at 120fps) in the video interface, and various shooting modes in the still-camera interface: single, multiple, interval, panorama (360 degrees or just 180) and time-lapse. But regardless of which interface you’re in, you can still initiate whichever capture mode you desire using the buttons on the Osmo.
As before, DJI Go lets you browse, transfer and even edit content captured with the Osmo. That said, the file-transfer function currently only supports JPEG images and videos of up to 1080p resolution, meaning you’ll have to grab your 2.7K and 4K footage plus RAW images directly from the microSD card. Hopefully a future update will resolve this inconvenience. Going back to the editing feature: With photos, you get tools for cropping, rotation, contrast, brightness, saturation and adding filters. As for video, you can put together a simple movie using multiple six-second clips, and then beautify it with the same set of filters along with some music templates. Once I got the hang of it, I actually quite enjoyed this video tool. It’s fun, intuitive and great for killing time (which reminds me of HTC Zoe’s Video Highlights feature). You can then share your creation to your social networks via DJI’s Skypixel platform.
Given DJI’s expertise in camera stabilization, it’s no surprise I got some great footage with the Osmo. I found it was most effective when I held the gimbal totally still; it was almost as if I had placed the device on a tripod. And thanks to the super-high resolution, a largely motionless video would trick you into thinking it’s a still photo, until you spot the subtle moving parts. Nothing new here, of course, but coming from a hand-held device, this is pretty amazing.
The gimbal also did a good job when I walked around with it. Not even some rocky beaches could embarrass DJI’s latest creation. Having said that, you can still see some light wobbling caused by my footsteps in some of the clips, so users are advised to not fully rely on the Osmo for stabilization and walk as gently as possible. In terms of response speed, the gimbal managed to keep up with my small, energetic toy poodle when he ran around me, which you can see in my sample video reel.
Since it’s a wide-angle lens, some softening near the frame’s edges is inevitable, but luckily, that’s not too apparent. Video quality in general is top-notch in well-lit environments, especially outside during the day. Once I went indoors, the clips became a bit noisy and got a little worse at night, but color accuracy was consistent, as you can see in my nighttime harbor footage. It’s the same story with the Osmo’s still-camera performance, but at least you can tweak the shots later if you shoot in RAW format.
There are two other areas where I see room for improvement. First of all, the audio in my video clips is very quiet, and there’s no way to adjust the microphones’ sensitivity in the app, so hopefully DJI can do something about this. Good thing there’s an option to plug in an external microphone. Secondly, I found the 60-minute battery life to be a tad short. I’d ask for a denser power pack, but the last thing DJI would want to do is to make the battery heavier, so users like me would be better off procuring an extra one for $35.
To be honest, there’s not much of a competition in the market right now. Pretty much all other hand-held gimbals are just hardware solutions for your smartphone or GoPro camera, and few come with an ergonomic grip, like the $300 Big Balance Husky HY3M pictured left. Those with a straight grip are slightly cheaper, but reliability could still be hit and miss; our own James Trew recommends the Feiyu G3 or G4 (from about $200) for those with a smaller budget. By comparison, the DJI Osmo is far more advanced, with its own app and various handy features. Also, its camera is upgradeable to suit the needs of professional users.
While the Osmo’s $649 price tag may look less appealing at first, it’s actually quite reasonable for folks who are starting from scratch. For instance, if you go for the HY3M and need a dedicated wide-angle camera, you’ll still need to spend a bit more money — somewhere around $200 for a basic GoPro with WiFi (the Hero+), or from $300 for one with a built-in display (Hero+ LCD or Hero4 Silver) because this gimbal doesn’t have a mount to hold your smartphone as a viewfinder. Alternatively, you probably just want to use your smartphone’s camera, but from my experience, the HY3M’s stabilization only works well with smaller smartphones — ideally those with a screen size of less than five inches, which is becoming a rarity in the Android world.
Ultimately, then, it depends on what you already have in hand or what you want to achieve. It’s also worth pointing out that if you own an Inspire 1, you can simply purchase the $269 Osmo handle kit (battery, charger and phone holder included) and use it with the drone’s camera. That’s not a bad way to make the most out of your $2,899 drone purchase.
It’s safe to say that DJI isn’t just a drone expert, but also a hand-held gimbal maestro. This company took its time to do its homework and address several pain points, while most others simply rushed to market with unpolished products that left us longing for more. Simply put, the Osmo offers a complete package that’s both powerful and intuitive. Is it perfect? Not quite: We’d like to see cleaner footage taken in the dark, improved still image quality, better microphones and a slightly longer battery life. Even so, DJI’s rivals already have a lot of catching up to do.
This article originally appeared on Fast Company and is reprinted with permission.
I’m not important enough to have what the rich and powerful call “people.” Most of us aren’t. The average personal assistant is paid about $31,000 a year, while the average wage for the US job market is roughly $5,000 less than that. In other words, for a majority of Americans, it would be a sizable step up just to become a personal assistant.
This is why the prospect of having a Clara was so attractive. Clara, a blob of algorithmic code assembled by the Y Combinator-funded startup Clara Labs, is an AI assistant that lives inside your email. Unlike shouting at Siri or Cortana, to get Clara involved, you simply CC it on an email. Clara’s specialty? Handling the gruntwork surrounding that one particular conversation we’re all forced to have over and over: scheduling.
Clara’s also adept at another, slightly unexpected thing: making you feel like a total boss.
Credit: Clara Labs
The Perfect Assistant
I was addicted immediately.
“Clara, can you set us up for coffee this week?” I typed into an email thread. I was unsure. And I felt silly, to be honest, like I was bringing an imaginary friend into an important business meeting. At any moment, I feared, she was going to somehow embarrass me.
“Happy to help!” she replied within minutes, listing a few meeting times that might work. They agreed on one without my typing another word. She sent out a Google Calendar invite, complete with the address of my favorite local coffee shop to take meetings, she thanked them for me, and the deed was done.
And here’s the thing: This was about as annoying as Clara ever got. Because a lot of the time, she’d juggle times without me even CCd in the email thread. I’d just see calls appear on my calendar, complete with dial-in instructions or restaurants listed.
It’s hard to express Clara’s value in quantifiable terms, because the time I’ve saved was probably only 30 seconds here or there. But Clara has saved me from an omnipresent distraction, like any personal assistant would. And unlike me, Clara didn’t once mix up the time conversion of PT to CT to ET, she didn’t confuse anyone’s names, and she was, more often, more polite than I tend to be.
The Interface You Already Know
After the initial setup, where I listed my preferred location for coffee meetings and lunch meetings on Clara’s site, all other settings were handled via email. If I wanted Clara to give me a 15 minute buffer between meetings, I could just write her and tell her. There were no dropdown menus or long lists of settings toggles to navigate; just requests, delivered in natural speech and a familiar interface that requires no learning.
To teach me about some of her deeper features, Clara would just email me. “Tell me about your scheduling preferences!” she wrote once. “You can use me to schedule internal meetings too,” she let me know another time. It’s the same sort of scheduled email blast that other online services have used for a decade now to let you know more about a product. But in this case, I could feed right back into the mechanism at work. When Clara told me about scheduling, I could respond immediately, “never book a call after 4pm.” And it was done.
Clara got shit done.
Prepping for a vacation, I wrote Clara, “I’m on vacation all next week.”
“Thanks for letting me know! I’ll certainly make note of it on my end. Have an exciting yet restful vacation!” she responded flawlessly. It was faster than setting up my Gmail autoresponder, but far more pleasant, too. Even though I was totally aware that she was fake, I appreciated the sentiment.
Over time, I began speaking more tersely to Clara, trusting her enough to take the training wheels of semantics away, and rely on her mental processing to save me the trouble of properly articulated communication. The other day I sent a couch email with the subject “meeting tomorrow” and the body “can we move it up to the am.” Clara spotted the one afternoon call I had scheduled, figured out the contact for their assistant (also an AI in this case!), wrote them, negotiated a new time, and moved it.
Another time, I asked Clara to schedule dinner with a colleague at a specific restaurant when I was “in town” for Fast Company’s upcoming Innovation Festival . (I offered no dates or address.) It ended up this colleague used Clara too, so she looked at both our schedules, figured out when the festival was, and just picked a date—offering to change it if we didn’t like it. (If only Clara was as full featured as Facebook M, she could have booked us a table, too.)
The Turing Test
Over the course of the month, Clara did the unthinkable for a robot: she always passed for human. I’d CC Clara to set up an appointment, only to ask my contact later if they’d realized she was an AI. Not one person did from her speech. (Some, no doubt skeptical at how I could have a personal assistant, spotted that her domain was from Clara Labs and figured it out. If I’d spend more on a custom-named Clara from a custom domain, though, they wouldn’t have seen this.)
As one PR rep put it when I revealed the nature of Clara:
“Oh my gosh!!! No. Way. So many thoughts because I JUST watched Ex Machina a few weeks ago. That was a crazy movie. Assuming that kind of AI is still pretty extreme/far in the future, but am I wrong? Are there really experiments going on like that?…I had absolutely no idea. I don’t think it’s weird for administrative help, I imagine minutiae like coordinating calls and your schedule is annoying to deal with all the time. As a publicist it’s actually nice to know Clara would be super-responsive in this case! Are you the only writer using her? Can anyone sign up for a Clara….I kind of want one.
Another person had a very similar reaction:
No way!…She’s amazing, great email etiquette. I was actually going to look into her yesterday when I saw “claralabs” as her email address because a good friend is looking into virtual assistants for his business. I thought maybe it was a zirtual-like company or something.
And when I asked if she suspected that I—little old me—had an assistant?
lol! I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but the last few times we emailed about setting up calls, you handled your own schedule. So I just figured your schedule was getting crazy (maybe you started working on another side venture?). But yeah, you do make a point. I had to come up for a reason about it, because generally reporters don’t have assistants.
If there was one complaint about Clara, it was that she would respond to emails too fast, with schedule options too in the ready. But frankly, that wasn’t my problem. An overeager employee will do nothing to make me look bad. And besides, Clara got shit done.
The Real Awesome, Creepy Stuff
There were a few genuinely surprising moments, where I had a gut-punch feeling I was living in a sci-fi movie like Her or Ex Machina. For a lunch meeting, Clara had silently scheduled me to a nearby southern restaurant that I liked. I asked the person to share the conversation they’d had with Clara to arrange it. It ended up that he’d asked where I was, she answered “Mark is close to the Andersonville area,” and my friend just picked his favorite spot in the area for lunch.
In another instance, Clara Labs founder Maran Nelson CCd her Clara to schedule a meeting, and I CCd my Clara. So then two AIs were digging through our schedules and negotiating a meeting time, without either of us seeing the conversation. I couldn’t help but look forward a decade or two, when we all have bots—wrapped in emails and text messages, indistinguishable from real people—negotiating meetings, or prices, or deadlines, or raises, or court appearances, or credit limits, or tax loopholes, or any number of things on our behalf. Will custom, tricked-out AI be the new advantage of the 1%, or will the technology be so scalable and universal that it can benefit the other 99%?
Due to the nature of reporting, much of my day consists of emailing people—often people more important than me, who make more money than me—to figure out when in their schedule they can fit into my schedule.
More often than not, I’m actually dealing with their assistants. It’s, to be frank, a long grind on the ego that sets up the entire conversation as if I’m the lesser. And it’s a psychology that, no doubt, the people and companies I talk to benefit from. They’re the play-it-coy, maybe I can pencil you in, prom queen. I’m constantly the overeager suitor.
And so while it may be petty—heck, it may be downright childish to admit—my favorite part of Clara was feeling like I had people of my own.
The Secret Ingredient Is People
If all this sounds too incredible for technology to handle in 2015, well, your suspicion isn’t completely unfounded. Because currently, an unspecified amount of human workers are still writing copy, double checking every email that Clara drafts, and categorizing conversations over and over to teach Clara about etiquette and the nuance of conversation.
In other words, Clara sounds human because she IS human.
“You have to get really really perfect data of that conversation, and you need it really really really well labeled to understand it,” Nelson explains. “How do you do this in a very human way? The answer we believe is to introduce humans to this.”
When I asked Nelson how much of what I read from Clara was AI, and how much was human—just a ballpark estimate—she wouldn’t answer. One industry insider I spoke to has heard that Clara Labs is flat-out brute forcing Clara’s intelligence by human hand. Whether or not this is the case, Nelson’s thesis is that humans are training the machine, and so no human input is wasted, and that human input is training more and more fringe conversations around and beyond scheduling—like, what does Clara say to someone whose child is sick? What would Clara say if you wanted to offer someone a job?
But in the long term, Nelson doesn’t seem to feel the human touch negates the scale or power of the Clara AI system.
“We have to get to a place where this thing doesn’t need to be 100% automated or our company dies,” she says. “That’s a shitty place to be in. You want to provide an excellent service to a lot of people, even if it takes some time in some cases to give the right answer, intelligently.”
In other words, the most clever bit about Clara may be that she’s not an AI. Rather, she’s an AI that’s capable of shorthanding work for a massive human force. But for us, the clients and conversation starters, Clara can be dozens or hundreds or thousands of people—and that’s fine—because Clara wraps it all into one vessel whom we can actually talk to. After a month working with Clara by my side, my greatest realization was that, quite simply, I don’t care if she’s AI or not.
And maybe that’s the real genius of Clara. If nothing else, she’s a designed construct that gives everyday people the semantic keys to the power of micro-labor.
She’s a platform to make all of us feel like a boss.
[Photo: Her, Annapurna Pictures 2013]
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No one really knows what’s in those bottles of Fallout Beer, but they likely won’t hit US shores. What will however is Nuka-Cola Quantum. The folks at Fallout developer Bethesda have teamed up with the purveyors of funky fizzy drinks, Jones Soda, to put the “irradiated” refreshment on Target shelves just in time for Fallout 4‘s launch. Come November 10th, you’ll be able to start slugging down what looks like the company’s Berry Lemonade (a picture’s embedded after the break) in preparation for what we’re affectionately calling “Vault Day” here at Engadget. You know, what everyone else is referring to as November 10th, a.k.a. Fallout 4‘s release date.
If you picked up a Pip-Boy and a branded nuke, a four-pack would probably look pretty good nested between the two on your mantle. Just make sure you have an ample supply of Tums Rad-Aways to counter any of the nasty side effects you might encounter from chugging a few bottles while the game installs.
Recommended Reading highlights the best long-form writing on technology and more in print and on the web. Some weeks, you’ll also find short reviews of books that we think are worth your time. We hope you enjoy the read.
To get you in the proper mindset for tonight’s ghoulish activities, Grantland offers a look at the best horror movie monsters of all time. Jason, Michael, Freddy and Leatherface are all considered for categories like best costume, most creative kill and more. Take a look… if you dare.
Cassini has just finished the second of three planned Enceladus flybys on October 28th, going as close at 30 miles above the surface of the icy moon’s south polar region. The photo above was taken after the flyby, showing both the moon and Saturn’s rings, but rest assured the probe took a lot of close-up photos. It even grabbed some of the gas and dust that erupted from one of Enceladus’ geysers that typically spew water and other materials up to 125 miles into the sky. NASA will analyze those samples within the next few weeks, which should gives us more details about the composition of the moon’s ocean floor, as well as about any underwater hydrothermal activity. Cassini made the first flyby this early October to take a closer look at Enceladus’ north pole region. It’s scheduled to make its last one on December 19th to measure the heat the moon gives of, after which it’ll move on to other things for the last two years of its life.