Cloud Cognition

The Guru Problem


Years back, I had the good fortune to talk with David Gilmour, back when he was deeply involved in the Tacit Knowledge System. The software, since absorbed and disappeared by Oracle (hoping my Oracle friends can correct me here), simply allowed you to find expertise. You ask a question, and the system decided who could help you based on a simple Natural Language Processing (NLP) analysis of corporate emails. It discerned between people who answer questions and those who ask in order to find the "gurus." Fun side note: "simple NLP" refers to noun-phrase understanding. As I recall, there are seven levels of NLP analysis, the highest being the understanding of discourse - which I believe remains an elusive goal for now. IBM's Watson is an example of a higher order system for NLP analysis, by comparison, understanding concepts beyond noun-phrase matching but short of discourse.

To find the guru, noun-phrase would be sufficient, and the questions in email communications were easy enough to discern. This is more difficult to do with today's collaborative tools, and the last time I listened to an NLP expert - they were trying to discern conversations within Instant Messaging tools (consider the disjointed nature due to lags and such in a IM or texting stream).

Gilmour's team also patented the magic that made the whole thing palatable to the gurus, who, after all, have little reason to celebrate tools that offer them nothing but an increase in the number of questions they receive daily. Anyone in the system could "dial down" their visibility at any time. The system would know of their expertise, but the questioner may receive no hint of that person; or may receive a response: 'Someone who could help you has been made aware of your request.' This took passive-aggressive potential to new heights. The thinking was, when you had time, you raise the curtain and let them find you by name. When you did not, you lowered the curtain - but still got to see the people wandering about blindly on the other side. The social games that this could feed boggle the mind.

I attended a workshop a few weeks ago, and talked about my experiences with my current employer. Where we use multi-functional collaboration software, follow status updates and blogs from people in our self-selected network of colleagues, etc. One question I received went to the guru problem: "Don't you spend all your day answering questions, if you have desired expertise? By 'working out loud,' aren't you just increasing the probability that more people will find you and bug you with questions?" I immediately thought of the Tacit Knowledge System and my first thought was: "Yeah, I can't lower the curtain, he's got a point." Fortunately, I thought a little before opening my mouth - not something I often nail. The truth is, it doesn't work like that. When I have a question, I don't seek out the expertise and post on their wall or email them - instead, I develop a network, and then telegraph my need. Yes, I'm using metaphors from past centuries, but it fits here.

An example: I was meeting with a client who asked about our internal usage analytics - my firm has a page anyone behind the firewall can see that shows company-wide usage and trends for our collaboration tools. The problem: I hadn't bookmarked it. As the client asked the question, I pulled up my activity stream and posted the question. Within two minutes, literally, a network colleague posted the link for me. Consider this. Rather than pestering the people I know have the info, and without taking time from the client conversation to search, I was able to raise my hand - and someone who was available and reading took the time to provide the answer. Besides the answer: I was able to talk the client about the behavior, the network cultivation, the expected reciprocity, etc., that mattered more than any of the tools or analytics. Good times, if you're an abject geek.

The notion of 'working out loud' is more than exhibitionism. I live within a system of engagement, where I can share what I'm learning and experiencing, answer questions where I can, and generally tend to a broad virtual team where expertise comes to the question. Solving the guru problem, as it happens, takes a 'village.'

Disturbing, this Distributing Cognition

For the umpteenth time, I yelled up the stairs to my teenaged daughter - the most unflappable human I knew.  “Did you put the garbage out?”  “Ok,” came the laconic response.  “Ok?  How is that an answer?  Why do I have to remind you every week?”  Minutes later, she bumbled down the stairs with a sigh, and went about her task.  Uncomplaining, but judgmental in the way only teenaged girls can carry off. In calmer times, I asked her a deeper question.  I’d like to think I was calm, but I’m likely being kind in my historical rendering of the conversation.  “Why do I have to remind you every week about the trash?  You don’t seem to even know what day is trash day!”

“I know what day trash day is. It’s the day after you yell at me to take it out.”

That one stunned me, and has stayed with me in the intervening decades.  It was the most honest expression of distributed cognition I heard, although I didn’t know the term at the time.  Because I could be relied upon to remind her, she never took on the task to remember the day of the week that contained her chore.  I would like to say that this behavior is not repeated in my marriage, where certain cognitive tasks are embodied in our relationship - often to the exasperation of my Bride, but I heard once that blogs should reflect truth.

A 2009 article bemoaned our shrinking hippocampus, the area of our brain that allows us to navigate spatial landscapes.  The speculation is that our reliance on smart phones and vehicle GPS means that we are offloading cognitive processes into our environment - embodied cognition that is demonstrated when someone asks if you have the time.  You say yes, even though what you mean to say is that you know how to learn the time.  You say, ‘Yes, I know what time it is, as you look at your watch to learn the information.’ Even this example is dating me; how many still wear a watch when a time-keeping device connected to an atomic clock is sitting in our pockets (or in, gasp, holsters)?

It's not just about navigation or trash.  A friend yesterday used some email-to-text magic to ask if I had plans for this evening.  I immediately texted back to indicate my lack of a social life.  Midday, I noted there had been no response and texted again - "Plans?  Thoughts?" No reply.  It never occurred to me to try an alternate mode - he had texted, and I was unconsciously respecting that communications mode.  When I considered the lack of response, I determined that he had good reason to be incommunicado.  Talking with him this morning, I learned that through some glitch in the matrix, he never received my multiple replies.  I presumed the communications channel was without flaw, and presumed a social reason for the silence.  When did I forget how to dial a phone?

And no, I will not be attending a wine dinner this evening after all.

Fortunately, the brain is constantly re-wiring, re-writing its code.  Microglial cells navigate our brains to prune redundant, poorly wired and obsolete synapses.  I am making a logical leap here, presuming that these pruning cells are engaged in the process of distributed cognition (or the recovery from it), but it seems likely microglia play a part.  This microglial cleaning is done, I should add, without your intervention. This is an ongoing Spring cleaning, but unlike the one where you stand on the stairs demanding your spouse reconsider trashing your old Yes album covers.

As a result of this constant re-wiring, for example, the hippocampus of the London cab driver is larger than yours, because of their onerous training: the requirement to memorize a 6 square mile patch centered on Charing Cross such that they know the optimal path between any two points therein, in any season. The requirements of their job led to a re-structuring of their brain.  They cannot rely on a map or GPS, but must internalize this knowledge.

So you can expand your navigational sense, you can regain the ability to find your way from Shady Grove to Adams Morgan.  You can re-learn what day the trash is picked up.  But first, you need a strategy.  What cognitive processes are best embodied in your environment, leaving your efficient brain to focus on ‘higher-order’ tasks?  Perhaps GPS is a trustworthy object to replace your hippocampus. However: What processes have you offloaded, without thinking about it?  And is that distributed cognition in good hands?  Are you trusting the best objects/interactions with helping you to know?  What did those Spring cleaning cells trim away last night as you slept?  This last thought, without too much explanation, may give some of us reason to pause and reflect this weekend.   Do enjoy.

To Dream is to Question

More research indicating that our inner capabilities for perception, understanding, and imagination are not three separate activities in our brains - but rather an intertwined set of abilities directed at prediction.  We have an efficiency unmatched by any computer: we notice and process only that information about our world that does not match our predictive assumptions.  If the environment around us is unchanging, we are spared the banal status report.  Compare this to mind-numbing staff meetings, where “we go around the table and update everyone.” But wait.  While mind-numbing as so many organizational rituals can be, aren’t these status meetings a chance to think?  To question status updates that may contain a hint of shift?  To think is to learn.  To think is to be intentional about questioning our predictions.  If the world around us presents us with unexpected information, it gains our attention.  This is how we are wired, but our attention is generally focused only on this ‘exception handling.’  We have to exert ourselves to devote attention to the status quo, to look for minor signs of shift.  Our brains are fantastic at predicting the effects of our movement through our immediate environment, most likely the purpose for this predictive ability, but are famously also able to trap us in bigotry, mistaken assumptions about abstract concepts such as economics or love, or to help us miss out on opportunities to learn.

The picture here represents one of the great corporate slogans from over 100 years ago: Think.  In all things, focus the mind on questioning its assumptions, its expectations.  Our world is famously unpredictable, thinking moves us from reacting to the potential for proactive change - to a place where we notice the quiet signals in our environment that deserve our attention and imagine change.

Today we honor a man who shared his Dream with humanity.  Who demanded we think about our actions, our assumptions, and to change the nation’s ways towards a moral path.  To dream is to think.  To think is to question.  What do you question today?

Harnessing the Cognitive Cloud

The geniuses at MIT are at it again, and are busy developing technology that will make the term "cloud cognition" immediately obvious.   What if you could learn the time by looking at your wrist?  What if you could pick up a book in a store and see the latest Amazon rating and comments displayed on the cover?  What if you looked at your airline boarding pass, and saw the latest delay and gate information displayed on it?

What if every surface was your personal screen, displaying information about objects and people in your view?

What if?

For more information, check out the group formerly known as "ambient intelligence" here.

Cloud Cognition and Trust

My son was leaving after his holiday visit, halfway out the door, when the Bride stopped him.  He had already been asked if he knew how to get back to New York from Northern Virginia by his sister - "Yes, I have GPS."  The Bride, however, had updated information.  "Don't trust the GPS to get to the Wilson Bridge, it will tell you to stay to the right, but the exit is on the left now. Read the signs, not the GPS."  There had been an eight-year project to redo the "mixing bowl" in Springfield, VA, completed recently.  So recently, in fact, that most GPS systems are not programmed to "know" the new configuration.  This reminds me of the outstanding principle allegedly detailed in a Swedish Army Manual:  If the terrain and the map do not agree, follow the terrain. 

Road signs hold environmental information, we trust them to help us navigate.  Or did.  If you're using GPS, how attentive are you to road signs anymore?  If you're in a strange city and the road signs "disagree" with your GPS instructions, what is your choice?  What if you're driving an Opel Insignia, with front cameras that recognize road signs? 

Personally, I trust my GPS system, even when I notice "she" is taking me on the occasional odd path.  It is easier, for me, than learning my way around an area.  The Bride, however, has a running disagreement with my GPS system - and often asks me what "she" is thinking.  I let the women fight it out most days, although I often find myself in odd conversations defending the GPS system's behavior.  It passes the time.

I should pause here and note a definitional issue with my logic.  Several friends have pointed out to me that the scale is the thing in cloud computing.  It is not simply offloading cognitive processing to a distant computer or connect to distributed sensors.  It is that we can connect to many computers or potentially all sensors.  The cloud is not the thermometer or my local page on, it is the fact that I can know the temperature for most any point on earth.  I do not disagree, scale is indeed the thing for cloud computing.  However, I'm trying to think through the implications for this scale on our cloud cognition behavior, which predates computers.  

Back to trust.  I recently met with a firm working on second-factor authentication.  Identity-centric computing, how to ensure the cloud trusts the individual is who they say they are.  The information sharing strategy from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence states that individuals need to share information on a network with mechanisms to ensure other users have the appropriate access and know to protect information found there.  In part, this firm is helping answer initiative 2B from the ODNI 500-Day Plan, "Implement Attribute-Based Access and Discovery."  This firm has an approach that scales massively, and may answer may of the issues for "government 2.0" applications.

We know to trust the terrain, if it disagrees with the map.  We used to trust road signs, but now often don't notice them - particularly if we are waiting for our GPS voice to tell us the way.  (For whatever reason, we are so inattentive, that we are now building cars to read the signs for us!)  We trust Amazon with our credit card information and our buying history.  We trust eBay is securing the integrity of its online auctions. We trust Google and Facebook and MySpace with all sorts of personal information, even while we have little understanding of the current and potential use for this trusted information by these companies.  (It's sometimes useful to think of them as companies rather than websites.)

Trust, we are told, is gained through an expectation of things like authority, reciprocity and care.  However, trust for cloud cognition may be offered on another basis - convenience.  It is simply more convenient to trust than not to.  How many users read End-User License Agreements (EULA)?  Remember the controversy over the EULA for the Google Chrome browser?  We are giving up control and safety for convenience, because we are interested primarily in what works.  We will trust the cloud so long as it does not violate our trust, or so we tell ourselves. We are frogs in the frying pan, dimly aware of the ongoing war to douse the flame before our trusting nature dooms us.  We rush to build authenticating mechanisms for this unstoppable move to the cloud, even as malefactors rush to steal from us by exploiting our trust.

The analogy to international banking systems is irresistible.  We trusted in financial wizards because it worked, and there was no reason not to - except for those who took the time to understand the nature of the underlying "securities." We already trust much and offload some measure of our lives to the ever-increasing cloud.  We write of ways to increase trust, while the real job is to ensure the cloud earns the trust we have already given it.

Cloud Cognition

Thinking out loud here... Chat last night on Twitter about cloud computing, the definition having been recently updated on Wikipedia by @bobgourley.  One gentle challenge was offered by @lewisshepherd:  By the simpler definition, a print server would be deemed cloud computing - is that what is meant?  

At one level, it is not altogether useful to have such broad definitions that the reader is unable to move from the definition to understanding what LinkedIn and Amazon Web Services have in common.  However, as a "specialist of the whole," I was immediately seduced by the simplicity.  If a user can use distant computers to process local jobs, she is working with cloud computing.  (Cloud computering?)

Take this to another level.  In a most excellent book, Natural Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark wrote that we started offloading cognitive processes when we put on wristwatches.  When someone asks you if you have the time, you say yes - because you know you can look at the watch to get the current time. You likely don't know it without checking, this may be why you're asked if you "have" the time, rather than if you "know" the time.  

If someone asks for your phone number, you retrieve it from the wonderful wetware behind your eyes. (Some of us of a certain age eventually lose this information, "I don't know, I never call it!")

So what is the difference between looking up your phone number in your brain and checking your wristwatch?  Probably the reliance on previously unrelated variables - if the silly watch battery dies, I suddenly don't know the time.

Somewhere around 1000 B.C., I suspect cave folk knew it was cold by walking outside and seeing the ice form.  Around 1617, the first thermoscopes were used to compare temperature changes.  As a child, I saw mercury thermometers on the house to tell me when it was freezing.  This morning, the Bride checked to find out our (somewhat) local temperature is 14 degrees F.  At what stage did we offload cognitive processes to "know" the local temperature?

Andy Clark is right, we are already cyborgs to a degree.  We have always involved technology to help us offload cognitive tasks.  As we consider the various definitions for "cloud computing," it may be useful to consider it as the next logical step in moving from the cave to the hive mind.


Well, beyond technology - we have also used our social connections to better understand our environment.  "Is it cold out there" to "does anyone know any good new restaurants" is  logical progress.  One is shouted to your fellow cave-dweller, the other a question posed using social media.

So cloud cognition is the offloading of cognitive processes, but also the use of distributed sensors to better understand our habitat.  No man is an island, indeed.