What Kind of FOO am I?

by Andrew McAfee on June 18, 2012

A little while back I put borrowed camping gear (thanks, Steve and Lee!) into a rental car and drove from San Francisco to Sebastopol to pitch my tent at FOO Camp, Tim O’Reilly’s annual jamboree of those-doing-cool-things-with-technology.

FOO (which stands for ‘friends of O’Reilly’) is a free, invitation-only unconference, and Tim and his colleagues at O’Reilly media are amazing hosts. There were delicious food and beverages, wifi and meeting rooms, showers and towels, and every other form of hospitality appropriate to the occasion.

FOO Camp 2012 sessions

My highlights included:

  • Listening to Andrew Ng and Peter Norvig describe their MOOCs – Massive, open, online courses — to teach all comers online about artificial intelligence. MOOCs are one of the innovations that will transform / disrupt the educational system in the coming years.
  • Learning about automated writing from Narrative Science’s Kris Hammond. Narrative Science can take a body of data (e.g. the stats from a baseball game) and generate from it individualized prose with varying angles and language. Because I assure you that Red Sox and Yankee fans do not want to read anything like the same story about the same game.
  • Conducting a session with Etsy’s Juliet Gorman and FutureAdvisor’s Bo Lu about the future of jobs and work in an increasingly digital economy. Juliet’s company uses technology to increase the amont of labor by giving craftspeople markets for their products. Bo’s uses tech to remove labor by automating the work of a financial advisor.
  • Having endless hallway, mealtime, and late-night conversations with ridiculously interesting and accomplished people. I wonder if many other people there felt like they were an admissions mistake. I sure did.

The legendary columnist Murray Kempton wrote that he loved New York because it “happens to be the only city under the eye of God where the librettist for Don Giovanni could find his closest friend in the author of “The Night Before Christmas.” Well, FOO Camp is the only place I’ve been where you wind up hanging out midmorning with the Obama campaign’s CTO, the guy at Google responsible for monitoring online repression and attempts to shut off the Internet around the world, one of the world’s leading competitive data scientists, and the guy who monetized Lolcats.

I hope I do enough interesting things in the next year to be invited back. Thanks, Tim and the rest of the O’Reilly gang; you put on a great Geekstock.

Sara Winge June 18, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Great to have you at Foo, Andrew. Y’know, we actually considered calling it Geekstock, back in 2003.

Marlon Feld June 24, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Sounds like an amazing time! I find Narrative Science and its work to be especially interesting – I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall for that discussion. Hammond has said a computer will win a Pulitzer within five years. I don’t see a computer doing that on its own, but I could see a computer sifting through reams of data and finding the narrative that helps some human journalist win the Pulitzer. And in that case maybe the computer will have “won” the prize in a way.

I do think it will turn out to be feasible to automate news reporting on a wider range of subjects than most people imagine. The fact that NS can already tailor its software to produce stories in different house styles and individual tones is pretty impressive. 

That said, the real story might turn out to be the applications outside of journalism. The concept of automatically generated stories tailored to an “audience of one” (say, a customized analysis of your personal investments on demand) seems to have a lot of potential. Maybe one of these days consumers will have access to sophisticated automated writing tools through software as a service. Now that computers are getting the hang of natural language, I wouldn’t be surprised.

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