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Microsoft's Potty Mouth Santa Fired


As first reported yesterday in the Register and then picked up today by ComputerWorld, Microsoft has had to pull the plug on its on-line "artificial-intelligence Santa bot" that was meant to talk to children about what they wanted for Christmas. Seems that the bot, as ComputerWorld put it, "wandered off topic" when certain words - like pizza - were used.

According to ComputerWorld, "Microsoft recently added the artificial Santa as a bot that Windows Live Messenger users could insert into their IM buddy list as northpole@live.com."

You can read about the bot in a Microsoft press release I found from last year titled: For a Jolly Good Time, Chat With Santa on Windows Live Messenger. A line in it is: "Filling Santa in on Christmas wishes and asking all about how the reindeer are doing or whatâ''s new at the North Pole are a few of the things kids can talk to Santa about. Santa can even tell kids where they stand on his list: naughty or nice."

I guess the press release forgot to mention that Santa would be informing the kids about whether he was naughty or nice this year.

Microsoft said in a statement posted on the Register site: "Yesterday we received reports that the automated Santa Claus agent in Windows Live Messenger used inappropriate language. As soon as we were alerted, we took steps to mitigate the issue, including the removal of language from the agentâ''s automated script."

"We were not completely satisfied with the result of these actions, and have decided to discontinue the automated Santa Claus agent. We apologise for any offence or upset caused by this disturbing incident."

I guess Microsoft tested this year's Santa bot using the same strategy it does on most of its products - let the users find the bugs.

Japanese Fighting Robots

The London Guardian has a short video of two-legged robots battling out for the Robo-One grand championship at Tokyo's convention center. I particularly liked Mr. Balloon-head.

Needed: Tech Smart Political Candidates


As I mentioned the other day, too many politicians pass legislation without understanding the full IT ramifications involved. In the Washington Post on Sunday, blogger-reporter (or is it reporter-blogger) Garrett M. Graff travels a bit further in his essay entitled Prehistoric Pols Don't Know Their Yahoo From Their YouTube.

Graff hopped on Sen. John McCain for saying at last Wednesday's CNN/YouTube debate that he "wouldn't need to lean on his vice president, George W. Bush-style, for national security expertise, but might 'rely on a vice president' for help on less important issues such as 'information technology, which is the future of this nation's economy.' "

"Hold it," Graff says. "Would we allow a serious presidential candidate to admit to knowing so little about any other key subject?"

You can see McCain's full response in Question 25.

Graff points out that all the presidential candidates except possibly Sen. Barack Obama don't know or give much more than lip service to the importance of IT to the nation's economy.

My friend Allan Holmes over at Government Executive magazine amplifies on Graff's point a bit more:

"The problem, as Graff points out, is the odd allowance we as a nation give presidential candidates to admit that they know so little about an industry that is vitally important to the national economy â'' and for that matter, to national security. Such admissions happen with surprising regularly. Weâ''ve written about Defense Secretary Robert Gates â'' who oversees the worldâ''s largest military complex, which has pursued network-centric warfare as its primary strategic objective â'' that he is 'a very low-tech person.' President Bush also has made statements about his ignorance of IT, as my colleague Tom Shoop pointed out in his FedBlog this past summer."

Allan might have noted that Gates doesn't do e-mail, nor did his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, nor does Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Chertoff also doesn't like e-mail because, â''When you write an e-mail, you have to be mindful of the fact that nothing ever disappears. It can be deleted, but it is still in the system somewhere.â'' It's ironic that he is worried about his privacy, but that is another story.

You can be sure that many others in senior government management positions, not only in federal service but also state and local government feel very uncomfortable with IT just like Gates, Rumsfeld and Chertoff, even as they are also supposed to be developing strategies that are critically dependent upon IT's use.

Graff says, "As the United States advances into the information age, it can't afford to have its leaders' base of knowledge be rooted in the industrial era, lest their intellectual capacities come to resemble such relics as the decaying steel mills of Pittsburgh."

I heartily agree.

FDA: Science and IT Risks Place Nation at Risk


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Science Board's Subcommittee on Science and Technology released a very worrying report late last week on the current state of science and technology at the FDA:

"The Subcommittee concluded that science at the FDA is in a precarious position: the Agency suffers from serious scientific deficiencies and is not positioned to meet current or emerging regulatory responsibilities."

According to the FDA, it is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, the nationâ''s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. The FDA is also responsible for advancing the public health by helping to speed innovations that make medicines and foods more effective, safer, and more affordable; and helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to improve their health.

As the Subcommittee points out in its report,"The nation is at risk if FDA science is at risk."

In addition to the scientific deficiencies, another one of the critical findings of the Subcommittee's report is that, "The FDA cannot fulfill its mission because its information technology (IT) infrastructure is inadequate."

The report notes:

The Subcommittee was extremely disturbed at the state of the FDA IT infrastructure. While some good progress is being made to improve information sciences and technology, the Subcommittee found that the FDA lacks the IT infrastructure necessary to meet its mandate. It also found that the FDA has insufficient access to data and cannot effectively regulate products based on new science due to lack of a supportive IT infrastructure. The Subcommittee noted that the FDA IT infrastructure is obsolete, unstable and lacks controls to execute effective disaster recovery protocols that ensure continuity of operations when systems are compromised. Finally, the IT workforce is insufficient."

The report notes that FDA IT systems fail frequently, and even email systems are unstable. The report goes on: "More importantly, reports of product dangers are not rapidly compared and analyzed, inspectorsâ'' reports are still hand written and slow to work their way through the compliance system, and the system for managing imported products cannot communicate with Customs and other government systems (and often miss significant product arrivals because the system cannot even distinguish, for example, between road salt and table salt)."

I urge you to read the report; it makes for some very sad as well as scary reading.

What's par for the course these days in Washington, but is still depressing nevertheless is that the Subcommittee blames Congress for insufficiently funding the FDA while asking it to do more, while Congress says the FDA hasn't been asking for more money because the current Administration wants less government regulation of business and more "market-based regulation."

The truth is a bit of both, which means a standoff and so science and technology at the FDA languish. Even where there is agreement between Congress and the Administration over the necessity some of the FDA's missions, the FDA is no longer able perform these well if at all.

A sorry state of affairs, indeed.

I guess we'll all just have to be a little more cautious when we eat, or take medicines, or use medical devices, or apply cosmetics, or are near products that emit radiation.

Fixing the AMT: Politicians As Software Architects

I love politicians who think they are software architects or system engineers. I wince whenever they pass some ill-conceived legislation, the success of which critically depends on information systems & technology (IS&T) without ever bothering to consider the technological and management risks involved. Like Captain Jean-Luc Picard, they just order, "Make it so."

This time Congress has screwed around and not passed legislation that has another signficiant IS&T component, namely the promised fix to the alternative minimum tax (AMT). The AMT was passed in 1969 as a way to make 155 very wealthy families (of the time) pay some taxes (they were able to avoid doing so by claiming lots of state and federal deductions).

Over time, the AMT has grown (it isn't inflation adjusted) to hit more and more taxpayers - 4 million in 2006. If changes aren't made, it will likely hit 25 million taxpayers this year, most who aren't aware that they will owe lots more money (about $2,000 on average), and possibly penalties for underpaying their taxes.

Congress is supposed to legislate a fix, but squabbling between Congress and the White House has delayed progress. Any legislative change, of course, may require changes to millions of lines of software in IRS computer systems since the AMT affects so many different tax computations. Reprogramming the IRS computer systems to deal with new AMT legislation requires 12 weeks from the time the bill is signed into law; the IRS also needs three weeks to print new tax forms.

The IRS is warning that if Congress waits too much longer, it may have no choice but to delay not only the tax filing season start date of 14 January 2008 to mid-February, but also refund checks for another 25 million taxpayers to the tune of some $87 billion.

I also suspect that, on top of all the confusion that will ensue, those IRS computer systems won't be able to be fully system tested given the schedule pressure, so some AMT-related problems likely won't surface until well into next year. And even though the various makers of home tax preparation software claim the delay is no big deal, I bet it will be if things drag on much longer. The risk of both deliberate and unintended tax noncompliance will soar.

Congress has been warned about this problem for over a year, but I guess it had better things to do.

Sex and the Single Robot

As I was reading the New York Times book review section this morning, I came across a review of David Levy's book, Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, SBN: 9780061359750; ISBN10: 0061359750, 2007).

Quoting from the review:

"Humans, Levy writes, are hard-wired to impute emotions onto anything with which weâ''re in intimate contact, to feel love for objects both animate and inanimate. And robots, he argues, might turn out to be even more lovable than some humans. By 2025 'at the latest,' he predicts, 'artificial-emotion technologies' will allow robots to be more emotionally available than the typical American human male. 'The idea that a robot could like you might at first seem a little creepy, but if that robotâ''s behavior is completely consistent with it liking you, then why should you doubt it?'

The review, by Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine goes on in its concluding paragraph:

"Levy spends so much time laying out his logical arguments about how and why we will fall in love with robots that he gives short shrift to the bigger questions of whether we would really want to. Iâ''d have liked a little less gee-whiz, and a little more examination about whether a sexbot in every home, a Kama Sutra on legs that never tires, never says no, and never has needs of its own is what we really want."

This book should provoke some interesting discussion. Robots that have are more emotionally available than the typical American human male by 2025? How about French or Italian men? Is that 2030? I guess I'll have to get the book to see what Levy says about the emotional availability of the typical American woman.

Maybe the idea of creating future sex robots can help get students interested in taking up computer science at Cambridge University again.

Another UK Government Agency Admits Lost CDs

If confession is good for the soul, then the UK government must be feeling awfully good right about now.

The London Telegraph is now reporting that the Department for Work and Pensions "has suspended all 'data exchanges' with local authorities because discs containing details of council tax and housing benefit claimants have been mislaid."

"At least 45,000 names and personal details are known to have gone missing from one council, with the DWP admitting last night that more authorities have lost discs."

According to the Telegraph, the DWP said that discs from only a "tiny number" of councils had been lost, and that the DWP "thinks" that the discs are "somewhere in the system."

The council discs were lost in September but the fact of their being lost - I beg your pardon, "mislaid" - is only coming to light now. I seriously doubt that if the HM Revenue and Customs ID scandal had not happened, the DWP security blunders would never have come to light.

Massachusetts Warns Senior Citizens of Possible ID Theft

ComputerWorld is reporting that Massachusetts is warning 150,000 members of its Prescription Advantage insurance program that their personal information may have been stolen.

According to the story, a lone identity thief was arrested in August who had been using information taken from the program in an attempted identity theft scheme. Massachusetts officials think that only a small number of identities were involved.

DC Tax Scam Gets Bigger

The Washington Post reports today that the DC tax scam has now increased to $44 million from $31 million just a week ago, the latter amount being one which grew from the original $16 million estimate at the beginning of November. The scam also looks like it has been going on for at least nine years now instead of the three year time frame first thought which was then revised to seven years.

The Post also reports that, "New information from the city's chief financial officer indicates that at least two and as many as four top leaders of the D.C. tax office, including its director, should have personally reviewed the refunds before they were issued." When questioned by the Post as to why they didn't, these folks naturally declined to answer.

The Post also reported that,"An FBI affidavit says that five more low-level employees helped process fraudulent refund paperwork before it got to Walters [the alleged ring-leader] but does not address what, if anything, they knew about the alleged scheme."

No doubt, this story will continue for awhile, and again, I say let's impose the same requirements on the equivalent government officials as are laid on those heading public corporations. Taxpayers deserve as much protection as shareholders do.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City
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