What’s New in Innovation?

How cool is a conference that opens with a humanoid robot (Sophia) and a hologram of her creator (Dr. David Hanson) discussing artificial intelligence?

They were okay, but the real revelation I got from this year’s OCE Discovery wasn’t flashy, revolutionary or disruptive. I wasn’t transported to a new reality. Instead, I looked around and realized: we’re here. Here, at a place where innovation has few limits.

Technology is not limiting.

Data is not limiting.

Knowledge is not limiting.

Being an entrepreneur is not limiting.

What’s left is to ask the right questions, choose the problems to tackle, the needs to fulfill.

Let me explain. First though, let me say this post tumbled out of my brain1 after listening to many inspiring presentations by David Hanson, Megan Smith, speakers in the Keynote panel on Transformative Technologies, and panels on Artificial Intelligence and Smart Cities at the 2018 OCE Discovery, an annual, award-winning innovation-commercialization conference.

Technology. There are several waves breaking onto the beach of everyday life: Artificial intelligence. Machine learning. Big data. The internet of things. Robotics. The capacity to use information is immense, because of increased transfer rates (5G), increased availability (social media, GPS) or increased monitoring (sensors on everything). It goes beyond what humans are capable of by combining the storage power of machines with the processing power of machines. Sure, there are still technical challenges, but there is capacity to write algorithms, apply principles, reduce to practice. We are on the cusp of autonomous cars, SMART homes, apps to help us do everything from planting vegetables to grocery shopping to putting out the garbage.

Data. We have reams of data. We have reams of accessible data. Accessible both because it’s been collected and because some of it is public. Our phones and search engines probably know more about us than we do ourselves. Watson, the super-intelligent computer, knows more about medical studies than doctors2. Is Shakespeare is available in Klingon or which of his plays have been performed most often? This data3 is available.

Knowledge. Don’t know how to do something you want to do? Search. If that doesn’t work, ask. See above for accessibility of technology and data. Seriously, you can learn how to do just about anything on the internet, or at least find someone to teach you. The sharing economy has not only brought us cheaper rides and accommodation, it has shifting thinking to collaboration and partnerships so people are willing to share their expertise.

Entrepreneurship is best defined by what it no longer is. Entrepreneurship is an acceptable career choice. Starting your own business is cool now, although there was a time it was considered nasty capitalism by some. While starting your own business isn’t trivial, it’s better supported in Canada than it ever has been, with incubators, accelerators, educational programs, and accessible resources. What works and what doesn’t in entrepreneurship is understood better than it was 10 years ago. Due to the technology, data availability, and knowledge sharing, developing an idea into a business has never been easier. The challenge now is how to encourage and support people to do it.

That’s what struck me. We can do any number of things. We only have to decide what we want to do. Do we need to curate traffic so here are no more jams? Should we understand weather patterns to predict umbrella demand? Can we make a difference by diagnosing a disease before it is symptomatic? How do we reduce energy consumption? Waste less. Care for more.

From the miraculous to the mundane4, we have the technology, data and knowledge. We can build it, better, stronger, faster, for less than millions of dollars.

Combining creative risk-taking (entrepreneurship) and utilization of available resources (technology, data and knowledge), we can solve an enormous number of problems.

All we need is to just do it5.

——-

1Being inspired by interesting people was even better than not realizing David Hanson was a hologram until his talk was almost over.

4 Which is which may depend on your perspective – consider bringing entire populations out of poverty with microloans or being able to recharge your phone anywhere.

5 There are barriers and challenges to developing any idea into a tangible solution but I hate to be pessimistic. The Discovery conference was uplifting. We have so much potential. In my next post, I’ll take a critical look at common barriers to solving problems.

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Modern Potty Humour

What if everything in the future works like the automated public bathrooms of today?

The average state-of-the-art bathroom has:

  1. lights that turn on when you enter the room,
  2. toilets that flush when you stand up or walk away,
  3. taps that turn on when you place your hands under them,
  4. automated soap dispensers,
  5. sensor-powered air dryers or paper towel dispensers1

All these conveniences should allow for a visit to the restroom that requires not touching anything that another human has placed their germy bits on.2

Problem is, the technology doesn’t work reliably.

I’m sure you’ve been there. Toilets that flush while you are still sitting, spraying your exposed buttocks with heaven knows what. Taps that won’t turn on. Soap dispensers that make the noise but deliver no soap. Paper towel dispensers that don’t. Dryers with no air flow.

Makes me wonder which is the greater microbe-spreading evil: not washing my hands at all, washing with just water, or touching the exit door handle with wet hands.

Now that your toes are curled and you want to never go to a public bathroom again, let me share my real concern: this is how all automated systems will work in the future.

Consider the parallels that might be between the automated bathroom and soon to be available self-driving cars, or AI’s that run your house .

Current Automated bathroom Dependability and usefulness Self-driving car AI home control system
Lights turn on automatically when someone enters the room pretty much works all the time, so far so good, system is useful car is there when you call it, opens the door and greets you by name responds to your voice, plays Nickelback on command
toilet flushes automatically when you walk away from it, but sometimes when you are still there a bit overzealous but doing its job car takes you to desire destination, but makes a ton of suggestions for stops along the way, especially when you are in a hurry system opens and closes door locks based on specified permissions but refuses to let your youngest child in when hair is freshly dyed pink
taps turn on when you place your hands under them, most of the time, or sometimes after several thrusts in various directions basic functionality but needs work car usually stays on road, occasionally drifts towards other lane, then neck-wrenchingly corrects as it does in the proximity of a squirrel, person with cane, or baby stroller has mastered turning on lights in occupied rooms but music plays in the basement, garage or attic even when no one is there, which is creepy
soap dispenser either dispenses soap or makes a pit of the belly grinding noise trying good effort, failing because of need for a third party to refill the dispenser car runs out of fuel sometimes because fuel gauge is linked to commodities markets and car is trying to arbitrage prices via beta version app grocery orders often don’t include items that begin with b (bananas, barbecue chips and basa fish) because … ?
hand drying gambit of questionably functioning towel dispenser and hot air blower need to figure out which is the best approach and make it work car finds quickest route about half the time, still ends up sitting in traffic at rush hour (you begin to suspect it’s because it enjoys Bluetoothing with other cars) room temperature is controlled half the time, the other half you have to ask to turn it up, then down, then up, then specify a temperature 2 degrees warmer than you really want
no automated toilet paper dispenser why not? refuses to change radio stations, suggests stopping at dance clubs as an alternative will not interact with the dishwasher, claims it doesn’t understand what a dishwasher is

Is the public restroom a metaphor for the coming automated world we’ll live in? I hope artificial intelligence is going to be smarter. Sensors will be more sensitive and selective. There’s more sense to automation.

I’m looking forward to the day when we engineer a body lotion that converts all biological waste to molecules that are passed as odourless gases through the skin, thereby making bathrooms obsolete. Now that would be progress.

——

1I’ve noticed that many bathrooms are now equipped with both paper-towels and hot air blowers, leading me to believe that the experts are divided on which is the best way to dry your hands to avoid the spread of the plague or similar diseases, or which is environmentally preferable, or more user friendly, or all of these. Hence, public restrooms are equipped with both.

2One thing lacking in the automated chamber is the toilet paper dispenser. Why hasn’t anyone created a thing that dispenses 3.0 sheets of paper at the wave of a hand? I’ve been to many a stall where I’ve dug around to get the roll started, then yanked when I had a sufficient supply, only to have paper trail onto the floor. That’s not somewhere I want to go, so I tear off three feet and start again. Or the paper tatters in my hand, leaving a dusting of tp fragments on the floor. What a waste. And it looks unsanitary, even if it probably isn’t.

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Is Bitcoin like a Tulip?*

If it sounds to good to be true,

or like it should be illegal,

it probably is,

or will be soon.

I call this Ann’s Axiom, although I’m not sure I can claim exclusivity to the sentiment. I did add the last line to cover the current business environment, where it often takes a while for laws to catch up with technology.

So, bitcoin. Many of us are face-palming with regret that we didn’t buy some of this nouveau currency years ago. A small gamble, out of intellectual interest, might be worth the downpayment on a lux condo in Toronto now.

Why did it start? Because it could. The concept of blockchain – a way of distributing information so it is always verifiable – spawned a bunch of new concepts, including a currency or two founded on the principle. Bitcoin, like all currencies, are surrogates for value1. People who think bitcoin has value (buyers) will trade their dollars, gold, stocks or whatever for it, while those that find more value in the dollars/gold etc will sell their bitcoin, honouring the fundamentals of supply and demand.

Bitcoin futures recently started trading on the NY stock exchange, meaning that people can speculate on whether they think bitcoin’s value is going to go up or down2. There are futures markets in all kinds of things, from pork bellies to natural gas to Japanese yen. So why not bitcoin? Originally, futures were established to make doing business easier, such as allowing a farmer to find a buyer for their grain harvest while it was still in the ground and make plans based on knowing the value of the crop. Future’s buyers are willing, because early purchase might lead to a deal on the grain. Then humans got clever and decided that futures trading was a way to make money by riding the waves of supply and demand. I question what fundamental need is served by bitcoin futures?

Yeah, but, that’s not how modern financial markets work, you say. I’m worried, and here’s as flaky an explanation as I got: Bitcoin futures, along with the wild gyrations in bitcoin value and incredible increase in value over the past few years leaves an unsettled feeling in my gut.

There’s more enthusiasm than logic with bitcoin. Do I smell tulips3? It also reminds me of 2008, and the almost collapse of world financial markets.

Much as been written about the causes and impacts of the mortgage crisis of the last decade, what stands out for me are a few principles:

  1. It may not have been clear to everyone what they were investing in. Securities (surrogates of value) were bundled together in such a way that made them sound safer than they were.
  2. Past performance is no indication of future performance. Mortgages – what’s a safer investment? They’re secured on real estate, which time has shown to be a stable, safe investment. Stable meaning that it retains value without fluctuation and is backed by a tangible asset. But that supply and demand thing happened. A whole bunch of people defaulted on their mortgages in a short period of time and when the mortgage-holders tried to recoup their investment by selling the underlying asset, the asset spiralled down in value because there were many houses on the market. And so, the mortgage backed securities plunged in value too.
  3. But that’s not all. A chain reaction started when the mortgage-backed securities unexpectedly lost their value. Price instability rattled through the financial markets because investors needed cash to cover their losses and tried to sell other securities like commodities and bonds and financial whatnots. The whatnots were especially complicated when they were futures because of the unpredictableness of the situation. Commentary I’ve heard was that it wasn’t generally understood how the various markets, stocks, mortgages, commodities, bonds, were tied together. Perhaps because they weren’t tied together by any simple logic, only that people and institutions with a lot of investments have a lot of investments. (Right, eh?)

Do we understand now how bitcoin could impact the world’s financial markets? The thing that we can’t know, and shouldn’t really, is how the value of bitcoin will effect individual holdings, and therefore the desire of individuals to sell other financial instruments. If the value of bitcoin crashes, what would bitcoin holders sell to compensate? If it’s the same whatnots, will there be echo crashes?

Presumably we have tighter controls in financial markets across the world now. But my gut is uneasy. Tulips might be a good hedge. I’ve heard the sale of flowers remains strong despite economic conditions because people need a little bit of hope.


*  This (and all posts on this site) are commentary and solely my opinion. They are meant to be thought provoking, not business or financial advice.

1Currency makes trade easy and social. If I want to buy cauliflower but make my living as a dental hygienist, the dollar makes this exchange easy. I get paid in dollars and hand the farmer dollars. So much easier than cleaning one of their teeth every time I want some vegetables.

2Futures basics: Futures are a contract to buy or sell something for a fixed price at a specified date in the future. If the current price of gas is $1/litre, and you think the cost of gas is going to go down, but your friend thinks it’s going to go up, they might agree to buy a thousand litres of gas from you at $1.10 two months from now, thinking the market value will be $1.20 and therefore saving ($1.20 x 1000) – ($1.10 x 1000) = $100. You on the other hand think it will be $0.90 two months from now and so are happy to make a deal with your friend, sure that you can sell them $900 of gas for $1100, and profiting $200. Multiply all that by more zeros, big business and lots of suits, and you have a futures market.

3Many business and psychology profs will tell the story about mania in tulip bulbs in the 1600’s. Tulips, yes the spring flowers, increased in price in the Netherlands to truly silly values, with people reportedly selling their homes to buy just a few bulbs, only to have the bulbs crash in value a little while later, leaving investors with nothing but a pretty flower as their net worth. For more details see here or here

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The Internet of Work Life Balance

Where does the internet fit into the equation of work-life balance1? What is the equation on work-life balance, anyway? Is it:

work + life = 24 hours/day

Better add sleep:

8 hours sleep + work + life = 24 hours/day

Are meals work or life? Sometimes we eat lunch at our desk, but then have a dinner date. If your company provides free food while you socialize with your coworkers and talk about sports, is that life? Is it work if you take a client to a sumptuous restaurant you couldn’t otherwise afford? There are times when it feels like work to have dinner with your in-laws, or your significant other’s friends.

To be on the safe side, I’ll make meals a neutral category. The use of ‘balance’ implies some kind of sameness, so:

24 hrs - 8 hours sleep - 1.5 hours of meals = 
          equal parts work and life

Ha! Not many of us achieve this, unless you consider commuting, showering etc. part of life. Oh, but I forgot weekends, which means I need to do the equation for a week:

7*(24 hours - 8 hours sleep -1.5 hours meals) 
- 5*(2 hrs commuting + 0.5 hours showering) 

= equal parts work and life 

= 89/2 hours 

= 44.5 hrs/week work and 44.5 hrs/week life

That looks ok. Granted 14.5 hrs on each of Saturday and Sunday are the life balance part, which leaves only 15.5/5 or slightly over 3 hours each work day for the life part.

Does the Internet go on the work side, or the life side, of the equation?

Most of us can answer if any given website, or app, is related to work or life. Can’t we? Facebook is usually friends, which must be life unless you’ve friended your boss and coworkers. Which sometimes you have. And sometimes not. Most businesses have a Facebook page, so when your friend starts a business, you get an invitation to like their page, which of course you do, because you’re friends. It can get a little awkward. I have friends who run businesses that I don’t buy from. And friends who run businesses that I frequent. They are all still my friends because I keep my mouth shut and put on my business-person pants, enabling me to appreciate there is a market for what my friends are selling, even if it isn’t me.

Well, that got as far as Facebook being a minefield of business-like bombs that could explode in your life.

A complicating factor: What do people mean when they say they are ‘on the Internet’? Do they mean anything digitally connected? When I say I’m on the Internet, I mean, I’m surfing. Using Google to find interesting stuff. When I’m using the Internet to post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc, I consider I’m on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn etc. Similarly, if I’m sending email, I’m emailing, although that often is included in ‘using the Internet’. And technically, if using an app, whether it’s Uber to get a ride or your insurance company’s app to file a claim, you are using the app, which happens to run over the Internet.

Is the Internet ruining work/life balance? The premise is that with phone in hand we can always see work-related stuff. If I pick up my phone at 11:30 pm to answer a text from a friend about where we are going dancing the next night, and see a work-relate email which I answer in a few words, do I have a work-related imbalance in my life?

A good juxtaposition is studies that show how much time people spend on personal stuff ‘at work’. On the Internet. Assuming Netflicks is part of ‘being on the Internet’, 37% of people admit to watching Netflix at work2. Many companies block social media sites to increase employee productivity, which implies personal use of the Internet distracts from work. Does this help to balance work and life – that we use the Internet for work when we are at home and for life when we are at work?

The Internet has made this time-sharing easier. In days gone by, when you left work, the only way you could be contacted was via a landline, and only if you were at home and someone else wasn’t on the family phone. It was only done in dire emergencies. Similarly, the pre-Internet equivalent of watching Netflicks at your desk was reading a book. A very conspicuous not-doing-my-job activity.

I think balance is about choice. Sometimes I dedicate myself to work, but other times it’s okay to spend time on whatever personal thing is a priority3. And there’s inbetween times when even if I’m off work but find something of value to my job, I note it, or I’m at work and deal with a personal issue.

So the work/life balance equation looks like this for me:

Sleeping and eating 
      + doing a good job 
           + being friend, family and citizen

= using the internet to get these things done

QED4

3 as long as it’s legal and I’m not using the company name

4 which, despite what 1st year engineering students believe, does not mean Quite Easily Done

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How Smart do you Want your Things to Be?

In the not too distant future, all things will be smart. All inanimate objects will have sensors that collect information, and artificial intelligence to analyze and react to the information.

A first generation example is motion sensors that have the sense to turn on lights when people, or your rottweiler, enter the room. Getting a little more sophisticated, there are devices like the Nest that learn from your habits and adjust the heating or a/c to create the most comfort in the most economical way. In the future (like next week), you may have a fridge that records the comings and goings of food over time and after it’s learned enough, places an order to the local food deliverer [probably Amazon] to restock all your staple foods, and suggest a few new offerings that it has calculated you might like based on your love of strawberries, mustard and corn chips. [shudder]

Everything, absolutely everything, will be smart. And helpful, in an artificially intelligent kind of way. In the spirit of embracing the future and getting the most out of it, I have a question for you:

What things do you most want to be smart and which do you least want to be smart?

Sure, I want world peace, cures for all hideous diseases, healthy, cheap food for everyone, but even AI is unlike to make those things something Amazon can deliver. And on the big picture down side, I don’t want my vacuum cleaner to take over ventilators at the hospital, the power grid to decide what temperature it should be in my home, or robots to terminate all human life because there isn’t enough calcium in the compost.

Smart stuff is likely to be more mundane in the near future (like next week and the one after that), so my expectations are lower.

Here are my smart wants:

I most want my electronic devices (which will be all things, including those we don’t consider to be electronic devices right now, like a hairbrush) to be smart enough to recognize me so I don’t have to remember 1,750 different user names and passwords. Of course, I expect perfect accuracy (the hair brush can tell the difference between me and my daughter, who likes to use it on the dog) and that they won’t let someone who has replicated my fingerprints, retinal pattern, voice or heartbeat to have access to my apps (especially my daughter, who is a likely candidate for trying to hack my stuff).

I want smart things to take away some of the pain I now have obtaining secure access to everything.

I least want something interfering in my learning process. I fiddle. I explore. I figure things out by taking a few steps and then pondering how it might work. After several rounds of this, if I complete a task I haven’t done before, I’m proud. This is how life happens for me, whether it’s setting up a website, doing home repairs or starting a company. The last thing I want is an AI chiming in to tell me how to do it at the first sign I’m stumped, or worse, 5 minutes before I realize I’m stumped.

To the average smart thing of the future, my message is: ‘if I want your help, I’ll ask for it’. What I don’t want is a smart-ass thing. A know-it-all thing. Any number of things could provide too much information. A hammer could disapprove of your the choice of nail. A pot could have opinions on the temperature applied or the nutritional content of the food it’s required to cook. Your CRM might remind you to call a particular client or that you’ve called one excessively, ignoring your personal ‘feel’ for how to deal with people.

Overall, I’d like smart things that see the difference between challenges that are annoying because they demand unnecessary attention (like where you put down your phone) but appreciate when a challenge is a good thing so you give it some thought (like understanding how to manage  privacy settings).

Of course, what annoys me may be a learning experience you want. Maybe you want instructions the second you pick up something because you’d rather spend your time watching videos. Or you’re a security buff and don’t want an AI to remember your passwords.

We’re all different, so it will take very smart things to please us all.

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Great Networking Events

Is networking a skill required by established entrepreneurs? Apparently it is1, even though many entrepreneurs consider themselves too busy doing exactly what they need to do to build their business for the random unplanness of networking.

There are zillions of blogs with advice for attendees on how to navigate the social and logistic challenges of networking. Here, I ponder what differentiates a great event from a mediocre one, inspired because I’ve discovered PitchitTO/York/Durham/etc 2. The Pitchits are 3 for 3, as far as I’m concerned. Being the analytical type, I need to dissect to find the ingredients that makes them so good.

I recommend networking to entrepreneurs for three reasons: learning, community, and building the business. Controlled serendipity is a rush. There’s magic when you bump into the person who:

1. can explain something you’ve been trying to figure out (or you’re the explainer and help someone else), [learning]

2. has the same challenges you do, [community]

3. wants to hire you to do a project you know exactly how to do [business].

Recent examples I experienced from each category:

1. On marketing. Do you find it hard to speak convincingly about your own abilities – key if you provide knowledge-based services? Someone said to me: ‘Consider it a natural ability that you should share.’ Wow! That sounded so much more palatable than pushing services. It turned ‘I’m selling this thing and I think you should buy it’ into ‘Let me help you because I know how’. [learning]

2. Sleepless nights. Even though I do a lot of speaking in front of (sometimes) critical audiences, it makes me nervous. Sometimes, so nervous I can’t sleep. Hearing someone else, a successful, public-speaking someone else, recount the same experience, only worse, gave me great comfort that even when it looks easy, it isn’t. [community]

3. Clients. Yes, I’ve found clients at networking events. [business]

A good networking event makes it easy for every attendee to find people to learn from, share with, and do business with. And this happens how? I won’t pretend to have the perfect recipe, but can make a few observations based on years of attending everything from the dullest events where no one moved from their front-of-the-room-facing seats, to ones that were so high energy I needed several hours to calm down afterward.

Here’s what I think makes a good event:

  1. The right physical space. Find an interesting, quirky setting. Maybe it has natural beauty, sunlight, water, or a forbidden quality. Make it somewhere people feel good. If they have to sit down, have them do it at large tables. Small ones form hard-to-enter cliques. Treat the attendees like house guests. Give them food, drink, bacon even.
  2. Invite well. We all know the marketing rules about reaching the right audience – publicize to find unconnected but like-minded people and those with a breadth of experience from seasoned to fresh out of school. Stack the deck of attendees with people you know will mingle and be inclusive. It’s a numbers thing3 – if enough of the attendees are determined to talk to everyone, then everyone will talk to everyone.
  3. Awesome leadership. It works in large corporations and small, and networking events. Good leadership – vision, coaching and walking the talk, will set the tone. The message should be loud and clear that everyone is there to help each other and learn from each other and do business together (see above three principles).
  4. The Program. Putting effort into crafting a stimulating program will get people talking. Inciting excitement gets the room riled up and ready to chatter.
  5. Fun. The culmination of all of the above, the atmosphere, the attendees, the leadership, and the event schedule, should be fun – enjoying life while making things happen.

Finding networking events that deliver all these things won’t happen all the time. And there is an element of personal fit. Not every venue, topic, or style energizes everyone in the same way. My latest find – the Pitchit events – have all the right elements – atmosphere, appropriate crowd, supportive message from the organizers, presentations every entrepreneur can related to, and serious fun.

Go find the perfect event for you. There will be people there you should know.

——

1For example, this academic study suggests so:  Morris, M., Webb, J., Fu, J., Singhal, S. (2013) A Competency-Based Perspective on Entrepreneurship Education: Conceptual and Empirical Insights. Journal of Small Business Management 51(3), pp. 352–369.

2 Pitchit is a new GTA thing where several startups are given ten-ish minutes to present their business to the crowd which contains a variety of potential investors and fellow entrepreneurs.

3There’s a mathematic model here somewhere, but let’s settle for: if there are three people, one of whom is determined to talk to everyone, and the other two who are cliquing, everyone will talk to everyone because the outgoing one will intervene with the other two. To get the idea of how many zealous networkers you should invite: multiple by one third of the number of expected attendees after subtracting the people who look like they are networking but are really running the event. Divide the program time by the time it takes for a good networker to have a conversation. Combine these factors. Do this in hexadecimal and it should predict the logarithm of the number of new dollars invested because of the event. 🙂

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The Evolution of Evil Scientists. Part 2: The Public Posts.

This series began with my admiration of the Professor from Gilligan’s Island as an iconic scientist. My wonderment has long since evaporated into frustration because members of a profession I believe have noble motivations are frequently called into question. The two major factors I think are involved: the source of funding for scientific research (previous blog post), and the pressure to communicate scientific findings.

Either voluntarily or by gentle coercion, scientists can no longer hide in their pungent smelling labs, mucking about with gooey entrails, or lurk in general obscurity. Speaking in words as long as a subway train or providing complex explanations full of ifs, ands, and buts, is no longer acceptable. Several factors have culminated in an urgent need for every scientist to have as high a profile as a rock star, be as charismatic as a politician, and as outgoing as a toddler fired by birthday cake.

I ascribe these changes in previously mild-mannered scientists to several factors:

  • Social Media. It’s happened to us all. Used to be, the only people who communicated with the masses were state leaders and award-winning journalists. Social media has evolved all of us into film makers, photographers, opinion-staters, authors, friends, followers and leaders. Why should scientists be any different?
  • Increasing pressure on scientists to explain what they’ve been doing with tax-payers money. Fair enough. The government invests heavily in research programs. It doesn’t seem too much to ask of the scientists to explain what they’ve done with the funds.
  • Universities, where many researchers are employed, face increasingly stiff competition. Like any organization, for-profit or otherwise, when competition heats up, tactics get aggressive. In Canada, I’ve seen a considerable amount of vying to attract the attention of new entrants. The wares that universities hock are the faculty – those that deliver the educational programs. Thus, scientists and other academics are put in the limelight more and more.
  • Research funding. As mentioned in the previous post, the majority of funding for research in the US now comes from industry sources. Universities and other educational institutes are constantly primping and preening to attract the attention of deep-pocketed suitors that will support their research programs. Again, this results in promotion – public acclamation of the exploits and prowess of the researchers.

These four factors are the why scientists communicate about their work more nowadays. None evil in its own rite. The source of evil, I believe, is marketing spin. Scientists are by nature cautious in communicating their findings and thus often fall prey to some form of media training. Done right, media training is an exercise directed to strengthening the muscles required to make positive sounding, definitive statements, rather than the limpid, subjective pronouncements scientists are inclined to produce. Poorly applied media training can lead to stretched, herniated stories about scientific dramas that may not exist.

To appreciate the difference between the scientific and the spun, consider:

  • ‘a new dietary cause for heart disease discovered’ [certain, conclusive and spun]

compared to

  • ‘strong associative link between phosphate rich food and stimulation and production of the FGF23 hormone, which has a negative effect on the cardiovascular system.’ 1 [comes directly from the scientific publication, has jargon and is convoluted]

Thing is, the truth is probably in between. This is not a definitive finding that we need to avoid phosphate rich food, but a suggestion that it has an impact on metabolism which may point us towards things to avoid once we have more information.

Another example is the octopus DNA2. A year ago, there was a publication about the sequencing of the octopus genome, and a popular science story headlined ‘Octopus DNA is not from this world’. My assessment of the situation was that while sequencing the octopus genome was really exciting if you are a geneticist, it was hard to get your head around if you weren’t engaged in DNA micro-specifications. But still, a brave writer tried and came up with the provocative headline. Octopus DNA is unusual, chemically, and functionally, when compared to other species, but that’s as far as the science goes.

Problem is, science advances in very small steps. This is a good, if frustrating, thing. It’s good because there are many checks and balances that go into advancing our understanding of the nature and technology. It’s annoying to anyone trying to communicate excitement about scientific discoveries.

An additional challenge that’s presented by the same phenomena is how easily, with a few twisted words, scientific studies can be made to sound lame.

Consider two different ways of looking at a government grant:

  1. The federal government allocates $30,000 to studying turtle sperm.
  2.  Someone with a MSc, a wife and two kids, is working to earn a doctorate in reptile biology which may find ways to conserve giant tortoises. She’s delighted to be paid $30,000 a year through a government grant to support her sperm collection research, so she doesn’t have to hold a part time job in addition to full time studies.

Between the many sources of encouragement to communicate and pressure to make it all sound as exciting as a date with a Disney Princess, what’s a scientist to do? Again, I retreat to my belief that scientists are generally trying to do the right thing, but may feel pressured to get a little carried away in the limelight.

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1 This is such an awesome example, because I made up the ‘new cause for heart disease’ and then googled it and found the perfect example. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140505104229.htm

2Here’s my blog post.

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The Evolution of the Evil Scientist. Part 1: The Money

When I was a little girl, the professor from Gillian’s Island was my hero. He was smart, unassuming, and solved a lot of problems. I deduced that scientists were incredible. As clever as physicians, with the power to save lives, but much cooler, as they shunned the limelight. Later in TV history came McGuyer, who fixed an awful lot of problems with duct tape and scientific knowledge.

Nowadays, scientists1 often seem to be on the evil side of the human equation. ‘They’ have conflicts of interest, because their primary activity – research – could be supported by a commercial interest, either a large corporation or their own startup company. Everything is questioned for the agenda. This post considers the impact of a scientists’ source of funding, and a second one will examine public disclosures that scientists now are almost required to make.

A major shift over the past 60 years has occurred in the way scientific research is supported. This page shows the switch in dominance of research paid for by the government versus private industry in the US. Until the late 1970’s, most research was supported by the government. In 2012, only 30% was government funded while more than 60% is industry sponsored. The pressure on academic researchers to commercialize the findings of their research has made for more industry ties – either by licensing to an existing business or encouraging researchers to create their own startup.

While this may cause some to throw up their arms in alarm and shout invectives about the corruption of research and polarized agendas and corporations paying for the results they want, for most of history, private individuals were benefactors of scientists. In other words, someone rich, on whose favour the scientist depended, doled out the money to feed and house the scientist, while they grew hundreds of bean plans, or gazed through a telescope at the stars and then disappeared into a dank library to do endless pages of mathematics. We’ve built our understanding of countless things, like the structure of the galaxy, human anatomy, and the theory of evolution, on the basis of privately funded research. Did any of the individuals who supported the scientists try to influence the conclusions of their research? Probably, but the passage of time, and the work of other scientists differentiate between influence and true findings.

I think part of what keeps science unbiased is that there are people, scientists, that live to investigate, to answer unanswerable questions. They don’t care who makes money out of it. They want to toil in obscurity, reasoning and experimenting things out. Problem is, we all have to eat. So what’s a scientist to do? Most are not in it for the money.

I’ve lived through several rounds of precipitously declining government funding for research, where university administrators warn the faculty (where a good percentage of scientists reside) of declining grants and encourage them to make friends with business people, as a means to survive in the research style to which they have become accustomed. Heck, I’ve even put on events myself to encourage industry sponsors and researchers to chat and form alliances.

To make this discussion more complicated, there is basic scientific research, of the type that asks and answers abstract questions, say about gravitation waves or behaviour of silicon in solid state, and may one day allow better satellite tracking or microelectronics. Then there is applied science, such as new drug testing. Although basic research, or what’s call curious-based research2, is generally of less interest to industry representatives3, a significant portion of development in the pharmaceutical industry has to be done in collaboration with medical researchers. Physicians who do research as well as care for patients, are the ones with the training and opportunity to work with the relevant patients.

As a recent example of how pervasive this sort of support of medical research is, this paper discusses the number of US physicians who report some kind of payment from an industry sources, including research support, consulting fees, or just sandwiches at a conference. The study found that almost half of physicians studied received some kind of payment, with the overall average being a bit over $5000 in a year.

It’s a tricky relationship, between physician researcher and pharmaceutical company. Doctors are the best ones to know which patients need new solutions for their medical conditions. Pharmaceutical companies understand how their new drugs work. They need each other, the doctors and the drug makers, and we need them to need each other, so we can benefit from the new drugs. I can’t imagine a physician that would knowingly harm a patient, particularly to get research money, as the point to research is to discover useful new ways to make people better. It would be like a chef accepting sponsorship to make foul-tasting food. On the other side of the equation, there’s so much potential for conflict of interest, both perceived and real, and some history of abuse of the system.

For both basic and medical scientists, often the choice is to get involved with a big business and accept their backing, or stop doing research. Research on zero dollars a day doesn’t work.

Why has this reality lead many to decide scientists are evil? The scientists I know are noble people who prefer to devote themselves to finding the truth, often the truth of discovering better medicines, over capitalistic gains. Am I naive?

I’m a scientist, and I am defending my colleagues, my tribe. But I have no agenda. Except the agenda I’m suggesting is the one of most scientists: Truth.

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1Using a very broad, inclusive definition of scientist here which includes the natural, social and applied scientists.

2This seems like a bit of a cruel joke, because ‘curiosity-based’ research, is far from a frivolous, random or carried out by people skipping through meadows, chasing shiny butterflies, activity.

3A couple of upcoming technologies, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, contradict this statement, since we appear to have ideas for implementation of the technology as fast as we can understand it.

 

 

 

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The New Trust.

Could it be that digital solutions to everyday activities are making us a more trusting society? In this era of paranoia of big business and big government, rampant nonsense news, usurping of reality by the ebb and flow of opinion, is there goodness? Wholesome, warmth towards our fellow strangers?

I believe so.

Let’s do a few flashbacks to see how easily we accept today what we strictly controlled in the past. Consider:

Now Then
Purchasing stuff from a store Self Check Out. No one pays attention as I scan 45 items and place them in the bags I brought into the store myself and have pushed around in my cart for the last 45 minutes. Cashier can’t remember what green leafy stuff is. Calls for price check. People in the line behind you glare. Bags brought into the store subject to search, or elaborate tagging and stapling routine to ensure nothing could be added to said bags.
Purchasing stuff online We do it. We deal with vendors we’ve never heard of before. Put our credit card numbers into sites that weren’t there yesterday. Correspond with anonymous posters of used items or go meet them in vacant apartments. Pundits poo-pooed the idea that anyone would buy goods from an organization they’d never heard of. Amazon would never sell more than books because people wanted to see what they were buying. Early eBay was intimidating to many.
Cashing cheques/transferring fund If someone emails us money, we decide where and when it goes. We choose the bank account where it’s deposited. Scrutiny. Showing of ID, comparing of signatures, spelling of the name. Cheques rejected for date infractions, use of coloured ink. Banks closed at 3pm, funds held, frowns shared.
Paying bills At some time in the distant past, you knew your account number. So now you can pay the bill. Any amount you want. Paper bill required. Bottom half confiscated by bank. Top half stamped, initialed and annotated.
Transit fares Scan your pass, buy your ticket at a kiosk or online. Prepare for spot checks. Buy ticket at wicket. Show attendance when boarding bus/train. Lose transfer and have to pay double fare. Show attendant on leaving transit system or pay double fare.
Health Benefit Claims Go to the dentist, pharmacist, physiotherapist. Submit online for reimbursement of costs. Have reimbursement immediately deposited to bank account. Click ‘Agree’ to terms and condition to produce proof of payment if requested. Fill out forms. Attach receipts. Put in paper mail. Wait weeks. Wait months. Get response that indicates you failed to sign form. Start all over again. Get denied reimbursement because time limit has expired.

Some of you have never experienced what’s in the ‘Then’ column. Lucky you.

While much of what’s in the ‘Now’ column adds efficiency and convenience, it also suggests a level of trust that wasn’t there then. People don’t have to prove who they are, or that they’ve bought tickets, been to the dentist, have an account with the gas company, or purchased one bunch of broccoli rather than two. Reciprocally, we’ve learned that most vendors are honest, want to deliver goods to us and really own the electronics they’re selling.

Am I being naive? Or does new technology merely replace all the previous checks and balances provided by the seemingly draconian humans at the bank, insurance company or checkout cash? Perhaps emailing money is so fool-proof no one ever makes an error or commits fraud.

Someone’s probably done the math. The added efficiency of not collecting everyone’s proof of payment out-weighs the number of people who cheat the system. That’s kinda cool in itself. Gives me a warm fuzzy about humans – for the most part, we’re okay.

I’d like to believe we’re evolving into a more trusting society at an individual level. It feels good to be trusted and included, even if it’s by an algorithm or encryption key.

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Haptics. Or, Things We Don’t Know We Need Yet.

I just got an iPhone 7. Pretty impressed. It’s like a purring kitten in the palm of my hand. From what I read, I’m not the only one liking the haptics, or physical buzzing and shaking it performs with routine actions, like scrolling through menus or changing settings. A pleasant surprise.

 

Got me thinking about all the technology that’s crazy-sounding when it’s introduced and broadly embraced some time later. Here’s a few examples that popped into my head:

  • an electronic replacement for the yellow pages. And encyclopedias. And maps. Used to be if you needed to find something you got a big book and looked it up. Now we google.
  • one device that holds a thousand or more books in less space then a paperback.
  • the ability to instantly share everything we are doing with literally everyone in the world, via text, photo, or video. (I suspect hologram and virtual attendance are coming.)
  • the ability to pass judgement on all that everyone in the world shares. (Can you imagine a world without ‘like’ buttons?)
  • getting your DNA sequenced, because you can.

I tell my students that a successful business model satisfies an unmet need. Therefore, every new thing that’s adopted into everyday lives satisfies a need in a novel way. Often it’s convenience (electronic yellow pages and electronic reader), or being social (social media), or a quest for knowledge (DNA sequencing).

Another perspective: this article suggests that technology developers, in particular phone, app and social media developers, introduce new features that try to take advantage of users. Through manipulating basic emotions such as anxiety and loneliness, people may be addicted to their communication devices. We feed on the responses to our posts, mainlining the likes, sharing, and other general good vibes. There’s even science that suggests notification systems elicit a basic stress response if not answered.

I get it. The tone of a text message literally makes me jump. I have to assume it’s a survival reaction to new information in my environment: my instincts insist I assess it for fear it will devour me if I don’t. (Because test messages have been know to do that.) Funny thing is, I don’t recall such an urgent reaction to a ringing phone back in the day of landlines. Without caller I.D. or voicemail, if a call was missed, you had no idea who was calling about what. We managed to continue living, assuming if it was important, they’d call back.

Have we been conditioned to over-react to our electronic notifications?

A stated business goal for many device or app developers is improved user experience. This could be code for holding your attention longer. Considering that many social media sites make money from advertising, and the fee to advertisers is higher the more eyeballs are on the site, there is some logic to why companies want users to spend more time on their sites. How does increased convenience, which presumably relates to less time spend doing something, fit into this scheme.

Back to my iPhone. Some of the rationale1 for the haptics is to simulate the feel of pushing a button (electronic buttons1 have reacted that way since forever, so pushing buttons must be very important to people2). Eliminating push buttons is good for manufacturers because it makes for fewer moving parts, allowing a more reliable device as moving parts are harder to fix with a software update. The haptics made the earphone jack go away (space thing), which has the benefit of allowing less dust into the guts of the phone. The haptic functionality is open to third party developers who can dream up as many different uses for a wiggly phone as their imagination will allow – so there’s all kinds of new needs we don’t know we have to be satisfied.

When my shiny new phone first purred in my hand, I thought of artificial intelligence. Could this be some far-sighted approach to prepare us to accept machines as interacting members of the household, or society?

In this description of Apple’s haptic technology we learn that the devices are engineered to deliver signals to our fingers by sending misleading messages that mimic the push of a button. The technology uses knowledge of how our brains interpret forces directed onto our fingertips to simulate the button-pushing-feel. This is revolutionary. The visual and tactile are together, like they are in the real world, which makes what happens on my phone more real that ever before. Another reason not to put it down.

Haptics are currently used to give a more life-like experience to video games and to training simulation where touching a real thing is less than desirable, such as medical procedures and handling of dangerous substances3. I’m curious to find out what far flung way haptics will be a vital part of everyday life 10 years from now.

I’m so excited about this new technology, I’ve glossed over where I started with this post. Why do developers introduce new products and features that we don’t know we need or want, but can’t live without a little while later: A sinister plot to take advantage of our primordial urges and to get us to buy more stuff? Or visionary anticipation of the benefits of new technology?

Maybe I’ll ask Siri.

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1 Tapping a button, whether on a touch screen or through a cursor delivered click, makes the button do a flashy thing, which simulates a push of the button. Other surrogate reactions are noises.

2 The desire to push buttons stumps me from an evolutionary perspective. I’ve seen explanations related to curiosity and being in control, and testing rules but am not satisfied.

3 For example, when learning to handle radioactive waste or do open heart surgery.

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