An Annual Celebration of Innovation.

Is the concept of an annual celebration of innovation a contradiction? If a thing happens regularly – like the OCE Discoveryconference, can it do justice to the new, the creative, the evolving?

This was my ninth Discovery conference – a wonderful event held each year in Toronto where all things new in technology and business are showcased. A few thousand people attend, from academic researchers, startup and established businesses, to government representatives and other investors that support them. And they bring exhibits of their new technologies. There are talks, speed networking sessions, pitch competitions and plenty of catching up with new and old colleagues.

My first impression of this year was that it wasn’t as exciting as previous years. On reflection, I decided that was the point. And that’s exciting. Disruption isn’t coming from the introduction of a new thing, like mobile phones in 2009 to shift how we talk to each other, or affordable cars in 1913 to allow every person the mobility of owning an automobile. Disruption was coming into everything. Every business. Every industry. Every aspect of life.

Evolving areas of technology represented at the conference included:

  • artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data utilization, 
  • 5G connectivity and synchronous internet connectivity for enhanced user experience, 
  • sustainability and cutting down greenhouse gases, 
  • autonomous vehicles, 
  • internet of things. 

None of these come as a big surprise. The startling part was the myriad applications for these technologies. Here’s a sampling of what I saw:

Innovation in operations in stable, mature industries with sustained product demand:

  • Beer and steel manufacturers optimizing input resource utilization
  • Enhanced sustainability in agriculture production

Industries offering the next version product:

  • Established players in telecommunications getting ready to deliver 5G
  • The introduction of autonomous vehicles marching forward, with an emphasis on testing.

Advances in capabilities of established industries:

  • Applications for monitoring and processing data, especially in healthcare
  • Augmented reality to facilitate retail or business collaboration
  • Artificial intelligence in accounting

All examples of existing businesses and industries incorporating new technologies, primarily to provide the same products to the same customers, only better. For the most part, this is what we call component innovation, rather than architectural innovation which destroys the entire industry. Enhancement rather than destruction.

In the category of new industries, there was crickets as a source of protein, but even this was discussed as a growth business with scale and distribution challenges, rather than an emerging one seeking market acceptance.

And cannabis. Another industry out of its early stage and into a growth phase.

And Space. This surprised me a little, except that space exploration is of interest both as a potential solution to the stretched resources of the Earth and as a new aspect of tourism.

The most startling, clever idea that was perfectly obvious after I saw it but never crossed my mind before that, was the establishment of hazelnut farms in Ontario. Big demand for the product. Uses existing resources (Ontario climate and agricultural history) with a few enabling tweaks (climate change, new cultivars). Incremental technology innovation.

Another great year of discovery at Discovery. Everything old is new again. Now that’s innovation.

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The Entrepreneur as Customer

“I’m going to live to be 1401,” I often say. 

People laugh, which is fine. I am serious.

“But I’m going to need replacement parts,” I usually add.

Thus begins my adventure as a customer in an emerging industry: regenerative medicine. Interesting to experience entrepreneurship from the buy-side. In IT entrepreneurial circles, this happens all the time. Early adopters of new technology come from within the industry, as they are in a position to understand the need and the benefits of innovations before a broader population.

I understand first-hand (pun intended) the basic human need for tissue regeneration – it literally relieves the pain caused by degeneration. After years of wear and tear, the cartilage my CMC joint2is almost gone and won’t heal. Delicate grasping is painful – I drop things. This inability to hold a piece of paper may impede my journey to the 22ndcentury3.

I’m faced with the intractable. Modern medicine has no restorative solutions. There are pain killers. Supportive braces. Electric can openers. It’s a problem that should be remedied, not compensated for.

There is an experimental approach: Stem cells. The scientist in me understands the theory, knows it could be the ultimate answer. Soft tissue replacement parts could be made – by installing a biological factory that regenerates the lost bits. But it’s new technology with limited testing, testing that might provide surprises not covered by the theory.

I leapt at the opportunity to undergo a cell transplant procedure with a full understanding of the risks, uncertainty and cost.

The trigger event for the this new technology were findings4that fat cells, from the abdomen, are a source of stem cells – cells that have the potential to multiply and form various types of tissue. This source is appealing (competitive advantage), compared to alternatives, that are uncomfortable for the patient (bone marrow harvest), or carry risks of rejection (if the stem cells are from a third party donor, rather than the recipient) or selection of unwanted features (culturing the cells in between harvest and injection may amplify unwanted traits). Hip and knee joint replacement is common with metal, plastic or ceramic parts. While generally successful, it is major surgery, costs $10,000’s, and requires months for the patient to fully recover. Replacement joints are less common in the hands.

I am an early adopter. Perhaps a consumer of an early stage prototype or minimum viable product, provider of input to get to product/market fit. Maybe even an investor, although I want to know if this is a scalable product. Currently, it needs a surgeon for administration, and a bunch of surgical equipment. However, this is indeed what puts the technology at the stage of product/market fit. It isn’t clear that the current approach can meet mass market demand, for technical reasons as much as anything else.

There is a great opportunity here. Clear unresolved pain, competitive advantage, timeliness, and a massive market for an effective treatment of osteoarthritis. The Arthritis Foundation states that 31 million Americans have osteoarthritis, and the expectation is that this will reach 78 million by 2040.5That’s a 5% year/year growth rate sustained for 20 years in a whomping big market. 

I’m excited to see the outcome of my treatment. Will there be regeneration and healing, so I can do mundane things like open a chip bag or put on socks without pain? There are no guarantees. As an emerging technology, there is knowledge to accumulate to optimize the product, possibly making it more effective and reliable. I’ll take the risk. I’m thrilled to be part of the development of this technology, the possibility to make a difference. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.

——–

1I came up with this number after reading a theoretical paper many years ago about the limits of the human life span. Current estimates range from just over 100 to no limit. 

2Where the thumb bone connects to the wrist bone.

3This may seem melodramatic but there are studies that link an inability to do minor tasks with increases in depression, obesity and other chronic illness. 

4This paper summarizes the findings of a number of studies: Miana, V. V., & González, E. (2018). Adipose tissue stem cells in regenerative medicine. Ecancermedicalscience12, 822. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2018.822

5https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/arthritis-statistics-facts.php

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AI Personal Assistants – The Death of Shopping as we Know it

Predictions are, in the near future, we will each have a personal assistant with artificial intelligence (AI)1 that runs our life. It’ll order household items before we run out, book social engagements, reminds us of upcoming events and related purchases (like birthday gifts, a bottle of wine for the hostess, or a new outfit to wear to the party).

More elaborate predictions have the AI constantly searching for better deals on services like vehicle sharing, archery lessons or landscaping services. It’ll sample the news wire for updates on unhealthy foods or ethically produced music, keep up to date with product reviews (posted by other people’s AI personal assistants) and use this collected wisdom to amend our purchase decisions (which the AI made in the first place, so we won’t even know).

This got me to imagining the end of marketing as we know it. No more emotional buying decisions. Every single purchase would be made with the maximum amount of data and, hopefully, solid facts.

Why would an AI be interested in brand loyalty? An AI would access all available information to determine if the latest version of a brand name item delivered on the quality expected, and if not, find another brand that did. Far fewer buying decisions would be based on the logic ‘I’m buying Apple because Apple makes good technology’. Your AI would buy Apple if there was proof it was the best available technology. And the proof would come from objective tests and the unbiased reports of AI’s everywhere (because why would an AI lie?).

Trickier is image, prestige, lifestyle or that thing where you buy a certain brand because it reflects who you want to be. Would your AI get that, have the same image of you as you do? That you wear a certain type of sneaker because people who share your values do.

Then there’s the ability to forget things you prefer to forget. Like booking a dentist appointment because you don’t like going to the dentist, so putting it off another month would be fine. Would your handy personal assistant let you do that? The dentist would be happy if you came back more often, so the dentist’s AI would encourage yours to book, maybe offer a discount. The same rationale could apply for the vet, furnace cleaning, arranging a visit to those relatives you find tedious, getting the oil changed in the car you jointly own, and a few dozen other things that fall into the category of adulting ( willingly doing things you know are good for you but are unpleasant, no fun, boring etc).

Then there’s retail therapy. Could your AI pick out the perfect new sweater for you, when you don’t need a new sweater and can’t afford it, but accidentally yelled at your boss, spilled milk on your toddler, and got a ticket for not going through a green light all in one day?

Is having an excuse to get out of the house a thing any more? Shopping used to be a good neutral destination that always worked if you needed something to do or to get away from the humans you lived with. You can’t get your AI to do that for you. Unless it pretends to be your friend who has to meet you at the mall.2

There will always be new ways of doing things. But humans are humans. We learned to live much of our life online, but we shop for more reasons than to get stuff. We also forget things on purpose. We act on our emotions because that’s what makes us human.

I think I’ll sneak out of the house, tell my AI personal assistant I’m on my way to the dentist, then cancel the appointment so I can go shop for stuff I don’t need, but want.

——-

1Purchased from a large tech company and embodied as a hockey puck-size matt silver thing that sits on the kitchen counter.

2If this sentence doesn’t make sense to you, please review a TV show or movie from the 1970’s for context.

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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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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.

———-

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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