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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Legal Persons.

Sounds awkward.
Is awkward, potentially.
The European parliament is apparently considering declaring robots with AI legal persons1.
Thinking my way around this.

Corporations were declared legal persons generations ago.
According to Wikipedia, in 1886.
Yet we still have problems with the concept.
Making the engines of capitalism into legal persons may be the root of the ‘them’ in us.

The documentary, The Corporation, suggests that the difference between corporate ‘legal persons’ and the rest of us is that corporations have no moral or ethical conscious. They have rights but fewer obligations. To me, this ought to be yin and yang. If you have the right to something (like say a drivers license), you have the obligation to control it (and drive carefully).

As most things do, the state of being a corporation started innocently enough. A bunch of individuals got together and directed their interests (social, financial and/or personal) to a joint cause. When the cause got big enough, it took on a life (not a casual use of the word) of its own. It needed to be a separate entity, legally as well as autonomously. Since a collective decided what it would do, no one person was responsible, but the entity needed to be liable for its actions.

Controversy has arisen with modern corporations. Some have polluted our environment. Others taken advantage of people in developing nations for cheap labour. More recently, corporate support of political agendas2 calls into question the justice of a powerful, but unemotional entity, influencing human activities. The profit agenda of corporations is seen as their over-riding motivation, devoid of compassion.

Starting to sound scarily like artificial intelligence? Powerful. Devoid of human emotion. Mission driven.

Before we go there, consider another aspect of legal personhood. Various governments have recently declared various animals as legal persons3. Making animals legal persons protects them from acts of violence and neglect. Previously, because animals were considered possessions, they could be treated in any way their owner saw fit. Our modern sensibilities want more humane treatment, so animals have become legal persons in some countries. This allows third parties to step in and defend them, if necessary.

And let’s not forget that there were times in history when various people didn’t have the same status as others. Not so long ago women were ‘allowed’ to own property and vote (rights of ‘personhood’). Throughout human history, various groups have been ‘freed’ from slavery by other groups (from Roman times to more recently), granting the freed rights of personhood.

Granting basic rights like protection from harm and freedom to chose to those who are deserving is a good thing. But dodging responsibility in the name of adhering to a mission like maximizing profits doesn’t seem right.

What of the personhood of AI’s? Will it protect them from harm or allow them to game the system?

The arguments before European parliament to declare AI’s legal persons are motivated by giving them responsibility. No one holds the wind responsible for felling a tree and crushing a car. We call that a natural disaster. However, if an AI miscalculates GPS coordinates and sends a lifesaving package to the wrong province, we do want to hold someone responsible, whether it’s the programmers, owners or contractors of the AI. This was part of the original philosophy of making corporations legal persons. If the outcome of their actions required someone taking responsibility, it should be the collective that directs the thing.

Back to AI. Yes, we want some kind of accountability for what AI’s can do. After all, we don’t expect a herd of random robots running around without reason. Someone will deploy them and give them an assignment. And if that assignment runs amok and does some kind of damage, whoever sent the AIs should be responsible, even if it’s a corporate legal person.

Do AI’s need protection? I can imagine a day, a few decades from now, when people will feel protective about some AI’s and concerned when other AI’s are not treated well. Maybe the AI’s are left out in the rain, or aren’t consulted about best practices in machine lubrication.

Many people fear AI’s. They see a day when the power of the AI could subvert us or turn off our life support for good, because we are purposeless. They might have the right to do so if they are legal persons. And decided we were less than legal persons.

I have great faith in humans to manage our creations and ensure our survival, but also to treat those around us properly. Sometimes, it takes a while to figure out what that is. Ask a woman or a minority group. We can be slow arriving at justice. Maybe an AI could help us with that.

1 Reported in this CBC article.

2 http://www.npr.org/2014/07/28/335288388/when-did-companies-become-people-excavating-the-legal-evolution

3 For a completely less than comprehensive look, here‘s a blog post I did.

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Software Updates: A User’s Perspective

It time for another humorous, if somewhat pointed, look at modern technology, specifically software updates and the (mixed) messages that come with them.

Take for example:

This software update will fix a few security issues.

What it seems to mean:

  • The update will break all my preset passwords, requiring re-input into ‘settings’.

But, I don’t know all my preset passwords. Either I dig into that secure location where I keep the paper record of the passwords (although I’d don’t have such a thing because it’s a giant security risk), or request password resets, which requires changing the same password on six other devices. Where I can’t remember how to find the setting because…

We’re changed our look.

What it seems to mean:

  • Everything on the website/app looks completely unfamiliar. I’m disoriented.
  • If the background was white, now it’s navy blue. The rounded font now is square. The logo is different so I’m not even sure if I have an account, which doesn’t matter because the last security patch erased my password.
  • I can’t finding things by their location on the screen, because that’s changed too. The menu has moved from the right sidebar to three lines disguised as a decorative doodad at the top of the page.
  • The marketing team must have decided to rename all the critical functions, so looking for functions by name is pointless.
  • Shutting down is impossible? The capability has been removed. Who’d want to stop using this brilliant software, anyway?
  • There’s new functionality, preset to the most intrusive level, so that I suddenly have strange icons clogging my screen when I’m trying to call a critically important client with information they wanted five minutes ago.

All this because…

The software (operating system, word processing, presentation software) is licensed to you free of charge.

What it seems to mean:

  • The software developer is in command but assures me I’m a valuable customer.
  • I’m inundated with ‘update your software’ messages. A screen pops up while I’m in the middle of doing something I’ve chosen to, like email my ailing mother, text my member of parliament about internet privacy concerns, or read my son’s report card.

All I have to do to use my free software, on my device, is continually dismiss messages from the software developer. I don’t update because I’m afraid I’ll need a bunch of time to reload my passwords and figure out where all the options are …see above.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad software is updated all the time, otherwise we might be stuck with that annoying paperclip of advice, have our identities stolen, or be able to brew a pot of tea between page loads. Ever advancing software functionality has changed everything over the years in wonderful ways. Embedded video. Autofilled fields. Hyperlinks to automatically put events in your calendar or phone the new restaurant that delivers to your house at the touch of a screen.

Why am I complaining? Humans hate change. C’mon, even those of us who are addicted to change actually hate change if it messes with our routines. Routines make life simple. I don’t want to have to think about where to find the menu on my favourite website because I have better things to do. Like vote on a new logo for my favourite coffee shop.

It’s like old slippers: comfy, cosy, threadbare, faded with a sole that flops around, half unglued. If anyone has the nerve to replace them with a sleek new pair, complete with ultra comfortable memory foam insoles, I’m not happy. Not because the new slippers aren’t nice, have additional features and the old ones were about to disintegrate, but because my brain has to adjust.

Perhaps the answer is software updates so frequent and subtle that we never consciously notice the continuous, small changes. On that point, what did I notice, just yesterday, but a certain browser advertising its features, including continuous updates. If the approach to updates is a marketing point, I’m not the only one who finds the current, prevalent process aggravating.

That’s the miracle of software: if you don’t like the way something works, give it a few months and it will likely change. The update is coming.

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Abandoning Science Fiction. Embracing Science Fiction.

Traditionally, science fiction imagined the impacts of emerging technology decades and centuries into the future, suggesting fanciful, outrageous possibilities. These were generally ignored as figments of, well, science fiction.

No more. Lots of people are paying attention to science fiction. We can’t dismiss the potential of technology as surreal anymore. It’s real, as real as your online medical history, or app-controlled crockpot.

Science fiction has snuck into, and taken a starring role in, mainstream entertainment: Starwars, Game of Thrones, Dr. Who, and countless other movies and TV shows. Best books of 2016 include science fiction and fantasy titles. While some might debate the purity of this popular scifi, a heightened awareness of technology permeates popular culture, perhaps as a collective intuition of the urgency to understand what’s coming.

In classic titles like 1984 (information technology), Brave New World (human engineering), and Blade Runner (artificial intelligence), science fiction explored the frontiers of advancing technology. The time has past for the implications of emerging technologies be left to the philosophers in their ivory towers or visionaries in their chrome think tanks. Jaw-dropping new technology barrels towards us like a runaway locomotive, and threatens to overwhelm us like deer in the headlights.

My mission is to make science and technology accessible. In 2004, I took up writing scifi to help people understand science, both how it worked and its potential outcomes. By mid 2015, it seemed to me the field of scifi had undergone a tectonic shift. Currently popular stories seems less to hypothesize the impacts and ethics of emerging technologies than to explore human nature. All good, but not my fundamental driving force.

I took another path, focused on another passion – using business strategy to turn scientific developments into useful products for people1. Ironically, this is now a better place to achieve my goal to bring science to people. We are poised on the edge of many technological advances with the potential to change life as we know it, probably sometime next week, or year. Definitely now-ish.

At one of my recent business meetings, the light, closing banter considered whether bitcoin would become a solid currency. Bitcoin, or entirely digital currency, is an attractive concept, as a global, non-political, apparently secure2 and completely portable form of money. Many commentators expect it to disrupt banking as we know it. Not science fiction. Business.

I credit the book (from the business section of the bookstore) ‘Industries of the Future’ by Alec Ross3 with coalescing my thoughts about science fiction. In this book, the list of emerging technologies was no surprise and included self driving cars, the Internet of Things, big data and the associated privacy or lack thereof, genetic profiles, and cyberwarfare. Ross’ genius is coupling the astonishing capability of the technology with current uses and impacts.

Technology is becoming mainstream faster than it can become science fiction.

Today you can place your order as you walk towards your favourite coffee shop, pay for it before you open the door and whizz by the barista as you grab the cuppa with your name on it. Tomorrow, someone could hack your fridge to steal your identity or you might never find another job once your genetic profile has been uploaded into Monster.

No more is 19844 fiction. Fifty years ago, although horrified by the notion of being monitored constantly, we stood back and debated whether it would ever really happen. No more debate – the capacity exists. Now. Most of us are fortunate that such intel is not used against us. It’s only used to sell us things.

Issac Asimov wrote about robots5. While countless manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation, the real question is: how far it will go? Will robots replace teachers, lawyers, doctors, or spouses? This is about more than lost jobs, it’s about what it is to be human.

GATTACA6 (1997) was a movie about a young man who wanted to be an astronaut, but it wasn’t in his DNA, literally. The movie’s premise is that people’s occupations are determined by genetic profiling. In GATTACA, our hero fakes his genetic makeup to live his dream. Genetic profiling is close enough to reality that the Canadian government is working on genetic privacy legislation, while businesses that provide health insurance want to use genetic information to determine policy premiums.

Cory Doctorow, in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom7, wrote about a system called Whuffie. The basic concept was that a score like karma, based on how many good things you did and how many people liked you, followed you around and determined your fate. How different is this from celebrity influencers on social media, who might have a more pervasive impact on medical products that knowledgeable medical professionals?

Countless scifi stories show people being identified by their fingerprints or retinal scan. How close is this to reality? Ask Bionym, a Canadian company that authenticates identity by heartbeat8.

Artificial intelligence is coming. In the classic scifi tale, 2001 Space Odyssey,9 an evil computer took over a spaceship because a human tried to shut it down. Watson, IBM’s super computer, knows more about medical advances10 than any of our physicians possibly could, and it won on Jeopardy!11 Meanwhile, Google can predict pancreatic cancer more efficiently than medical tests12, and Twitter can divine which movies will be hits before the box office opens to sell the first ticket to a showing13.

Business brings us new technology, whether we are ready or not. Realizing the potential consequences can’t be left to science fiction. We need to understand all the ethical, secondary and broader environment effects in real time, when the technology is in its infancy or sooner. Simultaneously, science fiction has moved on to deal with some of the most challenging social issues this world currently faces.

To understand technology, I abandon science fiction for business, but I embrace science fiction for wisdom to understand people.

——–

1I consider this the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, and of course credit Douglas Adams with bestowing on me an understanding of the universe.

2The experts claim that digital currencies are unhackable, but that just sounds to me like a giant invitational to hackers.

4The book by George Orwell, written in 1949.

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