Brief Encounters with Artificial Intelligence

I’m preoccupied with how artificial intelligence will impact society even though artificial intelligence isn’t very smart or common yet. A couple of recent observations (the type that come with the metaphorical light bulb over the head1, not made with binoculars from a shelter hidden in the shrubbery) brought me to a greater understanding of how artificial intelligence may fit into everyday life.

First encounter: I picked up my phone and thumbed to my favourite cab company. I hadn’t called them in a year and a half, and was surprised to hear an automated attendant answer instead of the woman with the gravelly voice who called me ‘dear’. It said if I wanted to be picked up immediately at the address I was calling from, I could push ‘1’ and it would happen. I did and did and was (want to be picked up at the address, pushed 1, and the cab arrived shortly thereafter). As we cruised towards my destination, I chatted to the driver, telling him that while the call seemed very efficient, I felt odd about it.

What was lacking? Why was having a machine arrange to pick me up, when that was the very reason I’d called the cab company, disconcerting? If the dispatcher had asked if I wanted to be picked up at home, or the usual place, I’d be glad of the personal service.

For me, the missing link was someone who actually cared if the cab came to get me. Someone who wanted to do their job well and understood that if I was going to the train station it was to catch a train, and being late could have a ripple effect: missing the train, then maybe being late for a job interview and therefore mortgage payments. The gravelly-voiced lady may never have given a rat’s ass if I got where I needed to go on time, but generally, people can empathize with the consequences of being late. Yes, a machine can list the potential consequences, but it can’t remember the time it got a flat tire on the way to a wedding rehearsal where it was the best man for a nervous groom who needed his best buddy’s support.

My second encounter is more subtle. I’m knee-deep in business theory, pondering what gives companies like Harley Davidson and Tim Horton’s their competitive advantage. Causal ambiguity is a thing, which I’ve always liked the sound, and the meaning, of. It’s rather similar to the idea that the sum of the parts is less than the whole. Sure you can make motorcycles growl and sputter in an outlaw kind of way but what makes a Harley the motorcycle of choice for everyone from rock stars to the pastor of an upwardly mobile flock? Why is Tim’s a thing half the Canadian population will wait in line for when the competition across the street has the same product (coffee)? Casual ambiguity. Don’t know how – but it works.

The best explanation we have right now is that casual ambiguity is the sum of a vast number of elements, each subtly different than the norm. Will artificial intelligences be able to dissect casual ambiguity into its multitude of components? It’ll be interesting to see what the AIs come up with to explain the appeal of Hello Kitty or the allure of certain notorious socialites.

On the same topic (competitive advantage), but a more mundane level, human nature dictates we develop processes, or rituals. These get passed down through generations, whether it’s a ham recipe or a manufacturing process for golf balls. Scholars of Operations Management know that the best processes morph overtime because every little detail can’t be recorded, so instructions are interpreted and revised. Will AIs eliminate this natural drift, detailing processes with an infinite number of stepwise instructions? Me, I take detailed instructions, read them until I understand the concept and then construct the functional details.

Humans make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are good and we discover something new. Sometimes they’re neutral for many cycles and get propagated through the system then someday turn out to be of benefit.

AIs won’t make mistakes, so there will be no drift in the processes they oversee or serendipitous finding of new things. AIs follow instructions with a precision that leaves nothing to the imagination.

So, we humans, with all our squishy emotions and random actions, are useful after all. We care – who can deliver good customer service without caring? And we err. To err is human, not to err – divinely artificial.

1Does that metaphor still work with a compact fluorescent bulb?

Please follow and like us:

Big Data – So Glad I’m not Alone

How many businesses are based on the collection of user data? Could be all of them, soon.

Having done just enough reading about the Internet of Things to be dangerous, I’ve surmised the time is coming when we’ll have the capacity to collect and store a ridiculous amount of information, perhaps down to a level of minutiae (does that word rhyme with nausea?) whereby we could track each step the family pet takes, every day, as it wanders around the house. I have to admit, I’m curious what my cats do while I’m not home, but suspect that information would interest me for 0.8 minutes. And I’d pay less than what a cup of coffee costs to know.

If I won’t pay, maybe a maker of veterinary products will. And discover a cause to displaced aggression, an increasingly common syndrome whereby cats get all snarly because they can see another cat outside their home, making them uber-aggressive to anything inside their home. Perhaps a new line of pet-food would counteract the cause. Depending on what the cause is, maybe the manufacture of air-fresheners, refiners of natural gas or growers of gourds should get involved.

It may seem I’m being silly but that is the potential of big data. Everything may be connected to everything else in previously unsuspected ways. A world where every object (including people) sends frequent signals about its position, temperature, or movement isn’t so far away. And while that may seems like an innocuous set of variables, much can be determined. Knowing where a person is at all times says a lot about their habits and interests. Go to the corner store each night? – there’s some kind of habit brewing – smokes, junk food, lottery or maybe just an attraction to the clerk. Already sounds like too much person information.

Add a little more, like your purchasing habits, co-location with other objects (people) provides much information about your relationships. A speedometer, GPS and accelerometer is enough to reveal your driving habits – do you break quickly or a lot? Knowing your speed and where you are tells if you are a habitual speeder. Aggressive driving can be spotted by proximity to other vehicles.

So there’s another rub. Things we are buying now come with embedded information gathers. Never mind the electronic device (mobile phone/tablet) we use to communicate that snarfs down a mountain of information about us – there are others, such as cars. Appliances will soon want to be in constant contact with retailers (or maybe the other way around) so the fridge will refill itself with all your favourite foods (at your expense). The washer and dryer will order refills of detergent and fabric softener if you don’t stop them.

The electric utility monitors my consumption of power by the minute but also may soon link that information to all the appliances in my house to suggest which are being left on too long or could otherwise be used more wisely. That’s information I can use to decrease my power bill, or may be the information will be used in another way.

Oops.The pessimist woke up.

What about personal privacy and associated rights that various businesses may want to stick their nose into? Like say, Insurance. There’s a data loving industry. Wouldn’t my home insurance provider like to know if I was in the habit of leaving electrical appliances unattended, risking a fire. Or maybe they’d be more interested to know there was no power drawn from a home security system even though I ensured them I installed one.

And this is just one example that sprung to mind. There’s cars and driving habits. Food and eating habits. How hot I heat my home compared to everyone else in the neighbourhood. How many fruits and vegetables my family buys each week and how many end up in the compose bin. The household consumption of entertainment – bringing a blush to everyone’s cheeks. You get the idea. Personal privacy is at stake.

Many businesses assure us that our information will not be used except to ‘provide us with service’ – that sounds like a can of worms.

When I saw the title ‘The Need to Embed Big Privacy in a World of Big Data – by Design’ a talk by Ann Cavoukian, I was thrilled because it seemed to echo my sentiments exactly. Dr. Cavoukian is the former privacy commissioner for Ontario who has created a system called Privacy by Design to protect privacy (all kinds, individual, corporate, organizational).

I went to the talk. I liked what I heard. The key principles. Privacy should be:

  • Proactive
  • By default
  • Embedded into design
  • Positive sum – not a trade off with security, we get privacy and security
  • Full life cycle protection
  • Visible and transparent
  • Respect for user choice – no service denial because you decline to provide information

The last one won me over completely. Too many online sites are binary (yes, the irony is intentional). If you don’t agree to provide information required, you can’t get in. After all, it’s a web interface and not capable of understanding explanations.

Hence my love of the privacy by default idea. If I don’t want to provide my birthdate, I can still get an account. This is where privacy by design is important. Yes, it you need to ensure users are above a certain age. Currently, you build the user account system to verify this by asking for their date of birth, then of course they are rejected if you refuse to provide that information. But if you did it differently from the beginning, asking people to warrant they were of age and sending an email to confirm, you might design a system that protected the provider and the consumer equally. Squeee.

One of the suggestions was that we should be routinely reminded that data was being collected. I’d love it if Facebook popped a window to tell me I’d watched 65 cat videos in a month and they were escalating my profile to ‘cat lady’. Or Twitter said I was following enough grunge-rock bands to qualify as a metal-head groupie. It might be fun.

I applaud the Privacy by Design initiative, to boldly embrace privacy and see how easy it is to incorporate it if it’s done from the beginning. I can see it as a competitive advantage, providing customers the option of how much of their data is used and what kind of information they get back from sharing. Sigh. Oh for the day when we’re secure in what we communicate freely, without fear of our messages being used against us.

Please follow and like us:

On Drugs: Creative Business Models

Stories have flown around the internet on wings of outrage and indignation at the profiteering of entrepreneurs who increase the cost of life-saving drugs astronomically overnight. Is this capitalism gone wrong? Obviously, many would answer. While I understand such a visceral reaction, I want to explore why it might have looked like a good idea at the time, even though the public outcry doesn’t make it look very attractive now.

What started the furor: Reports of two examples of small companies (Turing Pharmaceutical and Rodelis Therapeutics1) abruptly increasing the price of certain drugs by factors of 50 or more. These drugs are for serious illnesses (toxoplasmosis or drug-resistant tuberculous, respectively) where there is little choice in therapy, although only a small fraction of the population needs treatment. Both medicines had been around long enough that any patents would have expired so generics could be made if there was interest from another manufacturer. A primer on the intricacies of the business of drugs is in this2 footnote.

I can imagine how the reasoning might go in a decision to jack up the drug price (I’m not defending the decision, just trying to imagine a credible strategy). In order to keep the drugs in the company’s inventory, to make them a product that contributes to the bottom line in the way that investors like to see, the price could be increased. By ensuring the drugs remained on the company’s product list, the price increase would ensure the drugs were available when people needed them. Another rationale is the purely economic perspective: if the price is increased and people still buy the product then there is additional value in the product and the increased price is justified. Good old fashion capitalism.

Something about this argument doesn’t feel right, perhaps because of the nature of the business of healthcare. In many cases, it’s possible the price increase will be paid by insurance or government programs, so there’s ethical impunity for the company. People will still get the medicine they require regardless of the price. Drug prices skyrocket, because they can.

Certainly there are a number of drugs for rare conditions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, that are approved and paid for by insurance companies3, a model the small pharmas may have been trying to imitate.

Are recent events merely a symptom of the business of medicine? At first glance, drug development looks like a business with the potential to bring much good to many. Consider:

  • A tremendous effort is required to develop and test drugs to be sure they are effective.
  • Testing new drugs is risky business: Risk that all of the investment will evaporate into proving the drug is not useful and risk for the patients and their loved ones (that the drug will not improve their health or make it worse). There is the potential for greater good too, as a new cure, or better treatment, may be discovered which helps many more people.
  • Approved drugs improve the lives of many, but some cause serious side effects in a fraction of those who take the drug. The regulatory bodies (such as the FDA and HPFB) endeavour to weigh the benefits with the risks and ensure there is full disclosure of the potential side effects. Most of us have benefited from prescription drugs at some point in our lives, heaving a big sigh of relief when the antibiotics overthrow a bladder infection or a painkiller make a nasty broken ankle bearable.Unfortunately, drug development sometimes unintentionally violates the ‘do no harm’ principle, because it investigates the unknown. Some might argue that this is unacceptable, no one should be subject to the potential of such danger. However, look into the eyes of someone with an incurable disease, and suggest there is an untried drug that might bring relief, and tell me ‘no harm’ is being done by denying hope.

Is the pharmaceutical industry really for the greater good?

  • Do they profit from people’s misfortune or provide relief from suffering?
  • Do they over-promise on the benefits of their products? We have laws and regulations on disclosure of efficacy and side effects. Few medicines are 100% effective or without side effects.
  • Side effects happen, sometimes very severe side effects, like death, occur in a very small segment of the population that takes the drug. Is it acceptable to offer someone a potential cure with a small chance of mortality? The philosopher Kant might say no.

Am I off topic? The controversy was, after all, about the price of the drugs. How do we determine an appropriate price?

  • Some countries do price drugs on pharmaco-economic grounds – the price must be justified by indirect indicators of the suffering it relieves.
  • Orphan drug prices are justified by costs, an argument that might be applied in the current cases. The price is required to make a good business case for continuing to provide the drug. Full rigorous disclosure of all the costs of testing, manufacturing, selling, and distributing the drugs might make it easier to swallow the pricey pills.
  • Selling drugs is business, so it should be measured up against the same standards as any business.

The drug-selling business is fraught with controversy, because it combines two ingredients that often don’t mix well: capitalism and human well-being. The complexity of the healthcare system, with disconnected consumers, providers and payers, makes any analysis of the rightness or wrongness of a situation difficult. In a moral world, each person would get the best care modern medicine could provide, but never at the expense of anyone’s well being. A fantastic ideal, a hard thing to provide.

1 For example http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/turing-clinton-prescription-drugs-1.3238202 (Turing) and http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/tb-drug-price-cycloserine-1.3237868 (Rodelis). From the reports I’ve seen, since the news stories broke on Sept 22, Rodelis rescinded most of the cost increase and may no longer sell the drug, while Turing has announced a price decrease.

2 Prescription drugs are complicated from a business perspective. Some general concepts:

  • The right to sell a drug may be protected by patent, but even with the patent, approval to sell the drug is needed.
  • Approval comes from a regulatory board on a country by country basis, and requires significant clinical testing to prove the drug does what it is supposed to and is safe.
  • In addition, the drug may have a trademarked brandname (e.g. Viagra) initiatlly owned by whoever registered the trademark.
  • None of these three rights to a drug need to be held by the same entity. They aren’t very useful one without the other, but each right can be sold or licensed. When the patent expires the other two rights remain.
  • Generic drugs have the same active ingredient as a name brand, and are sold without the name brand after the original period of exclusivity has expired. Generic drugs must be proven equivalent to the approved name-brand but aren’t required to go through the testing again to prove effectiveness because they are the same active ingredient as the name brand. Once patent protection on the name brand drug expires, other drug makers can apply to sell generics. If multiple generics enter the market, the price comes crashing down.
  • Then there’s the ‘buying’ decision – it isn’t the consumer (the patient), nor is it usually the payer (insurance or government), it’s the physician who decides which drug to prescribe, although often insurance companies and government formularies limit what they pay for.
  • A single prescription drug, such as Lipitor to control blood cholesterol, brings in annual revenues of billions of dollars. This is the sort of business the pharmaceutical companies deal in typically.
  • In order to encourage companies to make drugs for rare conditions, there are programs like the FDA’s which offer tax breaks and waive fees. However, many orphan drugs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for one patient.
Please follow and like us:

Innovation without Technology

Can a new product, a new service or application, be commercialized without new technology, without inventing a widget or writing new code? It can, when it’s based on knowledge, know-how, or understanding an old thing in a new way.

Remember the phrase – all the buzz ten years ago: ‘the knowledge economy’? While it certainly seems like machines are getting smarter ( but that’s another story), new knowledge has been translated into ICT, social media and the emerging IoT (internet of things). Billions of burgeoning new businesses (ok I’m exaggerating) became because people invented new hardware or software. Which is good. And of course, based on knowledge.

And while some of us were busy creating the new knowledge all those electronic, interconnected, disruptive technologies are based on, many others were discovering other new knowledge. In the past week, I’ve come across five new useful products, businesses or services or practices, that are based on knowledge. Not new technology. Just people being able to help more people because we’ve learned some stuff. And this too is what comes of research and translating research into a form that can be used to benefit society.

In no particular order, this is what I’ve learned about:

1. Understanding Childhood Behaviour. A medical condition can effect children – ODD1 – oppositional defiant disorder. Sometimes, putting a name on worrying behaviour makes it easier to deal with. This disorder is associated with excessive anger and vindictiveness in children towards authority figures, including their parents. Recognition helps people get coaching to facilitate positive ways for children and parents to interact. New ideas. New perspectives.

2. How the Body Changes in Pregnancy. The hormone relaxin2 is secreted, making all joints more flexible. There is a growing hypothesis that some women will secrete more than others and that the excess flexibility throughout the body can cause long term complications like arthritis. Awareness of the possibility can help woman take care, through exercise programs, to strengthen their msucles in such a way to protect their joints.

The other things I’ve learned about recently were at a wonderful event put on by Durham Sustain Ability on indoor air quality.

3. Knowing What’s Harmful in Indoor Air. Caroline Barakat-Haddad, a professor from UOIT, reviewed the scientific literature on indoor air quality, pointing out what had been found to be the most harmful types of indoor air pollution. Our bodies have adapted to deal with some particles in our environment but not others. It’s important to know what to guard against and to pinpoint causes and effects. And use this knowledge to create better indoor spaces.

4. Practical Approaches to Improving Indoor Air. Gail Lawlor presented us ideas for addressing common indoor air problems based on standards for air circulation in buildings. Such a nebulous concept – when is the air in a building good? Such a practical definition. If 80% of the people are comfortable, it a good start. Mould Get rid of the moisture. Old homes have a variety of benefits because they are built of materials that don’t interest mould But they aren’t air tight, which is both good and bad. While it avoids ‘sick building syndrome’ because there is natural air circulation, they lack optimum circulation to clear away the inevitable byproducts of our material things.

5. Living Walls – more than just a beautiful facade. Anyone who has seen one of these knows they are awesome. Alan Darlington, from Nedlaw Living Walls gave us an overview of how these storeys high, vertical displays of lush greenery are constructed and function. Something about an expanse of plants rising into the sky, dominating a foyer or other indoor open space evokes the feeling of calm, like you’re in the sunshine, in a forest or jungle, yet going about your daily business. Really, these wall are feats of engineering, horticulture, microbiology, and artistry. A serious combination to make a light-hearted atmosphere. And while there may be proprietary technology in the construction, what I heard was primarily a new way of putting together existing technology. The genius is in the creation of the whole.

There’s nothing I like better than learning new things. My recent experiences are a reminder that new knowledge, useful knowledge that can be delivered by business to make all of our lives better, comes in many forms, not just new gizmos or apps (although those are good too).

1http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/oppositional-defiant-disorder/basics/definition/con-20024559

2http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/relaxin.aspx

Please follow and like us:

When is a Smart Vehicle too Smart?

I recently heard a story about a novel technology for the car. A logical approach to safer driving. It scared me silly.

An excellent presentation by Ron Dicarlantonio of iNAGO blew my mind, and in one of those rare, tectonic upheavals of comprehension, I saw where smart automobiles/interconnected machines/autonomous applications, could go. And it made me shudder. The presentation is here (at about the 20 minute mark).

Ron introduced me to the concept of cognitive load which I later found is a well established in psychology. Cognitive load relates to how much of your attention something requires. For some of us, a call from mother may demand a lot of attention, others less so. Think about how hard it is to input your PIN on the credit card machine while discussing plans for next week with a colleague.

iNAGO and Vocolage are collaborating to engineer ‘Safe Driver Notifications’ – an interface between humans and computers in the car. Makes all kinds of sense to try and design a dashboard interface that extracts useful information from traffic reports, along with info about how the car is running, weather and road conditions. And since many of us now communicate, via voice, text and other means, while driving, why not make it even safer to do so through the car interface? This sounds like a wonderful product.

Will there be a day when all news, email, text, social media posts are delivered to us while we drive? That is quite the arsenal of distraction. One possible approach to making cars safe while delivering this information is to modulate the delivery of messages by balancing the cognitive load of the messages with the driving requirements. Light traffic, freshly paved straight-away on a sunny day, the driver receives the message from the kid’s teacher about their unruly behaviour. Driving in rush hours in a blizzard? – no communications get through. This sounds like censorship. Does it make it any better that it will be personalized censorship, since the factors that create cognitive load are different for each person? On the other hand, public safety is at stake if a car goes off the road while the driver watches the latest kitten video.

A related emerging issue for the data-capturing and analyzing automobile, is the ownership of the data.

Who owns the data related to an individual’s driving? If someone routinely travels 20km/hr above the speed limit, will this information eventually make it to his or her insurance rates, to the police, to a potential employer who wants to know how law-abiding the person is? Or will it make it to a dating profile, to select appropriate mates for the risk-taking?

I think this is an area ripe for a lot of discussion and legislation. According to this article from 2014, the answer was a firm ‘don’t know’: “It is not clear, certainly under German law, whether the drivers, the owners or the manufacturers of vehicles can be said to own the data generated by them” .

From my very unscientific survey of one person who recently bought a car, car owners currently are not signing agreements to use their data.
More substantially, this report titled ‘The Connected Car: who is in the driver’s seat’ which seems comprehensive in its look at the privacy perspective states:

 ‘It is not known what proportion of dealerships address the issue of customer data in their dealing with customers. The website of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (“CADA”), had no privacy policy or related information when accessed on Feb.7, 2015, and the CADA Code of Ethics does not address protection of customer data. A survey of three dealerships in Whitehorse, Yukon in February 2014 found that none of them had privacy policies nor did their standard purchase agreements include any term about collection, retention, use or disclosure of the customer’s personal data.’

Another issue is reliability. When it’s cool and damp outside, my 2006 vehicle flashes dashboard fault lights, which I have learned through trial aren’t accurate. I believe moisture gets into a sensor and causes false signals to be sent. Having read of similar experiences with my brand of vehicle by others, I know repair isn’t cost-effective, since there are no mechanical faults, just one in an ancient computer system. Extrapolate to a much smarter car, with more control over the system. My creative mind can imagine random possible faults, such as: the car refusing to operate on a road if there is another vehicle within 500 meters, or if it’s Tuesday, or maybe it will block all messages from the boss because the driver mutters something about ‘when hell freezes over’ in response to a message from her.

Designers are aiming for fewer traffic accidents, through less distraction in the vehicle, which is fantastic. There are lots of emerging questions to keep entrepreneurs busy developing people-friendly versions. One simple solution to ensuring that the driver’s cognitive load isn’t over-taxed by personal messages is to leave the driving to the car. Auto-manufacturers are working towards bringing us new technology in a way that helps us to adapt¹ which I think is what we need to embrace self driving cars.

¹ ‘the industry’s slow-and-steady approach — using computers to help the driver at the wheel rather than replace him or her’ http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/dce10162-b5f1-11e4-a577-00144feab7de.html#axzz3i4uHx22l

Please follow and like us:

Where Are We Going in Self-Driving Cars?

If ever there was a disruptive technology, it’s self-driving cars. Imagine a world full of autonomous vehicles, and the ripples through all aspects of our lives.

Visionaries see a time when our roads will be filled with computer-driven cars, cars that completely control navigation – selecting the route, setting the speed, obeying traffic signals. Artificial intelligence systems in the vehicle will sense road conditions and surrounding objects, people and animals and integrate this information with data from other systems such as weather reports and traffic conditions, to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently.

To make this a reality, two major areas of technology have been advancing for the past two decades and will continue for decades to come:

1. Car technology. In broad categories, this consists of automated sensing, integrating and controlling. Automotive components and systems have been developed to sense the environment (a current example is the camera that shows what’s behind the car when backing up, and the detector that beeps more frantically as the car approaches an object). The next step is a system to integrate various information and control a subsystem of the car, such as breaks that automatically engage when the car is about to run into something. Subsystem control is available now and truly self-driving cars are being tested on the streets of California. Various sources¹ suggest we are ten to twenty years from truly self-driving cars dominating the roads.

2. The Internet of Things. The capacity to coordinate cars and traffic relies on a level of connectivity of many things, including each car, the traffic lights, community events (for examples a few thousand vehicle trying to exit the stadium parking lot after the game or a road closure for a charity event). This capacity is growing, perhaps exponentially, but I believe is still in its infancy.

Self-driving cars are anticipated to bring all manner of benefits, such as:

  • safer roads. No more human driver error.
  • more accessibility. Anyone can sit in the ‘drivers seat’ of an autonomous vehicle, regardless of their age, mobility, visual acuity or what they’ve been doing previously, like sitting in a beer tent.
  • more leisure time. The time we all spend driving becomes time to read, chat, or catch up on our communications (safely).
  • less traffic congestion. If the cars control the traffic, they can optimize the volume, distributing the traffic so there are no jams, rerouting around accidents long before everything comes to a halt, except…
  • fewer accidents, because the cars should be better at avoiding them. So, that’s even less congestion and more efficiency.

Depending on how the system evolves, we may stop owning cars and call them on demand. This could eliminate the need for parking, further easing congestion and freeing up a lot of real estate. When ready to go for groceries, send a text and the car appears. The cost will depend on the distance travelled, number of passengers, other items carried, whether we are willing to make a slight detour to share the fee. The fee would encompass maintenance, fuel, license fees and insurance.

What will become of taxi drivers? Other industries are likely to be effected. If there are fewer traffic violations and accidents, we’ll need fewer police, ambulance workers and tow-truck drivers. Auto insurance could be a thing of the past. If the cars are centrally dispatched and maintained, then there’ll be less need for fuelling stations and auto-mechanics. There may be less wear and tear on the roads and less construction.

All this efficiency and safety sounds very appealing, even if it has the potential to impact many industries and professions. Cars are a big part of our lives. People like to to drive. Think of the family tradition of loading everyone into the car, with no specific destination, and going for a drive. There are parents, at wits end to comfort a crying child, who bundle the infant in their car seat knowing that just ‘driving around’ is a sure fire way to send the little one into silent slumber. I get in my car to see new places, turn down roads I’ve never been down to find out what’s there, and take the long way because there’s a breath-taking view or tricky curves where I can put my steering skills to the test.

I’m sure we all hope autonomous vehicles will make road rage go away, but I’m skeptical. Impatience and feeling a lack of control seem to fuel road rage. The driver of the car that fills my rearview mirror who can’t get home fast enough to the icy cold beer he/she needs after a day of being scrutinized by the boss may not appreciate a self-driving car. An autonomous vehicle is unlikely to break speed limits, totally unsympathetic to the rider’s need to get where they want to go faster (although I can imagine that if we develop a safer automobile transit system, speed limits could increase).

When I was a kid, getting your driver’s license at 16 was a significant rite of passage. With self-driving cars, there may be no more licenses. With luck on my side, fully functional driverless cars should fill our streets about the time I’m too old to get my license renewed.

As a new technology, self-driving cars have the potential to deliver enhanced safety and efficiency in our transportation systems in an environmentally positive way, but they also have the capacity for profound social and lifestyle effects.

—–

¹ As examples:

https://www.navigantresearch.com/newsroom/three-quarters-of-vehicles-sold-in-2035-are-expected-to-have-autonomous-capability

http://www.driverless-future.com/?page_id=384

Please follow and like us:

To Business Plan or Not to Business Plan

This should never be the question. I have come across many folks in the innovation space who denounce business plans, suggest writing a business plan inhibits forward motion and the entrepreneurial spirit. Bah-humbug. This blog is in defence of business planning.

What I am definitely NOT saying:

1. Months should be dedicated to carefully writing a document, with perfect grammar and prose, to described the business plan.

2. A consultant needs to be hired to do something like #1.

3. An entrepreneur should stop all other activities until the business plan is written.

4. The plan needs to be written at all.

5. A business plan should be created and then followed rigidly for the next several years.

An important distinction is:

Every entrepreneur should have a well thought out business plan.

Every entrepreneur needs to write a business plan.

 

Many people dread the idea of writing a large document. Although I recommend writing things down because it generally results in a new level of thought about the subject, if it turns your stomach, find a creative way to get the same result. Video tape it. Make story boards. Put it in a series of tweets (as long as you are ok with it being public). Use one of many templates available on the web, with fill in the blanks. Another benefit to some kind of record of the plan is the ability to review the original goals and modify either the goals or the direction the business is taking at a later date when you’ve learned more.

Business planning is not the opposite of the Lean Startup method, or the enemy of innovation or entrepreneurship. In fact, a good business plan encompasses the lean startup method, because it has at its core plenty of research. And it’s fluid.

What is important: The elements of the business plan.

Can you answer the questions:

  • What is unique about your business?
  • What is the competitive environment for your product?
  • Is there a market for your product (who is going to buy it and how much will they pay because you are solving a problem/fulfilling a need/relieving their pain)?
  • How are you going to finance your business?
  • Can you make enough money to support the investment required?

Most importantly: Are you being honest with yourself that you’ve answered these questions to the best of your ability? Not asked three of your friends and going with your gut. Or asked questions in such a way that you are sure to get an affirmative answer. For example, if you asked people if they would like a more fuel efficient vehicle, most would say yes. Fewer of them would be enthusiastic if it mean they had to pay twice as much for their car or double the insurance premiums.

There are times when there isn’t much data to draw on to validate your assumptions but even then there are potential customers to ask. This is the essence of the lean startup method. Get the minimum viable product into customers/users hands and see how they like it. Incorporate your findings into the business plan. But the principles of business planning still remain. As you learn from more potential customers, your plan will mature, you will be better able to answer what need your product fulfills and therefore be better able to define the market and financial plan.

Be innovative in how you determine and articulate your business plan but planning it has advantages:

  • makes you think through your assumptions about the business
  • brings perspective about the external environment
  • helps to foresee challenges
  • helps focus activities and spending
  • required to seek funding from all sorts of investors: government, angel, venture capital, traditional lenders
Please follow and like us:

Beyond the Internet of Things (Already!)

Can Moore’s law – that computing capacity expands exponentially – be extrapolated to the Internet of Things (IoT)¹? This is one of the questions that went through my mind at the MedEdge Summit (#MedEdge)  – a half day with the tag line ‘disruptive innovations in healthcare’.

It was a really good meeting. For me, a memorable meeting makes you think. I met interesting people, from diverse backgrounds in healthcare-related industries. I learned new things. Healthcare is a good example of an area at both the forefront and tail end of technology innovation. Perhaps that’s why the themes of change and connectivity resonated for me.

Here are some of the observations and predictions I had after attending the Summit. I’ll end with some thoughts about Moore’s Law.

For medical care, this initiative is going beyond the Internet of Things, to the Internet of Healthcare. The Internet of Healthcare includes people – updates from and to all the medical professionals – combined with data from other sources. The pilot project was presented at the Summit by collaborators from Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital, Thoughtwire and Blackberry. Blackberry has some interesting inputs, especially in security, a significant challenge in the IoT, and even more so in healthcare.

This is the forefront of technology, beyond the internet of things to the internet of all objects, devices, information, and people involved in caring for patients. And yet, at the MedTech Summit, there were reminders of the challenges in the business of healthcare and particularly to commercialization or adoption of novel products. I learned about OHIC (Ontario Health Innovation Council), an initiative of the Ontario Government with a mission to accelerate the adoption of new technologies into our healthcare system. I particularly liked the diagram, a motif in this OHIC report , with a hustling Innovation Broker in the centre of a mesh of the myriad stakeholders in healthcare.² This is a connectivity of a different type. Different forms of communication are required for the connection between patients, their families, medical practitioners, healthcare organizations, businesses, regulatory bodies, academic institutions and investors. This abundance of stakeholders makes commercialization particularly challenging in the healthcare sector, compared to others, like manufacturing, consumer goods or consumer software (apps).

I suspect we’ll see a rise in innovations in home and consumer-based healthcare but the business environment for this sort of product can be challenging. Physicians can prescribe outside medical care, such as oxygen therapy, physiotherapy or massage. Suppliers of these sorts of services or goods can’t actively recruit customers, since the physician decides who needs the product. They can’t set the price, since reimbursement, from either the government or insurer, controls pricing. Product innovations and features are limited by regulatory bodies. New offerings in this area will need creative business plans to flourish.

How fast will we see change in healthcare? The revolution in the IoT is the exchange and compilation of information from, and about, many things. Not all the things communicate like computers. People, animals and other complex phenomena like the weather use hard to model processes to make complex and random moves or subjective decisions. Objects like furniture and cars, especially those manufactured in the past, have no ability to communicate electronically and while newer versions can do so, the world is still full of old ones.

Connecting people and inanimate things into the Internet of Things is no easy task and will take more than just advanced computing power. It will require completely new ways to make connections and this will take time. My prediction for the Internet of Things is that it will bring policy and policy reform in many iterations and this will slow its growth. Thus, the creation or formation of the IoT is going to depend on a whole lot of other factors than the processing speed of a semi-conductor. Moore’s law is going to need a few amendments that take people into consideration before it can be applied to the IoT, because people, after all, is what healthcare is about.

—–

¹ The Internet of Things is a concept that encompasses connecting all objects, – books, pill bottles, pets, cars and everything else -, on the world wide web or through other electron communication systems. The internet of everything doesn’t exist right now and probably will never, but just might. However, currently there are internets of a subsets of things, for example the connection of everything in your house.

² It reminded me of why I have ‘spider’ in the name of my business. Here’s the blog post.

Please follow and like us:

Pop Up Shops as Business Development Tools

Can retail entrepreneurs use the Lean Startup approach? Popularized by Eric Reis, many companies in the tech sector embrace this approach which uses customer feedback to guide product development. I think there is a way for retailers to have a lean startup : pop up shops.

Pop up shops are a recent phenomena, perhaps inspired by a desire for spontaneous action or the ‘just do it’ approach to entrepreneurship. “A pop-up is a shop, a restaurant, a collection of shops, or an event that opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time” ¹ I’ve recently become aware of pop up shops because the Downtown Oshawa BIA (business improvement areas), of which I am a member and volunteer for, is considering an initiative to facilitate them.

Established brands may use the pop up concept to test new products, do a promotion or generate interest. E-retailers also may find it useful, for similar brand promotion reasons, to have a physical presence for a limited time. For examples, this article  mentions Target as a traditional retailer that tried a pop up to promote a new line of clothing, and e-retailers, Shop.ca and Frank & Oak, have used pop ups. Pop ups may also be useful for seasonal goods or time-limited markets.

For entrepreneurs looking to start a new venture, launching the business on a temporary basis through a pop up has many advantages, which include:

  • obtain valuable information about target market and direct feedback from customers
  • start earning money while in the planning phase
  • use current business techniques like lean startup
  • gather information to help you decide how to optimize your business model, test your assumptions.

Here’s why property owners might want to provide pop up space:

  • allowing vacant retail spaces to be used for pop up shops provides some income
  • having a temporary tenant gives potential permanent tenants a better feel for the space in a low pressure environment – it’s like a month-long open house for the premises
  • pop up tenants may become permanent tenants, paying full rent
  • the pop up initiative, as it builds vibrancy in the local business area, increases the value of all the properties in the area.

Pop up initiatives can be used for economic development, pairing vacant storefronts with entrepreneurs – to the benefit of all involved. Such programs can be a positive experience for property owners, entrepreneurs, existing retailers and supporters such as local governments. One great example of a local success for pop up shops in a retail area that was in need of revitalization is Danforth East in Toronto. Organizations such as Renew will assist towns or areas within cities to establish a pop up program and report successes. Local BIA’s and other economic development groups may support a pop up initiative because:

  • to support mandates to promote the area as a business and shopping district, for urban renewal, to refresh the image of an area
  • the infusion of new, temporary retailers should draw additional visitors to the business area, benefiting all resident businesses
  • providing a novel, fresh approach to retail in the area will generate additional interest in the area

For the entrepreneur, pop up shops provide opportunities for aligning products with customer needs and building brand awareness. A facilitated pop up initiative, lead by a group such as a BIA or town, can provide benefits to all business owners in the community, through increased awareness and the attraction of a more diverse audience to the area.

If you are an entrepreneur interested in a pop up shop in downtown Oshawa, the Downtown Oshawa BIA would love to hear from you. Let them know if you are interested, what kind of facilities you would need and any questions you have about a pop up initiative. Email here: info@downtownoshawa.ca .

——

¹From this Forbes article, quoting Pop Up Republic.

Please follow and like us:

Life Sciences Startups – Some Things are Old, Some Things are New

After more than a decade in the doldrums, life science startups are back in vogue. What’s new and what has stayed the same in the path to commercialization for these early stage companies? Yesterday, I attended an event at MaRS, a panel discussion on the Road to Commercialization in the life sciences.

I cut my business teeth in the biotech boom of the mid ’90s – there’s plenty that’s changed, but certain concepts have prevailed. Based entirely on my recollections of the sector twenty years ago, which may be a little hazy or lop-sided, because that’s the way human recollections are, here is what I see as evolved and entrenched between the life science commercialization of 2015 compared to 1998.

What’s different – the ‘hot’ topics¹. Currently epigenetics, obesity, big data approaches to solving problems. In the past, we’ve been through therapeutic antibodies, vaccines, gene therapy, pharmacogenomics, nanotechnology.

What’s the same – discussion about scarce resources, with generalizations that there is insufficient capital for investment in early stage companies. This may be especially true of the valley of death, the gap in interested investors to support companies between startup and IPO or between in vitro proof of concept/target and first clinical evidence of efficacy.

Different – the level of sophistication of investors in the life sciences. Although only a fraction of the total investor pool have the risk tolerance for investment in the sector, those that do are guided by due diligence from people with advanced biomedical degrees and strong connections into the healthcare industry. This wasn’t the case years ago.

The Same – investors say there is plenty of available capital for good quality companies.

Different – consumption of healthcare. I can’t possible do this topic justice here, but how decisions are made about what products are used to treat patients has changed. In Canadian, cost cutting and group buying patterns pervade, in the US ObamaCare has been introduced. Globally, there are new markets.

The Same – debate about the need to support an independent Canadian life sciences sector and associated laments about buyout of Canadian companies by US or multinational firms. This ongoing debate usually raises discussion about a globally competitive market for healthcare products.

Different – the level of government involvement and support. The reason I ventured out from my comfy academic environment into the world of business in the mid ’90s was that public support for research was shrinking, shrinking like a popped ballon, and I believed the future for medical innovation was in the public domain. Today, there are many accessible government programs for early stage companies. Technology transfer from academic institutions reached a zenith and has been replaced with a multitude of programs to support the creation of startup companies in the past couple of years. There were few familiar faces at the event, whereas if I attended in the 90’s, I would have known or recognized at least half the crowd.

I’ve been busy over the past decade supporting commercialization of technology and startups in communication, software, hardware and manufacturing sectors. It’s a pleasant surprise to see the life science startup system has become more sophisticated. That’s a good change – more knowledge, new people, more nurturing support. The things that have stayed the same, and are the same in any sector: good companies, those likely to attract investment, are those with valuable solutions for an identified market, with sound management and business planning.

—–

¹All medical needs are always of interest but certain technological solutions and disease states garner more attention at any given time.

Please follow and like us: