A Good Collision

Collision from Home is a virtual version of a whole lot more than a tech conference. Having spent 24 hours over three days listening to talks, and virtual speed networking, I need to write about what I heard1 at Collision from Home to understand what the experience meant to me.2

The program was truly awesome; speakers included world leaders, executives from large tech companies, professional athletes, entrepreneurs at all stages of company development, participants from across the globe. Production was very professional and considering the time in which it must have been put together, the program was delivered with few glitches. 

I couldn’t help but notice how impeccably presented the speakers were and wonder if makeup artists were deployed. This may seem shallow but it’s an observation on professionalism and how it is changing during the pandemic. I find myself watching the videos not only for their content but also for delivery, to learn best practices in presentation for our new world.

The talks I enjoyed the most were ones that gave me insight into the business of big tech:

  • Netflix’s vision for growth
  • Uber’s drive to become profitable
  • Twitter’s chat on curating tweets, both for ethical and business reasons
  • proprietary podcasts giving Spotify its competitive voice.

I was impressed with the inclusion of many talks about the ethics of technology use, such as the recognition of the privacy aspects with tracking apps for COVID transmission and sharing of information across medical and public health agencies. There were also discussions about how to deal with racism and bias. We have a long way to go but the degree of awareness is encouraging.

There was talk of new products and businesses, but the uses of tech are the news rather than the tech itself. The World Health Organization has a COVID chatbot. The American Medical Association recently released updated guidelines on privacy of medical information in response to distrust of big tech and how personal data is used. Hanson Robotics’ Sophia (version 24), a humanized robot, appeared and talked about the difference between humans and AI. I found much of what she said cliched but many humans are also good at speaking in trite truisms.

Of course, there was much, much, much discussion on how the pandemic has and will change industries, demand and employment. Most of this is logical. The supply chain challenges are less intuitive, perhaps because they aren’t visible in everyday life and are intertwined with global trade and shifts in demand caused by the pandemic.

In a discussion about the connected world, I found a recurring theme: privacy. Interestingly, adoption of smart devices for the home has been slower than some anticipated. It was speculated that this is the result of concerns about privacy and where data collected from in-home devices ends up.

This is how it all comes together: I didn’t learn about tech at the Collision from Home tech conference. I learned about society and humanity. Now that’s innovative.

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1These are my observations and intepretations from the conference. With several parallel sessions at all times, someone else could gather a completely different perspective on Collision from Home.

2Something I’ve noticed about myself in the Zoom environment: I take notes. Handwritten notes. I spontaneously started doing this. Perhaps it’s symbolic of learning how to live again in a new place.

App Apprehension

Does anyone else want to talk about something else other than [the global situation that will not be named] for a little while?

I do. I have a problem. I’m paranoid of downloading apps. If [the global situation that will not be named] has taught me anything, it’s that there are at least a million people doing the same thing as I am at any given time (giving up mascara, chatting with long lost friends, rewriting wills, etc.). Thus, I suspect there are some of you out there with app apprehension too.

For those of you who blissfully tap ‘GET’ when someone you hardly know says ‘this new app is perfect for grooming your dog’ and accept all the ensuing permissions, including signing in via Google, allowing location services, and using your camera – let me explain.

A dread fear grips me at the sight of a dialogue box which wants my information. I suspect phishing, malware or some kind of a scam. So NO, I will not put a password into the box, because passwords are to be guarded with extreme care. Ditto personal information. To me, it feels like walking down the street and having a stranger ask you where you live. Creepy.

Apps can be scary. Cambridge Analytica was a spectacular case of an app secretly collecting reams of information about Facebook users and their friends.1Ancient history? It was years ago and since then many platforms have tightened their requirements for third party apps.

Googling, I found an abundance of posts on how to tell which apps were the good ones, but couldn’t decide what to believe. If you had an app that steals peoples’ banking info, you’d write an unbiased post suggesting the app in question was a safe one. The most insidious thing I can think of is disguising a malicious app as antivirus or anti-malware software.

Common suggestions were that apps could be validated by the number of times they’d been downloaded, length of time they’d been around, where the app could be obtained, and the credibility of the app’s creator.

More than 10 million downloads equals credibility. Yup, except Facebook: number of users at the time of the Cambridge Analytic scandal – over a billion2. Tiktok – concerns have been raised about the privacy practices of TikTok.3A recent report puts its users at 800 million4.

The App and Google Play stores lend credibility because developers must obtain a license to sell in these stores and apps are scrutinized. This would deter small time bad actors but if your agenda is to derail civilization or take control of the power grid, you would jump through the hoops.

Sometimes, the app hasn’t had time to catch up to its popularity. Think Zoom, which is available in the App Store. A wonderful entrepreneurial story of a business that stepped up to keep a good deal of the world running in the past few weeks. The sudden humongous demand for this video conferencing app has revealed some security weaknesses – only natural with the level of usage and popularity.

Every business, from commercial banks, to communications conglomerates, to restaurant chains, have their own app – custom-made pieces of software optimized to deliver the company’s business. If I download multiple apps, I’m concerned about them mingling, with all those different permissions, developers, standards and policies, on my many devices.

Hard as I try, my devices are like amorous bunnies and make connections even when I think I have them segregated. A bit of information here, a bite there, and I imagine my phone could borrow a million dollars by simultaneously applying to eight banks for a mortgage to buy real estate that’s contaminated with toxic waste that I end up responsible for remediating.

I did say I’m paranoid. What is the risk of a bad app? There are the truly malicious that have criminal activity as their intent. While concerning, those won’t get through most of the checks mentioned above. The other category is the mostly ok with weaknesses that might be exploited to manipulate, rather than perform criminal acts. Cambridge Analytica purloined data from a huge number of people. Information was abused to sway voters in several national events. This is pretty abstract stuff. If I download an app, the fate of the world may shift? Shut up, I just want to find cheap frozen pizza.

Where does this lead me? I can see why people embrace apps. They deliver a lot of functionality, fun and deals. Research supports that many people are resigned to sharing their data with endless commercial concerns and accept it as a consequence of the value they derive from apps. And aside from the rare, truly malicious cases, data use is directed to direct marketing or abstract things that one person has little influence over.

Should I avoid apps? My apprehension has grown over time as various spectacular app-fails emerged. This doesn’t mean they are all bad. Just as all cars have certain risks – mechanical failure, expensive maintenance, manufacturing defects and circumstances leading to accidents – all apps share common traits. They are foreign bits of software that might invade your device with malicious intent and lead to personal or societal harm. But all cars are not the same. Some are better built, some easier to fix and some have more protective measures to lessen operational calamities. I concede. Some apps do exactly what they say they do. Some are better engineered and have a lower risk of backdoor information leakage. A very few will be malicious. Probably fewer will cause societal disasters.

When a new product type emerges into the market, the tendency is to treat all versions of the product the same way. Then, as the product grows in popularity and matures, the value of individual versions or brands becomes clear. We have passed the emergent stage with apps, so I should value each app on its own merits and risks.

How will I deal with my app apprehension? One app at a time.

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1Here is one of many stories: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/23/17151916/facebook-cambridge-analytica-trump-diagram

2https://venturebeat.com/2015/04/22/facebook-passes-1-44b-monthly-active-users-1-25b-mobile-users-and-936-million-daily-users/

3For example: https://www.theverge.com/2020/2/27/21155845/reddit-ceo-steve-huffman-tiktok-privacy-concerns-spyware-fingerprinting-tracking-users

4https://www.oberlo.ca/blog/tiktok-statistics

Recreated Experiences. Or how I want my vision restored.

About 50 years ago, a company recording music asked ‘It is live, or is it Memorex?’ suggesting their method of replicating sound [memorex] was so authentic, it was impossible to tell the difference between a live singer and the recording.1Now, we all know there is a difference between someone singing in front of us and listening to a mechanical device, even if it may not be audible.

Experiences are huge these days. People will pay lots of money to be treated specially, to have personalized service, to be pleasantly surprised by extra touches that suggest thoughtfulness. Set on a backdrop of automation and self-serve apps, finding value in an experience, as a differentiator, is understandable.

As we careen towards all-knowing artificial intelligence, experiences will simultaneously get easier and harder to, well, experience. Everything we want to do will require less than the blink of an eye (to our invisible sensors, ordering that the lights be turned on, a peppermint tea, or to book a vacation in Jamaica). With every whim attainable, where will we find gratification? – the feeling of accomplishment, the victory of defeating an intractable problem, or the joy of a unique experience.

This train of thought emerged as I wondered which would be better, if I had the choice:

  • having augmented reality correct my ‘vision’ to perceive everything around me in high resolution, or
  • bio-engineering to repair my eyes to perfect function. 

Augmented reality: The technology to have a sensor perceive my visual environment, to capture images of everything around me in real time, from a few centimetres away to hundreds of feet in the distance, and relay the information to my eyes in a way that my current visual acuity understands, providing my brain with a perfect picture of what’s going on around me.

Bio-engineering: The technology to biologically repair the shape, flexibility and functionality of my eyeballs to 20/20 vision without any corrective eyewear.

Based on the current status of various technologies, I project that augmented reality will be available first.

My gut says, I want my eyeballs repaired, not the tech that tells me what’s there, even if I can’t see it. Augmented reality comes from a machine, so it isn’t me. Bioengineering seems more natural, an extension of the body’s inherent repair processes.

If we become transhumans2, augmented reality has the potential to let us ‘see’ better than human perfect sight. What’s not to love?

Autonomy.

I don’t want to rely on an external prop to function if I don’t have to3. Aside from the inconvenience of having to remember to carry and hang on to glasses or some tech4, is there really any difference between augmented reality and bioengineering? Being able to see perfectly is fantastic, does it matter how you get there? 

This is where the Memorex reference comes in.

If the question is ‘is it important if it’s real or an indistinguishable reproduction?’, we could ask an art collector. Or anyone willing to pay a few hundred dollars to attend a concert when they could listen to a higher quality recording at home for $10. We know the value of an experience. Thus, the third strike against augmented reality to correct my vision, after it being an unnatural process, and non-autonomous function, is the inauthentic experience.

Using augmented reality to completely correct or get super-vision would be awesome for a while, but ultimately, not be as satisfying as it could be. The answer to the 50 year old question is: It might sound or look the same, but it isn’t.

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1For a history of the brand :https://www.brandchannel.com/2016/01/11/memorex-011116/.

2Transhumans are humans with augmented abilities bestowed by technology, perhaps like Robocop.

3Because mechanical things fail. And software-based things fail worse, meaning more irrationally, with less warning, and are more difficult to fix when they do.

4 But then, the external technology can be made easy to wear and almost thoughtless to bring along. Who doesn’t have their phone within reach all the time, without feeling this is a burden, because it’s so important to have?

The GUIey Middle of Artificial Intelligence

The basic premise of artificial intelligence, to use enormous amounts of data to find out new things, is easy to grasp. If any one of us had the time and stamina to study a million photos or stories about a thing, I’m sure we’d come up with insights about it too. 

Business products emerging from current applications of artificial intelligence are also logical and simple to get your head around. Smart thermostats sell because they are convenient and deliver energy savings. Marketing approaches that analyze shopping patterns to suggest items people are likely to buy are winners in retail for their potential to increase sales.

How does AI get from data analysis to creating desirable products? In diagram version, this seems to me:

A few hypothetical1examples:

1. Using AI to improve diagnosis of medical images. Input: One hundred thousand pathology slides of renal cancer and one hundred thousand slides of normal kidney tissue. Outcome: Improved differentiation between normal and malignant kidney biopsies. Doctors win because the accuracy of diagnosis increases, saving healthcare costs by prescribing the right treatment for patients. Patients win because they are either can carry on their lives disease-free or have greater certainty in the treatment they need.

Mysterious GUIey2inside: What is the AI looking at to distinguish between normal and cancerous cells in pathology slides?

2. Using AI to improve traffic flow. Input: Every car in the city communicates its starting point, destination, and real time location to a central database. The goal is to send a uniform volume of traffic via every available route so that none are over-used or under-used. The outcome is a clear win – optimum travel efficiency for everyone, saving time, auto costs and impact to the environment by decreasing energy consumption.

Mysterious inside: What is AI doing to manage all the permutations and combinations to direct even traffic flow?

The two examples are different. In the first one, the criteria AI uses to distinguish between normal and malignant cells are the mystery. Pathologists could list the traits they use to make a decision when looking down a microscope, but is AI using the same ones? In the second, it’s the speed and capacity to deal with volumes of users that’s amazing. It’s not difficult to suggest the best route for your mother to take home, based on knowledge of traffic patterns at the time of day in your home town, but who could do that for 3 million occupants of a city simultaneously?

I’ve read that we are unlikely to be able to extract the GUIey middle3from AI supported processes, due to the iterative nature of the learning. When a person really understands what they are doing, they can explain it. If a chef tells you their sumptuous meal resulted from ‘a little of this, a little of that’, they likely know exactly what went into the dish, but aren’t telling to protect their trade secrets. If my mechanic tells me they are basing the diagnosis of what’s wrong with my car on some data from other cars but doesn’t know which models or what kind of data, I’m looking for another mechanic.

Is not knowing how AI works any different than not knowing the detailed working of automobiles, or any other complex object or process in modern life – elevators, mortgage documents, dental implants? The fundamentals of the car I get – the energy of exploding fossil fuel is converted into angular momentum that torques the axels and moves me, in my steel and plastic carriage, to where I want to go. The business model is also easy – the speed and convenience of reaching destinations in relative comfort with the added efficiency of carting a group of people, sheets of drywall, or my dogs with me. There is someone who can explain ABS brakes, how the muffler is connected to the engine, and all the other components that make a car function. With AI, either by design or trade secret, the explanation is hidden.

We need to know the mysterious processes that AI systems use to derive new knowledge from the volumes of data consumed. Forget proprietary algorithms. This is brave new territory we are entering and transparency is important so we can be sure we are operating safely and ethically.4

History is full of examples of embracing new things without a full understanding of the implications5. From that, a machine would learn that we need to know how things work before we can use them safely.

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1Both of my examples are likely to be real enterprises but staying hypothetical is better for this discussion.

2This is a pun on GUI type computer interfaces, which use icons, rather than typed commands, to tell computers what to do. GUIs make programming simpler. I’m suggesting by making things simpler with AI, we are making them less transparent, dissectable or amendable to understanding how the parts work together to create the whole. Less concrete. More gooey. Gooey-er. Soft and flowing, changing shape easily.

3I do know that the process AI uses is a very large series of logic functions, of the sort: if X does Y, then A is the outcome. If X, K and J, do B, then L is likely to happen. If X does Y but K does something else, and it’s Tuesday, then Blue is the right answer. Etc. Oh, and the AI may start with a bunch of logic statements but change them on the fly as more data comes in or if in testing a hypothesis, it doesn’t deliver satisfactory answers.

4For many examples, read ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ by Cathy O’Neil

5A few examples that spring to mind – nuclear weapons, cigarettes, social media, plastic, many types of home insulation, lead paint, breeding of dogs, trans-fats, mortgage backed securities.

Destructive Creative Destruction


You know the list. The technologies, labelled creative destruction, that changed life as we humans knew it: Fire. Pasteurization. The assembly line. Washing machines. Email. Mobile Phones. 

Each of these had a dramatic impact on society, generally decreasing the effort required to do a vital human activity and allowing us to do other, more interesting things1.

Should plastic be added to the list?2 When introduced, it was a major new technology and found broad applications3. The ability to engineer polymers so they are flexible, solid, durable, the right colour and shape, mass-producible, light-weight and low cost lead to the introduction of many new products. Products like plastic bags, straws, packaging. The coating on electrical wires. Cheaper just about anything: shoes, suitcases, light fixtures, flooring, automobile components, toys, machine parts, human body part implants. The list goes on forever.

What has been disrupted by plastic?

Most things plastic are affordable, leading to increased consumption of each item. They tend to be single use, by which I mean two things: disposable or non-repairable. Disposable comes from the low cost – “I’m tossing this out because I can get another one for 3 cents”. Non-repairable because of the process used to create plastic widgets. Stuff made out of other substances known to humans can be engineered and modified. Wood, metal, cement, kryptonite4, plaster can all be fiddled with and/or repaired. Plastic, not so much. To be fair, this is what makes plastic appealing – the ability to spin or mold or extrude it into different shapes. The consequence is that it can’t be fixed because it’s all one piece.

Back to disruption. Here’s some of the ways plastic has changed in our lives:

  • Eating on the run. Plastic containers, plates and utensils made it possible to grab a meal from the takeout window or mall kiosk and eat it anywhere, rather than tethering dining to a venue that could manage ceramic plates and metal forks. 
  • Because plastic changed packaging, it facilitated transportation of goods to distant locations. Thus, more competition in many markets. Lower prices. More choice for consumers.
  • Plastics made many things affordable to more people. Furniture. Cars. Etc. A new social order of ownership emerged.
  • Not coincidentally, with the rise of plastic goods came the era of consumption. Affordable stuff enabled (and required – see above about repairing plastic items) frequent replacement of the items.

Many substitutes, such as plastic bags for paper bags, plastic bumpers on cars, plasticized paper cartons for milk rather than glass bottles, may seem disruptive, especially to the producers of paper bags, metal bumpers and glass milk bottles, but don’t actually result in a new social order.

From my list, plastic has disrupted: sit-down meals, local sourcing of goods, possessions as symbols of wealth, and the need for expertise in repairing many things. Based on fundamental values of community and social connectedness, as well as environmental stewardship, I’d say three of the four of these aren’t good. It could be argued that disrupting possessions as symbols of wealth, is social advancement. Otherwise, plastic disruption has not been good to us, even thought there are plenty of benefits to the use of plastic.

This disruptive technology (generally considered a good thing as it ushers in a new approach to old problems, makes life easier and richer) had negative consequences.

The earth has a problem with plastic. It doesn’t decay, ever. Even kryptonite decays. Plastic was celebrated for its disposableness, while ironically its permanence has clogging up the landfill, oceans, and microcirculation of the earth’s creatures. Oops, we created a monster. Vacuous consumerism snowballs the problem of overflowing landfill, making the monster multi-headed, with enormous tentacles and an awful smell.

Sometimes, what seems like a good idea at the time isn’t. Plastic isn’t the first time the true impact of a novel product wasn’t realized until time and mass consumption had gone by. Cigarette smoking. Fossil fuel emissions. Drugs with fatal side effects in one-in-a-million patients.

Fortunately, the plastic pollution crisis presents all kinds of opportunities for new creative destruction. Constructive creative destruction, please.

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1Fire allowed us to cook food and stay warm, increasing survival. Pasteurization was a process that made milk and other foods safer and allowed them to be transported further, increasing both the availability of food and the livelihood of producer. After the invention of the assembly line, cars became more accessible to different socio-economic groups and then expanded their horizons. Washing machines and other appliances are credited with allowing women the ability to lead a life outside the house, as it became possible to spend less than all of their time doing household chores. I don’t have to explain how email and mobile phones have changed the way we communicate, but future generations will need to be told.

2It piqued my interest when I saw it on a list of disruptive technologies in ‘Prediction Machines. The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence’ by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, so thanks to them for making me think.

3For a great summary of the history of plastic, I recommend this https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

4Kidding, kryptonite isn’t on the list, it isn’t real.

Ask What AI Could Do for You

Embrace new technology. Change life.

Who wouldn’t want that? Me, sometimes.

AI is the next big thing in disruptive creation. Errr, creative destruction. It’s not so new. Forms of AI have been embedded in commonly used products for decades: auto-correct typing, suggested products you may like, search results. Now, it’s becoming ubiquitous. The projected capacity of AI to make life easier is celebrated in investor conference calls, with services such as arranging for transportation to the airport when the AI knows you’ve bought a plane ticket, or ordering another box of laundry detergent when the one you have is about to run out. 

This makes me ask (and you can too), what would I love AI to do for me? Would it be great if AI ordered all my household consumables? Not really. I’m proud of my system for keeping a sufficient supply of life’s necessities (food, drugs, cleaning and pet supplies) on hand. It isn’t a big deal. If it is for you, or you just hate doing it, ok, I’d invest in that AI, if there were enough of a market to justify it.

Great new business models remove the pain of a current task, solve an existing problem. What do I see as really annoying, inefficient situations I would pay handsomely to change?

Here’s a starting1list:

  • the awkwardness of software updates – stop making me have to stop and think about something I’ve learned to do intuitively, like find the weather app on my phone screen.
  • the uncertainty of hiring competent contractors, plumbers, landscapers, auto mechanics. 
  • knowing when something I do regularly is going to change and how my life should adapt. When the bus schedule changes, I want to know if I need to get out of bed earlier, not just that the schedule has changed.
  • gardening solutions. Random bugs eat my leaves and buds. Critters steal my veg. Anticipating this, as preventative measures are likely the most effective, would be awesome.
  • interpreting what my cat says, translating to english. Seriously, why don’t we really know what ‘meow’ means, after domesticating cats thousands of years ago?

I happened on an application for AI that I didn’t know I needed until I needed it in a hurry. It required getting information from a series of government and corporate entities, late on a Friday afternoon, before a long weekend. And I got it. Because it was information that each entity stored electronically. So emails were generated to use the info to answer my questions. In 10 minutes! Huzzah!

There are probably many more services I consume irregularly that AI could speed up. From what I’ve read, the sorts of process AI is expected to be used in first are industrial/business applications. This means that many of the best uses of AI won’t be noticable to us consumers except in declining prices, faster delivery or a better selection of options.

Why my cautious approach to AI? There are many AI applications that I imagine would take the fun out of life. Anything that requires creativity. Or some combination of serendipity and knowledge. Interior decorating. Discovering new restaurants, clothing lines, bands, books to read. The whole point to discovery is that it’s random. If something tells you where to find it, that’s ok if all you wanted was to get the thingy asap. Roofing shingles, a new muffler, parts for your appliances, or shoe laces for your winter boots are like that. For other items, there’s the thrill of the hunt, randomly happening on the perfect wastebasket for the downstairs bathroom, shoes to go with your suit, or a gift for your three year old.

I strive to challenging myself to achieve more, learn more, do more, in physical, intellectual, and economic realms. If AI made it all easier, I’d cease to grow, learn or improve. Proponents of AI might say the technology would allow me to stop wasting my time on parts of life that don’t challenge, so focus is on improving in important areas. AI might even lead me to the next, more enriching challenge.

What do I wish AI would do for me? Take care of the annoying things and leave me the interesting ones. Bearing in mind that what I find annoying, you may find interesting, the key is to make everything more efficient but make the high efficiency version elective. A mundane example of this is that grocery stores sell loaves of bread, but also all the ingredients to make bread from scratch.

That’s real intelligence, delivering what each customer wants.

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1I’m writing as an individual consumer. I may be in a demographic of one, which doesn’t make for a good business model, unless the product costs millions of dollars, which I don’t have, so forget that. However, more than likely I am in a demographic of significantly more than one, as most of us are.

An Annual Celebration of Innovation.

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

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

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

Evolving areas of technology represented at the conference included:

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

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

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

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

Industries offering the next version product:

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

Advances in capabilities of established industries:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Entrepreneur as Customer

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

People laugh, which is fine. I am serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2Where the thumb bone connects to the wrist bone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.