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.

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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.

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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.

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An Annual Celebration of Innovation.

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

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

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

Evolving areas of technology represented at the conference included:

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

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

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

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

Industries offering the next version product:

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

Advances in capabilities of established industries:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Entrepreneur as Customer

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

People laugh, which is fine. I am serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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What’s New in Innovation?

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

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

Technology is not limiting.

Data is not limiting.

Knowledge is not limiting.

Being an entrepreneur is not limiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All we need is to just do it5.

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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.

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Modern Potty Humour

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

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

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

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

Problem is, the technology doesn’t work reliably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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Is Bitcoin like a Tulip?*

If it sounds to good to be true,

or like it should be illegal,

it probably is,

or will be soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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The Internet of Work Life Balance

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

work + life = 24 hours/day

Better add sleep:

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

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

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

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

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

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

= equal parts work and life 

= 89/2 hours 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

= using the internet to get these things done

QED4

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

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

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