The Hub Cool News

Upstart Algorithms

upstartA lender called Upstart is using an algorithm to judge its customers’ character, reports Quentin Hardy in The New York Times (7/27/15). Paul Gu, Upstart’s 24-year-old founder, eschews credit scores in favor of an algorithm that assesses a prospective customer’s “SAT scores, what colleges they attended, their majors and their grade-point averages.” Says Paul: “If you take two people with the same job and circumstances … five years later the one who had the higher GPA is more likely to pay a debt.”

“It’s not a question of whether you can pay,” Paul says. “It’s a question of how important you see your obligations.” So far, Upstart has “lent $130 million to people with mostly negligible credit scores. Typically, they are recent graduates without mortgages, car payments or credit-card histories.” Paul believes Upstart’s approach is more fair than credit scores, but admits it has some short-comings. For example, he, himself, “had perfect SAT scores but dropped out of Yale,” and “would not have qualified for an Upstart loan” based on “his own initial algorithm.”

Another lender, called ZestFinance, looks at “whether someone has ever given up a prepaid wireless phone number” because this “may indicate you are willing (or have been forced) to disappear from family or potential employers.” “If all you look at is financial transactions, it’s hard to say much about willingness” to pay, says Zest CEO Douglas Merrill. Jure Leskovec of Stanford meanwhile studied “the predictions of data analysis against those of judges at bail hearings,” and is finding that the “data-driven analysis is 30 percent better at predicting crime.”

Ethical Robots

jerry-kaplanEngineers “are ill-prepared to design social intelligence into a machine,” writes Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply in The Wall Street Journal (7/25/15). The rise of driverless cars and other androids using artificial intelligence ushers in “systems capable of independently pursuing goals in complex, real-world settings — often among and around people … As these systems increasingly invade human domains, the need to control what they are permitted to do, and on whose behalf, will become more acute” and raise all kinds of ethical quandaries.

For example: “Should your car swerve to save the life of the child who just chased his ball into the street at the risk of killing the elderly couple driving the other way? Should this calculus be different when it’s your own life that’s at risk or the lives of your loved ones?” Would it be okay to program your driverless car to re-park itself to circumvent the intent of a two-hour time-limit on parking spaces? Would you want “your self-driving car to strike a pedestrian rather than cross a double-yellow centerline?”

Also: “How will you feel the first time a driverless car zips ahead of you to take the parking spot you have been patiently waiting for? Or when a robot buys the last dozen muffins at Starbucks while a crowd of hungry patrons looks on?” More seriously: “Should it be permissible for an autonomous military robot to select its own targets?” The problem is that “programming intelligent systems to obey rules isn’t sufficient, because sometimes the right thing is to break those rules.” The challenge, says Jerry, is “to create civilized robots for a human world.”

Like Wow

aiComputers may be better at social intelligence than humans are, reports Robert M. Sapolsky in The Wall Street Journal (7/25/15). This assessment is based on research that compared “the nuances of personality and demographics with the Facebook likes of tens of thousands of people.” First, some “58,000 active users of Facebook … provided demographic information about themselves and took a standard test to classify their personalities in five broad categories: degree of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.”

Researchers “then correlated the personality profiles with each person’s Facebook ‘likes,’ an average of 227 per subject.” The computer next compared “the nuances of personality and demographics with the Facebook likes of tens of thousands of people.” Based on this “it could predict a person’s race with 95% accuracy and gender with 93%. The model also accurately predicted religious and political orientation; intelligence; the likelihood of substance abuse; and personality.” The computer model proved to be better at this than people were.

In a separate test,”86,220 subjects took the personality test; the subjects’ friends and family then filled out a short personality-profile questionnaire about them.” The result: “With just 10 random Facebook likes, the computer could beat an individual’s co-worker in predicting personality. With 70 likes, the machine trumped friends. With 150 likes, it crushed relatives. At 300 likes, the computer was better than a spouse.” Based on “little pixels of disconnected opinion, a pattern-seeking computer can create a detailed pointillist picture of each of us in all our individuality.”

Tunity

tunityAn app called Tunity aims at making outdoor media interactive, reports Ralph Gardner Jr. in The Wall Street Journal (7/22/15). Tunity “allows you to hold your cellphone up to a TV, scan the picture, and stream the audio through your phone.” This could be helpful at a sports bar, for instance, where the sound may be turned down on a game. In fact, Yaniv Davidson got the idea for Tunity while sitting at an airport, waiting for a flight, watching CNN, and frustrated that he couldn’t “hear Wolf Blitzer because the volume was too low.”

He thought: “Why can’t I just have an algorithm that detects the channel and brings me the audio?” As an engineer he knew it could be done, and Tunity “has been operational since the beginning of this year.” Yaniv’s plan is that the app would be free, but he would sell “TV networks or retailers reconnaissance on the viewing habits and demographics of their viewers.” “What it means,” says Yaniv, “is that CNN could get more viewers just by measuring the audience. This is how advertisers buy advertising.”

Beyond that, Yaniv thinks Tunity could “change the way people consume any form of outdoor media” and “the way advertisers communicate with consumers through outdoor media.” So, for example, if you’re in Times Square and “Samsung has this huge sign and they’re showing a video … If you’re interested in that product you can take your phone, scan it for a second, and get the audio.” Where such an ad might otherwise amount to little more than “a lot of visual noise,” says Yaniv, imagine “if we could choose to tune into just the thing that interests us?”

Robotic Airports

biometricsIn the future, the best kind of airport experience may be a robotic one. This could start with a robot that valet parks your car, Scott McCartney in The Wall Street Journal (7/16/15). This is already happening at Dusseldorf’s airport in Germany, where a “system reads the car’s license plate” and then “a robot nicknamed Ray, which looks like a giant forklift, picks up the car by the wheels and moves it. At night robots reshuffle the garage so cars that will be returned the next day are easily accessible … The robots have operated for nearly a year and boosted garage capacity by 32 percent.” (video)

In the future, robots might also pick up your “bags and maybe even deliver them, speeding up the process and reducing manual labor costs.” “Managing your baggage and not making it a pain is part of the airport of the future,” says Jim Peters of SITA, makers of Ray the robot. Dulles Airport is meanwhile using “facial-recognition systems” to streamline passport control, while other “airports use facial-recognition systems to track your movements around terminals. Gates in some airports are automated with doors that flash open like a subway turnstile when you scan your boarding pass or flash your smartwatch.”

“At London’s Gatwick Airport, beacons identify you by your smartphone and give GPS-like directions to your gate, pointing out food or shopping along the way … At the airport of the future, directional signs will be only for backup … In theory, travelers will be more relaxed, with time to get work done, shop or enjoy entertainment since the airport will track their time and location and tell them where they need to be.” Terry Hartmann of Unisys says airports will become “fun again.” “Of course, planes will still have cramped seats and airlines will still run habitually late.”

Smart Malls

sensityLight fixtures in stores can also illuminate shopper behavior, reports Diane Cardwell in The New York Times (7/20/15). Specifically, LED lights are not only relatively energy efficient, but can also “receive and transmit data about about their own status as well as their surroundings. Depending on the installed or connected sensors, they can detect a range of factors and activities, including … a particular shopper in and around the store.” General Electric is working with Sensity Systems, “a small startup that builds and manages smart-lighting networks” that can track shoppers movements in a store. GE is also “working with Qualcomm to employ a sort of GPS system that can give retailers a shopper’s location and orientation.”

“We’re obviously excited abut the intelligent environment future — that’s really what our lighting business is becoming: It’s morphing from a hardware to a software business,” says Beth Comstock of General Electric. “What gets us excited is, frankly, light is more than you can see,” she says. Simon Malls is also investing in Sensity as “part of an overall transition to an automated shopping experience, where consumers can receive alerts on their smartphones about open parking spaces near their destinations as well as special offers from stores as they roam the mall.” Simon has already invested in “some 20,000 pole lights” in their parking lots “that can communicate with the Sensity network.”

Simon has also invested in Swirl, a “mobile-marketing platform” that “can detect a smartphone and send messages like special offers or product information.” In combination with Sensity, this enables Simon “to have contact with customers as they come into the properties until they leave.” Beyond retail, GE is looking to “smart-city projects, which use a canopy of connected streetlights as the wireless infrastructure to coordinate city services, like easing traffic congestion” or “sensing when the garbage cans are full.” This has, of course, caught the attention of “privacy advocates” who “raise concerns about the technology racing ahead of considerations about how to use it responsibly.”

Smart Crimes

cybercrimeThe ‘Internet of Things’ could be a very good thing for cybercriminals, reports The Economist (7/18/15). In addition to the potential benefits to humanity, “smart devices offer exciting new opportunities for the authors of the malware that is common on today’s Internet.” The difference is that while “antivirus software may detect their handiwork and begin scrubbing infected computers clean,” similar software is typically not available for “smart” cars, televisions, refrigerators or thermostats because they are “not designed as general-purpose computers.”

This means that it could be possible to cause a car to crash by disabling its brakes remotely, or even murder diabetic patients by shutting down their pumps. Burglars could plan their break-ins by reading energy-use patterns from smart thermostats and figuring out when a family is away on vacation. Users of such devices would have no way of knowing that their gadgets had been compromised, and even if a problem were detected “their manufacturers can’t use the Internet to distribute fixes for any security flaws that come to light after the device is sold.”

For the most part, “such worries remain theoretical,” but already there is “ransomware, in which malicious programs encrypt documents and photographs, and a victim must pay to have them restored.” “Imaging trying to bleep open your car one day, but then you’re told your car has been locked, and if you want back in you need to send $200 to some shady Russian email address,” says Graham Steel of Cryptosense, a maker of “automated security-checking software.” Since such threats are not quite here, “companies have few incentives to take security seriously,” and likely won’t until big breaches occur.

Deliv

delivFive mall operators are backing an Uber-esque retailer delivery service, reports Ruth Simon in The Wall Street Journal (7/1/15). The service is called Deliv, and it’s just one of many examples of how shopping-center firms like Westfield and Simon are using a venture-capitalist model to stay on top of innovations at retail. Deliv is “a crowdsourced delivery service that connects available, vetted contracted drivers with retailers that need items delivered. The as-needed drivers make it easier for retailers to compete with Amazon.com and other big e-commerce companies.”

This makes a lot of sense to Simon Property CMO Mikael Thygesen, who likes the idea of using existing stores as distribution hubs. “Fulfilling from the store is very interesting to us,” he says. Simon has a $1 million investment in Union Station, “an online bridesmaid’s dress rental service.” “It’s a potential new retail category that Simon doesn’t have in its portfolio of retailers,” says J. Skyler Fernandes, managing director of Simon Venture Group. Simon also backed Shopkick, “a shopping loyalty app” that “was acquired last year by SK Telecom Co. for $200 million.”

Simon’s investments have ranged “from $250,000 to $5 million.” “We’re finding out where retailers have their biggest problems and then finding solutions whether they are useful for Simon or for retail more broadly,” says Skyler. Westfield, meanwhile, “runs Westfield Labs, which employs a team of software engineers and invests in — and works with — startups.” However, Josh Lerner, a Harvard Business School professor, notes that “returns from corporate venturing programs have been substantially less than those of independent venture groups … We’ve seen some element of faddishness about it,” he says.

Shop Talk

moniqueA trip to the future of retail and shopping. By Monique de Maio. Held recently at the Helen Mills Theatre in New York City, Hub Live: The Retail Experience Symposium covered a wide range of subject matter relative to the retail experience and how to optimize it at every touchpoint. Technology quickly rose to the top.Retailers right now are on a technology-spending spree, reportedly to the tune of some $190 billion this year.

This means investing more money in more places on more things — mobile point-of-sale systems, kiosks, digital signs, Big Data analytics — that retailers hope will make them more customer-centric, more agile, more omnichannel, more personal, more … well, more of everything that they need to succeed in the new world of shopping.

The upshot is a massive, technology-driven retooling of the retail landscape. Some prime examples of retailers who are leading the way were on hand to share what they’ve learned at Hub Live. Chief marketing officers and retail-experience leaders from Krispy Kreme, 7-Eleven, Whole Foods, Ikea and eBay told their stories, along with a selection of top agency CEOs and creative directors. Continue Reading.

Robo Emotions

robot“People feel bad when bad things happen to robots,” reports James E. Young in The Wall Street Journal (6/3/15). It seems it doesn’t take long for humans to begin to look upon even the most basic sort of robot with empathy — “even a small disc robot moving around a factory floor, with intentions and goals of its own, quickly comes to be seen by the humans around it as a living thing.” Even those “who vehemently object to the idea of assigning emotions and personalities to robots start to do exactly that after minimal time.”

This reality has implications as humans and robots increasingly work side by side. It means that robots need to be programmed with social skills — to “use their eyes, where they look and how long they stare,” for example — to suggest intention and enable closer collaboration. “Working with a robot that always grins while criticizing you, stares at your feet while giving recommendations” or “sounds sarcastic while providing positive feedback” is not likely to engender trust or comfort.

The robots also must be careful not to pressure their human counterparts to continue working if they want to quit. Other studies show that soldiers do not like to put robots in harm’s way, and are known to demand that their robot partners be repaired, not replaced, if they are damaged. People also “attribute gender stereotypes to robots that are perceived as being male or female, and apply traditional gender roles to them, and men and women likewise interact differently with male or female robots.”

Airplane Windows

airbusThe airplane of the future will have no windows, reports The Economist (5/30/15). Instead, it will have exterior cameras that will project the scene from outside the airplane on a “thin-screen video display on either side of the passenger compartment.” If the scene is nothing but clouds or stars, the screens could be used to show movies. This “multiplex digital cabin” is expected to be available in 2020 in the S-512 via Spike Aerospace, which “could carry 12-18 passengers from, say, LA to Tokyo in just six hours, at Mach 1.6.

By 2050, Airbus envisions a “bionic cabin covered with … a ‘biopolymer membrane,’ a sort of tough plastic coating which can be electronically controlled to turn opaque or transparent on command, thus eliminating the need for conventional windows.” So, as the plane descends into New York, for instance, “the ceiling and walls turn transparent to provide a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline.” When opaque, the walls could mimic sunrises and sunsets to help passengers adjust as they change time zones.

Meanwhile, “rigid divisions into first, business and economy classes” will have disappeared, replaced with “transforming seats” constructed of “memory materials which can morph into different shapes,” adapting “to the size of an individual’s body — and their travel budget. The more you pay, the more space and comfort the seat will provide.” Of course, whether any of this actually ever happens “depends … as much on the unforgiving economics of air travel as on the imagination of designers.”

Supermarket Shelves

coopThe supermarket of the future will have no shelves, reports Alberto Mucci in Munch (5/28/15). Instead, the supermarket has “long, low wooden tables,” recalling a local market. That’s the vision put forward, anyway, by Coop, “Italy’s largest supermarket chain,” in a prototype store at Milan’s World Fair, in collaboration with Accenture and MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory. The idea is to make food shopping “a moment of exchange and interaction.” Or, as MIT’s Carl Ratti elaborates, “interactions between people and products and people and people.”

To that end, Accenture’s Alfredo Richelmi says it’s essential for people “to be able to see each other” and maybe even have a conversation. Unless, that is, they are too absorbed in the “series of black screens” hovering above. As shoppers pick up an item, “data pops up on the screen” with information on where it was grown, “its nutritional properties … and even its carbon footprint.” Because the tables offer less space than traditional shelves, a system of elevators ensure they remain fully stocked. Robots, meanwhile, package up products on the fly. (images)

Shoppers also have the option of specifying their diet via an app “and having an algorithm suggest the best products the supermarket has to offer that meets their preferences.” The store itself is organized to reflect “the natural production chain,” telling stories from fresh and raw (e.g., tomatoes and grapes) to packaged and processed (canned tomato sauces and bottled wine). Coop has no plans to turn its prototype into “an actual supermarket,” but does expect to “learn important lessons, some of which may be transferred to the real world.”

The Innovator’s Dilemma

megauploadA MoMa exhibit simultaneously parodies the pretense of technology and art, reports Ken Johnson in The New York Times (5/29/15). This is accomplished by an art installation based on “a high-tech trade fair” and is intended to get at “what’s causing the sociopathy infecting both industries.” The work of Simon Denny, “a Berlin-based artist,” The Innovator’s Dilemma, at MoMa PS1 through September 7, “takes down irrational exuberance about technology” while also jabbing at “the high-end art world’s inflationary mania.”

The art world parallel may be imperfect, as the value of artwork may fluctuate but “usually doesn’t become worthless the way obsolete devices do.” That said, the exhibit is composed of four installations, starting with All You Need is Data, which showcases “the sort of breathless banter” typical of the tech sector. For example, “an actual invitation-only get-together where, as the conference website puts it, ‘scientists, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors came out to play’.”

The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom highlights Megaupload, as “an example of how enormous wealth can be accumulated” by bringing little or no value to the world. Disruptive Berlin makes the point that “slight modifications of existing technologies” can yield big profits. Finally, New Management re-creates a hotel room where Samsung’s chairman gave a three-day speech in 1993, known as the Frankfurt Declaration, which propelled the company to market leadership, and has “assumed quasi-religious status within Samsung culture.”

Joris Laarman

joris-chairA Dutch designer is collaborating with algorithms to create “beautiful pieces of furniture,” reports Ruth Bloomfield in The Wall Street Journal (5/15/15). Joris Laarman’s inspiration came from “a company that was using a computer algorithm to design car parts more efficiently.” He thought the concept could be applied to furniture, and his first project “was a side chair. He designed the seat and backrest; the computer then worked out the best way to support it.” Joris says he “had no idea what it would end up looking like.”

The result, however, “looked fantastic, with a complex lattice of curving branches. Once the design was set, the chair was built using a 3-D printer to create a ceramic mold, then cast in aluminum. (link) It is now in the collection of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. He named the collection Bone, because of the ability of bone to grow and repair itself.” Says Joris: “If Mother Nature made a chair this is what it would look like.” He’s since added “armchairs, rocking chairs, a chaise lounge, a bookshelf and a dining table,” with prices ranging from $25K to $500K.

If you don’t have that kind of scratch, you might also check out Joris’s Puzzle chair, which “slots together like a jigsaw puzzle. The design can be downloaded free (here) and created in plastic by anyone with access to a 3-D printer.” “We are part of a transition generation,” says Joris. “With digital fabrication tools you can create much more complicated shapes. An algorithm or a robot is just like a chisel or a saw. It is a new tool for designers to work with,” he continues, adding: “I like to find the balance between craft and technology.”

The Sync Project

sync-projectThe convergence of biometric trackers and music apps may prove therapeutic, reports Chau Tu in The Atlantic (5/7/15). “We have this super interesting moment where, in the last 10 years, major companies have put millions of songs in everyone’s pockets,” says Alexis Kopikis, co-founder of The Sync Project. “Then we have a bunch of technology companies trying to develop every possible sensor that you can put on your body to measure physiology.” The Sync Project hopes this will provide a pathway to music as medicine.

So date, The Sync Project is “an online and mobile platform that pairs users’ music-streaming services with their wearable body monitors — Fitbit and the like — to track how music might be interacting with their body. The collected data is then shared with scientists.” The hope is that it will be possible to “pinpoint the properties of music that were effective for different conditions” — identifying the relationship between things like blood pressure, sleep patterns or concentration and the music being played at the time.

While music has been shown to trigger certain responses in the brain, its ability to influence health remains uncertain. Jessica Grahn, a neuroscientist, says that music with a steady beat seems to improve “the gait of Parkinson’s patients, which is often jerky and unsteady.” At the very least, an music-biometric app could provide scientists with valuable data for further study. Jessica says “there’s a lot of hype about what music can do,” but at least “there are generally no bad side effects” and it gives “patients a sense of control over their treatment.”

Edison’s Dolls

edison-dollVoices of the “the world’s first recording artists” are being heard for the first time, reports Ron Cowen in The New York Times (5/5/15). Those would be the voices of “the young girls hired to recite” rhymes for use in Thomas Edison’s talking dolls. The dolls were introduced in 1890 and they “were a flop; production lasted only six weeks. Children found them difficult to operate and more scary than cuddly. The recordings inside,” etched on wax cylinders, “featured snippets of nursery rhymes” and “wore out quickly.”

Edison’s dolls are quite rare and, until now, the recordings couldn’t be played because to do so “might damage or destroy the grooves of the hollow, ring-shaped cylinder.” But now “a government laboratory” has “developed a method to play fragile records without touching them. The technique relies on a microscope to create images of the grooves in exquisite detail. A computer approximates — with great accuracy — the sounds that would have been created by a needle moving through those grooves.”

The method, “developed by the particle physicist Carl Haber and the engineer Earl Cornell at Lawrence Berkeley,” is known as Irene, which stands for “Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.” The technology, which was “recently acquired” by the National Document Conservation Center, has also been used to extract audio from “dirt-stained recordings” featuring Woody Guthrie, in which the legendary folksinger “tells jokes, offers some back story and makes the audience laugh,” revealing a performance otherwise lost to history.

PayPal Mafia

paypalA surprising number of today’s most valuable tech companies have their roots in PayPal, reports David Gelles in The New York Times (4/2/15). Uber, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Yelp, Square, YouTube and, yes, Tesla, all include PayPal people in their family tree. The phenomenon is all the more striking given that PayPal’s own success happened “against all odds,” notes co-founder Max Levchin. “Like veterans of an intense military campaign, we fall back on lessons learned, and relationships established in our early 20s,” says Max.

After eBay acquired PayPal in 2002, its founders “emerged as among the few willing to invest in new tech startups.” “We went from this bunch of misfits to the center of the ecosystem,” says Keith Rabois, now a partner in Khosla Ventures. “Entrepreneurs needed capital, and the only place to get the capital was from us.” Informally, the PayPal alumni are known as the PayPal Mafia, and are “all men, mostly white, and under the age of 50.” In many ways, their story underscores the old adage that “success begets success.”

“If you have a name that’s associated with success, people will seek you out,” says Jeremy Stoppelman, a former PayPal vp of engineering. “Why do smart people go to Harvard? Because previous smart people went to Harvard,” he says. Adds Scott Banister, a former PayPal board member: “We have a very good collective resume … It’s not just that you’re associated with the company, it’s that you’re associated with the other people associated with the company.”

Device Design

jawbone Big technology companies are snapping up small design firms, reports Molly Wood in The New York Times (3/19/15). “Google, Facebook, Adobe, Dropbox and Yahoo, for example, have all bought design-oriented startups since 2010,” according to a report by John Maeda, a venture capitalist. The primary reason is recognition that design — not just of products but of user experiences — is the crucial competitive advantage. “If you can make this amazing bracelet and the software is bad, you’re going to throw it away,” says John.

The primacy of function over form is spreading because really good apps are highlighting the potential of good user design in new categories. “Let’s say you’re a doctor and electronic medical records are really terribly done as an industry,” says Ben Blumenfeld, another venture capitalist. “Doctors are starting to use iPhones and they’re saying, ‘Wait a second, why doesn’t my electronic records system work like my iPhone apps?’” The potential has been particularly heightened by well-designed apps like Uber’s, which make a hard task easier.

However, “the real design victory is in carefully considering exactly how someone will want to navigate an app, communicate with another person or conduct a transaction. That’s a big shift for the tech industry, which has long prized engineering acumen and product management.” John Maeda says the traditional focus on product design alone is “just surface-driven thinking,” adding: “It isn’t that design is more important than technology or the business model. You need both.”

Switch

switchA new generation of technology is reinventing the phone call, reports Shira Ovide in The Wall Street Journal (3/13/15). The issue is that while email can be efficient, it also tends eliminate context and collaboration. “You’ve distilled all the waste out of the phone conversation and what’s left are these really important times when you need to talk to someone in real time, and get some emotion and back-and-forth,” says Craig Walker, founder of Switch, a technology platform that replaces traditional telephone hardware with a web-based, subscription service.

Switch enables users to “dial voice calls via computer, switch devices mid-call, and see documents exchanged with the person on the other end of the line.” It can also ring “conference participants automatically at the appointed time, making 800 numbers and PINS unnecessary.” In concept, this is not new, as Microsoft and others have provided similar capabilities. One difference is that offerings like Switch tend to provide greater functionality at lower cost, “and don’t rely on company technicians.”

The technology is similar to that used by Uber, the ridesharing service, which uses Twilio to power “automated text messages that let customers know a driver is waiting,” for example. At Weather Co., meanwhile, Switch is seen as being “less about cost than about maximizing productivity.” Chief Information and Technology Officer Bryson Koehler comments: “My goal for the organization has been to shift the way we work and really empower our company and our people to work in a mobile, agile, collaborative, next-generation way.”

Slack

slackGroup chat appears to be on track to replace email, reports Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times (3/12/15). This transition may take a while, but “it’s possible to envision a future in which email — remarkably — is supplanted by new tools that allow people to collaborate in big groups and force upon companies the sort of radical transparency that many in the tech industry, at least, believe is essential.” Among this “new sort of communication system” is Slack, which takes direct aim at improving a company’s internal communications.

Slack’s features include “automatic archiving of all your interactions, a good search engine and the ability to work across just about every device you use.” The premise is “that solo work is on the wane and that as all of our jobs become more complex, more and more creative and technical feats will be accomplished by teams rather than lone practitioners … Though it is possible to speak privately in Slack, by default everything you say is visible to everyone else at your company, even people in different departments.”

Such transparency carries a lack of privacy, but according to Slack founder Stewart Butterfield, you also “get a whole bunch of ‘soft knowledge’ about how the company operates — how people relate to one another … who really makes decisions.” Hoarding information and hierarchies give way to an organization that looks and behaves more like a web, notes Aaron Levie of Box, a Slack competitor. James O’Toole, a USC professor, adds that the more knowledge is shared, the more workers are likely to be “invested in the work.”