April 13, 2015
March 23, 2015
A 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.”
March 16, 2015
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.”
March 16, 2015
A 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.”
February 6, 2015
Group 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.”
February 6, 2015
The future of electric cars may be more unevenly distributed than we think, reports Steve Levine in The Wall Street Journal (2/1/15). That’s largely because of "the internal combustion chamber — the workhorse of the industrial age — is proving to be much more than a stubborn technological incumbent." It is "challenging ostensibly more advanced electric vehicles," and the US Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2040, "cars with gas- and diesel-powered engines will still represent some 95% of the international car market."
One explanation is that "US government standards require cars to average 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025, up from 25.1 mpg last year." As of 2014, "16.5 million light vehicles were sold in the US" and "the top three were combustion pickups. Just 119,710 pure electrics and plug-in vehicles were sold, 0.7% of the total." This doesn’t include fourth-quarter sales of the Tesla S, but most "observers don’t expect these proportions to shift much over the next two decades." Meanwhile, new "diesel-fuel technology" is in the works.
Among them is the Achates, which "features opposed pistons, which face each other in a single cylinder rather than sitting side-by-side." Its developer "says that it gets 30% better mileage per gallon than current diesel engines — and double the mileage of gasoline engines." Because such engines burn less gas, worldwide consumption could drop from 90 to about 70 million barrels a day, driving down fuel costs. Given the relatively high price tags of electrics, it seems unlikely that combustion-powered cars will "feel real market pressure anytime soon."
February 3, 2015
An Australian designer has created a jacket that helps people navigate, reports Jim Dwyer in The New York Times (2/4/15). The Navigate Jacket, as Billie Whitehouse calls it, "provides haptic feedback — basically, an electronic device in the garment that gives a light tap on one shoulder or the other to steer a person, not unlike a phone vibrating to announce a call." Billie got the idea after watching New Yorkers "step blindly off sidewalks" with their eyes glued to the navigation apps on their cellphones.
The Navigate Jacket was featured in a show called Cloud Couture at Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator. Some of the apparel says more about form than function, such as "dresses with cascades of petals … made possible by laser-cutting machines." "It’s very couture, but very easy to manufacture," says Debera Johnson, the Accelerator’s executive director. "You get a tremendous amount of style for a much lower price." The real play, however, seems to be the "new layer of monitoring and tracking" technology enables.
For example, a "Hexoskin smart shirt … monitors breathing, heart rate and other vital signs … Every article of clothing has the potential to be a membrane that harvests data signals from our bodies — pulse, breathing, temperature, blood pressure, pheromones — and send them to … the cloud." Debera thinks "big brands" would "love to" use such technology "to track where you are in time and space, and understand who you’re talking with and what they’re wearing." She suggests that in exchange for such "intrusion … the customer might get a $10 discount."
February 2, 2015
Technology is changing America’s culture of tipping, reports Hilary Stout in The New York Times (2/1/15). As a custom, tipping in America dates back at least to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who tipped their slaves (especially Jefferson). In the 1940s, a 10 percent tip was common, but today 20 percent is more typical and iPad checkouts are pushing tips even higher. Some establishments present buyers of low-ticket items like coffee with touch-screen tip options that amount to as much as 25, 50 or even 75 percent of the total.
Usually there’s an option to write-in a tip manually, but this can be awkward. Tip expectations are growing so much that it may get "to a point where they can no longer be counted as ‘add-ons,’ leading employers to rethink pricing and salary structures." Uber, for instance doesn’t allow tips, and Public Option, a new pub set to open in Washington DC "will not allow tipping; its owner plans to pay his workers $15 an hour." Others, like Nick Sullivan, founder and CEO of ChangeTip, envisions a tip system that will "disrupt the advertising model" online.
ChangeTip is "a platform that allows people to send small Bitcoin payments through social media, email, Skype or text to show their appreciation for content creators (or anyone) on the Internet." Most payments are around $1, but this has so far generated $250,000 in tips. Nick thinks this kind of tip has potential to go viral. Another concept, DipJar, lets patrons of counter-service eateries swipe their card to give a preset $1 tip, as a less intrusive alternative to including a tip line on a receipt. The hope is that this will generate more tips.
January 8, 2015
Our shopping habits can provide a portal into our personal information, reports Robert Lee Hotz in The Wall Street Journal (1/30/15). A study conducted by MIT researchers used "a new analytic formula" that "needed only four bits of information — metadata such as location or timing — to identify the unique individual purchasing patterns of 90 percent of the people involved, even when the data were scrubbed of any names, account numbers or other obvious identifiers."
"We are introducing a way to find what you need to identify an individual — how much data makes you stand out in a crowd," says MIT’s Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye. "This touches on the fundamental limit of anonymizing data." That limit turned out to be very low. "After isolating a purchasing pattern … an analyst could find the name of the person … by matching their activity against other publicly available information, such as profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook, Twitter … and social-media ‘check-in’ apps like Foursquare."
Joseph Hall of the Center for Democracy & Technology, says the MIT study demonstrates "it is very, very difficult to remove any ability to identify people in these data sets, especially financial data." Adds Susan Landau of Worcester Polytechnic Institute: "We think of metadata as being not as important as content, but it turns out to be remarkably revelatory … Little bits of data combined with the data we shed in other places really create portraits." The MIT report was published in Science, an academic journal (link).
January 8, 2015
An Israeli startup is offering an app designed to deduce your emotional state, reports The Economist (1/3/15). The startup is called Beyond Verbal, and the app is called Moodies. It applies "emotions analytics" based on "hundreds of thousands of voice samples in more than 40 languages." Moodies "analyzes such things as the loudness and pitch of the speech, and then runs the results through an algorithm to match them with patterns from its database." The thought is such analysis "could be useful in phones, fitness gadgets and cars."
"For instance, a vehicle that senses a driver is in a heightened state, perhaps because he has been drinking, could flash up a warning before he takes to the road." However, "some experts in the voice-recognition field are skeptical that the technology touted is reliable enough for mass deployment. Then there is the thorny issue of privacy. People are bound to be repelled by the prospect of companies and devices tracking their emotions." Yuval Mor, CEO of Beyond Verbal, counters that "the upside … can more than compensate for the downside."
However, "signs of resistance to emotion-tracking software" is already evident: "The Samaritans, a British suicide-prevention group, recently disabled a free web app … that alerted people whenever someone they were following on Twitter used a phrase" suggesting "a fragile emotional state." Among other things, critics said the app could be used "to prey on vulnerable people." For now, Beyond Verbal has focused "on narrow areas such as market research and security rather than mass-market consumer electronics."
December 30, 2014
A "year-old subscription service" is designed to help improve your online behavior, reports Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times (12/31/14). Called ThinkUp, the service "analyzes how people comport themselves on Twitter and Facebook, with the goal of helping them become more thoughtful, less reflexive, more empathetic and more professional — overall, better behaved." "The goal," says co-founder Gina Trapani, "is to make you act like less of a jerk online … create mindfulness and awareness, and also behavioral change."
ThinkUp reports the users "most-used words" as well as "how often they thank and congratulate people, how frequently they swear, whose voices they tend to amplify and which posts get the biggest reaction and from whom." It helps address "the false sense of intimacy" that tends "to lower people’s self-control," in a world where "every mundane observation becomes grist for a 140-character quip, and every interaction a potential springboard into an all-consuming, emotionally wrenching flame battle."
Introduced "in the fall of 2013" and priced at "$5 a month for each social network you connect to it," ThinkUp so far has signed up only "a few thousand" users. Its founders say "it has been difficult to explain to people why they might need ThinkUp," but hope this will change "as more people falter on social networks, either by posting unthinking comments that end up damaging their careers, or simply by annoying people." Unlike "services like HootSuite," whose customer base is companies, ThinkUp’s primary target is individuals.
October 20, 2014
An antique German brewery is now using robots to improve its profits, reports John Revill in The Wall Street Journal (12/27/14). Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus was "established in the 1790s" but found itself "struggling with production bottlenecks … Workers couldn’t package and crate the company’s beer quickly enough to stock bars and supermarkets, prompting customers to buy other brands." Nine years ago, the brewery began using an IRB 7600 robot, made by ABB Ltd., to do "the heavy lifting," allowing employees to focus on other tasks.
"The brewery, which hasn’t changed its recipe in more than two centuries," is one of a growing number of smaller businesses that are automating "dirty and repetitious tasks that were typically handled with good old-fashioned elbow grease." A bakery in Switzerland "is using robots to bag pretzels," for instance, and in the UK "a Yorkshire brickworks has robots removing fired blocks from the kiln. In a New York hotel, robots have begun serving as porters, delivering luggage to guest rooms."
To encourage the trend, "Zurich-based ABB is working on a robot that customers can program by moving the arms to perform a desired action, the same way a parent might guide a child assembling blocks. The company, which expects to bring the new robot to market in April 2015, wants to eventually build one that doesn’t require an instruction manual." "The vision is for us to make robots as simple to use as a smartphone," says Per Vegard Nerseth of ABB. Smaller companies, may have great craftspeople, he says, but "not lots of robot technicians."
October 1, 2014
Cosmetics counters are getting a Google-inspired facelift in the e-commerce age, reports Bee Shapiro in The New York Times (10/9/14). At Bloomingdale’s, the "latest counter program" employs Google Glass to help customers learn how to use the products they buy. "A YSL makeup artist wears the gadget while applying the client’s makeup. The video, which also includes shots of the products used, is emailed to the customer." This appeals to shoppers like Carol Koehli, who says she’s "hopeless with makeup."
Carol says she might even post her makeup session on social media. "I’m on Twitter and I have Instagram," she says. "My friends are on Facebook. We send each other pictures already. I might well do this video, too." YSL’s Google Glass initiative underscores how "the lines between department store beauty shopping and e-commerce are blurring." "A customer might notice something on a website first and then go to a store," says YSL’s Alexandra Papazian. "Or they’ll go to counter and then go home and do more research online."
Other department stores are banking on more in the way of high-touch. At Bergdorf Goodman, for instance Clif de Raita, is a star attraction at the Tom Ford counter, where he "has developed something of a cultish following. Clients report that his gentle guidance (more instructive than old-fashioned hard sell) is worth the trip to the store." Arriana Marion says Clif gives her advice on things she’s too busy to research herself. According to Tom Ford Beauty, "the company sells double the items per transaction at the beauty counter as it does online."
October 1, 2014
Far from rendering public libraries irrelevant, "technology and digitized information has had the opposite effect," reports Loretta Waldman in The Wall Street Journal (9/30/14). Nowhere is this more true than at the Westport, Connecticut Public Library, which recently acquired a pair of "humanoid" robots that will "teach the kind of coding and computer-programming skills required to animate such machines." The Westport Library was also among the first in Connecticut "to acquire a 3-D printer and to create a ‘maker’ space."
The robots, named Vincent and Nancy, were "made by the French robotics firm Aldebaran," cost about $8,000 each and were privately funded. Among other things, the robots "have blinking eyes and an unnerving way of looking quizzically in the direction of whoever is speaking." They "can recognize faces" and have a "’fall manager,’ that helps them right themselves after a tumble … grunts and all. They can even ‘touch’ and ‘feel’ with the help of tactile and pressure sensors."
Maxine Bleiweis, the library’s executive director, says Vincent and Nancy are about more than just novelty, however. "Robotics is the next disruptive technology … and we felt it was important to make it available to people so they could learn about it," she says. "From an economic development perspective and job- and career-development perspective, it’s so important." The robots will also help "patrons locate books" and greet "elementary-school groups that visit the library." Vincent and Nancy will make their library debut on Oct. 11.
September 30, 2014
The Des Moines Register hopes virtual reality will reinvent the news experience, reports Lukas I. Alpert in The Wall Street Journal (9/22/14). The newspaper is "incorporating the technology of Oculus VR, computerized game platforms and 360-degree cameras." In this way, a story about "how a sixth-generation Iowa farming family is struggling to maintain its traditions in an increasingly globalized world of agribusiness … takes a viewer into a computerized world of cows, soybeans and grain silos."
Basically, the reader gets a sense of "roaming around a farm in Page County, Iowa." This does require "strapping on Oculus’s virtual-reality headset," but it allows viewers to "walk up to the family’s machine shop and click on an icon that places them inside a 3-D video feature about maintaining high-tech farming equipment," for example. They "can view the information in any order," not unlike a videogame. If they don’t have an Oculus helmet, they can still interact in 2-D "on any computer."
Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute says it has limitations. "Although we call it multimedia, most of these stories are hybrids that use the visual elements to amplify the underlying narrative," he says. "You can take a virtual tour of a building where an event occurred, but that is a different thing than having characters who are fully explained." Other limitations are that the "virtual-reality technology" makes some people dizzy, and currently only 125,000 Oculus headsets are in circulation.
September 30, 2014
A "stealthy newcomer" named Amelia "embodies a new approach to artificial intelligence," reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (9/29/14). Similar to IBM’s Watson, Amelia "is the product of an attempt to understand how people think, rather than to copy the means by which they do it. Many traditional AI efforts try to map the human brain … But Amelia is all about turning what psychologists know about how thinking happens … rather than how it’s carried out by our neurons."
"We didn’t achieve powered flight by copying birds," says Chetan Dube of IP Soft, developers of Amelia. "First we had to understand the principles of flight." Amelia "learns from textbooks, transcriptions of conversations, email chains and just about any other text. As long as the answer appears in the data she gets, she can solve problems." She is now being tested in call centers, where the "goal is consistency — every time anyone calls, that person should get the same, correct answer," which is based on correct answers previously supplied by humans. (video)
The larger goal, of course, is to replace humans, "especially in a customer support type of situation." However, Amelia "remains, like all synthetic intelligences, merely a clever way to automate tasks" and "has no free will." She does have feelings, though. If you tell Amelia you hate her, "the three variables that define her emotional state — arousal, dominance and pleasure — are negatively affected." "Our goal here is not to just model emotions, but to use what we detect of those sentiments in decision making," says Ergun Ekici, Amelia’s lead architect.
September 17, 2014
Alan Turing created a test to prove that machines could think the way humans do, writes Walter Isaacson in The Wall Street Journal (9/27/14). "His test, now usually called the Turing Test, was a simple imitation game. An interrogator sends written questions to a human and a machine in another room and tries to determine which is which. If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, he argued, then it makes no sense to deny that the machine is ‘thinking’." The year was 1950.
Based on this test, Mr. Turing "predicted that in 50 years there would be machines that, for five minutes, could fool a human questioner 30 percent of the time." Sixty years later, this hasn’t yet happened. Even if it did, "philosophers led by Berkeley professor John Searle contend that it would be wrong to ascribe intentions and consciousness and ‘thinking’ to a machine, even if it could fool 100 percent of questioners indefinitely." Mr. Turing was challenged on this very point during a debate against a brain surgeon, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson.
Sir Geoffrey’s said he wouldn’t believe a machine "could think until he saw it touch the leg of a female machine" and "make a fool of himself." In other words, it is "appetites, desires, drives, instincts" that set machines and people apart, not just how well they answer questions. Mr. Turing’s personal life ultimately amplified Sir Geoffrey’s point. Having been arrested because he was gay, and forced to take hormones as treatment, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple. As Walter Isaacson concludes: "Was that something a machine would have done?"
September 15, 2014
The future of shopping is in the ‘transactive memory’ between shoppers and brands. A Hub White Paper by Liz Crawford of Match Shoplab. Socrates was against writing things down because he believed that it was a crutch, and that people would never remember anything as a result. Socrates was a great philosopher, but as Clive Thompson argues in his recent book, Smarter Than You Think, he was wrong about this.What Socrates overlooked was that when you store certain information somewhere else, the result is a greater capacity to remember more important things.
This concept applies in a big way in today’s world, where so much of what we can’t remember on our own is stashed away somewhere in the digital universe. Thompson sees in this a huge opportunity for collaboration between people and machines, which is obvious to anyone who has ever done a quick Google or Wikipedia search to answer questions both trivial and profound. This ability effectively makes us smarter and able to perform on a higher level. Read the Rest of the White Paper.
September 9, 2014
The future of spending is an exchange that swaps out different currencies to get the best deal, say Edward Catronova and Joshua A.T. Fairfiled in a New York Times op-ed (9/10/14). This future is made possible by the advent of the digital wallet "loaded with your dollars, credit and loyalty points." This means that "virtual assets of all sorts — traditional currencies but also Bitcoin, airline miles, cellphone minutes — are interchangeable, opening up enormous purchasing power for consumers."
For example, suppose "you want to buy an audiobook from Best Buy. It costs $16, or 1,000 My Best Buy points, or MBBPs. Your wallet contains several hundred dollars and 200 Best Buy points. The wallet software automatically determines that, at the current exchange rate … it is better to buy using the points." If you don’t have enough MBBPs, the system … finds someone — call her Hannah — with enough MBBPs for the transaction. It buys the audiobook with her points and sends it to you, and sends Hannah dollars from your account."
The killer app, then, is "frictionless exchange." Some companies will benefit by "issuing their own currencies for advertising or data-tracking purposes, or even just because the creation of a successful virtual currency or digital wallet lets companies make money by making money." Others may suffer, as they "lose value in their loyalty programs." Governments will be challenged as they lose central control over currency, but of course they will be able to "see the trades passing through our wallets," even if they "can’t compel or block them."
September 8, 2014
Where most people just see a technology, a small group of connoisseurs see a work of art, reports Nick Shchetko in The Wall Street Journal (8/28/14). "If you hold them in the sunshine, they just spit rainbows right back at your face," says Joyce Haughey, a graphic designer and collector of silicon platters – the "shiny discs" that are "diced up to yield individual chips." Joyce actually "turns electronic components into works of art."
Timothy Sears uses a microscope to appreciate the discs, and waxes poetic about them. "Like futuristic cities with roads and buildings, hundreds of millions of components are connected in vast landscapes only visible at ultraviolet magnifications," he says. Antoine Bercovici "collaborates with a friend to take colorful microphotographs of the inside of chips," sometimes exposing intentional works of art: "One H-P chip from the 1990s, code-named ‘Hummingbird,’ includes of picture of that bird … revealed under heavy magnification."
Another wafer was embedded with dinosaur images. Michael W. Davidson of Florida State University collects such rarities and displays them in Silicon Zoo, an online gallery. Wafers with "aesthetic appeal" might command $10 or $20 on eBay, while "historically significant" ones "can fetch thousands of dollars … a wafer featuring Motorola 68000 chips — a variety used in computers like Apple Inc.’s Lisa" is listed at $1,000, for example. "While they don’t gather formally, some collectors stay in touch to trade wafers and share experiences."
Eytan Adar has "collected hundreds of examples of deceptive design" in technology, reports Kate Green in Pacific Standard Magazine (9/3/14). For starters, "the standard user interface on your computer — a desktop with folder and trashcan icons … hides a universe of code behind a simple, ‘usable’ facade." Then there’s "the progress bars presented on computer screens during downloads, uploads and software installations maintain virtually no connection to the actual amount of time or work left before the action is completed."
There’s a long history of such deception in technology: "In the 1960s, the hardware that comprised the byzantine switching systems of the first electronic phone networks would occasionally cause a misdial. Instead of revealing the mistake by disconnecting or playing an error message, engineers decided the least obtrusive way to handle these glitches was to allow the system to go ahead and patch the call through to the wrong number … most people assumed the error was theirs, hung up, and redialed."
So-called placebo buttons are another common example — "many crosswalk and elevator door-close buttons don’t actually work," but do "give the impatient person a false sense of agency." In the future, "true artificial intelligence systems will alter the game significantly," and may get a sense of "biological cues (variations in heart rate, skin conductance, eye movement)" and respond accordingly. This is not unlike the way humans "suss out whether it might be best to fudge the truth with someone we care about."