February 6, 2015
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."
August 26, 2014
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."
August 18, 2014
Michael Harris thinks we need to limit our intake of technology just as we do fat and sugar (The Economist 8/16/14). Michael is author of The End of Absence, in which he argues that putting ourselves on a high-tech diet may be the last best hope, of those who still remember life before the web, to pass along healthier habits to the next generation. His premise is that when "our insatiable appetites — for information, stimulation, validation" — are instantly met, "the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not."
In other words: "A culture of abundance devalues consumption. It fosters a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. Even the basic act of contemplation may suffer if idleness — when waiting for a bus, for example — is replaced with the easy entertainment offered by mobile phones. As with great music, silences are as much a part of the human experience as soaring crescendos. There is no inspiration without reflection." "Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life," Michael writes. "Your job is to notice."
Michael provides ample basis for his concern. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal review of his book (8/7/14): "Global Internet usage has expanded more than 500% in the last decade. YouTube users uploaded 100 hours of video for every minute of real time in 2013 … Google processes over 3.5 billion queries a day while each American owns, on average, four digital devices. A 2013 report found that Americans aged 18-64 spend an average of 3.2 hours a day on social networking sites."
August 18, 2014
General Electric has added a "data lake" to its information ecosystem, reports Quentin Hardy in The New York Times (8/11/14). A data lake is a "method of analyzing sensor information from industrial machinery in places like railroads, airlines, hospitals and utilities. GE has been putting sensors on everything it could for a couple of years" and is now "working with an outfit called Pivotal" to look "at information from 3.4 million miles of flights by 24 airlines." As a result, "it figured out things like possible defects 2,000 times" faster than before.
GE’s William Ruh says this is only the beginning: "In 10 years, 17 billion pieces of equipment will have sensors," he says. "We’re only one-tenth of the way there." Meanwhile, "billions of humans are already augmenting that number with their own packages of sensors, called smartphones, fitness bands and wearable computers. Almost all of that information will be uploaded someplace, too," creating "a world-changing ecosystem of digital hardware and software spreading into every area of our lives."
The "relentless acquisition and analysis of digital information" might be compared to the advent of the automobile, which "succeeded through the widespread construction of highways and gas stations" and spawned "suburbs, fast food and drive-time talk radio," among other things. Already, the growing data ecosystem is enabling "businesses like Uber and Airbnb" to succeed "without assets like cars and rooms, instead coordinating data streams about the locations of people, cars and bedrooms."
August 12, 2014
The magic of the emerging shopping experience — online or off — "comes from the data," reports Molly Wood in The New York Times (8/15/14). For e-commerce enterprises, the data enables a level of personal service that approximates — or potentially improves upon — that which can occur naturally in a store. "In traditional retail, they have the benefit in that they have real people who in theory could offer a very personalized experience," says Katrina Lake, founder of Stitch Fix, an online women’s clothing retailer.
Stitch Fix "sends its customers boxes of clothes picked by a combination of personal stylists and big data." The advantage over, say a mall or a traditional e-commerce play, says Katrina, is that it eliminates the often overwhelming array of choices. Bill Gurley, a Stitch Fix investor, says the data science involved in making this happen is significant. "There’s a 15-page profile, there are over 66 characteristics tracked and there’s a predictive heat score for every single item against every single user."
Birchbox uses a similar approach with beauty products. "We use curation and personalization as a way to make the internet have some of those fun and satisfying elements of shopping," says Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp. "There is still this desire to work with somebody that you trust." Birchbox takes a similar approach at its sole physical store, where Birchbox’s online customers can provide their email address to an employee, who then directs them to relevant items, based on their profile.
At the core of Apple’s organization is a school that teaches a culture of simplicity, reports Brian X. Chen in The New York Times (8/11/14). Called Apple University, Steve Jobs founded it in 2009 "as a way to inculcate employees into Apple’s business culture and educate them about its history, particularly as the company grew and the tech business changed." As with so many other aspects of Apple’s world, Apple University "is highly secretive and rarely written about."
Mr. Jobs chose "Joel Podolny, then the dean of Yale School of Management," to design Apple University. Courses include "case studies about important business decisions that Apple made," as well as the best way to share "ideas with peers." As one employee described the Apple communications ideal: "You go through more iterations until you can simply deliver your message in a very concise way, and that is true to the Apple brand and everything we do."
To communicate the concept, instructor Randy Nelson uses "a series of 11 lithographs … that Picasso created over about a month in late 1945," in which the artist began with a detailed sketch of a bull, and concluded with "a curvy stick figure that is still unmistakably a bull." (link) A course called "What Makes Apple, Apple" features a slide of Google’s 78-button remote control, and then the Apple TV remote (image), with just three — "a button to play and pause a video, a button to select something to watch, and another to go to the main menu."