Week 43

Pick of the Week – Technology and Inequality

This absorbing MIT Technology Review article covers a lot of territory exploring whether technology is contributing to widening global inequality:

“The anger in Northern California and elsewhere in the United States springs from an increasingly obvious reality: the rich are getting richer while many other people are struggling. It’s hard not to wonder whether Silicon Valley, rather than just exemplifying this growing inequality, is actually contributing to it, by producing digital technologies that eliminate the need for many middle-class jobs.”

Ideas from Piketty and others are reviewed to assess where technology fits into the inequality picture.  One obvious angle is the accelerating rate of replacement of business functions that can be automated.  It’s a growing concern picked up on again this week by mainstream media with the coverage of Amelia, “the computer that’s after your job”.   Another important aspect of the landscape is the creation of a ‘superstar’ system in which the technically talented and creative are hugely rewarded for their innovation while the majority end up servicing their needs.  This is creating a new source of global power and is also the proximate cause for a lot of the public resentment on the ground in Silicon Valley:

“About 20 to 25 percent of the population works in the high-tech sector, and the wealth is concentrated among them. This relatively small but prosperous group is driving up the cost of housing, transportation, and other living expenses. At the same time, much of the employment growth in the area is happening in retail, restaurant, and manual jobs, where wages are stagnant or even declining. It’s a simple formula for income inequality and poverty. “

For the author, the key to unlocking inequality is education, specifically ensuring equality of access to opportunities to learn those skills that are in demand.  Unfortunately after years of progress it appears that factors such as location and parental income are once again rising in importance as predictors of university access.   This is part of Piketty’s thesis, namely that we appear to be reverting to the world of the 19th Century where those with inherited wealth and great income dominated society:

Google and Android

  • It’s already clear from Google announcements and the accompanying Nexus images that Lollipop represents a significant Android platform update with as many as 5000 new APIs.  In addition to the introduction of the all new Material Design look and feel, developers will need to address multiple user domains and changes to key frameworks covering energy management, notifications, camera, graphics and local connectivity.  Updated versions of key Google apps can now be examined to get a better understanding of how they will change for Lollipop:

“a new custom ROM ported from the Nexus 6 has shed some light on Lollipop in a more final form, complete with new Google apps, an updated Messenger app, the long-awaited Google Fit app and a handful of other surprises.”

  • Google Calendar looks like it will be updated to include inline maps and images:

“As soon as you log in to Inbox (with an email that ends in @gmail.com — no Google Apps support yet), Google starts to crawl all of your messages. It’s looking for a few things: similar types of emails, which it combines into “Bundles” with names like “Updates” and “Travel,” and bits of information that are obviously the important part of the message.”

  • Although Inbox appears to apply to @gmail.com accounts, there are some signs that GMail itself appears has been overhauled to integrate support for third party mail providers.  If that does turn out to be the case, it will represent another important Google ecosystem lock-in particularly for smaller Android OEMs who typically leverage the AOSP Email app.  Both GMail and Inbox will be part of GMS:

  • Google Fit seems to have landed:

“You can set daily goals for different activity types, and track this over time using built-in charts. Activity data can be tracked using the phone’s built-in sensors, or through an Android Wear device.”

  • And a new Material Design compliant Google Messenger app with threaded UX also looks to be in place:

“What you’re witnessing now may be Android’s graduation ceremony, marking its transformation from an interesting (though popular) experiment to a more polished platform for real consumer products.”

Android Lollipop Isn’t Kids Play: The OS Is All Grown Up Now

“Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s vice president of engineering for its Android mobile-operating system, is now also overseeing the engineering team behind Google’s Chrome operating system, which primarily powers personal computers, according to two people familiar with the matter.”

  • It’s not all a victory parade for Google this week though.  Their Q3 results suggest ad-driven growth is slowing and they will need to find an another major source of income.  Google Play seems one contender.

Smartphones

  • The NYT review of Samsung’s Note 4 highlights a number features that aid usability on the larger phablet form factor such as the side-key panel and stylus which is retained from previous versions.  They position the device as the only real competition for the iPhone6 Plus.

“a new report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners indicates that Amazon may have sold only a few thousand units of the phone thus far”

  • A recent book published in Finland called “Operaatio Elop” charts Nokia’s rise as well as its precipitous decline and fall or “Elopcalypse” as it’s sometimes referred.  The 2011 decision to switch to the unproven and incomplete Windows Phone as the Nokia’s sole smartphone platform proved calamitous for those involved.  Tens of thousands lost their jobs before Nokia’s once-mighty phone unit was sold to Microsoft who then promptly made thousands more redundant.   That failure was underlined this week when Microsoft announced they would remove all Nokia branding from Lumia less than one year after acquiring the right to use it:

“Elop’s biggest mistake was choosing Microsoft’s Windows Phone as the only platform for Nokia’s smartphones. In his “burning platform” memo, Elop compared Nokia to a man on a burning offshore oilrig, facing a fiery death or an uncertain leap into the frigid sea. He was right that business as usual meant certain death for Nokia; he was wrong to choose Microsoft as the company’s life raft.”

Apps and Services

  • Adobe have released a video showing off future features for its Surface tablet app suite.  Some of them look amazing including one which Wired picks up on where “you see paint being splattered from a smartphone onto a tablet and a circular vector drawing bending a line in real time.”  This ought to be natural territory for Adobe with their Photoshop heritage:

“natural interaction— things like touching, gesturing and using hardware tools like digital pens and brushes—opens up an entirely new way to create stuff. Adobe is betting that it will make the process more accessible to people who’ve maybe never considered themselves creative.”

  • Adobe are also making a lot of headway licensing their CQ5 web scale CMS which has grown in popularity through 2014 particularly with traditional businesses looking to generate multi-channel customer experiences using pre-existing legacy content.   The company now has a market cap well in excess of $30billion and looks well placed to build on it.

Adobe

  • MicroBlink’s PhotoMath app seems like a maths slacker’s dream and provides further evidence of the extent to which technology can disrupt traditional learning:

“Its newly unveiled PhotoMath for iOS and Windows Phone (Android is due in early 2015) uses your smartphone’s camera to scan math equations and not only solve them, but show the steps involved.”

PhotoMath on a Windows Phone

Asia

“The measurement of sales for Xiaomi in India seems to be in units per seconds, rather than units per quarter. By selling out so quickly, Xiaomi has succeeded in turning its phones into ‘a rare item that people desire.'”

  • Xiaomi’s success in India appears to be prompting the company to consider manufacturing its Indian Android phones there. However, as this IBTimes article points out, it will not be easy. India has no real smartphone component supply or machine tooling base since no-one has tried to manufacture modern smartphones there before.  Building the network required will take time and considerable coordination.  The subject of boosting manufacturing capacity is one that back in vogue in the West with many citing Germany as a role model.   The German ‘miracle’ though was built on the solid platform of the Mittelstand, a unique network of local specialist SMEs that provide a lot of the technical infrastructure required to support world-class manufacturing.
  • The first Android One handset from Micromax, the Canvas A1 is now shipping in India.  This TechInAsia review found it offered a solid rather than spectacular experience emphasising the closeness to the vanilla Google Android experience that will be common to all Android One products:

“One of the major highlights of the Canvas A1 is the stock Android experience. It runs Android 4.4.4 KitKat out of the box. The user experience is spiffy and refreshing – thanks to stock Android. No third-party customizations, ROMs, or frills on it. Amazon, Askme, Hike, and M!Live are the only pre-loaded third-party apps on this made-for-India device.”

Micromax-canvas-a1-review-01

Machine Learning, Big Data and Robots

  • Google’s self-driving car has been extensively tested and regularly fêted by the popular press but faces formidable real-world challenges and may never become a viable proposition.   Major barriers include parking, endowing the car with the general intelligence needed to deal with novel situations it will encounter every day and maintaining an detailed, accurate map of traffic lights, driveways and off-road trails.   It may end up in The “Museum of the Future That Never Was” alongside the Jetsons’ hover car:

“To be able to handle the everyday stresses and strains of the real driving world, the Google car will require a computer with a level of intelligence that machines won’t have for many years, if ever.”

The Google self-driving car maneuvers through the streets of Washington, DC May 14, 2012.

  • This Telegraph article explores the digital pioneers or “adventure technologists” who are pushing the boundary between man and machine way beyond today’s relatively conservative wearables.  The current focus is mainly on augmenting body function through (literally in many cases) integrated sensors.  Given the combination of lack of regulatory constraint and a broader push to take enhancement much further it appears “inevitable” that developments will go further yet.   There is a reference to integrated on-body AI or “so-called ‘cognitive’ or ‘neuromorphic’ computing systems designed to learn, associate and intuit just like a mammalian brain.”   Inevitably Kevin Warwick, Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity all get extensive mentions pushing the central techno-utopian progressivist mantra:

“Many transhumanists, particularly in Silicon Valley, where belief in the singularity has assumed the character of an eschatological religion, think that fusing with technology is our only hope of surviving the consequences of this great change.”

  • Related developments in the technology of electrical brain stimulation where weak electrical signals are used to alter brain neuron sensitivity are covered by CNN in a profile of Thync, a startup leading the way in this area.  Their work indicates that extensive personalisation will be necessary to adapt stimulation to different people.   Needless to say, it raises major concerns around ethics as well as equality of access:

In addition to tDCS [transcranial direct current simulation], it is using an emerging new technique called transcranial pulsed ultrasound, along with custom algorithms and “proprietary neurosignaling waveforms.””

  • The reviewed can now review their reviewers it seems.  Bilateral feedback is already a reality with Uber and presumably other review-oriented services in future.  Seems very much in tune with our big data led times.

Wearables and Internet of Things

“The apps that now work with beacons include the Apple Store app, which responds to the devices inside Apple’s physical stores. The app then offers in-store notifications that let you pick up online orders, check in for a tech support reservation or buy accessories from your phone.”

  • Bluesmart have launched an Indiegogo campaign for their “connected luggage” proposition.  It’s not entirely a new idea but one they appear to have combined with smartphone control into a neat looking product:

“Bluesmart is a small suitcase with a host of features that its makers believe frequent travelers can’t live without. Priced at $235 (or as low as $195 for early adopters), it’ll include proximity tracking to alert you if you walk away from your luggage, a TSA-approved lock that’s controlled by your smartphone and a built-in battery to charge your gadgets.”

  • An interesting interview with Paul Gray of DisplaySearch highlighting among other things how a lack of growth in the smartphone sector is helping drive OEM interest in wearables. He outlines his views on what OEMs can learn from traditional watch manufacturers including the need to support product diversity through personalisation and variants.  Gray also provides some interesting insight on what ubiquitous 4k video might mean for live event TV:

  • At the other end of the IoT spectrum, an inside view from Murthy Renduchintala, a Qualcomm EVP on the reasoning behind their acquisition of CSR, a multi billion dollar bet on Bluetooth.  He sees IoT as a “natural evolution of smartphone technology” Qualcomm already understand albeit one which will involve contending with a wide range of network variance.   References to mesh networking and sensors suggest he sees Bluetooth connectivity enabling the ‘capillaries’ of the Internet.
  • Goldman Sachs appear to see IoT as a big opportunity too with broad applicability across a wide range of key sectors with wearables the most immediate and obvious closely followed by connected cars and homes:

“At Goldman Sachs, we see numerous triggers turning the IoT from a futuristic buzzword to a reality. The cost of sensors, processing power, and bandwidth to connect devices has dropped low enough to spur widespread deployment. Innovative products like fitness trackers and Google’s Nest thermostats are demonstrating the potential for both consumers and enterprises. And corporate alliances are taking shape to set the standards needed to integrate the wide array of devices in a cohesive way.”

theinternetofthings2

  • Even Twitter seem to want in on IoT seemingly suggesting their “open” service might be able to disrupt Nest’s closed model:

“For example, a stream of Twitter data from a weather vane could be fed into an app that controls a smart heating system, telling it to adjust the temperature in the house according to the weather outside.”

Programming

“Five-year-olds will play abstract games and complete puzzles to familiarize themselves with the concept of algorithms without the complexity. By the time they hit 14, teachers will guide them on how to use two or more programming languages. All of this is compulsory. That makes the U.K. the first G20 nation to put computer science at the heart of its curriculum.”

  • The reason it makes economic sense to teach a generation of British kids about algorithms and data is to address a growing structural gap in the workforce.  According to the Bloomberg article “45 percent of business leaders at London’s Tech City said a shortage of skilled workers was their biggest challenge” with an alarming shortfall of 250k unfilled technical positions predicted for 2020.

  • It’s not clear how many of those unfilled positions require actual knowledge of coding.  If as this InfoQ article suggests a growing number of organisations practice FDD (Fear Driven Development), it may be prudent to ensure kids gain competency in soft skills like psychology to prepare them for the world of work.  InfoQ define FDD thus:

“a software development process that attempts to forestall mistakes during coding by moving at a snail’s pace, producing, double-checking, and re-triple-checking lots of paper artifacts, before producing any actual working software. In essence, being so afraid of making mistakes that you end up not producing anything at all.”

  • Both FDD and its close cousin WDD (Worry Driven Development) give rise to a number of organisational antipatterns which are likely be familiar to anyone working in a blame culture oriented environment.  Notably The Process Is The Deliverable whereby process competency is disproportionately prized “so you can be legitimate at your management position without understanding a single word of what the teams are doing“:

“At no time are you supposed to actually accomplish any real work. The primary goal is EffectiveWorrying, a state of enlightened inactivity.”

Work and Culture

  • The NYT on what they see as a lack of fashion image projected by Apple’s CEO, somewhat surprising given their aspirations expressed by Apple Watch.  They suggest he might want to “tuck in his shirt“:

“Unlike Mr. Jobs, whose look referenced a specific design language (Issey Miyake cool), Mr. Cook has a style that is more like the fashion of no fashion.  For a company that clearly wants to influence fashion, that is a confusing message to send.”

  • The fluidity of the MOOC landscape was discussed in this blog last week with Coursera’s pivot to provide tailored corporate material highlighted.  Underscoring that development, this HBR post distinguishes between activity that involves “academics designing courses that correspond with their own interests rather than the needs of the workforce, but now doing it online” and what it terms “online competency based education“. The latter represents the ultimate modularisation of learning adapted precisely for corporate needs – skills based MicroLearning if you will.   It’s the kind of pivot that big data MOOC startup Team Leada seem to have undertaken this week too.
  • Bill Gates has written a LinkedIn post calling for crazy ideas as part of championing what he terms “catalytic philanthropy” whereby the a VC style model is applied to ideas that can save lives.  He argues that the approach is needed because of the dysfunctional nature of current medical research funding:

Why is there so much more research done on baldness than on malaria? Because rich people go bald, and they don’t die of malaria.

  • Channelling the inequality theme, this BBC article on the Silicon Valley bubble suggests is is largely being driven by the escalating costs of hiring superstar talent: “what’s driving the spending is the fierce and growing competition between the biggest start-ups.
  • Sticking with the BBC for the last link, a double dose of Evan Davis first on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line exploring the recent phenomenon of flash sales used so effectively by Xiaomi as well as a growing number of luxury brands.   And then in an extraordinary Newsnight interview with Russell Brand, the self-styled people’s revolutionary.  Neither came out particularly well with Brand frequently drowning out Davis with an unedifying combination of anti-capitalist soundbites and faux-naif conspiracy theory.  Rising inequality is a major issue of our times but little in the way of practical solution seems to emanate from Brand: