The Jobs Problem?

 

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The recent furor over horrible (if not actually criminal) behavior at Uber has led me to wandering about the culture of our industry…in short is tech turning nasty? I’ve been in tech in one form or another for most of my career. On the whole most the tech people in it fit nicely into the stereotype of socially awkward but nice weirdos.  Many of the management were a little less likable but still not horrible by any means. Although as an industry we have been traditionally a pretty homogeneous bunch in recent years we have seen some very nice growth in both ethnic and gender diversity….but there’s a “but” here.

Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Steve Jobs. He was our Da Vinci and his pointless entirely avoidable death robbed us of several decades of innovation.  However pretty much anyone who met him (including myself) would testify that he was at best rude and prickly…at worse a total A-hole. Just after his death a few years back the fabulously well written biography by Walter Isaacson revealed just how gratuitously rude, arrogant  and unpleasant Jobs routinely was. To a person everyone in our industry has read that book….many times in some cases.  It’s a new kind of tech bible and it clearly teaches that nice guys finish last. I haven’t met that meant real A-holes in our industry…but the one thing that they all had in common was their love of quoting Jobs on almost every topic. It’s weird and disturbing and growing….and I hate it.

Quietly Understated

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For all its crazy tourism, I kind of like Times Square. Back when I used to visit Manhattan every other week, I’d always stay at the Marriott Marquise and pick up half price theater tickets at the Times Square discounted tickets booth. Were I to do that next week, I’d either be inside or watching the world’s largest and most expensive video ad. It completely wraps the marquise, is the size of a football field and costs $2.5 million a month to rent. Google will be the first customer. No doubt we will be treated to the massive version of the cute ads we have come to know (not love) from Google. If that’s all we get that will be a shame. I used to visit the Comcast tower in Philadelphia quite often and the lobby area of that building is simply breathtaking. They installed a massive (and massively expensive) video wall which was about an inch thick and two stories high all around the interior of their enormous lobby. They didn’t run Comcast commercials rather than ran spectacular video sequences like sun rise from outer space, 20′s style biplane dancing acts or a trip over Niagara Falls. It was amazing and spectacular, I used to arrive early for meetings just to watch the show.

With a quarter of a million pedestrians passing the billboard and the kind of world-wide exposure that generates this is the perfect opportunity for Google to literally wow the world….we will see if they take that chance with both hands.

 

Image Recognition Getting Real

 

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Humans are visual…very visual. at any one time something close to 65% of our brain run time activity is taken up with image processing. We also inherently look for patterns…it’s why we see castles in the clouds and Jesus on toast. Recognizing and responding to images is so second nature it’s easy to assume that huge powerful computers should be able to do the same thing…not so.

Although images have been a huge part of the web since day one the ability to recognize and label an image has been minimal at best. There are billions of images on line and many (most?) aren’t identified well or at all. I remember well back in the early days of image search at FAST we would get all kinds of complaints from users for delivering adult content in search results which wasn’t flagged as “adult.” What was happening in many cases was that adult sites would inadequately protect their content and our indexer would just breeze past and index all their images then make them available for free. The images were typically names something like TS1234, TS1235, TS1236 etc. Not only were there no captions to indicate their content our algorithms were rarely able to detect that they were adult programmaticly which meant we had to fall back on spot checks by humans. If you think you have a horrible job it’s nothing compared to that task.

That was over a decade ago and only now are we seeing real progress in this area. Google has announced an artificial intelligence program which can read an image and figure out what it’s of pretty much as well as a person could. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty impressive and can scan and categorize content at a massively faster rate than human. They achieve this pretty impressive feat through neural net technology which mimics the ways that brains think.  This kind of ability is particularity interesting for content areas like Flickr or Instagram where useful captions are the exception rather than the rule. Once it works on images it’s only a short hop to doing the same for video.

Of course the incentive here is if Google can index content and figure out what it is on its own it can make that content readily available to searchers, improving search results and increasing the volume of target-able data it can stack ads against…very cool.

Google Glass on Its Way Out?

 

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After two years of popping up at high-profile events sporting Google Glass, the gadget that transforms eyeglasses into spy-movie worthy technology, Google co-founder Sergey Brin sauntered bare-faced into a Silicon Valley red-carpet event on Sunday.

The Googler, who heads up the top-secret lab which developed Glass, left his pair in the car. But he has hardly given up on the product. Brin’s timing was not the best, coming as many developers and early Glass users are losing interest in the much-hyped, $1500 test version of the product: a camera, processor and stamp-sized computer screen mounted to the edge of eyeglass frames. Google itself has pushed back the Glass roll out to the mass market.

While Glass may find some specialized, even lucrative, uses in the workplace, its prospects of becoming a consumer hit in the near future are slim, many developers are saying. Plenty of larger developers remain with Glass. The nearly 100 apps on the official web site include Facebook and OpenTable, although one major player recently defected: Twitter. Also, several key Google employees instrumental to developing Glass have left the company in the last six months, including lead developer Babak Parviz, electrical engineering chief Adrian Wong, and Ossama Alami, director of developer relations.

A Glass funding conglomerate created by Google Ventures and two of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capitalists, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Andreessen Horowitz, quietly deleted its website, routing users to the main Glass site.

Google insists it is committed to Glass, with hundreds of engineers and executives working on it, as well as new fashionista boss Ivy Ross, a former Calvin Klein executive. Tens of thousands use Glass in the pilot consumer program. Glass and wearable devices overall amount to a new technology, as smartphones once were, that will likely take time to evolve into a product that clicks with consumers.

Why do you believe that Google’s Glass hasn’t been adopted widely? Do you believe that there is a large market for these wearable technologies that could become the next emerging technology such as smart phones?

The Impact of Emerging Technologies on Geopolitics

 

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In the not-so-distant future, resources might no longer be closely linked to territories, it might be possible to visualize another person’s thoughts and predict the actions and decisions of world leaders before they act. What would this mean for our geopolitical landscape? Four main questions have emerged from participants’ of the World Economic Forum’s discussions:

Will technology be the future gold?

Resources have always been a key driver of geopolitical relations. Some emerging technologies have potential to provoke the deterritorialization of resources and thereby make most resources irrelevant as a source of geopolitical power. For example, through biosynthetic processes, many resources that are considered scarce today might be produced synthetically anywhere in the world tomorrow. Access to new technologies, along with their development and regulation, might become the new drivers of geopolitical leverage. The gap between developed and developing countries might increase; alternatively, boundaries might be completely redrawn along early adopters of technology, fast followers and those who lag behind. These differences in outcome might depend on regulation as much as on innovative capacity. What will be the most coveted resources of tomorrow and how will they reshuffle geopolitical relations? Which technologies will be scarce and most desired and which will be universally accessible? Will speed of adoption of technology translate into power gains or put citizens at unprecedented risk?

Will cultures be transcended through technology?

Technological advancement will continue to make communication an easier and richer experience. Technology will not only allow us to be constantly in contact in an increasingly realistic manner, it will also soon enhance communication beyond what traditional face-to-face interaction could ever allow. These developments might enable us to overcome most of the current barriers to inter-cultural dialogue, such as language and perception differences. Will we strive to preserve our cultural differences or will we allow for cultural convergence? Will cultures still matter? Will we develop a new globalized concept of diversity?

What about political representation?

Technology has the potential to redefine the relationships between civil society, government and business. For example, greater civil participation might be achieved through e-democracy developments. Elected officials could be held more accountable through instant dissemination of information or through the visualization of thoughts, ultimately allowing for more representative governance. This might lead to more efficient or to more deliberative decision-making processes. On the other hand, participation through technology could also lead to more inequality as only those parts of society who have access to technology might be represented. Government services may be partly automated and software might replace some tasks of politicians as we know them today. Who – or what – will we allow to control the algorithms that would have so much influence over our lives? Will technologically induced complexity and individual empowerment lead to diffusion of power or to total state control? Will the speed of innovation empower authoritarian as well as small countries while threatening big democracies?

Will we stop talking?

Communication will be increasingly enhanced through live speech conversion technology, augmented reality and, potentially, the visualization of emotions. Technology might therefore significantly increase the level of predictability and understanding between diplomats – making dialogue and negotiation smoother than ever – which could ultimately lead to a qualitative progress in conflict resolution. Enhanced communication technologies could however also make traditional international diplomacy irrelevant as all necessary information could be obtained without having to engage in an exchange with our peers. Emerging technologies are also impacting the military sector; more anonymous and efficient battles or more invasive attacks, such as hacking enhanced human bodies could be the result. Thus, a duality of technological impact could disrupt and redefine the balance between hard and soft power, which in turn would shape the conduct of international relations and the importance of diplomacy. If transnational challenges continue to have a predominant role in inter-state relations how will we use technology to solve conflicts? Will dialogue become more effective or obsolete? Will diplomats choose communication and brain-computer interface technologies to improve communication or will these technologies be applied upon them without their knowledge?

Moffett Federal Airfield Receives a New Tenant

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NASA announced yesterday that it is renting the historic Moffett Federal Airfield, a 1,000-acre air base located 4 miles from Google’s headquarters, to Google’s Planetary Ventures subsidiary. Google likes to call its most ambitious projects “moon shots.” Now, with the company’s latest real estate expansion, it is leasing land from an agency that one could say knows a few things on that topic.

According to the announcement, Google is planning to use the site for space exploration, aviation, robotics and other emerging technologies. Google agreed to pay $1.16 billion over 60 years for the space and promised to renovate and restore historical zeppelin hangars on the premises.

The move further demonstrates Google’s ever-increasing commitment to projects outside of its main business and money-maker: search and advertising. Its list of ambitious projects is long, some of which are run by its Google X research division. Among them are efforts to create 3D sight technology, contact lenses for diabetes patients and research efforts with the goal of lengthening an average person’s life. The company has also worked on robotics, balloons to beam Internet connections across the globe and driverless cars.

Google carries the distinction of being one of the most prolific researchers among Silicon Valley’s largest companies. Most of its peers, such as Facebook, have focused on various ways to expand their business models both at home and abroad. Google, meanwhile, has sought some of the wackiest tech ideas to date.

The deal is also just the latest of Google’s land grabs in the Bay Area. The company in October cemented two large real estate deals in Sunnyvale and Redwood City, Calif. The deals made Google’s Silicon Valley turf larger than 2 million square feet, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Moffett Federal Airfield was built in the 1930s as part of the surrounding Moffett Field naval base. The field is also home to the Ames Research Center, and once was a location for NASA’s famed “Space Camp” for kids. The deal, first announced in February but cemented on Thursday, will save NASA $6.3 million a year in maintenance and operation costs.

Net Neutrality Fights Back

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It’s really hard to make net neutrality interesting or entertaining. The cable companies have been banking on nobody watching or caring about the topic and have been whittling away at the rules around this topic for a while. The cable guys would like to be able to charge heavy users like Netflix more for being heavy users and throttle them back if they don’t pay. This would effectively create an internet slow lane where the only people enjoying decent speeds would be the ones paying the premium for greater speed. That’s already true for end users but would be true for publishers also if net neutrality goes away. The FCC has been prevaricating on the topic for many years with various rules and regulations being attacked in various courts by cable companies.

I was interested to see the president speak about this today, he essentially came out strongly for net neutrality and suggested that we solve this by defining internet providers utilities like power or water. That would require that providers treat all users alike a concept which has already triggered some significant drops in the stock prices of several cable companies. What’s frustrating to me about this is that the president is only just now addressing this issue.  The FCC is essentially appointed by the white house and the president has had six years to appoint the right people to make this a reality through the FCC. Now, having suffered horrible losses at the midterms the president has decided to attempt to legislate the internet providers into utilities. Given the massive financial lobbying power the cable giants can bring to bear on the topic does it seem likely that the president will be able to get that kind of legislation passed?  it feels like the kind of thing the right wing-nuts would resist as ‘big government.’ The time to push this issue would have been during his first term, now as the lame ducks come home to roost I’m less optimistic that this will get done.

The Vision Thing

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Companies have mission statements…they used to be widely mocked as marketing nonsense but they have become pervasive. For as long as I can remember Google’s has been to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” their unofficial mission statement has always been “don’t be evil.”  Many would argue that they have done a pretty good job of delivering against their official version and at least recently a much less great job of delivering against their informal one. In any event Google has changed as it has grown and it now does a great deal more than just organize the world’s data…and that’s apparently leading to some concerns in the Google-Plex.  In a recent interview King Larry himself admitted that the company had outgrown its mission statement and was pondering what to do about that. He didn’t have any immediate suggestion as it’s clearly a tough question.

At the heart of the issue is the question “What does Google do?” The short answer is “lots” and probably “too much”.  Having organized the worlds data then found ways to turn it into the most powerful new advertising vehicle since the invention of the TV it has amassed a war chest so large that it has the resources to try almost anything…and they have.  They are in email, data infrastructure, social media and even medicine to name but a few areas. They power a significant majority of the world’s mobile devices with Android and have many projects with lofty (some argue crazy goals) like delivering Wi-Fi to the third world by high altitude balloon which cost billions with no measurable revenue attached as yet.

Despite the extraordinary range of projects they are involved with the vast majority of their revenue comes from their dominance in search.  Love them or hate them the majority of online users in the western world navigate the web through their products. It’s a great place to be in…but it’s not without problems which I noted in this blog a week or so back.  So it’s hardly surprising that the powers that be are struggling with a message which covers all the pies they currently have fingers in. Coming up with a mission that covers autism research, self driving cars and online advertising is a tall perhaps impossible order.

Russia…Really?!

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As a sixties baby growing up in London the Russians represented real and impending destruction…indeed when Regan assumed power we were reasonably sure it all be over and sooner rather than later. As the USSR collapsed Russia regressed to something close to its peasant roots until Czar Putin reestablished the monarchy.  Nowadays, Russia is a hot bed of tech innovation and in my industry, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort fending off Russian hackers and bots. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Russians and in the vast majority of cases they have been charming  educated folk…a little crazy in some cases but still.

All of this makes me wonder why on earth a good percentage of the Russian population is made up by apparently rabidly homophobic monsters.  Granted there are still an extraordinarily large number of states in the US were you can be fired for simply being gay…so we shouldn’t be too smug…but a good majority of Americans almost certainly wouldn’t join in beating a gay person to death on the street…or film it or post it online.  If that happened it’s likely that the police would get involved and (who knows) the perpetrators would likely be prosecuted.  Not so in Russia. There it’s common place for people to suffer outrageous assaults, even murder, simply for being gay. A climate of intolerance is encourage even codified by the government.

The most recent manifestation of this lunacy comes to us from St Petersburg where a monument to Steve Jobs (in the form of a giant cell phone) has supposedly been taken down by the company which erected it simply because Tim Cook recently came out as gay.

If this is true (and there may be some uncertainty around the timing) it’s as silly as it is sad. It may be especially ironic because Russians (who can afford them) simply love all things Apple.  A much more sincere idiotic reaction might be for Russians to stage iPad burnings where their beloved status symbols would be ritually incinerated…but that’s never going to happen.  Meantime I go out of my way not to buy anything made in Russia.  Granted that’s a reasonably futile gesture as most of what we buy from Russia is in the form of oil and raw materials and it’s hard to tell whether the gas you are putting in your tank is supporting oppression…but the thought is there.

The Irony of Apple Taking Some of the Surface Pro’s Thunder

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If there is one thing that none of the world’s major tech brands would knowingly gun for, it is the same kind of non-success the Microsoft Surface tablets have met with. We are a full three rounds into the life of the Redmond hybrid tablet-type things and yet the world’s biggest consumer communities are still not entirely warming to the idea.

Some have blamed high prices, while others would say that replacing laptops with powerful tablet PCs doesn’t seem like the most logical thing to do. However, it seems that the Surface Pro’s market share pie is one that Apple would love a piece of.

Over the weekend, the tech press has been developing reports that Apple’s iPad Pro is a rumor that has substance. Headlines have tipped for a device with a screen measuring in at just over 12-inches and with a specially built keyboard case not much unlike to that of the Microsoft Surface Pro. Also, the primary target audiences of the iPad Pro are said to be corporate and educational clients, which again is pretty much the same as the Surface Pro.

Apple’s largest ever tablet will feature the highest specs in an iPad to date, a modified version of the brand’s OS X desktop system and generally all the bells and whistles you’d expect with a solid laptop…again, right on par with the Surface Pro.

However, what’s entirely unlikely to materialize with the iPad Pro is direct USB device support or any kind of expandable storage, which are of course largely ruled out of the picture for any standard iDevice. Should this be the case, it will be interesting to see how corporate crowds warm up to the iPad Pro, which even with a generous amount of storage space will still be somewhat stunted without removable storage media.

There’s really no denying the irony of the whole thing – the very thought of Apple trying to beat Microsoft at its own Surface game would have been quite laughable at one point. Still, there’s a clear and present gap in the iDevice market for something bigger and better than the iPad though ideally cheaper than the MacBook Pro – a gap the iPad Pro could stand to fill quite nicely.

Of course right now it’s all speculation for the time being as Apple is yet to utter a word on the subject. However, it will be interesting to see how Apple looks to take over a market that it seems to have a need to fill.