What data doesn’t understand

It’s true data, and our new found ability to sift through large volumes of it, has come with many benefits: fraud detection, genomics, natural language processing to name a few. But, data doesn’t get humanity. It’s just a reflector, not the director. As a tool it has certain biasses built into it. One of which is its ability to take the wide, and make it narrow. It’s also great at finding correlation between the disparate. You know data what it isn’t good at? Detecting boredom.

We humans are weird beings and right at the point when data might tell us something is heading a certain way, we about face, and go in the exact opposite direction, often quicker than anyone expects. Probably because we love variety, nuance and something a little different.

It turns out that computers don’t actually understand – they calculate. The word computer itself used to be a job title of people who literally added things up. The large majority of algorithms we employ calculate the probability of something. That probability calculation will be based on the stack of code it feeds from. And the larger that stack, the deeper and more hidden the bias will be inside it. What this means for us, is that when we change our mind, on a whim, ‘the system’ won’t see it coming.

The stimulus we get as humans comes from the real and messy world we we live in. So much of which still sits outside of the data economy, even with all the tracking we do these days. So what does this mean for us? It means that unexpected change is inevitable, and the data wont tells us it’s coming. We need to look for it ourselves and measure it from personal human experience. Variety is one of the great human desires, and just when something is peaking in popularity, we decide to leave the building for no real reason other than the fact we are human.

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How to predict the future

Predicting the future seems like an impossible task, but there is a trick to it. It’s less about guessing what’s next, and more about piecing together what’s already here. A veritable mash up of tools, behaviour and incentives.  Sure, there will always be unexpected turns in events – economic externalities, social backlash and political events which we’ll never predict. But, the vast majority of the time, what is about to occur in business or an industry is there to be seen, and acted upon a long time before it happens at scale. The way I do it is by observing three things in particular.

Anthropology: This is what doesn’t change. Or that which changes very slowly – human behaviour. We are running a very old piece of software as humans – a 400,000 year old code, otherwise known as our DNA. By studying our human proclivities we can observe patterns which demonstrate what we value and how we’re likely to behave in a given set of circumstances. We need to study behaviour, everywhere we go. Paying attention pays dividends.

Technology: This is what does change. The tools we use to get things done, and they are in a constant state of flux. If the barriers to entry are lower enough to switch to a better, more efficient and enjoyable method of getting anything done – we will. The trick, is that very often the tool is available a long time before it is widely distributed. It first must be affordable and available geographically before we can embrace it. When we study what’s next in technology it’s easy to see where shifts are likely to occur because most emerging technologies follow price/ performance ratios which are very predictable. This happens both at the industrial and consumer level. Importantly, the eventual adoption of a new technology can’t be based on utility alone, it must also be socially acceptable to our species. Google Glass comes to mind as an example of something we simply didn’t like. Likewise, large corporations often find it difficult to embrace new technology for weirdly social reasons. Because new technology ignores both the financial and emotional investment a company may have made in now outdated infrastructure. Legacy firms often get disrupted because they fall in love with their tools and systems, instead of the problem they are meant to be solving for people. Read here – successful humans don’t like change.

Economics: This is what ties to the above two elements together. A simple way to define economics is the study of incentives. Wider incentives are what shapes our behaviour, and in turn influences the way money flows around people and the systems we live inside. The question we need to ask here, is will this technology facilitate the way people behave and provide a big enough incentive for them (Corporations and Consumers) to move to this new way of getting things done. If so, how will it change the way money, things and people move around.

So, when it comes to thinking about tomorrow, start by thinking about what’s already here today.

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Why E-Sports might just help your career

“Hey kids, get out inside out of that fresh air, stop exercising and start playing some video games why don’t you!” – Said no parent ever, maybe they should?

On my weekly radio spot this week I spoke about video games, or E-sports as it’s known. I proposed that gaming is a valid use of kids spare time, and could even help them in later life and their careers. My mum, with good intentions hated my going to the ‘dodgy’ video arcade, and later despised the time I spent gaming on my TRS-80 (yes my dude was a block, but I have a good imagination). But, it did lead me to a lifetime of interest in technology, and now that’s become a career. Occasionally we need to open our minds enough so that we can reframe an outdated perception. And maybe even back it up with some facts, so here’s a few about the E-Sports industry worth considering:

Economics: Video game sales (think hardware and software) is more than twice the size of the movie industry world wide. it will near $130 billion in 2018. The Pro E-Sports industry is estimated to be $1.5 billion this year with over $100 million in prize money, and has over 385 million annual viewers. Yes – people watching people play video games – both on line and live. In fact, the biggest ever crowd at a video game tournament was 52,000 people in a stadium in Germany.

Careers: There is currently 13,000+ professional E-Sports players. While the average annual pay packet is relatively small at $4500 a year, the top player earnings are right up there with with more traditional sports. Kuro Takhasomi took home a handy $3.5m last year and more than 200 players earned more the $100,000 for playing ‘games’.

Skills: Like any sport, there’s a natural hierarchy and not all hopefuls will make it to the elite level. Though, there is something different about E-Sports – they prepare us for the emerging world in ways few traditional sports can. Studies show they are good for rapid problem solving, brain speed, memory, algorithm awareness and management and even fine motor skills. They’ve been used to train soldiers, pilots, surgeons and it’s fair to assume their use in pre-career simulations, will continue and even extend through the use of VR and AR.

In any case, it does seem that the correlation between gamers and a desire to learn the underpinning technology is high. Surely this gives gamers an advantage in future proof technological career paths.

Social: When I mention to people I regard E-Sports as a ‘real sport’ it is often met with scepticism, and even ridicule. At which time I often remind people how ridiculous grown ups chasing dead animals filled with air to kick them through big white sticks is. All games are silly by definition, and they often take generations on the fringe before they enter mainstream culture. But after a couple of generations of computer games, I feel we are on the precipice of that shift right now. The spectator side of the industry is real, and will have wider career and industry opportunities than many people imagine.

So is it a sport? Well that depends on how you view things. Here’s one definition of Sport: “An activity involving physical exertion or skill in which an individual or team compete against one another or for others entertainment.” It fits as far as I can tell. And if you’re worried it will make society more obese than it already is, don’t fret too much. It’s only a matter of time before these games involve players in haptic suits running around on fields shooting up people somewhere on the other side of the globe.

Click here to here me discuss Gaming on 3Aw with Tom Elliot. And be sure to tune in at 4.30pm every Monday for your Future Fix.

Go play, Steve. 

Why we need to rebuild the internet

In life and in business I believe in a few guiding principles. Two I like in particular are very common across cultures:

  1. Create more value than you extract.
  2. Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.

I imagine everyone reading this would agree. Now let’s consider this juxtaposition:

What a CEO says: “We want to build a more open and connected society”

What a CEO does: Buy the 4 houses surrounding his in order to protect his own privacy.

Someone who sells privacy for a living, often without permission and tricks his customers into giving up more than they understand, wants to protect his own. The fact that I don’t need to mention the person’s name is telling. Well, you might say it’s not a fair comparison between how someone behaves in their digital and offline lives. Fair call, but consider the fact that up until last week the person in question could delete private messages from another person’s private inbox, after the messages had been sent to and received by the other party. A privacy feature he wasn’t generous enough to give to his users. Oh, by the way, I can think of another industry where ‘dealers’ call their customers ‘users’. We both get our minds messed with in ways we can’t understand and end up addicted and worse off.

It’s a well known technological trope that data is the new gold, an entirely new class of asset. And that’s where the problem lies. This asset class is so new, few people understand it. We could liken this to the age of discovery when imperialists took control of abundant natural resources, resources which were viewed by the conquered as something no one could really own or control.

The net result is that the greatest wealth creation event in the history of humanity. The Internet has resulted in a massive centralisation and control, and spawned the era of the data imperialist. Even those who understood the power of data have far less chance of leveraging it on their own, because of the dramatic impact of network effects, and zero cost digital transfers both have in creating a winner takes all economy. To quantify: the net worth of the 4 founders of the top 3 technology companies since the dot com era have a collective net worth of $281 billion dollars as of today.

The internet needs saving.

What started out in all probability as altruism – the dream of a free web funded by advertising, has become a nightmare panopticon and it’s time we pushed back. Hard.

Technology stalwart and all round good guy Jaron Lanier says we can no longer call these companies Social Networks, but ‘Behaviour Modification Empires’. Services which use algorithms to make us stay longer by giving us sugar hits of fear, jealously and other powerful negative emotions. Lanier also says that we can’t have a society where if two people want to communicate, it can only happen if it is financed by a 3rd party or corporation selling advertising. It’s worth investing 15 minutes of your time to hear him talk about it here.

But I will add a little more to his talk… the missing piece.  Personally, I hope Facebook isn’t fixed. It’s only when something stays broken that we get a chance to put something better in its place. For me that would be a social network that no one owns or controls – something funded by the people using it, without a financial corporate imperative shaping our most valued human asset – our interactions.

We need each other, Steve.

Why the book is always better than the movie

This week one of my favourite fiction books ever got released as a movie – Ready Player One. While I haven’t seen it yet, I already know the book was better. It always is.

“The movie was better” – said no one ever.

If you’ve ever read a book that got turned into a movie, you know this is true. But why?

The movie steals away our imagination. We always overlay a story with our own personal experience. Our own layer of what something should look and feel like. When we hand this over to someone else, such as a movie director, much of what we saw turns out different. It’s an inevitable reality of all creative interpretations. We always prefer our imagined version better, as we should.

This gets interesting given much of what we learn today is through video. We are now far more likely to watch a video to learn about something, than to read about it. Even less likely to read it off screen.

Reading ‘the book’ however, gives us a sense of depth and personal interpretation which just isn’t possible with audio visual. Our brains just don’t have to work as hard to paint a picture of what is, and what could be when it is delivered in full form. Ironically, the benefit of new cheap educational technology delivering quick video on anything, makes the book more valuable than ever. Part of the benefit of the slow version is that it demands we stay inside the idea longer. Reading a book offline, requires us to to change gears mentally and do more than a shallow scan. We have longer to postulate the ideas being presented, more time for our own experiences to mash up and interpret the subject at hand. While video can do that, I don’t think it can do it as well. Maybe there’s now a case for slow ideas, just like there was for slow food?

In a world where most people prefer fast and shallow, the big opportunity has opened up for those prepared to stay longer, explore a little deeper and do the work.

Steve. 

Here comes the Lab Burger

In 2013 Dr Mark Post made the world’s first lab burger. It came in at a cost of $330,000.

Now this isn’t wasn’t some kind of meat substitute, but actual meat, grown from cell cultures, extracted from the animal itself. The way it is done is by harmless extraction of stem cells muscle tissue from the ‘source animal’. They then take the sample, place a special gel around it, from which myotubes are grown to look and taste exactly like the meat – because it ‘is’ the meat. Scientists have coined the term ‘clean meat’ to describe it, though in classic form, the incumbent cattle industry are lobbying for the term meat to be disallowed to describe it.

Since that time the cost of production of ‘lab meat’ has declined significantly. Today it costs around $6000 for a quarter pound of beef and by 202o, it is estimated that the cost of a meat patty will be around $10 each – not far off what people pay for gourmet burgers these days. Eventually lab grown meat will be cheaper than any farm can produce. With hundreds of millions being invested in the technology by the likes of Bill Gates, it may be sooner than we think.

This isn’t just a quirk of technology, a novel form of food production, it has important environmental considerations we should all be very pleased with. Let’s consider the facts:

  • This process is possible with any type of meat
  • It involves no animal cruelty
  • Production uses 80% less water
  • It has 96% less greenhouse emissions

This last bit is what matters most, because surprisingly, livestock contributes to more greenhouse emissions than cars, trucks and planes combined according to the Scientific American. What we eat has a bigger impact on the environment than what we drive. So if you’re a Hummer Driving vegetarian, you can now be forgiven!

Now before you claim that such meat sounds disgusting, it’s worth remembering that at the dawn of the agricultural revolution farm grown meat was once considered disgusting. How could animals we farm, be as good as meat we catch? In any case I’m sure a trip down to your local abattoir will give you a new light on what is and isn’t, disgusting. Now, while I’m the furthest thing from being a vegetarian, I’ll put my hand up high for any use of technology which improve the world – and lab meat is high on my list. A world where we can create ‘nature identical food‘ and reduce our environmental impact, is something we should collectively encourage. And if you think you wouldn’t eat such a thing, ask yourself if you really know what you’re eating now?

I recently discussed the topic on radio, which freaked some people out. Click here to listen.

We need each other,
Steve. 

What is TATE? A mega growth industry

After a keynote speech, I was asked again today what will happen to all the people who will lose their jobs due to Automation and Artificial Intelligence. The example cited was people who drive for a living. While I’ve written about this before, as well as the shift off farms to the cities in the industrial dawn, this time I thought it might valuable to propose an entirely new economy – The Autonomous Transport Economy or TATE.

TATE will allow a set of entirely new business models, consumer products and employment created by the advent of driverless vehicles and drones. Before we do that, let’s explore the last time something like this happened, something we all experience daily: The Night Time Economy.

A little over a hundred years ago there was no night time economy. Artificial light used to be inordinately expensive, unobtainable to many, smelly and dangerous. Candles, kerosine lamps, open fires and gas lanterns that did provide light weren’t nearly as convenient as the electric light we now take for granted. When wood was the main source of light, it took 60 hours of work to generate the equivalent lumens of a modern light bulb shining for a measly 54 minutes. ‘Light’, which was once too expensive to use, is now too cheap to notice. The significance of cheap electricity is profound. Electricity invented the 24 hour economy. Before that our productive life, and economy, was mostly restricted to daylight hours. Think of everything you now do at night, and you’ll get a perspective of what the ‘night time economy’ has generated – cinemas, bars, nightclubs, night markets, restaurants and 24 hour production. In the home, we have television, radio, entertainment, gaming, white goods and pretty much everything that happens when the lights go down. And yes, it would’ve been difficult to predict the industries and jobs that inevitably arrived to support this entirely new economy. As it is difficult now to predict The Autonomous Transport Economy (TATE).

The possibility for economic change, and therefore growth driven by TATE, is bigger than everyone imagines. A few simple ideas for stimulus display how much opportunity lies before us to create tomorrow’s jobs. The best way to predict the future by asking a few simple questions:

What will happen to Carparks? How will we reconfigure the real estate of high rise and underground carparks. What will we use these concrete caves for? Day time popup shops and night time charging stations? Places for Autonomous cars to sleep and get cleaned?

What will happen to the ground space in cities allocated to car parking – where our cars have a little rest? This averages 30% in large cities. Will we green them, make pedestrian friendly or build on them?

We can expect real estate prices and populations in Exurbs (places of great beauty within 2 hours of a major city) to increase as people decide to live further afield, work remotely and travel to the city autonomously for their meetings or 2 office days per week.

Offices will shrink, as large companies realise costs for running a Corporate Taj Mahal in a city can be reduced re-assessing the need for expensive real estate and the impact on a lengthy commute for staff. As they realise team members only need to be in the same room a few days a week and not five, the corporate office will fragment into smaller distributed work places. A large corporate might have satellite offices or share co-working spaces around the state, knowing of course that the autonomous vehicles will zip workers to the city at 200km per hour when meetings are needed.

These new driverless vehicles will be reconfigured very differently to current day cars. Some will be fitted out as fully connected rolling offices, and they’ll look more like a business class cabin on a plane than seats do today (which are really just stage coaches with a motor instead of a horse!).

We can expect cars to be redesigned and new versions of cars to be invented. Just like we invented buses and pick up trucks, we’ll invent Sleeper Vehicles. These will be designed for longer trips (Overnighters), or for those requiring a bit of luxury while in transit. People will own them, some will order on demand. They’ll look more like a bedroom or lounge room than a transport device.

E-commerce arrived with the web, and now we can expect R-commerce or Rolling Commerce. It’s an entirely new type of buying we’ll do which is time- and geographically-specific, based on where we are and where we are going. It will claim some of the time we used to allocate to drving.

As a result, industries will pop up to support R-commerce, including RX designers (Rolling Experience) and build strategies around the money which is expended in vehicles. It will become a commercial measure among retail, ecommerce and other documented economic indicators.

Shopping centres will become distribution hubs, where the giant carparks we currently have are converted into autonomous retail pick up up bays by day and electric recharging stations and cleaning zones by night.

Why just sit and relaxing in the car on the way? Why not order an a GymCar with built in exercise machines and do some rowing or weight lifting on the way to the city?

With the worry of crashing your gone, we’ll still need Hacking Insurance. While it will be rare, it’s already proven to be possible and hacking will generally become a major pivot for the insurance industry in many product arenas. The fear of cars being hacked will recruit and educate consumers to insure every digital product they own against hacking.

We can expect cars to be tracked thorough using blockchain technology. One owner who only drove it on Sunday? We’ll know everywhere the car has been, done and had done to it. Even our payments for utilising cloud cars will be built on this tech sooner than we think.

Of course, cars will use more data than houses. If we choose to own one, there’s a good chance we’ll send it out to work when we are not using it. It’ll need data for entertainment, commerce, deliveries, and of course driving itself. Expect data packages to become a major selling point with cars. Cars sold in regional areas might just come with satellite data access. (Powered by SpaceX? Maybe they’ll provide the cloud that powers transport data?)

Roads will need to be redesigned to cope with autonomous transport. Concrete, steal and meta-strcuture will need to be built by hand and machine creating significant employment. We’ll first see signs on the road which say “You are now entering an autonomous vehicle zone.” Eventually, human driving will be outlawed as new laws redefine how we move.

All this excites me – I see new industries, employment and opportunities to create a greener, safer more fluid world – most of which we are yet to imagine.  All we really need is the willingness to move towards our inevitable future.

Go build it – Steve.