Chris Anderson

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When it comes to technology, promises often sound like threats. 

In a very smart Edge piece, Chris Anderson, the former Wired EIC who’s now CEO of 3DRobotics, holds forth on closed-loop systems, which allow for processes to be monitored, measured and corrected–even self-corrected. As every object becomes “smart,” they can collect information about themselves, their users and their surroundings. In many ways, these feedback loops will be a boon, allowing (potentially) for smoother maintenance, a better use of resources and a cleaner environment. But the new arrangement won’t all be good.

The question Anderson posed which I used as the headline makes it sound like we’ll be able to control where such technology snakes, but I don’t think that’s true. It won’t get out of hand in a sci-fi thriller sense but in very quiet, almost imperceptible ways. There will hardly be a hum. 

At any rate, Anderson’s story of how he built a drone company from scratch, first with the help of his children and then a 19-year-old kid with no college background from Tijuana, is amazing and a great lesson in globalized economics.

From Edge:

If we could measure the world, how would we manage it differently? This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves in the digital realm since the birth of the Internet. Our digital lives—clicks, histories, and cookies—can now be measured beautifully. The feedback loop is complete; it’s called closing the loop. As you know, we can only manage what we can measure. We’re now measuring on-screen activity beautifully, but most of the world is not on screens.                                 

As we get better and better at measuring the world—wearables, Internet of Things, cars, satellites, drones, sensors—we are going to be able to close the loop in industry, agriculture, and the environment. We’re going to start to find out what the consequences of our actions are and, presumably, we’ll take smarter actions as a result. This journey with the Internet that we started more than twenty years ago is now extending to the physical world. Every industry is going to have to ask the same questions: What do we want to measure? What do we do with that data? How can we manage things differently once we have that data? This notion of closing the loop everywhere is perhaps the biggest endeavor of our age.                                 

Closing the loop is a phrase used in robotics. Open-loop systems are when you take an action and you can’t measure the results—there’s no feedback. Closed-loop systems are when you take an action, you measure the results, and you change your action accordingly. Systems with closed loops have feedback loops; they self-adjust and quickly stabilize in optimal conditions. Systems with open loops overshoot; they miss it entirely. …

I use the phrase closing the loop because that’s the phrase we use in robotics. Other people might use the phrase big data. Before they called it big data, they called it data mining. Remember that? That was nuts. Anyway, we’re going to come up with a new word for it.                                 

It goes both ways: The tendrils of the Internet reach out through sensors, and then these sensors feed back to the Internet. The sensors get smarter because they’re connected to the Internet, and the Internet gets smarter because it’s connected to the sensors. This feedback loop extends beyond the industry that’s feeding back to the meta-industry, which is the Internet and the planet.•

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Chris Anderson, former EIC at Wired, has expanded on his contention that smartphones are responsible for the developing drone market. He further believes that they’re also enabling self-driving cars. Two quotes from him.

From Wired, June 2012:

“Why? The reason is the same as with every other digital technology: a Moore’s-law-style pace where performance regularly doubles while size and price plummet. In fact, the Moore’s law of drone technology is currently accelerating, thanks to the smartphone industry, which relies on the same components—sensors, optics, batteries, and embedded processors—all of them growing smaller and faster each year. Just as the 1970s saw the birth and rise of the personal computer, this decade will see the ascendance of the personal drone. We’re entering the Drone Age.”

From Silicon Beat, September 2013:

“Drone and robot technology is at what Anderson is calling ‘the Macintosh moment,’ the turning point at which PCs went mainstream. What’s making it possible? Why now? From their components to the innovations springing up around them, the answer is smartphones, Anderson says.”

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From “Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars,” Chris Anderson’s new Wired interview with the SpaceX founder, a discussion about the goals driving the technologist’s privately held space program:

“Anderson: 

Let’s talk about where all this is headed. You’ve brought the cost of rocket launches down by a factor of 10. Suppose you can bring it down even more. How does that change the game? It seems like when you radically reduce the price, you can discover a whole new market. It’s a form of exploration in itself.

Musk: 

Right.

Anderson: 

What glimpses of that new market have you seen?

Musk: 

A huge one is satellites. There are a lot of applications for satellites that suddenly begin to make sense if the transportation costs are low: more telecommunications, more broadcast, better weather mapping, more science experiments.

Anderson: 

So traditional satellite markets—but more of them, and cheaper.

Musk: 

There’s also likely to be a lot more private spaceflight.

Anderson: 

By that you mean tourism.

Musk: 

Yeah, but I think tourism is too pejorative a word. You could argue that much of our government spaceflight has been tourism. But the main thing—the goal I still believe in for the long term—is to make life multi-planetary.”

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The early promise of PCs in the 1970s, in the heyday of the Homebrew Computer Club, was that the individual would be master of the technology, not that we would queue up for “improved” iPhones handed down to us by a gigantic corporation every six months. Chris Anderson thinks the spirit of the Homebrew is regaining prominence and will be the future of American manufacturing. From Farhad Manjoo in Slate:

“As Anderson describes it, the new movement is built on three technological and social advances. First, there’s ‘rapid prototyping.’ Today you can design your world-changing widget on a computer, instantly make it real on a 3-D printer, and then go back to the drawing board to refine it. Second, because your designs are all standard CAD files, you can share them with others and borrow other people’s designs, allowing for everyone to improve their widgets through remixing. Finally, when you’ve perfected your widget, you can take advantage of firms like Kickstarter to raise money, then send your designs to commercial manufacturers that will produce your widget in bulk—even if bulk, for you, means you’re making only a few thousand of them.

When I chatted with Anderson recently, I asked him about the timeline of his vision. He thinks the maker movement is around where the PC industry was in the mid-1980s—somewhere between the release of the Apple II and the Mac, between a computer that was popular with hobbyists and one that was meant for everyone. Soon, we’ll have 3-D printers that cost about the same as paper printers, we’ll have 3-D design software that’s as easy to use as iMovie, and making physical things will take on the kind of cultural significance that making digital things did in the first dot-com boom. At that point, we’ll notice the products around us begin to change, Anderson says. A lot of what you’ll buy will still come from large companies that make mass-manufactured goods, but an increasing number of your products will be produced by ‘industrial artisans.’ These artisans will produce goods aimed for niche audiences—perhaps you’re a gardener who needs a specific kind of sprinkler head, or maybe you want computer speakers shaped like Mount Rushmore. Because they’ll be able to sell anywhere, and because their goods will command higher prices that mass-manufactured stuff, artisans will be able to build thriving small businesses from their inventions.”

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Homebrew at the Byte Shop in 1978:

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What technology has exploded (in a couple of senses) more in the last decade than drones? In the new Wired article, “How I Accidentally Kickstarted the Domestic Drone Boom,” Chris Anderson looks at what this brave new world of autonomous aircraft means. An excerpt:

“Look up into America’s skies today and you might just see one of these drones: small, fully autonomous, and dirt-cheap. On any given weekend, someone’s probably flying a real-life drone not far from your own personal airspace. (They’re the ones looking at their laptops instead of their planes.) These personal drones can do everything that military drones can, aside from blow up stuff. Although they technically aren’t supposed to be used commercially in the US (they also must stay below 400 feet, within visual line of sight, and away from populated areas and airports), the FAA is planning to officially allow commercial use starting in 2015.

What are all these amateurs doing with their drones? Like the early personal computers, the main use at this point is experimentation—simple, geeky fun. But as personal drones become more sophisticated and reliable, practical applications are emerging. The film industry is already full of remotely piloted copters serving as camera platforms, with a longer reach than booms as well as cheaper and safer operations than manned helicopters. Some farmers now use drones for crop management, creating aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution. And there are countless scientific uses for drones, from watching algal blooms in the ocean to low-altitude measurement of the solar reflectivity of the Amazon rain forest. Others are using the craft for wildlife management, tracking endangered species and quietly mapping out nesting areas that are in need of protection.

To give a sense of the scale of the personal drone movement, DIY Drones—an online community that I founded in 2007 (more on that later)—has 26,000 members, who fly drones that they either assemble themselves or buy premade from dozens of companies that serve the amateur market. All told, there are probably around 1,000 new personal drones that take to the sky every month (3D Robotics, a company I cofounded, is shipping more than 100 ArduPilot Megas a week); that figure rivals the drone sales of the world’s top aerospace companies (in units, of course, not dollars). And the personal drone industry is growing much faster.

Why? The reason is the same as with every other digital technology: a Moore’s-law-style pace where performance regularly doubles while size and price plummet. In fact, the Moore’s law of drone technology is currently accelerating, thanks to the smartphone industry, which relies on the same components—sensors, optics, batteries, and embedded processors—all of them growing smaller and faster each year. Just as the 1970s saw the birth and rise of the personal computer, this decade will see the ascendance of the personal drone. We’re entering the Drone Age.”

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The opening of Chris Anderson’s new Wired Q&A with computing legend Marc Andreessen, who created the first popular graphical web browser:

Chris Anderson: At 22, you’re a random kid from small-town Wisconsin, working at a supercomputer center at the University of Illinois. How were you able to see the future of the web so clearly?

Marc Andreessen: It was probably the juxtaposition of the two—being from a small town and having access to a supercomputer. Where I grew up, we had the three TV networks, maybe two radio stations, no cable TV. We still had a long-distance party line in our neighborhood, so you could listen to all your neighbors’ phone calls. We had a very small public library, and the nearest bookstore was an hour away. So I came from an environment where I was starved for information, starved for connection.

Anderson: And then at Illinois, you found the Internet.

Andreessen: Right, which could make information so abundant. The future was much easier to see if you were on a college campus. Remember, it was feast or famine in those days. Trying to do dialup was miserable. If you were a trained computer scientist and you put in a tremendous amount of effort, you could do it: You could go get a Netcom account, you could set up your own TCP/IP stack, you could get a 2,400-baud modem. But at the university, you were on the Internet in a way that was actually very modern even by today’s standards. At the time, we had a T3 line—45 megabits, which is actually still considered broadband. Sure, that was for the entire campus, and it cost them $35,000 a month! But we had an actual broadband experience. And it convinced me that everybody was going to want to be connected, to have that experience for themselves.”

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Long tail. (Image by megan ann.)

The opening of Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail,” his famous 2004 Wired article about a shift in consumerism, propelled by the Internet, which the author later expanded into a best seller of the same name:

In 1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void a harrowing account of near death in the Peruvian Andes. It got good reviews but, only a modest success, it was soon forgotten. Then, a decade later, a strange thing happened. Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, another book about a mountain-climbing tragedy, which became a publishing sensation. Suddenly Touching the Void started to sell again.

Random House rushed out a new edition to keep up with demand. Booksellers began to promote it next to their Into Thin Air displays, and sales rose further. A revised paperback edition, which came out in January, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. That same month, IFC Films released a docudrama of the story to critical acclaim. Now Touching the Void outsells Into Thin Air more than two to one.

What happened? In short, Amazon.com recommendations. The online bookseller’s software noted patterns in buying behavior and suggested that readers who liked Into Thin Air would also like Touching the Void. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations, and the positive feedback loop kicked in.

Particularly notable is that when Krakauer’s book hit shelves, Simpson’s was nearly out of print. A few years ago, readers of Krakauer would never even have learned about Simpson’s book – and if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to find it. Amazon changed that. It created the Touching the Void phenomenon by combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion. The result: rising demand for an obscure book.

This is not just a virtue of online booksellers; it is an example of an entirely new economic model for the media and entertainment industries, one that is just beginning to show its power. Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service, from DVDs at Netflix to music videos on Yahoo! Launch to songs in the iTunes Music Store and Rhapsody. People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).”

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Chris Anderson’s TED Talk about The Long Tail:

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