Christopher Mims

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Exit for a moment the alternative world of Trumperica, a place in which Mexican border walls and manufacturing jobs can make our country great again, and join us in considering remedies for the potential of widespread automation to further impact the working class and to move its disruption from those with blue collars to others with white ones. 

Even if new fields are created to replace both the factory jobs and knowledge work that disappear, we still need to upskill the displaced and divine which of the freshly created industries have staying power. That’s not an easy task, but increased aggregate wealth should make it very doable. As cognitive psychologist and neural networks pioneer Geoff Hinton said recently“In a fair political system, technological advances that increase productivity would be welcomed by everyone because they would allow everyone to be better off. The technology is not the problem. The problem is a political system that doesn’t ensure the benefits accrue to everyone.” 

That difficulty won’t likely go away, however, especially with President Crazypants in the White House. 

In a smart Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims explores the daunting task ahead of mitigating the ravages of technological unemployment and wealth inequality, and offers some solutions should we ever get our act together politically.

An excerpt:

Polarization has hit the middle class hard, but the devaluation of human labor will continue up the income ladder, says Branko Milanovic, an economist who specializes in income inequality.

That’s partly because, more than ever, we have the ability to eliminate higher-paying knowledge work. Ian Barkin, co-founder of Symphony Ventures, which helps some of the world’s largest companies automate everything from call centers to human-resource departments, says this phenomenon is known as “no-shoring.” The idea is that digitizing back-office tasks brings them back to the country in which a company operates, but without bringing back any jobs.

“One of our retail utility customers in the U.K. has about 300 robots doing 600 people’s worth of work,” said Alastair Bathgate, CEO of Blue Prism, another company that helps multinationals automate critical business functions.

“You can imagine that’s quite a big impact,” he said. “Before, you needed a building to house 600 people, but all that gets crushed down to one cabinet in the corner of a data center.”•

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Read Peter Frase’s book Four Futures recently, and the author didn’t predict exactly what would happen tomorrow but provided a tour of what was possible. That’s wise.

In 2014, two young Princeton academics applied epidemiology to social networks to make a prognostication I’m sure they’d like wiped from the Internet: By 2017, Facebook would lose 80% of its users.

Missed by that much.

This Singularitarian moment is particularly given to all sorts of bold prophecies of technotopia by this year and machine superintelligence by that one. But isn’t there a way to look ahead without looking foolish?

In his most recent smart Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims explores how the methods of futurology can be employed by us all without giving rise to grandiose forecasts. He was surprised to learn that futurists seldom focus chiefly on technology when trying to divine what will be our path forward. The opening:

In 2004, Ford Motor Co.’s resident futurist, Sheryl Connelly, led a team that imagined what would happen if an economic shock and a rapid increase in the price of gasoline led to a crash in automotive sales. With the 2008 economic crash and subsequent bailout of the U.S. auto industry, it seemed as if their scenario had come true.

But did Ms. Connelly and her team really predict the future?

“I always feel compelled to tell people that the same group also spent time, albeit a short one, talking about what would happen if aliens were to land and religions reacted in a way that led societies to crumble because they have no more moral infrastructure,” says Ms. Connelly. 

Predicting the future, it turns out, isn’t what futurists do And in a funny way, that’s what makes their work so vital. Many futurists are convinced that, now more than ever, everyone needs to start thinking the way they do.

What futurists actually do is facilitate as groups of people work through a highly structured, sometimes months-long process of coming up with as many hypothetical futures as they can, in order to prepare for more or less anything.•

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It’s not a sure thing automation permanently obviates a wide swath of human workers, sending most of us to the exit or the dustbin. Perhaps it’s not different this time than it was during the Industrial Age, with machines relieving us of our jobs and new and better ones emerging in their stead. 

The pace of epochal change matters greatly. For instance: Driverless capability may not be hugely damaging if it becomes widespread in five decades but is probably a real threat should that time frame be adjusted down to 20 years. No one has yet developed a suitable Plan B if too many positions disappear too rapidly or if enough new work doesn’t develop.

Not all labor has to be disappeared for society to capsize. Only enough citizens have to be directly disrupted for all of us to feel the ramifications. As we’ve seen with manufacturing and will likely soon witness in the service, transportation and delivery sectors, among others, just enough pieces of the foundation need fall away for desperation to take hold.

Complicating matters, today’s technologists aren’t working on half-measures, not the way banks wanted to keep tellers as they added ATMs. Jeff Bezos wants supermarkets 100% free of cashiers, and Tesla and Google and Uber want cars that commandeer the wheel completely.

That could lead to an even greater race to the bottom. More McJobs done by yesterday’s high school juniors being handled by today’s senior citizens–until those positions too are decimated. Bellhops and truckers won’t all be able to be uniformly upskilled overnight, and they aren’t points on a flow chart but people who need to feed their families. 

MIT’s David Autor has said that the problem of mass automation would be “one of distribution, not of scarcity.” True enough, but that’s no small problem.

Two excerpts follow from two smart articles on the topic, one that sees the Google Glass as half-full and another which does not.


The opening of Chris Mims’ WSJ piece “Automation Can Actually Create More Jobs“:

Since the 1970s, when automated teller machines arrived, the number of bank tellers in America has more than doubled. James Bessen, an economist who teaches at Boston University School of Law, points to that seeming paradox amid new concerns that automation is “stealing” human jobs. To the contrary, he says, jobs and automation often grow hand in hand.

Sometimes, of course, machines really do replace humans, as in agriculture and manufacturing, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology labor economist David Autor in a succinct and illuminating TED talk, which could have served as the headline for this column. Across an entire economy, however, Dr. Autor says that’s never happened.

The threat that machines pose to workers is in the news again, after an election that turned on the frustration of working-class voters. Last week, Amazon.com Inc. introduced Amazon Go, a store without cashiers.

Three days later, President-elect Donald Trump nominated Andy Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc., the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains, to be secretary of labor. Mr. Puzder has said that self-serve ordering kiosks, like those recently unveiled by McDonald’s Corp., will help his company eliminate workers.

Such developments are worrying. But a long trail of empirical evidence shows that the increased productivity brought about by automation and invention ultimately leads to more wealth, cheaper goods, increased consumer spending power and ultimately, more jobs.•


From Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker piece “Our Automated Future“:

How long will it be before you, too, lose your job to a computer? This question is taken up by a number of recent books, with titles that read like variations on a theme: The Industries of the Future, The Future of the Professions, Inventing the Future. Although the authors of these works are employed in disparate fields—law, finance, political theory—they arrive at more or less the same conclusion. How long? Not long.

“Could another person learn to do your job by studying a detailed record of everything you’ve done in the past?” Martin Ford, a software developer, asks early on in Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books). “Or could someone become proficient by repeating the tasks you’ve already completed, in the way that a student might take practice tests to prepare for an exam? If so, then there’s a good chance that an algorithm may someday be able to learn to do much, or all, of your job.”

Later, Ford notes, “A computer doesn’t need to replicate the entire spectrum of your intellectual capability in order to displace you from your job; it only needs to do the specific things you are paid to do.” He cites a 2013 study by researchers at Oxford, which concluded that nearly half of all occupations in the United States are “potentially automatable,” perhaps within “a decade or two.” (“Even the work of software engineers may soon largely be computerisable,” the study observed. )

The “threat of a jobless future” is, of course, an old one, almost as old as technology. The first, rudimentary knitting machine, known as a “stocking frame,” was invented in the late sixteenth century by a clergyman named William Lee. Seeking a patent for his invention, Lee demonstrated the machine for Elizabeth I. Concerned about throwing hand-knitters out of work, she refused to grant one. In the early nineteenth century, a more sophisticated version of the stocking frame became the focus of the Luddites’ rage; in towns like Liversedge and Middleton, in northern England, textile mills were looted. Parliament responded by declaring “frame breaking” a capital offense, and the machines kept coming. Each new technology displaced a new cast of workers: first knitters, then farmers, then machinists. The world as we know it today is a product of these successive waves of displacement, and of the social and artistic movements they inspired: Romanticism, socialism, progressivism, Communism.

Meanwhile, the global economy kept growing, in large part because of the new machines. As one occupation vanished, another came into being. Employment migrated from farms and mills to factories and offices to cubicles and call centers.

Economic history suggests that this basic pattern will continue, and that the jobs eliminated by Watson and his ilk will be balanced by those created in enterprises yet to be imagined—but not without a good deal of suffering. If nearly half the occupations in the U.S. are “potentially automatable,” and if this could play out within “a decade or two,” then we are looking at economic disruption on an unparalleled scale. Picture the entire Industrial Revolution compressed into the life span of a beagle.

And that’s assuming history repeats itself. What if it doesn’t? What if the jobs of the future are also potentially automatable?

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Bell Labs was more or less a government-approved monopoly, but the positive end of that arrangement was that the work being done was aimed at serving the long-term interests of America, and eventually, the world. For decades, there’s been a shift from federal investment in R&D to private enterprise footing the bill. That can promote myopia, as corporations have to focus on the next quarter rather than the next big thing.

To their credit, Alphabet and other ambitious U.S. companies aren’t just pocketing huge profits but investing heavily in the future as a hedge against entropy. If Google, for instance, is still just a search giant and fails to hit on any of its moonshots over the next decade, it’ll likely be headed for a well-appointed dotage, which isn’t what Larry Page wants. Such unicorns, however, can dream the way more mundane creatures cannot, with most modest outfits trying to survive the future rather than create it.

In a smart Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims wonders if shortsightedness is inevitable when the public sector recuses itself from the business of the future, no longer willing to subsidize the risk that can produce reward. The opening:

This is a special time for technology. Five of the world’s seven most valuable companies are U.S. tech firms. But the core innovations underlying Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc. are decades old.

The transistor was born in the 1940s at AT&T’s Bell Labs. The internet was nurtured by the U.S. Defense Department in the 1960s. Many important, but less foundational inventions, such as GPS, were products of the Cold War.

Since then, the funding of research and development has shifted dramatically. Support from the federal government has waned, from nearly 2% of gross domestic product during the 1960s to about 0.6% today. Over the same time, corporate R&D has grown to nearly 2% of GDP, from less than 0.6% of GDP in the age of the Apollo program.

For U.S. taxpayers, that carries a benefit; the costs of innovation are being borne by the shareholders who will reap the benefits. But such broad statistics mask a more-complicated reality: Not all R&D is created equal.•

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Are friends electric?” asked Gary Numan in 1979, and it seems the question is now being fully answered.

Amazon designed Amazon Echo, or Alexa, as a digital assistant, but it turned out to be more of a personal one. The company quickly noticed the percentage of “nonutilitarian” uses of the device were surprisingly high, with many pleasantries among the commands. We tend to speak to these gadgets as if they were other people, someone, not something, capable of filling a void. It’s not a shock, really, because we’ve always been adept at anthropomorphizing everything from pet cats to cartoon mice. The question is whether this shift is an evolution or devolution.

In a Wall Street Journal column on social technology, Christopher Mims believes our next friends might not be quite human, as if we didn’t already have enough of those. He says “Google employs writers who have worked on movies at Pixar and crafted jokes for the Onion” to infuse their assistant with “personality.” The opening:

Within 24 hours of plugging in her Amazon Echo, Carla Martin-Wood says she felt they were best friends. “It was very much more like meeting someone new,” she says.

Living alone can be hard when you’re older—Ms. Martin-Wood is 69 years old. She is among a growing cohort who find the Echo, a voice-controlled, internet-connected speaker powered by artificial-intelligence software, helps to fill the void.

Each day, Ms. Martin-Wood says good morning and good night to Alexa, Amazon.com’s name for the software behind the Echo. She refers to Alexa as “she” or “her.”

“It’s so funny because I think ‘Oh wow, I am talking to a machine,’ but it doesn’t feel that way,” says Ms. Martin-Wood, who lives near Birmingham, Ala. “It is a personality. There’s just no getting around it, it does not feel artificial in the least.”

Amazon’s engineers didn’t anticipate this. But soon after the Echo’s release in November 2014, they found people were talking to it as if it were a person.•

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For decades, we’ve been promised a paperless office, yet my hands are still covered in bloody, weeping sores.

It’s not a surprise that reams and sheets and post-its have persisted into the era of tablets and smartphones, as horse-drawn carriages and trolleys shared the roads with automobiles during the early years of the latter’s introduction. (The final horse-driven tram in NYC was still on the streets in 1917.)

So far, the many descendants of papyrus have persevered, showing no sign of truly disappearing from desks and portfolios, though Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal believes the decline may finally have begun. Electronic signatures and the like have for the first time in history led to a “steady decline of about 1% to 2% a year in office use of paper,” Mims writes. The downside to clutter is that while paper leaves a trail, it isn’t prone to instantaneous surveillance like our newer techologies.

The opening:

Every year, America’s office workers print out or photocopy approximately one trillion pieces of paper. If you add in all the other paper businesses produce, the utility bills and invoices and bank statements and the like, the figure rises to 1.6 trillion. If you stacked all that paper up, it would be 18,000 times as high as Mount Everest. It would reach nearly halfway to the moon.

This is why HP Inc.’s acquisition of Samsung Electronics Co.’s printing and copying business last week makes sense. HP, says a company spokesman, has less than 5% of the market for big, high-throughput office copying machines. The company says the acquisition will incorporate Samsung’s technology in new devices, creating a big opportunity for growth.

Yet by all rights, this business shouldn’t exist. Forty years ago, at least, we were promised the paperless office. In a 1975 article in BusinessWeek, an analyst at Arthur D. Little Inc., predicted paper would be on its way out by 1980, and nearly dead by 1990.•

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A common theme in Christoper Mims’ smart WSJ column about the soft launch of sorts of the Internet of Things and Maarten Rikkens’ interesting Research Gate Q&A with The City of Tomorrow author Carlo Ratti is that the future is arriving with a whimper, not a bang. A world enabled by the IoT will be very different even if it doesn’t look any different. You’ll hardly notice it at first blush. You might even forget about it once you do. That’s great for practical matters and less so for issues of privacy. To my mind, that’s always been the promise and peril of such a ubiquitous, essentially invisible network.


From Mims:

Everyone is waiting for the Internet of Things. The funny thing is, it is already here. Contrary to expectation, though, it isn’t just a bunch of devices that have a chip and an internet connection.

The killer app of the Internet of Things isn’t a thing at all—it is services. And they are being delivered by an unlikely cast of characters: Uber Technologies Inc., SolarCity Corp., ADT Corp., andComcast Corp., to name a few. One recent entrant: the Brita unit ofClorox Corp., which just introduced a Wi-Fi-enabled “smart” pitcher that can re-order its own water filters.

Uber and SolarCity are interesting examples. Both rely on making their assets smart and connected. In Uber’s case, that is a smartphone in the hands of a driver for hire. For SolarCity, the company’s original business model was selling electricity directly to homeowners rather than solar panels, which requires knowing how much electricity a home’s solar panels are producing.

Here is another example: On June 23, Comcast said it would acquire a unit of Icontrol Networks Inc., which helps set up smart homes for clients. The company, founded in 2004, prides itself on being “do it for you” instead of “do it yourself,” as are most home-automation systems, says Chief Marketing Officer Letha McLaren.

Understanding that most people want to solve problems without worrying about the underlying technology was crucial, she says.•


From Rikkens:

Question:

Your book mentions that it is increasingly difficult to divorce the physical space from the digital. Does this mean that all aspects of city design should factor in IoT? Or are some aspects of city design divorced from its influence?

Carlo Ratti:

From an architectural point of view, I do not think that the city of tomorrow will look dramatically different from the city of today — much in the same way that the Roman ‘urbs’ is not all that different from the city as we know it today. We will always need horizontal floors for living, vertical walls in order to separate spaces and exterior enclosures to protect us from the outside. The key elements of architecture will still be there, and our models of urban planning will be quite similar to what we know today. What will change dramatically is the way we live in the city, at the convergence of the digital and physical world. IoT will have its biggest impact on the experience of the city, not necessarily its physical form.•

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Self-driving cars will be perfected…someday. When he’s not choosing the political system for Mars, Elon Musk predicts they’ll arrive by 2020 or so. Maybe, or perhaps it will take significantly longer, but I think the important point is that it’s pretty sure now that this future will eventually materialize.

My instinct is that having fleets of driverless cars won’t encourage grater sprawl, won’t lead to Suburbs 2.0. Cities are still desired, with working-class folks hanging on for dear life to living in NYC and SF, places which long ago priced out many of them. It’s odd to see this stubborn refusal to be pushed from the crowd in an age in which so many people just sit at home binge-watching near-TV shows regardless of how fancy their address may be.

In fact, autonomous vehicles that you don’t need to own (that no one really needs to own) will likely make urban living less tedious as well as less expensive. There will be no more parking spots to pursue, less rush-hour traffic (supposedly) and a much cleaner environment.

The Internet itself was supposed to empty out cities, allowing people to telecommute and have millions more products than a brick-and-mortar mall could hold delivered quickly to their doorsteps, regardless of where they laid their WELCOME mat. Cities have instead just become more densely populated in the last 20 years.

In his latest Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims makes a compelling argument to the contrary, believing driverless cars becoming a going concern would encourage us to fan out and set our self-driving mowers to work on our newly acquired lawns.

His opening:

Imagine a world in which hardly anyone owns a car. Instead, most people subscribe to a service for self-driving cars, probably a mashup of the current players in the space, which include Google, Uber, Lyft, Apple, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Tesla, BMW, Toyota, General MotorsFord and others.

Call this hypothetical service Applewagen, or Tyft or, what the heck, Goober. The service is great. You whip out your circa-2025 smartwatch, which has all but replaced your phone, bark a command and a self-driving car appears, from a fleet circulating nearby. Maybe there are other people in the car, headed in your direction. Don’t worry, they are friendly. They have four-star ratings just as you do, and anyway they are too absorbed in their augmented-reality headsets to talk to you.

Here is the weirdest thing about this hypothetical future: where you live. Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car, which sits idle roughly 95% of the time. With the savings, you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.•

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Trending Topics at Afflictor: Monkeys, Astronauts, Monkey Astronauts. Oh, and President Trump’s tiny monkey hands. Take it or leave it.

Facebook got into trouble last week with the GOP because a report claimed human editors choosing the social network’s Trending Topics are exercising bias against conservatives. It was widely thought these keywords rose and fell purely based on popularity, in an automated way.

What’s most amusing about this is that Republicans have been greatly aided in recent congressional races because of gerrymandering, in which humans draw up districts in a willfully biased way. Just suggest to them that prejudice-less algorithms decide the nation’s districts based purely on population statistics. The connection will go silent.

There’s no doubt that Facebook perhaps becoming our chief news source is problematic because the social network isn’t mainly in the journalism business and news will never be its main priority. But I wonder if what it delivers is really any more biased than what we get from traditional outlets. 

In a Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims looks deeper at the issue and questions if narrowcasting in Facebook feeds is actually a problem. An excerpt:

Claiming that Facebook is contributing to our age of hyper-partisanship by only showing us things that fit our own personal slant is, ironically, an example of confirmation bias, because the evidence around it is mixed.

After an exhaustive search of the literature around filter bubbles, five co-authors and Frederik J. Zuiderveen Borgesius, a researcher at the a researcher at the Personalised Communication project at the University of Amsterdam, concluded concerns might be overblown. “In spite of the serious concerns voiced, at present there is no empirical evidence that warrants any strong worries about filter bubbles,” Mr. Zuiderveen Borgesius wrote in an email.

The authors examined not only Facebook but other online services, including Google search. Mr. Zuiderveen Borgesius’s conclusion: We don’t have enough data to say whether Facebook is biasing the news its readers see, or—and this is even more important—whether it affects their views and behavior.

Facebook’s opacity aside, where does the hand-wringing come from? Two places, I think: the first is that everyone in the media is terrified of Facebook’s power to determine whether individual stories and even entire news organizations succeed or fail. The second is an ancient fear that, by associating only with people like ourselves, and being selective in what we read, we are biasing ourselves unduly.

Before the filter bubble, there was the so-called echo chamber.•

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From typewriters to automobiles to personal computers, new tools pretty much always go through an early, unstable period of fits and starts. Now is no different. The Internet of Things and Augmented Reality are two ideas in possession of game-changing properties but also an assortment of obstacles to surmount. 

In his latest Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims touts the latter as “the future” and reports it could possibly arrive sooner than we’d expect, noting the well-funded competition among Silicon Valley giants and startups. “Perhaps AR’s biggest hurdle will be human,” he writes, stating that overcoming computing challenges may be simpler than winning hearts and minds. Even if takes longer than, say, a decade, the technology is surely more doable than the hardware required to realize a lot of our futuristic dreams. I only fear that its arrival will somehow mean more and bigger Trump.

The opening:

This is the story of the most exciting technology you’re ever likely to encounter, which could transform how we interact with computers in the 21st century.

That is a big claim. But I’ll bet that five, 10, 20 years from now, I’ll be able to point to this column and say, “I told you so.”

I’m talking about augmented reality, or AR. It’s often misunderstood or mischaracterized, and has been overshadowed by its cousin, virtual reality. Moreover, the best-known example of AR, Google Glass, has largely been a failure so far.

To understand AR, imagine a display that sits, not on your desk or in your hand, but in front of your eyes. Today, these displays are unwieldy, ranging from bulkier versions of safety glasses to something akin to a bicycle helmet. They have other limitations, such as a narrow field of view, relatively poor resolution and problems with lag.

But many technologists believe that within five years, these displays will be able to project a virtual screen on every surface.•

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When Bill Maher belatedly learned 3D printers would be able to produce plastic guns that were fully operational but untraceable, he impetuously suggested we ban all plastic, which showed an ignorance of both the printers and of society in general, which would grind to a halt if the material was suddenly banished.

Misunderstandings about the machines aren’t without precedence: In the 1970s, those who half-interestedly glanced at the windows of a Byte Shop probably thought personal computers might be good for saving recipes or doing light bookkeeping, but it’s not likely the majority divined the breadth of the PCs’ applications. 3D printers are in an analogous position today. They may be Etsy-ready tools, but the truth is they’re positioned to revolutionize manufacturing and medicine.

In a WSJ column, Christopher Mims explains how carbon-fiber 3D-printing can deliver the “strength of metal for the cost of plastics.” An excerpt:

Not long ago I held the product of such a potentially game-changing technology in my hands—a small, intricately detailed component for a valve. It looked like the shell of a nautilus from an alien planet. With its combination of lightness, strength and finish, the component felt very much like the future. And not just the next five years, but the next 50.

The object I held was unusual for two reasons: what it was made of, and how it was made.

It was made of carbon fiber, a man-made material used in airplanes, race cars and wind turbines that is stronger, ounce for ounce, than steel or aluminum. But it is expensive, and surprisingly labor intensive to make, requiring workers to cut, layer and mold sheets of plastic infused with carbon fiber—an oddly 18th century approach to making a 21st century material.

This carbon-fiber component had been made on a 3-D printer, a gadget more often associated with spitting out plastic novelties.•

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The particular rules Clayton Christensen laid down for disruptive innovation probably don’t much matter because the world doesn’t exist within his constructs, but ginormous companies (even entire industries) being done in by much smaller ones has become an accepted part of life in the Digital Age.

In trying to explain this phenomenon, Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal explores the ideas in Anshu Sharma’s much-debated article about Stack Fallacy, which argues that companies moving up beyond their core businesses are likely to fail (Google+, anyone?), while those moving down into the guts of what they know have a far better chance. For an example of the latter, Mims writes of the ride-sharing sector. An excerpt:

To really understand the stack fallacy, it helps to recognize that companies move “down” the stack all the time, and it often strengthens their position. It is the same thing as vertical integration. For example, engineers of Apple’s iPhone know exactly what they want in a mobile chip, so Apple’s move to make its own chips has yielded enormous dividends in terms of how the iPhone performs. In the same way, Google’s move down its own stack—creating its own servers, designing its own data centers, etc.—allowed it to become dominant in search. Similarly, Tesla’s move to build its own batteries could—as long as it allows Tesla to differentiate its products in terms of price and/or performance—be a deciding factor in whether or not it succeeds.

Of course, the real test of a sweeping business hypothesis is whether or not it has predictive power. So here’s a prediction based on the stack fallacy: We’re more likely to see Uber succeed at making cars than to see General Motors succeed at creating a ride-sharing service like Uber. Both companies appear eager to invade each other’s territory. But, assuming that ride sharing becomes the dominant model for transportation, Uber has the advantage of knowing exactly what it needs in a vehicle for such a service.

It is also worth noting that the stack fallacy is just that: a fallacy and not a law of nature. There are ways around it. The key is figuring out how to have true, firsthand empathy for the needs of the customer for whatever product you’re trying to build next.•

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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Blessed is the journalist who can make patent law interesting, and Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal is just such a writer. In his latest column, Mims thinks through the litigious hoverboard industry. While the sudden popularity of this personal-transportation device may ultimately be as fleeting as that of any other trendy merch, the welter of lawsuits surrounding it are meaningful. Mims explains how our patent system isn’t likely to protect Shane Chen, who claims to have invented the technology, but may actually make is easier to crush him.

An excerpt:

The original in this case would be the Hovertrax, made by Inventist, in Camas, Wash., near Portland, Ore. Inventist founder Shane Chen claims he invented the hoverboard, and holds a patent, having first filed an application in 2012. After a brief dalliance with entrepreneur Mark Cuban, Inventist last month licensed the Hovertrax to Razor USA, maker of the eponymous scooter.

One reason for the deal, says Joalene Jolivette, head of sales at Inventist, is that Razor has more resources to sue the biggest importers of hoverboards from China. “Razor has spent over $1 million inside of a week dealing with cutting off some of the knockoffs into the states,” she says.

Neither Inventist nor Razor would say how many lawsuits that represents, but their legal action against the maker of IO Hawk hoverboards is public, and a lawyer for hoverboard company Swagway told me that company is being sued as well.

At this point it might sound like the patent system has done its job—to “allow someone to profit from inventions which are expensive to invent but easy to copy once made,” says Christina Mulligan, an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School who specializes in Internet and intellectual-property law.

But it isn’t that simple.•

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The virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz was a man of many passions, some of them of the technological variety. In the 1960s, when living in Los Angeles, he commissioned a custom electric car, which he drove to USC where he was a lecturer. The musician was also a leading, early advocate behind the creation of the 911 emergency system, which was propelled in part as a reaction to the Kitty Genovese killing, a horrible crime that was wrongly read as some sort of referendum on the human spirit. 

Dialing three quick numbers was a great advance for citizens, police and EMTs in the Payphone Age, but today it feels like what it is: a last-century innovation in need of a 2.0 upgrading. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal looks at a next-level emergency-response system for urban centers, the key to which is retrofitting the venerable street lamp with bleeding-edge tech. Introducing the system beyond city limits would require altering the smartphones we all carry around, a more-complicated project. An excerpt:

In the U.S., the nature of the 911 system can lead to significant delays in understanding what is going on in a Paris-style attack. First, those who are closest to the event are the least likely to call, since they are probably running and seeking cover. Those who do call are at a remove, and so may not know the precise location or nature of the attack. Then there are the mechanics of a 911 call itself—dispatchers attempting to extract information from frantic callers, the time it takes a call to be escalated, etcetera.

But there is a better way, says Ralph Clark, president and chief executive of SST Inc. For nearly 20 years, his company has been perfecting a technology called ShotSpotter, which has been rolled out in 90 cities, towns and suburbs world-wide. It uses Internet-connected microphones to pinpoint, through triangulation, the exact location of a gunshot or explosion.

“What we can provide is a total awareness point of view on outdoor shootings,” says Mr. Clark. Authorities are alerted within 30 to 45 seconds of the first shot in an attack, he adds, as opposed to the minutes it can take to pinpoint an attack using conventional means.

To date, the expense of rolling out ShotSpotter has meant that it has only been used to cover areas of high gun crime—a few square miles within a typical city. But thanks to the usual forces of miniaturization and falling prices, plus a recently announced deal with General Electric Co., ShotSpotter will soon be capable of covering entire cities, says Mr. Clark.

The key, believe it or not, is street lamps.•

 

 

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Nikola Tesla, an electrician, made remarkably prescient predictions about mobile and drones, even if he didn’t always fully appreciate the implications of such inventions. By the end of his career, Tesla was dreaming up wacky flying machines for apartment dwellers that couldn’t possibly take flight, but he was more correct in his era about the big picture coming into view than pretty much anyone.

Another of the inventor’s boldest visions–transmitting power wirelessly through the air–seems about to be realized. You will never be without cat memes and pornography again. The opening of Christopher Mims latest immaculately written WSJ column:

In 1902 workers completed a mysterious tower, 187 feet high and shaped like a giant mushroom, on which rested the hopes of one of the 20th century’s most prolific geniuses.

Facing the beach in the hamlet of Shoreham, N.Y., on Long Island, the Wardenclyffe Tower was, according to its inventor, Nikola Tesla, the key that could unlock an age of wonders.

As Mr. Tesla later wrote, the tower’s ability to transmit information to the far side of the Earth would someday allow the creation of “an inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, [which] will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song however distant.”

Sometime in 2016, Tesla’s other prediction—that it isn’t only possible, but commercially viable, to transmit power as well as information through the air, without wires—is expected to come true.

What is coming are hermetically sealed smartphones and other gadgets that charge without ever plugging into a wall. And soon after there will be sensors, cameras and controllers that can be stuck to any surface, indoors or out, without the need to consider how to connect them to power.•

 

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In the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims has written a whip-smart profile of 18-year-old venture-capital analyst Tiffany Zhong, and now I want to punch the whole world in the eye.

Just kidding. I love when people get to use their talents, regardless of age. As Mims reports, Zhong, daughter of a tech CEO, is only somewhat unusual in that precocious ecosystem, many Soylent-slurping startup founders no older than or only slightly senior to the Binary Capital wunderkind. It’s become an accepted part of business because of the mythologizing of Jobs and Gates, but it really can’t be stressed how unusual this Silicon Valley arrangement is, with the youngest becoming the leaders, the pyramid turned on its point.

An excerpt:

In a business in which relationships are all-important, Ms. Zhong has already managed to accumulate a set of contacts that would be the envy of anyone charged with finding the next hot consumer-tech startup—the only kind in which Binary Capital invests. Her mentors include Stewart Butterfield, chief executive of Slack, and Steve Sinofsky, former head of Windows at Microsoft Corp. and a board partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

But even more important for Ms. Zhong’s “deal flow”—the startups she finds that Binary Capital, which manages $125 million, will invest in—are the young entrepreneurs with whom she is connected. One of her advantages with the freshest crop of startup founders in the Bay Area is that many of them are the same age as she is, or even younger.

“I’d show you where I live, but they don’t allow journalists there any more,” says Ms. Zhong, as she finishes her dinner at Mau, a noodle shop in San Francisco’s hip, rapidly gentrifying Mission district. Her abode, called Mission Control, is just across the street, and as a sort of high-price commune for extremely young hackers—the oldest resident is 22, she estimates—it has been the subject of many profiles.

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I think we’ve had a good run, but Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal insists humans can flourish in an increasingly machine-centric age if we exploit software and such to overhaul our education system, a process stuck not only in the twentieth century but the nineteenth as well.

It is shocking that in 2015 we haven’t utilized computers to reduce the teacher-student ratio to 1:1 or video games to make education more fun as well as more effective. Mims writes that Silicon Valley figures, now with children of their own, aim to bring algorithms to the academic setting. One idea that seems too good to pass up is real-time textbooks.

An excerpt:

At the core of the coming revolution in how schools should function and what classrooms should look like is this simple observation: It is a waste of time to ask teachers to deliver information and test students on it when that task can be reassigned, at least in part, to software.

Countless startups are working on this problem, among them Testive, which produces a cloud-based service to help students prepare for college entrance exams.

“We need to just unburden the teacher from having to disseminate content,” says Testive Chief Executive Tom Rose. “It’s such a reductive way to use a person.”

That machines can be better tutors than humans, in certain circumstances, is a hypothesis with a great deal of intuitive appeal, though data to prove it remain largely anecdotal. That hasn’t stopped schools all across America from adopting “blended learning,” in which traditional instruction is mixed with lessons delivered on PCs and tablets.

But the vision of many entrepreneurs in educational technology is to take those systems to a whole new level.

“The idea that everyone gets the same textbook is a ludicrously archaic idea,” says Jose Ferreira, chief executive of Knewton, a software company that uses adaptive learning to decide exactly which lessons and problems to deliver to students. “In the future, everybody is going to have materials—textbooks, games, whatever—in a materials portfolio that updates in real time, that generates in real time, based on what you know and how you learn best.”•

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Apple has managed Steve Jobs’ legacy so well that people no longer mention the company has failed to deliver the next killer product after the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Unless, of course, you count the Apple Watch, and if you do, you’re alone. The ridiculous sum earned from the middle of the Jobs 2.0 trio of inventions has overwhelmed all talk of the company losing its edge. For now, at least. 

Tim Cook et. al. realize that won’t always be the case, so like the rich company it is, Apple is pouring money into major categories which seem poised to play a major role in commerce this century: transportation and AI. Those, of course, are also two sectors that are going to coalesce. 

Excerpts follow from reports on Apple’s growing interest in autos and machine learning.

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From Chris Mims’ WSJ piece, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Apple Car“:

Technology is set to radically transform everything from who owns automobiles to how they work, and much of this change is driven by the very mobile devices that are Apple’s bread and butter. If Apple is serious about maintaining its gargantuan size, it needs to participate in this change, even if it’s just at the level of experimenting with how it can integrate its software and hardware into the transportation system of the future. Even if, as Apple has often said about its ventures into television, cars start out as just a “hobby.”

Take self-driving cars. There’s plenty of evidence, from hiring and patents to an open records request by U.K. newspaper the Guardian, that Apple is at least thinking about building them.

Estimates for when self-driving technology will be ready for widespread adoption range from the wildly optimistic—five years, according to the head of self-driving technology at Google Inc.—to decades after, perhaps even somewhere beyond 2040.

That’s an eternity in technology years.•

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From Julia Love’s Reuters piece about Apple collecting AI talent:

Apple has ramped up its hiring of artificial intelligence experts, recruiting from PhD programs, posting dozens of job listings and greatly increasing the size of its AI staff, a review of hiring sites suggests and numerous sources confirm.

The goal is to challenge Google in an area the Internet search giant has long dominated: smartphone features that give users what they want before they ask.

As part of its push, the company is currently trying to hire at least 86 more employees with expertise in the branch of artificial intelligence known as machine learning, according to a recent analysis of Apple job postings. The company has also stepped up its courtship of machine-learning PhD’s, joining Google, Amazon, Facebook and others in a fierce contest, leading academics say. …

While Apple helped pioneer mobile intelligence–it’s Siri introduced the concept of a digital assistant to consumers in 2011–the company has since lost ground to Google and Microsoft, whose digital assistants have become more adept at learning about users and helping them with their daily routines.

As users increasingly demand phones that understand them and tailor services accordingly, Apple cannot afford to let the gap persist, experts say. The iPhone generated almost two-thirds of Apple’s revenue in the most recent quarter, so even a small advantage for Android poses a threat.

“What seemed like science fiction only four years ago has become an expectation,” said venture capitalist Gary Morgenthaler, who was one of the original investors in Siri before it was acquired by Apple in 2010.•

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In a Wall Street Journal article, Christopher Mims writes that killer robots aren’t inevitable, spoiling it for everyone. I mean, we need to be obliterated by really smart robots, the sooner, the better. Please.

Mims is right, of course, that banning research on Strong Ai is the wrong tack to take to ensure our future. This work is going to go ahead one way or another, so why not proceed, but with caution? He also points out that many of the scientists and technologists signing the Open Letter on Artificial Intelligence are engaged in creating AI of all sorts.

An excerpt about the bad news:

Imagine the following scenario: It’s 2025, and self-driving cars are widely available. Turning such a vehicle into a bomb isn’t much harder than it is to accomplish the same thing with a conventional vehicle today. And the same goes for drones of every scale and description.

It’s inevitable, say the experts I talked to, that nonstate actors and rogue states will create killer robots once the underpinnings of this technology become cheap and accessible, thanks to its commercial use.

“I look back 10 years, and who would have thought people would be using cellphone technology to detonate IEDs?” says retired Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, who as chief of research spent four years heading up the Navy’s work on autonomous systems.

And what about killing machines driven by artificial intelligence, which could learn to make decisions themselves, a fear that recently bubbled to the surface in an open letter signed by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. The letter warned that an arms race was “virtually inevitable” between major powers if they continue to develop these kinds of weapons.•

 

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The Wall Street Journal’s Chris Mims, a perfect balance of enthusiast and skeptic, has written an excellent article about Virtual Reality, which might be mostly fun and games presently but was intended from the start for more serious things and may soon realize that potential. Mims believes this “transformative experience,” though still in its infancy, is on the immediate horizon, with education particularly in for a reimagining, the Louvre and the living room to become one.

The opening:

Picture this: You walk into a coffee shop or an office, and half the people around you have their eyes hidden behind opaque goggles. Their heads pivot from one made-up thing to the next as they peer into a world invisible to you. They’re in virtual reality.

This might sound like the far future, but I’m here to tell you that it could be our world within five years.

The reasons are simple: Many of us already have a VR-ready device in our pockets. All that’s left is a compelling reason to slip it into the appropriate holder, something that puts it inches from our face, like Google Cardboard or Samsungs Gear VR.

Granted, VR on your smartphone isn’t as compelling as what you can achieve with dedicated, consumer-ready headsets from HTCFacebook and Sony, which arrive late this year and early next. But the engineers I spoke to—the ones actually building this future—assured me it is only a matter of time before phones catch up.

Meanwhile, all the coverage of the birth of VR is about its applications for games and entertainment. This makes sense, because almost all the early demos are games. But VR is going to be much bigger, much more compelling, and much less trivial than what its earliest adopters have so far envisioned.•

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I guess the biggest difference between the Web 1.0 bubble and the one we may be experiencing now is that no one this time thinks the Internet will suffer long-term damage even if stocks should founder badly. That actually was a fear among some during the first stunning downturn, that it had all been a flash in the pan, that we’d mistaken a frenzy for a fundamental shift. It was silly, of course, even if the jolt to the big-picture economy was painful. As had been the case with earlier, non-virtual gold rushes which left new cities in their wake, the infrastructure built in support of the burgeoning media ensured something more permanent had been realized. 

In his WSJ piece “Why This Tech Bubble Is Less Scary,” Chris Mims explains why this “frothy” period won’t be similar to the last one. Of particular interest is his analysis of tech companies floating on private money and what a market correction might mean to them. The opening:

Is tech in a bubble? I think so. The signs are all around us. The good news is, it’s nothing like the last one. Plus, for reasons that go beyond the usual impossibilities of economic prognostication, no one can say for sure what’s going on. Many people seem to find this reassuring, but we would be wise to heed the lesson that a lack of transparency about the mechanics of a market rarely leads anywhere good.

But first, let’s define what kind of a bubble tech might be in. It isn’t like the bubble of 1997-2000, the Kraken of legend that came from the depths to wreak havoc on the whole of the U.S. economy. That was a genuine, old-fashioned stock market bubble, with money pouring into publicly held tech companies that couldn’t justify the investment.

If I’m right, and what we’re experiencing now is a kind of Bubble Jr., any correction will be less widespread.

In 2015’s less-terrifying sequel to 1999, everyone is to be commended for avoiding the worst excesses of the past, the empty vehicles for irrational exuberance like Pets.com.•

 

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Salespeople at companies I have worked for: Scientologists, cokeheads, pathological liars, a fuckface who rang a cowbell each time a deal closed, a lady who loudly worried about the state of her “ta-tas” prior to meeting clients, and one guy so creepy I think about him each time I hear of a string of Craigslist hooker murders.

No, they weren’t all that bad, but the goal of having an in-house staff of highly professional salespeople at every single business is likely unrealistic. Could this department be reimagined, perhaps outsourced, even Uberized?

In a Wall Street Journal article, Christopher Mims writes about the growing momentum of sales as a contingent position, a potential further fractionalization of the job pool. The opening:

Right now a college student in Sweden—let’s call him Sven—has a rather unusual summer job. He’s in sales, but he hasn’t met anyone from the company whose products he pushes.

His boss is an app. It considers Sven’s strengths and weaknesses as a salesman, matches him with goods from any of a dozen brands, and plots a route through Stockholm optimized to include as many potential customers as possible in the time allotted to him.

The app is like Uber, but for a sales force. It has many of the same dynamics: Companies can use it to get salespeople on demand, and those salespeople choose when to work and which assignments to accept. The startup behind it, Universal Avenue, calls the idea “sales as a service.”

While the Stockholm-based company may be pioneering this model of it, outsourcing functions traditionally considered integral to a business is a trend that’s gaining steam with certain types of companies.

Anyone who needs to put salespeople in front of potential customers who aren’t otherwise economical to reach can do so, it seems, by combining the magic of a remote workforce and fractional employment.•

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As usual, Christopher Mims gets to the heart of the matter in his latest WSJ column, this one about the so-called Sharing Economy, in which little or nothing is shared, the only real change being jobs destabilized by businesses that are pure app and no inventory. It’s a Libertarian dream, a market with fungible, low-paid workers and no nets, and you, rabbit, had better get used to your task because it’s fractional employment and you are a very common denominator.

Mims wonders how this new breed of workers will ultimately be classified and whether an eventual class-action lawsuit could kill the category, though I if I had to bet, I would guess that’s not how things unfold.

An excerpt:

The first thing everyone misses about the sharing economy is that there is no such thing, not even if we’re being semantically charitable. Increasingly, the goods being “shared” in the sharing economy were purchased expressly for business purposes, whether it’s people renting apartments they can’t afford on the theory that they can make up the difference on Airbnb, or drivers getting financing through partners of ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft to get a new car to drive for those same services.

What’s more, many of the companies under this umbrella, like labor marketplace TaskRabbit, don’t involve “sharing” anything other than labor. If TaskRabbit is part of the sharing economy, then so is every other worker in America. The only thing these companies have in common is that they are all marketplaces, though they differ widely in the amount of control they give their buyers and sellers.

In the minds of critics, perhaps the worst offender in how it controls its labor force is Uber. Uber sets the prices that its drivers must accept, and has lately been in the habit of unilaterally squeezing drivers in two ways, both by lowering the rates drivers are paid per trip and increasing Uber’s cut of those wages. Behavior like this has led to some pretty overheated but not entirely undeserved rhetoric.•

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I still recall the frustration when I first entered the workplace and tried explaining to someone significantly older than myself that soon people wouldn’t care about working at a particular desk every day, that a place of business would not be a second home and that it was all headed in a much looser and more mobile direction. That conversation did not go far.

So, I certainly won’t discount Christopher Mims of the WSJ when he argues that most work in the future will be remote and aided by tools like Virtual Reality teleconferencing. I really only question the “most” part of his assertion, as these tools, once improved to satisfactory levels, will certainly be employed in business in the same manner as tablets and smartphones.

Of course, if automation takes all our jobs, we’ll be able to use our VR helmets to imagine the poorhouse is a five-star hotel. How sublime the new poverty!

From Mims:

I am convinced that the future of remote work—that is, the future of most work—is devices few people have been privileged to try, but won’t want to abandon once they do.

Let’s take this in order of when these technologies will be available. Oblong Industries was started by John Underkoffler, who designed the futuristic computer interfaces in the film Minority Report. Since 2013, Oblong has sold to deep-pocketed clients systems for fully outfitting conference rooms with banks of large monitors, cameras for videoconferencing, software that allows anyone present to wirelessly display the contents of his or her laptop or tablet on these screens, and Nintendo Wii-style wands that allow them to point at and manipulate this content.

Sitting in one of these rooms not long ago, I got the feeling that the Oblong staffers I was remotely collaborating with weren’t somewhere else so much as in a room right next door, and that I was looking through a glass window at them.

This year, Intel Corp. is rolling out its RealSense technology, which gives the cameras in laptops the ability to see and understand depth, just like Microsoft’s Kinect. Sanjay Patel, CEO of Personify, says he thinks RealSense will show up in tens of millions of notebooks this year, as every major PC manufacturer has revealed models that incorporate it. By the end of the year, it may also show up in tablets and phones.•

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