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We Are Seeing the World Change in Our Lifetimes May 19, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I know that sounds like hyperbole, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Let me give an example. When I was growing up, we had a milkman, who delivered milk to our doorstep in a dilapidated old truck early in the morning, twice a week (the milkman was my uncle).

Today, your smart refrigerator can monitor your milk consumption and automatically order milk to be delivered with your dinner that evening. By drone.  You have milk!

But the pace of change has accelerated immensely recently, to the point where we are talking seriously about driverless cars, autonomous vehicles in general, and robots or other AI performing both labor and professional tasks.  No one beyond a few specialists were having these discussions five years ago.

I am in awe at living in this era. The world has never seen anything like this, and we are at the dawn of, well, something.  I know it will be different; I hope it’s good.

Tens of millions of traditional lifetime jobs will disappear in the next decade (sorry, Mr. Trump), and we will never see their likes again.  I am confident that others will arise, in time, but it will be a messy at least several years.

Work in general is changing. There will still be coal miners, but they will be in office cubicles in Des Moines, manhandling joysticks to control the robots a thousand miles away and a thousand feet underground.  I especially liked this one, where London City Airport is basing its air traffic controllers 50 miles away and letting them see and respond to traffic by TV, GPS, and ground systems.

The problem is that we are lousy at predicting the future. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  We can’t know with any certainty what will last, for the moment, and what will fall ignobly.

Many will survive and even thrive. Many will not.  The revolution has started, and I am excited to be a part of it; I simply hope that I am not the first up against the wall.


Just What is Silicon Valley Up To These Days? July 9, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think a lot of us, both in and out of that geographical location and state of mind, wonder just the same thing. When we see fledging companies getting a million dollars or more to develop an app that lets you grab a parking space, or pay for an already-made restaurant reservation, something is clearly wrong.

The question is where is the innovation? The press seems to congregate around those startups that exploit an imaginative though trivial niche. And, to be fair, so do the venture capitalists.

Slate (I still don’t know why we pay any attention to these folks) claims that innovation is being done by established companies these days, rather than by the startups.

I seriously question large companies trying to encourage and fund true innovation. Google does moon shots; Intel throws billions of dollars at a next generation set of chips that may or may not succeed, true. But that’s what established companies do.

But there is little room for true, market-breaking innovation in Google, Intel, HP (especially!), and the rest. Established companies simply have too much invested in their existing products to enable an innovation that threatens a billion-dollar business. These companies did their innovation, and now they are just trying to hang on.

But the Slate article is completely wrong on several accounts. For example:

>> true startup companies like Apple and Microsoft, which lacked those ties to academia and government, innovated only in the consumer sector.

Um, no. That’s not how Apple and Microsoft succeeded. Both desperately pursued the business market, Apple with the LaserPrinter, and Microsoft with Office. Microsoft ultimately succeeded more, but at the expense of longer-term viability.

Academia has been irrelevant as an innovator for a long time. Those that see Xerox PARC as a part of academia are seriously mistaken; it was very much industry, without a way to commercialize. Same with AT&T (not the same AT&T today, you should be aware) Bell Labs.

I do believe that innovation occurs in waves. The fact that we see so many “me too” social interaction companies today says that we are in a period of consolidation, not innovation. Still, innovation will happen again, but the companies of today, even the leaders (are you listening, Facebook?) will not be the true innovators ten years from now.

Have We Lost the Ability to Innovate? January 12, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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That seems to be the discussion de jour among futurists and economists today, and the prognosis doesn’t seem to be good.  The best thing that their collective wisdom points to is that innovation occurs in spurts, after which there is a period of consolidation that we now seem to be in.  The worst prognosis is that there are no more truly fundamental innovations to be had, and that we will spend the rest of future history refining those innovations of the past.

When I was in my formative years, circa late 1960s, I eagerly devoured the pages of Popular Science magazine, seeking out flying cars, personal helicopters, and other futuristic innovations that were just around the corner.  Clearly none of this came to pass, and the publication is now focused much more on promoting and explaining science that is within our grasp (check out the feature on artificial poop, for example).

Do we think smaller?  Have we lost those grandiose visions that enabled us to conceive of flying cars?  Are we no longer willing to risk our careers, lives, and legacies to conceive and create fundamentally new things?  Are we, well, timid and afraid?

There is some support for this notion.  I was eleven when we landed a man on the moon.  We did so a few more times in the following decade, but now, more than forty years later, lack the ability to repeat that feat.  We gave up, weary of the relatively minor cost, and weary of reaching farther than our grasp would lift us.

But that is the real artificial poop in the room.  The man on the moon was an expensive and ultimately dead-end stunt.  It was almost certainly the wrong approach, and whatever our reasons, would not have been the correct choice.  We will be back.

It’s largely true that physics can’t be done by an individual in a small workshop any more, a la Faraday or Helmholtz.  But what they did was sophisticated for their times, and was as alien to the average citizen of the day as a supercollider is to that citizen today.  Today science has to necessarily build upon their accomplishments, which are now taught to students in the eighth grade (or perhaps earlier, for all I know).

If discovering theoretical particles by smashing atoms at nearly the speed of light is the ante to pursue innovation today, then by all means we shall do so.

But science and technology aren’t economic plays, and treating them in that fashion does society a disservice.  We collectively don’t innovate because we want to make a billion dollars (which is why we can never in any sense consider things like Facebook innovative).  We innovate because we can’t not do so.  It may not look very much like the innovation of the past, but it will be recognized as such by the future.