Leap-frogging the Unicorns

or disrupting the disruptors

Keeping up with the Cambrians

I recently saw a chart that plotted the occurrence of the phrase “exponential growth” in published works over the last decades. Unsurprisingly the chart showed an exponential curve. Similarly I have started to notice a Cambrian explosion of “Cambrian explosions” … (the Cambrian Explosion was a phase in our geological record where there was an apparently very rapid increase in the diversity of life forms on Earth). I’m seeing the term applied in a broad variety of technology fields right now: as I cycle to work every day I’m seeing a Cambrian explosion of personal propulsion devices including electric skate-boards, power-assisted bicycles, hover-boards, scooters and obviously electric and potentially self-driving cars; in my day job we’re seeing a Cambrian explosion in tools and techniques to make data-centers ever more powerful and reliable (it’s not just the jobs of commercial drivers that are under threat from the new algorithms, sysadmins are endangered too); you just need to browse through Kickstarter or Indiegogo to see the explosion in ingenious ideas about how to graft ubiquitous connectivity and embedded smarts into every day objects; and while we’re at it we’re seeing a Cambrian explosion in terms to describe the ecosystem of all these smart connected devices.

Not disruptive

Contrary to popular opinion the likes of Uber and AirBnB are not disruptive innovators. At least not in the technical sense. These “unicorns” are clearly having a “disruptive” impact in the colloquial sense to their respective industries. But if we remove the label of “disruptor” and examine how they have succeeded we may get a better insight into how to replicate their successes, or even improve on them. Particularly if we broaden our remit to focus on solving not just for friction-reduction at the individual level, but also at the societal.

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The Green Shoots of Fair Data

“Privacy is dead – get used to it!” This is the common wisdom you’ll hear if you spend much time hanging out near Silicon Valley, reading about the latest application of predictive analytics to improving customer loyalty, or following the most recent start-ups who are busy wiring up every corner of the world to the growing Internet of Things. I spend my time doing all those things, but I don’t accept the common wisdom – I want to explore with you why I believe that reports of the death of privacy are much exaggerated. And I want to explore how there may be viable and differentiating advantages for organizations to pursue a different path.

The Data Economy

It’s clear that we’re living in a burgeoning data economy and that this economy is driven by technology. Moore’s Law rattles on apace and in its wake new generations of devices and sensors are making more and more areas of the physical world addressable by compute. We’re experiencing a self-enforcing cycle: advances in technology extract ever increasing oceans of data from the world and its inhabitants; this data is used to tailor ever better digital products and services; these improved products in turn generate more profit which is then funneled back into R&D to drive new technological advances and so the virtuous techno-utopian cycle keeps turning.

This cycle has a secondary engine whipping it along faster and faster: as we create better products the loyalty and trust of customers grows and their willingness to share ever more data increases. The implicit bargain that modern organizations are making with their customers is: “give me your data and we will give you delightful services.” Even if customers don’t explicitly state their acceptance of this bargain, their tacit acceptance of the deal drives the conventional wisdom that privacy is, to all intents and purposes, dead. For as long as we lap up ostensibly free services such as Gmail, Facebook and Dropbox, that are funded by the data and insights they can extract and sell to advertisers, there will be no impetus to search for an alternative to the conventional wisdom. Similarly we’re seeing frenetic competition to customize recommendations (and potentially pricing) for customers of retail, travel and media products.

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Web 2.0 created Surveillance 1.984

Web 2.0 has had a massive impact for good on the lives of modern humans. Web 2.0 has also been complicit in ushering in the most advanced, pervasive and Orwellian surveillance state ever witnessed by humanity. You could say that Web 2.0 created Surveillance 1.984.

How might we retain the benefits of a hyper-connected and computer-augmented society without being constantly watched by people whose interests may not always directly align with ours? How can we use technology to fashion a future that we actually want to inhabit?

The full details of the monitoring apparatus that the NSA, CIA and other “security” agencies have constructed are still trickling out from the cache of documents released into the wild by Edward Snowden. What has become clear is that every action performed in the digital arena, whether it be sending an email, making a phone call, browsing a website, tweeting an opinion, buying an item, taking a photo or just moving around with a phone in your pocket, can, and usually is, being intercepted, stored and mined for information. The technologies and services that allow us to be constantly connected to information, colleagues, friends and loved ones at the same time allow the government to snoop on private citizens in an unprecedented, unrequested and effectively unregulated manner.

Read the rest of my article on Medium


Robot rights? My foot!

San Francisco is a wonderful place – I ended up having an interesting discussion last night with a self-styled “geek-at-large” about robots, ethics and unix while hanging out at a not-for-profit who are improving the world one wi-fi network at a time.

The robot maker’s argument was that robots don’t have to be super intelligent to carry out some pretty useful, robotic, tasks. He was suggesting that there’s a blind-alley in robotic research premised on being able to map and track everything in your environment in order to move and interact effectively. His argument was that instead you just needed to be able to identify a goal to move towards and be able to avoid collisions. That is a much simpler goal than understanding your whole environment.

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