Tech and Art

Last night I asked for a writing prompt, not for my blog, but for my planned creative writing stream on Twitch.tv. Instead of a fictional writing prompt, I got one requesting I write about the intersection of technology and art. This is a pretty interesting space to be honest as there are folks that are building crazy things for Burning Man, Soak in Oregon, and just for fun.

The laser reflecting on the windmill is pretty interesting. I haven’t see anything quite like this before. When I used to drive between Austin and Santa Fe on a regular basis the wind mills in east Texas, always got me excited, even when it was just the flashing light on the top. The elegance of the blades juxtaposed with the barren landscape was really a great site to behold.

This gif also brought to mind another Dutch technologist/artist though. This creator uses a form of machine evolution to create super interesting “animals” that move around on beaches without going into the ocean and that move around more efficiently.

A book I read a number of years ago, called “Design Driven Innovation”  talks about how using art along with an understanding of how people use objects allows a great deal of innovation in our products. What might seem useless today, such as a laser on a windmill may actually help pave the way for new energy transmission methodologies or perhaps another way to enhance the amount of energy a windmill actually creates.

I’ll close this with my thoughts about an event in Eindhoven, The Netherlands that I really loved. It was a Glow Festival, which really makes sense because it was a city large built upon the successes of Philips. It is a festival where the entire city center is turned into a series of light art exhibits. It combines the aesthetics of the old city, with modern lights. I really enjoyed it and if you’re living in Europe I strongly suggest you check it out!

Capitalism vs. Robots – which is more terrifying?

In an article that recently resurfaced on Reddit, Famed Astrophysicists Stephen Hawking argues that we should fear capitalism more than robots. I think the timing of this is somewhat interesting, being an election cycle and the two populist candidates are opposites in many regards especially in terms of Democratic Socialism vs. Crony Capitalism (Sanders v Trump). In the broader context of emerging technology this is important as well though, as many other technology leaders have expressed fear of AI, such as Elon Musk, while other leaders are running full steam ahead towards more and more automation.

Hawking isn’t the only person thinking about the economy and technology though. Warren Buffet just released Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report with some pretty stark warnings about the future of capitalism in action at the corporate level. Indicating that innovation does have a darkside. While he’s speaking as a manager, there are economists looking into this and in the book Second Machine age, the authors argue that the best is still to come, because man and machine work best together, not separately.

Unfortunately, this will only push the ceiling up on skills required for jobs, rather than expanding opportunities. A perfect example of this will be Uber. Being an Uber driver isn’t a difficult job because of skill requirements, but because it’s a boring job that is relatively tiring. Uber has been pushing down their prices over a multi-month/year process which will continue through the introduction of “Autonomous” Cars, or RobotCars. At this time a large number of low skilled workers will find themselves out of a job, including people I know and probably people you know. This has been Uber’s plan for a long time as they understand that people are the biggest costs and risk for the company. Especially in light of the mass shooting in Michigan.

Uber isn’t the only major company looking to replace workers like this. In fact, it’s likely that a lot of White Collar jobs are going to go this route as well, including in industries that notoriously relied on people that then made unethical decisions, such as the financial industry.  We’ve heard of High Frequency Trading, which is basically a set of algorithms to make decisions on buying and selling stocks based on microtrends. However, this is going to continue to expand into newer areas. It’s been well remarked that most brokers are no better than a coin flip (Black Swan; Drunkards Walk; Thinking, Fast and Slow; all reference this) so it is highly likely that algorithms will do better than people in picking winners and losers on the stock market. It’s also likely that those algorithms will have access to more data faster than any person could eve analyze and act upon.

This interaction between capitalism and automation creates huge risks for the economy. A few years ago, there was a “flash crash” which was basically caused by those HFT I mentioned above. As more and more portions of the financial industry come under the purview of robo-traders, these sorts of events are going to be more likely. These institutions still have pushed most of the risk to the public, while retaining the bulk of the profits from these robots.

As these trends continue across industries, the local optimization of companies to automate and create more robots is going to gradually push people out of jobs at a more and more rapid pace than new categories of jobs can be opened. I think it likely that will be likely that we’ll see more companies going the route of Uber. Using tools like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get processes started before they invest effort and energy into automating processes. Once they are shown to be successful, the effort to remove the human element will continually increase until those workers are out of a job. What we will eventually see is a white collar migratory worker going from one type of tech job to another only to be replaced by automation in the long run.

The impact to the economy in the long run and the human condition in the short term will be catastrophic as our current institutions are not designed to handle this sort of change in labor type. The incentives for this behavior has been in place for decades and have been pushing bad actors to be worse, such as the Turing Pharmaceuticals’ CEO price gouging dying patients, because the market could support it.

Government Policy and Technology Innovation

In a way that mirrors yesterday’s court ruling, the FCC announce they were going to investigate and likely force serious changes in the world of set top boxes. The FCC, at one point, forced and supported the cable industry in controlling the types of set top boxes (Set top boxes are cable boxes – Roku and AppleTV are cableless competitors) available to consumers. Since then, we’ve suffered with mediocre and extremely expensive boxes. Boxes that cost $16/month and over time you end up paying for a box 10 times over. The gist of this issue is whether or not to allow companies to make “soft” cable cards. Right now, if you want to decode any video from a coax cable from Comcast, you must have a physical card to do the decoding. There’s nothing preventing this from being accomplished entirely using software once you get the signal into the box and that’s what this is trying to encourage.

Granted, this has taken a while for the FCC to wake up and look at the competitive landscape and see that this isn’t in the public interest. Defining exactly what is in the public interest is a difficult because everyone sees this in a different light. However, it’s pretty obvious that something that you end up paying $1,920 over span of ten years isn’t in the public interest. The competition, Roku and AppleTV, each cost between 100-200 one time and you can use it until it dies which will probably be something like 10 years. I’ve had my Roku HD for 5 years now and it still works great. It would make perfect sense for me to buy a version, assuming I had cable at all, that would allow me to watch cable through it. Everything all in one place.

This is the type of regulation that government should be celebrated for encouraging. Granted they screwed it up to begin with and they are only righting a wrong now, but they’re on the right path. Regulation like Net Neutrality is a similar decision that can spur innovation. Looking at T-Mobile’s binge on plan, you can see why we need this. If I’m a small streaming company or, ya know, YouTube, I look at this platform and see how it’s slanted against me and limits what I’m capable of delivering on T-Mobile’s network.

in the case of the FBI and forcing technology companies to change their technology to reduce security, it’s nice to see an organization that’s willing to at least consider improving opportunities for innovators. Sure it may look like picking winners and losers – but when most policy is driven by current winners picking them to lose sure looks more like balancing the playing field to me.

Values in an Agile/Lean/Innovative company

This is part of my Lean Disruption Series where I’m looking at Lean, Agile, Innovation, and Lean Startup.

None of these methodologies can be adopted for free. They require a great deal of firm introspection. Understanding how processes interaction with people and values is vital to adopting any of these approaches let alone a combination of these approaches.

Metrics are one of the best examples of how there can be conflicts between stated values, values in making decisions, how resources are handled and how processes are structured. The famous saying “You manage what you measure” is right in a lot of ways. Many companies claim that they value customer satisfaction, however many of these companies do not actually do anything with the satisfaction surveys they do get. Comcast is the most obvious example of this. Comcast doesn’t really value customer satisfaction because they measure their customer support on how much they can upsell to the customer anytime they are on the phone. This changes the processes their customer support must use, rather than designing processes to enable single call resolution, their processes are designed to enable selling more products. Their employees, the resources, are rated based on this and if they don’t meet those goals they are unlikely to do well. Considering the Verge’s Comcast Confessions series most of the resources at Comcast do not feel valued. This all points to the true values for Comcast being retention at all costs and more revenue per user measured in Churn and ARPU (Average Revenue per User) respectfully.

Agile Manifesto from ITIL’s blog

For a company to adopt an Agile approach to developing software, the paradigm of what the organization values must radically change to align to the Agile Manifesto. In most software development the concepts on the right are what are valued through a Project Management Office. The concepts on the left are typically considered only at the beginning or the end of the project or not at all. Working product is the goal of a project, while customer collaboration inclusive only in the beginning getting requirements.

Switching from the right to the left creates massive cultural upheaval at an organization, where power is shifted down and out. It is shifted down to the team level, where managers in the past made all the important decisions Product Owners, Scrum Masters, and developers make the decision now with the customers. Power is shifted out through increased collaboration with the customer. Customer centricity forces the company to understand what the customer really wants and more quickly respond to changes in their understanding of their needs. This does mean that the “requirements” change, however, in many cases due to the uncertainty in a technology, interface, or some other aspect it was impossible to properly articulate the actual need until there was an example in front of the customer.

With these value changes there must be process changes to that properly reflect the change in the way the values require work to be completed. In the case where Single Call resolution is the most important metric reflecting the value of true customer satisfaction, processes must be built to enable that – such as training, information repositories, and authority to truly address customer needs at a single point of contact. In software development rapid iteration with continual feedback is a process that must be built to enable that.

This changes are not free and require true commitment from leaders across the organization. Without their commitment any adoption of these frameworks is doomed to failure.

New FCC Rules and competition

A friend retweeted the Tweet below today and it got me thinking about the broader context of the FCC rules that past last Thursday

Two things struck me about this tweet. First, it’s disappointing that the author doesn’t understand Title II better considering he co-founded the EFF. Second, that Title II as implemented was designed to do nothing about ISP competition. As I wrote on KBMOD this week, Net Neutrality has no provision for “Unbundling” which would promote competition amongst ISPs at the local level. Unbudling, according to Wikipedia, is a regulation that requires existing line owners (such as Comcast) to open up their lines to anyone that wants to sell cable, internet, or telephony access. Unbundling, under a much more restrictive Title II, is the only reason that AOL was successful as a business model. Since this provision of Title II was forborne, Title II will not, in fact, be for promoting competition in ISPs at all.

Instead, the FCC, at least in my opinion, looked at the Internet as a general purpose platform technology. They were looking to ensure competition ON the technology not between technology carriers. For example, the FCC wants to see as much competition as possible between companies like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Comcast’s Xfinity service. However, they want to make sure that Comcast cannot foreclose on the video delivery service by leveraging their existing monopoly in telecommunications. What that means is that Comcast could create rules or an environment where Netflix cannot compete and Comcast customers MUST use the Xfinity service because alternatives didn’t function well (Foreclosure is the thing that got Microsoft with Web browsers).

The FCC did enact a rule that will impact competition at the local level though. It’s a limited rule because it impacts only Tennessee and North Carolina. It is preempting state law by stating that it is legal for municipalities to develop their own broadband networks. Broadband build out is prohibitively expensive for an entrepreneur to set up a network, however if they had a backing of a municipality that is willing to share the risk and the reward, it might be possible for an entrepreneur to build out their own broadband network on a limited scale. Municipalities aren’t the ideal solution to this, it would be significantly more preferable if other businesses moved into areas and built new broadband networks, however unless they have a massive amount of money, like Google, it’s unlikely to happen. A bridge between is a public-private partnership where private enterprise, which has the telecommunications expertise, partners with a municipality, which has the demand and financial support, to build a network.

With the ruling on municipal broadband being so limited, it’s not going to make much of an initial impact, however it’s likely that other municipalities will try to jump on that bandwagon and overrule laws at the state level (as a note I’m not going to argue if this is something they have the authority to do, I’m just looking at the potential impact of the rule).

The Innovation machine – This is a “how to” guide for Innovation management

As many of my blog readers know I’m an innovation reading junky. I’ve read many of the books on how to manage, from a individual’s perspective, creating an innovation or even at a high level how to run an innovation project. However, this if the first book that looks at things in a very systematic manner utilizing a lot of case studies. The Innovation Machine by Rolf-Christian Wentz is a fantastic introduction into a series of case studies of the most innovative companies in the world.

Books like the Innovator’s Dilemma are a lot more prescriptive in what a business should do or how a given business has been disrupted. Typically they focus on the smaller entrants that enter a market and beat the incumbents. The Innovation Machine on the other hand looks at the incumbents and analyzes what the organization did culturally to enable innovation. I believe books like Innovator’s Method and the Lean Startup address a different need: how to take an innovative idea to market. This book touches on those things, but looks at how the whole organization can enable those Lean startups within the organization and use it’s size to maximize the results.

The Innovation Machine also touches on the portfolio management aspect as well as some of the best ways to fund projects, staff projects (2 is best, a small room is next, anything else is doomed to fail), and finally how to integrate the project teams back into the larger business as a whole. No book that I’ve read has really discussed how to do this. All these topics are covered with clear case studies of some of the most innovative companies. He includes discussions of Google, Toyota, GE, P&G, SC Johnson, BMW, Microsoft, Whirlpool, and a litany of others. The stories are referenced as he details the concepts that were leveraged by the companies in his case study.

I believe that this book is a must read for a CEO or a leader that values innovation. Especially since he calls out the massive differences between managing Incremental Innovation and Disruptive Innovation – he gives very clear practical examples and methods for managing them separately. I believe these are powerful and will help me identify projects I work on more easily as disruptive or incremental.

AMD, What Are You Doing?

The past few months haven’t been kind to AMD. First Lisa Su, the first female CEO, ousted Rory Read. Now three leaders have left including the General Manager John Byrnes, CMO Colette LaForce and Chief Strategist Rajan Naik. Furthermore, it’s pretty clear that the remaining two leaders long term leaders, Mark Papermaster CTO and Devindar Kumar were sort of bribed to stay with restricted stock. This is on top of delays in their desktop, graphics, and mobile chipset and layoffs.

I think it’s pretty clear that AMD no longer has a clear strategy. AMD, while I was working there, was starting to put out some cool stuff that could really define the future of computing. Their APUs were best in class and could have been deployed in a lot of really cool applications. However, those never appeared to have materialized and now Intel is starting to attack the SoC market. While Intel’s Iris graphic chipset is way behind AMD in pure power, I think it’s going to play a serious role in the up coming years especially since Intel is leveraging a similar enough design that they are able to use the Open Compute Language that AMD championed.

Another area of concern for AMD fans is that John Byrne, shortly before his departure, announced at CES that AMD was steering clear of the IoT phenomenon. Which I found surprising considering that their strategy, only a year and a half ago, was to conquer the embedded computing space. Since they restructured again, that’s about 4 times in the past 4 years, they have clearly decided to forego that space. The IoT chipsets are likely going to be a disruptive technology to computing. For instance, this computer you can dock and upgrade every year for about $200, while Intel released a full Windows computer on an HDMI stick for $150. In the past I wrote that I thought that the dockable phone that would turn into a full computer would be the long term future, but these are the incremental steps to get us there.

AMD clearly doesn’t see these spaces the future. They are currently looking at where the market is now and not truly planning for the future. I was excited whenever AMD announced the partnership with Gizmosphere hoping it could compete head to head with the Raspberry Pi, but AMD is clearly failing to embrace that movement, since those devices would be powering the IoT and the maker movement. On the otherhand Intel is rushing to embrace these groups and sees these people as the way into attacking Qualcomm, Samsung, ARM, and Apple’s designs.

Low power is going to be vital for the future expecting a smaller and smaller niche of applications. In these applications, excepting graphics chips, AMD is getting crushed. Even in the graphics space AMD is starting to flounder with poor quality, as @NipnopsTV reported with his year old or so 7970 card.

All of these should be a concern for AMD fans. The company is not investing in the disruptive technology hitting their industry, their market cap is only $2.06B and their shares are at $2.66. They may be positioning themselves to get bought or could be at risk for a hostile take over for their IP or pushed into bankruptcy since their IP might be worth more than the company operating as it is. Look at Nortel to as an example where it’s IP was sold for $4.5B while everything else was just ditched.

Could we eventually see a Samsung R290 and a Samsung Kaveri processor? They gobbled up a ton of AMD’s engineers in 2013 definitely could happen.