Friday, August 22. 2014
Richard Dawkins (respected/hated Evolutionary Biologist and loved/hated Atheist) has touched off yet another Twitterstorm, via that unfortunate habit Evolutionary Biologists (and Vulcans) have of looking at humans from a viewpoint of mass mathematical game theory participants, rather than as - well, humans. Cue yet another Twitterstorm du Jour. (Huffington Post summaries it best):
The irony of Dawkins being called "immoral" by religious and various other "strong beliefs" based groups often proposing far worse things is piquant, but there is an even bigger irony here with Mr Dawkins doing this. He actually was the first person to coin the term "meme" and to postulate how they work. So, depending on your point of view on Mr D, he is either a master memeticist or a complete c*nt who has been hoisted on his own memetic petard by the #Offended on Social Media.
Oh yes - there were 12 points to the Huffpo article, and these are the clinchers I think:
11. Attempting to squeeze a few last hits out of the now-subsiding "outrage", a journalist will write a meta-piece attempting to explain the anatomy of a Dawkins Twitter scandal*.
He is clearly a master memetic tactician therefore, Twitterstorms and meta-pieces being the sign of memetic success - but whether continuing to offend large numbers of people in exchange for viral Twitter publicity is a good strategic memetic play is less clear. Wildean theory says it is effective, but in a Social Media Age where everything you say remains online to be held against you, it may not be. After all, one of the first lessons of social game theory is being nice wins - eventually...
*13. Attempting to extract the last ounces of traffic, a blogger writes a snarky piece on the whole affaire...
Monday, August 11. 2014
Very interesting article in the Economist about "Entrepreneurial" vs "Innovation" economics. the whole article is well worth reading as it is one of those very rare items in the UK "Tech Startup" space - a systemic analysis with actual numbers. There are 3 key points dealing with the UK's current Startup / "Every Person is an Entrepreneur" craze:
Firstly, State money is wasted on funding too many entrpreneurial SMES with too little money, they do nothing for the economy overall:
....once you take into account the number of SME jobs lost after the first three years of their creation, there is very little net job creation by these firms. Only 1% of new enterprises have sales of more than £1 million six years after they start. Research at the University of Sussex shows that median sales of a six-year-old firm is less than £23,000 (Storey, 2006). These firms also tend to be the least productive and least innovative (R&D spending—the best measure we have for inputs in the innovation process—in Tech City is not higher than in other parts of London or Britain). Indeed, the few high growth innovative firms (about 6% of the total SME group, Nesta, 2011)—those that really should be supported—do not directly benefit from the hype that surrounds SMEs and startups: once they get the funds these are too diluted to make a difference.
Secondly, what the State should be funding is an Innovation ecosystem, not an Entrepreneurial/Startup one per se
Innovation-led “smart” growth has occurred mainly in countries with a big group of medium to large companies, and a small group of SMEs that is spun out from some of those large companies or from universities. These firms have benefited immensely from government funded research. Indeed, in my book I show how many firms in Silicon Valley have benefitted directly from early-stage funding by government, as well as the ability to build their products on top of government funded technologies.
The author points out that nearly every "entrepreneurial startup" in Silicon Valley today would not exist without huge US government funded projects that underpin it's technology, and direct low cost (aka non VC) early days investment - Apple is a case in point:
Every technology that makes the iPhone smart was government-funded (internet, GPS, touch-screen display, SIRI). Apple spends relatively little on R&D compared with other IT firms precisely because it uses existing technology. It applies its remarkable design skills to these technologies, effectively surfing on a government-funded wave. Apple, Compaq and Intel also all enjoyed the benefits of early-stage public funds (SBIC in the case of Apple, SBIR in the case of Compaq and Intel).
Thirdly the UK's state spend on innovation and pull through is small by competitive standards. Silicon Valley was largely built on the huge government backed spendiing, not the VC community - and it is probably still the real case:
Silicon Valley firms were initially not funded mainly by venture capital. It came in after the ball had got rolling thanks to funding by the Department of Defence, the Department of Health and, more recently, the Department of Energy. In fact, there is increasing evidence that many startups are told by venture-capital firms to go first to SBIR and then come back (Block and Keller, 2013).Venture-capital funds are not providing the kind of patient long-term finance needed for radical innovations. They are too focused on a profitable “exit”—usually through an IPO or a sale to a bigger company—within 3-5 years. But innovation often takes 15-20 years.
This sort of state pull through is what China is using too, and the numbers are measured in $ Trillions. In fact even in Europe, the UK underperforms hugely on this sort of state investment:
In Germany such links are created by well-funded Fraunhofer Institutes. In Britain these are being imitated through the Catapult centres, which in theory should be linked to Tech City-type projects, either through procurement policy or via learning. Currently there are no links between these. And whereas the Fraunhofer system has an annual research budget of €1.8 billion ($2.4 billion) and a network of 20,000 staff across 60 centres (in 2010), Britain’s Catapult centres were given just £200m to spend over 4 years. When the Tech-City gurus in Number 10 Downing Street criticise the Technology Strategy Board, which is in charge of the Catapult strategy, for not being more like Darpa, they ignore the very different size of TSB’s budget in comparison with Darpa—and even more the fact that the TSB does not have the market creating potential that Darpa does.
Leads to a fourth point, about the competence of No 10's "Tech City Gurus" and advisors - but that's for another post. To end though, the observation is if small beer is what the government is willing to put into the game, its better to spend it on tertiary education and R&D, where impacts are proven, rather than launch a million underfunded startups:
Research at the University of Cambridge (Hughes 2008) suggests that the British government spends (directly and indirectly) close to £8 billion ($13 billion) annually on SMEs—more than it spends on the police and close to the amount it spends on universities. Is this warranted? How do we know it would not be better to simply direct that money to teachers where there is plenty of evidence that quality education raises human capital and growth.
This post is just a summary, I recommend reading the article.
Tuesday, June 24. 2014
Robobuzz (Source: NESTA - see link in text)
As readers of this blog may know, we started watching Robotics again in about 2008* when it became clear to us that the advance of Moore's Law meant that finally enough computer power and battery life made it possible to build robots with all their systems onboard, so they could become self-mobile and (to an extent) self directing. This change was labelled "3rd Generation" robotics (as always it was hyped long before it became reality, but over the last 5 years or so there has been a tipping point), and heralded a "Cambrian Explosion" in new robot design. This happens in every new technology, see here re: ships, steel and steam for example, and a plethora of ideas (and companies) start up up in the Darwinian ooze of the startup ecosystem, until eventually the category killers emerge.
Anyway, you know the robobuzz is well and truly ringing the bells of the early mass mind when someone like NESTA produces a 100+ page book on Robotics, it is called "Our Work Here is Done", and I read it over the weekend. It's a series of essays by various people on the topics of robot evolution, robot economics, robots and society, and of course What is To Become Of Humanity.
As to the individual papers - as you'd imagine, they're a bit curate's eggy, but there is a lot of good stuff, and some real nuggets in just about every paper. There are 4 main sections:
Overall though it is a good introductory overview to all the emerging socio-economic issues. My two critiques overall are that:
- it is light on the actual technologies and how it all works, IMO its useful to have a grasp of the basic emergent technologies - stops the flights of the the fanciful.
But with those caveats, its a cracking read.
I'm sorry I missed the launch, as one of Broadstuff Towers' all time heroes, Carlota Perez,, gave a keynote talk and it was excellent (see here). She would be the first to note there is usually quite a bit of Destruction before the happy Creation phase. I suspect that will also be the case for robot futures - take longer to happen, be nastier while happening, and take longer to get better. As one grounded participant (Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum) tweeted:
"The cry of forthcoming robot revolution won't be "I'll be back" or Exterminate, but 'Unexpected item in bagging area"
No one knows what to do with those who will be displaced by this industrial revolution, but at least this time round most of the writers note the displacement will happen...
(*Bit of background - my Honours dissertation & design project was on Robotics, years ago when they were very 1st generation - I reckoned robots were at least 30 years away from being more than auto-Waldos and went on to d other stuff, but now things are getting very interesting again).
Wednesday, June 18. 2014
People Invested $1 Million In An App That Just Says ‘Yo’
"It’s not just an app that says Yo,” says Mr Arbel. “It’s a whole new means of communication"
'nuff said... are we getting to an age when every startup gets $1m just for existing? Will tomorrow see $1m for an App that says Ni! ?
As was noted by James Surowiecki* in the New Yorker, the problem is increasingly not getting started and seeded these days, its finding a way out the Darwinian stew of all the other crap ideas encouraged to start up - and this ain't the way to fix that.
* Author of Wisdom of Crowds
Friday, June 13. 2014
When the Twitter IPO was mooted, we believed that although the company has potential, one of the major risks to its future valuation was its management - see here for example, where we wrote :
6. As always though, realizing potential comes down to execution.
The fun and games this week was totally predictable (see above...), now we await part 2 of our prediction - an Eric Schmidt type character brought in to reassure investors.
Who's your money on?
Monday, May 19. 2014
From The Atlantic, it would seem that Google self drive cars rely hugely on the information about the road.:
In other words, the real work is not in the software for driving the car, but in mapping the road...
Google has created a virtual world out of the streets their engineers have driven. They pre-load the data for the route into the car's memory before it sets off, so that as it drives, the software knows what to expect.
While it simplifies the driving algorithms, it relies on a hugely detailed - and up to date - map of the roads being used. In a way it makes me happier - they are not using new super-technology, nor have they thought of anything no one else has - they have just imagined using a far bigger hammer. As The Atlantic points out, the solution is very "Googley" - Mohammed won't go to Mountain? Simple - move Mountain...
The more you think about it, the more the goddamn Googleyness of the thing stands out: the ambition, the scale, and the type of solution they've come up with to this very hard problem. What was a nearly intractable "machine vision" problem, one that would require close to human-level comprehension of streets, has become a much, much easier machine vision problem thanks to a massive, unprecedented, unthinkable amount of data collection.
Not to mention massive use of huge data centres to do the Crunching...
Which is all very well, until you start to look at the costs of producing this sort of data on enough roads to make these sort of cars useable by private motorists. In fact the setup costs are so huge, and any payback very skewed (looking at where most road miles are travelled, it looks a lot like a logistics network) it's likely that these sorts of cars will initially be used as a new sort of taxi in or between major conurbations (ie cost to datamap road can only be offset by volume of paid journeys on very heavily trafficked routes). "Data Highways" first, then city roads, then suburban roads, then small towns, and as for the final 20% of rural roads - maybe never. And that is just the cost of initial digitisation - but you then have to keep those data maps to a useable level of accuracy, so frequent re-digitisation is required.
This also seems very similar to the classic Simulation Model error - the belief that if you can make a model that is accurate enough, you can simulate anything in software. The truth is you cannot simulate anything with 100% error free models, so you have to believe that 99.9999999% reliability x millions of road miles travelled x probability of serious accident will give a better outcome than is currently possible with a zero cost non digitised road, a sophisticated biocomputer driving the vehicle, and a fraction of this investment spent on a fraction of this technology to put intelligence onboard to make safer cars over the next few years.
The final issue is this - if Google spends the $ billions to collect the data, and if no one else can use these roads with their automated cars unless they buy that data (how else will the business case work - Ad boards on the cars? ) - then that is a classic infrastructure lock in, like any good road toll scheme. Of course, the local authorities could then add an extra tax on using these cars on their roads, so this could all get very interesting....
So - I made that Ad comment somewhat snarkily, only to find out that very evening that some people are planning to attach plastic laminates that can have have Ads printed on them on cars...and the laminates can have new images uploaded onto them from time to time.
Tuesday, May 13. 2014
Saw this project - Outrunner -on Kickstarter. It particularly caught my interest as it is using a simple but innovative approach to robot movement - two rotating 3-spoke "legs" to get in effect a 6 rotating leg device - to move extremely fast (c 20 mph) and uses a combination of weight shifting and speed adjustment to steer.
It's interesting as the search for optimal robot movement systems is in its early days, and the level of experimentation is huge. This approach maps to the cycle of human running movement, but abstracts it to another architecture (rotating spokes) to deliver a similar result - in my view this observation of tested bio-mechanism and abstraction to mechatronic ones is probably going to be the endgame for optimal "mechanical life" configurations - but this field is a proper "artificial Darwinian stew" as robospecies evolve, and who knows what the endgame will be. (There is a 2 x 2 4 legged version as well, interesting as both sides have 4 spokes but 2 are shorter an don't reach the ground - the spoke on the other side does- I assume that is to balance the secondary moments - one wonders therefore why a 2 x 4 arrangement is not better than a 2 x 3)
But the bigger picture is this - this project (and the many like it) are being funded by end customers rather than angels or banks, so control of the money and ownership of the business is far more in the hands of the founders. Compare this to what these people would heve had to do to get the product out even a few years ago. Whether this one wins or loses is irrlevant, many are being tried out, innovation is moving at rapid speed
One of the real lesson we have learned in our research on new technologies that take off, is that the technological innovation is not enough to drive success and that often innovation in the business model is also required. The "Equity Gap" in technology startup funding has been well documented (by us as and by many others), and it seems that these crowdfunding schemes are part of the solution to that gap*. I see it as a part of the emerging collaborative economy, and it is massively disruptive as it:
- cuts out all direct middlemen, and replaces funding with a market platform at far lower rental cost
In fact one could argue there is now a Darwinian competition between business models as well as mecatronic perambulation systems.
Of course, this is not to say this sort of funding won't have the same problems every other new player going to market has - getting attention. Apps were cool when there were a few, its far harder to make a splash when there are millions to sort through. No doubt at some point rising marketing spend and "trusted third parties" will interpose themselves between funder and crowdfundee (though they may be bots as much as humans) - but for now, it good to see innovative technology being driven by this new innovative business model.
* As of course is the "Freeconomic" benefit of massive research by semi publically funded bodies that these technologies often spin out from....
Thursday, May 8. 2014
Apple will spend $silly on Beat, and confirm that their creative mojo is wilting. The story runs like this:
The potential $3.2 billion deal would mark Apple’s largest acquisition of another company ever, and would be a stark contrast from Apple’s former reluctance to making large acquisitions. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said that Apple is on the “prowl” for more deals, and this Beats acquisition would certainly prove that…
Beat has c200,000 users so that is Apple saying its worth c $16,000 per user....riiiight*. But Big Tech Co's buying in the IP at ludicrous values as they cannot do it themselves anymore - T'was always the case, we've catalogued this from Google to Facebook over the years...
But to me a more interesting story is that the FT, which broke the story, has a paywall so unless you go through the faff of signing up, you don't see their story - which of course most people can't be arsed to do - which means it's been stolen by every other media unit going (and here we go too....) - 9to5Mac is running as the story leader on Techmeme for example.
An interesting downside of paywalls, when the story goes viral, the paywall says No....maybe they need to put Ads on the paywall signup
*Update - Ciaran Norris pointed out to me that Beat was valued at c $1bn a few months ago on a refinancing deal, so a 3.2x valuation uptick in a few months is not quite $silly - though still.....interesting
Tuesday, May 6. 2014
Some time ago we showed a man carrying dronecopter, and then the idea of Amazon delivering packages via drones - put that together, add a few more horsepower, and why not a truck-copter? Now you can - from the Torygraph, news of a truck capable of flying with an octocopter arrangement of rotors:
In this first test, the vehicle hovered 10 feet off the ground for a couple of minutes, but it is capable of flying at much higher altitudes while carrying payloads of more than 4000 pounds.
There's more....why stop with trucks:
The transformer's drive train will also be detachable, allowing it to be replaced by an amphibious boat hull, making it suitable for missions on land – and at sea.
What's interesting to me, putting my Engineering hat on, is why this is only possible now - the theory has been around for decades, so why now? Turns out that its the controllers that allow multiple rotors to be co-ordinated to keep the machine stable, these simple rotors don't tilt or change pich so can only move the 'copter by different motors speeding up or down. Which is the other thin we can do better today - electronic controllers and motors now are better at speeding up and slowing down. Even so, these vehicles will always be less efficient than helicopters. and as vehicle mass increase this will increasingly be a problem so there is probably a limit to growth here - but the (computer aided) simplicity of these new rotor designs are very tempting for smaller man-carrying craft.
Wednesday, April 30. 2014
Mindmap from Ric West ( @ RiczWest ) of the event
I spoke last night at the Cybersalon event on "Reclaiming our Big Data", must say I enjoyed all the contribution from the other panellists who I felt were very well qualified to talk about this area:
Also very well facilitated by Wendy Grossman, and an interesting introduction from Eva Pascoe*
There was a rather good mindmap of the event (see picture above - and it's worth a thousand words, so I don't have to write any ). As you can imagine there were opinions from all over the spectrum, but I did think there was a coalescence around one major issue over the evening from all - that the social understanding, regulations and various laws about privacy, damage restitution and rights to people's own data are not in any way ready for the impact of Big Data.
To my mind the major issue then, over the next few years will be the "Wild West" that will occur until regulation, law and social understanding catch up. That there will be a Wild West cum Gold Rush is not disputable (though no doubt it will be), as there is just too much value in this arena (and too much naivete among the consumer/citizen base) for it not to. The question we need to address going forward is how wild we want it to be, and for how long. And the only way to minimise both in my view is to raise the understanding among those people whose data is being put into play - i.e. YOU!. The recent care.data shenanigans are merely the start of this game, and set the tone of the way it will be played in this coming Wild West - that one was headed off at the nick of time for now, but not before the NHS sold off a lot of the data for a pittance on the quiet (See Ben Goldacre's summary of this over here).
(More detail on my previous notes over here)
*Oh yes - one more thing - Eva Pascoe, the event organiser, made a fascinating observation - that In the history of technology, the more cuddly the logo, the more sinister the company. You have been warned
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