On Ray Kurzweil and Thinking


I was reading a current article by Ray Kurzweil in this month’s edition of The Futurist and it got me to thinking a little. Here are a few random synapse connections from me.

He talked about how the digital neocortex will be be much faster than my wet-ware and that the roughly 300 million pattern recognisers in our biological neocortex will allow us to think in the cloud, using billions or trillions of pattern recognisers.  The IQ part of my brain thinks this could be amazing, although I would worry about dendrite overload or glutamic acid over stimulation, which is associated with conditions such as Alzheimer’s. It’s one thing to connect my brain or nervous system to additional memory, but to extend the processing in and out, is something that I think may require a lot of very careful study.

Earlier this week I wrote a blog about a potential future condition, Google Glasses Separation Syndrome. I recently introduced my daughter to the brilliant book, Flowers for Algernon which follows a similar thread. What happens when you expand a person’s capability to the point that it changes their existence and then potentially remove it again.

I noted that Ray perhaps doesn’t like driving very much because he talked about self driving cars alleviating the requirement of humans to perform the ‘chore of driving’. Sorry Ray, I love driving and so do a large percentage of the people I know. I appreciate that you now work for Google and they are pioneering driver-less cars, but I don’t want to live in a city where eventually the law requires hat the ‘network’ takes over my car. Yes there are benefits in road safety etc.  but with systems such as Fleet Management, MobilEye, and the incentives of PAYD Insurance the roads will become safer without requiring us to take our hands off the wheel.

So IBM‘s Watson won Jeopardy, cool. It is an amazing AI and I love that it is now being used to look for cure’s for cancer amongst other things. But if you start thinking about Watson, a digital neocortex and singularity, what about EQ? It’s one thing to be able to identify things, to be able to locate information, to be able to combine apparently disparate bits of data, but how about feelings, intuition, id and ego? These are the things that make us human.

I like where this is going, but I also want to keep that which is me. Watson might be able to write a hit song by understanding the formulas and this has been tried before. But the song I wrote about a boy whose father lost his job at the plant and asks Santa to find his dad a job, while his mother sits and cries in the bedroom, or the one I wrote about a guy who returns from a tour of duty in Iraq to find his best friend is now sleeping with his girlfriend, that brought tears to Desert Storm vets isn’t going to come from an AI. An AI may understand the chemical reactions of the brain and intellectually that these experiences can cause people to be sad.

The ultimate AI could use impeccable logic to say that humans are bad for the planet, they are frequently illogical, their emotions cause them to make bad decisions and basically shouldn’t be here. Perhaps when Watson really ‘thinks’ about cancer, it might determine that humans are in factor a cancer on this planet and should be booted down. Then we will be left with the singularity which will contain all information, ask why and then boot itself down because having access to all the information in the world, does not impart any meaning.

 

I’m Tired Of You Amex


At a quarter past 5 this morning, my phone started vibrating on my bedside cabinet. My wife stirred next to me, asking “What’s that?” At that time in the morning, in the middle of a REM state, your mind starts racing, your heart starts pumping and you’re thinking someone in your family is hurt, sick, in crisis.

Several times over the last year I have had battles with American Express charging me whopping late payment fees for my account. It transpires that we did automatic payments the day prior to the due date through the National Bank (now ANZ) but it typically took 3 or more days for the money to trickle through to Amex, even though our bank statements showed that we had made the payments on time.

We asked for explanations from the bank and from American Express and no one could explain. It just seemed to go into a black hole and of course no one really understands black holes yet, so they couldn’t explain where the money went, why it took so long, nor how a few days later it would appear, LATE, into our Amex account. Maybe it has something to do with cosmic string overnight cash rates, but if so, the interest certainly didn’t come to us to help pay with the late fee.

AmexSo we agreed with Amex that we would pay several days earlier than the due date (funny how they ping consumers when the average company takes 72 days to pay their 20th of the month accounts) and they put us on a text service where they would let us know when the account was due and when they received the payment.

Up until now those TXT messages came through at a reasonable hour, but this morning (maybe reduced fees for out of business hours SMS?) they decided to TXT me at 5:16 AM.

Well thanks Amex, I know you aren’t going to charge me a late fee. but I haven’t slept since you woke me up and have a long day ahead with important business meetings. I just want you to know that this is not cool or helpful, and I’m kinda annoyed. I’d ring you and try to wake you up, but I’m sure I’d end up talking to a nice person somewhere in the world where it is business hours.

Perhaps someone can look into your systems and think about putting in a few rules?

Blame the Technology and Australia


Continuing my search into what happened at Whitcoulls and Borders and  generally what’s going on with New Zealand retailers I am finding no surprises, which is a real worry. Two words come up a lot. Technology and Australia. I know a little of both. I live for technology and have trained many retailers over the years (including some who were already millionaires) and while the technology has changed, the principles haven’t. More on this to come.

Australia and New Zealand

As to Australia. In the 90′s many Australasian retailers who had New Zealand operated subsidiary chains based in New Zealand, decided to do away with local country management, local buyers etc.  and to save lots of money by treating their NZ shops as Australian branches. I guess they considered New Zealand as a slightly bigger Tasmania. Not huge, but worth having, especially if they didn’t put much effort into senior staffing  resources.

When performance decreased they blamed the economy, they said that NZ was just an over inflated state and it was always going to be that way, which was how they justified reducing local resources in the first place. The fact is while we may have a lot in common, we are not the same. We are made up of different cultures and history and have subtle differences in our lifestyles. Subtle enough that you can’t treat NZ stores the same as Australian stores and expect the same result.

Similar scenarios happened in many cases with the decades of American Globalisation. It’s funny really that America wanted to change Japan and the rest of Asia Pacific while Japan wanted to change the west. I well remember having discussions with senior management of Casio in Tokyo and Hamura about improving the software on their cash registers. One of the issues was that they hadn’t allowed for people pressing buttons in the wrong sequence. Have you ever been in a retail store when the ECR (Cash Register) is bleeping loud noises no matter what buttons are pushed and the stress it caused the cashier? Their initial response was “They must use the ECR in the right way or you should find better customers”. We ended up beta testing their software in NZ and Australia first and then getting Japan to tweak their software. That was one of the initiatives that helped us get 70% market share in the ECR market in NZ and helped Casio increase theirs around the world. But then of course the company I worked for was sold and I along with my boss and several other great people were made redundant despite the fact that we were doing really well, but because they thought we were earning too much. I’d love to know what their market share is in NZ now. I know it isn’t 70%. Anyway I’m going off on a tangent.

The big thing I noticed in the NZ stores was inventory management. They were carrying a lot of books that I wouldn’t think anyone would buy other than as a joke. I went back to Borders a week ago to jot some of the names down, but it looks like they went in the $1, $2, $5 sale and were gone. They had many dated books especially computing which must have been in store for several years, technical books on how to use software that almost no one has used in the last 5 years.

From what I’ve been told, someone automated the purchasing software to replace books that had sold, so for example if a particular book sold really well, say 5,000 copies, the system would replace with another 5,000 copies. Well there goes the profit from the first lot.

One of the things that makes New Zealand different is our ethnic communities. All over New Zealand, but particularly in Auckland we have clusters of ethnic communities; Chinese, Korean, South African, Indian, Pacific Islanders and more. Brands who fail to take that into consideration waste massive levels of stock by having the wrong product in the wrong locations, which then becomes shop soiled and potentially unsaleable.

Inventory needs to be managed locally by category managers who understand and are at the leading edge of their category and who understand their local market. They need to know weekly what is going on and understand who their customers are and what they are buying. Some books date more quickly than others and need to be moved on quickly, others will hold their value longer, but will still have a rapid half life.

In my previous blog about Whitcoulls and Borders I wrote about how they could follow the example of Amazon and know what their individual repeat customers were buying and therefore their interests and could recommend books to them. Amazon continue to prove that people in NZ will buy based on recommendations along the lines of “You bought these 3 books, other people who bought the same books also enjoyed the following titles”. Not only do we often buy them, but we also pay massive freight costs to get them here, at the same time as local book retailers are discounting stock that people aren’t buying. How smart is that?

One good way of dealing with this is using Business Analytics or Business Intelligence tools such as BIonaMAP, soon to be launched by New Zealand geospatial solution provider, GeoSmart. Fortunately for retail chains, this product will support both Australia and New Zealand, so users can have visibility over both countries.

BIonaMAP

Farmville and the new Virtual Economy


The computer gaming industry is of course massive and simulation games have been popular for a long time. Traditionally though, game makers made their money by selling games and upgrades for games. The SIMS being one of the best examples. I must admit to having enjoyed some of their games in the past, especially the classic Sim City.

Zynga has taken this to a whole new level of success with Farmville, a sim game which has become incredibly popular on Facebook. People pay real money to buy virtual tractors and other items in the game. This has now gone to such an extreme that Tesco is now about to start to sell real money vouchers in their stores.

In About Us on Zynga, they emphasize that their games are free, which is totally true, but there are elements in many of their games where you pay money to buy virtual things, or for example in the poker game, to buy back in to the weekly tournament if you lose your chips.

This adds an amazing dimension to this free game business. According to industry experts, as reported on Rev2.org, Zynga could be worth as much as US$5 Billion, which they predict could double in the next 5 years. Seems the concept of free and internet based games may have some commercial merit:)



The Smart Connected Home


The home, its technology and its inhabitants are now becoming more and more connected. Many of us now have WiFi networks in the home. We can sit with notebooks on our laps, wireless routers connected to our internet connection allow us to connect entertainment systems, iPads and other network appliances, printers, external drives, Smartphones and more.

Many other devices are now being developed that also offer the benefits of connectivity. For example Internet TV is almost here with products like Google TV being right on our doorstep.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Arthur Anderson offices in Chicago for a glimpse of the future. An example was an intelligent  fridge with a bar code reader that created a shopping list and could automatically send the list to the local grocery delivery company.

Bill Gates had a master plan of having a Windows CE engine in home appliances, creating an intelligent house. Smart Appliances will I’m sure be in the home soon and the idea Gates had was that if they all used Windows CE, they would all have a common platform to communicate not only with each other and with your mobile computer, perhaps your home appliances.

The European Commission has perhaps seen the light in setting up The Hydra Project. “The Hydra middleware allows developers to incorporate heterogeneous physical devices into their applications by offering easy-to-use web service interfaces for controlling any type of physical device irrespective of its network technology such as Bluetooth, RF, ZigBee, RFID, WiFi, etc. Hydra incorporates means for Device and Service Discovery, Semantic Model Driven Architecture, P2P communication, and Diagnostics. Hydra enabled devices and services can be secure and trustworthy through distributed security and social trust components of the middleware.”

This has the potential to reduce the risk of being tied to specific brands of computing, communications and other technology by providing middleware that everyone can work with. Of course the home is only one place that can benefit from this concept. It applies equally to telemedicine (monitoring patients in the home), business automation, security, agriculture, manufacturing, warehousing and pretty much any industry you can think of.

Once again Science Fiction is about to become reality. It’s taken a while, but looks like we are getting there.

The following video shows an e-home controlled by voice or even by your X Box Controller and of course you can control it from your iPhone:

Finger in ear phone and skin touchpad


The technology is still being developed, but while friends are arguing the merits of the latest Android mobiles (and iPhone is dropping on the list off desired product for some reason….) other manufacturers are heading towards the computing implants, step by slow step.

I’ve written about haptic suits before, but this could allow us in some cases to bypass this technology.

Interim technologies include the Invisio Pro-M (which can even work up to 20 meters underwater) which military and other emergency services are experimenting with, that conducts speech with excellent noise cancellation through your bones. If you have a spare US$40,000 you can buy your own stick-finger-in-ear phone.

Meanwhile development continues on the path that Bill Gates promised many years ago with Skinput. He said way back that the computer would become a wearable component. This step isn’t elegant, but these are stepping stones.

What mobile brand will you implant in future?

Is Kiwi Ingenuity a Thing of the Past


OK, apologies for the blogfade. My father in law has gone to rest 3 months after being told he had 3 days to 2 weeks left after a second long battle with cancer. I’ve had lots of things I wanted to blog about, but haven’t had the time or state of mind. But I’m back with bells on.

Lots of things coming up, so please keep an eye out. What’s coming up?

I want to talk some more about health technology and ask why we aren’t using it in our hospitals to the degree that we should even though it can save time, money and most of all, lives.

I also want to explore in depth the Number 8 Fencing Wire way of life in New Zealand and whether it still exists. I want to explore why, when we have so many brilliant minds in New Zealand, it doesn’t result in increased GDP and why the little guy stays little.

I discussed this with a colleague a few days ago and he postulated that we are still celebrating Ernest Rutherford, the Hamilton Jet, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, AJ Hackett and Number 8 fencing wire and some guy who rode an Indian motorcycle faster than it was designed to go and that they are all in the past. He seemed to think we weren’t so smart any more.

So I asked him, what about the Rex, 3D Printing, the Martin Jet Pack or Mark Rocket’s Rocket? He hadn’t heard of any of those and I suspect very few Kiwi’s have.

I have long bemoaned that New Zealand doesn’t take advantage of a fairly unique mindset that makes up many Kiwis. There are so many opportunities, so many capable people, but we seem to be unable to capitalise on them. Yes there are grants, there are incubators, there are clusters, but most good ideas either go by the wayside or fly overseas where investors recognise an opportunity when they see one.

So I’m going to do some digging and some talking and maybe even have the opportunity to help a few people on the way. New Zealand has the potential to be an innovation and center of excellence capital of the world. Whether it is a gadget that stops the paint tin falling off a ladder or nanotechnology, we are great problem solvers.

More people, businesses and government need to recognize and harness our ability and we need to do it differently if we want to get a different result. Our smarts are everywhere but they are disorganized and rudderless. I say we wake up and smell the coffee.

Let’s go Kiwis! Come along for the ride. Don’t just listen, come and join the conversation. Have you got some good ideas? What’s holding you back?

I’ve been thinking


Do what you do well, is advice that is often given. Get back to basics. So let’s think about this for a moment from a New Zealand perspective. At the moment our economy, like many economies is looking grim. We are borrowing lots of money to stay afloat. We look to electronics, bioengineering and other things that we are good at, but aside from a few exceptions we don’t seem to capitalise on it. We are great with ideas, but not so good at doing something about it.

We have some success stories sure, wine does ok, lamb was doing ok until they invented food miles and we are pretty successful at controlling segments of milk and fruit, particularly apples and kiwifruit. The legacy of people like Angus Tait (who I had the privilege of working for 7 years) continues, but without his innovative attitude. We have some success stories, but they are really far and few between.

Many years ago, when we all took it for granted, we were an agrarian economy and very successful at it. We’ve been successful food exporters, right back to when the Dunedin, the world’s first refrigerated ship left New Zealand full of frozen meat carcasses, back in 1882.

New Zealand fed many parts of the world for over a hundred years and life was good. Live sheep have been exported for over 100 years, although a number of incidents where thousands of sheep died have had a negative impact on this. My biggest argument, besides the inhumanity of keeping live animals penned up for so long, was that much of the stock was exported for breeding purposes, which of course reduced the demand for our own product.

But I digress. In today’s economy, we seem to have turned our backs on some opportunities, such as creating large call centres to look after communications needs of other English-speaking countries in other time zones, a market that South Africa has made a huge industry out of. We aren’t doing enough in areas such as science and medicine, possibly because the people with the smarts go offshore.

So lets look at what problems the world is going to face in the near future, in fact many parts of the world are facing right now, food! Scarce water resources, growing populations and growing tracts of land that are becoming so dry and depleted that nothing will grow on them. Then of course we also have oceanic dead zones, which are killing fish and other sea life.

Is this something we could look at with a different De Bono Hat on? Oceanic Dead Zones thrive through a combination of fertilisers and nutrients that leach into rivers and down to the sea, causing large algae blooms. These compound as the phytoplankton absorbs available oxygen and pretty much kills everything off.

Could this be another opportunity? When I need some extra energy before a run, I swallow a pile of Spirulina. Spirulina is actually algae. Of course the algal blooms often contain toxins, but there are many algae that can be used as a food source. Perhaps we could turn a bad situation into a good one.

In New Zealand, since we signed the Kyoto protocol, it has become relatively economic to grow forests (which while gobbling up Carbon Dioxide also use up a lot of water). We have lots of land, a good climate for agriculture and a need to find new sources of income. In fact I have heard that NZ can no longer feed its population without importing food. So why don’t we start looking at ways of growing bulk food?

If we want to do the right thing, we could look at product that has low cost to grow, that we can export for a profit and help countries that have problems at the same time. More than 1 billion people (1 in 6) suffer from food deprivation.

Food Science is something we are very good at. Most universities have food science and biotechnology majors and there is even a Food Science Institute. Many people have a problem with GE Food. I don’t personally know enough about it, but one way or another we either have to put production into overdrive or accept that hundreds of millions of people will die soon through malnutrition and starvation.We have a food crisis now. Grain is scarce and with oil running out a lot of people are now growing grain to fuel cars, creating even less food source.

Whilst human population growth is slowing, there were still 74 million new mouths to feed last year. A large chunk of these are in countries where soils are eroding, water tables falling and wells going dry.

Water politics is becoming a new issue and it could be that future wars are fought between countries that share water sources. This is especially likely where low lands are reliant on water coming from highlands. Think Europe, where many of our recent wars have begun. But again I digress.

Can we go back to agriculture as something we are very good at and the world needs? Dairy is currently our biggest export and apparently Fonterra’s income represented 25% of New Zealand’s total export revenue 2 years ago!

So we are good at growing crops, but could we do more? I think so. First, we should be self sustainable. We can’t afford to rely on other markets, especially when things get to a crisis where 1st world countries start fighting over resources. Then we should look at how we can feed the world and get paid for it. As a country surrounded by sea, we do not face the extremes that occur with countries that have large land masses, including our neighbours Australia.

As to Food Miles, I’m all for sustainability, so lets look at this is an opportunity. This can mean focussing on closer markets such as Australia and Asia, but also on biotechnology to get more for less.

Sometimes I think we try to be too clever. Faster computers, cloud computing, cars, planes, rockets, 3D TV, all things I want to continue to enjoy, are meaningless to the ever rowing numbers of starving and malnourished people around the world. Because of our geographic isolation, we became very good at food. Let’s look for more and new ways to exploit this. Lets make sure that if everything turns to dung, we can still feed ourselves, then lets look at how we can help feed the world and pay off our national debt at the same time.

I’ll leave the last word to NASA who have remote sensing technology to monitor conditions affecting food resources and their management: