Change your mind…

The biggest problems in the world are not inherent, they emerge from our beliefs.

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My Dream Car – Driving me to sleep

The most interesting thing about cars that drive themselves is that they have the potential to change the ownership model of a vehicle. A fully autonomous vehicle opens the door for Mobility as a Service or “MaaS transit” as I like to call it. If a car can get you door to door without intervention why would you ever leave it parked and un-utilized?

So the question becomes – what high value services could autonomous cars provide that we haven’t thought of? In this post I would like to examine the idea of a “sleeper car”. Imagine that most of the interior of this car is taken up by a bed. Without the need for a steering wheel or driver visibility there is much more design flexibility. With a skateboard PHEV chasis there can be a large amount of interior space as well. Assuming that the autonomous car is safer there is not a need for seat-belts, or we can imagine some demolition man style safety device.

Why is the idea of a sleeper car so appealing? Imagine that you can literally get into bed from your point of origin, and wake up at your destination. There are no other people, no security lines, no stop and go traffic. How much would you pay for something like this? A 500 mile trip from Boston to DC might take 8-10 hours, but you could complete remove the hassle of the flight. Assuming what would otherwise be a $150 flight (another $50 in cab fare), and $200 for a hotel – it might be possible to charge $500 for such a service. $1 per mile would actually be cheaper than a cab at that rate.

A service like this would be more likely to take off in an area that did not have good airport connectivity, and perhaps where the roads are easier to navigate than the east coast. The operator might not be a cab company, but rather a hotel chain that already has the staff for changing sheets and providing a shower at your destination.

The numbers don’t quite work out yet. If we assume $1/mile and lifetime for the vehicle of 300,000 miles – it’s really not that much money. Even making plenty of other assumptions like high fuel economy, and low cost of the vehicle – this is not so compelling of a return. If the car made 6 trips a week of 500 miles each it would reach the end of it’s service life in just 2 years.

Ok – so maybe I won’t get my sleeper car just yet, but we should think creatively about what happens to a car when you take out the driver.



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Wearable Computing

Computing has gone through some amazing transformations since it’s inception. There have been distinct paradigms in the form factor of the computer relating to its processing power and user interface. It is about to undergo another major shift – into wearable computing.

The smart-phone revolution is in full swing and has provided the blueprint for the next computing transformation. Many readers may have the reaction that this is not a difficult prediction to make, and clearly I agree, but it is therefore worth exploring the impact of this transformation. The smart phone unleashed a new platform for software innovation called the app store and it changed the nature of work and play by enabling an “always on” mentality for email, text and twitter.

The leap that we can already see comes with the announcement of Google Glass. However, this was not the first, and perhaps still not even the best display. There are notable players that have already been in this space including Lumus, Vusix, and DoCoMo. The wearable display has been a topic of interest in the military and with defense contractors for some time.

There is an air of inevitability around the wearable display. Sometimes it is called a head-mounted or head-up display (HMD, HUD), but there will of course need to be a cooler name at some point.

Right now there are several companies that have prototypes, but nothing has really hit the market, and will probably not for some time. We are not yet to the Palm OS  equivalent that is OK, but not great. There is an entirely new Operating system that must be invented, and a way for users to navigate this interface. So what will happen next?

In a year or two google will release google glass to developers and then to consumers, but it will not be very good. Two years after that Apple will come out with a much better product. Some may say that Apple has stopped innovating because their successive generations of iPhone don’t look much better. No one should have any doubts that Apple is seriously looking into a wearable display system. Once apple has a product on the market, Samsung will copy it and sell basically the same thing with a bigger display. Every other tech company will also be in the chase thinking that they can land the “next big thing” since they missed out on the last round.

The biggest barrier though will be consumer adoption. Wearable screens face serious issues of comfort, user interface and processing power. Even when there are productivity gains, it will have to avoid going the route of the blue-tooth ear piece or the cell phone belt clip; clearly functional, but not cool enough. The other likelihood is that the adoption will be generational. Get ready for this to be the advanced tech your kids are using that you just don’t get, and continually try to get them to un-plug from: “stop looking through that darned screen all the time… are you even listening to me?!?

Wearable displays will massively enable another key technological revolution, which is the topic of a separate post – Augmented Reality.

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Imagining the next Decade

Let’s start with this premise – that the future is not difficult to predict. This is not to say the weather, the stock market or who will win the world series, but in the world of technology. Technology evolves in a very deliberate manner, which leads to the second premise that all revolutionary technological innovation is incremental. This second premise reinforces the first because if all innovation is incremental then it should be, to some extent, predictable. If we can imagine an extrapolation of current technologies and where it might lead us.  The process is slow however, so slow that it is difficult to see. It is even more difficult to see the moments when the incremental innovations become revolutionary until they have overtaken us. This is to be expected of inflection points. At this point it feels almost like an overnight sensation, but this ignores the decade or more of work that lead up to that moment.

The term I will use to reference this case is therefore the “10 year overnight revolution“. I hate giving Apple as an example because everybody does it, but sure, let’s look at the iPhone. The innovation of Apple was in the combination of things that already existed. Their revolutionary idea was packaging, platform and interface. These were essentially incremental improvements but truly launched the smart phone revolution. Of course this was not singular – we can trace the launch of the smart phone certainly to give credit to blackberry which created the market, but even before then to the palm and even Apple’s Newton which was clearly “before its time”. It should have been possible to trace the path of the handheld computer with clearly linear progressions in computing power and communications. The future existence of the iPhone should have been predictable in 1997 to anybody who thought about it. This does not mean that anybody could have invented it or brought a the product to market.

Let’s consider another type of example – hydraulic fracturing. The practice of horizontal drilling and hydrocarbon extraction took decades of research and development. The development of the major shale gas reserves didn’t really start until 2003. It is in this decade of development that we should focus. Here the challenge is not predicting which “lab bench” technology makes it out into the world – we simply have to look at what technology is already being deployed and look at the natural extrapolation of that development. It wasn’t until 2009 that natural gas prices dropped – partly due to the recession, but they have stayed low due to expansion in production. The point is that decades of research and field trials got a set of technologies to the point of real field trials and there was a decade of expansions that was very visible to those close to the industry. For the “rest of us” we have to wait until the price swing is upon us before the impacts are clear. Now it is conventional wisdom that the US is the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas“. The price of oil and gas are decoupled, and the price of electricity is also falling. These impacts are substantial and foreseeable.

If we realize that these types technology innovation and deployment progressions have happened before, then it stands to reason that they are happening now. There are revolutions all around us that just haven’t “tipped” yet. It may almost seem obvious in many cases but these revolutions by definition will fundamentally alter some business or way of life. The series of posts that follow will by my attempt to name some of the 10-YONRs and hint at their impacts.


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Community Art: Brick by Brick

Can art be crowdsourced? Can design? Does the crowd naturally form order or chaos? Are there systems that inherently draw order from the crowd?

In order to address these questions I began a series of public art projects where each individual would be given the one unit of the creation. Depending on the medium this would mean one brush stroke, one pixel, one brick.

Today the medium was Legos. Using these familiar bricks creates a set of quite unique conditions for crowdsourced art. To being with, there is an embedded cultural instinct of what to do with a Lego – you simply put it on top of another Lego to build a structure. Second, there is a degree of heterogeneity, not just in color, but in shape, size, and utility. Third, it is very easy to “deconstruct” (either accidentally or on purpose). For these reasons, the finished product is not as important as the process. I began with a few hypotheses.

From the previous dot projects and underlying hypothesis it is understood that participation in community art projects roughly falls into two campus. There are those individuals that try to participate in a structure, vs those that attempt to be outliers, separate from an emerging pattern.

With only one unit to contribute my hypothesis going into the Lego project was that some would try to extend their creation farther and farther off the board and into outlandish arms. However with each successive extension the appendage would become unstable and quickly fall off. In the other camp, those that applied stable foundations, would survive longer into a growing stable structure.

Looking at the results it is clear that the off-shoots were irresistible. What resulted was a steady state of extensions and destruction. The surprising result, is that even after two hours, there was very little accumulation of a stable base.

Stable organized growth requires deliberate action. Due to the sensitivity of the structure even those that place pieces in a constructive manner became unstable due to the heterogeneity of the pieces.

I began asking these questions in relation to the forces that drive us to cooperate and be a part of a group, or differentiate and be an individual. These are general questions, but is there a way to create a simplified empirical measurement? Maybe not, but if the experiment fails we can still call it art!

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The American Meme

The stability of complex societies depend on a division of labor. This division of labor inevitably leads to economic differntiation and social stratification. Yet, what allows for the lower-status members of society to tolerate this position? Here is a short list of options;

1) Reward satisfaction on some other level: I might not be a billionare, but I find satisfaction from community, family, god, the Red Sox, good food, my dog and my garage hobby.

2) The illusion of upward mobility: The central American meme is that you can achieve anything with hard work and dedication. The role of government is to ensure that this remains plausible. Our american society will have difficulty standing with a permanent divergence in class.

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Towards a physics of memetics

All memes are not create equal. This notion that “everything is a meme” cannot support any reasonable field of study. The starting point of “meme as a unit of culture” as compared to a gene is fine. In the past I have explored the particle model of memes with concepts like “stickiness” and “evangelism”. Memetics would do well to aspire to the level of sophistication seen in biology. For me, actually – a physics analogy would be simpler.  Let’s take a look at some different species of these such particles.

1) Mass: Some memes have physical existence, some visual, some audio, some are truly just thoughts. Without proposing or quantifying a specific unit we can clearly see that an image macro, and a crop circle have very different scales. This is important because it presents a degree of difficulty in adoption, mutating and spreading.

2) Medium: Through what ether does a meme flow? For memes of any mass, the internet creates a simple channel. Realize that any form of human communication can be used, sometimes several in parallel. A rumor might spread by word of mouth or on facebook. The medium has a strong interaction with the memetic mass. For example, something that is etched in stone is harder to transfer and takes more time.

3) Time constant:  What is the minimum life cycle of a meme from adoption, to spreading? Seconds, minutes, hours, days? It might take me 5 minutes to create an image macro. However, taking up painting might take months or years for me to say that I have “accomplished” a similar visual representation in an alternate medium. The mass, and medium of memes will determine a life cycle time constant which yields its growth characteristics.

4) Interconnection Inertia: Some memes are easier to kill than others. There is a sort of social and societal scaffolding that can hold up a meme over time. The more ways that this meme is reinforced through other connections the harder it will be to kill. For example, some songs are one hit wonders, others become an anthem for a generation. The song “Sweet Caroline” can be a more resilient meme because it is played at every single red sox game in boston. This interconnection inertia can be seen in more complex memetic frameworks like government and religion.

Taking all of these factors into account we hopefully start to talk with more sophistication about the difference between an internet, and language meme to sports, to religion and politics.

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