You Can’t Force Innovation

The new video service Quibi failed after only 7 months of operation and after having received $2 billion in backing from big industry players. The concept was to offer short 5 to 7-minute video serials that would get viewers engaged in a story from day-to-day and week-to-week. The failure seems to be due to nobody being interested in the format. Younger viewers aren’t interested in scripted Hollywood content and instead watch content created by their peers. Older people have now been trained to binge-watch. It turns out there no audience for the concept of short cliff-hanger videos.

The Quibi failure reminded me that you can’t force innovations onto the public. We live in a society where everything new is hyped beyond belief. New technologies and innovations are not just seen as good, but in the hype-world are seen as game changers that will transform society.  A few innovations live up to the hype, such as the smartphone. But many other highly-hyped innovations have been a bust.

Consider bitcoin. This was a new form of currency that was going to replace government-backed currency. But the public never bought into the concept for one big fundamental reason – there is nothing broken about our current form of money. We deposit our money in banks, and it sits there safely until we’re ready to use it. For all of the endless hype about how bitcoin would change the world, I never heard a good argument about why bitcoin is better than our current banking system – except maybe for criminals and dictators that want to hide wealth.

Another big bust was Google Glass. People were not ready to engage with somebody in public who could film them and replay a casual conversation later or post it on social media. People were even more creeped out by the stalker aspect of men using facial recognition to identify and stalk women. To give credit to Google, the folks there never envisioned this as a technology for everybody, but the Internet hype machine played up the idea beyond belief. The public reaction to the technology was a resounding no.

Google was involved in another project that hit a brick wall. Sidewalk Lab, a division of Alphabet envisioned a new smart city being created on the lakefront in Toronto. To tech folks, this sounded great. The city would be completely green and self-contained. Robots would take care of everything like emptying trashcans when they are full, to setting up picnics in the park and cleaning up afterwards. Traffic was all underground and an army of robots and drones would deliver everything people wanted to their doorstep. But before this even got off the drawing board, the people of Toronto rejected the idea as too big-brotherish. The same computer systems that catered to resident demands would also watch people at all times and record and categorize everything they do. In the end, privacy won out over technology.

Some technologies are hyped but never materialize. Self-driving cars have been touted as a transformational technology for over a decade. But in the last few years, the engineers working on the technology acknowledge that a fully self-sufficient self-driving car is still many years away. But this doesn’t stop the hype and there are still articles about the promise of self-driving cars in the press every month.

Nothing has been hyped more in my lifetime than 5G. In the course of recently watching a single football game, I must have seen almost a dozen 5G commercials. Now that 5G phones are hitting the market, the new technology is likely going to soon be perceived by the public as a bust. The technology is being painted as something amazing and new, but recent tests show that 5G is no faster than 4G in 21 of 23 cities. 5G will eventually be faster and better, but will today’s hype make it hard for the cell companies to explain when 5G is actually here?

I could continue to list examples. For example, if I had believed the hype, I’d now live in a fully-automated home where I could talk to my home and have it cater to my every whim. I’d have unlimited power from a cheap neighborhood fusion power plant that produces unlimited and clean power fueled by water. I’d be able to avoid a commute by using my flying car. There is much to like in the hype-world, but sadly it’s not coming any time soon.

They’re Back

Facebook recently announced it will be introducing smart glasses in collaboration with Ray-Ban. This will be the second major attempt at introducing the technology since the failed attempt by Google in 2011 when it introduced Google Glass. For those who might not remember, Google Glass was shunned by the general public and people who wore the glasses in public were quickly deemed to be glassholes. People were generally uncomfortable talking to somebody who could be recording the conversation.

It will be interesting to see if the public is any more forgiving now. Pictured with this blog is Glass 2.0 that is being used in factories, but the first-generation public version was equally obvious as a piece of technology.

In terms of technology, 2011 is far behind us, and since then it’s common for anything done in public to end up being recorded by somebody’s smartphone. But that still doesn’t mean that people like the idea of being secretly recorded, particularly if the new glasses aren’t so obvious as Google Glass.

We still don’t know what the technology will look like, but Facebook will try to brand the new glasses as cool. Consider this video ad that accompanied the announcement of the new glasses – who doesn’t want to wear smart glasses like glasses worn in the past by James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Muhammed Ali? Facebook says the new glasses will function by being paired with a smartphone, so perhaps they’ll be a lot less obvious than were the Google Glass.

The glasses are the first step towards virtual presence. Facebook Mark Zuckerberg says his vision is being able to virtually invite friends into your home to play cards virtually. However, this first set of glasses isn’t going to include an integrated display that would be capable of generating or viewing holograms. That means the new glasses will likely include the same sort of features like Google Glass such as being able to record what’s in front of you, using the web to browse for facts, or dipping into the web to call-up information about people you meet. With the advances we’ve made in facial recognition since 2011, that last item is a lot scarier today than it was a decade ago.

I recall the tech industry excitement about Google Glass and other proposed wearables back in 2010. The vision was to seamlessly be able to carry tech with you to create a constant human-computer interface. Google was stunned when the public universally and loudly rejected the idea, because to most people the technology meant an invasion of privacy. Nobody wanted to have a casual conversation with a stranger and then later find it posted on social media.

It’s hard to think that is still not going to be the reaction again today. Of course, as a baby boomer, I am a lot leerier of technology than are the younger generations. It seems that Generation Z is a lot less concerned about privacy and it will be interesting to see if young people take to the new technology. We may have one of the biggest generational rifts ever between the first generation that finally embraces wearables and everybody older.

Google Glass never died and morphed into a pair of glasses to use in factories. It allows workers to pull up schematics in real-time to compare to work-in-progress in front of them. The technology is said to have greatly improved complex tasks like wiring a new jetliner – something we all want to be 100% correct.

I will likely remain leery of the technology. What might eventually bring me around is Zuckerberg’s vision of being able to play poker with distant friends. I’ve been predicting telepresence as the technology that will finally take advantage of gigabit fiber connections. I’m not sure that we need glasses that secretly hide the technology capability to make this work – but I guess this is an early step towards that vision.

Hello Siri . . .

Image representing Siri as depicted in CrunchBase

Image by None via CrunchBase

Gartner, a leading research firm, issued a list of the ten top strategic technology trends for 2014. By strategic they mean that these are developments that are getting a lot of attention and development in the industry, not necessarily that these developments will come to full fruition in 2014. One of the items on the list was ‘smart machines’ and under that category they included self-driving cars, smart advisors like IBM’s Watson and advanced global industrial systems, which are automated factories.

But I want to look at the other item on their list which is contextually aware intelligent personal assistants. This essentially will be Apple’s Siri on steroids. This is expected to be done at first mostly using cell phones or other mobile device. Eventually one would think that this will migrate towards something like Google Glass, a smart phone, a bracelet or some other way to have this always on you.

Probably the key part of the descriptive phrase is contextual. To be useful, a person’s personal assistant has to learn and understand the way they talk and live in order to become completely personalized to them. By contextual, the current Siri needs to grow to learn things by observation. To be the life-changing assistant envisioned by Gartner is going to require software that can learn to anticipate what you want. For example, as you are talking to a certain person your assistant ought to be able to pick out of the conversation those bits and pieces that you are going to want it to remember. For example, somebody may tell you their favorite restaurant or favorite beer and you would want your assistant to remember that without you telling it to do so.

Both Apple and Microsoft’s current personal assistants have already taken the first big step in the process in that they are able to converse some in conversation language mode. Compare what today’s assistants can already do to Google’s search engine, which makes you type in awkward phrases. Any assistant is going to have to be able to be completely fluent in a person’s language.

One can easily envision a personal assistant for life that helps you learn when you are young and who then sticks with you for life. Such an assistant will literally become the most important ‘person’ in somebody’s life. An effective assistant can free a person from many of the mundane tasks of life. You will never get lost, have to make an appointment, remember somebody’s birthday or do many of the routine things that are part of life today. A good assistant will free you from the mundane. But it still won’t take out the trash, although it can have your house-bot do that.

In the future you can envision this assistant tied into the Internet of things so it would be the one device you give orders to. It would then translate and talk to all of your other systems. It would talk to your smart house, talk to your self-driving car, talk to the system that is monitoring your health, etc.

The biggest issue with this kind of personal assistant is going to be privacy. A true life-assistant is going to know every good and bad thing about you, including your health problems and every one of your ugly bad habits. It is going to be essential that this kind of system stay completely private and be somehow immune to hacking. Nobody can trust an assistant in their life that others can hack or peer into.

One might think that this is something on the distant horizon, but there are many industry experts who think this is probably the first thing on the smart machine list that will come to pass, and that there will be pretty decent versions of this within the next decade. Siri is already a great first step, although often completely maddening. But as this kind of software improves it is not hard to picture this becoming something that you can’t live without. It will be a big transition for older people, but our children will take to this intuitively.