Thought Starters: Andreessen’s forecast, Google Assistant, Brexit and the global wealthy

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the Marc Andreessen’s forecast for the future of tech, Google’s recent keynote address and launch of Google Assistant, an update on Brexit and a look at how the wealth differ between countries among other matters.

The advertising industry has seen a lot of change over the last 15 years with the growth of online advertising, social media and smartphones all impacting how brands reach consumers. What Eric Chemi’s analysis of DB5’s figures suggests is that these changes haven’t really enabled the marketing industry to take a greater share of the pie with advertising budgets staying constant as a proportion of GDP:

Ad industry's flat-line growth

One more recent window into how the world of marketing is changing can be seen in product discovery. Amazon is now where more than half of online US consumers begin their product searches according to Spencer Soper’s report on Bloomreach research, with the online retail behemoth strengthening its hold on consumers thanks to its low prices, growing delivery network and Amazon Prime offering.

Marc Andreessen in an interview with Timothy B. Lee gives his view on where technology and innovation will be sending us next. This sees him cast his opinion on artificial intelligence, drones, employment and autonomous cars:

To me the problem is clear: The problem is insufficient technological adoption, innovation, and disruption in these high-escalating price sectors of the economy. My thesis is that we’re not in a tech bubble — we’re in a tech bust. Our problem isn’t too much technology or people being too excited about technology. The problem is we don’t have nearly enough technology. These cartel-like legacy industries are way too hard to disrupt.

Google’s I/O 2016 keynote saw the company launch various new offerings including the Pixel smartphone, Daydream virtual reality headset, Chromecast Ultra streaming device, Google Wifi router and Google Home smart home assistant. The most interesting feature from the Pixel smartphone is Google Assistant, offering a real step forward from Google Now and Apple’s Siri:

Ben Thompson’s analysis of the launch of Google Assistant points to it as signalling a real change in Google’s mobile strategy, with its move to limit the service to Pixel rather than all Android handsets:

Google has a business-model problem: the “I’m Feeling Lucky Button” guaranteed that the search in question would not make Google any money. After all, if a user doesn’t have to choose from search results, said user also doesn’t have the opportunity to click an ad, thus choosing the winner of the competition Google created between its advertisers for user attention. Google Assistant has the exact same problem: where do the ads go?

After all, if a user doesn’t have to choose from search results, said user also doesn’t have the opportunity to click an ad, thus choosing the winner of the competition Google created between its advertisers for user attention.

Sony is in the throes of releasing its Playstation VR headset which is expected to be a frontrunner in the race to get virtual reality in consumers’ living room. Brian X. Chen’s review suggests we’re still a long way off from having virtual reality in most of our homes:

Virtual reality is still in its early days, and it’s unclear whether it will ever catch on with people beyond gamers. If you already own a PlayStation, spending a few hundred dollars for the headgear and accessories is a worthwhile purchase to get started on virtual reality.

But for the average consumer, the thrill of virtual-reality gaming with PlayStation VR may be fleeting. Initially, virtual reality will probably mesmerize you because it’s so unlike any gaming experience you have ever had. But the scarce number of good games available today, combined with the fatigue you will experience after 30 minutes of game play, may drive you back to gaming on your smartphone or television screen.

Another area that might not live up to the current hype is self driving cars. We’re seeing Google and Uber trying out live experiments but there’s little sign of these being available to consumers (Tesla’s Autopilot is a much more limited version of self driving) and Tom Simonite suggests we’re not likely to have this situation change anytime soon:

But don’t expect to toss out your driver’s license in 2021. Five years isn’t long enough to create vehicles good enough at driving to roam extensively without human input, say researchers working on autonomous cars. They predict that Ford and others will meet their targets by creating small fleets of vehicles limited to small, controlled areas.

One area where we have seen real change is in consumers’ growing adoption of digital photography, fueled by the now ubiquitous smartphone.  It’s been interesting to watch is how smartphone  software is increasingly giving high end cameras a run for their money in their picture quality as Michael Zhang’s comparison of the iPhone 7 and Leica M9-P attests to:

iPhone 7 vs Leica M9-P: a side-by-side photo comparison

Diane Coyle provides a valuable refresher on how the move into the digital age is changing our conceptions of property ownership:

Conceptions of property seem to be evolving again with the rise of the “sharing economy”. The ease of using digital matching platforms make the consumer’s decision to buy or rent less stark than in the past ; the legal ownership rights are clear but the economic choices and consequences are changing.
The wider point is that technology and the law have between them significant effects on the kinds of market transactions that take place. Some consequences might seem minor. Others concern land grabs for economic assets.

Brexit has been thrust back into the spotlight by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that the country will start formal negotiations for Britain to leave the EU by March 2017. Gideon Rachman criticises May for essentially giving away one of the few bargaining chips that the country has in its negotiations with the European Union:

So why has Mrs May been so reckless? The short answer is politics. If the prime minister had delayed triggering Article 50 any longer she might have faced a revolt from Conservative MPs, who would have feared that she was backsliding on Brexit. By making her announcement just before the Tory party conference, she has also guaranteed herself some favourable headlines and applause in the conference hall. She may have bought herself another couple of years in 10 Downing Street. But she has also significantly increased the chances that Brexit will cause severe damage to the British economy.

Theresa May and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson would be well advised to give an ear to Centre for European Reform director Charles Grant who provides some valuable advice on how we would best negotiate Brexit.

There’s been a lot of talk of protecting manufacturing jobs in both the US and UK but does this really reflect problems of contemporary society?  Binyamin Appelbaum suggests it might be more a case of reflecting the group that shouts the loudest rather than those most worthy of support:

The enduring political focus on factory workers partly reflects the low profile of the new working class. Instead of white men who make stuff, the group is increasingly made up of minority women who serve people. “That transformation really has rendered the working class invisible,” says Tamara Draut, the author of “Sleeping Giant,” a recent book about this demographic transformation and its political consequences.

The old working class still controls the megaphone of the labor movement, in part because unions have struggled to organize service workers. Manufacturing was, logistically speaking, easier to organize. There were lots of workers at each factory, and most knew one another. Service work is more dispersed and done in smaller crews. Workers living in the same city and employed by the same retail chain, for example, would likely know only a handful of their compatriots. Fostering a sense of trust and shared purpose under these conditions is difficult.

Tyler Cowen draws on Jonathan Wai and David Lincoln’s research into the global wealthy to point out differences between countries with some counterintuitive results:

Percentage of rich individuals who primarily inherited their wealth

Our World in Data provides a reassuring forecast of the growing levels of education we can expect in the coming years. This should go someway to addressing the issue of global population growth and increasing standards of living:

Projection of the total world population by level of education

The Economist has collated Nobel laureates’ age at the date of their award and the trend is definitely older (with the exception of the Peace category). Now if only I’d achieved half as much as Malala Yousafzai had by the age of 17:

Age of Nobel laureates at date of award

Amnesty International has released the following map which points to the disproportionate load that some countries are bearing in the hosting of the world’s refugees. What makes this even more concerning is the state of many of these countries’ economies leaving them ill placed to host refugees compared to the countries of Western Europe and North America:

The world's top 10 refugee host countries

The featured image at the top of the page is Stone Quarry by Zest in Villars-Fontaine, France which was published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: innovation, intellectual capital & circular economy

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at questions over the pace of innovation, the growing portability of intellectual capital, the American presidential nominations and the circular economy among other things, all making for great weekend reading.

David Rotman profiles the work of economist Robert J. Gordon who takes a relatively dim view of the productivity gains over the last ten years. A valuable perspective although one focusing on economic gains doesn’t necessarily encompass other benefits enabled by new technologies and innovations:

Peak innovation

An interesting complement to the Rotman’s article is Prashant Gandhi, Somesh Khanna and Sree Ramaswamy’s review of the levels of digitisation across different parts of the US economy. Information technology inevitably leads the charge but it’s more valuable to look at the laggards where we’re likely to see considerable changes and innovations in the coming years:

How Digitally Advanced is your Sector?

One area that we have seen substantial advances recently is technologies that enable remote teams to more readily collaborate (eg Slack). Samuel Hammond points to a world where intellectual capital is increasingly portable even if immigration barriers mean that this mobility is more virtual than actual:

Consistent with the premature futurism thesis, smart writers have been predicting large and looming social implications from telecommuting and remote work for decades, only to have their visions stymied by some unforeseen technical or psychological barrier. While hiring international freelancers has gotten a lot easier, for many jobs people just prefer face to face contact. Yet we seem to be finally reaching a critical point where video streaming, virtual reality, and collaboration tools are converging to make even the most complex team production viable across borders.

Uber is one of the shining stars of the startup sector with its growth and funding leading many entrepreneurs to pitch their business as ‘Uber for ____’. Farhad Manjoo points out that we should be wary of trying to draw direct parallels between Uber and other business use cases given the particular characteristics the ridesharing:

But Uber’s success was in many ways unique. For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service. The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. Many people take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.

But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins. Other businesses funded in low-frequency and low-value areas “were a trap,” Mr. Walk said.

Dan Lyons’ rather humourous account of joining HubSpot provides a valuable antidote to some of the overinflated hubris sometimes associated with startups:

The truth is that we’re selling software that lets companies, most of them small businesses like pool installers and flower shops, sell more stuff. The world of online marketing, where HubSpot operates, though, has a reputation for being kind of grubby. Our customers include people who make a living bombarding people with email offers, or gaming Google’s search algorithm, or figuring out which kind of misleading subject line is most likely to trick someone into opening a message. Online marketing is not quite as sleazy as Internet porn, but it’s not much better either.

A lot of noise has been made about younger consumers fleeing Facebook for the newer social media platforms but comScore data from the US points to the platform maintaining its appeal among millennials – suggest we’d  see teenage audiences telling a rather different story:

Age 18-34 Digital Audience Penetration vs Engagement of Leading Social Networks

Snapchat updated its mobile messaging platform recently providing a richer range of features for users as well as changing its privacy policy which is likely to see a broader array of targeting options for Snapchat advertisers. It’s worth reading Ben Thompson’s piece on Snapchat if you want to take a broader look at how the platform has evolved since its launch in 2011.

Virtual reality is now well and truly out in the open with Oculus Rift now available to the general public. Brian X. Chen’s review of the headset suggests that in its current state, it’s one for the early adopters:

The Rift’s graphics, sound and head tracking, which is the device’s ability to follow where the viewer looks, do feel like something out of science fiction. While the system’s setup is somewhat complex, the smoothness of the graphics and the high-quality design of the headgear make virtual reality feel ready for prime time.

And yet there may be a higher reward for those who wait to buy the Rift.

Soundcloud Go launched on the 29th of March in the US, adding to the list of streaming providers that are offering a subscription service for music consumers. Another route to monetise content might sound great for musicians but Dave Wiskus’ review of the service suggests something much more insidious:

You can slice it, package it, or spin it however you like, but the bare fact is that you’re making money off of songs you aren’t paying for. Worse, you’re doing it while perpetuating an air of exclusivity around the concept of making money. All while you’re pretending to be a friend to the little guy. There’s nothing artist-friendly about this approach.

Sven Skafisk’s overlaying of smartphone sales on top of traditional camera sales illustrates how much mobile phones have come to dominate how the majority of consumers experience photography – click through for the full length chart which really puts things in perspective:

CIPA camera production

The success of Amazon’s Alexa highlights the significant market opportunity for user friendly smart home solutions, which has even led to religious authorities offering advice on its use during Shabbos. What consumers may be less aware of is that in many cases they are buying into a service rather than a piece of hardware with the demise of Revolv leaving consumers in the lurch (although it looks like Nest may be stepping in to address some of these concerns now).

With the release of the Panama Papers, it’s worth revisiting which countries enable financial secrecy. One of the interesting insights to come out of the reports is the relatively limited number of Americans caught up in reports reflecting relatively lax controls in some states. The US falls in third place in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index.

NPR’s Planet Money (well worth subscribing to their podcast) has looked at the changing structure of employment in the US where you can see changes both in terms of the number of jobs and as percent of the total. No huge surprises but it will be interesting to see how the chart changes as machine learning and artificial intelligence make inroads into white collar professions which have traditionally proven more immune to automation:

The Decline of Farming and the Rise of Everything Else

Another podcast worth recommending is Vox’s The Weeds, providing a valuable window into American politics and policy. A recent episode looks at the tax implications of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ policies (from 34:20). One of the interesting conclusions is how comparatively robust both Democratic candidates proposals are compared to the leading Republican candidates despite Clinton and Sanders taking rather different policy approaches:

One area where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump do seem to have something in common is their relatively protectionist approach to trade. Whilst I am all for ensuring employees gets appropriate protection around the world, it could put a real dampener on emerging markets’ economies as Jordan Weissmann points out:

With those last few words, Sanders has effectively written off trade with any country that is not already rich and prosperous—which is simply inhumane.

Encouraging the circular economy is likely to be a more appropriate way of encouraging local employment. Walter R. Stahel profiles this closed loop approach to production which offers benefits in terms of reduced emissions, increasing in employment and reduction in waste:

Closing Loops

As UK fast approaches the Brexit referendum, immigration and the country’s health system lead concerns facing Briton’s – issues not unrelated given the reliance Britain’s NHS has on foreign born staff:

What do you see as the most important issues facing Britain

Potentially allaying the concerns of immigration opponents is research from Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri in Denmark which points to the benefits of immigration, even for the low skilled populations:

Instead of a small negative effect on the local native-born — as most studies in the U.S. tend to find — Foged and Peri found a positive effect. That’s right — low-skilled immigrants actually raised the wages of their less-educated native-born counterparts in the surrounding area. The data followed the native-born workers for a long time, letting the authors confirm that the change was durable.

The featured image is a Nelio mural made for the Marion gallery in Panama.