Thought Starters: decline of retail, deadly algorithms & changing political landscape

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more  interesting (and hopefully well informed) opinions that I’ve read over the last few weeks. This edition looks at the decline in the American retail sector, concerns about an algorithm led world, the development of augmented reality and the changing political landscape in a number of countries among other things:

The bricks and mortar retail sector is not doing well in the US and it looks like a trend that’s likely to continue with growing ecommerce (with Amazon taking a disproportionate share) and a glut of retail space:

The shuttering of US retail stores

Will Knight points to the risks of handing over tasks to algorithms when you don’t understand what’s going on under the hood:

The mysterious mind of this vehicle points to a looming issue with artificial intelligence. The car’s underlying AI technology, known as deep learning, has proved very powerful at solving problems in recent years, and it has been widely deployed for tasks like image captioning, voice recognition, and language translation. There is now hope that the same techniques will be able to diagnose deadly diseases, make million-dollar trading decisions, and do countless other things to transform whole industries.

But this won’t happen—or shouldn’t happen—unless we find ways of making techniques like deep learning more understandable to their creators and accountable to their users. Otherwise it will be hard to predict when failures might occur—and it’s inevitable they will. That’s one reason Nvidia’s car is still experimental.

Benedict Evans looks at the way augmented reality is likely to develop as it moves out of the development lab and into the mainstream:

This touches on a related question – do AR and VR merge? It’s certainly possible, and they are doing related things with related engineering challenges. One challenge of doing both in one device is that VR, to place you into another world, needs to black out everything else, so the glasses need to be sealed around the edges, where AR does not need this. In parallel, the whole challenge of AR is to let the world through while occluding what you don’t want (and it’s probably not great in bright sunlight for a while), where VR wants to start with a black screen.

A lot has been made of the potential for disruption in the automotive industry with the move to electric drivetrains, ridesharing services and self driving technology providing substantial opportunity for new competitors to enter the market. Navigant Research’s analysis on the other hand suggests that the market incumbents may well have a head start in the race towards self driving cars:

Navigant ranking of self driving programmes

One of the car manufacturers’ frenemies is Uber which has been having a rough time lately for its attitudes to diversity and allegations that it has been engaging in intellectual property theft. This is all helping fuel concerns that Uber is overvalued, helped by the fact that it doesn’t face the financial scrutiny of being a publicly traded company.

While the Brexit referendum pointed to a slim majority for a split with the European Union, there is considerable ambiguity as to what this actually means although polls point to few Britons wanting a hard Brexit:

Britain's attitudes to soft and hard Brexit

The election of Donald Trump has renewed attention focused on America’s white working class. Among the symptom of societal distress is the growing opioid epidemic which has particularly impacted white urban and suburban populations in the US:

How Bad Is the Drug Overdose Epidemic?

The French presidential elections are fast approaching, and whilst the sidelining of Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections has given more liberal voices some hope, Marine Le Pen should not be taken lightly as Roger Cohen suggests:

Her path to victory runs roughly like this. She qualifies for the second round with about 24 percent of the vote. Macron is her opponent, with about the same score. The more right-wing Fillon supporters migrate to Le Pen. Supporters of the far-left candidate, Mélenchon, refuse to vote for Macron; they’ve had it with so-called “useful votes” and they believe Macron, for all his talk of being a progressive, will pursue “neoliberal” global capitalism. Some Hamon supporters also refuse to back Macron. The abstention rate soars. Le Pen squeezes past 50 percent and becomes president.

Patrick Collison interviews one of my favourite commentators, Tyler Cowen covering a wide range of issues including the health of economics, pitfalls of globalisation (“monoculture of extreme diversity”), Donald Trump and the importance of Twitter:

If you find yourself in London in the coming weeks, I would definitely recommend a visit to the Photographer’s Gallery. The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize has some great work from Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, but the real treat is Roger Mayne’s photos from Britain in the 1960s and 70s:

Man leaving a factory by Roger Mayne

The featured image at the top of the page is Strook’s contribution to The Crystal Ship Festival in Ostend, Belgium.

Thought Starters: a look at where startups are at, approaches to self driving cars, the decline of peak oil and the impact of an ageing population

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

First Round Capital have just released their State of Startups research profiling the opinion of startup founders. Among the findings are that 73% of founders believe we’re in a bubble and that they expect to see a shift in power from startups to funders:

73% of startup founders say we're in a bubble

On the subject of bubbles, Abbas Gupta looks to sort out the unicorns from the donkeys by looking at the ratio of a startup’s lifetime value of customer compared to the cost of customer acquisition.

Kickstarter has become an important source of funding for creators and makers, particularly when founders don’t have a proven track record that enables them to tap more traditional sources of financing. Ben Einstein compares the pros and cons of pre-sales (eg Kickstarter), factory financing, purchase order financing and venture debt for entrepreneurs. For consumers, it’s worth considering that 9% of Kickstarters fail to deliver rewards, so get behind interesting projects but be aware that things don’t always go to plan.

Adam Satariano’s research reveals Apple spends a considerably smaller proportion of its revenue on R&D than its technology competitors. Apple’s position is boosted by the company’s large revenues and its ability to leverage innovations from its array of suppliers and partners:

Tech R&D Spending Comparison

Airbnb has been criticised for driving up property prices and in the process, making homes increasingly unaffordable for local residents. The company has defended itself, claiming that the majority of visitors are staying in properties only occasionally available to let but Ben Popper’s analysis of Airbnb’s data from New York doesn’t quite match the company’s claims.

Adrienne LaFrance contrasts the different approaches of Google, Uber, Apple and the major auto manufacturers in moving towards self driving vehicles and points to the hazards of the halfway house:

The question of which path to take to full autonomy, a ground-up approach or a more gradual semi-autonomous one, is at the center of many debates about the technology. A more pressing question in the short-term is this: How much does a person’s perception of the computer’s job make a difference? “This intermediate area where it may not be clear—is the vehicle responsible, or am I responsible?—is a hazardous place,” Gerdes told me. “There’s room for confusion that could reduce safety instead of increasing it.”

Peak oil is a spectre that has haunted the petroleum industry in the past but new discoveries, talk of a decoupling of energy use and economic growth and concerns about climate change have seen these concerns recede. Liam Denning looks at how this changed environment is forcing the hand of OPEC and how this could potentially damage the renewable energy sector:

Peaking Out

Credit Suisse research provides further evidence of the rising labour costs for manufacturers in China which is likely to see it the made in China tag appear less. No surprise then that the country is looking to invest more in robotics and automation:

Comparing manufacturing costs in Mexico Brazil and China

The recent pictures of pollution in Beijing were alarming. Unfortunately citizens in some of India’s cities face even worse pollution levels according to figures from the World Health Organisation reported in the Guardian:

Worlds most polluted cities

The recent terrorist attack in Paris provided a boost to Front National during France’s recent regional elections. It’s important to understand the party’s success is not a one off blip, with Julia Amalia Heyer charting Marine Le Pen’s move to reform the party and broaden support among the wider French public. Worth reading for anyone interested in the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in European politics.

Greg Ip profiles the ageing population of many western societies and the challenges and opportunities this poses for their economies. The Wall Street Journal article is well supported with graphs and interactive infographics charting the changes and forecasts for the future:

Social Security Enrollment

For something rather different, Priceonomics‘ profile of Richard Prince makes for an interesting read charting how his photographs of photographs became some of the most coveted prizes of the contemporary art world.

If you find yourself at a loose end in London between now and the end of February, it’s worth checking out the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It kind of feel like a walk through of an issue of Wired, but it’s great to see data science get its place in the spotlight with the many benefits and challenges it poses for today’s society.

The feature mural is Eva & Ave by Hazulfrom Loures, Portugal and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: decacorns, the iPad Pro opportunity and the implications of CRISPR

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

CB Insights profiles the growing valuations of the “decacorns” (private companies valued at over $10bn). Fidelity’s recent markdown of investments in Dropbox and Snapchat could be simply related to these companies’ specific circumstances or potential sign of a market correction:

Deals to Top Private Company Unicorns Valued at Over $10bn

Apple’s hoping that the release of the iPad Pro will give its tablet offering a much needed boost and the product’s performance mean that the iPad will be seen increasingly as a device to create as well as consume as John Gruber comments:

“We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 morethan the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It’s not a clear cut-and-dry win — MacBooks still have more RAM (the iPad Pro, in all configurations, has 4 GB of RAM, although Apple still isn’t publishing this information — MacBook Pros have either 8 or 16 GB), are expandable, and offer far more storage. But at a fundamental level — CPU speed, GPU speed, quality of the display, quality of the sound output, and overall responsiveness of interface — the iPad Pro is a better computer than a MacBook or MacBook Air, and a worthy rival to the far more expensive MacBook Pros.”

One of the trends driving growth in a new range of startups is the shift to smartphones which is profiled in these global figures from Creative Strategies:

Percentage of time spent by device

90% of the time consumers spend on smartphones is spent in apps according to Flurry figures with Facebook, Google and Apple dominating in terms of the reach of their apps according to comScore figures:

Top 15 Smartphone Apps

Britney Summit-Gil looks at how the internet has enabled consumers to be better informed on a whole host of issues, but has lagged when it comes to understanding their own communities:

Internet users say digital tech makes them better informed than 5 years ago

Online advertising has been criticised for providing metrics that fail to reflect audience exposure.  Seb Joseph explores The Economist’s move to offer attention metrics which will better reflect consumers’ actual exposure to advertising:

“Working with analytics partners Chartbeat and Moat Analytics, The Economist tracks active time view – only counting a view when an ad is in view and the reader is actively engaged, i.e typing or scrolling up and down the page. Only those impressions that generate over 5 seconds of active view time will count towards the attention buy.”

Before brands throw all their media budget behind these new online advertising opportunities, it’s worth considering GroupM research which points to television’s lead in generating short to medium term sales (bearing in mind the research was commissioned by TV marketing body Thinkbox):

“GroupM found that media account for on average 39% of sales in the short to medium term (within three months of a campaign finishing); 33% of these media-driven sales are from TV advertising, more than any other communication channel. Paid-for online search created 22%, online display 12%, affiliates 10%, print 8%, direct mail 8%, radio 3% and outdoor 1%.”

Online media also needs to contend with declines in referral traffic from Facebook according to a report from Matthew Ingram. It’s far from clear  whether this is a result of a content glut or Facebook dialing back traffic but it does highlight how vulnerable mainstream content providers are to changes by Facebook and other intermediaries:

“The other nagging fear for media companies is that Facebook is essentially engaging in a large-scale bait and switch, by encouraging them to host all of their output on its platform, but then gradually turning off the traffic tap so that their reach declines. At that point, the social network can recommend a number of ways to boost the reach again—including by paying for promoted posts and other forms of advertising. Facebook would no doubt protest that it is doing nothing of the kind, but the fear remains.”

Michael Specter profiles the growing opportunities to manipulate our DNA with CRISPR/Cas system whilst Erik Parens chooses to explore the ethical implications of gene editing:

‘That seemingly simple question takes us to the heart of a deep tension that decent parents have felt for a very long time, but that will become ever more intense if a technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 is in fact safe and effective. I refer here to the tension between the ethical obligation of parents to accept their children as they are, and their ethical obligation to shape them.”

Rising wages in China mean that the country is facing growing competition for the title of factory to the world with Mexico also benefiting from its close proximity to the US according to a report from Ana Campoy:

Productivity Adjusted Labour Rates

UNHCR figures put the sheer scale of Europe’s refugee crisis in perspective, with the problem unlikely to abate given conflict in Syria and Afghanistan:

Migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean

If you find yourself in London over the next month, I’d strongly recommend checking out Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors exhibition at the Brewer Street Car Park. A wonderful respite from the increasingly frenetic activity of central London in Christmas shopping mode.

The featured image is a Jessie and Katey mural on Ahui Street in Hawaii for the POW WOW festival.

Thought Starters: looking critically at mobile apps, venture capital, how Volkswagen ***ked up and the decline of pornography

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Consumers are spending more of their time on their smartphones in mobile apps which inevitably leads many media owners to see the development of their own as a means of increasing consumer engagement. Priya Ganapati warns that this approach is flawed in many cases with the development of mobile web offering providing a much better use of resources:

“Apps aren’t magical universes. They are part of a platform that is not viral, resource-hungry and hard to grow. So why not bet on the mobile web instead?”

Sam Altman and Paul Graham look critically at the financial fundamentals of startups in a market where valuations don’t necessarily match up with future prospects:

“Here’s a common way startups die. They make something moderately appealing and have decent initial growth. They raise their first round fairly easily because the founders seem smart and the idea sounds plausible. But because the product is only moderately appealing, growth is ok but not great. The founders convince themselves that hiring a bunch of people is the way to boost growth. Their investors agree. But (because the product is only moderately appealing) the growth never comes. Now they’re rapidly running out of runway. They hope further investment will save them. But because they have high expenses and slow growth, they’re now unappealing to investors. They’re unable to raise more, and the company dies.”

Also looking at the startup universe is Ben Thompson who points to less successful venture capitalists as being increasingly squeezed between angel investors below and more traditional investors above:

“So it is with venture capital: once startup funding requirements were reduced, the superior information and the willingness to hustle of angels and incubators earned the trust of the big companies of tomorrow, reducing more and more venture capitalists to dumb money hardly worth the 20% premium. The inputs to the Silicon Valley system have been changed, and we’re only now seeing the effects, and that should be a cautionary tale for just about everyone who thinks they and their industry are safe from the Internet’s impact.”

Matt Roskoff contrasts the falling prices of consumer electronic hardware with the rising price of television and radio services:

Prices for Electronic Goods and Services

Paul Kedrosky suggests that the Volkswagen emissions scandal may have been the result of cultural norms within the engineering department rather than a deliberate move on the automotive manufacturers management:

“It is still possible, of course, that we will learn that the engineers were under orders from management to beat the tests by any means necessary, but based on what we now know, that seems implausible. It’s more likely that the scandal is the product of an engineering organization that evolved its technologies in a way that subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules.”

Credit Suisse in their annual Global Wealth Report looks at the current spread of financial wealth across countries and regions including the disparities between the wealthy and the poor:

Global Wealth Pyramid

We are seeing a broader array of jobs affected by technology, as smarter systems enable more technically complex tasks to be automated. MIT Professor David Autor looks at the costs and benefits of these changes, suggesting that the opportunities will outweigh the threats if societies ameliorate the negative effects with education, taxation and transfer programmes.

The migrants pouring into Europe has focused largely on the plight of refugees fleeing civil war in Syria. What Alex Tabarrok points to is that by focusing on the plight of refugees, we fail to acknowledge the benefits that more open borders would provide both to people trapped in less developed societies and to global society as a whole:

“Closed borders are one of the world’s greatest moral failings but the opening of borders is the world’s greatest economic opportunity. The grandest moral revolutions in history—the abolition of slavery, the securing of religious freedom, the recognition of the rights of women—yielded a world in which virtually everyone was better off. They also demonstrated that the fears that had perpetuated these injustices were unfounded. Similarly, a planet unscarred by iron curtains is not only a world of greater equality and justice. It is a world unafraid of itself.”

Pornography has been getting plenty of column inches lately thanks to Playboy’s announcement that it will no longer be publishing full nudity, reflecting falling profitability of ‘legitimate’ operators (no tears shed here). Whilst the industry has long been pointed to as technological leader, recent changes mean that the sector is becoming something of a technological laggard according to Cade Metz:

“With the rise of mobile devices and platforms from the likes of Apple and Google, not to mention the proliferation of free videos on YouTube-like porn sites, the adult industry is in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams, it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media. Its very identity is being stolen as the world evolves both technologically and culturally.”

Another area where technology has changed the balance of power is music where we’ve seen a democratisation of the tools of production. Art Tavana looks at GarageBand’s role as a stepping stone for many budding musicians looking to get their music out and about.

If you find yourself in London between now and the start of January, I’d definitely recommend visiting Ann Veronica Janssens’ yellowbluepink installation at the Wellcome Collection. A great exercise in disorientation:

The featured image is the SatOne mural Insomnia in Mannheim, Germany and published in Graffuturism.