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Thought Starters

Thought Starters: Google I/O, property puzzle in England and rates of innovation

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 Google and Apple at a crossroads, England’s property market and questions over the rate of innovation among other things:

Whilst many technological and social indicators point to the lead that Western Europe and North America has over the developing world, there are cases where incumbent infrastructure slows down the introduction of new technologies. An example of this from  the World Economic Forum is the lead Sub-Saharan Africa has in mobile money accounts, aided by the lack of traditional financial services infrastructure:

Sub-Saharan Africa has worlds largest share of mobile money accounts

Interesting benchmark figures from Pew Research on the use of online services by the American population. There’s obviously plenty of opportunity for growth still across many different categories:

72% of Americans have used some type of shared or on-demand online services

Google I/O developer conference happened on Wednesday which saw the launch of new virtual reality, mobile messaging, smart home and virtual assistant platforms and updates for Android, Android Wear and Android Auto. It’s worth checking out The Verge’s coverage of the leading announcements if you’re wanting more details on what to expect in the coming months.

Ben Thompson has an interesting follow on to the conference pointing to Google’s technical process but also suggesting that other factors at play are likely to hamper the organisation’s success:

The problem is that as much as Google may be ahead, the company is also on the clock: every interaction with Siri, every signal sent to Facebook, every command answered by Alexa, is one that is not only not captured by Google but also one that is captured by its competitors. Yes, it is likely Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are all behind Google when it comes to machine learning and artificial intelligence — hugely so, in many cases — but it is not a fair fight. Google’s competitors, by virtue of owning the customer, need only be good enough, and they will get better. Google has a far higher bar to clear — it is asking users and in come cases their networks to not only change their behavior but willingly introduce more friction into their lives — and its technology will have to be special indeed to replicate the company’s original success as a business.

Another company that’s had a strong run but for which the future is harder to anticipate is Apple. Marco Arment has been a valuable commentator and proponent of Apple and its broader ecosystem and his concerns about Apple’s long term health should definitely be taken seriously:

But if Google’s right, it won’t be enough to buy Siri’s creators again or partner with Yelp for another few years. If Apple needs strong AI and big-data services in the next decade to remain competitive, they need to have already been developing that talent and those assets, in-house, extensively, for years. They need to be a big-data-services company. Their big-data AI services need to be far better, smarter, and more reliable than they are. And I just don’t see that happening.

As a venture capitalist, David Pakman has a vested interest in a more entrepreneurial music ecosystem. That being said, I do believe he has a strong point talking about how major record labels are squeezing some of the innovation out of the music sector:

In my mind, it would have been in the long-term best interests of the recorded music business to enable the widespread success of thousands of companies, each paying fair but not bone-crushing royalties back to labels, artists and publishers. But the high royalty rates imposed upon startups, even after clear signs over the past 19 years that the strategy killed companies, prevented a healthy ecosystem from emerging. It’s a bed the music industry made for itself, and now it is left to lie in it.

Whilst there’s a been a lot of talk about the polarisation of incomes in the West, research from Walter Frick points to a similar polarisation in corporate performance with leading firms galloping ahead of everyone else:

The gap between the most productive firms and the rest is growing

Donald Trump’s nomination for the Republican party is pretty much a given now, and I’m glad to see more and more commentators coming out to express their opposition to his candidacy. Robert Kagan’s is definitely among the more eloquent, let’s just hope the US population listens to reason:

And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

The UK referendum on whether the country chooses to leave the European Union is fast approaching leading to some scaremongering  from the pro Brexit camp.  Providing a rather different perspective is research from Philippe Legrain who points out the economic benefits potentially provided by the influx of refugees to Europe:

Refugees who arrived in Europe last year could repay spending on them almost twice over within just five years, according to one of the first in-depth investigations into the impact incomers have on host communities.

Refugees will create more jobs, increase demand for services and products, and fill gaps in European workforces – while their wages will help fund dwindling pensions pots and public finances, says Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European commission.

Over the following decade, England’s population rose by 4.1m while its housing stock rose by only 1.7m, something which any economist will tell you is going to cause some problems. This shortage is exacerbated by disparities between local authorities as The Economist recently mapped (click through for the interactive version):

Housing stock v demand

A further indication of the overheated nature of certain parts of the UK housing sector can be seen in the fact that the average first time buyer in London now earns £85k and has a deposit of £123k according to the ONS figures:

London First Time Buyers

Frans de Waal has taken a critical look at economics, pointing to its vision of the self interested human being rather different from how societies developed or currently operate:

Economists should reread the work of their father figure, Adam Smith, who saw society as a huge machine. Its wheels are polished by virtue, whereas vice causes them to grate. The machine just won’t run smoothly without a strong community sense in every citizen. Smith saw honesty, morality, sympathy and justice as essential companions to the invisible hand of the market. His views were based on our being a social species, born in a community with responsibilities towards the community.

There’s been a lot of debate over the rate of innovation, with the naysayers  attitudes illustrated by Peter Thiel’s infamous statement “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters.” Neil Irwin has looked at the big inventions over the last 150 years, and suggests the nature of what is being invented might have changed but the pace of innovation hasn’t:
In short, the sheer number of ways a person can be in touch with others, and consume information or entertainment, has exploded, and the price has collapsed.

This is the area in which human life has changed the most in the last 46 years. We live and travel much as we did in 1970. We eat more variety of foods. Products of all types keep getting a little safer, a little more efficient, a little better designed.

But the real revolution of recent decades is in the supercomputer most people keep in their pocket. And how that stacks up against the advances of yesteryear is the great question of whether an era of innovation remains underway, or has slowed way down.

One innovation I am expecting to see much more of in the coming years is augmented reality with its fusing of the virtual and real life. Keiichi Matsuda provides a rather dystopian view of the world we might face in years to come:

The featured image is from eko.

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Thought Starters

Thought Starters: the fallacy of maximising shareholder value, the impact of climate change on your wallet and our responses to ISIS

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.

The following figures presented by DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach point to the fact that the global economy isn’t out of the woods yet:

Global nominal GDP growth

Steve Denning uses Roger L. Martin’s analysis in Fixing the Game to point out how management’s focus on maximising shareholder value comes at the expense of long term value creation and ultimately society:

“In today’s paradoxical world of maximizing shareholder value, which Jack Welch himself has called “the dumbest idea in the world”, the situation is the reverse. CEOs and their top managers have massive incentives to focus most of their attentions on the expectations market, rather than the real job of running the company producing real products and services.”

Om Malik covers the release of the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, highlighting growing penetration of different technologies (smartphones, mobile internet etc) and the regions where we’re forecasted to see  particularly strong growth:

Connected devices forecast

We’re seeing technology have an increasingly significant role in the employment landscape as machine learning, robotics and a growing array of sensors expand the range of tasks we can automate. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andrew G Haldane recently gave a speech where he explored these changes and their implications which can be found in an abbreviated form on re/code:

Average probability of automation by occupation

Chris Field and Katharine Mach profile the work of Marshall Burke, Solomon Hsiang, and Edward Miguel who have researched the economic impacts of climate change. With the Paris Climate Change Conference fast approaching, now is an important time to make your concerns known about global warming to your local government – not one to stand on the sidelines for:

“Their conclusion delivers two blockbusters. First, in contrast to past studies, they argue that 21st century warming could lead to huge global-scale macroeconomic impacts. The best estimate from Burke and colleagues is that business as usual emissions throughout the 21st century will decrease per capita GDP by 23% below what it would otherwise be, with the possibility of a much larger impact.

Secondly, they conclude that both the size and the direction of the temperature effect depend on the starting temperature. Countries with an average yearly temperature greater than 13°C (55°F) will see decreased economic growth as temperatures rise.”

Before you suggest the issue of climate change is too difficult, it’s worth reviewing research at the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University which points to the feasibility of a move to a society that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels: 

“In a few decades, the world could be powered by nothing but wind, water, and sunlight. That’s the conclusion of a new study released just before world leaders head to Paris to strike a climate deal.

“These are basically plans showing it’s technically and economically feasible to change the energy infrastructure of all of these different countries,” says Mark Z. Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, who worked with University of California colleagues to analyze energy roadmaps for 139 countries.”

Chain founder Adam Ludwin is interviewed for Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast focusing on the growing world of blockchain innovation. Among the subjects covered are the merging cultures of finance and tech, the price of bitcoin, the importance of blockchain (rather than bitcoin) and a review of  private and permissioned blockchains and uses for colored coins and sidechains:

Michael Vakulenko looks at at how the movement to self driving cars is likely to unseat traditional manufacturers’ position in the car market. Among the particular technologies and innovations he points to as catalysing change are services and apps, transportation platforms, fleet routing and navigation:

“It’s still too early in the game to say which companies will dominate the future transportation market. One thing is a safe bet: The future transportation ecosystem will look very different from the existing automotive industry. It will resemble modern technology ecosystems with their platform business models, permissionless innovation by developers, and domination of software-centric companies.”

Technology based disruption hasn’t received the same level of media attention in education as it has in other sectors with the possible exceptions MOOCs reflecting a more constrained funding pool and the comparatively complex web of different stakeholders. The NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition provides a valuable review of emerging innovations in the primary and secondary education sector, with technologies typically augmenting rather than replacing current ways of working:

Edtech Trends

The New York Times‘ experiment with Google Cardboard has gained lots of plaudits for pushing the boundary for online journalism at scale. Whilst the experiment has catalysed interest in these new formats, Will Smith stresses the need for fully featured virtual reality platforms such as Oculus Rift to differentiate themselves from Google Cardboard:

“In the meantime, if you enjoyed your first taste of VR, courtesy of Cardboard and 360 video, that’s great! Welcome to the future! But if that first taste of VR turned your stomach, please know that it doesn’t have to be this way. The problems that affected you have been solved—you just need better hardware than comes free with the Sunday paper.”

Steve Albini wrote the essay The Problem with Music in 1994 critiquing the music industry and its ability to both give musicians money and then take it back with a litany of expenses. Albini gave an update of sorts last year at the Face the Music conference where he saw musicians as now being in a better position to take control of their own destiny:

The Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities project has been looking at levels of inequality and the proximity of the rich and poor in 12 different cities across Europe. Richard Florida’s summary of the research points to a general trend of increasing income inequality (measured by Gini coefficient) and residential segregation (measured by index of dissimilarity) across Europe, although Tallinn and Oslo make for interesting outliers:

European Cities Economic Segregation and Inequality

ISIS’ attack on Paris on the 13th of November was a tragedy which has led to some important discussions about how we deal with the threat of terrorism. The Economist’s look at global deaths from terrorism puts the deaths in perspective, pointing to how much the West has in many cases been spared the worst effects of terrorism:

Global deaths from terrorism

The attacks have led to renewed calls for backdoors in secure products and encryption software. Kim Zetter provides a valuable rebuttal starting with the lack of evidence to support the view that the terrorists used encryption technology.  She then goes on to point out that there will always be homebrewed encryption alternatives, encryption doesn’t hide metadata and weakening existing products ultimately makes everyone vulnerable:

“If Snowden has taught us anything, it’s that the intel agencies are drowning in data,” EFF Attorney Nate Cardozo says. “They have this ‘collect it all mentality’ and that has led to a ridiculous amount of data in their possession. It’s not about having enough data; it’s a matter of not knowing what to do with the data they already have. That’s been true since before 9/11, and it’s even more true now.”

Adam Shatz writing for the London Review of Books reports more broadly on ISIS’ aims with the terrorist attacks and the options the West has in reducing chances of future incidents:

“Now IS is unrivalled among jihadist groups, and no one knows quite what to do that won’t make the problem worse. Anything that can be done now risks being too little, too late. It’s true that IS is no match, militarily, for the West. The attacks of 13 November were in the anarchist tradition of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, and we shouldn’t fall for it: the social order of Europe isn’t in jeopardy. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the problem. IS has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim ‘others’ and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.”

One of my real concerns is that the attacks could further marginalise Muslim populations already living in Western Europe and USA and lead to the closing of borders to refugees fleeing turmoil in places like Syria and Afghanistan. By doing this, the West would essentially be handing ISIS a victory of sorts as Adam Taylor reports:

“The very same refugees entering Europe are often the very same civilians who face the indiscriminate violence and cruel injustice in lands controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (though, it should be noted, many in Syria are also threatened by the brutal actions of the Syrian government). Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq registering the highest toll.

If Muslim refugees come to Europe and are welcomed, it deeply undercuts the Islamic State’s legitimacy. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has helpfully catalogued some of the Islamic State’s messages on the refugees pouring into Europe from the Middle East. The messages give the impression of deep discomfort and even jealousy that the Muslim population the Islamic State so covets for its self-proclaimed “caliphate” would rather live in “infidel” Western lands.”

The Economist’s analysis of health spending and life expectancy point to the fact that there’s a far from direct correlation between the two with the United States’s poor performance in particular standing out:

Health spending and life expectancy at birth

Raffi Khatchadourian has written a thought provoking profile of Nick Bostrom for the New Yorker profiling the latter’s research into whether developments in artificial intelligence and other technologies will lead to human extinction. His approach is definitely more thoughtful than your average Hollywood blockbuster.

The featured image is Phoenix by DALeast in Penang, Malaysia and published in StreetArtNews.