Dispatches from the contextual world — my ACSTAC 2014 talk

On 3/15 I was invited to talk at ACSTAC (Anatolia College Science and Technology Annual Conference) at my high school alma mater Anatolia College. I talked about how the Internet, data, algorithms, and predictive AI shape the present and future of our personas and society, and how technology facilitates the creation of innovative startups and businesses. Below you can find the presentation’s slides and an edited transcript of my talk.

Here’s a simple truth: the Internet has radically changed our world and is, effectively, an augmentation of our brains’ memories. Over the course of the past 20 years the idea of networking all the world’s computers has gone from a research science pipe-dream to a necessary condition for economic and social growth. From government and university labs to kitchen tables and city streets. We are all travelers now, desperate souls searching for a signal to connect us all. And it is awesome.

With the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence, machines, and by machines I mean both the actual hardware devices and the software, algorithms, and code running inside them and on the cloud, will be just like us and someday we almost won’t be able to tell the difference between us and them unless for our own Voight-Kampff test.

In order to try to understand the future we have to first understand the past and see how we’ve come to this very point in human history—to be on the verge of creating stuff that might be eventually smarter than ourselves.

Douglas Adams proposed three axioms to describe technology. That anything that already exists when you’re born is normal, that anything invented during your youth is exciting, and that anything invented after thirty-five is against the status quo. The Internet is relatively a very young technology. The World Wide Web just turned 25 few days ago. Despite its huge penetration in our society in an unprecedented level we still do not fully comprehend it as a medium of communication, expression, business, research and the list goes on. We know our approach towards the future is one of fear. We’re afraid of the unknown, of the uncontrollable and that’s only natural. Sometimes we look like whiny pessimists who complain about how things are somehow worse than what they have been before and feel entitled to this feeling. But we’re wrong.

Because in order keep growing, to keep getting better as a society and people we need to strive for progress, for the new, for innovative stuff—we need to create. How do we define progress then? Progress is the accelerated rate of change – and the Internet is producing more progress than progress ever dreamed of. Why are we so quick to assume then that the future is a hybrid of a Stanley Kubrick/Blade Runner-like dystopia? When you look those people on the bus with their newspapers you don’t think they’re antisocial. Because it’s natural to you as per Douglas’ first axiom. We think that technology and the Internet have made our lives somehow worse – or that they try to – but that’s just nonsense. Never before we were able to communicate the way we communicate now, this very way our generation was born with. I’m online since 1999 and I always felt, like, wow!, everything in my life is richer and deeper thanks to new technologies. The opportunities for expression, business, and innovation are greater than ever before. Our world changes and that’s not as bad as it seems like and despite technology’s shortcomings, it gives voice and freedom to create to so many.

Anytime a new technology gets introduced we, the tech community, try to reanswer all these questions. This xkcd comic strip highlights this conundrum perfectly. Yes, we might be alienated and perhaps more than before but it’s not the Internet’s fault—in fact, research shows it makes us more connected with our friends in real life. We got through the alienation of the telephone, that books will make us forget, that the telegraph will negatively impact our skills to write prose. We’re still here and our world is more than ever before connected, social, intelligent, educated. Better.

We didn’t get flying cars but we can read what happens in the world in real-time thanks to Twitter. Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and Coursera are the closest thing to Matrix-like instant brain downloads we have today.

The phrase I mentioned a bit earlier is a very interesting one – “real life”. What’s real and what’s not? As Morpheus said in The Matrix everything is just electrical signals that our brain interprets in different ways. Reality is confusing. To elaborate: the term digital dualism was coined by researcher Nathan Jurgenson and is the notion that people conceptualize the world into online and offline—and as Nathan says, it’s not true anymore—in fact, it was never true but we only now seem to understand it. The common (mis)understanding is that experience is zero-sum: time spent online means less spent offline. We are either jacked into the Matrix or not; we are either looking at our devices or not. But the Internet isn’t an adjunct to real life; it’s not another place. You don’t do things “on the internet,” you just do things. The network is interwoven into every moment of our lives, and we should treat it that way.

Almost always the experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values between those of the present and those of the past has been lost. People before the Internet were not measurably wiser, sitting around discussing Proust. They were watching Married With Children and playing video games.

After this brief theoretical discussion of the Internet’s nature let’s see where we are right now. Where we’ve come to. I mentioned that we’ll cover wearable computing devices and contextual services. Let’s start with the former.

Take for instance Jawbone Up and Nike Fuelband. They’re able to record where you go, how many steps you make a day, how fast or slow, how good you sleep and each sleep phase you go through every night. They’re able to measure calories burned and much more—and some, like the Nike Fuelband, have also integrated a small social network to challenge your friends.

It’s not only about what they record though. It’s equally important to conceptualize and present data with a meaningful way. And this is where this whole thing gets interesting, as we do deeper in the contextual domain. Algorithms now are smart enough to be able to know what data is important to us and know how we should get this information. Foursquare, for example, can send you a push notification the moment you enter a new coffee shop and offer an insider’s tip – or your friend’s for that matter, without you doing anything. And with Square you can order and pay automatically when you enter a venue.

Smart watches are going to be a thing in the future—they’re just not there yet. They are deeply tied with your smartphone and can display stuff like caller info, new texts, calendar notifications, and more. They’re a bit clunky now and many consumers are not quit sold on their premise but they have the potential to be quite a player in the market.

Other wearable computing devices are mounted on the head instead of our wrists. This ski mask for example can show how fast you ski, your location in the ski resort and what’s nearby. It also integrates with your phone to show you caller info, new texts, and other relevant information. As a former ski racer this is extremely exciting because it means in the future we can also integrate stuff like training routes, ideal ski line during the race, time intervals, and so on.

Another subset of wearable devices are sensors – which are going to be huge. Sensors will have paramount implications in the retail, med-tech, transportation, and home automation industries. Here we see Tile, a small sensor that we can attach onto pretty much everything and be able to track that particular item. Other popular sensors are for example the Proteus pills which are pills with an integrated digital sensor which transmits real-time medical data to the doctor and also shows if a patient has received his medication or not, and iBeacon – Apple’s new under-looked technology. iBeacon can radically transform our retail experiences as we’ll see in a moment.

But the pinnacle of things wearable and contextual is Google Glass. After decades of self-reflexive irony and endless retromania, pop culture finally seems to be able to rediscover its futurist leanings. Glass is extremely important for a few reasons. First of all, Glass itself is not something entirely new—products like this existed in research labs for about 10 to 15 years now—but it’s the first major product from a major company (actually one of the world’s largest) which in a way says “time’s almost now.” For it’s irrelevant how well or bad Glass will retail as a consumer product. Its potential is bigger than its market performance. Glass signifies the very notion of machines founding a way on us and soon inside us. Glass won’t stay the same in the future of course—it’ll evolve into contact lenses (already did) and later it’ll be an implant in our retinas. The potential is mind-boggling. It might be scary but it’ll be awesome. To say it differently, Google is proposing that there is value in a totally new product category and a totally new set of questions. Just like the Apple II proposed—that, would you reasonably want a computer in your home if you weren’t an accountant or professional? If you only new back then. That is the question Glass is asking, and I hope in the end that is how it will be judged. Much like the first Macintosh signified the era of the personal computer, Glass signifies the era of us, humans, being almost one with the machines.

Moreover, Glass is a huge paradigm shift: whereas “virtual reality” provided us with a simulation of the real that remained separate from the real, Glass turns the real into a simulation of itself. We won’t be talking about “augmented reality” anymore – we will be “augmenting reality” at will, gesture, and voice command.

Glass can also easily integrate with Google’s data pool, hence capitalize it enormously and push personalization to a whole new level. Glass will be everywhere with you. In the grand scheme of things, it’s one of our baby steps to see how machines see, to augment and make exponentially more usable our world. One step closer to see like, utilize our immediate environment, and harness data with the power of machines — right in front of our eyes.

Glass might as well be our first digital hallucination. Things don’t show up when they want but when you want them to. When there’s nothing to show, there’s nothing to see; ergo you’re offline while always being online.

Imagine seeing this small card in the top-right corner of your right eye in a small projector-like monitor. Because Glass knows where you are it knows what information to show you. That’s context. It can be your boarding information or news from your favorite team when you’re watching the football game. Generally Glass has currently quite limited capability – it can take and display photos and videos, read and send email, texts, make and receive calls, making video hangouts, has turn-by-turn map directions, personalized Google Now suggestions, Google search, and of course supports apps.

We talked a lot about personalization through wearables and contextual services. It’d be nice to see the bigger picture. That this does not apply only to a few select people but to every Internet user. Imagine being able to personalize the world for at least 1.3 billion people around the world. It would be amazing.

Take for example, the already discussed iBeacon example. iBeacon is a contextual technology that can transform retail and other experiences from the ground up. You enter a store which has iBeacon installed and when you reach the t-shirt section for example, it might send a push notification recommending you one because your wardrobe will know which garment you wear and it’ll be able to recommend you additional items.

So you might be interested in that yellow t-shirt and you want to buy it. Just tap on the notification for a one-tap purchase with Square or Google Wallet or even your iTunes account or any other payments platform out there. And perhaps you might not even need to carry it back home because it’ll be delivered to your home within a few hours with an Amazon drone.

The following project is from an art gallery. This gallery based in Antwerp in order to trigger people to have a more interactive experience has installed iBeacons throughout its exhibitions and gives visitors an iPad in order to interact with them. Pretty amazing.

The possibilities with wearables, contextual services, sensors, and intelligent AI and machine learning are endless. It’s up to us to create innovative services that challenge the status quo and introduce something new which wasn’t possible before.

Of course all this is directly bonded with entrepreneurship. When you have that opportunity, where something you believe in should be possible and the technology is enabling that—that’s a pretty good way to start a business. And you should. Assuming it’s really exciting, assuming some people think that they’re going to change the world with you, and that they might make money in the process, then you can build whatever you want.

We have several major technologies that enable the new knowledge economy: predictive AI, recommendations through pattern recognition, contextual services and wearable computing devices. These broad categories with their subsets can be applied either in a B2B or B2C way on industry-verticals like health, home automation, retail experiences, government and city planning, transportation, and finance.

And here’s a list of a few companies that do this stuff in one way or another. Google with Glass and its driverless car, Proteus with the sensor-enabled pill, foursquare redefining the way we experience our cities, Nest making our homes smarter, Estimote introducing iBeacons everywhere, Uber might introduce driverless cabs, and Waze which transforms the way we drive by showing real-time information about the road, accidents, traffic, police, and more. As world-renowned Silicon Valley VC Marc Andreessen said, “software is eating the world.” Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected. We can’t predict the future—we can only say it’ll be exciting.

Connectivity is the basic assumption and natural fabric of everyday life for us. Technology connections are how people meet, express ideas, define identities, and understand each other now. Older generations have, for the most part, used technology to improve productivity — to do things we’ve always done, faster, easier, more cheaply. For our generation, being wired is a way of life.

But you have to know that part of the work of your—and our—generation is going to be technological, using scientific ideas to serve the interests of society, and part of the work is going to be fundamentally human tied with qualities of the human condition—the human emotion—that dominate the whole of history. These things are not separate, but are inexorably linked. None of this is to say that social media, the web, and the Internet in general should not be critiqued. Indeed, they should and must be. However critiques of them should begin with the idea of a networked and connected society happening around us already.

posted: March 16, 2014
under: Reviews

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