The Best and Worst of Tech in 2012


The following is a list of what is, in my humble opinion, the best and worst technology and tech culture trends in 2012.  I’ll start with some of the best, go over the worst, and end with more of the best as well as some points for 2013.

THE BEST:

1. Aquaponics is taking leaps forward.  Vertical farming, hydroponics, and aquaponics are all picking up steam in the marketplace, especially as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo projects sprout almost daily.  I’ve long felt that we needed better ways to grow food, in urban areas or places with poor soil, and aquaponics has long been a viable solution.  It just hasn’t widely popularized until now.

2. Quantum physics often makes headlines.  I understand a lot of physicists would see this as a bad thing, given how badly the concepts are utterly botched, but I see the net effect as positive.  More people are curious about deep matters of physics now than ever before, as far as I can tell.  CERN has done a lot to drive this forward, but they are by no means the only player.

The more that quantum physics moves into early education, the better off the next generation will be.  So far, I’d say we’re off to a decent start.

3. Open, online education takes off.  Between Khan Academy, EdX, Coursera, and the countless other superb online education sites, anybody anywhere can now get a decent education despite all other factors in life.  This is especially true as it pertains to programming.  You can now learn nearly any programming language online, for free.  This has already changed education as we know it, and all signs point to its continuing to do so.

4. As already mentioned, crowdsourcing has changed a lot about how we think about projects, businesses, and community.  Especially awesome are the community spaces that are popping up, such as makerspaces, art co-ops, etc.  Despite a shaky economy and the worst national debt in our history, people are pressing forward and doing what they love.

The global scale of these projects is also impressive.  Now there are Kickstarters spanning multiple nations via their founders, demonstrating the platform’s ability to link people of common interest together.

5. Open source software is more prevalent than ever – and is now complemented by open source hardware.  From Hadoop to the Apache suites, Arduino to Raspberry Pi (whose open source-ness may be in question), CentOS to Fedora – open source is king.  This opens up numerous pathways for new development that can’t presently be imagined.

6. Cloud computing gets a foothold.  It’s taken a while, from my perspective, from when I first started hearing about the idea until it started to really take hold.  I think it’s safe to say that cloud computing has finally become a market standard.  Many would argue as to when that was exactly, but I’ll just leave it at “sometime in 2012”.

7. Chips are designed to consume less energy, and produce less heat.  This goes hand in hand with #6 above: people started to realize how much juice we were really taking up, and did something about it.  Not only is this good for businesses, but good for the planet too – in case you somehow forgot that pitch.

8. Parallel computing grows.  From Adapteva to Intel’s new 48-core designs, we’re finally starting to see significant advances in truly parallel processing.  GPUs have had their part to play in this as well, with suites like CUDA and OpenCL driving massive markets forward.

And now, some of THE WORST:

1. The patent wars continue.  There are no measures which can adequately describe how damaging this has been to business, innovation, and ultimately, progress.  Between Apple, Samsung, Google, Oracle, and Microsoft, it’s been fire and brimstone all year in the courthouses.  The only bright side is that patent attorneys are getting paid by the truckload.

One could write an entire thesis on this and barely scratch the surface.  For the purposes of this blog, suffice it to say that the effects of this onslaught will be felt for a long, long time (due to precedents set, laws made, etc.).

2. This follows naturally from #1: the US patent system still does not have comprehensive support for software or algorithms.  Patenting anything in this vein reduces to invoking the kind of convoluted sophistries that only those fluent in legalese could produce.  Acknowledging that software/algorithm patents are a touchy issue, the least we could do is disambiguate what can and cannot be patented.  Without clarity, good business cannot be done.

3. Everything starting with “i”.  iCar.  iWork.  iBot.  iGarage.  It’s gotten both ridiculous and annoying.  In the first place, mimicking Apple is not always the wisest thing to do.  And secondly, it really couldn’t be that hard to be more creative with your names, could it?

4. Everything is “smart”.  SmartCard.  SmartGlass.  SmartTires.  SmartSmart.  SmartSmartSmart.  This too has gotten utterly ridiculous.  Putting “smart” in front of a generic product name does not say anything about the product or the company.  I could make a “SmartStick”, and that wouldn’t change what it most certainly is: a stick.  Likewise, a ‘SmartCard’ is still just a card.  Better to make some indication of what the thing actually does or is useful for.  Even “MetroCard” is fine: it’s a card that you use for the metro.

5. Apps.  I don’t have any problem with apps themselves, but the feverish craze that has everybody chattering like caffeine-injected chipmunks about the latest apps drive me crazy.

Of course mobile technologies have added tremendous value to many aspects of our lives.  I get that.  And of course it’s exciting – they’re nifty gadgets with lots of even niftier sub-gadgets (apps).  But the marketing craze and the lingo surrounding the whole thing has gone far beyond acceptable.  (Too many times when I tell people that I develop software do they just default and say, “Oh, so you make apps.”  No.  I do not make apps.  Software is infinitely more than apps.)

To celebrate the insanity, I came up with some great product names this year: iSmartApp.  iAppSmartSmartApp.  iLookSmart.  My personal favorite, a tech company: iSmartSolutions.

Buzzwords are always annoying, but I promise I won’t complain about any more of them in this posting.

6. Still, nobody seems to have a clue as to what to do about the cybersecurity problem.  There’s a lot of panic presented by the media – no surprise there – but there is also reason to be concerned.  As of yet, nobody in particular has stepped up to the plate to offer a feasible fix, however temporary.  As devices grow closer and closer to users (and eventually implanted in the users), this is hugely important.  Quantum-encrypted interconnects would be a nice start, and fortunately there is lots of active research toward that, but it may be taking too long.

More of THE BEST:

9. Space technology is beginning to bloom in the private market.  By now, almost every tech person knows this, but it’s still good to realize how important this is for the human race.  Getting out into the stars has been the ultimate dream, and it is soon to be a reality.

10. 3D printing has also seen huge improvements.  As the precision and the number of materials one can work with continues to grow, this family of techniques is sure to transform manufacturing forever.

11. The world didn’t end after all.  We’ll all have 2013 to develop more amazing technologies and change the world.

2013 promises to be an industrious year.  The economy is going to come back stronger than ever, new tech is right on the horizon,  education is being transformed worldwide, and we’re starting to learn from our mistakes.  We have everything to hope for.

“How to Create a Mind” Review


I’ve just finished reading Ray Kurzweil’s new book, “How to Create a Mind”.  In it I found a wealth of good information, especially in the form of thought experiments.

Kurzweil’s latest work ties in a mass of data about the brain, pattern recognition, and his own experiences, creating a sort of roadmap to creating strong AI.  The account is clearly written and concepts are well explained.  He includes some interesting research, perhaps most intriguing are the experiments with split-brain patients, illuminating more subtle aspects of consciousness.

The grand theory presented in the book, the Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind, has some nice features.  It promises completely asynchronous processing to emulate the brain’s same ability, as well as uniformity of elements.  This uniformity is part of what enables arbitrary regions to be configured to process different types of information, given sufficient exposure to their respective type of data.

Kurzweil’s formulation of hierarchical pattern recognition seems to stem almost exclusively from Hidden Markov Models, specifically of the hierarchical variety.  While these models are indeed useful for many applications, missing throughout the book is an explanation of any explicit role of time.  In Jeff Hawkins’ “On Intelligence”, temporal patterns take a central role in the theories presented, distinguishing it from most traditional machine learning designs.  By contrast, Kurzweil’s PRTM (Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind) does not take time directly into account.  We’re left to assume that temporal patterns are implicit in the changing of spatial patterns, though some definite remark on that would have been helpful.

Most of the book’s real value does not come from detailed algorithmics or mathematical ingenuity, but again from the deep and illuminating thought experiments presented.  Kurzweil has a way of exposing subtle relationships in concepts that no other author can, save Marvin Minsky (another personal favorite, who was a mentor of Kurzweil’s).  The book delivers a powerfully enlightening look into the intricate world of pattern recognition, and presents fascinating a viable avenues of exploration for making intelligent machines.  Anyone who is interested in the brain, AI, robotics, or just technology in general should definitely give this a read.

Netbeans for C, C++


This is just a quick note:

In my limited experience, I’ve nonetheless tried the full gamut of IDEs.  One that I keep returning to is NetBeans.  When I was working with it with Java it was a pain, but I think that was all Maven’s fault.

Let it be said that the Netbeans C and C++ version is superb.  Usually you lose so much time fiddling around with IDEs and getting the errors fixed.  This distribution is simple and clean, and keeps the option of all of Netbeans’ features and ‘candy’.  My prototyping process using this has increased 5x, which is exactly what an IDE should do for you.

I’m still using IntelliJ IDEA for Scala purposes, but for C and C++, Netbeans takes the cake.