Technology and the Limits of Convenience


I need an Apple Watch. Badly. I need it because the distance between my wrist and my coat pocket is simply too much, because I need to save that extra second when checking my phone for notifications. I need it because I need one more device to monitor my health.

While I’m at it, I also need an app that saves me a few seconds booking a table, finding the right bar for my Saturday night, and so on. Hell, anything that can save me those precious seconds throughout my hectic day will have my dollar.

The obvious facetiousness aside (I don’t need any of those things), I’m growing weary of seeing so many startups without missions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for creating amazing products. There is, however, an eventual lack of authenticity in the endless strive for greater convenience. These pure-convenience plays face continually diminishing returns.

It is easy to mistake one-off convenience for recurring utility. Entrepreneurs have gotten all too good at tricking themselves – and investors – that their ad hoc gimmick will scale to epic proportions, and keep compounding on its original value. Yet only the most central and important of product functions will see this happen. Along the peripherals, most utility is exhausted almost immediately.

It’s well known that the vast majority of startups fail. You can’t make them all into winners. You can, however, stress the importance of real, lasting, and growing utility. The more apps I see, and the more pitches I hear for the latest and greatest fad ever to hit the App Store, the more I feel like we need to focus on using technology to help us be better people. Beyond convenience, and beyond mere utility, there lies a realm of innovation wherein products are not actually products at all, but catalysts for social movements. Those same movements can help us become better citizens of humanity.

The job of the entrepreneur in all times before has been to find and capture economic opportunity. Now, however, a higher calling is in order: entrepreneurs need to rise to the challenge of taking the higher-level principles of creating things that bring about positive social change, and finding specific opportunities to execute on opportunities that build toward a greater goal. Building a business still takes as much savvy and boldness as ever, but with the new requirements of relevance to social context and mission-driven offerings. It may be the hardest problem of all, but it will turn out to be the most worth it.

The Best & Worst of Tech in 2013


Keeping with tradition, I’ll review some of the trends I noticed this past year, and remark on what they might mean for those of us working in technology.

THE BEST

JavaScript becomes a real language!

To some this might seem trivial, but there’s a lot to be said here.  With the massive growth of Node.js and many associated libraries, Google’s V8 engine has been stirring up the web world.  Write a Node.js program, and I guarantee you’ll never think of a web server the same way again.

Why is this good?  This isn’t an advertisement for Node.js, but I would posit that these developments are good because they open up entire new worlds of productivity – rapid prototyping, readable code, and entirely new ways of thinking about web servers.  Some folks are even running JavaScript on microcontrollers now, a la Arduino.  JavaScript has been unleashed from the confines of the browser, and is maturing into a powerful tool for creating production-quality systems with high scalability and developer productivity.  Exciting!

Cognitive Computing Begins to Take Form

Earlier this year I stated a belief that 2013 would be the year of cognitive systems.  Well that hasn’t been fulfilled completely, but we’ve nonetheless seen some intriguing developments in that direction.  IBM continues to chug away at their cognitive platforms, and Watson is now deployed working full time as an AI M.D. of sorts.  Siri has notably improved from earlier versions.  Vicarious used their algorithms to crack CAPTCHA.  Two rats communicated techepathically (I just made that word up) with each other from huge distances, and people have been controlling robots with their minds.  It’s been an amazing year.

The cognitive computing/cybernetics duo is going to change, well, everything.  I would argue that cybernetics may just top the list of most transformative technologies, but it has a ways to go before we go full Borg.

Wearables Start to Become a Thing

Ah, wearables.  We’ve waited for nifty sci-fi watches for so long – and lo!  They have come.  Sort of.  They’re on their way, and we’re starting to catch glimpses of what this will actually mean for technology.  I agree with Sergey Brin here: it’ll get the technology out of our hands and integrated into our environment.  Personally I envision tech becoming completely seamless and unnoticeable, nature-friendly and powerful, much like our own biological systems, but that’s another article entirely.

Wearable technology will combine with the “Internet of Things” in ways we can’t yet imagine, and will make life a little easier for some and much, much better for others.

Internet of Things

The long-awaited Internet of Things is finally starting to coalesce into something real.  Apple is filing patents left and right for connected home gear, General Electric is making their way into the space with new research, and plenty of startups are sprouting to address the challenges in the space (and presumably be acquired by one of the big players).

This development is so huge it’s almost difficult to say what it will bring.  One thing is for sure: the possibilities are only limited to one’s imagination.

21st Century Medicine is Shaping up to be AWESOME

Aside from the fact that we now have an artificial intelligence assisting in medical diagnosis, there have been myriad amazing developments in medicine.  From numerous prospects for cures to cancer, HIV, and many other disease to the advances in regenerative medicine and bionanotechnology, we’re on the fast track to a future wherein medical issues can be resolved quickly and with relatively little pain.  There’s also a different perspective: solve the issue at the deepest root, instead of treating symptoms with drugs.

THE WORST

Every Strategy is a Sell Strategy

This year, tech giants went acquisition-mad.  It seems like every day one of them has blown another few billion dollars on some startup somewhere.

Why is this bad?  It may be good for the little guy (startup) in the short term – they walk away with loads of cash – but in the long term I suspect it will have a curious effect.  It’s almost like business one-night-stand-ism.  You build a company knowing full well that you’re just going to sell it to Google or Facebook.  If not, you fold.

You can see where this goes.  People are often saying they look forward to ‘the next Google’, or ‘the next Facebook’, or whatever.  Well there might not be any.  That is, all the big fish are eating the little fish before they have the chance to become big fish.  Result?  Insanely huge fish.

It’s great that a couple of smart kids can run off, Macbook Pros in hand, and [potentially] make a few billion bucks in a few years, with or without revenue.  But who is going to outlast the barrage of acquisition offers and become the next generation of companies?

Big Data is Still not Clearly Defined

Big Data.  Big data.  BIG.  DATA.

What does it mean?

The buzzword and its many ilk have been floating around for a couple of years now, and still nobody can really define what it does.  Most seem to agree it goes something like: prop up a Hadoop cluster, mine a bunch of stale SQL records in massive company/organization, cast the MapReduce spell and – Hadoopra cadabra!  Sparkling magical insights of pure profit glory appear, fundamentally altering life and the universe forever – and sending you home with bigger paychecks.

I’m all for data analysis.  In fact I believe that a society that makes decisions based on hard evidence and good data-crunching is a smart society indeed.  But the ‘Big Data’ hype has yet to form into anything definitive, and remains a source of noise.  (Big data fanboys, go ahead and flame in the comments.)

 America’s Innovation Edge Dulls

It’s true.  I hate to admit, but it is, undeniably, absolutely true.  America has dropped the ball when it comes to innovation.  That’s not to say we’re not innovating cool things, generating economy and all of that – we are.  But that gloss has started to tarnish.  Specifically, America has a problem with denying talented people the right to be here and work.

It could be our hyper-paranoid foreign policy in lieu of 9/11, it could be the flawed immigration system, it could be Washington gridlock or a million other things.  It’s not particularly fruitful to pass the blame now.  We’re turning away the best and the brightest from around the world, and simultaneously continuing to outsource some of what used to be our core competencies.  The bright spot in all of this is that high-tech manufacturing would seem to be making a comeback, perhaps in part thanks to 3D printing, but it’s not quite enough.  We need more engineers, more inventors, and more people from outside our borders.  This has always been the place people come to plant the seeds of great ideas.  Let’s stay true to that.