Goodbye, Bay Area. Hello, New York!

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Sometimes you have to just shake it up a bit. Or a lot.

(cross posted from Searchblog)

I first moved to the Bay area in 1983. I graduated from high school, spent my summer as an exchange student/day laborer in England (long story), then began studies at Berkeley, where I had a Navy scholarship (another long story).

1983. 35 years ago.

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The Dawn of Digital Switzerlands

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Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

The tech behemoths’ role in nation-states is evolving

The biggest US tech companies now have powers which challenge the primacy of governments in many domains. In many cases they also have capabilities not available to nation states. We touched on these issues, and the notion of “corporate foreign policy” in one of the previous issues of my weekly newsletter Exponential View.

Last year, Microsoft’s Brad Smith argued that — at least in the realm of cybersecurity — “the global tech sector needs to operate as a neutral Digital Switzerland. We will assist and protect customers everywhere.”

Now in the Pennsylvania Law Review, Kristen Eichensehr looks at the issue of Digital Switzerlands in greater depth, 66 pages of it to be precise. We’ve summarized parts of it here. One key distinction between large corporations and nation states is that they lack territory, control of state-violence, and have very different governance mechanisms to nation-states. But that is as true for many supranational bodies as well.

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AI’s Transition Problem

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Photo by James Fitzgerald on Unsplash

Recent successes in deploying AI point to a crucial challenge the field is facing

I read Martin Wolf’s wonderful essay about the challenges facing government in the light of significant labour displacements. Last week there were two relevant, but distinct, announcements from Babylon Health and OpenAI. I aimed to connect the dots between these in the latest issue of my weekly newsletter Exponential View. (Read the issue | Subscribe)

First, Babylon: the company announced that their AI-based chatbot had performed better than the typical British GP (a GP is a generalist physician rather than a specialist) on the qualifying exams run by the Royal College of General Practitioners. Babylon’s bot scored 81% on a test where humans averaged 72%, although there are some methodology issues. You can read a news story here, and the research paper, which I’ve skimmed, here.

The Royal College of General Practitioners responds with two key points: one silly, the other less so.

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Danny Hillis On How to Think Long Term (And Still Stay in Business)

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Danny Hillis presenting at TED. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

It’s trendy for companies to say they’re thinking long term. Unfortunately, for many businesses “long term” equates to “next quarter’s earnings.” And then there’s Danny Hillis.

Hillis is best-known as an inventor and entrepreneur (he was a pioneer in commercial parallel supercomputers and artificial intelligence). He’s co-chairman of Applied Minds, a research and development company that led to entities like Metaweb (a semantic web innovator) and Applied Proteomics (developed a new way of measuring protein in blood). Previously, among many other things, Hillis was an executive for Walt Disney Imagineering and founded the MIT spinoff Thinking Machines. In his free time, he’s done things like build a computer out of Tinkertoys.

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What If God Were An App?

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A playful way to look at what apps/startups need to do to thrive in the next business cycle. Based on a talk I gave this April at Industry: The Product Conference in Dublin. (Note: this is not religious, but meant to be a fun, perhaps useful, thought exercise.)


Last fall I was remembering my college days as a Badger at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In particular, I was remembering my Philosophy 101 class. In this class we were studying enlightenment philosophers such a David Hume, George Berkeley, and John Locke. They were attempting to solve a big problem of the day: proving or disproving the existence of the Judeo-Christian God through logic. As I recall (and it’s a bit hazy, it was college after all), they converged on four distinct qualities of God.

At the time I was enjoying this memory, I was going through a product roadmap process and helping put together Varo’s Series B fundraising pitch. The college memory and the work situation intertwined in my mind. This led to a little epiphany, namely–those same qualities that God must have (according to those philosophers) are the same qualities that a startup must possess in this coming business cycle. Behold, a new product management framework!

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To Change the World, First Change the Way We Manage Our Employees

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NewCo Shift Forum 2018/Ignite Series

The impact of digital and social technologies on business, media, culture and society.


Jen McClure is founder of Consultants Collective and a speaker, board member, and program manager at the Conference Board. In this Ignite session at Shift Forum, McClure urges employers to rethink how they manage their most precious asset — their employees. (The full overview of Shift Forum’s Ignite series is here).

Jen McClure: Hi, I’m Jen McClure. I’m going to be talking about the complex relationship between digital and social technologies and humans at work. This is actually a topic I’ve been thinking about for 14 years when I helped to organize the first Congress on the Future of Work back in 2004.

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Are We Dumb Terminals?

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The social architecture of our relationship with data is broken. But we’ve overcome this problem before. We should do it again.

(cross posted from Searchblog)


God, “innovation.” First banalized by undereducated entrepreneurs in the oughts, then ground to pablum by corporate grammarians over the past decade, “innovation” — at least when applied to business — deserves an unheralded etymological death.

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Laying the Pipes of a Post-Advertising World

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The shift from brands and advertising to pipes and subscriptions is inevitable — and well underway. Want proof? Look to Disney.

Terms like ‘Disneyflix’ and ‘Apple Prime’ essentially describe how the most powerful global brand owners are coming to terms with the new rules of engagement. This is not just another story of new versus old, it’s a fundamental shift in the natural order of consumerism. Brands have traditionally been prized, while distribution has been more commoditized. The ‘must have’ things held the power. But if the pipes into people’s lives have become more powerful than the products that go through them, then we’re in the beginning of a new era. and the change is just beginning.

Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash

Brands to Pipes.

Why would the utility of pipes beat the romance of brands? It’s easy to misinterpret our love of convenience as love for brands. People are promiscuous, and even our favorite brands can be replaced if something better asserts itself.

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Nation State At the Crossroads

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Whither thou goest, I will go

There is a notion worth revisiting: are nation states nearing their end as our preferred scale of the political and socio-economic organisation? This idea lies in contrast with the “end of history” theory of modernity, first posited by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama.

I’ve found the question of evolving the nation-state fascinating since the early 1990s when I first came across ideas of decentralised forms of organisation enabled by new electronic networks (and was contemporaneously studying political institutions and models of governance).

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Efforts to Nationalise AI, and Why We Need to Stop Calling it “AI Race”

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Photo by Ciprian Pardău on Unsplash

Much of the work done in AI is of the intangible quality, and will drive spillovers

French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to make France an AI leader and avoid “dystopia”, supported by €1.5bn in investment. France is not the first country to surge ambitiously towards establishing itself as a “leader” in AI. Putin famously stated that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”. China has a three-year action plan to establish itself at the top. Canada’s Trudeau discussed on multiple occasions the consequences of automation, and the opportunities of artificial intelligence. Macron demonstrates nuanced understanding of the opportunity — both technological and social — of artificial intelligence in this must-read interview.

This sort of thing can only help capitalise on the value of these technologies. I do believe that cultural and intellectual diversity (and France has those when arrayed with China and the US) can only help in the development of appropriate AI systems. The equivalent UK number is only about £75m (€85m), which is a pity considering the nation’s intellectual heritage across both humanities and technology domains, and bottom-up appetite for the Internet over the past 30 years. More importantly, few world leaders have expressed such adroitness with this sea change than Macron has.

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