Digital Content For A New Urban Experience

Last week, I posted an overview of a new urban digital experience in the streets of Yonkers, New York.

With the ability to project anything you want on a large wall of a highly-trafficked site or on the ground of the historical center square of a city, how do you kick off something like this?

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In this post, I’ll outline the approach we took for the first phase. (Next week, I’ll describe the more interesting and engaging future.)

The two main goals of this project are:

  • To enhance the street life of the city by offering a new, interesting experience, a new kind of urban design
  • To entertain, engage, educate and reinforce the image of Yonkers as an historical center of innovation and to inspire the creativity of its current residents

With that in mind, we looked for certain kinds of content. Because many residents of the city and an even larger percentage of visitors know little of its history, we wanted to give them some background. Here are some examples:

  • We worked initially with the public library to obtain the front page of the main city newspaper of a hundred years ago. In addition to projecting the front page on the wall of the Riverfront Library building, we created a kind of old time radio news summary of that front-page news, sandwiched between appropriate sounding news bulletin music from years ago. Even when there was daylight and the front-page graphic couldn’t be seen, people could still hear the news headlines. As it turns out, with a Presidential election and the onset of America’s entry into World War I, the days’ news from a hundred years ago was pretty interesting.
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  • We also had a variety of short documentaries about the history of the city that were part of a regular weekly program. This included items related to special events. For example, when the annual Yonkers Marathon was run, you could see video of the previous year’s marathon as well as a Pathé news reel about the marathon in the 1930s.

    There was footage from a drone.

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  • We also included features about the business of the city, called Made in Yonkers, that enables residents to see inside the buildings that are normally closed to the public and to learn about the interesting things going on. Indeed, this kind of venue allows people to see inside any buildings that are closed – museums that are closed at night can still show their contents. It is also possible to show how a part of the city has changed in the last hundred years or even recently or how it will change in the future – just by overlaying a projection of the past or proposed future.
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  • We identified the great musical artists and other performers who had lived in Yonkers – from WC Handy (of early blues/ragtime), to Gene Krupa (jazz drummer) to the singers Ella Fitzgerald and Steven Tyler (local high school grad and originally lead singer of Aerosmith) to the famed comedian Sid Caesar, among others – and put together shows that informed the public of their work and their relationship to the city.
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  • Then we wanted to celebrate the creativity and artistry of current residents. One of the first organizations to cooperate with this project was the Yonkers Philharmonic. On Wednesday nights, you can see them perform if you’re just walking down the street. You can also hear them many mornings, while you wait for your train.
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  • The relatively new Westchester Center for Jazz and Contemporary Music made an album available.
  • Similarly, Friday nights are usually devoted to musical shows from the two local theater companies and performances from the schools. Yonkers also runs its own Idol contest and the most recent edition of that is also shown from time to time.
  • Yonkers, like other cities, runs various festivals during the year – from Friday night Jazz on the waterfront in the summer, to Riverfest that features folk music, to Hispanic and other ethnic group events. The best performances from those are also shown periodically.
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  • As a side note, there is some reassuring about seeing a summer jazz festival
    or a flower garden

    when it’s the middle of February and the streets still have snow. It cheers you up!

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  • Yonkers is also the home of Sarah Lawrence College and an outpost of Purchase College, both of which are especially strong in the arts. The Westchester Community College also has a branch in the city and its Digital Arts program was an early contributor to the content. These local colleges then provided and even created content especially for this project, including animations, documentary videos and new music.

This is only a partial list. If it had to do with Yonkers, if it happened in the city and helps residents appreciate where they live, then it became part of the content library. That library is still growing.

Visual projections on a big concrete wall are pretty straightforward. For the projections on the ground, the same kind of videos won’t quite work all the time and there more emphasis is given to animations, graphics and text.

Obviously, visual projections are limited to nighttime. But the speakers are on all day. So, there is a program for the morning and evening rush hour – usually a sample of what had been played the night before.

And, for a little fun and to liven up the street, during the middle of the day at random times, pedestrians hear little clips of musical sounds or other ambient sounds, like elephants roaring. Huh? I’m walking in Yonkers and I hear an elephant? That will wake up people who have stopped paying attention to their environment.

From some of the examples I’ve given, you also get the sense of how you can transport people mentally. You can show them what’s happening in a different part of the city. You can show them the sunset from yesterday or the flowers of spring when it’s still winter. All of this can uplift the mood of a city.

Clearly the focus of the content I’ve described was on this city – Yonkers – but any city could do the same. People, even city government folks, were surprised at how much content there was about the city. Your city too has much to show. You just need to look and be a bit creative about it.

But even what I’ve described here doesn’t fully take advantage of the opportunity to create new street experiences. More on that next time.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

A New Urban Digital Experience In Yonkers, New York

Over the last several years, I’ve written about the value of blending digital and physical spaces for cities so that they can create new exciting, delightful destinations that will inspire and attract people. This was one part of the work I did for the US Conference of Mayors on a strategy to ensure the viability of American cities — especially mid-sized and smaller cities — in a post-industrial, digital age.

Mayor Mike Spano, an innovative public leader and dedicated son of Yonkers, New York, saw one of my presentations at an annual meeting of the mayors and thought it would fit well with the revitalization program he had initiated in his city.

That’s how I got started helping the City bring the “Yonkers Digital Experience” to life.  (The picture below is from the press conference launching the project.)

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There’s a lot to this project so this will be a series of posts — an overview in this post and then later more detail about the content and future direction of the project.

Yonkers is a city of about 200,000 people, on the northern border of New York City along the Hudson River. It was founded in 1646 during the Dutch colonial period, but grew dramatically during the industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century. For example, it was the birthplace of the Otis Elevator Company. But like many other similar cities in the US and elsewhere, it suffered during the long decline and out-migration of industrial jobs.

With that background, there are two main goals of this project in Yonkers:

  • To enhance the street life of the city by offering a new, interesting experience, a new kind of urban design
  • To entertain, engage, educate and reinforce the image of Yonkers as an historical center of innovation and to inspire the creativity of its current residents

As befits a smaller city — and one that didn’t want to have this supported by commercial advertising which would detract from quality of life — the project was very built on a very economical budget. Instead of huge LED displays, like Times Square, it uses high quality projections and outdoor speakers. When it’s dark, the video is seen and engaged. During the day, there is only audio. The projectors are attached to existing street lights and are relatively unobtrusive.

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While the cost of all this technology has come down dramatically over the last few year, it is still not a trivial technology project to implement. The complete system that takes the contributed digital content and ultimately displays it consists of several independent components of technology that are not always simple to integrate.

For the initial roll-out, two different kinds of sites were selected and handled quite differently.

The first site is the large concrete wall of the big Riverfront Library, which is across the street from the main train station and a big city park (with the Saw Mill River running through it). It is also very near the more upscale apartments that face the Hudson River and the Palisades. This is already an attractive area with lots of pedestrian traffic. It is ideal for the presentation of past and current performances, history, and the like in a fairly conventional way.

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The second location is Getty Square, which was the center of the city a hundred years ago, but is now not quite as important.  In this location, there are two projectors with speakers that are aimed at the ground in the center of the “square”. This is an edgier location and one that is expected to be the center for more non-traditional experiments in art and interaction.

While there have been projections on walls in various cities around the world, especially in Europe, these have usually been limited to the few days of a festival and have mostly been opportunities for graphic artists to use a building wall as a canvass – rather than to create a new permanent urban experience.

From what I’ve seen and read, the closest project to what Yonkers is doing has taken place in Montreal. But in Montreal, the program has been fairly static and solely visual, without sound, the impact on passers-by is limited. Nor does it seem they have any longer-term plans to enable interaction with residents on the street.

So, the Yonkers Digital Experience is an early experiment in urban design, technology and engagement.

The next post will be a review of the kinds of content that is currently part of this project. The final post will highlight where this kind of project can go, as it uses some fun digital technologies.

If you’re interested in the previous blog posts on this general subject, they can be found here:

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Adventures In Translation On The Road

I made a recent two-week trip to Europe in four countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany.  A large part of the trip was in the countryside where, generally, a smaller percentage of the residents speak English well.  (Actually, the Netherlands is sort of an exception to this rule as a large number of people speak English everywhere and Dutch and English even have similar sounding words.)

In presentations, I’ve been highlighting the improvements over the last few years in real-time translation between different languages, especially the phone apps intended for this purpose.  So, I thought this would be an ideal test to see how well they worked in the real world.

I chose the two leaders – Google and Microsoft – and took them on the road with me.  I used these primarily to read menus, signs, information and the like in the foreign (non-English) language and translate into English.  I also used it to translate my written English into the foreign language so that a non-English speaker could I understand what I was asking for.  I tried a couple of times to use the speech recognition and speech synthesis capabilities of these apps, but that was limited for reasons I outline below.

Anyway, here are the results of my adventures in real time translation on the road.

Although not as smooth as the videos from the companies would have you believe, these apps generally worked pretty well.  Frankly, whatever the limitations, I would have been in deep trouble and frequently lost without these apps.

You should check how well each works in a particular country.  Google Translate did a better job in France and Microsoft Translator a better job in Germany.

Google bought the company that produced the original WordLens app that allowed you to hold your phone’s camera over non-English text and see it in English – a nice example of augmented reality (AR).  That software is still embedded in the Google Translate app.  It’s really cool, when you can hold your phone still over foreign text in good light.  As a practical matter, this isn’t always the case.  

That’s where Microsoft Translator has the edge because it doesn’t try to do the AR thing.  It just uses the camera to take a photo and then provides an alternative photo in English.  It was a nice way to create an English language menu.  Apparently I hadn’t been the only ones to do this since waiters usually just shook their heads in recognition – another American making English versions of printed menus unnecessary.  (Not really, of course, at least not yet.)

The speech and voice recognition capabilities in both apps require having a good internet connection, something that is not all that widespread when you’re interacting with people who don’t speak English.  In hotels, museums and offices where there is available wi-fi, most people speak English well enough.  It’s elsewhere that you need the translation capability and it seems there is a correlation between the availability of wi-fi and the percentage of people who speak English in a foreign country – or putting it the opposite way, you usually won’t have wi-fi when you need it to carry the translation duties.

So, it is best for both apps to download the complete file for whatever language you’re going to need.  For me, that meant downloading fairly large files of Dutch, French and German.  If you don’t download, then you’re going to need wi-fi even just for text.

As with any useful technology, you want it to get out of the way and become invisible.  While neither is invisible magic yet, Google Translate helps with a nice little trip.  If you type in English and then hold your phone sideways (horizontally), it shows the foreign language translation in big letters.  This is very useful in explaining to baristas and clerks in mini-marts what you want.  Microsoft has a similar capability, but requires an additional step to make it happen.  Here is what it would look like in Spanish if you type “please give me a large latte to go”.

One nice feature of Microsoft Translator is its phrase book.  This has many of the basic questions and requests that a tourist is likely to want to communicate.

All in all, I’m never going to travel in a non-English speaking country again without these apps.  This area of computer science has advanced rapidly over the last few years and I only expect it to get better, especially for offline use.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Rural Summit Of Europe

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The first of its kind European Rural Summit was held in Eindhoven, Netherlands on March 22 and 23.   This conference was hosted by the Netherlands’ Brabant Kempen region in collaboration with the Intelligent Community Forum.  

Attending were a couple hundred public officials, rural entrepreneurs (farmers and others) and experts in economic development, rural development, technology and telecommunications.  

Although proximity guaranteed a number of Dutch would be there, participants came from many European countries, including nearby ones like Denmark and Germany, as well as those much further away like Slovenia and Russia.  There were even a few Americans and a Canadian.  

I was asked to set the tone for the conference as its initial keynote speaker.    My themes, familiar to readers of this blog, were that:

• The increasing importance of the digital broadband-connected economy offers rural areas new opportunities that had been precluded by the industrial era’s requirements for mass, density and physical proximity— requirements far better satisfied in urban than rural areas.  This will be especially clear as full video interaction becomes more common, but it’s already starting.   As an example, since 2000 the rural population of France has increased after 150 previous years of decline.

• While broadband alone is not sufficient, if a rural area is connected, there are all sorts of applications to improve life — re-invigorating Main Street with augmented reality and new retail technology, tele-health, online education, precision farming and the like.  

• With a bit of creativity and flexibility in both technology and organizational structure, rural broadband is not an insurmountable challenge.  Indeed, under the umbrella of the KempenGlas cooperative effort, broadband is being installed not far from the site of the Summit in the more rural areas of the region

Although this message about the potential for a renaissance in the countryside has not been the one generally portrayed to city dwellers, it resonated quite well with the attendees who work with and in rural areas.  And these themes were picked up by other speakers.

Also at several points over these two days, people emphasized the interdependence — and, as I have noted, even the convergence — of rural and urban areas.    Drs. Elies Lemkes-Straver, General Director of ZLTO (Southern Agriculture and Horticulture Organization) took up this idea. Her organization of 15,000 farmers, operating under the motto “farmers connect and innovate”, has established relationships with green entrepreneurs, consumers and social organizations.

Although all the presentations were interesting, one particularly unusual talk was by Professor Nico Baken, professor at Delft University of Technology, focused on the changing nature of the economy and our current failure to properly measure what’s going on since we still use industrial era concepts.   He passionately advocated for not being limited by traditional measures of return on investment and instead considering the value of broadband in rural areas for the lives of people there and in cities.  This pleased many there for it makes it easier to get broadband deployment in the countryside.  

It may be surprising, as well, that one of the presentations at this rural conference was on AI and robotics, courtesy of Professor Maarten Steinbuch of the Eindhoven University of Technology.

Since I was in the Netherlands, I took the opportunity to do some exploration of the countryside in relative nearby areas of the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium.  The story in Europe, as elsewhere in rural areas of advanced economies, was one of increasing contrasts between the rural communities that are already showing strong evidence of growth and those that lag.  

While I had heard stories of abandoned farms from some participants, from what I could see along country roads, most of the arable land seemed to be under cultivation and the residents appeared to be relatively prosperous.  It helps that this area is a major wine producer, but that wasn’t all that farmers were growing or doing.  

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Aside from rural tourism in a land of chateaux/castles and the kind of manufacturing that is often placed on the far outskirts of cities, it was hard to tell whether the nascent digital economy seen in the rural US has a counterpart in Europe.

The Rural Summit wasn’t only for speeches, workshops and the various side trips attendees took.  There was also a strong desire to take action by establishing a network of rural leaders across Europe to help each other.  

Of course, I encouraged the leaders gathered in Eindhoven to go beyond that and help create a Virtual Metropolis that would connect their residents — and rural residents outside of Europe — for mutual economic, cultural and educational benefit.  This too received a positive reaction and do I’ll be moving forward to build the platform to make this possible.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Seeds Of Rural Economic Growth

I’ll be speaking at the Rural Summit for Europe to be held in Eindhoven, Netherlands tomorrow — I’ll be writing more about that later.  Coincidentally, last Friday, the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group and Rural Development Innovation Group hosted a very good panel on rural entrepreneurship in the US.  

In addition to the Aspen folks, the panel consisted of:
• Lupe Ruiz, Co-Owner, Wing Champs
• Ines Polonius, CEO, Communities Unlimited
• Dennis West, CEO, Northern Initiatives
• Jeffrey Lusk, Executive Director, Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority

There are many potential entrepreneurs in the countryside.  If you think about it, the family farm is an example of entrepreneurship.

Even more so today, entrepreneurship is essential for the economic viability of rural areas in the face of the relatively shrinking rural population in the US because the traditional approaches aren’t working well.  

Two or three decades ago, some manufacturing plants moved to rural areas to save costs, but then manufacturing shifted further to low cost countries.  And now, with the increasing use of robotic devices, factories aren’t big employment generators.

Moreover, the use of incentives to get big companies to move to rural areas has been shown to be of limited and ever decreasing value in helping long term economic development.  Unlike multinational businesses that rural areas have tried to attract, local entrepreneurs are committed to their communities.  

Ms. Polonius noted that every dollar of sales that go to local entrepreneurs is spent several times over before it leaves the area, whereas sales at multi-national companies in rural areas leave much more quickly.  As a case in point, Mr. Ruiz noted that when it came time to build his restaurant, he felt an obligation to buy lumber from another local entrepreneur rather than make the drive to Home Depot or Lowe’s where he might have saved a few bucks.

The panel went on for than an hour, so I can only highlight what struck me as the most critical points.

First, without any prompting from me or anyone else, the panelists stressed the importance of broadband for both local business success and also being able to reach markets beyond the local area.  Mr. Ruiz was especially proud of the fact that his small town of Raymondville in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas had better broadband than the state capital of Austin did.  The service is provided by the Valley Telephone Cooperative – in yet another example of how cooperatives have moved broadband forward in rural areas as the big telecoms companies abandon those areas.

Second, creativity and counter-intuitive thinking are necessary to turn around rural areas.  Mr. Lusk pointed out how his area of southern Virginia had a concentration of some of the longest lasting poverty-stricken counties in the US.  Where once extraction industries, like coal mining of the mountains, provide some boost to the local economy, that had been on a downturn since the 1950s.  Local people wanted to have factories come there, but highway transportation wasn’t great and the land wasn’t flat – it was the Appalachian Mountains after all, very pretty, but not great industrial territory.

They finally turned things on their head and realized that the thing that was preventing industrial development – the mountains – was the basis for future growth of rural tourism.  Mr. Lust described the ingenious ways that the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority went from ATV off-road trails to encourage other economic development.

Third is the need for risk capital.  Although local business folks often think first of going to the bank for funds, there are many fewer local banks around and banks of any kind aren’t generally in the business of helping startups.  So, other sources of funds are needed.  That’s where non-profits like Northern Initiatives come in.  The non-profit organization proclaims that it

“provides loans to small business owners and entrepreneurs in Northern Michigan that might not qualify for loans from traditional banks for a variety of reasons.”

Fourth, the development of rural entrepreneurship cannot end with the money, also needs training and coaching.  Communities Unlimited offers a cash flow tool to keep entrepreneurs on an even keel.  And, as with Wing Champs, they provide a variety of other services to help new business get over the inevitable rough spots.  

Similarly, Northern Initiatives puts it this way:

“Each one of our loans comes with access to business services which includes a suite of practical trainings, tools, and resources on topics that matter to every business owner.”  

And they even provide a coach to each company they give money to.

Mr. West also noted that some coaching comes from modeling – seeing other local people making money by starting businesses provides both encouragement and education to potential entrepreneurs.

Although these efforts don’t have quite the focus on gazelle second-stage growth companies that the Economic Gardening movement does, they share in common the idea that long term economic growth comes from entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs need help.

Here’s the overall lesson of this panel:  

The seeds of entrepreneurship are in the countryside already.  For economic growth, those seeds need to be fertilized by the combination of broadband, creativity/counter-intuitive thinking, risk capital and training/coaching.

[You can see a recording of the event at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMIjJMEbzsI  ]

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

The Bumpy Transition To Video Meetings

As internet bandwidth gets better, we’re seeing more people communicate by videoconference. Facetime and Skype are now quite common ways for family members and friends to see each other when they are physically separated. Video conferencing has been around for a while in big multi-national corporations.

More slowly, we’re also seeing the adoption of videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies.  There are various reasons for the slow adoption.

  • Public agencies are unfortunately often populated by the less technically savvy part of the overall population or whose members are just more comfortable with physical than virtual face-to-face communication.
  • Or their members may have had a bad experience with video conferencing a few years ago, when neither the software nor the bandwidth was sufficient to become invisible and not interfere with free-flowing conversation. (Of course, there are still examples of bad videoconferences even now. I mention video products I’ve used successfully below.)
  • Public bodies are also subject to various open meeting laws and rules, which haven’t always caught up with changes in technology.

But things are changing, so I went on a search of the video conferencing practices of government bodies. Here’s some of what I found.

Since the latter part of last year, the City Council of Austin, Texas, has allowed the public to speak at their meetings via video so that citizens aren’t forced to come downtown for this opportunity.

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A bigger step is virtual attendance at meetings of the members themselves.

This is important especially when distances are large or obtaining a quorum is hard to achieve. It may be unusual for a city council or a state legislature to fail to have a quorum, but there are tens of thousands of other public bodies who can’t get their business done because not enough members can show up. This affects school boards and libraries and water districts and state advisory boards, etc. (By the way, the problem isn’t new – the first session of the US Congress was delayed for some time while members arrived very slowly.)

Video conferencing that would enable members to participate remotely would seem to be a natural solution. But as in all other aspects of the public sector, things aren’t so simple and policies seem to be the first obstacle to overcome.

Over the last few years, the Wyoming’s State Legislature has developed its video policy, which still seems be somewhere in the middle between those without full confidence and those who want to use it. Approvals are needed for committee use of video, as the policy states: “With prior consent of the committee chair, a video conference may be held for legislators unable to attend a meeting at the official meeting location.”  More generally, “An entire committee can meet via video conference at the direction of the chairman.”

Since 2013, the State of Missouri has allowed those elected to public bodies (mostly local) to vote and participate by video. But the Missouri Municipal League felt it necessary to a model policy for videoconferencing. It particularly emphasizes such guidance as: “a member’s use of video conference attendance should occur only sparingly.”

Following a change in the Illinois Open Meetings laws, the Schaumburg Library in 2009 adopted an official policy on this subject. They require a quorum of members at the physical meeting, not counting members participating via electronic means. Once that quorum is established, the remote participants have full rights although their votes are recorded as being remote. The policy also lists the acceptable reasons for wanting to participate remotely – employment, board business, illness, or family emergency.

In Texas, school boards also can use videoconferencing, but with somewhat similar requirements for a quorum. Whereas, public bodies in Pennsylvania can count remote participants as part of the quorum.

The State of Florida has empowered condo boards, which are a major form of local governance there, to use video. The State allows board members to be counted as present and vote remotely via video conferencing.

In New York State, which has some of the strictest open meeting laws, the State has allowed members to participate in meetings by video, but not phone conference calls. The idea is that, as in a traditional physical meeting, everyone has to be able to see all members’ reactions at all times.

In addition, New York State looks on video participation as a remote extension of the physical meeting, so public bodies using video must list all locations in its public notices – both the main physical meeting as well as any location where a member is using video. Presumably, someone in a hotel in, say, Florida or France, would have to allow any interested citizens to come into their room and also see what’s going on.

I’m on a number of public boards and they have different policies. Some boards are reluctant to use video at all. Another board has just had a completely virtual meeting that worked very well using Fuze and will be repeating this at least twice a year. I’ve also used Zoom successfully for meetings with large numbers of people.

Like most adoption of technology, transitions are not smooth and the old and the new exist together. In the streets of cities a hundred years ago, there were accidents between automobiles (then still relatively new) and horses pulling carriages.

Why should we expect video conferencing to be different?

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© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/158159631752/the-bumpy-transition-to-video-meetings]

The Virtual Metropolis Moves Forward

The NTCA-Rural Broadband Association held its annual meeting and expo this week in San Diego with more than 2,000 people in attendance.

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I was on a panel to discuss the idea of a Virtual Metropolis, a topic I introduced to the Rural Broadband Association and have written about here.

The idea is simple. In the pre-internet days, cities — especially big cities — brought together lots of people. Because these peoople were near each other and could casually interact, these cities became hotbeds of innovation and economic production.  Along with increased agricultural productivity, this led to the shift of population from rural to urban areas that has threatened many small towns.

As a sort of last gasp, after World War II, many small outlying towns tried to substitute factories as a source of employment.  In the face on increasing automation and cheaper labor markets elsewhere, that strategy crumbled too. In the last couple of decades, the drop in small town and rural population has increased. Many bright, ambitious young people can’t wait to move away to a big city.

And, if you’re an entrepreneur with some great new product or service, it’s easier to start up in New York or Silicon Valley or some other equivalent place. Why? Because no single person has all the skills they need to succeed and it’s easier to find skilled people in those cities than in your small town.

When I write this, you may be thinking about high-tech entrepreneurs. But the historic limitations of small town life affect everyone, even artisans or those in other low-tech businesses.

This all may sound bleak and many people share that bleak outlook.  Even some of the members of the Rural Broadband Association can be overwhelmed by this picture.

But what I’ve described is about the past, not the potential for the future. In this digital age, if you’re connected by broadband you can live anywhere. If you enjoy country living and love the quality of life there, you no longer need to compromise your economic prospects by continuing to live in the country.

We’ve seen some of the positive impact that broadband can have on those rural communities who have invested in broadband, but that impact has not been widespread enough for people to take notice.

Partly this reflects the lack of reasonably priced broadband in many rural areas.   The Rural Broadband folks are working hard to fix that.

More important, there hasn’t been a digital platform devoted to the needs of people in the countryside that would provide a substitute for the casual face-to-face interactions and the breadth of the skill pool that people in big cities take for granted.

That’s where the Virtual Metropolis comes in. We are building this platform to make it easier for people in small towns and rural areas to see and talk to each other about how they can work together for mutual economic benefit.

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Broadband makes this possible because it provides the bandwidth that’s necessary for visual chat. Visual chat is especially critical in helping to establish trust, compared to email, messaging and other forms of communication that are limited to text.

The shared small town experience is also an essential basis for mutual understanding and trust.  That common experience gets drowned out in the overwhelmingly urban outlook of much larger social media and job services.

If even 10 or 15% of the people living in more rural areas join in for business purposes, they will be virtually part of a metropolis of more than five million people. In that way, they can achieve many of the same benefits of physically residing in a big city.

(While my focus is on economic opportunity, broadband will also give these folks access to great educational, cultural and medical resources.)

In addition to creating and setting up the technology for a Virtual Metropolis, we need to build a community — to get people to participate.

In part, that’s where the NTCA plays a key role.  They can reach out to the early adopters, the innovators in their regions and let them know that the days of isolation are over. Clearly, from a business viewpoint, the Virtual Metropolis provides their customers and potential customers with a strong business justification for increasing their bandwidth.

One of the panelists, Dusty Johnson of Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell, South Dakota.  Despite Mitchell’s selection among the ICF’s Top 7 most intelligent communities in the world, he was initially skeptical as a self-described “cranky old man.”  But as he thought about others in Mitchell, particularly his own children and other young people, he realized the value of the idea.

The other panelist, Michael Burke, CEO of MTA, the local broadband provider for 10,000 square miles of Alaska is already an unusually innovative leader. MTA goes way beyond merely providing connectivity in many ways, for example providing customer training on new technology and funding coding classes in the schools.

Mr. Burke quickly championed the Virtual Metropolis. Of course, considering the distance from the lower 48 and the nature of winter in Alaska, the necessity of being part of a much larger virtual community is crystal clear.

[If you’re interested in joining and helping to build this virtual metropolis, please contact me.]

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© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/156987590937/the-virtual-metropolis-moves-forward]

Team of Teams

The book, “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World”
by retired General Stanley McChrystal and his associates Tantum Collins,
David Silverman, and Chris Fussell has been out for
more than a year. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it partly because I
wasn’t sure I wanted to read what I thought would be yet another
general’s exercise in self-promotion.   I’ve also been through too many
conferences filled with speeches from high ranking executives that are
essentially war stories in which they are the heroes of the story.

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So, when I finally had the time to read it at the end of last year, I was surprised to find that this book is one of the best recent books on management. It has been criticized by some as not really having anything new in it and merely reflecting the undue length of time it has taken a general to figure out these things.

While there is some truth to that, the fact remains that most large corporate and public sector organizations operate in the old style that McChrystal finds inadequate for a new era of change, complexity, and creativity. This includes even highly touted tech companies who reach a certain size and stage of maturity, even while they profess to be using agile approaches.

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For General McChrystal, it’s a question of what the organization is designed to achieve. Traditional “Taylorism”, which has been the model of most large organizations, aims to maximize efficiency. As part of that goal, he writes “organizations have implemented as much control over subordinates as technology physically allowed.” That certainly sounds like the traditional image of the Army and many large corporations.

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Instead, he argues that in today’s world, adaptability is much more important. This is a necessary response to deep and widespread technological changes. He also notes that those same technologies make possible a more modern, more adaptable organization.

Although much of what it’s in the book isn’t exactly new, the authors synthesize the material and lay it out to build a story that should be compelling to any senior executive.

The value of teams and the use of the intelligence of team members, rather than considering them cogs in a large machine, is explained well.  But the real challenge in leading large organizations is how to scale those benefits.

That’s where McChrystal and co-authors make a real contribution.

Here are some the key take-aways:

  • A systems approach and a more organic rather than mechanistic view is needed by leaders when looking at large organizations whose units must work together. Each person in the organization needs to maintain a systemic perspective too.
  • Frequent inter-team communication – “shared awareness” of the environment that develops into “shared consciousness” – is necessary to prevent teams from doing things that run counter to the needs of the overall organization.
  • On the latter point, perhaps communication is too weak a word because it implies that each side decides when and what to say. The General found instead that absolute transparency between units (and teams) was necessary. And, as he noted, “In traditional organizations, this constitutes culture change that does not come easily.”
  • Although this has been well known to organizational researchers for some time, the practice of using physical space to encourage this kind of approach is not widespread. General McChrystal relates his own and other organizations use of common spaces. Of course, in a world of increasingly virtual organizations it is especially important to create continuously operating virtual spaces, with full video, to achieve the same effect.
  • Where people from different teams couldn’t be physically next to each other, he set up “embedding and liaison programs to create strong lateral ties between our units, and with our partner organizations. Where systemic understanding mirrors the sense of ‘purpose’ that bonds small teams, this mirrored the second ingredient to team formation: ‘trust.’”
  • The leader as mastermind or chess master is yet another old concept to be thrown away and replaced by the model of a gardener who enables the ecosystem rather than directing it. We should not “demand unrealistic levels of knowledge in leaders and force them into ineffective attempts to micromanage.”
  • In order to be able to react with necessary speed to ever changing situations, organizational leaders need to abandon traditional control because “Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.”
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This book is an excellent guide to effectively managing large-scale operations to implement a strategy. But, much like the wars that General McChrystal was part of, it doesn’t focus on whether the larger strategy makes sense. That’s not a criticism of the book, just a realization that there are important considerations beyond its scope.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/156356212937/team-of-teams]

A Picture Of The Last Year

It’s the end of the year and I won’t be posting anything new until 2017.

To close out this year, I thought I might create a word cloud from all of the posts over the last twelve months and here it is:

Happy Holidays and, no matter how this year was for you, I wish you a better one in 2017!

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Doing More Than Just Remembering The Forgotten America

Much has been written about how the results of this year’s Presidential election reflected the feeling on the part of people who live in rural areas and small towns that they have been overlooked and that the severe problems in those areas have not received sufficient attention by public and business leaders.

This Washington Post story, sub-headed “How an electorate fed up with the elite propelled Donald Trump to victory”, is a good example.

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Although we frequently hear that 80% of Americans live in cities now, that still means there are 60,000,000 Americans in the countryside – not an insignificant number as we saw last month.

Even the news stories that feature broad economic trends don’t highlight the uneven nature of those trends in these areas. For example, the decline in manufacturing employment was a standard talking point on the recent campaign trail. But many observers seem to have forgotten that many bigger manufacturing plants had long since departed cities for the countryside. So when manufacturing employment declined, it hit the countryside more deeply, even while that pain was less visible.

So, sadly, the feeling in rural America of being forgotten is not unfounded.

To make matters worse, in too many small cities and rural areas, many people speak negatively of the prospects for the area. This helps create a downward spiral by persuading the brightest young people to leave.

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As sociologists, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, wrote in their 2009 book, “Hollowing Out The Middle:

“The biggest question facing anyone who grows up in a small town is whether he or she should leave or stay. A little further down the road, those who make the initial decision to leave, usually after graduating high school, must decide whether to return to the cozy familiarity of their hometown or to continue building lives elsewhere. The fact that this small-town rite of passage should be so intimately bound up with the very future of the Heartland allows us to see how the hollowing-out phenomenon plays out in the lives and decisions of young people, and how their pathways are shaped by the communities and people who surround them as they grow up.”

“The Heartland’s most valuable export is not crops or hogs but its educated young people.”

For the last couple of years, I’ve been working with the Intelligent Community Forum helping these communities to take advantage of new opportunities open to them in a new century in which close physical proximity of millions of people is not necessarily the only strategy for economic success.

I’ve written before about how technology enables rural residents to take advantage of the kind of resources that you used to be almost exclusively available to residents of big cities — global economic connections, education and culture, even world-class health care — while maintaining the quality of life that draws them or keeps them in the countryside.

With all this on my mind a few weeks ago, I was asked by the Aspen Institute to keynote a community dialog in Sutter County (Yuba City), California. This was part of my participation in the small working group advising Aspen’s project on the future of libraries.

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Although Sutter County is not, by any means, among the most devastated of rural communities, it is still concerned about its future. My observation was that they had some strong assets that are otherwise underappreciated in the conventional economic development perspective.

First, I was impressed by the local leadership, which seemed to have its act together. Leaders who have vision and an understanding of where the world is going are essential for community development.

Second, they have a diverse population, with a variety of experiences including an understanding of entrepreneurial success. Like some other flourishing small cities around the country, Yuba City also has its immigrant groups. It is, for example, known all over North America and India for its long-established Sikh community, which draws tens of thousands of people to the city each year – and can be a connection to the global economy.

Third, they have a library that is prepared to play its role as the central institution of the knowledge economy and help the residents of Sutter County take advantage of new opportunities that I see in a new connected countryside. Much of the Aspen workshop/dialog was focused on the steps the library can take to make this a reality.

It will be interesting to see how well Sutter County achieves its vision and what other communities can learn from it.

And, perhaps for a short time, the situation in the countryside will get a little attention among public officials and the media. But even being remembered, once in a while, really isn’t much of a program.

While Sutter County and places like it across the country are trying to assure their future, it would be easier if national policy recognized and helped them respond to the socio-economic-technological challenges and opportunities facing them. More than merely reducing the sense of being forgotten, it could help accelerate a renaissance in the countryside.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/154180196592/doing-more-than-just-remembering-the-forgotten]

Prediction Markets To Predict Behavior?

In previous elections, prediction markets were relatively accurate and were touted as competitors to public opinion polling. So how did they do this time?

The Iowa Electronic market had two prediction markets concerning the Presidential election. One was for the percentage of the popular two-party vote, which over the course of betting predicted Clinton 50% and Trump 48%. [These were individual contracts, which may be why the numbers add up to more than 100.] According to the most recent actual vote count, the result of the two-party split was Clinton 51% and Trump 49%.

The other was for the winner of the popular vote, which over the course of betting was 97% for Clinton and 1% for Trump. This was correct as current estimates show her getting over two million more votes than him. 

Alas, winning the popular vote wasn’t enough this time and this was where the prediction markets seem to have run into a problem.

In one of the few markets that focused on electoral votes, a German betting market ended up predicting Clinton 300, Trump 237. (The real result was almost the reverse.)

PredictWise’s betting market had Clinton “winning” with an 86% probability. (In their defense, of course, that also means a 14% chance for Trump, which has to happen some time if we’re talking probability, not certainty, after all.)

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The folks at the Campaign Workshop observed:

“Polls aren’t perfect, but neither are political betting markets. Since these markets have gained credibility in predicting elections, they have started taking changes in public opinion polls less seriously. Overconfidence in betting markets makes the markets look misleadingly stable, and that false sense of stability makes it harder for them to predict events that shake up the status quo — such as the outcome of the Brexit referendum, or Trump’s success in the Republican presidential nomination process. As Rothschild himself has pointed out, ‘prediction markets have arrived at a paradoxical place: Their reliability, the very source of their prestige, is causing them to fail.’ ”

In looking at these markets and, more generally, crowd predictions of events, it’s worth going back to James Surowiecki’s book, “The Wisdom of Crowds”. He described both the rationale for prediction markets — which have been well publicized — and the characteristics of accurate prediction markets — which have received less emphasis.

“The premise is that under the right circumstances, the collective judgment of a large group of people will generally provide a better picture of what the future might look like than anything one expert or even a small group of experts will come up with. … [Prediction markets] work much like a futures market, in which the price of a contract reflects the collective day-to-day judgment either on a straight number—for instance, what level sales will reach over a certain period—or a probability—for example, the likelihood, measured as a percentage, that a product will hit a certain milestone by a certain date.”

“[F]or a crowd to be smart, it needs to satisfy certain criteria. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer. It needs to summarize people’s opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information and don’t worry about what everyone around them thinks.”

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Did the prediction markets in 2016 meet Surowiecki’s criteria? Not really.

One problem with betting markets is that they are not diverse, not representative of a broad spectrum of the population. As a CNBC report noted: “Another issue that may have contributed to the miss [on Brexit and now the US election] is the relatively similar mindset among bettors generally.”

Since all bettors can see what others seeing, it’s hard to argue that their judgments are independent. And while, in a way, the decisions are decentralized, to the extent they mirror the current polling results and news reports from national media, there is less decentralization.

So do we just decide that the results of this year’s election call into question the value of crowd predictions? I think not.

But rather than focusing on predicting who wins the White House or the Super Bowl or the number of coins in a large bottle, there is another use of prediction markets for business and government leaders — testing the likelihood that people will respond positively to a new program or offer.

No matter how much market research (aka polling) is done, it is often difficult to assess how the public will react to a proposed program. I’m suggesting that prediction markets be used to estimate the reaction ahead of time, as long as they match Surowiecki’s criteria and don’t depend on money bets. At the very least, this would require a large and diverse set of people responding and keeping their judgments secret (until “voting” stops).

Over the last year or so, there have been several reports that rates for Affordable Care (aka Obamacare) had to be raised because there are fewer young, healthy people enrolling than expected. Putting aside the merits of the policy and its goals, this is an ideal case where prediction markets could have helped assess the accuracy of an underlying assumption about the implementation of a very consequential piece of public policy.

Some experts are skeptical of prediction markets because the average person doesn’t have professional expertise. But this use of prediction markets draws on the perceptions of people about each other.

Implicit in the diversity of views that Surowiecki notes is that enough people need to care about the planned program or policy. The reason they care may be to win money, in some cases, but that’s not the only reason. They might care because the market deals with something that affects their lives.

And the nice thing about this is that if only a few people care about a planned program that also tells you something about that plan — or, at least, whether the range of outcomes might be something between a yawn and deep trouble.

It may well be that this more experimental basis to predict behavior will illustrate the deeper value of prediction markets. What do you think?.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/153863533555/prediction-markets-to-predict-behavior]

A Virtual Metropolis Of The Countryside

I first wrote about this proposal two years ago. But I’m reposting it, since the idea is even more relevant now, as there has been further development of virtual communications – Skype and Google translators, more varieties of videoconferencing both in the cloud and through services like FaceTime, and even video through augmented reality devices, like Microsoft HoloLens.

If you’re interested in joining and helping to build this virtual metropolis, please contact me.

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People who live in big metropolises, like New York, London or Hong Kong, often say that they can always find someone within a few miles who has a special skill they need to complete some project or build a business. I’ve pointed out that the close proximity of millions of people with so many different skills is part of what has made cities successful economic engines during the industrial era.

When the population of your town is just a few thousand, there is a much smaller likelihood you’ll find the special skill you need nearby – and thus you’ll be less likely to achieve what you have in mind.

In the US alone, the Census Bureau has noted in its report “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change” that 10% of Americans live in one of the 576 small urban areas (where there is at least one urban cluster of less than 50,000, but at least 10,000 people).  That’s about 32 million people.

Another 6% lived in neither major metropolitan areas nor even these small urban areas. That’s just under 20 million people.

In this century, with broadband Internet, physical proximity is no longer necessary for people to collaborate and share their skills in a common project. Yet the small towns of these more than 50 million people are mostly not connected to each other.

So here’s my wild idea for the day: why not create a virtual metropolis of millions from the people in the small towns and communities of the countryside?

Imagine if even half of those 20 million (or 52 million) people who live outside the big metropolises could work together and be combined to act as if they were physically next door – while not actually living in such crowded conditions.

Such a network or virtual aggregation of small towns would offer their residents a much higher chance of succeeding with their business ideas and making a better living. If someone, for example, had the engineering talents to design a new product, that person might more likely find the necessary marketing talent somewhere in that network of millions of people.

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Clearly, anyone connected to the Internet can try to reach out to anyone else whether that person lives in a small town or a big city.

But a network of small towns alone might encourage greater collaboration because of the shared background of country life and the perceived greater friendliness (and less wariness) of non-urban residents. In most small towns, people are used to working with each other. This would just be a virtual extension of the same idea.

Initially, of course, people would feel most comfortable with those in the same region, such as within North America. Over time, as people interact more with each other on a global basis, that comfort level will expand.

Whether on a regional or global basis, this virtual metropolis could compete on a more even playing field and even establish a unique brand for the people and companies located there. It would make it possible for rural residents to keep their quality of life and also make a decent living.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/152069321010/a-virtual-metropolis-of-the-countryside]

Blockchain And The Arts

Huh? Blockchain and the Arts?

If you’ve heard about blockchain at all, it is most likely because of Bitcoin, the alternative non-state sanctioned currency. But the uses of blockchain go beyond Bitcoin.

If you don’t know about blockchains, there are many sources of information about them, including Wikipedia. For a little, but not too much detail, I like this explanation:

“The Blockchain is a … database technology, a distributed ledger that maintains and ever growing list of data records, which are decentralised and impossible to tamper with. The data records, which can be a Bitcoin transaction or a smart contract or anything else for that matter, are combined in so-called blocks. In order to add these blocks to the distributed ledger, the data needs to be validated by 51% of all the computers within the network that have access to the Blockchain.

“The validation is done via cryptography, which means that a mathematical equation has to be solved … Once the validation is done, the Block will receive a timestamp and a so-called hash. This hash is then used to create the next block in the chain. If even one bit in the block changes, the hash will change completely and as a result, all subsequent blocks in the chain will change. Such a change has to be validated again by 51% of all the nodes in the network, which will not happen because they don’t have an incentive to work on ‘old’ blocks in the chain. Not only that, the blockchain keeps on growing, so you would require a tremendous amount of computing power to achieve that, which is extremely expensive. So it is simply not worth it to change any data. As a result, it is nearly impossible to change data that has been recorded on the Blockchain.”

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The protection of the digital material from snoopers, the strong validation and the decentralization of blockchains are especially attractive.

The potential uses of blockchain are a hot area for venture investment. And there’s a cottage industry in consultants providing advice on the subject. One of the most well-respected gurus of the business world, Don Tapscott, just co-authored a book on the subject with his son Alex, who is CEO of a venture capital firm that specializes in blockchain companies. It’s called “Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, And The World”.

More than a year ago, R3, a consortium of banks and related companies from around the world – now numbering about four dozen – started to develop their own blockchain.  

Sure, it’s understandable that bankers are interested in this technology. But artists?

I suppose some artist will, at some point, figure out how to use blockchain as a new art form – dropping little pieces of an artistic puzzle in a chain. But that’s not what the usual interest is about.

Instead, since the digital age started, quickly followed by widespread digital piracy then reduced incomes for many artists, people have wondered how artists will be able to continue their artistic work – the long history of “starving artists” aside.

Blockchains have been gaining adherents as a way to help establish ownership and subsequent payment for use.

In their book, the Tapscotts describe a virtual nirvana for artists, built atop blockchains which would enable artists to register their works, enter into “smart contracts” and generally be at the center of the creative ecosystem, rather than as the lowest person on the totem pole.

Last week, Don Tapscott reiterated the point in “Blockchain Could Be Music’s Next Big Disruptor – Artists can finally get what they deserve”.

Daniel Cawrey made a similar argument in his article, “How Bitcoin’s Technology Could Revolutionize Intellectual Property Rights.”

There are already some startups providing blockchain services for intellectual property, such as Blockai and Ascribe .

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And blockchain technology, in theory, could be beneficial for artists. But there are practical obstacles in making this happen and, in the long run, a fundamental flaw in the plan.

Let’s start with the practical question as to how this gets set up.
Here are just a few questions, off the top of my head. 

Who does it?  Without getting into the technical weeds here, there is also a question as to what characteristics a particular blockchain service would have – yes, there are options. How can the “platform” provider be reimbursed? Do you start from scratch or try to negotiate with agencies already serving related functions, like ASCAP? Who polices all this to make sure that the record established in the blockchain is actually being used to compensate artists?

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The bigger issue is treating ideas or creativity as “intellectual
property” – in economics terms, as a private good, instead of a public good. As
we have learned, most inventions and creations are not the result of a
solo hermit genius, but are the result of direct or indirect
collaboration.  So this concept of the idea as private property of the
first person (or corporation) to claim it is debatable. New ideas and
creative works may be more public, than private, good.

As Thomas Jefferson, amateur scientist and political philosopher, said some time ago:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

I’m looking at this issue in a very pragmatic, non-ideological way. Simply, although technology may make it feasible to track ideas and government laws may try to put a private label on them, this often doesn’t work because it goes against the nature of the good. Some things might start out as private enterprises, but if they are in essence public goods, the private enterprise will fail.

Consider the development of mass transit in many cities, mostly which were franchises to private companies until those companies realized they couldn’t really make a profit in the business.

I’m not sure what the answer is to prevent artists from starving because they can’t live on the money they receive while being artists. Blockchain may have a role. But the solution will take more than just continuing to think about the problem in a fundamentally flawed way as the protection of private property.

If you’re not an artist, you need to understand this also affects you.  How people get enough income to live comfortably is an ever increasing problem in an age where an ever increasing number of people have to be creative, not just making music and art, but all kinds of ideas and works.

[Note: For a related blog post, see The Internet & The Battle Over Innovation.]

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/151670251222/blockchain-and-the-arts]

Will Higher Education Repeat The History Of Theaters? [Updated]

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post on this subject when massive open online
courses (MOOCs) were beginning to be the hot item of discussion. Not
surprisingly, some disillusionment followed the hype as people realized there
was a low completion rate for these courses and services, like Udemy, felt it
was necessary to do some course correction.

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Some of the disillusionment came
from the expectation that this form of education would be just an electronic
version of what has gone on in traditional classrooms for hundreds of years.

I call that “horseless carriage”
thinking – when people don’t realize that there’s a new thing, a car, which is
like what was in the past, but is sufficiently different that it’s not just a
carriage powered by something other than a horse. If you thought “horseless
carriage”, you wouldn’t have anticipated the growth of suburbia and all the
other changes wrought by automobile ownership.

Anyway, despite the disappearance of
MOOCs from the hype-o-sphere of the general news media, the number of MOOCs
continues to grow.

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It’s not just that the number of
courses has increased, but MOOC enrollment surpassed 35 million in 2015.

As for the course completion issues,
Harvard Business Review put this in context by
pointing out that:

“The critics are right that most
people who start a MOOC don’t finish: just 4% of Coursera users who watch at
least one course lecture go on to complete the course and receive a credential.
However, given the large number of users involved, the absolute reach of MOOCs
is still significant. For instance, more than one million people have completed
a Coursera course since its inception in 2012, with over 2.1 million course
completions as of April 2015.”

It is also interesting that
educators are disproportionately the users of these courses. Daniel Thomas
Seaton and colleagues reported:

“Surveys of 11 MITx courses on edX
in spring 2014 found that one in four (28.0 percent) respondents identified as
past or present teachers. … Although they represent only 4.5 percent of the
nearly 250,000 enrollees, responding teachers generated 22.4 percent of all
discussion forum comments.”

As I wrote last time, one reasonable
analogy to the problems facing higher education is to compare it to the
challenge faced by theaters in the 19th century. During that period, every city
of any consequence had one or more theaters that were the venue for actors,
singers and other live performers.

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Then along came recorded music,
later the movies and ultimately television. Those technological innovations
made it possible to deliver performances from the best actors and singers
without requiring them to be physically present. In addition, the revenue that
this form of recorded entertainment could generate was much greater than that
of any local live theater. Movie and record companies used that extra revenue
to provide “production values” and elaborate staging that wasn’t
possible in the local live theater.

The result: most of those live stage
theaters disappeared or became movie theaters (or car parks, like this one in
Seattle).

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Now, technology makes it possible to
deliver on a large scale at least that part of a college education that
consists of watching a professor deliver lectures in front of a classroom.
Again, it is unlikely that the local university or college will be able to
match this global delivery or the “production values” that could
enhance these online courses.

Of course, we still have Broadway
plus a few successful regional theaters. So too there will be Harvard, MIT,
Princeton, Stanford and the like. But most colleges may find it increasingly
difficult to justify their continued existence using the current approach.

We’re already seeing the pattern set
by theaters replicated in higher education among the providers of MOOCs. Online
Course Reports described the pattern this way:

“Twenty percent of massive open
online courses offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National
Universities are offered by the Top 5 universities on that list. Over half
(i.e., 56%) of MOOCs offered by those National Universities are offered by
schools in the Top 20. Almost 90 percent (i.e., 87.6%) of all MOOCs available
are offered by schools within the Top 50.”

“Course offerings per institution
drop off exponentially at a rate of -700% after those Top 50: that’s an average
of 21 MOOCs per university in the Top 50 decaying to an average of 3 MOOCs per
university in the bottom 50. Comparing these averages, we see a massively
unequal distribution of massive open online courses toward some of the most
expensive, highly valued, and heftily-endowed universities in the world.”

Although the market for MOOCs is not
quite the same as the market for traditional higher education, it is hard to
imagine that enrollment in less “highly valued” institutions will not be
affected by the alternatives now open to others. This is especially likely to
occur as those institutions provide credentials that used to be available only
by paying high fees to attend college on campus.

As in my post of four years ago, I’d
note that one of the major obstacles to these changes being more widespread is
the fact that that colleges have had the combined role of both delivering an
education to their students and certifying that their students mastered that
education (i.e., they provide college degrees as credentials).

But things are changing even on that
front. As Class Central has reported

“One of the big trends last year
[2015] was MOOC providers creating their own credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees,
Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries.
For Coursera and Udacity, these credentials have become a main source of
revenue”

Similarly, Georgia
Tech
has online Master’s degrees in fields like computer science, aerospace engineering and operations research.  As an example, the
online computer science website proclaims:

“With [the online degree in] CS, you
can join computing professionals from more than 80 countries who are earning
their M.S. on their own time, in their own homes, and for a total cost of about
$7,000.”

Employers who used to shy away from
candidates with online degrees from for-profit organizations, like Phoenix,
might look differently on an online degree from a Georgia Tech or a Coursera
credential from a course provided by Princeton.

Overall, the way that MOOCs and
other innovations in higher education are growing and changing is a rising
threat to many not-so-prestigious, yet expensive, private institutions.  

And it is only a matter of time
before uninformed (or even well-informed) public officials begin to question
the traditional model of higher education. Public institutions in states where
the government has dampened its enthusiasm for higher education spending, like Arizona
State
, have in response taken the lead in online offerings even for
undergraduates – offering an online bachelors for about $12,000 a year. Of
course, many public colleges have not yet reacted this way.

Community colleges, which also
receive public funding but serve student populations that may not yet have the
talents and temperaments for online learning, may escape immediate impact of
these changes. But again, the question is “for how long?”

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/151401475437/will-higher-education-repeat-the-history-of

Run Of The River?

Dams that produce hydropower have been one of the longest established renewable energy sources in the US for a long time. The American industrial revolution started in places, like Massachusetts, with abundant free flowing rivers that were tapped for their energy to power early factories.

Hydropower is still the largest source of renewable energy, accounting for a bit under half of the total.

A few years ago, I was involved with a project that was intended to revive one of those early industrial cities, Holyoke, Massachusetts. The city still had one of the few operating dams left and it supplied local electric power at a significant discount compared to elsewhere in the state. So the idea developed of creating local jobs by building a data center in Holyoke as a remote cloud location for major universities and businesses in the Boston area. (Driving distance between the two is about 90 miles.)

Putting aside whether a data center can be a significant job creator like old-time car plants, it struck me that the state as a whole would benefit by using the water resources there, thus bringing down a relatively high cost for electricity in a digital age. Of course, river resources are present in many other states, particularly east of the Mississippi River and in the northwest.

Thus, at one meeting with representatives of the research facilities of Harvard and MIT, I asked a simple question. When was the last time that engineering or science researchers took a serious look at using better materials or designs to improve the efficiency of the turbines that the water flows through or finding replacements for turbines (like the VIVACE hydrokinetic energy converter shown here)?

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Despite or maybe because of the Three Gorges Dam project in China and similar projects, hydropower from dams has diminished in popularity in the face of various environmental concerns. Yet the rivers still flow and contain an enormous amount of energy and giant dams don’t have to be the only way to capture that energy.

With that in mind, I also asked if they had looked at the possibility of designing smaller turbines so that smaller rivers could be tapped without traditional dams. Some variations of this idea are called “run of the river”. (Because of the variability of river flows, this version of hydropower doesn’t produce a consistent level of energy like a coal-burning plant. As with other renewables, it too will need more efficient and cost-effective means of storing electricity – batteries, super-capacitors, etc.)

The quizzical stares I received could most diplomatically be translated as “Why would we do that?  Hydraulic engineering is centuries old and has been well established”. However, the sciences of materials and fluid dynamics is dramatically better now than it was even seventy or a hundred years ago and it calls for a much stepped up effort in new hydraulic engineering than has taken place. Periodically, the experts publicly say this as in “Hydraulic engineering in the 21st century: Where to?

As it turned out, a year or two later in 2011/2012, there was a peak of activity in hydropower experiments in the UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, and India. Here are just some of the more interesting examples:

·        Halliday Hydropower’s Hydroscrew

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·        The Hydro Cat, free floating

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·        Blue Freedom’s “world’s smallest hydropower plant” is intended primarily for small mobile devices as their slogan says “1 hour of Blue Freedom in the river. 10 hours of power for your smartphone”

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·        In an unusual twist on this topic, Lucid Energy harnessed the power of water flowing through urban pipes.

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These were interesting prototypes, experiments and small businesses, but without the kind of academic and financial support seen in the IT industry, these don’t seem to have the necessary scale to make an impact – notwithstanding the release two months ago of a Hydropower vision paper by the US Department of Energy. I’d love to be corrected on this observation.

Perhaps this is another example of a disruptive technology, in the way that its creator, Clayton Christensen, originally defined the term. Disruptive technologies start to be used at the low end of the market where people have few or no other choices – places like India and the backcountry of advanced economies which are poorly served by the electrical grid, if at all. Only later, possibly, will these products be able to go upmarket.

Too much of the discussion about disruptive technologies has been limited to information technology. There can be disruptive technologies in other fields to solve problems that are just as important, perhaps more important, than the ones that app programmers solve – like renewable energy.

Only time will tell if the technology and markets develop sufficiently so that run of the river and similar hydropower becomes one of the successful disruptive technologies.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/151053869979/run-of-the-river]

The Internet Of A Hundred Years Ago

In many of my presentations, I have pointed out that the Internet is still very much in its early stages. There are tremendous gaps in the availability of high speed, low latency Internet everywhere. It will only be at some point in the future that we could truly expect to have a visual conversation with almost anyone, almost anywhere on the globe.

Beyond expanding connectivity, there are other factors standing in the way of ubiquitous high quality visual communications.

First, the software – the interface that users have to deal with – is quite awkward. There are still too many instances where software, like Skype, just doesn’t work well or freezes or otherwise discourages people from everyday use.

Second, more important, the mindset or culture of users seems not to have changed yet to readily accommodate visual conversations over the Internet everywhere. You surely know someone who just doesn’t want to communicate this way. There used to be many people who thought the telephone shouldn’t replace face-to-face meetings and trying to do so was rude and/or too expensive.

Indeed, I use a rough parallel that we are today with the Internet about where we were with the telephone at the end of the 1920s. That was more than fifty years after the telephone had been invented. Of course, we’re not even fifty years into the life of the Internet.

Although the parallel between phone network and Internet is fairly obvious, it is enlightening or amusing to see history repeat itself. Here is a 1916 advertisement that hails how the telephone is “annihilating both time and space” – what we’ve also heard in more recent years about the Internet.

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While there were many articles written at the time about the impact of telephones on society, the economy and life, even in the 1920s (or 30s or 40s or 50s …), telephone usage was not taken for granted. Among other things, long distance calling was not widely considered something most people would do.

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Mobile telephony was discussed but not really in existence yet.

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There was even a product that anticipated today’s Twitter and similar feeds – or maybe it was just a concept for a product, since vaporware was around even a hundred years ago.

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The chart below shows the pattern of historical adoption of telephones in the US from 1876 until 1981.

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From the perspective of 1981, never mind 2016, the first fifty years of telephony were the early age.

And since 1981? We’ve seen mobile phones overtake land lines in worldwide usage and become much more than devices for just talking to people.

So imagine what the next 100 years of Internet development will bring.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/150726984612/the-internet-of-a-hundred-years-ago]

[note this is an updated version of an earlier post in the beginning of 2014]

Eye Tech

Last month, I wrote about Head Tech – technology that can be worn on the head and used to control the world about us. Most of those products act as an interface between our brain waves and devices that are managed by computers that are reading our brain waves.

The other related area of Head Tech recognizes the major role of our eyes literally as windows to the world we inhabit.

Google may have officially sidelined its Glass product, but its uses and products like it continue to be developed by a number of companies wanting to demonstrate the potential of the idea in a better way than Google did. There are dozens of examples, but, to start, consider these three.

Carl Zeiss’s Smart Optics subsidiary accomplished the difficult technical task of embedding the display in what looks to everyone like a pair of regular curved eyeglasses. Oh, and they could even be glasses that provide vision correction. Zeiss is continuing to perfect the display while trying to figure out the business challenge of bringing this to market.

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You can see a video with the leader of the project at https://youtu.be/MSUqt8M0wdo and a report from this year’s CES at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX5GWjKi7fc

Also offering something that looks like regular glasses and is not a fashion no-no is LaForge Optical’s Shima, which has an embedded chip so it can display information from any app on your smartphone. It’s in pre-order now for shipment next year, but you can see what they’re offering in this video. A more popular video provides their take on the history of eye glasses.

While Epson is not striving to devise something fashionable, it is making its augmented reality glasses much lighter. This video shows the new Moverio BT-300 which is scheduled to be released in a few months.

Epson is also tying these glasses to a variety of interesting, mostly non-consumer, applications. Last week at the Interdrone Conference, they announced a partnership with one of the leading drone companies, DJI, to better integrate the visuals coming from the unmanned aerial camera with the glasses.

DAQRI is bringing to market next month an updated version of its Smart Helmet for more dangerous industrial environments, like field engineering.  Because it is so much more than glasses, they can add all sorts of features, like thermal imaging. It is a high end, specialized device, and has a price to match.

At a fraction of that price, Metavision has developed and will release “soon” its second generation augmented reality headset, the Meta 2. Its CEO’s TED talk will give you a good a sense of Metavision’s ambitions with this product.

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Without a headset, Augmenta has added recognition of gestures to the capabilities of glasses from companies like Epson. For example, you can press on an imaginary dial pad, as this little video demonstrates.

This reminds me a bit of the use of eye tracking from Tobii that I’ve included in presentations for the last couple of years. While Tobii also sells a set of glasses, their emphasis is on tracking where your eyes focus to determine your choices.

One of the nice things about Tobii’s work is that it is not limited to glasses. For example, their EyeX works with laptops as can be seen in this video. This is a natural extension of a gamer’s world.

Which gets us to a good question: even if they’re less geeky looking than Google’s product, why do we need to wear glasses at all? Among other companies and researchers, Sony has an answer for that – smart, technology-embedded contact lenses. But Sony also wants the contact lens to enable you to take photos and videos without any other equipment, as they hope to do with a new patent.

So we have HeadTech and EyeTech (not to mention the much longer established EarTech) and who knows what’s next!

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/150401402048/eye-tech]

Rules Of The Road For Robots

When we drive in our cars, we mostly have a sense of common rules for the road to keep us all safe. Now that we begin to see driverless cars, there are similar issues for the behavior of those cars and even ethical questions.  For example, in June, the AAAS’s Science magazine reported on a survey of the public’s attitudes in answer to the story’s title: “When is it OK for our cars to kill us?

Driverless cars are just one instance of the gradual and continuing improvement in artificial intelligence which has led to many articles about the ethical concerns this all raises. A few days ago, the New York Times had a story on its website about “How Tech Giants Are Devising Real Ethics for Artificial Intelligence”, in which it noted that “A memorandum is being circulated among the five companies with a tentative plan to announce the new organization in the middle of September.”

Of course, this isn’t all new. About 75 years ago, the author Isaac Asimov formally introduced his famous Three Laws of Robotics:

1.     A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.    A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

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Even before robots came along, ethics was focused on the interactions between people and how they should not harm and conflict with each other – “do unto others …”. As artificial intelligence becomes a factor in our world, many people feel the need to extend this discussion to robots.

These are clearly important issues to us, human beings. Not surprisingly, however, these articles and discussions have a human-centric view of the world.

Much less – indeed very little – consideration has been given to how artificial intelligence agents and robots interact with each other. And we don’t need to wait for self-aware or superhuman robots to consider this.

Even with billions of not so intelligent devices that are part of the Internet of Things, problems have arisen.

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This is, after all, an environment in which the major players haven’t yet agreed on basic standards and communications protocols between devices, never mind how these devices should interact with each other beyond merely communicating.  

But they will interact somehow and they will become much more intelligent – embedded AI. Moreover, there will be too many of these devices for simple human oversight, so instead, at best, oversight will come from other machines/things, which in turn will be players in this machine-to-machine world.

The Internet Society in its report on the Internet of Things last year at least began to touch on these concerns.

Stanford University’s “One Hundred Year Study” and its recently released report “ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND LIFE IN 2030” also draws attention to the challenges that artificial intelligence will pose, but it too could focus more on the future intelligent Internet of Things.

As the inventors and producers of these things that we are rapidly connecting, we need to consider all the ways that human interactions can go wrong and think about the similar ways machine to machine interactions can go wrong. Then, in addition to basic protocols, we need to determine the “rules of the road” for these devices.

Coming back full circle to the impact on human beings, we will be affected if the increasingly intelligent, machine-to-machine world that we depend on is embroiled in its own conflicts. As the Kenyan proverb goes (more or less):

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“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/150075381291/rules-of-the-road-for-robots]

A Fundamental Decision Making Flaw in Public Officials

As we face another Presidential election and think about the
candidates operating in the well-known bubble of the White House, I
thought it worth updating and reposting a piece from four years ago, a month before the last election.

The question I asked: Are our public leaders flawed because they were selected as public leaders?

Just a few weeks ago, an article
in Fortune reminded me of this question and the phenomenon that answers
the question.  Its author, Rita Gunther McGrath, noted that:

“In
almost every disaster, you find the leaders based their decision-making
on assumptions…  A fundamental flaw in most governmental policy-making
is that those making the deals and decisions think they are operating
with facts.  The reality is that they are operating instead with
assumptions, many deeply held, about what causes what to happen.  A
policy is really a statement of assumed causality, and the law of
unintended consequences is ever-present.”

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The downside of a chief executive’s view of reality – i.e.,
assumptions – is made worse by the typical over-confidence such
positions encourage.

The popular title and sub-title of the paper
by Professor Kelly E. See of NYU and three other academic researchers
on organizational behavior, which I originally cited, make the point:
“The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People: Overflowing with
confidence, many leaders turn away from good advice.”

Some of their key findings:

“This
paper finds a link between having a sense of power and having a
propensity to give short shrift to a crucial part of the decision-making
process: listening to advice.  Power increases confidence which can
lead to an excessive belief in one’s own judgment and ultimately to
flawed decisions.  …

"In addition to confirming the previous
experiments’ finding that more powerful people were less likely to take
advice and were more likely to have high confidence in their answers,
this final experiment showed that high-power participants were less
accurate in their answers than low-power participants.”

A related paper by a different group of researchers, led by USC Professor Nathanael J. Fast adds some nuance to this finding:

“Experiencing
power leads to overconfident decision-making.  The findings, through
both mediation and moderation, also highlight the central role that the
sense of power plays in producing these decision-making tendencies.

“First,
sense of power, but not mood, mediated the link between power and
overconfidence.  Second, the link between power and overconfidence was
severed when access to power was not salient to the powerful and when
the powerful were made to feel personally incompetent in their domain of
power.

“These findings indicate that only when objective power
leads people to feel subjectively powerful does it produce overconfident
decision-making.”

Unfortunately, the last finding doesn’t much
change the fundamental situation for Presidents, who are extraordinarily
powerful, except maybe when they deal with scientific issues that are
not part of their self-image – and, even then, the position lends
greater credence to their views than may be warranted.

Professor See and colleagues provided some advice about overcoming this problem:

"For
one thing, organizations could formally include advice gathering at the
earliest stages of the decision-making process, before powerful
individuals have a chance to form their own opinions.  Encouraging
leaders to refrain from commenting on decisions publicly could also keep
them from feeling wedded to a particular point of view.”

Whether
or not you might find this research conforms to your own experience, the
last point — gathering in lots of information before public leaders
decide — is a reasonable and feasible suggestion to improve decision
making in many cases.  Today, the Internet and the collaborative
discussion tools it offers can make this happen fairly easily.

The
question is whether the next President will put in place that kind of open platform
for advice or wrongly trust the assumptions that she/he brought into the Oval
Office.

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© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/149079286814/a-fundamental-decision-making-flaw-in-public]

Head Tech

The discussion about wearable technology recently has mostly been
about various devices, like watches and bands, that we wear on our
wrists to communicate, measure our health, etc.  But from a
technological perspective, if not yet a commercial viewpoint, these are
old hat.

How about some new hats?  Like this one …

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These more interesting – and maybe a bit more eerie – wearables are
what I’d call “Head Tech”.  That’s technology that we place on our
heads.

Last year, following along the lines of various universities such as the University of Minnesota, the Portuguese firm Tekever demonstrated
Brainflight which enabled a person to control the flight of a drone
through the thoughts of someone wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG)
skull cap with more than a hundred electrodes.  Here’s the BBC report –
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LuImMOZOo0

This has become a fascination of so many engineers that a few months ago the University of Florida held the first brain-controlled drone race.  Its larger goal was to popularize the use of brain-computer interfaces.

Of
course, anything that gets more popular faces its critics and
satirists.  So one of GE’s more memorable commercials is called
BrainDrone – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0-UjJpRguM

Not to be outdone, a couple of weeks ago, the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab at Arizona State University unveiled
a system to use that approach to control not only a single drone, but a
swarm of drones.  You can see an explanation in this video – https://vimeo.com/173548439

While
drones have their recreational and surveillance uses, they’re only one
example.  Another piece of Head Tech gear comes from Smartstones, working with Emotiv’s less medical-looking EEG.

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It enables people who are unable to speak to use their minds to communicate.  As they describe it:

“By
pairing our revolutionary sensory communication app :prose with an EEG
headset powered by Emotiv, we are enabling a thought-to-speech solution
that is affordable, accessible and mobile for the first time ever. Users
can record and command up to 24 unique phrases that can be spoken aloud
in any language.”

There’s a very touching video here – https://vimeo.com/163235266

Emotiv has other ambitious plans for their product as they relate in this video –

https://vimeo.com/159560626

The geekiness of some these may remind you of Google Glass. Unlike Google Glass, though, they offer dramatic value
for people who have special but critical needs.  For that reason, I
expect some version of these will be developed further and will succeed.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/148399117751/head-tech]