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]

What Do We Know About Change?

[This is a follow up to my post last week.]

Even if we understand that what seems like resistance to change is more nuanced and complicated, many of us are directly or implicitly being asked to lead the changes in places of work. In that sense, we are “change agents” to use a well-established phrase.

Consider the number of times each day, both on the job and outside, that we hear the word “change” and the necessity for leaders to help their organizations change in the face of all sorts of challenges.

There has been a slew of popular business books providing guidance to would-be change agents. Several consultants and business gurus have developed their own model of the change process, usually outlining some necessary progression and steps that they have observed will lead to success.

Curiously, the same few anecdotes seem to pop up in a number of these, like burning platforms or the boardroom display of gloves.

While these authors mean well and have tried to be good reporters of what they have observed, change agents often find that, in practice, the suggestions in these books and articles are at best a starting point and don’t quite match the situation they face.

Part of the problem is that there has been too little rigorous behavioral work about how and why people change. (In fairness, some authors, like the Heath brothers, at least try to apply behavioral concepts in their recommendations on how to lead change.)

And on a practical level, many change agents find it difficult to figure out the tactics they need to use to improve the chances that the desired change will occur. In this post, I’m suggesting that we first need to understand the unique and sometimes unexpected ways that the human brain processes information and thus how we need to communicate.

(These are often called cognitive biases, but that is a pejorative phrase that might put you in the wrong mindset. It’s not a good idea starting an effort to convince people to join you in changing an organization by assuming that they are somehow irrational.)

As just one example, some of the most interesting work along these lines was that done by the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky.

They found in their research that people exaggerate potential losses beyond reality – often times incorrectly guessing that what they control (like driving a car) is less risky than what they don’t control (being a passenger in an airplane).

Moreover, a person’s sense of loss is greater if what might be lost has been owned or used for a long time (aka entitlements). Regret and other emotions can also enhance this sense of loss.

The estimate of losses and gains is also affected by a person’s reference point, which can be shifted by even random effects. The classic example of the impact of a reference point is how people react differently to being told either that they have a 10% chance of dying or a 90% chance of living through a major disease. The probabilities are the same, of course.

In general, they found that there is an aversion to losses which outweighs possible gains, even if the gains might be worth more.  

This makes it sound like change is very difficult, since many people often perceive proposed changes as having big risks.

But there is more to the story. Indeed, Kahneman found that there is no across-the-board aversion to change or even merely to risk. Indeed people might make a more risky choice when all options are bad.

As one summary states:

“When faced with a risky prospect, people will be: (1) risk-seeking over low-probability gains, (2) risk-averse over high-probability gains, (3) risk-averse over low-probability losses, and (4) risk-seeking over high-probability losses.”

In just this brief summary, there is some obvious guidance for change agents:

  • Reduce people’s estimate of their potential loss. For example, the new system won’t cost 25% more than the old one, but it will just be an extra nickel each time it is used.
  • Increase the perceived value of the change and/or the perceived likelihood of success – positive vivid images help to overcome lower probability estimates of the chances of success; negative vivid images help to magnify the probability of loss.
  • Help people redefine the perception of loss by shifting their frame of reference, which determines their starting point.
  • Reduce the overall size of the risks, which means it is best to introduce small innovations, piled on each other.  Behavioral scientists have also observed the irrational fear of loss versus the possibility of benefit is reduced when a person has had experience with the trade-off. A series of small innovations will help people to gain that experience and you will also find out which of your great ideas really are good. Since any innovation is an experiment, there’s no guarantee of success. Some will fail, but if the ideas are good and competent people are implementing the changes, you’ll succeed sufficiently more often than you fail so that the overall impact is positive.
  • Work to convince people that their certainty of loss is only a possibility. People react differently to being told something is a sure thing, than a 90% probability.
  • Since risk taking is no longer avoided among bad choices, show that the obvious loss of change is less than a bigger possible loss of not changing.

I’ve just touched the surface here. There other findings of behavioral and social science research that can also enable change agents to get a firmer grasp on the reality of the situation facing them and suggest things they might do to become more successful.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Resistance To Change?!

As I’ve been going through articles and books for the course on Analytics and Leading Change that I’ll be teaching soon at Columbia University, I frequently read how leaders and other change agents need to overcome resistance to change. Whenever we aim to get things done and they don’t happen immediately, this is often the first explanation for the difficulty.

Resistance to change is a frequent complaint of anyone introducing a new technology or especially something as fundamental as the use of analytics in an organization.

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The conflict that it implies can be compelling. You could make a best seller or popular movie out of that conflict, like that great story about baseball, analytics and change “Moneyball”.

There have been cartoons and skits about resistance to change — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTLyXamRvk4

This is an idea that goes very far back. Even Machiavelli, describing Renaissance politics, is often quoted on the subject:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

It’s all awful if you’re the one trying to introduce the change and many have written about the problems they saw.

But is that word “resistance” misleading change agents? Going beyond the perspectives and anecdotes of change agents and business consultants, there has been over the last two decades some solid academic research on this subject. And, as often happens when we learn more, there have been some important subtleties lost in that phrase “resistance to change”.

In perhaps a refutation or an elaboration on Machiavelli’s famous quote, Dent and Goldberg report in “Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’” that:

“People do not resist change, per se.  People may resist loss of status, loss of pay, or loss of comfort, but these are not the same as resisting change … Employees may resist the unknown, being dictated to, or management ideas that do not seem feasible from the employees’ standpoint. However, in our research, we have found few or no instances of employees resisting change … The belief that people do resist change causes all kinds of unproductive actions within organizations.”

Is what looks like resistance something more or something else?

More recently, University of Montreal Professor Céline Bareil wrote about the “Two Paradigms about Resistance to Change” in which she compared “the enemy of change” (traditional paradigm) to “a resource” (modern paradigm). She noted that:

“Instead of being interpreted as a threat, and the enemy of change, resistance to change can also be considered as a resource, and even a type of commitment on the part of change recipients.”

Making this shift in perspective is likely harder for change agents than the changes they expect of others. The three authors of “Resistance to Change: The Rest of the Story” describe the various ways that change agents themselves have biased perceptions. They say that blaming difficulties on resistance to change may be a self-serving and “potentially self-fulfilling label, given by change agents attempting to make sense of change recipients’ reactions to change initiatives, rather than a literal description of an objective reality.”

Indeed, they observe that the actions of change agents may not be merely unsuccessful, but counter-productive.

“Change agents may contribute to the occurrence of the very reactions they label as resistance through their own actions and inactions, such as communications breakdowns, the breach of agreements and failure to restore trust” as well as not listening to what is being said and learning from it.

There is, of course, a lot more to this story, which you can start to get into by looking at some of the links in this post. But hopefully this post has offered enough to encourage those of us who are leading change to take a step back, look at the situation differently and thus be able to succeed.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/152378476173/resistance-to-change]

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]

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.

image

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).

image

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)?

image

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

image

·        The Hydro Cat, free floating

image

·        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”

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

Mobile telephony was discussed but not really in existence yet.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

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):

image

“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.”

image

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.

image

© 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 …

image

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.

image

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]

Community Colleges & The Deep Changes That Challenge Them

Colleges have long established the roles of those with superior,
perhaps absolute, knowledge (the teachers) and those who have much less
knowledge (the students).

But as a trustee of a community
college, I realize how often the leaders of these institutions – the
boards, the staff and faculty – are, or ought to be, learners as well.  
Especially these days, we do not have certain and broad wisdom about
what we can do well.

This was, at least, my frame of mind going
into a recent board “retreat” focusing on the college’s strategy.  
Because of my other work, I was asked to provide the lunch keynote
presentation about the changes that are happening and will happen around
us that can affect the future of colleges.

The trends are out
there to be seen, but the implications for traditional institutions are
still open to question.  Although I’ve spent much of my career in
technology, unlike various Silicon Valley folks who seem to think they
have the answers too, I really have more questions, which is ultimately
what I wanted my fellow board members to think about.  In any case,
there’s no way to get the leaders of those institutions to make changes
by lecturing to them.

image

Here are the trends I described and the questions they provoked.

Virtual Presence Everywhere

With
large numbers of people face down looking at their screens, some people
mistake texting, email and social media for real dialogue.  But
scientific research indicates otherwise – text communication is
limited.  As the saying “seeing is believing” indicates, the non-textual
part of our conversations is critical and that’s not yet part of most
everyday Internet communications.

The digital world is now at a
stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920.  This is one
reason I think that online courses are still limited, since many of
them are essentially just broadcast TV (on the web) combined with text
communications.  It’s not really a virtual classroom.

But the
visual aspect is growing substantially, with FaceTime, Skype and other
ways beyond even videoconferencing to create a virtual presence
anywhere.  We’re even seeing demonstrations of conversations held using
mixed reality technology.

Google and Skype, among others, have
also made good progress in enabling us to communicate in different
languages – adding yet another dimension to being able to be a virtual
presence anywhere.

This oncoming capability to have visual
dialogues will intensify all the other the trends — although we are
still only in the early stages of its use.

So the first question I asked is:

How can we use these virtual presence technologies?  

As
an example, many of our students are on very tight budgets and often
are working jobs to survive, in addition to going to college.  Yet we
ask them to travel miles from where they live, often by slow public
transportation, to get to some main campus where their classes take
place.

But many community colleges have locations aside from their
main campus which could become nodes in a virtual classroom.  And
that’s not even including those students who could find other quiet, but
well connected, locations.  Then the student could appear virtually in
the classroom, be seen and heard and participate.  And the time and
money spent on travel could be devoted to study.

Ubiquitous Technology

Many
college leaders think of screens and keyboards when we talk of
technology.  I showed the many ways that technology and the net are now
everywhere and in many things.  Now any surface can be a keyboard, a
mouse or an interactive display.  Walls, floors, clothing, armbands,
fingernails, earrings, shoes, your eyes are all means of interacting
with the net.

Moreover, people interacting with technology is only
part of the story in a world where already more devices are connected
to the Internet than people – the “Internet of things”.

The natural question for colleges in response to this trend is to ask:

When
the Internet is everywhere accessible in many ways, will our college be
everywhere accessible in our region or even the world?

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Analytics & Big Data

I
combined these topics because as they all develop they are often
intertwined and as a combined trend they will have an impact on how
obtain and use knowledge.

The best of these efforts are invisible
to their users.  For example, speech recognition (like Siri) is an
example of machine intelligence.  There are personal translators,
software that makes art, writes stories, acts as a legal assistant, etc.

Then
there is the increased development and use of robots, leading to
concerns about massive future unemployment.  While it seems to me there
will still be much to do after the robots have mastered the kind of work
we’ve done in the past, there is no doubt that we should be asking
ourselves:

How can we use these technologies?  What is it that
our students need to learn in a future world of, at least, artificially
augmented human intelligence?

Changes In The Way People Will Make A Living

I
noted the dramatic shift in the last hundred years or more in the
nature of employment from most Americans earning a living by making
products or food to most Americans providing services and intangible
products.  Along with this has been a disaggregation of the way that
corporations work, since they too take advantage of technologies that
enable remote collaboration.  The latter trend is also associated with
an increase in freelance employment, now said to involve one-third of
the labor force and growing.

Most colleges still think about
preparing their students for traditional jobs in large companies –
especially community colleges which are concerned about the prospects
for their continuing education adult students and even degree students
who will not go on to four year colleges.  Yet a 9 to 5 job in the same
big company, from age 25 to 65, is being replaced by earning income from
several sources in a freelance economy.

The questions this raises for colleges are:

Will
our students be able to flourish in this new economy?  Are we preparing
them, indeed all of the residents of the areas we serve, for this new
work life?

The Need For Lifelong Learning

Lifelong
learning has been a popular catchphrase among public officials and
educators alike, although they have mostly implemented the idea in very
limited ways.

But the people outside of our institutions of
higher education realize that they need keep learning in order to make a
living in an economy based on knowledge.  This is not a matter of
taking a refresher course once every five years.  It’s a continuous
need.

image

That’s part of the reason for the popularity of the many
ways that the Internet offers people knowledge – college-like websites
(like Coursera and edX) and the many other websites that teach (from
Khan Academy to Lynda.com to YouTube to thousands of others).  The
development of citizen science sites, like Zooniverse and Geazle even offer people the opportunity to both gain and help create knowledge.

While
much of college, even community college, is focused on the segment of
the population younger than 23, all the people older than that need to
continue to learn.  These “older” people are finding the best and most
cost-effective means of lifelong learning because the traditional school
system is not geared to them.  Should that be the case?

Do/can community colleges offer something to these adults that meets their continuing needs?

As
I said at the end of my presentation, I only scratched the surface of
the trends that are coming our way.  For example, I didn’t even discuss
the development in bio-engineering.

The overall lesson for college
leaders is clear: in addition to our everyday work of keeping the
institution going, we need to start answering these questions.  We need
to develop our strategies to figure out what this all means for
colleges.

And, as part of a community of learners, community
colleges need to do research, to experiment and to analyze what works
and doesn’t work in a changing world.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/147697356006/community-colleges-the-deep-changes-that]

Power In The Network Age

A part of my research in graduate school included modeling a small,
but influential, network of individuals – the US Supreme Court.  I used
the mathematical models tools available.  I even represented the court’s
decisions in a Markov chain and computed characteristics like its
eigenvalue.

You can be excused if you’ve never heard about any of
this or even about Markov chains.  Nobody at the time was much
interested either.  But I suppose I should have stayed with it, with
books now being published on the impact of the Internet and network
analysis.

Consider the new book, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks.
It was written by Joshua Cooper Ramo, who is Vice Chairman and Co-CEO
of Kissinger Associates, and a member of the board of directors of
Starbucks and FedEx.

image

It emphasizes the importance of networks and
declaring that there is still a wide-open gap in the tools most of us
have for understanding these networks.

In an interview about the book, he set out his goal:

“We
live in an age where almost everything changes because of
connectivity…  The seventh sense is the idea that some people have an
instinct for how this works that’s better, sharper than the rest of us.
The book is designed to teach people how to think about connected
systems so that they can have the same kind of edge.  The people who see
what’s coming in financial markets or in politics have that edge.  It’s
important that the rest of us develop it, too.”

However, the book
is worth reading for what it is, not what he wants it to be.  It is
unusual in probing the subtleties — both positive and negative — of our
network age, not the usual breathless or self-promoting material.

Most
of the book describes the various ways that being connected can change
the characteristics and behavior of businesses, organizations,
governments – everything that we’ve inherited from the industrial era.

Much
has been made in various other reviews and discussions of this book
about its the scary descriptions of security issues and other dangers in
networks.  That wasn’t news to me and shouldn’t be news to most network
users who have been paying any attention.

Some people have
complained that the book is so wide ranging and repetitive it can be
frustrating to read.  Parts go into related space, where he worries
that it’s not just the network, but artificial intelligence that is
surpassing us in ways we don’t understand.  But this isn’t a blog of
literary criticism, so I’ll skip over that and go to the substance.

Considering
his day job at Kissinger Associates, I thought the most interesting
themes had to do with the interaction between the new global technology
network and the traditional institutions of government, business and
society.

Two themes, in particular, stand out:

  • Ramo
    notes that the transition from agricultural to industrial eras was
    accompanied by major wars, revolutions and destruction, along with
    rising wealth. He asks what similar events are likely to happen in the
    transition to a networked age.  Perhaps ISIS and this year’s disruptions
    in the American Presidential elections are only early warning signs of
    what’s to come.
  • He ends the book recalling Plato on the
    need for wisdom in rulers, after he has presented a picture of two
    inadequate sets of rulers – the engineers who control the network, but
    do not understand governance and human interactions and the traditional
    government leaders who don’t understand then network.

Although
we all seem to be connected, Ramo writes that the Internet is really
divided into various gated communities.  He states that “gatedness is
the corollary to connectedness” and this gatedness is a potential
problem.

At one point, he worries that you will have to be among
the rulers — presumably those with the seventh sense or at least those
controlling the gates — or the ruled.  He says the network gives people
more power against the gatekeepers than in traditional institutions, but
also notes that the average person may nevertheless need to be inside
the gate to lead a satisfactory life and make a living – so there’s
really no choice after all.

Aside from the problem he mentions, why is this important?

Well,
no matter their ideology and internal practices, in the past few
centuries, all governments are fundamentally in the business of
controlling a specific bordered territory — maintaining the physical
gates.  He posits that the Internet’s gatekeepers — Facebook, or Apple
iOS, etc. —are taking over that role in the cyberworld.  He says that
they are the powerful ones to watch out for in future wars between
networks and the state and between networks and other networks.

Many
others have considered the potential of a conflict between governments
and the Internet.  Last summer, for example, the Wilson Quarterly had an
article responding to this concern, “The Nation-State: Not Dead Yet”.

I’ve also written before on this subject – “The Internet versus The Nation-State?” and “Where’s Your Mind-Time Spent?

The
biggest weakness in the book and others of this kind is that the lack
of nuance in the discussion of networks.  The fact that there can be a
distribution of power and gates in networks doesn’t end the story.  
Partly the problem with these books is that the question of what nodes
(and entry points) of a network are most influential isn’t one that
can’t be answered merely in words.

image

Pictures help convey a bit more, and – going back to my graduate school research – mathematics helps even more.

So
as you read Ramo’s book and his concerns, you get the sense that his
view of the network is similar to this picture of Indiana University’s
Big Red network:

image

But perhaps the world outside of such tightly
controlled campuses is more like the collaborative network of Oak Ridge
National Lab:

image

Or something different.

And although a node’s
place in a network can show its potential influence, these graphs merely
show connections, not actual influence or power.  Unfortunately, the
publicly available analysis of influence over the billions of nodes and
endpoints of the Internet is still primitive.  Moreover, to his point,
it is also changing.

This book is a bit like Jefferson’s view of
the Louisiana Purchase before the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Jefferson
had a sense it was worth buying, but needed to send out scouts to find
out the details.  While they didn’t learn everything there was to learn
about the territory, much of what they did learn was changed over time
anyway.

That too will characterize our understanding of the network we explore each day.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/147392818657/power-in-the-network-age]

Updates Of Earlier Reports

Some of my blog posts seem to be ahead of news reported elsewhere,
which is ok with me, but also means that it might be helpful to list
some interesting articles that continue past stories.  Here are some
recent examples:

  • My two-part series in March on the Coding Craze
    questioned the long term value of the plan by many public officials to
    teach computer coding. While the general news media continue to talk and
    write about coding as an elixir for your career, WIRED Magazine
    recently ran a cover story titled “The End of Code”.  See their web
    piece at http://www.wired.com/2016/05/the-end-of-code/
image
  • I’ve
    written several posts on one of my special interests – the related
    subjects of mixed reality, virtual reality, blended physical and digital
    spaces. I noted sports as a natural for this, including highlighting the Trilite project last year.  So it was great to read
    the announcement in the last few days that NBC and Samsung are
    collaborating to offer some of the Rio Olympics on Samsung VR gear.
image
  • We’re
    all inundated with talk about how “things are changing faster than ever
    before” in our 21st century world. Taking an unconventional view, in
    2011, I asked “Telegraph vs. Internet: Which Had Greater Impact?
    My argument was that the first half of the 19th century had much more
    dramatic changes, especially in speeding up communications.  In what I
    think is the first attempt to question the fastest-ever-changes meme,
    the New York Times Magazine also recently elaborated on this theme in an
    Upshot article titled “What Was the Greatest Era for Innovation? A Brief Guided Tour”.
image
  • In “Art and the Imitation Game”,
    March 2015, I wrote about how artificial intelligence is stepping into
    creative activities, like writing and painting. While there have been
    many articles on this subject since, one of the most intriguing was from
    the newspaper in the city with more attorneys per capita than anywhere
    else, as the Washington Post invited us to “Meet ‘Ross,’ the newly hired legal robot”.
image
  • I wrote about the White House Rural Telehealth meeting in April this year. The New York Times later had a report on the rollout of telehealth to the tens of millions of customers of Anthem, under the American Well label.
  • Going
    back several years and in both that post and one on “The
    Decentralization Of Health Care” about a year and a half ago, I’ve
    touched on the difficulties posed by the fee for service health care
    system in the US and instead wondered if we would be better off by
    paying health systems a yearly fee to keep us healthy – thus aligning
    our personal interests with those of the system. So it has been
    interesting to see in April that there was movement on this by the
    Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS), which is the Federal
    government’s health insurance agency.  Here are just some examples:
  1. The End of Fee For Service?  
  2. CMS launches largest-ever multi-payer initiative to improve primary care in America
  3. Obamacare [SIC] to launch new payment scheme

That’s it for now.  I’ll try to update other posts when there’s news.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/146994917695/updates-of-earlier-reports]

The Internet Is Already Reinvigorating The Countryside

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) held its annual summit last week in Columbus, Ohio.  As I’ve done in the last couple of years, I ran a workshop for small cities and rural areas.

image

Unlike
past years, this time I didn’t only focus on the potential that the
Internet provides for the countryside, but also showed the ways that
some – but not all – of those communities are already being
reinvigorated.  This post will provide a summary of my presentation
during the first half of the workshop.

In addition to the
usual background about ICF, I let people know of the establishment of a
new ICF Institute that is specifically devoted to the study of rural
communities.  It’s based at Mississippi State University and is led by
Professor Roberto Gallardo.

image

I quickly outlined the reasons why
changes in technology and the economy enable small towns and rural areas
to flourish again in this century:

  • Now and in the future, size and clusters count less than connections
  • Broadband enables economic growth in the way that proximity enabled urban economic growth in the industrial era
  • An
    ever increasing percentage of people can make a living by providing
    intangible products and services that can be delivered from anywhere to
    anywhere
  • A life-long 9 to 5 job in a big company is being pushed aside by the freelance economy
  • Visual communication will intensify the trends — although we are still only in the early stages of its use

But
I noted that only some small towns and rural areas have taken advantage
of these factors.  As a result, growth is very uneven in the
countryside as reported  by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Then
I reviewed the kinds of community building services that the leaders,
in contrast to the laggards, are providing on top of their broadband and
technology foundation.

That was all prelude to the main topics of the day:

  • the
    development of a new urban exodus by digital millennials from high-tech
    cities into those parts of the countryside that provide both a better
    quality of life as well as Internet connectivity
  • the need for
    residents of the countryside to participate in the global economy and
    not limit their horizons to their local areas or even just their region

The new urban exodus to the countryside is a phenomenon that is not only in

the US, but has also occurred in France and the UK.  Nor is it like the migration to exurban homes of more than a decade ago.  As a Pew study has reported:

But
to call these rural hot spots “exurban,” Garreau said, is missing the
point.  As he sees it, today’s urban exiles aren’t looking for a lengthy
commute from the far suburbs to a downtown office.  They’re seasoned
professionals with big incomes who’ve grown tired of the urban rat race,
he said.  They’re looking to completely eradicate the notion of
commuting to work and toiling from 9 to 5.  Rich greenery and wide-open
vistas are a must.

For a better understanding of this phenomenon, I showed a few minutes from Alissa Hessler’s very compelling video explaining what her Urban Exodus website and life is like.

image

Then
I reviewed the evidence showing the greater growth path for those
participating in the global economy, even in rural areas.  However,
rural residents are at a competitive disadvantage compared to their city
cousins if they try to do this in isolation.

For that reason, I
emphasized the need for rural residents to achieve scale and influence
by working together in a kind of virtual metropolis
or global virtual
Chamber of Commerce where they can meet and, more important, find
business partners, services and even customers.  Partly, this can work
is because it is also built on the shared experience and perspective
that comes from living in the countryside.

If you or the residents
of your community are interested in joining in this virtual metropolis,
please contact me – njacknis at intelligent community dot org.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/146306552640/the-internet-is-already-reinvigorating-the]

White House Rural Telehealth — Continued

Two months ago, in “The Last Big Barrier To A Rural Renaissance: Healthcare”,
I reported on a White House meeting on rural telehealth that I
participated in.  On June 1, we had a follow-up conference call.

image

This is sort of a report on that call, intertwined with my
observations from this call about why it’s hard to get things done in
the Federal government.

First, there was some encouraging news, including these items:

  • The
    White House is starting to fund research on how telehealth improves
    medical outcomes, which will be important for future changes.
  • Because
    of changes in Federal law and market conditions, there has been such a
    rapid growth of integrated health care systems that, on their own, some
    are now reaching out to serve rural areas.
  • In various ways,
    there was agreement that telehealth is now expanding into remote patient
    monitoring. This is especially good news for rural residents who may
    have to travel miles even to get to a local clinic which is in turn
    connected to a major medical center.

This last item also reminded me of Longfellow’s Little Girl:

“There
was a little girl, and she had a little curl right in the middle of her
forehead.   When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she
was bad she was horrid”

At the same time the Veterans Health
Administration has had its problems with waiting lists at some
facilities, it is has taken the lead in innovations, like tele-health, to bring health care to veterans at work or at home in small towns, rural areas and other places where it is difficult for the veterans to get to major facilities.

I’d
note that I’ve spent much more time with local and state government,
where with good leadership, things can get done fairly quickly, even
when major innovations are involved.  Many of these governments are at
least as efficient, if not more efficient, than most large
corporations.  As we’ve heard and seen many times in this election year,
the Federal government is another story.

Here then are some relevant, if not new, observations based on the rural tele-health work:

  • It’s very hard to get things done even if you’re sitting in the White House.
  • To
    some extent, this is built into the constitution, the system of
    government, which divides power and ensures that Federal agencies almost
    suffer from a kind of matrix management with multiple parties having a
    say about what happens.
image
  • And when the Federal government gets
    around to doing something it needs to be very careful and thoughtful
    about the rules because its impact is so outsized – part of its slowness
    is to ensure it doesn’t behave like a bull in a china shop.
  • There
    are millions of Federal employees to contend with, each of whom has
    his/her own sense of what their public responsibility calls for. This
    can lead to a silo effect where people in different departments don’t
    work with each other or even know each other are working on the same
    issue.  As an example, psychiatrists who are encouraged by one part of
    the Federal government to provide face-to-face services through
    videoconferencing worry about running afoul of the concerns of the Drug Enforcement Administration about electronic prescriptions of controlled substances.
image

Having said all this, the White House staff should still be applauded
for continuing to push these innovative tele-healthcare services,
despite the built-in obstacles and the short time they have left.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/145558168934/white-house-rural-telehealth-continued]