Tag Archives: Google

Future Shock

There was a very perceptive article in the current issue of the Economist which argued, basically, that Moore’s Law is in sight of breaking down. The result, though, is maybe not what you might think. Progress may not necessarily just get slower; it is more likely to be much, much more unpredictable.

The reasons, according to the Economist are because these days there is so much more that is important than just the single chip in a single computer, among them the role of software, the cloud and new, specialised architectures optimised for particular tasks.

I think we can see some of this unpredictability unfolding in front of our eyes as Google’s Go-playing computer AlphaGo has beaten Lee Sedol, ranked number 4 in the world, in the first two of their best-of-five series. Go is seen as a special challenge to AI because it is very much more complex than chess and a “brute force” approach won’t work.

The really interesting thing about this match is that it was generally thought we were 10 years away from building a computer which could win at Go. AlphaGo surprised the world back in October last year when it won against Fan Hui who is ranked 633rd in the world. What has taken Lee Sedol by surprise is how much better the program has become since – we was apparently quite certain he could beat it.

Hold on to your seats – we could be in for some really quite startling surprises in the coming months and years.



The breaking of Glass?

Techcrunch is predicting the demise of Google Glass as a consumer product, citing departing developers and a perceived lack of support from the top of Google. Techcrunch’s Mike Butcher predicts b2b will be where the product makes headway:

Industrial applications – building and manufacturing, security, training – could be the future for Glass. Indeed, Taco Bell and KFC are considering Glass as a potential training method for employees. And five developers that have joined the programme are all in the enterprise space.

I agree. The case for having a heads-up display is dangerous or difficult work situations (think nuclear plants for operating theatres) seems pretty self-evident. And it does seem that the general aura of weirdness which has settled around Glass is just too much to allow for a successful general consumer launch.

But all that is not to say that Glass isn’t pointing the way to the future. The end game in computing is ubiquity – being able to get help, find information, communicate effortlessly and at will. The watch, currently the flavour-of-the-month wearable, won’t fill that role. Eventually it will be a direct brain interface that does, I’m pretty sure. The next best thing is to use the heads-up display, however that is done. Google Glass, or some other variant, will be back.

Short and long-term innovation

It’s the mobile innovation season again. Apple launched the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the latest operating system iOS 8, announced the much-anticipated Apple Watch and last week launched new iPads. Google unveiled plans for the new Nexus 6 phablet and the Nexus 9 tablet and a new Android operating system, Lollipop.

But what does this innovation actually amount to? Our phones are now bigger and even thinner – so much so that they bend if we accidentally sit on them.

Apple-Watch-logo-main1Apple is very focussed on getting all their technology to work “seamlessly” together. After Yosemite we should be able to start a Keynote presentation on our iPhone, pick up on our iPad, finish off on our Mac and then show it on our Apple TV, controlled by our Apple Watch. It’s clear that Apple’s future growth is going to come from getting us to buy more things and updating those we already have on a regular cycle.

Google, to some extent, is on the same merry-go-round. It too has watch software, a desktop (Chrome), phones, tablets and a TV streaming device, the Chromecast.

But Google also has Glass – a product still not ready for prime-time which has come in for increasing criticism after the initial burst of enthusiasm wore off. This Guardian review sums up the ambivalence well. What Glass does point to is a different interpretation of the way things will develop in the future.

The thing that makes Glass work is the voice interface and that is an area Google has been investing a lot of time and effort in – and with striking results.

Research by Stone Temple Consulting set out to compare results from Google Now, Siri and Cortana from Microsoft. And Google came our firmly on top – the chart here summarises those results.


Stone Temple summarise their findings like this:

So there you have it. As of October 4, Google Now has a clear lead in terms of the sheer volume of queries addressed, and more complete accuracy with its queries than either Siri or Cortana. All three parties will keep investing in this type of technology, but the cold hard facts are that Google is progressing the fastest on all fronts.

Google has been taking the whole artificial intelligence space more seriously than any other technology company. They have bought some serious talent like Demis Hassabis, the founder and chief executive of Deep Mind, the artificial intelligence business bought by Google for £400m at the start of the year.

On a visit to Microsoft way back in the 1990s I heard the head of Microsoft Research say that consumers already knew what they wanted – it was the Star Trek computer. This means a universal interface which is largely neutral about the actual device it is using at a particular moment in time.

Apple’s business model I think largely rules it out as a contender. It is too invested in creating physical devices and it is telling that it already let the Siri team depart when their work is clearly not done. (They have founded their own business called Viv aimed at delivering their version of the Star Trek computer.)

But with its heavy focus on understanding and organising knowledge, and its commitment to the development of powerful AI, my money is on Google to finally deliver the vision. And whether we access that through Glass, or through an Android-powered watch, or for that matter on the iOS platform, I’m not sure they particularly care.

The future for self-driving cars

In 2004 the US defence research organisation Darpa set cars the challenge of navigating a 150-mile desert course without drivers none of the cars finished and the two leaders only managed seven miles.

Ten years on and Google’s tricked out Priuses have travelled over 700,000 miles around California without a single accident.

And recently Google unveiled its very first custom-designed autonomous car which breaks the mould in several important ways. It only has a start button, for instance, not all the controls we normally associate with driving. And it looks less like a car and more like the sort of transport you would take in Disneyland.

It’s quite clear from what Google has revealed about how the sensors and algorithms work that enormous progress has been made, and despite the challenges still ahead it is now possible for forecast with confidence a time when  autonomous cars could be ubiquitous.

self-driving car
Google’s first prototype car and an artists impression of where it might go next

And this could be truly revolutionary. Google’s design choice is I think intended to point out how different a self-driving car can be from what we think of as cars. The self-driving car could usher in a world where owning a car becomes completely unnecessary – we could simply summon a car from our smart phones and rent it for only the specific journey we need to make. Parking would be a thing of the past – the cars would simply drop you off and either go to their next job, or back to the charging station to recharge themselves.

Given that 96% of the time our cars are parked and doing nothing, a complete move to self-driving rented journeys would vastly reduce the number of cars required, saving resources and parking space at home, work and on city streets. There could be massive benefits to our urban environments with concrete making way to green space again.

This is to say nothing of the tremendous life-saving potential. The World Health Organisation estimates there were 1.24 million deaths caused by cars worldwide in 2010. The promise of autonomous cars, always awake at the wheel, never getting angry and frustrated, never getting drunk or texting at the wheel is of vast reductions in these numbers and all the suffering and economic loss which comes with them.

Given the enormous benefits in economic, resource and health terms surely we will see a world which quickly adopts this marvellous technology?

Sadly, I doubt it.

Although the technological hurdles are clearly eminently solvable and in a relatively short time frame, other difficulties remain. Firstly, the complex regulatory and legal issues which will need to be addressed are not trivial. How will be liability in an accident be handled, for instance.

The most tricky issue, though, is likely to be the libertarian arguments about the right to drive. According to the FBI in 2012 there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US. And yet the gun lobby continues to insist on the right to carry guns despite the carnage. Expect similar freedom-related arguments about the right to drive.

And the transition from driven to self-driving cars could have unexpected consequences. Self-driving cars are very good at avoiding hitting things, so good in fact that the behaviour of other road users may become more and more reckless and traffic speeds as a consequence may drop considerably as self-driving cars become more and more cautious. This may be true of pedestrians and cyclists too – again leading to slower and slower speeds.

As so often, the technology will likely be much more advanced that the soft issues around it.


What really lies behind Google’s acquisition strategy

Last month I wrote about Google’s acquisition spree and was somewhat critical of the depth of the analysis. I promised a follow up on what I thought was possibly really going, so here it is – better late than never. 

When ever Google acquisitions get discussed it seems the explanation is always somehow connected to data. The argument goes that Google’s only real business model is advertising. Advertising thrives on data (to make it more relevant and therefore effective). Therefore this is the reason behind whatever acquisition that is being discussed. 

I don’t entirely subscribe to this view. I believe there is something a bit deeper and more far reaching happening. 

It you take a look at the list of companies that Google has acquired, among the firms more obviously connected to Google’s core current business model there are a good number which fall into the categories of robotics, artificial intelligence and human computer interface. 

Google’s recent initiatives include Calico, which supports research into ageing and health, the much-publicised driverless car and the infamous Google Glass project. 

Meanwhile Google Ventures, the venture capital arm, is busy investing in life sciences, among other things. 

What have these things got it common? They are all thematically relevant to a particular view of how the future will unfold in 30 to 50 years time. The clue, I think, is in the appointment of Ray Kurzweil  as director of engineering who is officially there to “work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing”. Wikipedia describes him like this:

He has written books on health, artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism. Kurzweil is a public advocate for the futurist and transhumanist movements, as has been displayed in his vast collection of public talks, wherein he has shared his primarily optimistic outlooks on life extension technologies and the future of nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology.

Google is investing, one way or another in most of the key technologies central to Kurzweil’s optimistic vision which means they are very much in the forefront of making this all happen. It could well be that Google may become the first example of a transhumanist corporation. 

Bringing internet access to the world

There was rather a poor article in the Observer today by John Naughton about Google and Facebook’s recent buying sprees. It wasn’t that there was anything particularly wrong with the analysis – it is just that it was lame, uncontentious and old hat.

The main conclusion was that Google and Facebook’s recent purchases of drone companies was driven by a desire to bring the internet to the 5 billion people without proper access and in the process to advance their own businesses and increase their profits. Neither company has made a secret of their ambition to widen access to the internet and it would be extraordinary indeed if they didn’t want to make a profit from the activity.

There was a missed opportunity here as I think there is an interesting story to tell about these acquisitions.

I will concentrate in this post on the drone acquisitions – I will write a further post about the other acquisitions later.

Google’s move into the provision of internet services (as opposed to merely services which run upon it) may actually be quite a bit more calculated than it at first appears to John Naughton.

Aral Balkan, the designer, programmer and entrepreneur,  gave at talk at the RSA on April 10th called “Free is a Lie” where he argued that Google’s business model is “the business model of corporate surveillance”. (The talk will appear here in due course – there is usually a small delay before they are posted. The talk has now been posted here.)

He argued quite persuasively that “free is a concealed barter” and that the “monopoly of the free business model is leading to digital feudalism”. The argument is that Google needs to know everything about you in order to squeeze all the economic value out of your data. This is why they developed Android (which you log into with your Gmail address) and why they have developed services like Google Now, and why Chrome’s features are so much richer if you log in. The provision of internet services is even better as you log into the web with your Gmail address so that everything you do (on whatever browser) is now tracked and usable.

Facebook has the same business model. It tries everything it can to make us default to public so that, again, the economic value can be extracted. The problem is, says Aral “if we make the default public then anything private has the association of guilt about it”.

“The cost of free is our human rights – which is too much to pay.” Whether you agree with this interpretation or not, it is a much more interesting story.

To Glass or not to Glass

It seems as if Google Glass has travelled quite a long way along its hype cycle even though it has yet to be launched as a finished product. The product was shown initially at the I/O conference in June 2012 and the first beta products (knows as the Explorer Edition) were made available to a select group of evangelists who paid $1,500 for the privilege in April 2013. Since then they have made all sorts outings on various conference stages around the world, been photographed in the New York subway and even been photographed in the shower (see photo of Robert Scoble).There have been endless reviews from the “explorers” such as this or this.

On the whole the tenor has been – revolutionary product, will take some getting used to but generally positive. Lately, though the tone has changed. Gizmodo calls out Google for getting defensive but not answering the real issues. And Mashable weighed in with its prediction that Android smart watches (specifically the Moto 360) will render Glass obsolete:Why the Moto 360 Smartwatch will Kill Google Glass.

I think this new-found pessimism is wrong on a number of counts. It is easier to see how a smart watch would be used – we already have watches and if it gives us a bit of what our phones give us we can get our heads round that.

But that is to miss the basic point. We are all now inseparable from the web. We use the internet as external memory and our smart phones are our current access point. But they are far from perfect – staring at your phone screen distracts from the task in hand and acts as a barrier to the real world. Smart watches will be better, but only just.

The real end-game is seamless access to the web directly overlaid on the world. Google Glass is the closest thing we have to that right now.

Sure, Glass is flawed (poor battery life, limited applications etc etc) and certainly it will take us a while to work out the correct etiquette around it.

But the Glass paradigm is a powerful one which is qualitatively different to all that has gone before it. And Moore’s law should take care of the shortcomings.

This summary from Wired is a pretty good round up of both the good and the bad. The conclusion is, I think, right on the money:

You can make fun of Glass, and the assholes (like me) who wear it. But here’s what I know: The future is on its way, and it is going to be on your face. We need to think about it and be ready for it in a way we weren’t with smartphones. Because while you (and I) may make fun of glassholes today, come tomorrow we’re all going to be right there with them, or at least very close by. Wearables are where we’re going. Let’s be ready.

A tale of two service cultures

In February I bought myself a Nexus 7, the 7-inch tablet made for Google by Asus. I bought it from Currys as, since the demise of Comet in November last year, this is just about the only electrical chain around.

My early experiences were good; I found the interface less polished than IOS (I’ve been an apple user now for at least seven years) but I liked the integration with Google’s product suite and some things, such as Google Now which predicts what you are going to need and gets it before you need it, were very impressive.

As far as the hardware goes, the build quality seemed good, but the battery life wasn’t a patch on my iPad 3 – that will go a week between charges with light usage; the Nexus seemed to need charging every two days.

And therein lay the problem. Sometime in the week of the 20th May the Nexus 7 ran out of power and when I came to recharge it nothing happened. It wouldn’t turn on at all. So on Saturday 25th I took it back to Currys expecting to get a free replacement. No such thing.

First off, I waited in line for a customer service rep to serve me. Despite the apparent abundance of staff in the Catford store, nobody seemed particularly keen on eye contact and I waited for 10 minutes before one of the staff reluctantly called me forward.

I was told they would need to send it back to Asus for repair. Fair enough. I filled in the form, left my telephone number and went home.

Three weeks later, getting a little concerned that I hadn’t heard anything, I called the number on the repair receipt only to be told that it could take up to six weeks to be returned.

A week later I received a call to say it had been returned to the shop and I duly collected it on June 18th. When I got it home I charged it up and set it up again (it had been returned to factory settings) and all seemed well, until a couple of days later it was again without charge. This time it would start up but then would promptly shut again with a message that I should connect the charger (which was in fact connected). Testing with another Android charger got the same result.

So back to Currys. And another wait in line for one of the numerous staff to decide they would have to serve me, which one eventually did. Now it has been sent off again (to Asus in Amsterdam, I’m informed) and I now face another up to six week delay before I get the device back again.  (Incidentally, while I was waiting there was a man returning a Dyson vacuum cleaner under a 30 day trial scheme advertised on Currys own website. He was told he couldn’t return it because it had been opened(!) Only when he showed them a print out of their own website offer was his money reluctantly refunded.)

I bought my Nexus in the first place to road-test Android as an alternative to IOS. So far the experiment isn’t going Android’s way.

Contrast this with my only real product problem with an Apple product. Three years ago my iPhone started to drop calls unexpectedly. I booked a Genius Bar appointment online and turned up at my allotted time in the Bluewater Apple store where my name flashed on the screen. I went up to the counter and explained the problem. The “genius” (as I suppose you call them) plugged the phone into some diagnostics and confirmed that was the problem and then promptly gave me a brand new replacement phone and offered to set it up for me. This, despite the fact that the phone was 18 months old at that stage and clearly out of warranty. I don’t know whether this is typical of Apple customer service but it left me impressed. And the contrast with my latest experience with Currys couldn’t be sharper.

Now there is effectively only one electrical superstore chain there is little incentive for things to change at Currys, but clearly there is an opening the market for a retailer to provide an offering based on knowledgable and service-oriented staff. One day maybe such competition will come.

Data comes into its own

It is axiomatic that we are now drowning in data. Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt famously said we now create as much data is two days as we did from the dawn of humanity to 2003.  And there is now a big business in providing tools to help us deal with this avalanche.

But it turns out there is a big prize for companies that master their own data and put it at the heart of their decision-making. +Steve Lohr The New York Times recently reported on new research setting out to quantify the effect:

The data explosion is also an enormous opportunity. In a modern economy, information should be the prime asset — the raw material of new products and services, smarter decisions, competitive advantage for companies, and greater growth and productivity.

The central distinction, says the WSJ piece, is between decisions based mainly on “data and analysis” and on the traditional management arts of “experience and intuition.”

Those that adopted “data-driven decision making” achieved productivity that was 5 to 6 percent higher than could be explained by other factors, including how much the companies invested in technology.

But becoming a data-driven company is hard. Many organisations are built on the belief in the wisdom of the senior team and their “experts”. Experience and gut-instinct still hold a lot of sway. Take Apple – Steve Jobs’ profound intuition and almost supernatural sense of what makes a good product produced legendary results. Now he’s no longer there the risk is that the vacuum will be filled by people with less than superpowers and poor decisions will be taken (the maps fiasco may have been the first).

Contrast that with Google – the epitome of a data-driven company, perhaps. My favour supporting anecdote, which I have blogged about in the past,  is the story that the company doesn’t put down any paths until the grass between new campus buildings is worn down, thus ensuring the tarmac gets laid where the Googlers actually do walk. A great example of data-driven decision making in action.

Will maps be Apple’s Waterloo?

Even while Apple’s stock hit an all-time high of $700 on Monday and the iPhone 5 is heralded as the fastest selling iPhone ever with over 2m ordered in the first 24 hours, criticism of a kind never seen before has been sweeping the web driven by the new Apple maps app.

Apple made the decision to replace Google maps because of the growing and fierce competition between the two companies for the future of mobile development. However, normally loyal iPhone users have been highly critical of the decision, with features such as street view and transport times particularly lamented.

Apple was quick to say it was responding to criticism and would improve the application, but the fact remains this is looking like quite a misstep.

Coupled with this are the on-going issues with Siri, the iPhone’s “personal assistant”, which is being given a run for its money by both Google Voice and S Voice, the new voice assistant from Samsung.

The big question to my mind is who is best equipped to deal with a world in which consumers value easy to use (but very hard to do) services like maps or artificial intelligence, more than features inherent in the devices themselves. In other words; who is better in the cloud?

When we look back on this period in five or 10 years time I wonder if we will be saying that this was the historical moment when the world’s largest tech company peaked?