Technology Revolutions

Summer evening view of high speed commuter passenger train departing from railway station platform with motion blur effect

Every major technology has a period in which it is dominant. For example, the smartphone is currently the most universally dominant technology we have today. In In 2015, there were 2.6 billion smartphone subscribers and on the average they spend three hours and forty minutes using the device every day. This device is so powerful that people keep it within reach wherever they are. Prior to the iPhone was the Internet and prior to that was the PC. So every major technology has its time. And now it seems that the period of the smartphone as the most innovative and dominant technology is coming to an end.

Of course, we will not give up our smartphones just as we are still using the Internet and PCs. But the period where the smartphone keeps improving as fast has it has is coming to an slowing end. Every product goes through what is called an S-curve where the performance improvements are very slow in the beginning than improvement increase exponentially until the impact of improvements slows down and the product enters a sustaining period or a plateau. It may be replaced by other products or just continue to be used as is. Technology adoption also happens in a way similar to this. When the product is new it is often low performance and expensive. This was the case for the personal computer as it was the Internet and as it was the smartphone. The people that will buy the products at this stage are the early adopters people that believe in the idea and want to be part of it. For example, hobbyists where the early adopters of PCs, people that wanted their own computers. Early adopters of Internet were technical people mostly in education and research agencies.

World Economic Forum talks about the coming fourth industrial revolution, assuming that the third used computer and information technology to automate productions. True, but I think within the third there are many waves of revolution where each creates new opportunities. The first generation of the electronic programmable computers were built in 1947. Over the next eighteen or so years, these computes dominated in government and big corporations that could afford these big machines operated by people in while lab coats. The impact of these machine were dramatic change in work called automation, where thousands of clerks processing financial transactions were laid off as invoices, paychecks and other financial transactions become a record on a magnetic tape read into these machines.

However in about 1965 IBM released the System/360 which was a breakthrough in computer and software architectures. Machines like PDP-8 allowed smaller companies to have a computer and the automation continued. However, these machines were still so expensive that they were not affordable by individuals. The were also maintained by professionals. Writing programs for them was difficult and done my companies that sold or leased them.

About sixteen years later, the PC revolution starts. In 1981 IBM released the IBM PC, a generative computer that created the PC industry. It is very much remarkable that a company like IBM could pull this off. Xerox had built a PC in the 70s but the management decided to do nothing with in. Clayton Christensen’s Resources, Processes and Values can explain why Xerox failed. Their resources (among them people), their processes and their values were in the copying business, not the PC business. Remarkably, it also explains how IBM could build the PC. They created a separate unit, far from headquarters that did not go by the traditional IBM ways of doing things. For example they licensed MS-DOS from Microsoft instead of building their own operating system.

The PC dominated for fourteen years. In 1995, the Internet started to take off. There were several events that led to this. One was Tim Bernards-Lee’s World Wide Web. Other efforts were acts by the US government to allow use of the government funded Internet as the “Information Superhighway” as they walled it. Contrary to common believe, Al Gore actually was influential in getting this through. But perhaps the most important was the introduction of WinSock an API (Application Programming Interface) that allow computers to talk to other computers using TCP/IP. Mircosoft implemented this after several loud requests from corporate clients that had big Unix machines all connected using TCP/IP and then separate network of PCs. They wanted them all connected. After WinSock, a programmer in Tasmania, Australia called Peter Tattam released Trumpet WinSock. This allowed people with PCs to get to the Internet. Many ISPs used this program to allow their customers to connect, including my own company founded in 1993, Margmiðlun.

Then after twelve years, the iPhone is released. The iPhone was so revolutionary that it defined how smartphones should be. It was released just before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona giving existing smartphone makers no time to come up with an answer. Pictures of concept phones were dominant during the congress.

1947 Modern programmable computers
1965 IBM 360, PDP-8 mini computer
1981 IBM PC and the clones
1995 Internet becomes commercial
2007 iPhone and smartphones
2017 The next thing

There is pattern in this. The period of the programmable computers was 18 years. The next period was 16 year, and the PC period was 14 years. The Internet period was 12 years and now the smartphone period has lasted for 10 years. So the length of these periods is getting shorter. This suggests that the next period might be about to start.

Another interesting thing is the control of these revolutions, that is who controls them. In the computer revolution of the 50s and 60s, control was very much restricted to the builders of these machines. The mini computers were more open but with the PC the generative pattern emerges. Anybody can write a program to run on these machines. They were made by people that wanted to break the control of the big computer companies. In fact, many of the early PC machines did not come with so much software. The MS-DOS system came on a magnetic floppy disk and that was it. Similarly the Internet became the network of choice due to its generative nature. Vint Cerf, who wrote the original TCP/IP software, calls this permissionless innovation.

As we approach the end of the smartphone period, we see several potential technologies on the horizon. Virtual Reality is finally here with powerful headsets that are consumer affordable. Augmented reality headsets like the Microsoft Hololens is also coming to the market this year. The Internet of Things is also becoming more dominant with many new products, like doorlocks, thermostats, speakers and so on. Perhaps the most interesting though  is artificial intelligence. What is interesting with AI is that companies like Amazon and Google are offering their AI engines and vast data centers to developers of AI, placing this powerful technology in the hands of individuals. Whatever will be the next dominant technology it is likely to be smart, very visual, connected and social.

The Most Important Technology of the 21st Century (so far)

freedom2

One of the most important technology of all times is the car. The car was invented in the late 19th century but became affordable with Henry Ford’s disruptive mass production assembly line, producing the Model T. The car dramatically shaped the 20th century. The car meant freedom and individualism, a status symbol. It was the technology of the 20th century. As strange as it seems, now the car is losing its dominant role as every man’s dream and goal in life. It is being replaced by something much smaller and a thing you would never have guessed would rival a car: the smartphone. Strange? Bear with me. The smartphone is the most important technology of the 21st century – at least the beginning of it.

It’s a phone, but don’t think of it as a phone. It’s so much more. This is the device most people carry with them all the time and check it over 100 times per day. And this is not a device that goes far from its owner. Over 80 percent sleep with the phone within arms reach. Then there is statistic that I’m not sure what to make of, but it is reported that 62% of women check their phone during sex.

The smartphone is a powerful device. The primary reason the mobile phone is so important is that is it a communications device and that brings convenience and safety. Convenience since we can call other people for business and pleasure. Safety since we can use it to call our loved ones, and they can get to us. This give comfort. And safety and comfort is well worth the price.

It is also an information device. We can follow what is going on in the world. We read news, we browse the internet, we look up things. Bored at meetings we browse for news, waiting in line we read books. We get information about the weather, where to buy products we are interested in, and locate the next coffee house.

It is also a social device. We check upon our friends. We share with our friends. With social networks accessible on smartphones we know what are friends and family are doing and possibly where they are. An hour before writing this I just posted a beautiful picture from a nearby park on Instagram, and moments later, my daughter who was in Palermo, Sicily, looked at it and liked it. Also on Instagram I saw that my sister’s family was travelling back from Berlin. This small device makes the world smaller and brings people closer. Social has many benefits, for example being able to help a friend with their problems or get help, find friends that are nearby, and get advices and information from your friends.

It is a recommendation device. Bringing information and social together adds an new layer of functionality. We can use apps like Foursquare to give us information about spaces like restaurants, hotels, airports and whatever business is available. In a restaurants you get advice from prior guests, good or bad. I have used apps to look up WiFi passwords in airport lounges, courtesy of some helpful guests.

It is a location device. Lost in a city we bring up maps. We can get directions to get to places, and we can get information on the restaurants nearby. But there is more. This device knows where your are at any time – exactly where your are.

It’s a tracking device. Since the smartphone know where you are, it can be used to track your whereabout with fitness apps like Runkeeper. This allows for visualisation of data that will help you track your progress and share with friends. At the price of a free WiFi, architects and designers of spaces can track how people navigate though spaces. A store owner might get a visual graph showing how most customers move though the store and redesign to make the experience better (and to sell more).

It’s a health and wellness device. RunKeeper is just one example of a wellness app. There are thousands of health and wellness apps available. Health is going to be taken over by software and the mobile app is playing a huge role. We are seeing add-on sensors that can take samples, for example blood samples and upload data to the cloud.

It’a a multimedia device. Most smartphones have camera which provides value for lots of applications from scanning QR code to identifying wines using apps such are Vivino. The smartphone has managed to kill the low-end digital camera business since people don’t want a separate device for pictures. After all, they always have the smartphone.

It’s a remote control. The much talked about Internet of Things is in its early stages. We are entering times, when normal products that we have used and know are getting digital – watch, weight scales, thermostats and thermometers, cars, washing machines, locks – just to name the obvious things. “It connects to your smartphone” will be the line that describes products in the coming years.

The smartphone is also a shopping device, an item we carry that brings stuff to us. According to Financial Times, mobile sales in US increased by a 29.3% to account for one in five transactions.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the smartphone is how it changes people’s behaviour and has resulted in fundamental lifestyle changes. For example, with a smartphone I can use apps like Uber to request a ride. Anytime you need a ride just press the button and a car will be there. The app knows where you are and will contact the driver nearby. While you wait you type the address where you are going to. The smartphone is replacing the need to own a car. All you need is the access to the car service. The smartphone makes the experience effortless.

The smartphone has not only transformed the way we behave. It has also caused huge information spillage over into other industries. With all the sensors in a device like this, barometer, accelerometer and gyroscope,

That’s just the beginning. As an authentication device, with fingerprint sensors, the phone can tell your front door lock that you are home and your car will not only open its door but also adjust the temperature and adjust the seats, and even start. Imagine a world where it would be so strange if you sit in a car and the car does not start automatically. With my phone I can sit in my sofa, control the TV using it as a remote, I can play Youtube videos on my phone and have them display on my TV while monitoring the steak in the oven using iDevice’s cooking thermometer. I can even adjust the lights using my Hue lighting system. With my phone I access Spotify to control my Sonas speaker system. My CD collection is gone. It’s weird to think back on how we used CDs. Now is the era of the ownerless life style. You don’t need to own, you just need access. Either per request and usage such as Uber, or by a subscription model such as Spotify.

The mobile phone is the 21st century freedom. Whereas the car was every teenager’s dream some decades ago, now getting a mobile phone is the dream. And it gives freedom, and just as much identity and status as the car back then. Then if you need something? Well, there is a button on your phone, it’s just one click away.

 

The Age of the Robots

BaxterRobot-617x416

Robots have a mystical place in our imagination. Even in literature as old as time have people talked about magical humanlike machines that perform some tasks. In modern times the image of the robot has been shaped by fiction ranging form H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds to Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey. First practical use of machines came with the industrial revolution. It was energy that made them possible and they transformed western societies. First the energy was steam and later electricity. Now we are entering into a new revolution where the next generation of machines or robots are coming to market. In the next few years we will see a revolution in robot technology. The age of the robot is here.

Robots of the 20th century are far from the imagination of a humanlike intelligent machine. In fact, a more accurate term for a robot in the workpalce would be “industrial machine”, where machine is used to preform task to automate the work process. And they are far from humanlike. Anything outside of this automated process, the machine can’t handle, since it is programmed to perform only one task or series of tasks very well. And since they are expensive, they are only cost effective at large scales.

We are now seeing shift in robot technology. This shift is driven by a few factors. Advances in software engineering is allowing more sophisticated software to be developed. Furthermore, advances in hardware and storage allow even small robots to have real operating systems and layers of advanced software running. Capacity is not a problem anymore, neither is size.

New input and output technologies or human computer interaction (HCI) are revolutionising robotics. Robots can now see and hear. Robots, or machines of the 20th century were blind and deaf. Now voice commands are becoming more normal as people are talking to their devices. Processing of language is getting to the point that these commands are processed with high accuracy. Seeing with video cameras allows robots to adjust to variation, like picking up objects in variable locations, and detect abnormalities. Vison allows for automatic jobs that previously required human vision, for example in food processing and harvesting.

Then there are advances in artificial intelligence. Robots can learn. Robots that can be specifically trained to perform specific tasks by demonstation. With software improvements  robots can also pickup behaviour and automatically adjust to patterns.

Anything that is operated by software can be updated easily. Robots can become software platforms, where developers add new skill sets to existing robots and sell these as apps in the robot app store. For example, if you want to add new language skill to your robot, just install a language app. If you want to add medical skills just add the doctor app. This allows robot makers to create a new generation of robots – personal robots, similar to personal computers.

We are already seeing something like a personal robot. One example is Baxter from US company Rethink Robotics:

Robots like Baxter, which can be trained to do specific tasks, is simple to operate and does not have to be segregated from people, will transform manufacturing. Labor costs will drop as fewer people are needed. According to Kevin Kelly in his Wired article, Better than human, he predicts that 70% of occupations today will be eliminated due to machines by the end of this century. Jobs today that humans do but can be replaced by machine, will eventually be replaced.

First and most obvious would be manufacturing jobs where the same actions are repeated on an assembly line. As an example, Foxconn, the company that puts together Apple products like the iPhone and got into news due to poor worker conditions, plans to replace it’s workforce with robots.

Foxconn’s move is out of necessity. Affordable robots will change manufacturing from massive scale to a more local scale. Jobs that were outsourced to countries with cheap labor, such as in Asia, will return to local countries since the transport cost starts to become an issue.  This can have profound impact on the world economy. We will see manufacturing return back to the US and Europe. Even Apple is starting to assemble computers in the US. That might be a good thing, but it remains to be seen if the jobs follow.

Technical unemployment due to machines will be a challenge. With better software and new input technologies robots will impact sectors like military, healthcare, education, cleaning services, domestic help, agriculture, fishing and much more. General purpose robots are just in the early phase. Cost will drop and they will become more and more sophisticated. Jobs that we thought machines could never do, will be automated or profoundly changed. Be prepared to move over, a robot is taking your job.