Active furniture and the Internet of Things

Very cool, very strange, very hypnotic and potentially practical. How do you add motion to a table? How can you send messages using furniture? How can you actively interact with hard surfaces?

Transform, a project of the MIT Media Lab, blends technology and design to turn a solid, static object into a dynamic, active participant. Surprising, a bit noisy, and quite mind-blowing… Is it just me, or does it also bring to your mind the concept of furniture as a pet?


The affection economy

Transactions get personal

Those of you econ geeks who follow innovation cycles and get excited over creative destruction are no doubt eagerly watching the development of “new markets” that in theory mop up the displaced workers, consumers and value. I confess that it’s not something that I gave much thought to, until very recently. The sharing economy hype was leading to innovative models and overblown valuations, which I enjoy reading about but which never had much to do with me. And the hipster trend gave us artisan bread so I was happy to overlook the false value applied to inexpensive living.

But then I read about a service that sells hugs.

And suddenly I started seeing it everywhere. A new market, rife with eager consumers and clever marketers, selling us stuff that we always assumed was free. Concepts that were part of what we used to call “life”, that stemmed from our emotional connections and sense of community. We still have those connections and social needs. But business models are encroaching, turning emotions into transactions and favours into products.

by Dmitry Ratushny for Unsplash

by Dmitry Ratushny for Unsplash

We might as well start with the most fraught of social interactions: the pick-up (or hook-up if you’re under 35). Tinder takes care of that for you. For a price, of course. Maybe you’re not paying with cash. But you are paying with your attention, which is monetizable to advertisers. Or if swiping and by-passing small talk isn’t your thing, then any one of the hundreds of dating apps will take care of the stress (excitement?) of meeting someone, of chatting to the guy behind you in line at the coffee shop, of asking the cutie in the book store if they’ve read this one, of discovering a shared dislike of pretentiousness at a wine tasting.

And if dating is not your thing but you still want physical intimacy, the sex economy is firmly online, which makes it easier and safer to pay for it. Apps, directories and review sites add a relative transparency and transactional cleanliness to a historically secret and sordid sector.

What about asking for a ride? Trusting your mates to make sure you get home safely if you’ve drunk too much? Apart from Uber and Lyft, there’s Split which outsources carpooling, Curb which lets you schedule pick-ups ahead of time, and many, many others, depending on your location. Several of the businesses in this relatively new app-based sector are valued at over $1bn, with Uber completing its last round at a staggering $50bn valuation, and Lyft at $5bn.


As for the satisfaction of cooking dinner for those that you love, Blue Apron, Plated or HelloFresh (and a long list of others) will deliver a box of ingredients to your house to make preparing the meal for your family or friends that much easier. Munchery, Gobble or Sprig (and a long list of others) will send it to you pre-made, so all you have to do is heat it up. On-demand food delivery is one of the hottest sectors in venture capital investment, with approximately $1bn of investment in 2014 and relatively low market penetration.

Taking care of pets, minding the house when the owner’s away, babysitting, spending time with seniorsTaskRabbit will find someone to take your grandmother to the doctor. Instacart will find someone to do your sick friend’s grocery shopping for her.

Remember how you used to ask your friends for restaurant recommendations? TripAdvisor, Yelp or one of the many similar regional versions will take care of that for you. Now it’s more likely that Amazon or GoodReads rather than your friends will recommend your next book.

Even the burgeoning field of the Internet of Things is carving out its place. There are machines that will entertain your dog for you while you’re at work, even dispensing treats every now and then. Huggable the Bear will not only let your kid hug him, he (sorry, it!) will also “nurture” through reassuring phrases and playful banter. And it will report back to you through the cameras in his eyes and the microphones in its ears. According to its website, it is designed to be “an essential member of a triadic interaction” (I have no idea what that means). Paro is a cuddly seal robot that cheers up the elderly in nursing homes.

by Stephen Crowley for The New York Times

by Stephen Crowley for The New York Times

Taking it to an extreme, in Japan actors are often hired by busy grownup children to go and visit their ageing parents in the old people’s home.

I’m not saying that any of this is bad. We do need to expand the service sector to pick up some of the jobs that are being automated away. And businesses that make life easier improve productivity and free up time to invest in other activities, which could also generate new services. And the economic cycle churns on. McKinsey’s 2015 report “Connecting Talent with Opportunity” estimates that by 2026, online platforms will boost global GDP by $2.7 trillion, even if they touch only a fraction of the global workforce, although it’s not clear if that estimate takes into account the upcoming contraction in more traditional sectors.

But it’s interesting to ask ourselves: how far will this go? Will my friends start charging me for the counselling sessions that used to only cost a couple of glasses of wine? Should I set some tariffs for when my neighbour wants to borrow my serving plate? How many cents should I debit from my kids’ allowance for each push of the swings? These are obviously hypothetical examples that make no emotional sense whatsoever. And the concern itself is exaggerated. The services provided fill human needs. Not everyone is blessed with a large family willing to help out or even a strong network of friends to count on. With an increasing number of people moving around for work or study, social support structures shrink. Business fulfilling those roles help with quality of life.

It’s not even that “new”. Kids earn money by mowing neighbours’ lawns or babysitting. And the favours that my friends and I do for each other may not be quantifiable, but they have always been part of the theoretical “invisible” economy. You have given me your friendship and/or love which is valuable to me, so of course I will pick up some groceries for you. There’s emotion attached, obviously: if I love you, making you happy makes me happy. But often favours are done on an investment (I’d like to be your friend so I’ll do this for you now) or payback (I’m grateful for what I’ve been given so I’d like to give back to society) plan, however subliminal.

Yet it is a shift, one that is increasingly moving affections and emotions from the invisible to the quantifiable. And also one that makes life easier, helps others be more efficient and provides a new economic outlet. The affection economy can help to build relationships and foster positive emotions, by reducing the associated costs. It makes it easier to give a pet a home even if you can’t always be the one to take care of it. It helps those that have just relocated to put up a bookshelf without incurring a favour debt from someone they barely know. Inviting friends over for dinner is no longer the big production it once was.

And the economic shift is huge. The new markets that the cycle needs to absorb capital, labour and consumption are laden with feel-good emotions and life-affirming services. However, it’s important that we realise what’s going on, and that we are aware of our own personal lines-that-we-shall-not-cross. I applaud the services that fill unmet demands in this free market economy. Yet if I like you, I’ll give you a hug for free.

Sunday Seven: freedom, communication, predictions and media

Seven articles I came across this week that I think are important and relevant enough to share. Oh, and some cool art. Because why not?

— x —

Are we liberated by tech, or does it enslave us? – via The Guardian

“Technology makes us more productive, but it’s also accused of unreasonably extending the domain of work. So does tech liberate us, or enslave us? And what does it really “intend” to do?”

We don’t know the answer to these questions. But that’s not important. What is important is the asking.

“Our devices present us with simulacra of beautiful, fit, fulfilled people pursuing their dreams and falling in love, and none of them are browsing the web at 11pm on a Saturday night – unlike us. We click and swipe our woebegone way through a vibrant world where nobody who is anybody spends their free time in front of a glowing screen, painfully aware that our only access to that world is through that very glowing screen.”

Is that the relationship with technology that we want? If the answer is “yes”, that’s absolutely fine. But at least we’re choosing, not having the choosing done for us.

“But even if tech companies aren’t really trying to enslave us, or to make us feel inadequate, that doesn’t mean that the current situation is a case of good intentions gone awry. There’s no more reason to think that tech is intrinsically good, but occasionally getting it wrong, than there is to think that it’s a remarkably successful villain.”

A tech-filled life is the default option. If we change that and make it a conscious choice, we’ll get so much more out of it.

— x —

The modern world – via Bored Panda

Some of these are very funny…

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

— x —

Messaging is just getting started – via Medium

Many argue that instant messaging is the most important function to come out of the new networking technologies. Its impact on economies, on communities and on individuals seems obvious, but is still being explored. It’s not comfortable, the keyboards are tiny, and does anyone actually like autocorrect? But it connects and it builds and it solves problems more efficiently than almost any other invention since the first computer was switched on.

“Information wants to be immediate, global, and expressive. Like a stream of water finds a crack in the rock and expands it, information will always find a way to develop a more efficient channel.”

As a form of communication, messaging has the advantage of being 1) asynchronous, 2) easy to consume, 3) informal, 4) always with you and 5) expressive.

“Communication is a fundamentally human act, and anything that allows us to connect with each other is going to connect with us. Messaging can emulate the intimacy of a private conversation or the fun of group banter.”

This article looks at the importance of the function, and shows how its development is just getting started. Which on the one hand is puzzling: it feels like it’s been around forever, how come it’s just getting started? On the other hand it’s encouraging: so it might get even easier to use?

“Just a couple of years ago we were sending clipped, plain text SMS messages back and forth. But today it’s common for a chat to consist of text, emojis, stickers, photos, videos, and audio recordings. Our digital conversations have almost imperceptibly morphed into a rich, evocative form of communication.”

The potential for embedding commerce could open up the concept to a new level of functionality, making messaging an ever more important feature in our lives. Ordering taxis, getting movie tickets, sending flowers…

And with the tiny details that make up our existence increasingly tapped onto a messaging platform, it will be so much easier for data collecting to produce a pretty accurate picture of who we are and who we will be.

— x —

The ebook is dead, long live the ebook – via The Memo

I read. Not nearly as much as I would like, but I need books around me like I need air around me. And I am a staunch defender of books on paper. I love the feel, the heft, the dimensions, even the smell.

Ebooks are great for research. I love the highlighting capabilities, and the search function. The accessibility, the low cost (for older books), the portability are definitely in their favour. But the swiping can get annoying, the convenience detracts from the experience, and other old-school gripes entrench us publishing luddites in our “paper is best” dogma.

So you can understand why I celebrated the news earlier this year that ebook sales were stagnant or even falling, while print book, paper book sales were increasing.

Not so fast. This article sends up a warning flare to all who thought the digitalization front had met its match. Ebook sales had simply reached a plateau, that is all. They are now ready to regroup and to continue advancing. Technological progress does not sleep, and innovations and new formats a breathing new life into a format that we had become accustomed to.

And yet. According to Michael Tamblyn, CEO of ebook company Kobo, we will end up with a truly hybrid industry. The experience of e-reading is improving with better interface and intriguing novelties. So is the experience of print reading, with innovative formats, better design and new genres.

“’Digital continues to perform incredibly well with some types of non-fiction and genre fiction like romance, sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers and crime, but publishers have also upped their game with types of books that are best experienced in print – incredibly beautiful cookbooks and art books, books that are beautiful physical objects and make great gifts. I think what we are seeing is publishers and retailers of all types refining their approach to what readers want, and that’s always a good thing.’”

— x —

Some media predictions for the next 5 years – via Medium

An enjoyable dash through the changing media landscape.

“One theme across this entire post is power shifts — and it’s the thing I most expect to see in media. Distribution has long been held and gated by corporate interests, and we’re going to a place where content creators hold far more leverage.”

A summary of the major predictions:

1) Virtual reality journalism is a while off from becoming a thing.

2) Podcasts are becoming a very important medium.

3) Citizen journalism is getting its act together – stuff to be worked out still, but we’re getting there.

4) Television is history. This will change advertising. And series is the new cinema.

5) Continued shift from print ads to online. Big and small newspapers should be ok, mid-sized ones will struggle.

6) Buzzfeed is the king of low-brow journalism, and will continue to grow.

7) In spite of a shift away from email, newsletters will continue to work. Expect some Slack-first newsletters to show up soon.

8) Platforms such as Facebook and Apple will help publishers earn money.

9) We’ll see more stories created especially for platform media.

10) Medium will have a bigger impact than many people realize.

11) The quality of discussion in the comments will improve.

12) Media revenue will come from a diverse assortment of streams.

13) Streaming music will continue to shift, with live-stream concerts and the entrance of Google into the field.

14) Always-on media has led to a power shift in politics (the only way to explain the success of Donald Trump).

— x —

Frames in nature – via Colossal

Artist Daryll Fox fuses tree branches with ornate wooden picture frames to create something that looks as if nature tried to encapsulate itself. Quite extraordinary.

by Daryll Fox

by Daryll Fox

— x —

The fault lines reshaping audio – via TechCrunch

Having looked at the text media landscape, let’s turn our attention to audio. What big changes in the listening industry are coming?

1) Access: smartphones have replaced MP3 players and iPods. Multi-purpose wireless systems are replacing home and car stereos. Social media is a more powerful recommendation tool than search, in all media. This should give audio an extra push.

2) Blurred lines between audio and text: audiobooks, speech recognition…

3) Ads: with smartphones and cars the main listening devices, will we see the development of targeted audio ads?

4) Aggregators: expect movement in the spoken word platforms, with Apple’s leadership in podcast downloads threatened by online streaming via Soundcloud, Pandora, Google, etc. Will paywalls become a thing?

Personally, I find this resurgence of interest in the spoken word as a form of entertainment and art very exciting. I love podcasts, and I’m going to start experimenting with audiobooks. So much creativity and professionalism, as well as innovation and talent, make it a very exhilarating field to follow.

“Looking across the span of 200,000 years of human existence, audio is arguably the media format for which humans are most naturally wired. While reading and writing are relatively recent innovations that have emerged during the last 5 percent of that time span, we have always been able to speak and listen.”

— x —

The next frontier for wearables – via TechCrunch

The field of wearables has come a long way since I wrote about it months ago. This article looks at some of the trends that will change our relatively limited view on the sector, and makes you realize that, hey, this will probably be something that improves my life after all.

1) Batteries will become more flexible, lighter, more longer-lasting.

2) “Tattoos”, or ultra-thin patches that adhere to your skin, will come down in price and save more lives.

3) Nanotech: Google has been working on magnetic nanoparticles that can seek out cancer cells.

— x —

Does exercise help keep our brains young? – via The New York Times

I include this because it was my birthday yesterday and “staying young” is something that I think about a lot more than I used to.

The opening is a bit depressing:

“For most of us, our bodies begin to lose flexibility and efficiency as we enter our 40s. Running and other movements slow down and become more awkward, and something similar seems to occur within our heads. As middle age encroaches, our thinking becomes less efficient. We don’t toggle between mental tasks as nimbly as we once did or process new information with the same aplomb and clarity.”

But then you can skip the science in the middle of the article and head straight to the encouraging conclusion:

“The upshot of the findings… is that daily mild exercise such as walking and mild jogging may affect the way the brain works, so that an older person’s brain ‘acts like a younger brain.’”

So, off for a brisk jog now…

— x —

Speaking of which, I took this photo from my bedroom window yesterday morning. Once a year a bunch of crazy people run a mini-marathon around Madrid dressed up as Santa Claus. Many with fake beards and all. I even saw several dogs trotting alongside their owners, also dressed up in little doggy Father Christmas outfits. Crazy.


— x —

2 things I’m particularly enjoying this week

1) The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

the big sleep

Beautifully written, with a gripping plot. Very dry, very “noir”, amazing language. For example:

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.


“If I sound a little sinister as a parent, Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, then opened them again suddenly. “I need not add that a man who indulges in parenthood for the first time at the age of fifty-four deserves all he gets.”

2) Calm

Calm 2Calm 1

For improving concentration, this is my secret weapon. I discovered recently that I’m not the only one who thinks that she is terrible at meditating – it turns out that most people do. Huge relief. So, knowing that, I let Calm help me focus on my breathing and quiet my mind, and remind me to let thoughts go. I really like the voice behind the guided sessions, the background sounds, and the beautiful, peaceful videos that accompany. Enhanced focus, here I come!

— x —

Have a great week, and good luck with the holiday shopping!

Sunday Seven: cryptography, education, IoT and data

Some articles from this week that I think are important, and a couple of non-reading things that I’m enjoying:

This war on math is bullshit – via TechCrunch

A brilliantly insightful and entertaining article by Jon Evans, told mainly through tweets (why aren’t I following all these clever people?) about encryption and how legislators just don’t understand it.

“It’s not actually important whether or not the Paris attackers didn’t use encryption, except that the canned and pre-planned reaction to the attacks shows the disingenuous bad faith of the authoritarians who want back doors and “secure golden keys.” The important thing is to realize how useless those back doors would be even if they were implemented.”

The title is misleading, however. We’re not in a “war on math”, we’re in a war against powerlessness. I don’t think that anti-encryption politicians hate math. They hate not being able to control communication. They know that freedom is good, but have a hard time reconciling that with threats to our way of life. And it seems that most of them don’t understand cryptography.

All of which is not exactly unreasonable. And totally beside the point. Jon does a beautiful job of pointing out how the lack of understanding of what cryptography is, distracts from the lapses in intelligence and security, which have little to do with encryption. It also distracts from the sinister current of restriction.

Often throughout history, fear has led to a crackdown on liberty. That in itself is not the worrying part – we all seem to accept that some restrictions are necessary for us to live in safety. The worrying part is the over-reaction, which sets of a polarising chain of events which doesn’t end well. Articles like this, and tweet storms, think pieces and other examples of unencrypted transparency will keep those that don’t understand encryption on the sidelines.

While the title may be misleading in its evocation of a battle against arithmetic, it is perfect in that it indirectly points out the futility of the anti-encryption lobby. Technically, we’re witnessing a war on cryptography, which is an extension of math, which is part of nature. Whether you understand it or not, it’s there. It’s not going away. Trying to control the use of encryption is like trying to control the use of fire. Equally tempting. Equally futile. Yet even more difficult, because at least fire is easy to see.

— x —

How the Internet talks – via FiveThirtyEight

Five ThirtyEight has come up with a brilliantly graphic way to isolate trends and to keep up with the language. If you say “emoticon” instead of “emoji”, you’re dating yourself. “Bespoke” is more in than “artisanal”. And “IMO” (in my opinion) has totally eclipsed “IMHO” (in my honest opinion), which is a bit worrying.

Oh, and the hahas have it…


— x —

Why (is) school? – via Medium

This is part of a series of letters between education leaders, re-thinking the concept of education. Thought-provoking and at the same time frustrating, as we realise how woefully inadequate current schooling systems are (at least in Spain, where I live).

Part of the exercise involves going back to the basics and asking questions such as “why do schools exist?”. To prepare kids for the future? How many of us really think that schools are doing that today?

“We can’t predict the future, but we might be confident that any future will favor people who know themselves and can shape the conditions around them to meet their needs and the needs of their communities.”

Psychology needs to play a more important role, but not in the way that we have been led to believe:

“One of the primary misnomers about personalized education is that kids should do only what they want. The opposite is true: Personalization is most valuable for getting kids to challenge themselves more and to stick with learning that ultimately serves their long-term interests.”

Technology should by no means replace teachers, but should give greater flexibility to formats and outputs. It is praised for how it allows greater personalization. But its main gift is connection.

“Moreover, without exercising that agency muscle in students, schools can’t prepare kids for a lifetime of making decisions for themselves in a world that no longer presents a clear road map for success. Our students need, above all, to learn how to ask their own questions and solve the problems they deem most important. Schools should then become the curated setting to introduce kids to potential passions, to foster perseverance, to demonstrate excellence, and to cultivate independence.”

My daughter’s school recently suppressed Information Technology classes, which she loved. Yet they still have Latin as a requirement. I could cry.

— x —

Top Ed-Tech trends of 2015 – by Audrey Watters, via Medium

“I’m not sure why I worry. As education technology entrepreneurs and investors and politicians like to remind us, education has not changed in hundreds of years, right?. Or at least, it never ever changed until education technology entrepreneurs and investors came along to “disrupt” things. LOL. #thanksSiliconValley.”

I love how Audrey systematically punches holes in the easy justifications we come up with for our current enthusiasms (I was about to say fetishes, but though that sounded a bit strong). In this article, a precursor to several more going into detail about recent edtech trends, she takes a left swipe at education history revisionism, a right swipe at the fear that technology is overly distracting, and a short straight-punch to learning management systems.

She also summarizes the recent OECD report on technology in education, which concludes that it doesn’t make much of a difference. Here’s her diagnosis:

“One interpretation of all this is that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement. Another interpretation is that we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology… If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them. Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.

But let’s be honest. There is a dearth of “great technology.” Most ed-tech is crap.”

I’m looking forward to the upcoming series on the edtech hype, which, if this introduction is anything to go by, will be sobering, refreshing, and also cleansing. Ideal in the run-up to the Christmas festivities.

— x —

The freedom of recycling – via Colossal

Too beautiful not to share… Artist Paul Villinsky picks up old aluminum cans and turns them into images of freedom, flight and fantasy.

by Paul Villinski

by Paul Villinski

by Paul Villinski

by Paul Villinski

— x —

IoT: smart things we don’t really need – via Quartz

A hilarious dose of “what are we doing?” by Mike Murphy, that just might make you re-think your Christmas list.

Some of the gems:

“Toothbrushes: The Beam brush is a bluetooth toothbrush—a bluetoothbrush, if you will—that tracks how you brush your teeth and has an app that orders you new brushes every three months.”

“Dogs: The FitBark is an activity tracker like a FitBit, but for your dog. Soon, there will also be an app that lets you understand your dog’s emotions. Now you’ll be able to see how sad he is when you aren’t walking him enough.”

“Cups: A web-connected cup called Vessyl tells you what the liquid you’re drinking is—in case you have a habit of imbibing things without looking at what they are first.”

“Babies: For new, terrified parents who don’t want to leave their baby alone even when they do, there’s the Mimo connected onesie, and the Owlet connected socks. Both monitor baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels, and will alert you if something is wrong, which you’ll now constantly be worrying about if you weren’t already.”

I would add:

The smart bra – that only unclasps when it detects an elevated heart rate. I know, don’t ask.

The smart toilet paper roll – which lets you know when the paper’s about to run out. That sounds useful, but why should you be the one who always has to replace the toilet paper?

smart toilet paper roll

The smart jar – Neo tracks what’s inside, what it means for your health, and can shop for you when the jar runs low. Micro-management, much?

The smart egg tray – it tells you how long the eggs have been there, which ones you should use first and you can even check how many eggs you have while you’re at the store. Actually, this one sounds kinda useful.

— x —

The Green Tech Solucion – viaThe New York Times

“You’re asking people to impose costs on themselves today for some future benefit they will never see. You’re asking developing countries to forswear growth now to compensate for a legacy of pollution from richer countries that they didn’t benefit from. You’re asking richer countries that are facing severe economic strain to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in “reparations” to India and such places that can go on and burn mountains of coal and take away American jobs. And you’re asking for all this top-down coercion to last a century, without any enforcement mechanism.”

David Brooks gives us a fairly depressing sobering and realistically cynical look at the Climate Change talks, that ends on a hopeful tech-based note.

“The larger lesson is that innovation is the key. Green energy will beat dirty energy only when it makes technical and economic sense.”

Innovators, entrpreneurs and investors take note: that is a technological revolution worth focussing on.

— x —

The new med-tech – via The Memo

Google has filed a patent for a way to draw blood… without needles!! Without going into too many gory details, their device seems to “suck” the blood through your skin (it would be so cool if they named it “bloodsucker”).

The article also mentions Jawbone’s idea of putting sensors in your bloodstream that can adjust your home heating according to your body temperature, and will disable your car if you attempt to drive while drunk. Sensible. ¿But perhaps a bit intrusive?

— x —

I want one of these – via MyModernMet

Does this not sound like one of the most brilliant why-did-it-take-them-so-long ideas ever? A transparent toaster. No more burnt bread.


— x —

What I’m enjoying this week:

The Christmas lights in Madrid! My favourite part of the season is seeing this city even more sparkly than usual.

Christmas lights Madrid 2015

And, I’ve discovered a new podcast that is so much fun to listen to when pottering around the kitchen! Dinner Party Download. Stylish, funny and interesting, it does feel a bit like being part of a very interesting gathering.


— x —

Have a wonderfully Christmassy and not-to-stressful week!

Driverless cars go easy on the accelerator

“I am never getting into one of those things!” My mother, never an early adopter, plans to be a never-adopter of a technology that I personally am very much looking forward to. If there were such a thing as a pre-early adopter on this, that would be me. But it is a concept that not only divides families, but society as a whole, with technologists, corporatists, entrepreneurs, law-makers and sociologists all weighing in. There’s a lot going on in the field of driverless cars.

Far from being just science fiction, most of the big tech companies and auto makers have invested small fortunes in developing this technology which is already tootling around on public streets. Google has been working on driverless cars for over 15 years. They unveiled a steering wheel-free prototype at the end of 2014 which began testing on public roads in San Francisco in early 2015, and they plan to make them available to the public by 2020. That’s only five years away.


Mercedez Benz self-driving car prototype

It was confirmed last week that Apple are trying to catch up, scouting out testing sites near their headquarters in California and hiring auto-industry executives and researchers. Earlier this year Mercedes Benz unveiled its futuristic model (pictured above) and Audi embarked on a cross-US test drive of its first driverless car across the US, which it expects to be able to release to the public in two years. Tesla cars will start self-driving this year through a software update and appear on track to have fully autonomous vehicles in a few years. BMW has teamed up with Chinese tech giant Baidu to develop a self-driving car which they plan to release by the end of 2015. Nissan plans to launch autonomous vehicles by 2020, and will introduce self-driving on highways in some of its models next year. Honda has begun testing, and Volvo plan to start testing self-driving cars with real customers in 2017. The list of participants and investors is long.

Are governments allowing this, given the risks? In many states and countries around the world, yes. Some are not only allowing it, but actively investing in the concept. UK Driverless cars are being tested this year in the UK towns of Milton Keynes, Bristol, Greenwich and Coventry, funded by the government which is investing over £19m directly in the technology, with a further £100m in grants pledged to match private investment.

A driverless car in Milton Keynes, UK

A driverless car in Milton Keynes, UK

In the US California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida have passed bills allowing public testing, and in Europe so have Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. The European Commission has selected five cities (in Belgium, Italy and France) to be used as guinea pigs.

And it turns out that the risk is pretty low. Google, the farthest along in testing by far, has acknowledged that their driverless cars have been involved in 15 minor accidents, caused by being rear-ended or side-swiped by human-driven vehicles, or by human error while in manual mode. That’s in spite of having driven almost 2 million kilometres in autonomous mode.

These are the kinds of crashes that usually don’t even get reported.  In the US alone, over 30,000 people a year die in car crashes. Driverless cars will bring that figure way, way down. Computers don’t get drunk or text while driving. And sensors will be able to detect hidden dangers, such as another car speeding up at the perpendicular intersection just the other side of the hedge, or the cyclist coming up in our blind spot on the right.

One of the Google driverless car prototypes

One of the Google driverless car prototypes

Apart from saving lives, driverless cars could usher in significant cost savings. According to a 2010 US government study, crashes cost the economy about $242 billion per year in medical bills, lost productivity, legal bills, insurance administration, property damage and congestion. Crashes in which police indicate that at least one driver was exceeding the legal speed limit cost $52 billion. Crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted cost $40 billion. And on a daily, individual level, fewer accidents means lower insurance premiums.

The environmental impact sounds impressive. The cars are electric, so fewer emissions. With controlled and orderly traffic, there would be less din, no honking horns or motor rumblings. Fewer swear words shouted in frustration.

(what busy intersections could look like with autonomous cars)

And the freed-up resources: on average, cars spend 95% of their time parked. Inactive. Taking up space, doing nothing. Self-driving cars can be put to work, driving other people around, running errands, making deliveries, whatever. Load-based management, sub-renting or time-sharing could reduce costs and optimize use. Space previously occupied by parked cars could be taken over by street cafés, trees, benches, or space to walk. (Unless, of course, we need the extra space for the extra convenience-induced traffic.) And really, will anyone miss parking tickets?

Stressful, hour-long commutes will be a thing of the past. No more time wasted looking for city parking spaces. True, driverless cars will go slower, so the A to B time will probably be longer. But it’s time that can be spent legally texting, reading, watching videos. And, computer-driven cars would know where other cars are, and automatically take the least congested route to the destination.

Furthermore, we won’t need a license to ride in one. That makes them ideal for transporting kids and the elderly. I would love to be able to put my daughter in a driverless car to send her off to school in the morning. And of course she would use the time to study, rather than watch YouTube.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that she’ll be well done with school by the time this becomes a reality. If ever. Governments allowing testing and encouraging research is not the same as allowing consumer use, and there are significant legal obstacles to overcome before we can cruise one out of the dealership. Law makers have their work cut out for them in terms of defining responsibility in case of incident. Is it the passenger’s fault? Or is it the software? Or the car maker? Or maybe the city and their inaccurate sensors or illegible signs?

Updating legacy infrastructure will be a significant hurdle. Cities will have to invest a small fortune in new signage, sensors and traffic flows. Will traffic lights still be necessary? What will happen to pedestrian crossings? Even the testing has a long way to go still. How would driverless cars fare in a snowstorm?

The potential loss of insurance premiums will galvanize a powerful lobby. The economic and social cost of millions of taxi, truck and bus drivers, and driving academy employees out of work is frightening. The ripple effects on other areas of social activity – shopping (more convenient deliveries will reduce the need for supermarkets), work (the incentive to stagger commutes for traffic’s sake would be another tick in favour of working from home), family (if our kids don’t depend on us to ferry them around, what will that do to the family connection?) – will be huge but difficult to quantify.

And driver resistance is a powerful barrier. My mother is not the only one to unreasonably view the idea of electric “people movers” with fear. Behind the wheel, we feel in control. It’s a psychological thing. We develop an emotional bond with our car. We’ve been through some stuff together, that brings us closer. Giving up the sense of freedom and autonomy that owning a car bestows is going to be tough for many, impossible for some. Unfortunately, the idea of cleaner air and more parks will probably not be enough to sell it. And government-mandated change brings political risks that few politicians will be willing to take on. Heavy subsidies will help, but combined with the cost of street and highway adaptation, will be difficult to finance, both economically and politically. The cost savings and environmental impact mentioned earlier will take years to become obvious. And governments, by electoral necessity, tend to think short-term.

And yet technology marches on, and works its way into our lives in such a way that we go from thinking “I don’t need one” to “What did I ever do without it?” without us even noticing. Think PCs, smartphones, online banking. Our cities will be able to cope with a combination of autonomous cars and the complicated, loud human-controlled models. Soon these will seem old-fashioned, and social pressure and the evolution of taste and priorities will swing in favour of driverless models, especially for city driving. Autonomous cars will become a status symbol, just as electric cars are becoming today. High-end cars already have strong autonomous functions, such as automatic parking, lane detection, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking if the car in front slows down…

Car driving will not disappear, just as horse riding hasn’t. It will become an activity practised for fun rather than necessity, with clubs and courses and communities of like-minded enthusiasts. And for those who long for the thrill of dashing down obstacle-ridden city streets, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous virtual reality headsets will deliver an adrenalin-pumping version of Grand Theft Auto or similar.

grand theft auto

So, it will happen. But slowly, as it should. Mobility is an integral part of what it means to be human, and freedom of choice is core to our understanding of democracy. Yet we are capable of profound cultural change. Mass adoption of driverless cars will take time to become an acceptable concept, in spite of the obvious advantages. Yet we are already seeing signs of the necessary mind-shift in the growth of the Sharing Economy, in which access trumps ownership in terms of efficiency. It’s slow, but it’s happening. By the time the next generation takes the wheel, so to speak, choosing a hands-on car will seem like a radical, frivolous decision. While we will always be territorial animals, our collective drive (ok, I’ll stop) will lean more towards quality of life for our family and community, than for our own personal gratification. Connected cars will help us to become more civic-minded, more patient and more interested in things other than status and speed. It will take a generation, at least. Such profound cultural change needs to introduced slowly and encouraged carefully. But we will get there.



Friday five: ads, pools and the history of garbage

Ad blockers and the new marketing – by Farhad Manjoo, for The New York Times

The scourge of the online media industry? Or a permanent barrier that will force the ad industry to re-invent itself?

“But in the long run, there could be a hidden benefit to blocking ads for advertisers and publishers: Ad blockers could end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses. If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive, and are far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail.”

Just as we (all of us content producers) have been “forced” to write better content if we want to get ranked in the search engines (no more keyword stuffing, yay!), ad producers should be held to the same standards. No more flashing rectangles or startling bursts of video. We don’t mind attractive, unobtrusive ads, really, but we’re on the page because we want to read the article. Distract us from that, and we’ll resort to ad blockers. Let us read, and we’ll get around to noticing your pitch.

— x —

Not into Instagram? Not important. These images by Tanaka Tatsuya are totally captivating.

tanaka tatsuya

from Tanaka Tatsuya’s Instagram account (@tanaka_tatsuya)

— x —

Innovators under 35 – from MIT Technology Review

Just skimming this list is enough to ramp up your optimism levels. Even if only a fraction of these moon-shots come true, the future will be safer, healthier, more inclusive, more efficient and more connected.

— x —

Now THIS is a swimming pool.

image via The Verge

image via The Verge

Part of an apartment complex under development in Battersea, in London, it should be completed by the end of 2015. (via The Verge)

— x —

What to do about garbage – from CityLabs

The visuals of this concise history of recycling are stunning, an example of a new reporting style that incorporates scrolling into the storyline and draws on the power of infographics to paint a picture.


— x —

Vehicles that own themselves – by Ushi Shoham Krausz, via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

I’m working on a post about driverless cars, so this futuristic vision of public vehicles that not only drive themselves but also own themselves was fascinating. I’m not sure if the concept is more an extremely helpful Internet of Things or a slightly sinister Artificial Intelligence, but the mind-blowing economics could make us re-think our relationship with our independence, our environment and possibly even our social structure.

— x —

Starting over – by Stephanie Rice, via Medium

A lovely article which points out the negatives and helps you feel the positives. Determination, hope and an unwillingness to settle will get her through, however scary it gets. I can relate, I’m on my second start-over now (embarking on my third career), and I would encourage anyone who can to consider having at least two careers. Our time here is short – wouldn’t it be great if we could enjoy more than one type of life?

— x —

Have a GREAT weekend everyone! Here in Madrid it should be our last quiet weekend before the streets fill up again, parking spaces are scarce and bustle returns downtown, as next weekend is the seasonal Return from Holiday.

Smart trashcans: the beauty of garbage

With the Internet of Things fast becoming a reality, there seems to be a scramble to connect anything and everything to the cloud via your smartphone. The scale is quite staggering. Deloitte predicts that this year alone, 1 billion wireless IoT devices will be shipped, up 60 percent from 2014, leading to an installed base of 2.8 billion. Consulting firm McKinsey has identified 150 use cases (it seems low to me). Included in those devices and use cases are more than a few personal objects: t-shirts, lightbulbs, shoes, suitcases, diapers, trashcans… And while I really, really want to tell you about connected diapers (later), we first need to take a look at connected trashcans. They sound environmentally friendly. Convenient. Helpful. And perhaps a bit intrusive?

(Orla Kiely bins by Brabantia – they may not be smart, but they look pretty good)

(Orla Kiely bins by Brabantia – they may not be smart, but they look pretty good)

First, some cool examples:

The Bruno smartcan (which you can pre-order now for delivery in November 2015) sends you a message when the bin is full, when it needs to be taken out, even when you are running low on trash bags. And it happily vacuums up whatever you sweep towards it – no more struggling with dustpans. To open it, all you have to do is wave your hands above it. That’s pretty amazing technology for only $159.

But, is it technology that we need? Will it help society be more efficient? Will it save costs? So far, it hasn’t been very difficult to tell that a bin needs emptying, using the simple, analog method of not being able to fit anything else into it. I’m not sure that I need yet another interruption via my small screen just to tell me that. Reminding me that the garbage is about to be collected, that could be useful. But I live in a privileged environment in which the garbage is picked up every day, so if I miss one collection, there’ll be another one tomorrow. I love the idea of waving your hands over the bin for the lid to open, but my bin has almost as cool technology that involves opening it by pressing a pedal with your foot. The automatically hoovering up dust and crumbs you push its way does sound very appealing. But I can imagine the vacuum going off any time someone passes too close to the sensor. It would drive our dog crazy. I’m not knocking the invention, it sounds very impressive, and could especially help the elderly (once they get into the habit of checking their smartphones regularly). And if it achieves scale, it could eventually connect to building managers to help them better plan the garbage storage and disposal with the collective data. We’d need to think of a different term, though: “garbage data” just doesn’t sound quite right.

The Genican (which you can also pre-order now for delivery in November 2015) comes at the concept of helpfulness from a different angle. By scanning bar codes of what you throw away, it creates a shopping list for you. Oh, and it will also tell you when the garbage is full. Technically, it’s not a garbage can, but by hanging on to the side of your bin, it makes it really quite smart. That’s pretty amazing technology for only $179.

But, do we really need our garbage cans to dictate our shopping lists? Wouldn’t filtering and deleting the unnecessary items take as much time as jotting down stuff on a piece of paper? Ok, which you would then lose, or on which you would be unable to read your own writing… It would take some effort to get into the habit of scanning the bar codes of the empty boxes you wanted to replace. Sure, it’s doable, but you would still need to remember to add the fresh stuff that the supermarkets increasingly sell wrapping-free. So, again, very cool, but would it be a huge effort saver?

(really not a good look for a city)

(really not a good look for a city)

The potential of smartcans to help with city management is exciting. The BlueCity sensor sits on top of city garbage cans, and lets the trucks know when a can needs emptying. The idea is to make waste pickup more efficient, and less intrusive for the neighbours. This particular gizmo is particularly clever in that it doesn’t broadcast to the cloud directly, it isn’t connected to the internet, which keeps its cost down. It is equipped with a low-frequency Bluetooth transmitter, which piggybacks off any compatible smartphone that just happens to be passing, effectively crowdsourcing the data collection. The passing smartphone in turn transmits the data to the cloud, where it is extracted by the company and transmitted to the garbage collectors. The concept of crowdsourcing municipal data collection is fascinating, and I imagine it would have several other interesting uses.

BigBelly solar-powered urban trashcans compact the trash so that more fits in, and send an email to headquarters when they need emptying. The sensors also report if the bins are getting hot and smelly, which sounds like a huge advantage in the summer. Some even have wifi units in them, with enough bandwidth to run a small business.

(okay, so they're not beautiful)

(okay, so they’re not beautiful)

Back to the bins in your kitchen and bathroom. The BinCam takes trash control a step further: let’s share our recycling activities on social media. Developed by researchers at Newcastle University, the BinCam takes a picture of whatever you’re throwing away, and uploads it to a Facebook page. The idea is to give us “playful engagement and reflection upon a user’s personal bin data”. Right, so we’re ok with photos of our trash, sorry, “waste management activity”, being uploaded to social media? We would do this voluntarily? Probably not, but the scary part comes when you contemplate municipalities and city governments latching onto social media shaming to control how we dispose of trash. On the one hand, it would be great if we could all be more responsible. But on the other hand, um, privacy?

If you’re thinking by now that this is a rubbish idea (sorry), you’re not alone. The developers are aware of the growing social protest, and are trying to figure out how to make the idea of sharing our garbage publicly less intrusive. Anonymous bins? (Where’s the fun in that?) Communal bin data? (What would be the point?)

Over-reaching councils notwithstanding, it seems that the idea of smart trashcans is based on efficiency. Improved trash collection methods will re-allocate personnel and trucks, helping cities stay cleaner and improving overall image. More data on trash disposal habits of neighbourhoods will help to provide better services and recycling stations. And the cool factor of having a smart bin in your kitchen should sell a few units, especially if (thinking ahead here) it congratulates you on a healthy meal. If that same cool bin applauds your recycling efforts with points or badges published on your Facebook page, we could see the gamification of garbage behaviour, with positive ecological consequences. Trash could become something that we’re proud of, something that we brag about, something that we voluntarily share with our friends. Being a responsible disposer could lead to an enhanced professional profile. And neighbours would have something to talk about other than the noisy street works and how the couple on the 3rd floor still haven’t finished their bathroom refurbishment. We could be on the verge of a social revolution.

Or, it could just be a “waste” of time.

Friday five: dictatorship, curation and trees that email

The dictatorship of edtech – via HackEducation

The inimitable Audrey Watters takes us on an alarming tour of the current ed-tech scene, the role of centralized administration of the programs, and the insidiousness of computers in classrooms. And you thought they were there to help…

“And so I think it’s time now to recognize that if we want education that is more just and more equitable and more sustainable, that we need to get the ideologies that are hardwired into computers out of the classroom.”

So, the computers aren’t the problem? (Whew…) Right, it’s the network.

“No longer was it up to the individual teacher to have a computer in her classroom. It was up to the district, the Central Office, IT. The sorts of hardware and software that was purchased had to meet those needs – the needs and the desire of the administration, not the needs and the desires of innovative educators, and certainly not the needs and desires of students.”

True, you hear so many teachers complaining about rules imposed by administrators who don’t understand teaching. It’s always been that way, though, right? Was the textbook era any better?

Audrey’s argument has reason, and her prose is powerful. But, she overlooks the alternative. She urges that we “stop this ed-tech machine”, and while part of me shouts “yes! Administration doesn’t understand!”, the part of me that has seen technologies strive to become mainstream in spite of massive resistance based on fear and mistrust of anything new, needs to point out that of course we’re not going to get it right the first time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep on trying. Technology is not being used effectively, on the whole, in the classroom. But not having it there would do more harm than good. Central control does defeat the purpose of personalization. But regulation of some sort helps with the trust issues, and can protect.

“Google is at the heart of two things that computer-using educators should care deeply and think much more critically about: the collection of massive amounts of our personal data and the control over our access to knowledge.

Neither of these are neutral. Again, these are driven by ideology and by algorithms.”

Yes, we need to understand algorithms better. But, any access is better than no access, and a completely user-defined information access sounds unfortunately, for now anyway, too good to be true. In traditional libraries, who decided what books the library would carry?

“You’ll hear the ed-tech industry gleefully call this “personalization.” More data collection and analysis, they contend, will mean that the software bends to the student. To the contrary, as Seymour pointed out long ago, instead we find the computer programming the child. If we do not unpack the ideology, if the algorithms are all black-boxed, then “personalization” will be discriminatory.”

What I love about this article is that Audrey makes us stop and think. Maybe, in fact probably, we’ll push on with our iPads and online curriculums regardless. But hopefully we are more aware that this is not the utopia we were expecting. More fool us for expecting it.

— x —

They look like seagulls perching on the rocks. Surveillance as art?

(by Jakub Geltner, via Colosssal)

(by Jakub Geltner, via Colossal)

By the artist Jakub Geltner, via Colossal.

— x —

Whatsapp as a news service, via NiemanLab

This is one of those brilliant, slap-on-the-head, “why didn’t I think of that” ideas: WhatsApp as a news service. Now part of the Facebook stable, WhatsApp knows what we’re interested in. Asking us to opt in to the service shouldn’t be too big of a hurdle. And we can then get breaking news without having to even unlock our phone.

whatsapp news

— x —

The photos from the National Geographic Traveller Photo Contest 2015 are jaw-droppingly stunning. If you have some time this weekend, take a look, and prepare to be amazed.

(by Sandra Boles, taken in Ethiopia)

(by Sandra Boles, taken in Ethiopia)

— x —

What does Twitter want to be? via TechCrunch

“Twitter will either die or fully realize its potential as a massive media empire, it doesn’t have other options.”

Just when you thought you understood a service, they go and talk about changing it completely. Lucas Matney explains why Twitter should leverage what they know about our interests (every retweet and favourite is data) to feed us curated information.

“With how Apple is able to put its finger on the pulse of music taste based on a few follows, Twitter should be able to balance my hundreds of connections with global topics and and give me an appealing list of trending topics specific to me…  I want Twitter to adapt to my cultural obsessions. To do this, Twitter is going to have to forego relying on editor-curated content for this purpose and strengthen their content recommendation engines.”

As much as I like Twitter now, I like Lucas’ version even more. Less skimming and scrolling needed. More tapping, more trust.

“Following Apple Music’s models of curated and recommended content could be a key for Twitter’s future success. With it Twitter might be able to soar to new heights and become a truly revolutionary media company.

Or, who knows, maybe Apple could just buy Twitter.”

Bottom line, don’t get comfortable.

— x —

When you give a tree an email address… via The Atlantic

In this wonderful article that starts out surreal (trees with email addresses?) and ends up profound (our relationship with our environment), Adrienne LaFrance points out that technology is enhancing our awareness of our surroundings, and our emotional investment in our neighbourhood.

“Modern tools for communicating, publishing, and networking aren’t just for connecting to other humans, but end up establishing relationships between people and anthropomorphized non-human objects, too.”

The city of Melbourne, Australia assigned emails to the city’s trees as part of a program to make it easier to report problems like broken branches. They found that people started using these emails to communicate with the trees. Sometimes the trees would receive emails from other trees:

tree email

Sometimes the trees would write back:

tree email 2

tree email 3

“The move toward the Internet of Things only encourages the sense that our objects are not actually just things but acquaintances.”

I do, actually, feel very close to my Nespresso machine. I think an open line of communication would deepen our relationship. And be entertaining.

— x —

I’m guessing that you didn’t know that today was National Piña Colada Day (what??? where have you been?). Well, it is, and here’s a refreshing image to start the weekend off properly.

(image via Metro)

(image via Metro)

Why do we still call them phones?

Yes, you still use those glowing rectangles in your pocket to make and receive phone calls. But is that what you do most on the device? Seriously, do a rough back-of-the-envelope (envelope? who still uses envelopes?) calculation of the percentage of use that phone calls take up. In my case, it doesn’t even reach 3%.

What do you use your phone for?

image via Death to the Stock Photo

image via Death to the Stock Photo

A study cited in a 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review showed that 68% of smartphone use is at home. The most common activity was not chatting or shopping, but “me time”, such as watching videos, reading articles or playing games. Interacting with other people, either via phone calls or chats, only accounted for 19% of smartphone use. Less than a fifth. And of that, phone calls were probably not even 5%.

Let’s go deeper. According to Pew Internet Research, in the US:

  • 68% of smartphone owners use their phone to follow news events
  • 67% use their phone to share pictures, videos, or commentary
  • 62% of smartphone owners have used their phone in the past year to look up health information
  • 57% have used their phone to make payments or manage their bank account
  • 56% use their phone to learn about community events or activities
  • 44% to look up information about a place to live
  • 43% to look up information about a job
  • 40% to look up government services or information
  • 30% to take a class or get educational content.

The smartphone has moved way beyond phone calls. In fact, less and less of my social interaction is done by phone and more by asynchronous chatting via Whatsapp, SMS or even email. This lets me control my time more efficiently. I have my time for concentration with the “Do Not Disturb” activated. And I have my time for sending and answering messages. And occasionally a phone call will come in at a time that I can receive it, and I talk to a human voice. I spend much less time on the phone than either of my parents did. But I connect and interact with many more people during the day.

So, the smartphone may not be so much a phone, more a device that connects us. But to what? To each other? To the cloud? To things? The answer is yes to all. We use our devices to connect with each other, by voice, text or whatever. We also connect to the cloud to receive and to store information. We download, we upload, we share. And the connectivity will only increase with the roll out of the Internet of Things. Connected gadgets – be they doors or kettles or humidifiers – will communicate with us via our small screens. Sensors will allow us to communicate with traffic lights, bus stops, shop merchandising. Our phones connect us to our environment.

They also connect us to ourselves, to our digital personas. When we are posting to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc., we’re sending messages out there, yes. We’re connecting with the cloud. But they’re messages that craft our digital identity. They say a lot about us, and nothing about the receiver. In “communicating” with the ether, or with the masses, however you want to call it, in “communicating” with the crowd, we are defining our digital selves. And recovering that persona, admiring it, tweaking it, polishing it, is available 24/7 thanks to the smartphone.

Your smartphone doesn’t just connect. It also manages your life: it tells you when to drink water, when to leave for a meeting across town, what to cook for dinner, how much exercise you should do… It organizes your transport, plays you music, feeds you news, sends your emails and takes your photographs. It can find you a job, remind you of birthdays, manage your banking, do your shopping and log your symptoms.

And smartphones are everywhere. 80% of all online adults use one.  A Nielsen report from a year ago states that 85% of millennials (18 to 35-year-olds) in the US use one. The percentage is probably higher now, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be giving them up any time soon.  Ericsson just published their Mobility Report, which estimates that by 2020, 70% of the world’s population, including the young, the elderly and those in emerging markets, will have a smartphone subscription.

With smartphone use spreading so fast, and with the majority of the world letting the device become an integral part of daily life, isn’t it about time we came up with a better name?

With “smartwatches”, the situation is a bit different. Most of what we will do with those gadgets is check the time, like we used to do with our watches before our hand-held devices made them unnecessary. We’ll do a lot of other things with them, too, but I bet that in the end just letting us know the time will end up being the top function. So, the name “smartwatch” sort of makes sense. But “smartphone”? Not so much.

The Chinese seem to have a better handle on the bigger picture. Their word for mobile phone is shouji, which literally translates to “hand machine” (or so I’m told, I’m not exactly fluent). That describes much more accurately what the device is: a machine that we hold in our hands. However, “machine” implies mechanics which implies physical production or movement of some type. “Hand computer” sounds more accurately descriptive. It’s a mouthful, though, so surely we can come up with something better.

I asked my son, the creative one in the family, what the smartphone should be called if we couldn’t call it that. “Ocean”, was his response. Hmm. A vast resource, infinite yet always changing, that takes us places, brings things to us, provides and instructs. A resource that is different things to different people at different times of the day or year. Perhaps “ocean” is too generic. “Pocket ocean”, maybe?

Gotta go, my pocket ocean is ringing.

Bitcoin lightbulbs

I knew that the lightbulb space was getting interesting (I wrote about it here). There are lightbulbs that can talk to you and play music. Let’s not even go into the orchestrated colour combinations, which sound quite mind-blowing. And I’ve been researching and writing about Bitcoin (not published yet, still trying to get to grips with hash functions). So this made me almost spill my coffee:

There is now such a thing as a lightbulb that mines bitcoins. Yes, you screw it in, and it mines bitcoins.

image via CoinDesk

image via CoinDesk

That sounds a bit disingenuous. You don’t just “mine” bitcoins. You can try to mine bitcoins, you can solve the blockchain hash functions for new transactions with your incredibly fast, very powerful computing chips. And if you’re lucky, you get the solution first, and you get some bitcoins. There is definitely more to it than just turning your computer on, or just screwing in a light bulb.

BitFury, the developer, is considering incorporating a wallet into the technology, so we can make payments from our lightbulb. I feel a bit silly even typing that phrase.

Cheaper mining technology will not necessarily help the sector. Right now, there is a limit on the number of bitcoins that can be mined. The total supply limit is 21 million, and the amount that can be mined will halve every year until we reach it, around the year 2140. So, cheaper mining will not increase the amount in circulation.

Cheaper mining could well, however, put the established mining groups out of business. Even if the bulbs never “win” a bitcoin, the fear that they will could push the market value of bitcoin down, to a level where it is not profitable for the big groups, with their expensive equipment, to mine. And, if the chips do get so powerful and cheap that they can mine from a lightbulb, the expensive equipment becomes redundant, and the mining competition becomes even more fierce. The nodes could regroup and update their technology, but with a lower value, would it be worth it for them? And with mining capability spread more thinly, would that increase stability, or decrease it?

Of course, these appliances are not just mining, they’re also giving us light, so whether they make money or lose money on creating currency is not that important. Except that it is. Energy costs are also coming down, and are likely to continue to do so or at least remain low, as alternative energy sources come on stream. So the light emitted has less economic value. If the economic benefit from mining bitcoin also comes down, the usefulness of the lightbulbs will be limited, and on a bigger scale, the viability of the currency as a transmittor of value will be questioned.

Still, the development is interesting for its technology. It may not end up being inherently useful, but it will deepen our appreciation of possible uses and consequences of digital currency creation. Just because it’s way too offbeat for me to get my head around, doesn’t mean that it won’t lead to important breakthroughs that could, who knows, change the way we communicate.

So back to the old joke: How many bitcoins does it take to screw in a lightbulb? I’m sure there’s a very good punchline at the end of this one.