Category Archives: The Future

2015 Maine Winter Hackathon and Adventure Club

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The Hidden Cost of Credit Ratings


The NY Times’ “The Hidden Cost of Trading Stocks” paints a concise and damning picture of yet another malpractice in financial services.  This has been a recurring theme.   

Another storm may be brewing – this time for the credit ratings industry.  

It is standard practice for issuers to hire ratings agencies to rate their securities.  This practice has lead to incentives to give higher ratings when trying to get business from securities issuers, putting the ratings agencies in the position of representing the issuers when they are given special status to serve and protect investors.  They are not even required to disclose the conflict of interest.  The closest we get to protection is a lawsuit when they explicitly advertise objectivity.

It now looks like 16 states will each get their chance to sue individually.  This may be the beginning of a big and positive change.  If conflicts of interest did influence credit ratings, it would shift capital and damage economic efficiency even when it is not misdirecting pension money into a mortgage bubble.  I wonder if we will see a social media movement to influence reform like we are seeing with network neutrality and “common carrier” status.  I hope so.


Private drones

Private droneIt’s becoming easy; we’re on the cusp. Soon, you will be able to assemble or buy a private drone that can go anywhere, record video, deliver a payload, retrieve a thing, whatever. Land, sea, and sky. Automated surveillance systems can be easy to control. Can you click on a spot on a map? That’s pretty much all you need.

How do we respond as a society when anyone can spy or kill as easily as clicking an app? How do you trace an attack that is delivered from the sky from anyone anywhere? How do you handle alibis when you can schedule a crime with cron?

I don’t know the answer, but it’s a continuation of a long trend toward putting more lethal power into more hands. I hope some smart people are thinking well about this.

Somehow, I don’t think a drone shield is going to be enough.


Anticipating the Singularity

If you don’t know about the singularity, here is some background and context.

I love Ray Kurzweil.  I saw him once in a diner but I’ve never met him. I feel like I know him, though, and have benefitted so much from his published work.

However, I’m confused by this update on his new job with Google.  Maybe he is simplifying for the interview, but his focus on language seemed off target.  I also believe in Marvin Minsky’s “Society of Mind“, and see language as a small piece of the big picture.

I think the information architecture (how concepts are defined and connected) is much more important, and distinct from the language used to represent it.  In other words, the reality is distinct from the words used to describe it.  If you are a programmer, you might draw an analogy to the MVC framework, where the Model is the information architecture and the View is the language.  If you are bilingual, you feel this.

If Kurzweil and his team focus on language, I hope they do so merely as an interface.  They can look through the lens of language to build the AI, and users will use language to interact.  But language seems like just an interface to the actual interesting work to be done building the singularity.

Maybe this is what he meant.  It probably is.

Innovation Economy

New Beta Fund has raised $5 million to invest in New England tech and biotech startups

Visual overlay will be very cool

I’m not making any forecasts about when this is going to happen, but visual overlay will be very cool.

We will still see the world as it is, of course.  But we will be able to add layers.  Layers can give us information like the ratings of a restaurant we see or night vision or heat vision, or little flying arrows showing the direction and speed of the wind.  Layers can also give us controls like interacting with vending machines or unlocking your car, or saving a good bottle of wine.

It will be very cool.

Things have changed since I wrote about this in 2002, but I wasn’t completely wrong: The Etherface

Wikipedia anything you see.  Add people you meet to your contact list with context.  Users generate content.  API lets developers add controls.

The future is not here yet (Google)

I love this line from William Gibson:

The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed

To me, it is a reminder that the things we imagine the future to be are already taking shape in the labs and garages around the world.  It’s also a good reminder that we’re creating our future – that it is up to us – and that our work is what gives the future its trajectory and shape.

Then there is Google.  Their incredible position reflects their inspired work, but the next steps seem so obvious and painfully lacking.  Their  future feels so clear, but the present is terribly clunky.

I got a voice mail using Google Voice.  A transcript and link was sent to my e-mail.  I click on the link and listen to the message.  So far, great.  Now I want to save the message, but there are no links.  I click the “Google Voice” logo, but no dice – not even the logo is linked.  The message mentioned a meeting, so I want to add the meeting to my calendar.  No link for that either, of course.  The page doesn’t even have the standard Google header bar.  Failure to integrate.  Failure to provide basic navigation.  Great functionality hidden in a tangle of stand-alone services that make it hard for users.

The internet giant has everything going for it – the important things at least – but regularly delivers a disappointing user experience.  They have sufficient users, capital, and talent to enter and dominate just about any market they want, but many projects fail because of the easy stuff.  Economies of scale in every corner of the business should give Google a powerful advantage as they enter and grow into new markets, but most times Google trips.

Their typical process appears from the outside to follow a pattern like:

  1. Somebody likes a “20% time” project
  2. Project enters “Google Labs”
  3. APIs launch in Google Code and Google Apps
  4. Failure to integrate among related services
  5. New services must survive alone or they are abandoned

This last piece is important.  Just because you build it doesn’t mean people will come.  Integration with existing services is probably the best way to introduce new services to existing users and maximize value to consumers.

Integration and navigation among Google services is terrible.  I hope this will not be mirrored in Chrome OS and Google TV – these are 2 new business lines that will depend critically on good user experiences.

The idea of Google Labs is great on it’s surface: give new services a place to be refined while  gaining traction and validation.  But don’t sacrifice the vision of leadership.  Performance as individual lab experiments ignores the value these services gain when they are integrated.  Google Wave should have been integrated with Docs and Gmail as early as possible;  instead it was not integrated and cancelled.  Also, dropping the real estate layer from Maps instead of integrating with real estate ad sales … so disappointing.

I hope that lack of integration is not an intentional strategy to avoid becoming evil monopolists.  I know the culture of resentment for what Microsoft did in the operating system and browser markets has left Google feeling careful not to unfairly exploit their position of power.  Actually, I respect them a lot for that.  But integrating among services is not evil; instead, it is exactly what you hope for when you offer an API.  Every Google service should have an incentive to integrate other Google services.  They should also be encouraged to integrate non-Google services.  If Buzz played friendlier with Twitter, I think it’s adoption would have been a couple orders of magnitude better, and instead of Twitter growing essentially alone, there could have been a diversity of integrated messaging services.  Maybe next time…


There is another problem when Google fails to integrate across services:  incentives.  Because newer projects do not add value to existing services, they are perceived as expensive speculation.   Existing business lines only want to subsidize new business lines if they will add value.  Services in Google Labs that work in isolation or require opt-in for integration add little value to existing services.  I attribute many of the failed launches to this problem.

The future is clear.  Google can become a beautifully integrated suite of services that satisfy all the major demands of modern information-age consumers, including business customers and developers.  It can avoid being evil by opening as many APIs as possible to promote competition – enabling other companies to integrate all the services consumers are growing to expect.

But it’s not there yet.  Time to get back on track.