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Archive for the category “business”

I will be wrong (I think), but no one will notice

I derive a perverse glee from identifying instances in which I was wrong – for example, my prediction at the beginning of the football season that if any team in the NFC East did well, it would be the New York Giants. As it turns out, my Washington (team name that cannot be mentioned in polite company redacted) came out on top in the NFC East…for what that’s worth.

Over the last few years, I have felt that as jobs disappear during the current technological change, new jobs will appear. As I noted in a recent post, not everyone shares this view.

If I am wrong and Tad Donaghe is right, future generations will work less and will therefore have more idle time…

Well, Donaghe isn’t the only one that believes that many jobs will be lost. In fact, Rob Atkinson paints a rather dire future for those who want to work:

In fact, these new technologies are so awesome and amazing that they won’t replace most jobs; they will replace all jobs, save one. That job will be held by Zhang Wei, who is now a 15-year-old boy studying computer science at his local high school in Nanjing, China. He will invent the best artificial intelligence system ever and then run the company that puts all other companies out of business.

However, not all will go well for Zhang Wei:

“Well, on the one hand, it will be really cool having an annual income of 150 quadrillion yuan, but it will really suck that I will have to be the one person on the planet who is working when all my friends are out drinking.”

But after that…well, you have to read Atkinson’s article. And yes, it’s satirical. I think.

Incidentally, regarding that prior post of mine in which I talked about essentials not changing, Jim Ulvog has contributed another example: “Compare a successful siege by the Roman Empire to a nuclear war.”

Do the essentials change?

As I write this, I am in the process of listening to a Kim Komando podcast that asks what life will be like in 2050 – about 35 years from now. She started the podcast by asking what life was like about 35 years ago, or approximately 1980-1982. Inasmuch as Komando talks about tech, she concentrates on the tech things – for example, comparing the processing power of today’s smartphone to the processing power of the first IBM Personal Computer.

If you look at the business world, you can see all sorts of evidence of change also. The large companies of the Ronald Reagan area all sold things that you could touch. Today, while many businesses still sell physical things, there are large profitable businesses and business segments devoted to things that you can’t touch – not only virtual websites such as Facebook or virtual products such as today’s music, but the ever-growing services sector.

Or perhaps you can look at society itself. Maybe Ronald and Nancy Reagan were friends with Rock Hudson, but they wouldn’t publicly discuss his deep dark secret. And if you didn’t know what the popular song “In The Navy” was really about, you wouldn’t ask; and if you did know, you wouldn’t tell.

Futurists often concentrate on this kind of stuff.

But what about the essentials?

Compare the lives of a soldier under Obama, a soldier under Reagan, and a soldier under Julius Caesar. They all had to wake up in the morning. They all had to put clothes on. They all had to eat something. And they all had to face situations in which they might die. Death by a stealth bomber or a spear? As a former Secretary of State once said, it doesn’t matter.

Similarly, take the Komando comparison of a smartphone and an IBM PC – or Roman parchment. Now I will grant that my smartphone provides me with access to all sorts of information, and my computer keyboard is probably a faster input device than a quill, but the quality of my thought is not exponentially better than the thought of an educated Roman.

Now some advances over time DO have a significant impact on our lives. Improved health and the resulting longevity will certainly change the quality of my golden (diamond?) years to some extent. If I am wrong and Tad Donaghe is right, future generations will work less and will therefore have more idle time – and even now, I have more idle time than a coalworker of the 19th century or a farmer of the 17th century. And perhaps an argument can be made that our trajectory from printed books to Vine videos has served to shorten our attention spans.

But the speed of the processing chip in my smartphone is relatively meaningless.

The anonymity of the crowd – a new concept

In my day job, I spend a considerable amount of time monitoring public reaction to the use of biometric technologies. One subset of that is the reaction to the use of facial recognition in retail environments.

This Consumer Reports article provides an excellent introduction to the issues involved. I could say all sorts of things about the statements in the article – after all, this is my day job – but I will concentrate on one topic that would be interesting to the tymshft reader.

One can legitimately ask – what’s the difference between a bouncer staring out onto the street to look for known troublemakers, and a facial recognition camera doing the same thing? Some argue that there is a huge difference, because the camera and the software can do things that no mere human can do.

Here’s how the Consumer Reports article explained the power of the camera:

More importantly, facial recognition has the potential to erode the anonymity of the crowd, the specific type of privacy you experience when you stride through a public space, near home or on vacation, and refreshingly, no one knows your name. Marketers already can see every article we read online; do we need to let them record every shop window we gaze through?

The anonymity of the crowd. The freedom to walk through a city without having your every move be tracked. A freedom that has existed since the dawn of time.


During the Industrial Revolution, many people migrated to cities, and cities became larger and larger. The people who left villages where everyone knew their name found themselves in cities with tens of thousands of people or more – places where they truly could be anonymous. (As an aside, these new cities had to deal with crimes committed by unknown people, which caused a few people to develop ways to identify criminals by their physical characteristics – the ancestors to our facial recognition systems of today.)

But back in their home towns, there was no such anonymity. If Nigel was peering in a shopkeeper’s window, all of the neighbors knew about it. Even today, there are small towns in industrialized nations where everybody knows your name, and the concept of anonymity in the crowd simply does not exist.

Of course, society is always evolving, and perhaps the anonymity of the crowd is a good thing. But we have to remember that this is a relatively recent development.

Hack your chopsticks? Yes.

While the Wuzhen Internet Conference in the Shanghai area has attracted attention because of China’s different definition of Internet freedom, there are other things going on.

For example, one session discussed our increasing vulnerability to hacking. As more everyday things, such as cars and pacemakers, get connected to the Internet, the chance of our devices becoming subject to attack increases.

And there are a lot of everyday things that are becoming connected, as Bruce McConnell of the EastWest Institute noted.

Driverless vehicles, smart grid, smart cities, smart chopsticks that can detect food contamination, everything will be impacted.

Uh, what? Smart chopsticks?

Yup – this technology was introduced over a year ago by Baidu.

The sensor-attached chopsticks, known as kuaisou in Chinese, have the ability to detect the sanitary level of your food, the report said. The chopsticks’ sensors are linked to a smartphone or desktop app that shows whether the food’s contamination level is low or high. It will also be able to show the food’s temperature and calories in the future…

So the next time that your fork says that the food is cool and poisonless and you burn your tongue and keel over, blame hKr d00dZ.

In the year 2025, what will a robot do with $2,500?

I write about robots so much that I would write a song about them, except that someone beat me to it.

One theme in this blog is the question of how technical innovation will affect society. There are some that assert that this round of innovation is so dramatic that we will be left with significant underemployment.

I disagree with this view, and have previously noted that as today’s industries are eliminated, new ones will pop up and employ everyone.

Someone else who shares this view is Robert D. Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

I am willing to challenge the doomsayers. We say robots will boost productivity, lower prices, and increase wages. In so doing, they will increase demand throughout the economy, which will spur growth and, yes, create jobs.

Admittedly, Atkinson does have some self interest in making that assertion.

It would be economically disastrous, however, for policymakers to give into Luddite urges to throttle back on robotics, artificial intelligence, or other fields of potentially disruptive technology by redirecting federal research funds, imposing taxes, regulatory barriers, or any other means of staving off change to preserve the status quo for workers. We must recognize that technology innovation and productivity hold the keys, not to our undoing, but to higher living standards and a better quality of life.

Granting that, however, Atkinson is certain that the doomsday view of massive future underemployment is incorrect. And he is willing to put down cold, hard cash:

We will give $2,500 to the first techno-doomsayer who accepts our challenge and can show that in 10 years, despite continued advances in automation, the US unemployment rate has become jarringly different than it is today.

For the purpose of this challenge, let me be specific about the economic terms: ITIF is certain that in the fourth quarter of 2025, the US unemployment rate, as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, will continue to be lower than 8 percent (which is to say one-tenth of what some alarmists have been predicting). The only caveat in this prediction is that if the country happens to be in a cyclical recession, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research, then the reference quarter will be the first quarter before the beginning of that particular recession.

So if you believe that the United States will have, say, 25 percent unemployment in 2025, contact Atkinson, and if you’re right, you may get TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS! (And if you say that in a Robin Leach voice, it’s even more impressive.)

But before you plunk your money down, think about this – what will $2,500 buy in 2025? If historical trends continue and inflation stays at around 1.5% per year, then perhaps we’re looking at $2,150 or so in today’s money. But if the apocalypse is truly on us and Obama or Sanders or Trump or whoever (take your pick) runs the economy into the ground, then that $2,500 may be enough to buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks – or Beatrice.

Can robots issue citations? More importantly, can people issue citations?

Let’s start with the big disclosure – this post discusses red light camera systems, and the parent company (Morpho) of my employer (MorphoTrak) sells such systems. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that every city in the country has red light cameras at every intersection.

But let’s start with an even bigger disclosure – as the linked article notes, the city of Montclair, California used to have a red light camera system (not from Morpho). Back when this system was operational, it cited me for a red light violation. Therefore, I have a financial incentive to make sure that no city in the country has red light cameras at any intersection.

And let me also add that these opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any present or past employer or association with which I have been…um, associated.

Done with the disclosures. Now let’s move forward by moving back to my previous post about automated procurement. Within that post, I went off on a little tangent about self-driving cars.

Initial reactions to the idea [of self-driving cars] were – well, they were emotional. “You’re going to let an uncontrolled car just drive around on the streets where it may hit somebody?” Yet people began to reconsider this when they realized just how bad human drivers are, and how good the self-driving cars perform.

But in the same way that a self-driving car is an automated replacement for a human driver, a red light camera system is an automated replacement for a human police officer or traffic officer. In essence, the systems are programmed to track the locations of the automobiles and compare them against the status of the traffic light. In the case of my citation, I was provided with a set of pictures that showed that the light was red when my car entered the intersection.

Generally, such a system is programmed in the simplest way possible. Was the car violating traffic law, or was it in compliance with traffic law? Shades of gray are usually not programmed into the system.

Which brings us to San Mateo, California and what The Newspaper had to say about San Mateo’s contract with Redflex. The people who write The Newspaper do not like red light cameras – The Newspaper consistently publishes posts about people who vandalize red light cameras and speed cameras. But if The Newspaper doesn’t like red light cameras in general, it REALLY doesn’t like Redflex, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who tracks the red light camera industry in the United States. (Since the parent of my employer is a competitor of Redflex, I’ll just leave it at that.)

But if you boil away these impassioned feelings, and some of the issues surrounding traffic enforcement, there’s a really interesting issue buried within the arguments.

Last year, Redflex issued 4462 tickets worth $2.4 million. Sixty-three percent of these tickets went to drivers who made slow, rolling right hand turns.

Now opponents to red light cameras will look at this and say that advocates keep on talking about how traffic accidents result in death and dismemberment…and in actually, the majority of things caught by red light cameras involve right hand turns without stopping?

(ANOTHER DISCLOSURE: when I first moved to California, I was pulled over by Upland Police one night. The police officer said that I had made a “California stop.” He saw my puzzled expression, and explained that a “California stop” is one in which the car is supposed to stop, but doesn’t stop completely. That human police officer DIDN’T give me a ticket that time.)

Back to San Mateo. One member of the City Council was not bothered at all by the rolling right hand turn infractions.

Councilman David Lim was vocal in his support for each and every one of those citations.

“One area that I’m not convinced is this whole notion that we should not be enforcing these California roll stops,” Lim said. “You know, I’m not here to debate… It’s not worth it. All the emails I’ve received about ‘Woe is us, we’re more important than the law. We should be able to make slower stops and not be punished for it…’ I feel so strongly about this that I had to put that on the record.”

In essence, Lim is saying the following: the law states that this particular action is a traffic violation. It is not up to me, or to an individual driver, to say whether this is truly a violation. If it’s against the law, then the law should be enforced. Therefore, the automated red light system is working properly.

Going back to the previous post, opponents of red light cameras would claim that automation lacks an emotional element. A human police officer would never stop someone for something that silly.

Actually, some police officers wouldn’t make the stop, while others would. And some imperfect police officers would use all sorts of emotional criteria to decide whether this is truly a violation or not. Maybe the driver is a really pretty woman. Maybe the driver is the son of the mayor.

Some police officers enforce the law no matter what. Some of you may have known the late Jim Conley of the Anaheim Police Department. Jim let everyone know that if you were cited for something, and if you said that you know Jim Conley…you’d still be cited for that violation.

An automated system usually employs a boolean system – traffic violation, or no traffic violation. Human beings are more complex, and their decisions have a non-boolean outcome – traffic violation, no traffic violation, or “well, but….”

One of the complaints about red light traffic systems is that they appear to be mainly revenue generators. Perhaps human traffic enforcement, which is more inclined to let people off the hook – the California newbie who doesn’t know what a “California stop” is, the pretty flirtatious woman, the person who is the son of the mayor – isn’t generating ENOUGH revenue.

Can robots close? It depends on whether they’re selling to robots.

I like a challenge.

I am a subscriber to Sales & Marketing Management, and noticed an interesting article recently. The title? “Robots Can’t Close.” The piece is an interview with Geoff Colvin, who has written the book Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. While Colvin acknowledges that technology has made great strides, he believes that certain tasks will still require human interaction.

Where the relational element is predominant – where it’s a really complex sale, and it may take years to sell a product or service that may last for years – the people who can do that kind of selling are only going to get more valuable. It’s all about human-to-human interaction. Everybody who has been in the world of sales knows that when a company is buying a power [turbine] for $10 million or buying computer servers, a human being in that company is responsible for that purchase and we all know that with something that big, there is an emotional element in the making of that decision. They need someone to talk to to help them with it. That’s not going to go away.

Or will it?

Today, some purchases can be made by routine or automated means – General Services Administration (GSA) schedules, Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) bids, and other things that lend themselves to easy decision-making. Others require that “relational element.” In my employer’s industry, most biometric identification systems are purchased through a relational process that can take years, and often requires final approval by a government agency’s legislative body, such as a County Board of Supervisors.

But even in my industry, there has been at least one exception. I know of one buyer who bought a national biometric identification system via a reverse auction, which can be considered LPTA on steroids. Certain vendors were deemed to be technically acceptable, and the vendors competed against each other to see who could cut their price the most. While the determination of technical acceptability was made by humans in this case, it is possible to envision a case in which even this could be automated.

But what will happen in the future? Is it possible that more and more procurements will become routine – and automated?

For that to happen, the “emotional element” that Colvin mentions would have to be eliminated, and everyone would need to be convinced that automated systems – the robots – are better able to make purchasing decisions than people.

We’re seeing the first glimmers of this in the self-driving car industry. Initial reactions to the idea were – well, they were emotional. “You’re going to let an uncontrolled car just drive around on the streets where it may hit somebody?” Yet people began to reconsider this when they realized just how bad human drivers are, and how good the self-driving cars perform. (Of course, we are now getting to thornier issues – if I am in a car, and the car’s software has to decide whether to save my life by plowing into a crowd of people, or save the crowd of people by doing something that will kill me – what should the car do?)

Perhaps a day will come when automated procurement scoring systems are proven to result in better procurements than an overworked human procurement officer. If that happens, then perhaps the emotional element will be reduced, allowing more procurements to proceed without the need for a human “closer.”

Yet even then, there’s one thing that may derail any such effort.

Human politicians can receive campaign contributions. Robots cannot.

Big Data on the Farm

If anyone refuses to believe that farming has changed over the last 100 years, Bernard Marr discusses farming in the context of Big Data as a Service (BDaaS).

Another is agricultural manufacturers John Deere, which fits all of its tractors with sensors that stream data about the machinery as well as soil and crop conditions to the MyJohnDeere.com and Farmsight services. Farmers can subscribe to access analytical intelligence on everything from when to order spare parts to where to plant crops.

This is how farmers, or agricultural engineers, or whatever talk today.

Turn your data into information you can use with Operations Center. You can see agronomic data from your machine in near real-time, including average yield, total yield, average moisture, seeding variety and rates, and more. The Field Analyzer tool lets you compare these layers side by side. And you can easily share planting and yield data with trusted advisors and receive variable rate prescriptions from those advisors.

And yes, the “as a Service” trend will die down in a few years, but we will continue to see the use of computer sciences and other sciences (remember the GMO people) in agriculture. After all, agriculture has been spurring technology advances for a while – ever since 1862, “when Congress passed legislation to establish a national network of colleges devoted to agriculture and mechanics. These are known as the ‘land grant’ system because each state received an allotment of federal land to pay for its new school.” Yes, I know that we were in the midst of a Civil War at that time, but everyone realized that Northerners and Southerners alike would have to go home to the fields afterwards.

Campaign fundraising outsourcing

In the old days, politicians handled their own fundraising directly, or asked a trusted insider to do it for them. For example, John Kennedy had his father take care of fundraising. But these days, fundraising – like just about anything else – can be outsourced. According to Forbes, one of the emerging companies in this space is Stripe.

[B]y using Stripe, campaigns can avoid hiring employees to handle payments and donations. [Hillary] Clinton’s donations webpage, featuring a simple sign-up flow that promises security and the ability to set up recurring contributions, is powered by Stripe, which will process the gift, store credit card information and disburse the appropriate funds to the campaign.

The processing presumably includes compliance with all Federal and state campaign finance laws. For this service, Stripe gets a cut of up to 2.9% of the total dollars raised, which seems reasonable.

But Clinton isn’t the only person using Stripe. People from both sides of the aisle, ranging from Bernie Sanders to Mike Huckabee, are using the service. And some candidates are using more than one service.

[Rand] Paul paid $102,371 to Stripe for donations processing last quarter, compared to the $34,396 he disbursed to PayPal for similar services.

Stripe (like Paypal) is not just used for political donations; it can be used for any financial transaction. Interestingly enough, Stripe can accept Bitcoin payments. I’m not sure how the campaign finance regulators react to that, however.

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, 1859 – 2015?

Back in 2008, I wrote a post that noted that while the Krogers and Safeways of the world were complaining that Walmart was putting them out of business, the Krogers and Safeways themselves had done their best to put even older companies out of business. After all, you can’t have a supermarket unless there was a market before that.

And one of the oldest of those markets, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, may be about to close its doors.

Back when A&P started, it only stocked tea and similar items, and only fulfilled purchased via mail order. In other words, it was a 19th century Amazon.

Eventually A&P not only began letting people actually come to its facilities, but actually let them wander up and down the aisles and select products themselves. As a result, A&P got big. Very big.

How big? Almost as big as General Motors. Courthouse News Service tells us that A&P was judged to be too big.

By the early 1950s the company’s dominance prompted federal regulators to step in and breakup what they feared was fast becoming a monopoly.

So A&P wasn’t quite as big, but it was still a going concern. When I was growing up in Virginia in the 1970s, I remember a small A&P store that was near my house. It was a small store – only four aisles – and nowhere near the size of the Safeway and the Giant Food down the street.

However, its old-timey size wasn’t the thing that doomed A&P. It was good old acquisition.

Although changing tastes and the market entrance of new competitors like Whole Foods proved challenging to A&P, most analysts say it was the company’s 2007 purchase of the Pathmark chain, right before the global economic crisis, that doomed it.

Since 2007, A&P has filed for bankruptcy twice. In its latest filing, the company states that if it is unable to sell 120 of its 300 stores to three competitors, it will be forced to liquidate.

Maybe it can return to its mail order roots and sell tea via Amazon.

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