Sunday, April 1, 2012

Trouble Betting on the Leading Edge of Technology

George Ure and Gaye Levy, Contributors
Activist Post

The two G’s here, Gaye and George, have both been out on the “leading edge” of technology in their business careers, although for all the headaches and hassles, we both refer to it as the “bleeding edge” because of all the personal commitment it takes to get there, and ride the wave of technology where it’s going.

But the leading edge of the '70s, '80s and '90s is not the same leading edge of today.

We both concur that there is trouble betting on the leading edge of technology, and today we tell you why. 

A Bit of Ancient History

In Gaye’s case, it was as founder of a software company that developed a proprietary COBOL-based billing system for pager companies; a company which was eventually acquired by a one of the Bells that was divested by AT&T as a result Judge Green’s decree in 1982.

George’s experience was in developing and fielding a computer-data-over-radio system which was test-bedded in Seattle in the spring of 1983.  This was literally the forerunner of radio-delivered programs, text, and data at a time when decoding the scratchy noise was done with 300-baud acoustically coupled modems, or wired modems hooked up to speaker wires or headphone outputs.

Sidebar:  Gaye remembers many nights spent with George testing this newfangled technology.  Everyone thought we were whiz kids.  The reality was that we were just a couple of geeks – called nerds in those days – that couldn’t resist the thrill of discovery.
 

Those were the days of Trash-80s and Commodores and Altairs. The programing language of choice was Basic, or if you were really a code-jockey, Fortran, Cobol, or assembly language.  That was also when a VIC-20 memory expansion was voluminous if it had 16 k-bytes…huge for its time.

The reason we give you some sense of history here is that back then, we had a deliciously simple way to quickly rise to the top of the heap in our respective industries.  Simply stated, not too many people had figured out that the secret to personal advancement was to be an early adopter of almost every new technology that came along and then to implement it in a business setting.  The ultimate goal was to distinguish your own performance from someone else’s.

In Gaye’s case, female CEO’s of software companies were a fairly rare thing, let alone being one that understood everything about the business from the lines of COBOL code down to which font module to plug in for the best possible look in presentations.

In George’s, it was (by late 1984) having a complete financial model of the airline he was managing on the first-ever laptop certified for onboard aviation use (a half-screen LCD H.P. product).  His airline colleagues nicknamed it “Gloria” which enabled his airline to make highly accurate snap management decisions on operations.  This nimbleness resulted in a nearly miraculous turn-around of the airline’s fortunes, not to mention increasing revenues of more than 50% in a two-year period.

That was then, however, and this is now.

The difficulty today is not as simple as taking a new-fangled computer and associated hardware, and plugging it into a business which previously either didn’t have computers dispersed to managers (the airline case) or were running really gum-and-baling-wire applications to turn out beeper billing, which would later roll into the configurable billing systems that keep track of cell bills today. 

Which Breakthrough Will Win?

The strategic question we’re getting around to (via deep backgrounding) is that we are now living in a world where we are faced with multiple good candidates for both personal, as well as investment levering.

We have been tracking many, but to begin with a really interesting one, you may not be aware of it but brain-scientists have besting techniques to electrically charge your brain with a small amount of electricity in order to remarkably improve a person’s ability to focus.  The goal is to enter that timeless place found in martial arts, where almost impossibly good hand-eye coordination, deep levels of thought, as well as remarkable increases in productivity can be found.

The technique was written up recently in New Scientist “Zap your brain into the zone: Fast track to pure focus.”  For now, it seems mostly confined to the lab, and government project leaders are excited about it; first because it can cut training time to less than half of what’s normally needed to absorb information, but also because it seems applicable to a wide range of physical activity ranges.

Examples include everything from those that are strenuously engaged in fighting in the field to those that are stationary while landing an aircraft under zero-zero visibility conditions.

To be sure, there is much in the way of online discussions on this topic, but they pop up and then disappear in almost mirage-like ways.  But we can see in various posts that there is tremendous interest in such techniques.

For now, however, they should be considered dangerous – and highly experimental – for a number of reasons, not the least of which is they may cause temporary blindness.  In addition, there’s the risk of electrical shock. By the accounts we’ve read, the idea of putting 2-milliamps (two one-thousands of an Ampere of current) through the body in any form is risky since under certain conditions, this may be enough current to cause cardiac arrest if applied to the wrong place.

Still, there are some really interesting technologies coming along which are related to this “electrical manipulation of people’s bodies and minds.”

Another example, by the way, is being offered a company called “Slightest Touch” which is offering an electrical orgasm enhancement device, based on small shocks (tingles, really) being applied to the inside of a woman’s ankles. Apparently, the sensitivity of this area was not previously well-documented, but, again, it’s another one of those “electrical manipulation” techniques which gets to be pretty interesting, especially when one considers what might be achieved by layering of several technologies.

We wonder what “sex in the zone” would be packaged as. George finds the whole field incredibly interesting because his great, great, great grandfather, Alexander Ure, was the basis of Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein. George says he just “knows” there’s more to . . . err . . . come in this kind of research.  George’s son (G the second) seems happy just using automatic external defibrillators in his EMT role, but again, there’s a wide range of applications developing along this “shock the humans” line and new products that show promise might become interesting investments. 

Harnessing Social Media

Another new technology to keep an eye on will be those related to social mapping and personal profiling for marketing purposes.  We’ve been great fans of the online peer-reviewed journal First Monday for a long time.  When we go off looking for the “next frontiers”, scanning patent filings, reading First Monday is a good way to kick-start thinking, without resorting to the 9-volt battery approach.

Under the title “Censorship and deletion practices in Chinese social media” we found this part of the article abstract quite interesting:
With Twitter and Facebook blocked in China, the stream of information from Chinese domestic social media provides a case study of social media behavior under the influence of active censorship. While much work has looked at efforts to prevent access to information in China (including IP blocking of foreign Web sites or search engine filtering), we present here the first large–scale analysis of political content censorship in social media, i.e., the active deletion of messages published by individuals.
We won’t belabor the obvious here, except to mention that, as presently constructed, the social media are still in their client-server infancy. What happens – and in particular to government control or moderation -- should the equivalent of peer-to-peer social networking arise?

It makes for an interesting opportunity if you believe in the theory that the Internet is a backbone which will provide for the evolution and growth of a global mass consciousness.  It could also become a real battle zone between network-connected humans and those who would like to at least put some bounds around “free-thinking” in order to contain what could be a world full of rowdy people should the Internet get “carried away with itself.”

The business problem with social media is difficult to harness for gain, however, because the root of the business is the hosting companies (like Facebook) which are the centers of social interaction. It’s big, it’s “chatty,” but it’s almost like looking at a sack of concrete and asking “OK, what can I make out of this in order to harvest value for me?”

The even greater threat is that once someone comes along with a good business model, it’s hard to protect a space in social media or the net; just look at how the term “urban survival” has been ripped since George first used it on the Net as a site name in 1996/97.

Still, in terms of breakthroughs in social networks and mass marketing, George is working on a product launch for a client/partner and we’ll keep you posted how that one goes. But, in general, unless you not only have an idea, but also the marketing and financial horsepower to make your idea the unassailable dominant player, it will be tough making serious money on social media.  But damn it’s tempting, just because it’s so BIG. 

BioMedicine

Just as we look (as a generalized proposition) at the social media space as being huge, but having few barriers to entry, the field of biomedicine is its ugly twin. Here, contrasted to social media, the barriers to entry – and new idea funding – is huge. And, likewise contrasted to social media, protection of intellectual property (IP) is a forgone conclusion before the first dime of research money is spent.

Right now there’s a smallish explosion of boutique DNA outfits which are doing things like running tests to see who is the parent of a child in custody or support cases. It would not be unreasonable to make the assumption such applications will continue to evolve, but the hard part is figuring out which of the hundreds of ideas will turn into the “must-have” – the so-called Killer App – that makes a company jump into the next Microsoft or Oracle.

Some of the most promising areas are life extension medications, but while these indeed would fit the “must-have” / Killer App profile (especially if it is your life which is up for extension) there are always side effects, long drawn-out clinical trials, and after that, since so many layers of lawyering are present, the chance of infringement suits and damages makes for difficult choice-making. 

Setting Your Scan Boundaries

People are always going to eat, always going to play, make music, and consume goods – that much of the investment and strategic lifestyle is pretty obvious. But where does one go for a good handle on specific technology sectors?

For biotech, we find Fierce Biotech’s coverage of the industry pretty good.

To stimulate your brain a bit more, generally you can use the advanced search function of Google’s patent database to look up patents just returned in the last month or two. You can try putting in a search term like “social network” and come up with ideas like like patent #8117272  Matching Social Network Users, which seems like it might provide for new ways for social media to “school” people (as in fish) by similar interests and tendencies.

Similarly, doing searches for new technologies applied to brain and body stimulation, a pile of keywords, joining some discussion groups, and using time-bounded returns is certainly a viable approach.

From the long historical perspective, though, our point today is that the “leading/bleeding edge” which once upon our time represented the highly concentrated basics of computing, distributed networks, and the semiconductor backplanes that make all this magic happen, has now gone off and dispersed to become much more of an “idea cloud”.  This cloud is starting to scatter about in all fields of human endeavor until the Next Big Insight comes along to take us to whatever the level is that follows.  And all this in pursuit of  “getting connected.” 

Summing It All Up

As immersed as we are in technology, much of what is happening is frightening in that unlike previous technical advances that improved life – the electric light bulb, the combustion engine, the computer – this new wave of cloud technology seeks to control both life and lifestyle.  This is scary stuff, so we want to make sure we go forward embracing this new technology with an eyes-wide-open approach. 

Introducing Strategic-Living: a practical and useful online magazine providing inspiration and guidance as we make our way through the maze of changes that are coming our way. In collaboration with my friend and colleague, George Ure, Strategic-Living will offer a synthesis of Urban Survival and Backdoor Survival with much more detailed tips, tools and strategies for creating a vibrant and sustainable lifestyle wherever your path may take you. Think of Urban Survival and Backdoor Survival as your roadmap and Strategic-Living as your detailed guidebook. Here you will find articles and photos, diagrams and how-to’s, and a healthy dose get-out-there and do it with kick-in-the-ass inspiration.




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