Category Archives: innovation

Personal Assistants

Continuing the series on Revolutionizing the Enterprise, where we left off at Sparking the Revolution, I would like to further emphasize immediate opportunities for productive improvements, which do not need to venture into much-hyped speculative technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence.

In the previous article, I identified communication and negotiation as skills where software agents can contribute superior capabilities to improve human productivity by offloading tedium and toil. Basic elements of this problem can be solved without applying advanced technology like AI. Machine learning can provide additional value by discerning a person’s preferences and priorities. For example, this person is always preferring to reschedule dentist appointments but never reschedules family events to accommodate work. Automating the learning of rules enables the prioritization of activities to be automated, further offloading cognitive load.

In my own work, I wish I had a personal assistant, who could shadow my every move. I want it to record my activities so I can replay them later. I want these activities to be in the most concise and compact form, not only as audio and video. For example, as I execute commands in a bash shell, I want to record the command line arguments, the inputs, and the outputs, so this textual information can be copied to technical documentation. As I point and click through a graphical user interface, I want these events to be described as instructions (e.g., input “John Doe” in the field labeled “Name” and click on the “Submit” button).

With a history of my work in this form, this information will be useful for a number of purposes.

  • Someone who pioneers a procedure will eventually need to document it for knowledge transfer. Operating procedures teach others how to accomplish the same tasks by observing how it was done.
  • Pair programming is often inconvenient due to team members being located remote from each other and separated by time zones. An activity log can enable two remote workers to collaborate more effectively.
  • Context switching by between tasks is expensive in terms of organizing one’s thoughts. Remembering what a person was doing, so that they can resume later would save time and improve effectiveness.

The above would be a good starting point for a personal assistant without applying any form of AI or analytics. Then, imagine what might be possible as future enhancements. Procedures can be optimized. Bad habits can be replaced by better ones. Techniques used by more effective workers can be taught to others. Highly repeatable tasks can be automated to remove that burden from humans.

I truly believe the places to begin innovating to revolutionize the enterprise are the mundane and ordinary, which machines have the patience, discipline, and endurance to perform better than humans. More ambitious technological capabilities are good value-adds, but we should start with the basics to establish personal assistants in the enterprise as participants in ordinary work, not as esoteric tools in obscure niches.

[Image credit – Robotics and the Personal Assistant of the Future]

Sparking the Revolution

In my previous article, Revolutionizing the Enterprise, I provided an outlook for how emerging technologies may help to transform how we do work. Now, let’s explore how we might provide the spark that starts the fire to burn down the old and welcome the new. The world does not change in a radical way without a progression of steps that pave a path for getting from here to there. What might the first step be to introducing robots and AIs as personal assistants into the regular work lives of numerous employees?

We need only look to our daily struggles to identify where every person would see the value of machine intelligence. Organizing a meeting among several participants can be challenging. You need to find a convenient time when every participant is available. You need to find a suitable venue that can accommodate everyone. If folks need to travel, the complexity rises enormously, because each traveler’s attendance is then dependent upon successfully booking travel arrangements. The risk of a single unsatisfied requirement causing the meeting to be non-viable rises with each participant and their special needs. If the meeting needs to be moved to accommodate certain participants, this would then trigger a storm of activity to renegotiate, and a flurry of activity to explore how calendars can be readjusted with a cascade of renegotiations of other appointments, each having its own priority and constraints.

This kind of negotiation among a network of people is virtually impossible to accomplish by humans among each other, because of the latency for human communications. However, if every human could be represented by an agent, who could negotiate on their behalf, this kind of activity could become painless. Imagine how many hours of phone tag, email, and travel booking could be saved. Even if an agent were not entrusted to finalize decisions on travel booking, all of the negotiation and arrangements could be prepared and presented for final approval by the human; or even involve the human at key decision points by presenting a short list of options to guide the way forward for the agent.

I believe, ordinary mundane problems such as this one, which every person has experienced, will serve as an opportunity to introduce machine intelligence to work alongside us. The off-loading of such unproductive and non-creative toil to an automated personal assistant would be a welcome change that would be seen as another useful tool, rather than a radical development. And that’s how the revolutionary should begin.

Revolutionizing the Enterprise

It has been over five years since I wrote an article titled Enterprise Collaboration, in which I identified the need for innovations to transform how people do their work. Since then, we have seen no significant advances. Enterprise applications continue to move very slowly to the cloud, driven primarily by cost efficiencies with little noticeable functional improvement except at the margins (big data analytics, social, search, mobile, user experience).

Where can we go from here?

I still firmly believe that a global work force needs to be decoupled in space and time. Mobility and cloud services will continue to provide an improving platform to enable work to be performed at any time from wherever people want. We should enable people to their work as effectively from the office as from home, in their vehicles, during air travel, at the coffee shop, or anywhere else they happen to be. Advances in computing power, miniaturization, virtual reality, alternative display and input technologies (e.g., electronic skin, heads up displays, voice recognition, brain computer interfaces, etc.), and networking will continue to provide an improving platform for inventing better ways of doing work and play. This path does not need too much imagination to foresee.

Recently, we have seen an up-tick in applying artificial intelligence. Every major company seems to be embracing AI in some form. Image recognition and natural language are areas that have been researched for decades, and they are now being employed more ubiquitously in every day applications. These technologies lower the barrier between the virtual world and the real world, where humans want to interact with machine intelligence on their own terms.

However, I believe an area where AI will provide revolutionary benefits is in decision support and autonomous decision-making. So much of what people do at work is tedium that they wish could be automated. Some forms of tedium are drudgery, such as reporting status and time to management, organizing and scheduling meetings among team members, planning work and tracking progress, and keeping people informed. These tasks are routine and time-consuming, not creative and value-producing. Machines can interact among themselves to negotiate on behalf of humans for the most mundane tasks that people don’t really care too much to be involved in. Machines can slog through an Internet full of information to gather, prune, and organize the most relevant set of facts that drive decisions. Machines can carry out tasks on their own time, freeing up humans to work on more important or interesting things.

Personal assistants as computing applications are a new phenomenon. Everyone has heard of Amazon Echo and Google Assistant by now. I can imagine advances in this capability expanding into all areas of work and personal life to help off-load tedium. As AI becomes more capable, we should see them taking over mundane tasks, like research (e.g., comparing products to offer recommendations toward a purchasing decision, comparing providers toward recommending a selection), planning, coordinating, note taking, recalling relevant information from memory, distilling large volumes of information into a concise summary, etc. Eventually, AI will even become capable enough to take over mundane decision-making tasks that a person no longer cares to make (e.g., routinely replenish supplies of consumables from the lowest priced supplier, repetitive tasks).

The other phenomenon that will revolutionize the work place even more than in the past is robotics. Robots have already revolutionized manufacturing for decades by replacing repetitive error-prone labor-intensive tasks with perfectly reproducible error-free automation. We are seeing politics influence businesses to apply robots, where human labor sufficed in the past, purely because of the increasing cost of labor. Minimum wage legislation (bans on jobs that pay less than some mandated floor in wages) that raises labor costs above the value produced will force businesses to rethink how to operate profitably. Beyond entry-level jobs, such as fast food service, self-driving cars and trucks are already in trials for ride-sharing and long haul cargo transport. As robots become more dexterous, mobile, compact, and intelligent, we will see them become personal assistants to perform physical tasks as much as we see them in software form perform computing tasks. We should anticipate that robots will serve in a broad spectrum of capacities from low-skilled drudgery to highly-skilled artisans and professions.

The future enterprise will involve a work force where humans, AIs, and robots collaborate closely. Humans have a comparative advantage in performing creative and path-finding tasks with ill-defined goals, many unknowns, and little experience to draw upon. Robots and AIs have a comparative advantage in performing repetitive, well-defined, and tedious tasks. Together, they will transform the enterprise in ways that we have never seen before.

cloud services for the enterprise

The Innovator’s Dilemma describes how the choice to sustain an incumbent technology may need to be weighed against pursuing disruptive new technologies. Nascent technologies tend to solve a desirable subset of a problem with greater efficiency. They change the game by making what used to be a costly high-end technology available as a commodity that is affordable to the masses. It turns out that high-end customers can often live without the rich capabilities of the costly solution, and they would rather save on cost. Meanwhile, with the success that the low-end solution is gaining in the market, it can invest in maturing its product to encroach into the high-end market. Eventually, the incumbent product’s market is entirely taken over by the rapidly growing upstart, who was able to establish a foothold in a larger installed base.

That is the situation we find ourselves in today with enterprise applications. Large companies rely on expensive software licenses for Customer Relationship Management, Enterprise Resource Management, and Human Capital Management applications deployed on-premise. Small and medium sized businesses may not be able to afford the same kinds of feature rich software, because not only is the software license and annual maintenance cost expensive, but commercial off the shelf software for enterprises are typically platforms that require months of after-market solution development, customization, and system integration to tailor the software to the business policies and processes specific to the enterprise. The evolution to cloud services aims to disrupt this situation.

Let us explore the ways that cloud services aim to be disruptive.

As described above, traditional enterprise software are platforms. An incumbent product that wants to evolve to cloud without disrupting its code base will merely be operating in a sustaining mode, not achieving significant gains in efficiency. Being more PaaS-like, the prohibitive cost and onerous effort of after-market solution development remains a huge barrier to entry for customers. To become SaaS-like, a cloud service must be useful by default, immediately of value to the end users of its enterprise tenants.

Cloud services are disruptive by providing improved user experiences. Of course, this means a friendlier Web user interface that is optimized for users to perform their work more easily and intuitively. User interfaces need to be responsive to device screen size, orientation, locale, and input method. Cloud services also provide advantages for enterprise collaboration by enabling the work force to be mobile. Workers need to become more decoupled in space and time, so they can be more geographically dispersed and global in reach. Cloud services should assist in transforming how employees work together, not just replacing the same old ways of doing our jobs using a Web browser instead of a desktop application. Mobile applications may even enable new ways of interacting that are not recognizable today.

Cloud services are disruptive economically. Subscription pricing replaces perpetual software licensing and annual maintenance costs along with the capital costs of hardware infrastructure, IT staffing to operate an on-premise deployment, and on-going infrastructure maintenance, upgrades, and scaling. Subscription pricing in and of itself is not transformational. It is only superficially different by virtue of amortizing the traditional cost of on-premise deployment over many recurring payments. The main benefit is in eliminating the financial risk associated with huge up-front capital expenditures in case the project fails. Migrating a traditional on-premise application into the cloud is not really financially disruptive unless it can significantly alter the costs involved. In fact, by taking on the capital cost of infrastructure and the operational cost of the deployment, the software vendor has now cannibalized its on premise application business and replaced it with a lower margin business with high upfront costs and risk—this is a terrible formula for profitability and a healthy business.

Multi-tenancy provides this disruptive benefit. Multi-tenancy enables a cloud service to support users from multiple tenants. This provides significant cost advantages over single-tenant deployments in terms of resource utilization, simplified operations, and economies of scale. Higher deployment density translates directly into higher profit, but by itself multi-tenancy provides no visible benefit to users. The disruption comes when the vendor realizes that at scale multi-tenancy enables a new tenant to be provisioned at near zero cost. This opens up the possibility of offering an entry level service to new tenants at a low price point, because the cost to the vendor is zero. Zero cost entry-level pricing is transformational by virtue of making a cloud service available to small enterprises who would never have been able to afford such capabilities in the past. This enables innovation to be done by individual or small scale entrepreneurs (start-ups), who have the most radical, risky, and unconventional, paradigm-shifting ideas.

Elastic scaling provides another disruptive benefit. It enables a cloud service to perform as required as a tenant grows from seeding a proof-of-concept demonstrator to large scale (so-called Web scale) production. The expertise, techniques, and resources needed to scale a deployment are difficult and costly to acquire. When a vendor can provide this pain-free, an enormous burden is lifted from the tenant’s shoulders.

Cloud services evolve with the times through DevOps and continuous delivery. Traditional on-premise applications tend to be upgraded rarely due to the risk and high development cost of customization, which tends to suffer from compatibility breakage. Enterprise applications are often not upgraded for years. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even though the software vendor may be investing heavily in feature enhancements, functional and performance improvements, and other innovations, users don’t see the benefits in a timely manner, because the enterprise cannot afford the pain of upgrading. When the vendor operates the software as a SaaS offering, upgrades can be deployed frequently and painlessly for all tenants. Users enjoy the benefit of software improvements immediately, as the cloud service stays up-to-date with the current competitive business environment.

Combining the abilities to provision a tenant to be useful immediately by default, to start at near zero cost, to scale with growth, and to evolve with the times, cloud services provide tools that can enable business agility. A business needs to be able to turn on a dime, changing what they sell and how they operate in order to stay ahead of their competitors. Cloud services are innovative and disruptive in these ways in order to enable their enterprise tenants to be innovative and disruptive.

innovation

innovation [noun] – context violating exaptation.

Ever since I read this tweet in 2012 by Fast Company, I have redefined innovation in this way.

Here is the first definition of exaptation from Dictionary.com.

noun, Biology
1. a process in which a feature acquires a function that was not acquired through natural selection.

By taking something or a combination of things and applying it to a purpose to which it was not intended (violating its original context), one may discover that it is well-suited to perform a different function. This discovery becomes an innovation.

Modular home construction

I wonder if one day we will build homes like we do the space station—in prefabricated modules. Perhaps rooms can be built in standard dimensions and standard interconnections to adjacent rooms for electricity, networking, coaxial cable, HVAC, hot and cold water, natural gas, etc. Each room would be somewhat over-engineered, but this extra cost is offset by savings from the economies of scale due to mass-production. A home builder would simply assemble a chosen configuration of modules, and provide some finishing touches, such as the exterior facing, roofing, and utility hookups.

This approach would benefit from guaranteed quality of workmanship, replacing skilled labor (e.g., carpenters) with robots and 3D printing, and rapid construction. Moreover, the big innovation comes years later. As technology improves, and the homeowner wants to uptake improvements, it becomes a simple matter of replacing modules, and possibly reassembling them in a different configuration.

The future of air combat

The F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II will form the core of America’s future fleet of fighter aircraft.

The F-22 Raptor is America’s premier air dominance fighter. 187 F-22 aircraft will replace 254 F-15C/D Eagle ($30M) eventually, although 178 F-15s will remain in service beyond 2025. In 2012, the F-22 participated in the Red Flag Alaska training exercise, where the less expensive, more agile Eurofighter Typhoon proved to be equally matched in dogfighting. [http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/07/f-22-fighter-loses-79-billion-advantage-in-dogfights-report/] The Raptor costs approximately $150M to manufacture per aircraft, while the Eurofighter costs €90M ($115M). In its air dominance role, the F-22 can carry six AIM-120 AMRAAM and 480 rounds of ammunition for its M61A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon.

To complement the F-22, the F-35 Lightning II will replace the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and AV-8B. At over $150M per aircraft, approximately 1,200 F-35 fighters will replace thousands of F-16 Fighting Falcon ($18.8M), 345 A-10 Thunderbolt II ($12M), 647 F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet ($57M), and 175 AV-8B Harrier II ($30M).

Apparently, America’s strategy is to concentrate air power in fewer, more advanced, very costly aircraft. At $150M each, built in such low numbers, losses would be devastating. The weakness in this strategy lies in the numbers.

In such limited numbers, the F-22 will be vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a much larger opposing force, even if every one of its six AMRAAMs finds its mark. Eventually, its weapons or its fuel will be exhausted, or its supporting tankers will be destroyed in a full scale conflict with an adversary whose strategy is based on large numbers of modern, inexpensive aircraft.

It has long been understood that human pilots cannot tolerate the most extreme forces that fighters are capable of experiencing. However, we must rely on humans for the good judgment needed to make critical decisions based on principles, values, and experience.

The solution is to deploy large numbers of inexpensive unmanned combat fighters that operate in close coordination with a human piloted fighter and his wingman. Let’s call these drones swarmers in reference to the small, agile, swarming fighters from the classic video game Defender. Swarmers should operate largely autonomously toward some overall set of goals that govern the squadron. The human pilots would set these goals in the course of the mission, such as which enemy aircraft to engage.

Each swarmer would rely entirely on its programming for maneuvering and tactics. The swarmers decide collectively amongst each other how to work as a team to accomplish their immediate goals. If an enemy air-to-air missile is inbound, the immediate priority is to protect the human piloted aircraft, sacrificing a swarmer if necessary. Offensively, some swarmers can serve as bait, maneuvering to lure the enemy into a position favorable to being targeted by its peers.

This approach puts inexpensive assets into the riskiest situations, while keeping human pilots and costly assets protected. Swarmers can carry missiles, ammunition, flares, and chaff in large numbers—-mutually reinforcing through computerized coordination. This enables a small fleet of advanced fighters with highly trained pilots to increase its lethality while also greatly improving survivability.

mobile payments and loyalty

Communications Service Providers, mobile device vendors, and operating system vendors are all formulating their own strategies to capture the payment market. The introduction of Near Field Communications (NFC) technology broadly into mobile devices is the key enabler for users to execute payment transactions by touching devices together. These players all see an opportunity to grab a slice of the huge payments business that credit card companies now dominate. Mobile payments using NFC is potentially very disruptive to the status quo.

From a user perspective, mobile payment seems like a small improvement in convenience. Digital technology may provide improved security and fraud protection over the extremely vulnerable scheme of authenticating a credit card number on a physical card with a matching customer name, security code, expiration date, billing address, PIN, or signature. Improved security and fraud protection would be a compelling motivator for users to adopt this technology.

While users will use mobile payments to replace some of their credit card transactions, it is unlikely that credit cards will disappear any time soon. Mobile devices with NFC are still not common enough. Even the Apple iPhone 5 does not support NFC yet, although it would be extremely surprising if the next major iPhone release did not include NFC support.

Where NFC can provide an even greater convenience is to track loyalty points and rewards. Users carry around a huge stack of loyalty cards in their wallets and on their key chains today. Every vendor has their own loyalty card. It is not uncommon to carry dozens of these. We have cards for grocery stores, pharmacies, coffee shops, retailers of every kind, airlines, hotels, car rentals… the list is endless. What I would like to see is a popular app become the de facto standard in tracking loyalty points universally, so that users can finally shed themselves of all those physical loyalty cards.

A universal loyalty app makes many other side benefits possible. The most important is personalization. A patron of a restaurant can be identified when they check in with their mobile device. They will be credited points at the end of the meal. The customer’s identity can be used to retrieve their food and service preferences, so that without needing to ask the server already knows the customer’s dietary restrictions, allergies, and favorite foods and drinks. The overall experience would be improved for both the server and the customer as communications are streamlined.

A universal loyalty app can also become the means by which coupons and promotional offerings are distributed by vendors and carried by users. This would be far more convenient than carrying around paper coupons. The app can perform important functions like reminding the user to use a valuable coupon before it expires. It benefits users to redeem more savings, and it benefits vendors by promoting more business.

A universal loyalty app can also become the means by which users may track purchases (keeping a copy of every bill) and their associated warranties and protection plans. An app could easily record purchase dates and vendor information, so that users no longer need to keep paper warranty agreements in a physical filing system.

Having loyalty points, coupons, and purchases tracked by a single app will also enable other innovations, such as dynamically calculated coupon values or promotional pricing to reward users proportional to the value of their past purchases. It also enables vendors with cross-selling opportunities to target users based on recent purchasing decisions. It opens up many avenues for innovation that we cannot even think of today.

champions are winners

You’re not a champion of the free market if you oppose low priced goods from China and off-shoring to low cost labor. You’re just another protectionist, who favors the interests of a few domestic corporations over the interests of millions of consumers. It is a failure to understand the economics of comparative advantage.

You’re not a champion of smaller government if you want higher military spending on foreign interventions and ‘humanitarian’ missions. You’re just another big government crony in the pocket of the defense industry to promote the military industrial complex. National security in reality puts our focus on the defense of our actual national interests.

You’re not a champion of liberty if you support drug prohibition and the war on drugs. You’re just another nanny statist, who does not believe in individual rights. It is also a failure to understand the economics that create black markets, promote lawlessness, escalate violence, and increases drug potency that endanger users.

You’re not a champion of the US Constitution if you believe the Supremacy Clause gives federal powers over States beyond those powers expressly enumerated. You’re just another supporter of a living Constitution that comports with whatever powers politicians want and in whatever directions populist opinions lobby for. You talk about federal programs in education, energy, housing, and “job creation”, conceding the most important limiting principle—that the Constitution does not authorize the federal government to interfere in these ways, no matter what the present day politicians, constitutional “experts”, and the US Supreme Court (itself a branch of the federal government) has to say about it.

You’re not a champion of transparency if you support unchecked government discretion to classify information for secrecy and “national security”. You’re just another political class elitist who does not believe in accountability.

You’re not a champion against Ponzi schemes if you want to save the Social Security program as we know it. You’re just another delusional politician who thinks that kicking the can down the road to win votes today does not matter, because the inevitable crisis will not occur until someone else’s watch.

You lost, because you were not a champion.

Broken Link Resolver

I originally posted this on Monday, October 4, 2010 at 4:27pm on Google’s Facebook page. Since I have not seen any progress in this area, I am posting this again as a reminder to Google. If they are not going to pursue it, maybe Marissa Mayer might be interested in doing this at Yahoo!

Broken Link Resolver

Since Google Product Ideas does not feature Search, I’ll submit my idea here. One of the biggest unsolved problems on the World Wide Web is broken links. As the Google bot crawls the Web, it can detect whether the URLs of previously seen significant content have become stale (failure to connect or 404), and based on a heuristic content search determine where that page has moved. Google could offer a new service that could answer the question: given this broken URL, tell me where the page has moved. Then, provide features in Google Chrome and a plug-in for Firefox that can make use of this service upon encountering a failure to connect or a 404. You could also provide an Apache httpd module that can use this service for handling 404s by automatically redirecting.