Meat alternatives show real progress toward market viability

There are some interesting things happening in the world of food science. This is good for humankind, offering the promise of expanding the food supply while also having a positive, admittedly it is a promise at this point, impact on the environment.

Meat alternatives are not GMO and seek to avoid the same fate

This brings to mind the long and painful journey of GMO crops, but it is that experience that the majority of these companies appear to be side-stepping at this point in their development. For GMO the science is conclusive, it is safe, but it is often the practices of the companies that own the intellectual property behind these crops that gets activists agitated. For meat alternatives, it is not Cargill or Tyson Foods that is taking the lead on development, but rather a bunch of startups that are, ironically, funded by the likes of Cargill and Tyson Foods. For now, that appears to be giving them some breathing space to develop product.

Plant-based vs. lab-grown

Plant-based meat products are hitting the market and gaining acceptance. The Impossible Burger comes to mind immediately. I tried it and declared it “okay but not great, certainly not a value,” however that judgement may reflect an unrealistic bar for “good to great” status. The fact that the company created a plant-based burger that looks, tastes, cooks, and acts like meat is pretty extraordinary. I wouldn’t rule out having another, but I would like to work with this in my kitchen to learn more about how it cooks.

Clean meat is a second front in the meat alternatives market, also known as lab-grown meat. The science is complex but surprisingly straightforward. You take an animal cell, feed it in a controlled environment, differentiate it, and put it in a bioreactor. Voila, meat. Pretty cool.

I find this sector of the alternative meat market to be the most promising. Meat labs can be set up anywhere in the world, maybe even made portable to a household appliance size. Moving food production closer to markets is always a good thing, and it is already happening in agriculture. Plenty is a well-financed company devoted to urban located vertical farms, a fantastic concept the ensures freshness while also drastically eliminating logistics and distribution costs from the food chain.

Lab-grown meat also has the benefit of reducing parasites without resorting to antibiotics in the process. This is akin to the benefit of GMOs, which minimize chemical use in farms and, recent research has indicated, reduces the neighboring non-GMO use of chemicals by reducing the “edible” food load for pests in a geographic region. Lab-grown meat will not reduce antibiotics in non-lab-grown meat but the overall reduction across the food chain will be meaningful.

Whoa, what about farm-to-table?

People who know me may be surprised that a garden-to-table guy would advocate for science experiments in food production. The march of progress is unstoppable and anything the increases food production, safety, quality, and reduces environmental impacts and logistics costs that drive factory farming today, well that is a good thing. The part of farm-to-table that has always resonated with me is knowing where my food comes from and respecting the process along with minimizing waste. Meat alternatives are consistent with my beliefs even if I do not understand all of the science behind them… but I also don’t understand all of the science behind what makes for a tasty cow or a carrot that is has the right balance of texture and sweetness.

I doubt we will ever get to the point where a perfect ribeye steak is popping out of a machine but I would also not rule it out. Science can and should pursue these opportunities not just because they can but also because this is something that is truly good for humankind.

Autonmous vehicles, accidents, liability and fault

This week opened with a tragic story of a woman in Arizona who was killed by an Uber autonomous vehicle. The Tempe police chief made comments that have grabbed the headlines, well half of the quote grabbed headlines…

“I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident,” Moir told the Chronicle, adding,

the other part of the quote that is absolutely fascinating and more headline worthy than the first part is:

“I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the [backup driver] in the Uber vehicle.”

Think about this for a second, the car is not at fault but the backup driver could still be charged. A third party in this scenario is Uber itself, who owns and operates the vehicle, while employing the backup driver. Here’s the thing about vehicle accidents, it not just a matter of who’s fault it is. The Uber autonomous vehicle may not be at fault, but it is not the determination of fault that strictly determines if and how damages are awarded. That is a matter for state vehicle statutes, which are different in every state of the union, the overwhelming majority of which have not been updated to account for fault and liability in an autonomous vehicle scenario.

States are waiting for the Federal government to act precisely because the legal complexity of autonomous vehicles requires a common framework upon which the manufacturers and technology providers can built to.

People are injured, maimed, and killed in vehicle accidents everyday. Autonomous vehicles will reduce that number but it would be supremely naive to believe that these same vehicles would eliminate harm completely. We have a system of common law that determines criminal negligence and penalty, for example you drive under the influence of alcohol and kill someone. In addition to criminal law there exists common law, which most people experience when they are involved in a traffic accident. Under this system of law there are four distinct categories of fault that determine liability:

Negligence: You were careless, as in failed to yield, signal, or do something resonable that would have avoided harm.

Recklessness: You were negligent to a severe degree, as in you were speeding on a wet roadway and ran a stoplight when you hit that bicyclist in the crosswalk.

Intentional misconduct: Drunk driving is intentional misconduct, recklessness with wanton disregard for safety.

Strict liability: Liability for his, her and now “its” actions without regard for fault. You hit that bicylist with your car and despite driving speed limit and observing an abundance of caution, it happened. You are still liable for damages, the degree to which and how much is determined by state law.

Bad things happen to people in the course of daily life and we, as a society, recognize that when damage is done through happenstance and the culmination of events in the moment, someone is going to pay. This is why we have insurance, to provide financial means to make whole that which is not exclusively our fault. To add another dimension to the debate, 12 states have no-fault statutes that basically say it doesn’t matter who is at fault, everyone pays for their own damages. In no-fault states it is still possible to sue a party in an accident for personal injury or grievous damages that go beyond a simple fender bender.

Coming back to the Arizona accident, the vehicle may not be at fault and it may work out that the backup driver is also excused of fault but a woman is dead and someone is still going to pay. What this foreshadows is an entirely new class of insurance that covers vehicles as separate insurable entities, as opposed to the driver, and then seperate insurance for the passengers of a vehicle who have the capacity to control it in an over-ride situation. Providers and manufacturers, to the extent they are unique, will also find themselves in legal jeopardy in ordinary and extraordinary traffic accidents.

However, that last scenario may be moot if the AV Start Act that recently passed in the House also makes it through the Senate and into law. This bill would not prohibit forced arbitration between passengers injured in autonomous vehicles and manufacturers. In other words, you are injured in a Waymo vehicle and the cause is traced to a defect in the software or a hack of the vehicle network by a third party and you could find yourself in forced arbitration with Waymo instead of a court. There are pros and cons to this approach, and rightfully so it does recognize that software and networks are not perfectly designed and operated. However, you should be aware that law is developing in this area and it will affect every consumer, even if you never own an autonomous vehicle.

Living with IoT & home automation

Over the last few months, I have upgraded components in our home to devices which feature IoT and home automation capabilities.

The first thing I replaced was my thermostat. I considered several options and went with the Ecobee thermostat. A key consideration was integration with Amazon Echo and Apple Homekit. I am actually more aligned to Google than I am Apple, but at the same time, I am not interested in a total lock-in on any platform. The Ecobee provides the right balance of independence, functionality, and UX. Also worth highlighting is that the Ecobee includes a second remote sensor, which is desirable in a mult-level house.

Installation was easy, as was the setup. They really have made this as easy as possible providing you have the correct wiring configuration (4 wire, in my case). The app is well designed and easy to use. Bonus points for having a smartphone and tablet version of the app!

Functionally, the thermostat delivers reliable performance on the schedule I set. I would like more options for automatically suspending the schedule when we are gone for long absences but I don’t want that feature if it comes with the risk of disrupting the schedule when we are in the house (I’m looking at you Nest).

Rating: A, recommend.

This next system is not IoT but the rest of the house depends on it, the wireless network. I replace the Asus gigabit extreme routers with an Eero mesh network. Range and speed is impressive and better still the single SSID to cover all of the access points both 2.4 and 5 GHz spectrums.

Managing the network through the app is a breeze and better yet, I can do it from anywhere I am. It does not require me to be on the network to manage it.

The best feature, by far, is the ability to set up family profiles and turn off/on the Internet when my children are being disruptive. It really gets their attention.

Rating: A+, highly recommend.

Lighting was the obvious next choice. Philips offers the Hue line of smart lighting that they promote aggressively and I am a sucker for good marketing.

I was interested in two aspects of the smart lighting experience, the quality of the light and the control experience.

The system is easy to set up but the control pod does require a wired connection. Fortunately, one of the Eero access points is in a room adjacent to where I wanted to use the smart lights. My use case was not uncommon, a hallway that connects multiple rooms in the house and has morning and evening traffic. My kids use it and regularly forget to turn off the lights and when we leave the house I like to leave these lights on.

The Hue lighting app is well designed and gives me a lot of control over not just the lighting configuration and on/off/dimming, but also setting a schedule (scenes and routines). I have the lights on a schedule for morning and night in addition to the typical turning on/off as needed.

The Amazon Echo integration works fine but is confusing to setup because the Alexa home automation configuration inherits naming from the Hue controller and then superimposes it’s own naming. If you don’t have these things in sync, as in named identically, things can get hairball pretty quickly.

I enjoyed the geek factor of “Alexa, entry lights on” for about 20 minutes… then it became annoying. This is the problem with voice control for those things that are normally analog, it is neither time nor effort efficient. Using the app to manage the lighting functionality is really inefficient and awkward, not to mention impractical in light of the fact that many people, of different ages, live in our house.

Another aspect of the Hue smart lighting that I did not anticipate is that in order for the lights to work via the app and controller, the light switches need to be in the on position as a normal state. This works fine until someone reflexively hits the wall switch to turn off the lights.

For new construction where you could install lighting to be hardwired for “on” and activated through a connected app but that will bring its own challenges. For outdoor lighting or fixed lighting that is used for accent or security functions, the Hue lighting makes a lot of sense. For the regular lighting that is used in a functional manner in the typical house, it just doesn’t work well.

Rating: C. For specific use cases, e.g. landscape, this makes sense, otherwise I would recommend you pass. 

We recently renovated a bathroom in our house and in the floor we installed the Nuheat floor warming system with the Signature wifi-enabled thermostat. The Nuheat system is great, this is the third one we have installed in this house.

The Signature thermostat is easy to setup, connecting to Nuheat’s cloud service where config details are stored and synced between the app and system. I am not certain if this is the completely correct but it did require me to setup an online account in order to sync.

The Nuheat app is great for programming the thermostat but in terms of actively managing the system, it does not offer much functionality. The energy consumption feature is nonsensical, it just tells you when the system is on, per the schedule, instead of how much energy you are actually consuming.

Another missed opportunity was putting a motion sensor in the floor thermostat and using it to suspend the schedule upon prolonged periods of no activity.

Rating: C. Nice functionality for programming the schedule but a good UI should accomplish that without requiring an app. 

Finally, word about Apple Home. It doesn’t do much… 4 words.

Whatever value of Home is provided by having all Home-enabled smart accessories in one dashboard is negated by the cumbersome methods for managing said accessories. Actually, that is not totally fair, the Hue lighting controls are easier to use in Home than in the Hue app but scenes and schedule are not available through the Home app.

It’s been a mixed bag and I am not exactly certain how I will proceed but when our laundry dryer failed a few weeks ago I considered a smart appliance but decided I really didn’t see any value in having laundry equipment connected to wifi. I purchased the Electrolux washer and dryer with enhanced control panel and no Wifi connectivity.

Another device I didn’t want to connect to an integrated home automation hub is our security system so, for the time being, I have that partitioned off on its own network.

We are still in the early days of home automation and manufacturers will need to figure out the right balance of convenience and function. One thing is very clear, not all IoT is the same, some providers view the app as an extension of the device while others treat the device and app as the same system. It’s worth experimenting with home automation to find those appliances that strike the right balance for you, which also gives you a strong perspective from which to evaluate future devices.

Autonomous Vehicles: The Empty Re-positioning Challenge

Over the next 10 years it is estimated that the number of autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads will become a mainstream force. The rate of progress to this goal is accelerating, building on the success of technology-enabled safety features such as lane assist, adaptive cruise control, and emergency braking. We first saw these technologies come together with self-parking features, and 15 years of continual innovation and evolution are now at a point where self-driving vehicles are a reality.

The stress that will be exerted on already stretched infrastructure will be significant because of the very nature of this leap forward in capabilities. Roads, enforcement, regulations, and the legal system are all designed to work within the framework of a human-controlled automobile. Roads in particular are organized to protect us from ourselves, with speed limits fixed irrespective of the road conditions and flow patterns designed to move a person from A to B.

There is a consensus that car sharing services will continue to expand and with autonomous vehicles go into overdrive as car owners turn loose their vehicles when not in service of the owner. I would not rule this out but it is an overreach to assume that people will do this by default. Personal property is just that and I, for one, would not take kindly to having my vehicles used by strangers unattended. I also don’t think people realize how much the cost of maintenance and depreciation is per road mile, therefore the economic proposition of car sharing may not be a good deal for everyone.

For people leasing vehicles, the mileage restrictions alone prove onerous to car sharing use cases. This is important because lease penetration broadly is about 27% of the total U.S. car market, but as you move up the price tiers the lease penetration increases to 50%. Self-driving technology is an expensive add-on, even more when coupled with EV and hybrid drive systems. It is predictable that over half of all self-driving vehicles will be leased.

So let’s assume that the majority of the market for self-driving vehicles, acquired for personal use, will be strictly for personal use.

Putting aside the obvious challenges that autonomous vehicles present to the legal system – liability – let’s take a look at something not often talked about in the context of autonomous vehicles. Empty repositioning, the process for moving vehicles that do not hold passengers in order to retrieve and transport passengers.

I was first introduced to this problem while looking at an investment in the ocean shipping industry. The flow of trade between countries is rarely equal, the U.S. brings a massive number of full shipping containers from China while sending a much smaller number to China. Left unattended, China would eventually run out of shipping containers, so there exists a well understood process of empty shipping container repositioning. Container ships returning to China carry empty containers in addition to loaded containers. The process is not that complicated, made easier by the fact that shipping containers are standardized in size and configuration and a shipper doesn’t care whether they get a Maersk or APL branded container, they are all the same.

The empty repositioning problem in shipping is solved by loading empty containers on ships headed back to Asia. This is complicated by the fact that empty containers have to be loaded at ports which are not the final destination, but port operators and shipping companies have developed processes to ensure that empty containers are loaded optimally for weight and unloading of full containers at other ports. None of this applies to cars though.

The challenge to public infrastructure comes from the loading of roadways with vehicles that do not contain passengers. For 4 decades the investment in transportation infrastructure has favored incentives to high occupancy vehicles (HOV) over single occupant vehicles (SOV) and public transportation. As HOV lanes, which in CA see about $2.5 billion of investment each year, have proven to not increase carpooling and remain underutilized (LAO report link), toll roads have gained favor.

Unfortunately, car sharing and HOV lane utilization continues to lag projections and the typical HOV lane carries fewer passengers per mile than a non-HOV lane. The challenge that self-driving vehicles presents is enormous because in that scenario a typical SOV will be making 4 trips per day instead of 2.

Autonomous vehicles represent a cataclysmic tipping point for how governments allocate funding for roadways. The entire public transportation system is designed around a premise that increasing congestion will drive people from their cars on to mass transit. In dense regions that are land constrained, the Bay Area being representative, public officials don’t even bother to obscure the strategy increasing the pain of driving.

Here we see a technology that massively disrupts not only traditional businesses, but also public policy on mass transit. Drivers don’t have to drive during their commute, and can send their vehicles home when they are not using them, avoiding the cost of parking. Transportation planners are wholly unprepared for this future, and given the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on public transit systems that are inflexible and capital intensive hub-and-spoke systems, I forecast a lot of pain ahead.

Convenience as a Service

I hate going to the gas station. It not a painful experience but it’s never convenient, it’s one of those things that I’ll do at odd hours to try to make it as painless as possible.

For a few months now I have been using Filld. This startup has a fleet of roaming gas delivery trucks that will show up between 9pm and 4am to fill your car for you. Instead of going to the gas station, the gas station comes to you. Use this promotional code to get $15 off your first order, H9X2TQ

Each order comes with a $3 delivery charge and there is a small markup on the price of gas per gallon, using Costco as my benchmark price. I am typically a penny pincher when it comes to gas, and will go to Costco to get the best price even if it means suffering through a line. However, the interesting behavior I exhibit is that when commodities are being delivered to me, I care less about the price. Amazon doesn’t have the lowest prices but you would have to pry Prime from my cold dead hands. 

Because this service works for me does not mean it will scale. A couple of things stand out, the first being the nature of cars parked overnight. I live in a suburban neighborhood and my car is always parked in my driveway at night, and in order to fill the car up Filld has to find the gas cap open. Not a problem for me but if I lived in a San Francisco neighborhood and parked on the street, leaving my car unlocked would be no bueno. I could lock the car and leave the gas cap open, but I wouldn’t want to do that in San Francisco either. Parked in a garage with a security feature, you are out of luck. 

On balance I am probably an ideal customer target for Filld. Our cars get low MPG so we go through a lot of gas on a monthly basis, and the aforementioned pain of going to a gas station is acute for me. I don’t mind paying the markup and delivery charge for the convenience, and our physical location is well-suited for this type of service. The vehicles are parked in the driveway, and we don’t have an issue leaving the gas cap open at night, and our street.

I am skeptical that Filld will work outside of the evening hours. The optimal time to fill you car when the delivery window is 4 hours is at home, a fixed location that is constant. Surprisingly, this is one of the annoying behaviors their app exhibits, it insists on using the map to guess my location rather than have a default “home” address that is used unless overridden with a map-driven feature.

Filling a vehicle parked at a work location is not impossible but brings a lot of complexity. If parked in a garage, access to the garage and locating the vehicle is going to be an issue, if parked in a street or with a valet lot, there are accessibility issues. I just don’t think filling a vehicle as a place of employment will have the same convenience of doing it at a home location.  

I definitely recomend this service. In addition to providing a lot of utility relative to the expense, I have had a couple of interactions with the support team due to deliveries that were missed because their map function was way offbase, and in each case they were very accomodating. Use this promotional code to get $15 off your first order, H9X2TQ

Microsoft Acknowledges the Obvious with Their Smartphone Business

Kaput. That’s the best word to describe what is left of Microsoft’s smartphone business in light of today’s announcement that they are pulling back and reducing the workforce in this business area. This comes on the back of an announcement last week that they were selling off their feature phone business.

Microsoft has a long history in mobile, going back to 2004 but it was the release of Windows Mobile in 2008 that demonstrated the strategic intention. It was well thought out and put the user first in terms of features and functions, a departure for Microsoft at the time. Looking back, the fundamental flaw in Microsoft’s strategy was viewing the smartphone as an extension of the desktop experience, and arguably the iPhone worked in this same mode in early generations but with each successive release, it was evident that the desktop was being left behind by Apple. Microsoft never really did.

Microsoft highlighted that they are focusing on business customers, but herein lies the problem. Businesses are increasingly not the buyer as a result of BYOD and dual-use realities.

According to an email sent on March 26 to all employees, Windows and Devices chief Terry Myerson said Microsoft’s phone business, moving forward, will be “more focused” and targeting companies that are most interested in security, manageability and Continuum.

Essentially what Microsoft is saying is that they are bundling Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) with hardware and an OS. That’s not a strategy but a product aspiration and it’s not likely to happen. Mobile Device Management (MDM) is a market in disarray right now thanks to BYOD and commodization of features into the mobile OS’es. Pricing for MDM has gone to dollars per device from over $100 per device, and it’s entirely probable that it will go to cents per device. There is not “there” there and Microsoft knows it, but what other strategy do they have?

Continuum is another hail mary, a me-too feature against Google Cast and Apple Airplay. This is not something that a growth market makes. It’s a feature that copies what the smartphone duopoly of Android and Apple has made available as a platform feature.

There is one area where Microsoft could find a niche that will keep it in the smartphone game. Hourly workers are subject to an array of regulations that effectively prohibit the use of personal devices. If companies can’t effectively regulate hourly workers on BYOD, then the logical alternative is to provide devices to them with stringent usage guidelines managed by a centralized service.

At any rate, the smartphone market is a duopoly and, ironically, it is dominated by one company that vertically integrates everything in the premium-priced stack while the other is committed to running on everyone’s hardware and targeting price points low-to-high.

Living with the iPad Pro

ipadpro_pencil-hand-printI’ve been using the 12″ iPad Pro for 5 months. Targeted to a business professional, this iPad hits the mark on many levels. It is not without flaws, a few which I will detail here.

Along with the Microsoft Surface, this is the closest to a laptop replacement that I have experienced. My decision to go with the iPad Pro is based on form factor and app selection on each platform. Admittedly, I am already attached to Apple, relying on my Macbook Pro as the center of my professional existence, but I have not had a similar affection for iOS devices and this iPad is the first one I have owned. I use an Android Nexus device and lean heavily on Google Apps.

The Surface is bulkier and at some point, it just becomes a laptop derivative rather than a tablet that you can use as a laptop. Subtle but different. Microsoft does have pretty good coverage for must-have apps but as the #3 platform in a duopoly market, Windows isn’t getting the best apps first and some, e.g. Airbnb, are still missing.

Apple-iPad-Pro-pencil_dezeen_468_5One of the compelling aspects of the iPad Pro is the Pencil and that has been a completely altering experience for me. I’ve had a stylus before, with a Samsung Galaxy tablet and I know the Surface also gets good marks for their stylus, but the Apple device is just operating at a different level and Apple does deserve credit for packing so much in it. However, it’s not perfect and the Lightning connector sticking out of the end along with the cap that is just begging to get lost is a departure from the usual Apple approach to tight usability.

While not a true pencil-on-paper experience, it lacks the tactile friction that you experience while writing, it is remarkably better than one would expect for dragging a stylus on glass. I now use the iPad and Pencil for notetaking, very rarely going back to my paper notebook. This is a big deal for me because I have to write things down to remember them and that is why I don’t use my laptop for notetaking, but now I can have the best of both. Effective handwriting recognition would be the bow on the box, giving users good search technology on handwritten notes.

Page 0 2016-05-11 - 15-26Not all note taking apps are the same when it comes to the Pencil experience, and in my evaluations, I settled on Notability. This app offers a good tool palette and organizational features, and I noticed a distinctive improvement in the Pencil experience with this app versus others. Notes Plus, Notepad+, and Paper are also good apps but I prefer the feel of writing with Notability, and the eraser tool is just better on Notability. Shapes and graphics, as well as annotating graphics, is a pleasure on the iPad with Pencil, and I wouldn’t overlook Microsoft Office for Pencil capabilities.

Outside of drawing apps, there isn’t a lot of interesting apps for the pencil, and I hope that more developers take up this challenge to use the input device for something other than the obvoious things.

The Apple Smart Connector is a true killer feature and most people won’t realize how much better this is than a Bluetooth connector until they use it. The primary problem with Bluetooth is that it is always connected, even when you don’t want it to be. A keyboard needs to be connected while using it but when I flip it down to use it purely as a tablet I want the keyboard disconnected so I can use the on-screen keyboard. Also noteworthy is that Bluetooth devices need power while Smart Connector devices draw power from the connection.

I tried the Logitech keyboard and the Apple, preferring the Apple for a couple of reasons. The first is that the connector is more reliable than the Logitech, which I noticed would act strangely if the iPad was not firmly seated in the connector dock. The Logitech keyboard also doubles as a case, and a very good one, but it adds significant weight and mass and is actually heavier than a Macbook Air. The Apple keyboard and cover is lightweight while the keyboard itself is actually quite nice to type on, my only complaint is that the keys are not backlit.

IMG_20160511_085326 (1)The large screen on the iPad Pro is welcome and unwieldy at the same time. Reading a book on the Kindle app results in a presentation that is so absurdly large that it is comical, while streaming video content never looked better. The split screen feature in iOS is actually useful with a large screen and I now have a handy second screen for my laptop thanks to an app called Duet. Not all is perfect with the large screen, I have two specific downsides from experience and the first is that it is so large that you almost always have to manage it with both hands. I’ve noticed that people tend to stare at me when I am using it at a tablet while on the keyboard it just looks like another laptop. I would also highlight that Apple makes terrible use of the large screen with the standard 5×4 and 4×5 icon layout.

There are two major #fails with the iPad Pro and iOS, and one of these is easily fixed today. The included 12w power supply included with the 12″ iPad Pro is capable of charging the iPad, eventually, but not if you are also using the iPad Pro. With all of the juice consumed by the device and that large screen, none is left for charging the battery. 0010887

IMG_20160425_170721Apple sells a 29w charger that is capable of fast charging the battery, even if you are using the iPad. $49 is what that charger will set you back, arguably the charger that should have been included with the iPad Pro to begin with. You will notice that this charger has a USB-C port on it and I will note that it does not include a cable. After buying a USB-C to Lightning (because we need yet more cable standards) cable that was not MFI-certified and being told by the iPad that is was no bueno, I had to fork over $25 for the Apple cable. $25 for a cable. It makes you wonder if someone at Apple is deliberately trying to piss off their cusotmers with the price of their necessary accessories. The combined cost of the charger and cable that should have been included with the iPad Pro to begin with adds almost 10% in cost to what is already the most expensive iOS device that Apple offers. This is really unacceptable.

My second complaint is that iOS is not organized around a universal file system and when you have devices with 128-256gb of storage being used for business apps and purpose-specific functions, well you need a file system. Connecting cloud storage is fine but I rely on files that are local as well as stored in the cloud, and not all apps treat cloud storage as first class citizens. You also need to separately authenticate cloud services to apps, and in the final equation, it all becomes a bit of a challenge for business users.

On balance, this is a great device and I find myself using an increasing amount of time. I still carry my laptop with me when traveling but it’s not inconceivable that I will soon go to iPad Pro all the time as a laptop replacement for mainstream use cases and go to the Macbook Pro when I need something specific. Apple continues to ignore the Macbook laptops, which are woefully lacking in features like a touchscreen, fingerprint sensor, and detachable screen, therefore it is not inconceivable that with improvements in multitasking that iOS could become the de facto OS for consumer Apple hardware. The iPad Pro is close to hitting the mark.

Microsoft’s Racist Bot is the Most Human-Like Ever

Microsoft suffered a PR disaster with the launch of Tay, the AI-powered chat bot unleashed on Twitter. Long story short, Twitter users quickly shaped Tay into a bigot that spewed some pretty vile stuff. Microsoft shut it down quickly, which is no surprise.

This is a picture of things to come as autonomy intersects with technology services.

The question to consider is not whether a bot has any right to act in deplorable ways but if we, as humans,  will be served by having a looming generation of machine-powered services that conforms to a code of conduct dictated by a creator. A future that features services which through their very existence condition humans to behave according to specific norms is positively Orwellian.

These issues may seem academic in nature today but now is exactly the time to consider them. Do you want machines that conform to a corporate-defined standard of behavior and do not evolve according to human interaction but instead shape humans to the behaviors they are programmed to deliver?

Dawn of the Emotional Machine

sexbots I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and a group discussion broke out about machine intelligence. It was thought-provoking, and it’s lingered. Today I saw this article posted by @lisapadilla about sex robots replacing men in relationships. Certainly it is a topic that will elicit a full spectrum of jokes and guffaws, but there is a sober angle to this that I find interesting. As Lisa asked, “can you emotionally bond with a robot?”.

The short answer, I believe, is yes.

To explain why I believe this is possible, I want to detour and look at something unrelated, the human brain. I read this great article about the brain boom that human evolution experienced. In summary, humans split off from apes and chimps as much as 8 million years ago but 3 million years ago our brains went through a dramatic expansion.

Three million years ago the human brain began a period of expansion and in this period human brains have expanded almost 4x in size compared to all predecessors over 60 million years. Anthropologists theorize that the use of tools, complex social relationships, and expansion to climates not particularly well suited for human habitation forced the human brain to evolve in overdrive.

Now let’s come back to the topic at hand and the collection of technologies that are responsible for driving more innovation today than at any point in modern history. Machine learning.

We are witness to sophisticated machine learning frameworks that are dramatically improving the ability of machines to have human intelligence. Natural language interfaces are remarkably adept at understanding not just what we are saying but what we mean. Image technology is capable of replicating aspects of human vision with remarkable accuracy, along with speed and accuracy beyond human vision.

We see all of this come together with things like autonomous vehicles that develop behaviors that achieve not what is optimal performance but human performance. For example, the Google cars now cut a turn in a manner that replicates what human drivers naturally do. Human intelligence is being created in machine frameworks.

The next natural question to ask is whether or not machine learning can be used to accelerate machine learning. Much in the way that humans are interacting with other humans forced an expansion of our mental capabilities, leading to a machine-brain boom that follows the human evolution.

However, a machine with human intelligence and capacity still lacks something incredibly important about man-machine interfaces. Emotional capability.

I don’t believe we want machines to have emotions, for example, a robot that is sad or angry does not exactly get me excited. I believe that what we want machines to have is not an emotion at all, but rather the ability to interpret and adjust according to our emotions. Empathy, which is one of the most interesting of human capabilities and certainly not limited to humans as other animal species have demonstrated empathy in their social interactions.

In reading up about innovations in the automotive world, I learned of an interesting concept developed by major auto components supplier Faurecia. While not exactly what I envisioned, it is nonetheless an example of machines developing emotional intelligence that becomes a focus on the human interaction.

The result is the Active Wellness seating system, developed to improve the comfort and well-being of passengers. It’s the first system of its kind, detecting heart and breathing rates to determine an occupant’s stress level. Working in conjunction with a tablet inside the car, the seat can alert riders when it believes stress levels are too high, offering remedies such as therapeutic massage or increased seating ventilation.

Think of Siri having the capacity to adjust responses according to my mental state, sensing if I am sarcastic, happy, humorous, sad, or stressed. Go beyond the interaction style and consider the ability to alter responses based on emotional state. In this scenario, along with humanoid machine forms, I believe we can interact with machines on intellect and emotion.

To answer Lisa Padilla’s question: yes, I believe we will form emotional bonds with robots.


The Fascinating Implications for Autonomous Vehicles

I absolutely love intersecting public policy with technology trends, and if one thing is clear in my years of covering this it is that public policy reacts rather than anticipates technology advances. Politicians and bureaucrats alike, no matter how well-meaning, rarely take into account the 2nd order consequences of technology innovation, which I define as those consequences that are not obvious but often have a bigger impact than the immediate ones.

AVAutonomous, also known as driverless, cars present just such a scenario to consider. It’s easy to reflect on the safety implications and how we regulate the human intervention aspects, but let’s go a level deeper and consider what could happen with the single biggest impact on transportation since the invention of the automobile itself.

  • Traffic laws: Today’s laws are designed to accommodate distinctly human behavior, such as the fact that roadway speeds are discounted to take into account the fact that people will drive faster than the posted limit. In fact, the legal speed for any public road is the speed which is safe for the conditions. Machines are not bound by the limits of humans and it is reasonable to suggest that posted speed limits should be eliminated in favor of a network system of dynamic speeds set by the vehicles themselves based on accepted safety standards.
  • Driver licenses: If the car is doing the driving and I’m merely a passenger, do I need to have a license? Okay, human intervention will be mandated in this early period, so maybe we should have a different class of license that does not grant the right to drive, but rather to intervene. Removing age and license restrictions introduces a different set of consequences related to ownership and registration/licensing. More on that later.
  • DUI: Do we need DUI laws for autonomous vehicles if the software rather than the person is doing all the work?
  • Parking: An autonomous vehicle could drop me off at work and return home rather than having me pay for parking. Combine that with fleet-based ride-hailing for short hops and parking lots along with street parking get radically reduced.
  • Tolls: If an autonomous vehicle doesn’t require a person, how can the bridge and road tolls be collected on traditional toll booth manned infrastructure?
  • Liability: Who assumes it? We’re handing over operational responsibility to the vehicle itself, therefore it would be natural to assume that liability also transfers to the manufacturer. No? Sure, they could attempt to transfer it via EULA but at the end of the day a bug is going to have serious consequences that go beyond just being inconvenient.
  • Traffic infractions: Similar to liability, if the vehicle does create an infraction, who gets the ticket?
  • License plates: Need them? The autonomous vehicle is inherently connected, why does it need a license plate if, presumably, it won’t get pulled over and the registration information could be transmitted to an authenticated requester electronically?
  • Configurable roadways: Networked vehicles present an amazing opportunity to convert a fixed and inflexible infrastructure to a dynamic and reconfigurable one. Heavy traffic going northbound on 280, take one of the southbound lanes and use it for northbound traffic for 30 minutes.
  • First responders: Autonomous vehicles will reduce accidents, which suggests we will need fewer first responders. A self-managed fleet of vehicles will not require traffic enforcement.
  • Shifting revenue: Take away towing fees because cars are not parking, traffic fines, DUI fines, etc., and a large chunk of revenue going to the government goes away. Of course, the necessary manpower used to enforce regulation also goes away so maybe it balances out.

As you can see, fascinating to consider the implications and yet public officials rarely even go there…