Can Digital Natives Compete for Socially Interactive Jobs?

According to a recent HBR article, digital natives are less capable to pick up non-verbal cues in face-to-face communication such as face expressions, body language and tones of voice.

Look too damn happy Marc Prensky, who coined the term digital native in 2001, defines digital natives as members of the generation that were born in the digital age and were surrounded by computers, the internet, digital media, cell phones and video games. The main characteristics of digital natives, as opposed to digital immigrants (e.g. people who had to learn new technologies later in life), are the constant usage of the internet, instant messaging, digital music and electronic libraries and little patience for lectures and traditional classroom instructions.

The book “Educating the Net Generation” suggests that digital natives feel very comfortable with technology. In fact often times they do not consider the Internet or Instant Messenger as technologies but see them as tools; at the same time they see only the latest applications as technology. They are able to understand visual information better than textual one and prefer hyperlinks to linear text. Prensky believes that digital natives think and process information fundamentally differently from previous generation: digital technology influences the digital natives’ ability to parallel process and multitask.

In spite of these advantages , the HBR article states that digital natives lack interpersonal skills and may not be able to perform as good as digital immigrants in jobs that require face to face interaction such as consulting, financial advising, and diplomacy.

As educators we may emphasize the importance of interpersonal communication skills and encourage more interaction in our classrooms. The coordinated effort across all disciplines may inspire digital natives to be more interested in face to face communication and better prepare them for jobs that require social contact.

Patent Trolls

Motorola sued Apple over 18 patent infringements related to mobile technology and Apple sued Motorola over multi touch phone technology infringement. Apple sued Samsung over four patents and won a patent lawsuit against HTC. Google and Apple are being sued over street view technology by Florida-based PanoMap Technologies. Microsoft sued Barnes and Noble over an Android App that infringes Microsoft patents. While technology companies work to protect their interests and intellectual property by filing lawsuits against each other, a new type of patent owner has emerged: the patent troll.

TrollPatent trolls are non-practicing entities that follow a certain business model – exploiting weaknesses of the patent system without adding any value. They purchase patents from patent holders, usually technology companies that have gone bankrupt, wait until a certain technology development takes place, and then threaten litigation to get a profit. Unlike large companies who own patents, trolls have very little to lose because they only own paper patents and therefore are not affected by counterclaims.

According to the paper published by researchers from Boston University, the lawsuits initiated by patent trolls led to half a trillion dollars in losses for defendants from 1990 through 2010. The losses are based on the total costs of litigation, falling stock prices, and reduction in innovations. According to Bessen et al., these lawsuits are quite lucrative: trolls filed 2600 lawsuits in 2010, the median defense cost per defendant was $3 million. Since the majority of lawsuits are filed against technology and R&D companies, trolls impact the rate of technology development by hindering the ability of others to do so.

Patent trolls have inspired long-needed reforms in patent law and increased the demand for patent lawyers. Changes in the law, such as new provisions of the America Invents Act, may serve as a barrier for trolls and impairing innovation. The legislation is considered the most significant reform of the Patent Act since 1952. The reforms speed up the patent process by reducing the filing time by one-third. The act also helps patent holders avoid unnecessary litigation by offering new ways to confirm a patent;s validity, and speeds up patent processing for applicants seeking protection abroad.

Will Crowdsourcing Solve All Our Problems?

James Surowiecki, in his book “Wisdom of Crowds”, builds upon an idea that under certain conditions, groups of people make better decisions than any single  individual could expect to make. According to Surowiecki, crowds are collectively smarter than any single person under four conditions: 1) diversity of opinion: when each person has his/her own view and the interpretation of the event; 2) independence: when the opinions of individuals are not influenced by other individuals; 3) decentralization: when people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge; 4) aggregation: when it is possible to turn individual judgments into collective decisions.

Surowiecki proposes that a large group of amateurs can make good guesses based on the fact that every individual judgement may be wrong, but the sum of all wrong judgements collectively can produce a correct outcome because all wrong answers effectively cancel out. However, not all problems can be solved by amateurs, some challenges require a pool of well-trained experts.
Working Together
Jeff Howe defines crowdsourcing as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.” As the cost of collaboration is falling dramatically due to low communication costs, businesses explore opportunities to source ideas externally.

Recently, turning to crowds to improve existing algorithms has become a trend. One of the famous examples is Netflix Prize. To make their recommendation system better, Netflix launched a crowdsourcing effort. The goal was to improve the existing recommendation system accuracy by 10%. The prize was $1 million dollars. 51051 contestants on 41305 teams from 186 different countries responded to the challenge. As a result, a team “BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos” was able to improve the existing algorithm by 10.6%.

Inspired by Netflix’s success offers $1 million to anyone who can improve their product recommendation system.  To get $1 million, a team is required to improve the existing algorithm by 10%.

Heritage Health Prize offers $3 million to anyone who will help resolve the problem of predicting how many days a patient will spend in a hospital. According to Heritage Provider Network, so far $30 billion has been spent on unnecessary hospital admissions. The new algorithm will be instrumental in designing new healthcare plans. As of today, 1342 players entered the competition.

Searching for a better algorithm requires enormous computing power. The most powerful computer nowadays is the K-computer manufactured by a Japanese company Fujitsu. It employs 68,544 CPUs, has 548,352 cores and performs 8 quadrillion calculations per second (8 petaflops). Not many researchers and even large research organizations can afford it.

Grid computing can help solve a problem of limited computer power. This technology allows creating a super computer by combining the power of multiple, geographically dispersed computers in the network. Grid computing has been successfully used by major universities to crunch large amounts of data. For example, a project of the University of California, Berkeley uses grids to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. The Scripps Research Institute uses grids to get assistance in the development of new medicines, and Stanford University for fighting Alzheimer and Parkinson diseases.

If crowdsourcing and the combined power of millions of computers are used together, the opportunities can be unlimited for both commercial and academic use, and hopefully more practical solutions will be found to address existing challenges.

Is Siri the One and Only?

Apple’s Siri, the personal assistant software that uses elements of artificial intelligence, received multiple accolades from the media. But is it the only software that is able to maintain general conversations and understand commands based on speech recognition?

Iphone rulez
Back in the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT created ELIZA, one of the first computer programs (chatter bots) that could maintain a meaningful conversation with humans. ELIZA was created to help patients in need of psychotherapy. ELIZA software responded to patients by using pattern matching techniques – providing answers based on similar keywords. The name ELIZA was inspired by Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, who learns to speak as a member of the elite society.  After some interaction with ELIZA it was possible to discern that ELIZA was a program, however some people believed that ELIZA was a real person.

A Turing test is usually used to evaluate how well a software program imitates humans. Created in the 1950s by Alan Turing, the test helps differentiate between humans and computer programs that imitate human intelligence. During the test, a human judge is assigned to chat with a human and a machine. If the human judge is able to guess who is who, the software program fails Turing Test. The test is implemented in an annual Loebner Prize competition that evaluates the most sophisticated chatter bots.  One of the winners of Loebner Prize – A.L.I.C.E.  is able to maintain a conversation, however in spite of receiving three Loebner Prizes, it still fails to pass Turing test. Another chatterbot Cleverbot won Machine Intelligence Competition in 2010  and passed Turing Test by only 42 percent.

A recent trend is to apply artificial intelligence for the development of personal assistant programs in mobile devices. Dragon Dictation software types down everything you say, and a Genius Button imbedded in hardware of some Android based phones is at your command at all times – finds locations, replies to your emails, calls your contacts and performs other routine tasks. Personal assistants can send emails, post to social media sites, take notes, translate, look up weather, update calendars, find directions and talk to their owners. While Apple’s Siri received a lot of attention in the media, there are similar programs available on Android Market, such as SpeakToIt and Jeannie. To help understand accents, a Singapore company SingTel created DeF!ND, software that understands Singlish – English spoken with a Singaporean accent.

While the use of Artificial Intelligence in mobile applications is on the rise, how this technology will develop? The usage of such applications in academia is also intriguing. For example, can students benefit from using “personal assistants”? Will it be possible to create technology that looks up references, helps in doing homework, or automatically creates and posts assignments by the deadline?

How Disruptive is Digital Publishing?

E-books are booming. Similar to Gutenberg’s printing technology that replaced handwritten manuscripts, digital technology is replacing printed books.

E-books are not new. They existed in various formats, PDFs mainly, for a number of years. However, the launch of Amazon Kindle in 2007 changed the game. Light, easy to carry Kindle could hold hundreds of books. A year after, Barnes and Noble followed with a Nook reader. Later, Borders joined the contest by partnering with Kobo, Toronto-based e-reader manufacturer. In 2010 Apple’s device iPad was released, providing a more efficient way to buy e-books from various providers including the Apple’s own iBooks app. Android tablets followed the suit. By the end of 2010, Amazon reported for the first time that they sold 115 e-books for every 100 paperbacks, excluding free book downloads.

17-05-10 I Got Tagged
While Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks reap the most benefits from e-book sales, publishing houses have to face the most dramatic change since Gutenberg’s times. Traditionally, publishers have not worked with end consumers. Instead, they employed a middleman – a bookstore. But bookstores have their own agenda. The Internet makes everything cheaper. Amazon, a dominant book retailer, deliberately reduced e-book prices in order to increase its market share and sales of Kindle devices. For example, if a book retailed for $26, Amazon would pay a wholesale price $13 to a publisher, and sell the book for $9.99 to an Amazon customer. By taking losses, Amazon ensured cheaper prices of e-books.

Apple proposed a different pricing model. Apple allowed e-book sales through their iBooks App by charging 30% per transaction. Publishers liked a new model as it let them set the price of the book rather than dealing with Amazon’s draconian methods. As a result e-books became more expensive. Amazon did not have a choice but to adopt a new agency pricing model. At the same time, Amazon did not forget to innovate. In September 2011, Amazon announced a new Kindle Library lending program. Library users with access to Kindle software can borrow Amazon books for free from their local libraries. In addition, the majority of libraries offer free Kindle instruction sessions ensuring that e-book opponents can receive guidance and sufficient training on how to use e-books.

eBook Readers Galore
Publishers have fewer outlets to sell books at a regular hardcover price. However the costs of running a publishing house did not change. Publishers spend money on author advances, royalties, printing, advertising and distribution, facilities and operations, editors and so on. In addition, more and more authors prefer self-publishing. By avoiding a publishing house, authors reach out to consumers by offering books mainly in 99c range. Moreover, all classic literature is available for free to download due to expired copyright protection rights. How can publishers put up with disruptive digital publishing?

Guido Lang, VP of Business Development at MintRight, Inc., a global e-book distribution platform, says: “Publishers have to answer the question of how they add value. In a world where you can publish online in real time and at little or no cost, it is hard to convince someone to pay for a publisher. On the flip side, publishers have great experience in identifying, developing, and marketing great stories, which will remain a key skill. However, publishers have to adopt the new tools of their trade – e-books, apps, and social media.”

Of course, opponents of e-books may claim that an e-book will never replace a ‘real’ paper book. However, what is real? The first books known to humanity were set in stone, written on papyrus scrolls, clay tablets, parchment and silk. Paper books replaced ancient forms of book making, and Gutenberg’s printing technology replaced handwritten books. Digital technology and e-readers are ready to transform the whole industry of publishing.

Will paper books cease to exist? Probably not. While everything that is released in paperbacks can be easily digitized, books with colorful illustrations, such as cooking books or art books are perceived better in paper formats and are great gifts. As an analogy, mass produced prints did not replace handmade paintings. The challenge for publishers is to update their existing business model and innovate.

Social Platforms on the Web: How Fashion Brands Benefit from Using Crowdsourcing Technologies

Since the late 1990s, fashion brands have been using online storefronts as a means of promoting and selling clothes and accessories. Today, online storefronts are firmly embedded into the fabric of contemporary relationships between fashion brands and consumers.

Recently, with the rise of social networking, there is a trend to use social platforms to connect with audiences worldwide. Versatile social systems provide access not only to news and product information but also benefit brands by enlarging their fan base. New social platforms serve as a means for generating and distributing content, connecting people in real time, and offer multiple opportunities for communication, sharing and collaboration. Fashion consumers become producers and share their vision with manufacturers.

Inspired by Red Alma MMA successful example of such collaboration is Polyvore users can mix and match hats, skirts, gloves, bags and other items to create a perfect outfit that can be posted on Polyvore for others to see and evaluate. Rebecca Minkoff, an accessories designer, used Polyvore to spice up her New York Fashion Week bag collection. Over 6,500 Polyvore users took part in her challenge and designed a new Rebecca Dee clutch.

Another example is Burberry’s Art of the Trench. Trench lovers and Scott Schuman of the Sartorialist created a database promoting the trench as a timeless and essential part of the modern wardrobe. Partially due to Burberry proactive online strategies, their annual revenue jumped to £1,501 million in March 2011 vs. £1,185 for the same period in 2010.

Zara People! Challenge invites consumers to submit an image containing at least two items from Zara’s latest collection. The winner gets €300. Zara designers are known to be trend followers and not trend creators. Watching how fashion forward people wear Zara provides an instant insight into what styles are popular at the moment. Zara remains one of the largest fashion companies in the world.

While almost every fashion brand has some presence online, the challenge is to create a competitive advantage by reaching the crowds and creating clever crowdsourcing strategies that can be used in designing new products and generating sales.

The Collective Mind: How did we get from an Acheulian axe to iPhone

Consider two tools, one is a stone tool, an Acheulian axe, that has been around for at least a million years. Another is a communication tool, an iPhone, which has been around for about 5 years. Both tools have similarities – they are hand sized, fit in our palm perfectly, and are considered among the most important technologies of their days. The differences are more dramatic. The axe is made of stone and can be used for shaping, cutting, and hunting. The phone is an elaborate combination of plastics, metals, silicon and sophisticated software that allows us to take and share pictures and videos, communicate in real time, listen to music, transfer money and purchase products, check weather forecasts, play games, send texts, and place international phone calls. The possibilities of a smartphone are endless.

Creative Commons License photo credit: slowburn♪

How did we achieve such progress? Not easily. According to Matt Ridley, the author of “The Rational Optimist”, the stone tool was the only technology for more than a thousand millennia and the bodies and brains of prehistoric men changed faster than their tools. Only later in our history did people begin developing newer and better technologies such as the fishing rod, the wheel and agricultural tools. The rate of invention has accelerated rapidly during the past two centuries.

The development of communication technologies was central to this change.  For centuries the fastest way to deliver information was on a horseback. Still, people would wait for their mail for days, weeks and even months. The materials needed for such information dissemination were scarce too: horses were expensive, paper and ink were not readily available for everyone, and people overall had less than desired literacy levels.

The invention of Gutenberg printing press changed the way information was produced, however the dissemination of information was still relatively slow. The optical telegraph was invented in France in the 18th century. Multiple towers were built around the country. Messages were delivered by conveying visual signals: a sender would send the message; a recipient of the next tower would get the message while looking at a telescope and transfer it to a person sitting on the top of another tower and so on. On a good clear day, a message could reach from Paris to the South of France in one day, on a gloomy day it would take longer. The quality of messages was below optimal as a lot of errors were made along the way. Soon enough, optical telegraphs were replaced with electric telegraphs, and the first transatlantic message was sent in the 19th century. After that, the speed of transmitting information became faster and cheaper almost every decade. The radio, telephones, television and finally the Internet lowered the cost of communication, and made information fast and pervasive. Later, mobile technologies connected people around the world including countries that previously did not have even land lines. Faster means of communication allowed people to share ideas more easily, further accelerating the rate of technological innovation.

Ridley explores the notion of “collective intelligence” as a driver of innovation. The stone tool required the creativity and skills of one person and was made of one material – the rock. The smartphone tool needs the creativity and skills of thousands of people. Phones are made mainly of plastics, metals, ceramics and glass. To produce these materials copper, gold, lead, nickel, zinc, beryllium, tantalum, lithium, cadmium, crude oil, limestone and various liquid crystalline substances are required. These materials are mined, combined with other materials in a processing plant and shipped to the manufacturer. Software developers write various applications using computers and servers that are produced by others who use a range of materials in their work. Nano technologists, quantum physicists, inventors, entrepreneurs, marketers, advertisers and countless other people contribute to the creation of a single device.

Natural curiosity forces us to come up with better communication solutions and the advancements in communication technologies has allowed us to use our minds collectively to produce a wider range of goods. With advancements in technology we are able to create elaborate and complicated tools in a short period of time because we draw upon the knowledge of multiple people. Although no one person can recreate these tools on her own due to their complexity, the collective knowledge generated by people enables creativity and innovation. Non-experts with great ideas now find it easier to collaborate with experienced specialists, and to contribute greatly to the emergence of new technologies that may enrich people’s lives, while helping us progress even further from the Acheulian axe.