Spanning the Chasm: The Missing Link in Tech Regulation – Part 1 of 2

Mark Zuckerberg was right when he wrote in his op-ed to the Washington Post that the internet needs new rules – though naturally, his view is limited as a CEO of a private company. For three decades governments across the globe have created an enormous regulatory vacuum due to a profound misunderstanding of the magnitude of technology on society. As a result, they neglected their duty to protect society in the mixed reality of technology and humanity. Facebook is the scapegoat of this debate due to its enormous impact on the social fabric, but the chasm between governments, regulation and tech affect every other tech company whether it is part of a supply chain of IT infrastructure or a consumer-facing service. The spring of initiatives to regulate Artificial Intelligence (AI) carry the same burden and that is why the driving force behind them is mostly fear, uncertainty and negative sentiment. I am personally involved in one of those initiatives, and I can’t escape the feeling it is a bandage for a severe illness, resulting in a short-sighted solution to a much bigger problem.

Before technology became immersed in our reality, human-driven processes governed our social fabric. Methods that evolved during centuries to balance the power and responsibility among governments, citizens and companies resulted in a set of rules which are observable and enforceable by humans quite effectively. Never a perfect solution, but a steady approach for the democratic systems we know. Every system has a pace and rhythm where the government-societal system is bound to humans’ pace to create, understand, express and collaborate effectively with others. The pace of living we all got used to is measured in days, weeks, months and even years. Technology, on the other hand, works on a different time scale. Information technology is a multi-purpose lego with a fast learning curve, creating the most significant impact in a shorter and shorter timeframe. In the world of technology, the pace has two facets: the creation/innovation span, optimized into achieving significant impact in a shorter period; and the run time aspect, which introduces a more profound complexity.

Running IT systems hide a great deal of complexity from their users – highly volatile dynamics operating in the space of nanoseconds. IT systems are made of source code used to describe to computers what should be done in order to achieve the goal of the system. The code is nothing more than a stream of electrons and as such can be changed many times a second to reflect ideas desired by the creator, where a change in the code leads to a different system. One of the greatest premises of AI, for example, is the fact it can create code on its own using only data and without human intervention. A change, for example, can carry an innocent error that reveals the personal details of millions of consumers to the public. This volatile system impacts privacy, consumer protection and human rights. The rapid pace of change of technology is an order of magnitude faster than humans’ capability to perceive the complexity of a change in time to effectively apply human decisions the way regulation works today.

The mandate for, and requirement of governments to protect citizens have not changed at all during the last 30 years besides supporting societal changes. What has changed is reality, where technological forces govern more and more parts of our lives and our way of living, and governments cannot fulfill their duty due to their inability to bridge these two disconnected worlds. Every suggestion of a human-driven regulatory framework will be blindsided and defensive by definition, with no real impact and eventually harmful for the technological revolution. Harm to technological innovation will directly inflict on our way of living as we have already passed the tipping point of dependency on technology in many critical aspects of life. The boundaries of what regulation suggests about what is right and wrong still make sense and have not changed, as it applies to humans after all. The way to apply the regulation on the technological part of reality has to adapt to the rules of the game of the technology world to become useful, and not counter-intuitive to the main benefits we rip from tech innovation.

The growing gap between the worlds of humans and IT has much more significant ramifications, and we already experience some of them such as in the case of cyber attacks, uncontrolled AI capabilities and usage, robotics and automation as disruptors for complete economic ecosystems, autonomous weapons, the information gap, and others we don’t know about yet. The lagging of governments has placed absurd de-facto privatization of regulation into the hands of private enterprises motivated by the economic forces of profitability and growth. Censorship, consumer protection, human and civilian rights have been privatized without even contemplating the consequences of this loose framework, until over the last two years where scandals surprisingly surfaced. One of the implications of this privatization is the transformation of humans into a resource, being tapped for attention which eventually leads to spending – and it won’t stop here.

Another root cause which governs many of the conflicts we experience today is the global nature of technology vs. the local nature of legal frameworks. Technology as a fabric has no boundaries, and it can exist wherever electricity flows. This factor is one of the main reasons behind the remarkable economic value of IT companies. On the other hand, national or regional regulation is by definition anchored to the local governing societal principles. A great divide lies between the subjective, human definition of regulation to the objective nature of technology. Adding to that complexity are countries that harness technology as a global competitive advantage without the willingness to openly participate under the same shared rules.

Random Thoughts About Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2017 Presentation

Random thoughts regarding Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2017 report:

Slide #5

The main question that popped in mind was where are the rest of the people? Today there are 3.4B internet users where the world has a population of 7.5B. Could be interesting to see who are the other non-digital 4 billion humans. Interesting for reasons such as understanding the growth potential of the internet user base (by the level of difficulty of penetrating the different remaining segments) as well as identifying unique social patterns in general. Understanding the social demographics of the 3.4B connected ones can be valuable as well as a baseline for understanding the rest of the statistics in the presentation.

Another interesting fact is that global smartphones shipments grew by 3% while the growth in smartphones installed base was 12% – that gap represents the pace of the slowdown in the global smartphones market growth and can be used as a predictor for next years.

Slide #7

Interesting to see that the iOS market share in the smartphone world follows similar patterns to Mac in the PC world. In the smartphone world, Apple market share is a bit higher vs. the PC market share but still carries similar proportions.

Slide #13

The gap fill of ad spending vs. time spent in media across time follows nicely the physical law of conservation of mass. Print out, mobile in.

Slide #17

Measuring advertising ROI is still is a challenge even when advertising channels have become fully digital – a symptom of the offline/online divide in conversion tracking which has not been bridged yet.

Slide #18

It seems as if there is a connection between the massive popularity of ad blockers on mobile vs. the advertising potential on mobile. If there is such then the suggested potential can not be fulfilled due to the existence of ad blockers and the level of tolerance users have on mobile which is maybe the reason ad blockers are so popular on mobile in the first place.

Slide #25

99% accurately tracking is phenomenal though the question is whether it can scale as a business model – will a big enough audience opt-in for such tracking and what will be done about the battery drain resultant of such tracking. This hyper monitoring if achieved on a global scale will become an interesting privacy and regulation debate.

Slide #47

Amazon Echo numbers are still small regardless of the hype level.

Could be fascinating to see the level of usage of skills. The number of skills is very impressive but maybe misleading (many find a resemblance to the hyper growth in apps). The increase in the apps world was not only in the number of apps created but also in the explosive growth in usage (downloads, buys) – here we see only the inventory.

Slide #48

This, of course, is a serious turning point in the world of user interfaces and will be reflected in many areas, not only in home assistants.

Slide #81

2.4B Gamers?!? The fine print says that you need to play a game at least once in three months which is not a gamer by my definition.

Slide #181

Do these numbers include shadow IT in the cloud or does it reflect concrete usage of cloud resources by the enterprise? There is a big difference between an organization deploying data center workload into the cloud vs. using a product which is behind the scenes partially hosted in the cloud such as Salesforce. Totally different state of mind in terms of overcoming cloud inhibitions.

Slide #183

The reduction in concerns about data security in the cloud is a good sign of maturity and adoption. Cloud can be as secure as any data center application and even much more though still many are afraid of that uncertainty.

Slide #190

The reasons cloud applications are categorized as not enterprise-ready is not necessarily due to their security weakness. The adoption of cloud products inside the enterprise follow other paths such as level of integration into other systems, customization fit to the specific industry, etc…

Slide #191

The reason for the weaponization of spam is simply due to the higher revenue potential for spam botnets operators. Sending plain spam can earn you money, sending a malware can make you much more.

Slide #347

Remarkable to see that the founders of the largest tech companies are 2nd and 3rd generation of immigrants.

That’s all for now.

Will voice replace the touch interfaces on mobiles?

Siri apparently has started a revolution, at least public relations wise since voice activation has been around for quite a while but never seemed to be perfect. It seems people like to talk to her and she responds back. Few in the industry have written on the impact the new voice interaction paradigm might create – Gigaom discusses the potential loss of mobile ad revenues and Bloomberg reports on Siri doubling data volumes. Voice indeed seems as a killer interface at first glance since it is more natural to operate once it is working well. Of course, the tolerance for errors is much lower than in touch and it can really drive you mad but it seems that the technological conditions are set for a good working model.

Still, the question of whether we will only talk with our devices in the future and not touch them arise. Before touch we clicked on things and when touch has matured to a good working technology we embraced it without second thought. Old nokia phones (apologize to the ones who read it and still own one:) seem now almost “ancient” as the dial phones seemed to the ones who started using touch tone phones back in previous century. Voice indeed hides such a promise where we can blurb at our phones whatever we want and our wishes will be fullfilled automagically. Let’s list the cool use cases we might do with out phones if they were fully voice activated:

  • Deferred talks – actually you can talk to someone without him/her being on the other line and this “talk” will be transferred digitally as a textual message to the other side either immediately or based on some pre-condition, for example on birthdays.
  • Activating apps by voice – If apps had a voice-based interface then we could do anything we want just by voice. For example say: “Alarm, wake me up tomorrow 7 am, ok?”
  • Reply to incoming messages by voice without opening the device, reading the message, clicking reply, writing down the texts tediously and clicking send.
  • Operate the phone basic functionality – for example a cool “silent” shout on a ringing phone can be something really nice
  • Authentication by voice patterns
  • Unlocking the phone by voice – the common check up we do on phones where we open the lock screen and see the status of mails, tweets, Facebook and other data we have on the dashboard can be done with a single word like “What’s up?”

And on and on…

So it does look promising but will it replace touch? One of the inner attributes of touch interfaces and mouse based graphical interfaces is the ability to interact in two dimensions. Interacting in two dimensions creates the ability to have a direct access to available data and actions and voice due to its serial nature is limited in this respect. A difference like then that exists among using tape cassettes and CDs, no need to fast forward. This difference puts the voice-based interaction into a much more limited scope where it can not replace the rich experience created by the visual and touch interaction. Still, in one area I am sure it will be a welcome replacement and that is where we need to go into serial processes on the phone itself using our rich touch interface – for instance typing texts, I hate it, especially on touch phones, I got big fingers and I wish I could dictate it with a good accuracy. It does not have to be perfect since I got enough mistakes when I type with my touch keyboard so I have some tolerance. Maybe a combination of the two would make a perfect match. Another area would be  changing modes or states on the phone where the touch experience has limited value. For example unlocking the phone.

Another major fault of voice interaction is correcting errors and that is by-product of the serial vs. direct access interfaces. When you need to fix something said you get into a problem, like in real life with people:).

So what do you think, will voice make us all look back at touch interfaces as old and dirty?

Machine Operated Web Applications

Software applications have two main perspectives the external perspective where interfaces to the external world are defined and consumed and the internal perspective where an internal structure enables and supports the external interface. Let me elaborate on this:

The internal perspective shows the building blocks and layers within the application allowing specific data flow and processing. To further simply things let’s take an example from the real world and that is a real building block. We can describe it in a technical and physical description that will detail the concrete, foundations, electricity tunnels, air conditioning, and others. The external perspective of the building is the apartments look and feel, available services for tenants, views from the windows, painting color, type of cupboard handle in the kitchen and others. In general, all the things that people experience when they interface with the building. So if we go back to the software story then the external perspective is the application UI, data feeds, APIs and other entities external parties come in touch with.

Twitter with their approach in their API have created something special which can be the basis for a new development paradigm on the web and that would be MOA – Machine Operated Applications. As a background, Twitter provides one unified external interface, which is their API and their website UI seems to be built mostly on this API (I might be exaggerating here and they have capabilities in their UI not available in the API but the major functions are also available in the API). The same API that is available for others to consume and operate. The API is split ed into two parts: the first part is a general services API which includes search and other user agnostic services which are very similar to other services other companies provide in their APIs. The second part is the more important one and that is the user-driven API where all data and actions available on Twitter’s web application for a specific user are available via the API itself. This model allowed the huge surge in the amount of applications built on Twitter at no time, a developer community that many companies would die for while Twitter did it in a snap.

To describe the model I see for Twitter in a visual way:

[ Twitter infrastructure ] – Internal perspective which is hidden
[ Twitter API ] – Unified external perspective for the product
[ [ Twitter UI ] or [3rd party applications]] – API consumers and operators having equal rights to the external interface (3rd party apps are limited in the number of queries per hour but it is not too serious if you consider that the limitation is per user and not global)

So how all this long and tiring story relates to MOA – machine operated applications? Well once an application can be fully operated and consumed via a formal API (Which is Application Programmable Interface) then robots can use it too. And I do not mean today’s web robots who harvest data, aggregate data and do some kind of analysis. I am talking about Robots that would work autonomously on behalf of real users or companies and will use the product in a meaningful way. For example, I can imagine a robot that will be my social network expander and it will use data from different areas to understand my interest and current network and will expand it automatically by following new people on Twitter. Following someone is a meaningful action in the virtual and real world and once a bot will be smart enough to do so then things will change. Twitter with their API approach allows this evolution.

A note: the split of perspectives is similar to the way strategy in companies can be viewed where a company has the internal perspective of operational capability and the external perspective which is the market share, brand recognition, distribution channels and more.