Thursday, April 25, 2019

An Author-Optimized Social Network Approach

Sciam Art credit:
In this month’s edition of Scientific American magazine, Wade Roush comments on social networks' potential deleterious impact on emotional well-being. (Scientific American May 2019: Turning Off the Emotion Pump)  He prompts, "Are there better social technologies than Facebook?" and cites previous attempts such as now-defunct Path and still struggling Diaspora as potential promising developments. I don’t wish to detract from the contemporary concerns about notification overload and privacy leaks. But I’d like to highlight the positive side of social platforms for spurring creative collaboration and suggest an approach to potentially expand the positive impacts they can facilitate in the future. I think the answer to his question is: More diversity of platforms and better utilities needed. 

In our current era, everyone is a participant, in some way, in the authorship of the web. That's a profound and positive thing. We are all enfranchised in a way that previously most were not.  As an advocate for the power of the internet for advancing creative expression, I believe the benefits we've gained by this online enfranchisement should not be overshadowed by aforementioned bumps along the road.  We need more advancement, perhaps in a different way than has been achieved in most mainstream social platforms to date.  Perhaps it is just the utilization that needs to shift, more than the tools themselves. But as a product-focused person, I think some design factors could shape this change we'd need to see to have social networks be a positive force in everybody's lives. 

When Facebook turned away from "the Facebook Wall", its earliest iteration, I was fascinated by this innovation.  It was no longer a bunch of different profile destinations interlinked by notifications of what people said about each other. It became an atomized webpage that looked different to everyone who saw it, depending on the quality of contributions of the linked users.  The outcome was a mixed bag because the range of experiences of each visitor were so different. Some people saw amazing things, from active creators/contributors they'd linked to.  Some people saw the boredom of a stagnant or overly-narrow pool of peer contributors reflected back to them. Whatever your opinion of the content of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, as subscription services they provide tremendous utility in today's web.  They are far superior to the web-rings and Open Directory Project of the 1990s, as they are reader-driven rather than author/editor driven. 

The experimental approach I'm going to suggest for advancement of next-generation social networks should probably happen outside the established platforms. For when experimentation is done within these services it can jeopardize the perceived user control and trust that attracted their users in the first place.   

In a brainstorm with an entrepreneur, named Lisa, she pointed out that the most engaging and involved collaborative discussions she'd seen had taken place in Ravelry and Second Life.  Knitting and creating 3D art takes an amazing amount of time investment.  She posited that it may be this invested time that leads to the quality of the personal interactions that happen on such platforms.  It may actually be the casualness of engagement on conventional public forums that makes those interactions more haphazard, impersonal and less constructive or considerate. Our brainstorm spread to how might more such platforms emerge to spur ever greater realization of new authorship, artistry and collaboration. We focused not on volume of people nor velocity of engagement, but rather greatest individual contribution. 

The focus (raison d'ĂȘtre) of a platform tends to skew the nature of the behaviors on it and can hamper or facilitate the individual creation or art represented based on the constraints of the platform interface. (For instance Blogger, Wordpress and Medium are great for long form essays. Twitter, Instagram and Reddit excel as forums for sharing observations about other works or references.) If one were to frame a platform objective on the maximum volume of individual contribution or artistry and less on the interactions, you'd get a different nature of network. And across a network of networks, it would be possible to observe what components of a platform contribute best to the unfettered artistry of the individual contributors among them. 

I am going to refer to this platform concept as "Mikoshi", because it reminds me of the Japanese portable shrines of the same name, pictured at right. In festival parades, dozens of people heft a one-ton shrine atop their shoulders.  The bobbing of the shrine is supposed to bring good luck to the participants and onlookers. The time I participated in a mikoshi parade, I found it to be exhausting effort, fun as it was.  The thing that stuck out to me was that that whole group is focused toward one end.  There were no detractors.   

Metaphorically, I see the mikoshi act of revelry as somewhat similar to the collaborative creative artistry sharing that Lisa was pointing out. In Lisa's example, there was a barrier to entry and a shared intent in the group. You had to be a knitter or a 3D artist to have a seat at the table. Why would hurdles create the improved quality of engagement and discourse? Presumably, if you're at that table you want to see others succeed and create more! There is a certain amount of credibility and respect the community gives contributors based on the table-stakes of participation that got them there.  This is the same with most other effort-intensive sharing platforms, like Mixcloud and Soundcloud, where I contribute. The work of others inspires us to increase our level of commitment and quality as well.  The shared direction, the furtherance of art, propels ever more art by all participants.  It virtuously improves in a cycle.  This drives greater complexity, quality and retention with time.   

To achieve a pure utility of greatest contributor creation would be a different process than creating a tool optimized purely for volume or velocity of engagement. Lisa and I posited an evolving biological style of product "mutation" that might create a proliferating organic process, driven by participant contribution and automated selection of attributes observed across the most healthy offshoot networks. Maximum individual authorship should be the leading selective pressure for Mikoshi to work. This is not to say that essays are better than aphorisms because of their length. But the goal to be incentivized by a creativity-inspiring ecosystem should be one where the individuals participating feel empowered to create to the maximum extent. There are other tools designed for optimizing velocity and visibility, but those elements could be detrimental to individual participation or group dynamics. 

To give over control to contribution-driven optimization as an end, it would Mikoshi would need to be a modular system akin to the Wordpress platform of Automattic. But platform mutation would have to be achieved agnostic of author self-promotion. The optimizing mutation of Mikoshi would need to be outside of the influence of content creators' drive for self promotion. This is similar to the way that "Pagerank" listened to interlinking of non-affiliated web publishers to drive its anti-spam filter, rather than the publishers' own attempts to promote themselves. Visibility and promulgation of new Mikoshi offshoots should be delegated to a different promotion-agnostic algorithm entirely, one looking at the health of a community of active authors in other preceding Mikoshi groups. Evolutionary adaptation is driven by what ends up dying. But Mikoshi would be driven by what previously thrived.

I don't think Mikoshi should be a single tool, but an approach to building many different web properties. It's centered around planned redundancy and planned end-of-life for non-productive forks of Mikoshi. Any single Mikoshi offshoot could exist indefinitely. But ideally, certain of them would thrive and attract greater engagement and offshoots.

The successive alterations of Mikoshi would be enabled by its capability to fork, like open source projects such as Linux or Gecko do.  As successive deployments are customized and distributed, the most useful elements of the underlying architecture can be notated with telemetry to suggest optimizations to other Mikoshi forks that may not have certain specific tools.  This quasi-organic process, with feedback on the overall contribution "health" of the ecosystem represented by participant contribution, could then suggest attributes for viable offshoot networks to come.  (I'm framing this akin to a browser's extensions, or a Wordpress template's themes and plugins which offer certain optional expansions to pages using past templates of other developers.)  The end products of Mikoshi are multitudinous and not constrained.  Similar to Wordpress, attributes to be included in any future iteration are at the discretion of the communities maintaining them.

Of course Facebook and Reddit could facilitate this.  Yet, "roll your own platform" doesn't fit their business models particularly.  Mozilla, manages several purpose-built social networks for their communities. (Bugzilla and Mozillians internally,  and the former Webmaker and new Hubs for web enthusiasts)  But Mikoshi doesn't particularly fit their mission or business model either.  I believe Automattic is better positioned to go after this opportunity, as it already powers 1/3 of global websites, and has competencies in massively-scaled hosting of web pages with social components. 

I know from my own personal explorations on dozens of web publishing and media platforms that they have each, in different ways, facilitated and drawn out different aspects of my own creativity.  I've seen many of these platforms die off.  It wasn't that those old platforms didn't have great utility or value to their users.  Most of them were just not designed to evolve.  They were essentially too rigid, or encountered political problems within the organizations that hosted them.  As the old Ani Difranco song "Buildings and Bridges" points out, "What doesn't bend breaks." (Caution that lyrics contain some potentially objectionable language.)  The web of tomorrow may need a new manner of collaborative social network that is able to weather the internal and external pressures that threaten them.  Designing an adaptive platform like Mikoshi may accomplish this.  

Sunday, April 14, 2019

My 20 years of web

Twenty years ago I resigned from my former job at a financial news wire to pursue a career in San Francisco.  We were transitioning our news service (Jiji Press, a Japanese wire service similar to Reuters) to being a web-based news site.  I had followed the rise and fall of Netscape and the Department of Justice anti-trust case on Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows.  But what clinched it for me was a Congressional testimony of the Federal Reserve Chairman (the US central bank) about his inability to forecast the potential growth of the Internet.

Working in the Japanese press at the time gave me a keen interest in international trade.  Prime Minister Hashimoto negotiated with United States Trade Representative Mickey Cantor to enhance trade relations and reduce protectionist tariffs that the countries used to artificially subsidize domestic industries.  Japan was the second largest global economy at the time.  I realized that if I was going to play a role in international trade it was probably going to be in Japan or on the west coast of the US.
 I decided that because Silicon Valley was the location where much of the industry growth in internet technology was happening, that I had to relocate there if I wanted to engage in this industry.  So I packed up all my belongings and moved to San Francisco to start my new career.

At the time, there were hundreds of small agencies that would build websites for companies seeking to establish or expand their internet presence.  I worked with one of these agencies to build Japanese versions of clients' English websites.  My goal was to focus my work on businesses seeking international expansion.

At the time, I met a search engine called LookSmart, which aspired to offer business-to-business search engines to major portals. (Business-to-Business is often abbreviated B2B and is a tactic of supporting companies that have their own direct consumers, called business-to-consumer, which is abbreviated B2C.)  Their model was similar to, but instead of trying to get everyone to visit one website directly, they wanted to distribute the search infrastructure to other companies, combining the aggregate resources needed to support hundreds of companies into one single platform that was customized on demand for those other portals.

At the time LookSmart had only English language web search.  So I proposed launching their first foreign language search engine and entering the Japanese market to compete with Yahoo!'s largest established user base outside the US.  Looksmart's President had strong confidence in my proposal and expanded her team to include a Japanese division to invest in the Japanese market launch.  After we delivered our first version of the search engine, Microsoft's MSN licensed it to power their Japanese portal and Looksmart expanded their offerings to include B2B search services for Latin America and Europe.

I moved to Tokyo, where I networked with the other major portals of Japan to power their web search as well.  Because at the time Yahoo! Japan wasn't offering such a service, a dozen companies signed up to use our search engine.  Once the combined reach of Looksmart Japan rivaled that of the destination website of Yahoo! Japan, our management brokered a deal for LookSmart Japan to join Yahoo! Japan.  (I didn't negotiate that deal by the way.  Corporate mergers and acquisitions tend to happen at the board level.)

By this time Google was freshly independent of Yahoo! exclusive contract to provide what they called "algorithmic backfill" for the Yahoo! Directory service that Jerry Yang and David Filo had pioneered at Stanford University.  Google started a B2C portal and started offering of their own B2B publishing service by acquiring Yahoo! partner Applied Semantics, giving them the ability to put Google ads into every webpage on the internet without needing users to conduct searches anymore.  Yahoo!, fearing competition from Google in B2B search, acquired Inktomi, Altavista, Overture, and Fast search engines, three of which were leading B2B search companies.  At this point Yahoo!'s Overture division hired me to work on market launches across Asia Pacific beyond Japan.

With Yahoo! I had excellent experiences negotiating search contracts with companies in Japan, Korea, China, Australia, India and Brazil before moving into their Corporate Partnerships team to focus on the US search distribution partners.

Then in 2007 Apple launched their first iPhone.  Yahoo! had been operating a lightweight mobile search engine for html that was optimized for being shown on mobile phones.  One of my projects in Japan had been to introduce Yahoo!'s mobile search platform as an expansion to the Overture platform.  However, with the ability for the iPhone to actually show full web pages, the market was obviously going to shift.

I and several of my colleagues became captivated by the potential to develop specifically for the iPhone ecosystem.  So I resigned from Yahoo! to launch my own company, ncubeeight.  Similar to the work I had been doing at LookSmart and prior, we focused on companies that had already launched on the desktop internet that were now seeking to expand to the mobile internet ecosystem.

Being a developer in a nascent ecosystem was fascinating.  But it's much more complex than the open internet because discovery of content on the phone depends on going through a marketplace, which is something like a business directory.  Apple and Google knew there were great business models of being a discovery gateway for this specific type of content.  Going "direct to consumer" is an amazing challenge of marketing on small-screen devices.  And gaining visibility in Apple iTunes and Google Play is even more challenging a marketing problem that publicizing your services on the desktop Internet. 

Next I joined the Mozilla to work on the Firefox platform partnerships.  It has been fascinating working with this team, which originated from the Netscape browser in the 1990's and transformed into an open-source non-profit focusing on the advancement of internet technology in conjunction rather than solely in competition with Netscape's former competitors.

What is interesting to the outside perspective is most likely that companies that used to compete against each other for engagement (by which I mean your attention) are now unified in the idea of working together to enhance the ecosystem of the web.  Google, Mozilla and Apple now all embrace open source for the development of their web rendering engines.  Now these companies are beholden to an ecosystem of developers who create end-user experiences as well as the underlying platforms that each company provides as a custodian of the ecosystem.   The combined goals of a broad collaborative ecosystem are more important and impactful than any single platform or company.  A side note: Amazon is active in the wings here, basing their software on spin-off code from Google's Android open source software.  Also, after their mobile phone platform faltered they started focusing on a space where they could completely pioneer a new web-interface, voice.

When I first came to the web, much of what it was made up of was static html.  Over the past decade, web pages shifted to dynamically assembled pages and content feeds determined by individual user customizations.    This is a fascinating transition that I witnessed while at Yahoo! which has been the subject of many books.   (My favorite being Sarah Lacy's Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good.)

Sometimes in reflective moments, one things back to what one's own personal legacy will be.  In this industry, dramatic shifts happen every three months.  Websites and services I used to enjoy tremendously 10 or 20 years ago have long since been acquired, shut down or pivoted into something new.  So what's going to exist that you could look back on after 100 years?  Probably very little except for the content that has been created by website developers themselves.  It is the diversity of web content accessible that brings us everyday to the shores of the world wide web.

There is a service called the Internet Archive that registers historical versions of web pages.  I wonder what the current web will look like from the future perspective, in this current era of dynamically-customized feeds that differ based on the user viewing them.  If an alien landed on Earth and started surfing the history of the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine", I imagine they'll see a dramatic drop-off in content that was published in static form after 2010.

The amazing thing about the Internet is the creativity it brings out of the people who engage with it.  Back when I started telling the story of the web to people, I realized I needed to have my own web page.  So I needed to figure out what I wanted to amplify to the world.  Because I admired folk percussion that I'd seen while I was living in Japan, I decided to make my website about the drums of the world.  I used a web editor called Geocities to create this web page you see at right.  I decided to leave in its original 1999 Geocities template design for posterity's sake.  Since then my drum pursuits have expanded to include various other web projects including a YouTube channel dedicated to traditional folk percussion.  A flickr channel dedicated to drum photos.  Subsequently I launched a Soundcloud channel and a Mixcloud DJ channel for sharing music I'd composed or discovered over the decades.

The funny thing is, when I created this website, people found me who I never would have met or found otherwise.  I got emails from people around the globe who were interested in identifying drums they'd found.   Even Cirque de Soleil wrote me asking for advice on drums they should use in their performances!

Since I'd opened the curtains on my music exploration, I started traveling around to regions of the world that had unique percussion styles.  What had started as a small web development project became a broader crusade in my life, taking me to various remote corners of the world I never would have traveled to otherwise.  And naturally, this spawned a new website with another Youtube channel dedicated to travel videos.

The web is an amazing place where we can express ourselves, discover and broaden our passions and of course connect to others across the continents. 

When I first decided to leave the journalism industry, it was because I believed the industry itself was inherently about waiting for other people to do or say interesting things.  In the industry I pursued, the audience was waiting for me do to that interesting thing myself.  The Internet is tremendously valuable as a medium.  It has been an amazing 20 years watching it evolve.  I'm very proud to have had a small part in its story.  I'm riveted to see where it goes in the next two decades!  And I'm even more riveted to see where I go, with its help.

On the web, the journey you start seldom ends where you thought it would go!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

How a speech-based internet will change our perceptions
A long time ago I remember reading Stephen Pinker discussing the evolution of language.  I had read Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare, so I was quite interested in these linguistic adaptations over time.  Language shifts rapidly through the ages, to the  point that even English of 500 years ago sounds foreign to us now.  His thesis in the piece was about how language is going to shift toward the Chinese pronunciation of it.  Essentially, the majority of speakers will determine the rules of the language’s direction.  There are more Chinese in the world than native English speakers, so as they adopt and adapt the language, more of us will speak like the greater factions of our language’s custodians.  The future speakers of English, will determine its course.  By force of "majority rules", language will go in the direction of its greatest use, which will be the Pangea of the global populace seeking common linguistic currency with others of foreign tongues.  Just as the US dollar is an “exchange currency” standard at present between foreign economies, English is the shortest path between any two ESL speakers, no matter which background.

Subsequently, I heard these concepts reiterated in a Scientific American podcast.  The concept there being that English, when spoken by those who learned it as a second language, is easier for other speakers to understand than native-spoken English.  British, Indian, Irish, Aussie, New Zealand and American English are relics in a shift, very fast, away from all of them.  As much as we appreciate each, they are all toast.  Corners will be cut, idiomatic usage will be lost, as the fastest path to information conveyance determines that path that language takes in its evolution.  English will continue to be a mutt language flavored by those who adopt and co-opt it.  Ultimately meaning that no matter what the original language was, the common use of it will be the rules of the future.  So we can say goodbye to grammar as native speakers know it.  There is a greater shift happening than our traditions.  And we must brace as this evolution takes us with it to a linguistic future determined by others.

I’m a person who has greatly appreciated idiomatic and aphoristic usage of English.  So I’m one of those, now old codgers, who cringes at the gradual degradation of language.  But I’m listening to an evolution in process, a shift toward a language of broader and greater utility.  So the cringes I feel, are reactions to the time-saving adaptations of our language as it becomes something greater than it has been in the past.  Brits likely thought/felt the same as their linguistic empire expanded.  Now is just a slightly stranger shift.

This evening I was in the kitchen, and I decided to ask Amazon Alexa to play some Led Zeppelin.  This was a band that used to exist in the 1970’s era during which I grew up.  I knew their entire corpus very well.  So when I started hearing one of my favorite songs, I knew this was not what I had asked for.  It was a good rendering for sure, but it was not Robert Plant singing.  Puzzled, I asked Alexa who was playing.  She responded “Lez Zeppelin”.  This was a new band to me.  A very good cover band I admit.  (You can read about them here:
But why hadn't Alexa wanted to respond to my initial request?  Was it because Atlantic Records hadn't licensed Led Zeppelin's actual catalog for Amazon Prime subscribers?

Two things struck me.  First, we aren’t going to be tailoring our English to Chinese ESL common speech patterns as Mr. Pinker predicted.  We’re probably also going to be shifting our speech patterns to what Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Home can actually understand.  They are the new ESL vector that we hadn't anticipated a decade ago.  It is their use of English that will become conventional, as English is already the de facto language of computing, and therefore our language is now the slave to code.

What this means for that band (that used to be called Zeppelin) is that such entity will no longer be discoverable.  In the future, if people say “Led Zeppelin” to Alexa, she’ll respond with Lez Zeppelin (the rights-available version of the band formerly known as "Led Zeppelin").  Give humanity 100 years or so, and the idea of a band called Led Zeppelin will seem strange to folk.  Five generations removed, nobody will care who the original author was.  The "rights" holder will be irrelevant.  The only thing that will matter in 100 years is what the bot suggests.

Our language isn't ours.  It is the path to the convenient.  In bot speak, names are approximate and rights (ignoring the stalwart protectors) are meaningless.  Our concepts of trademarks, rights ownership, etc. are going to be steam-rolled by other factors, other "agents" acting at the user's behest.  The language and the needs of the spontaneous are immediate!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

At last year’s Game Developers Conference I had the chance to experience new immersive video environments that are being created by game developers releasing titles for the new Oculus and HTC Vive and Google Daydream platforms.  One developer at the conference, Opaque Mulitimedia, demonstrated "Earthlight" which gave the participant an opportunity to crawl on the outside of the International Space Station as the earth rotated below.  In the simulation, a Microsoft Kinect sensor was following the position of my hands.  But what I saw in the visor was that my hands were enclosed in an astronaut’s suit.  The visual experience was so compelling that when my hands missed the rungs of the ladder I felt a palpable sense of urgency because the environment was so realistically depicted.  (The space station was rendered as a scale model of the actual space station using the "Unreal" game physics engine.)  The experience was so far beyond what I’d experienced a decade ago with the crowd-sourced simulated environments like Second Life, where artists create 3D worlds in a server-hosted environment that other people could visit as avatars.  

Since that time I’ve seen some fascinating demonstrations at Mozilla’s Virtual Reality developer events.  I’ve had the chance to witness a 360 degree video of a skydive, used the WoofbertVR application to visit real art gallery collections displayed in a simulated art gallery, spectated a simulated launch and lunar landing of Apollo 11, and browsed 360 photography depicting dozens of fascinating destinations around the globe.  This is quite a compelling and satisfying way to experience visual splendor depicted spatially.  With the New York Times and  iMax now entering the industry, we can anticipate an incredible surfeit of media content to take us to places in the world we might never have a chance to go.

Still the experiences of these simulated spaces seems very ethereal.  Which brings me to another emerging field.  At Mozilla Festival in London a few years ago, I had a chance to meet Yasuaki Kakehi of Keio University in Japan, who was demonstrating a haptic feedback device called Techtile.  The Techtile was akin to a microphone for physical feedback that could then be transmitted over the web to another mirror device.  When he put marbles in one cup, another person holding an empty cup could feel the rattle of the marbles as if the same marble impacts were happening on the sides of the empty cup held by the observer.  The sense was so realistic, it was hard to believe that it was entirely synthesized and transmitted over the Internet.  Subsequently, at the Consumer Electronics Show, I witnessed another of these haptic speakers.  But this one conveyed the sense not by mirroring precise physical impacts, but by giving precisely timed pulses, which the holder could feel as an implied sense of force direction without the device actually moving the user's hand at all.  It was a haptic illusion instead of a precise physical sensation.

As haptics work advances it has potential to impact common everyday experiences beyond the theoretical and experimental demonstrations I experienced.  This year haptic devices are available in the new Honda cars on sale this year as Road Departure Mitigation, whereby steering wheels can simulate rumble strips on the sides of a lane just by sensing the painted lines on the pavement with cameras.
I am also very excited to see this field expand to include music.  At Ryerson University's SMART lab, Dr. Maria Karam, Dr. Deborah Fels and Dr. Frank Russo applied the concepts of haptics and somatosensory depiction of music to people who didn't have the capability of appreciating music aurally.  Their first product, called the Emoti-chair breaks the frequency range of music to depict different audio qualities spatially to the listeners back.  This is based on the concept that the human cochlea is essentially a large coiled surface upon which sounds of different frequencies resonate and are felt at different locations.  While I don't have perfect pitch, I think having a spatial-perception of tonal scale would allow me to develop a cognitive sense of pitch correctness to compensate using a listening aid like this.  Fortunately, Dr. Karam is advancing this work to introduce new form factors to the commercial market in coming years.

Over many years I have had the chance to study various forms of folk percussion.  One of the most interesting drumming experiences I have had was a visit to Lombok, Indonesia where I had the chance to see a Gamelan performance in a small village along with the large Gendang Belek drums accompanying.  The Gendang Belek is a large barrel drum worn with a strap that goes over the shoulders.  When the drum is struck the reverberation is so fierce and powerful that it shakes the entire body, by resonating through the spine.  I had an opportunity to study Japanese Taiko while living in Japan.  The taiko, resonates in the listener by resonating in the chest.  But the experience of bone-conduction through the spine is altogether a more intense way to experience rhythm.

Because I am such an avid fan of physical experiences of music, I am frequently gravitating toward bassey music.  I tend to play it in a sub-woofer-heavy car stereo, or seek out experiences to hear this music in nightclub or festival performances where large speakers animate the lower frequencies of music.  I can imagine that if more people had the physical experience of drumming that I've had, instead of just the auditory experience of it, more people would enjoy making music themselves.

As more innovators like TADs Inc. (an offshoot of the Ryerson University project) bring physical experiences of music to the general consumer, I look forward to experiencing my music in greater depth.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Back in 2005-2006 my friend Liesl told me about the coming age of chat bots.  I had a hard time imagining how people would embrace products that simulated human voice communication but were less “intelligent”.  She ended up building a company that allowed people to have polite automated service agents that you could program with a certain specific area of intelligence.  Upon launch she found that people spent a lot more time conversing with the bots than they did with the average human service agent.  I wondered if this was because it was harder to get questions answered, or if people just enjoyed the experience of conversing with the bots more than they enjoyed talking to people.  Perhaps when we know the customer service agent is paid hourly, we don't gab in excess.  But if it's chat bot you're talking to, we don't feel the need to be hasty?

Fast forwarding over a decade later, IBM has acquired her company into the Watson group.  During a dinner party we talked about Amazon’s Echo sitting on her porch.  She and her husband would occasionally make DJ requests to “Alexa” (the name for Echo’s internal chat bot) as if it was a person attending the party.  It was definitely seeming that the age of more intelligent bots is upon us.  Most folk who have experimented with speech-input products of the last decade have become accustomed to talking to bots in a robotic monotone devoid of accent because of the somewhat random speech capture mistakes that early technology was burdened with.  If the bots don't adapt to us, we go to them it seems, mimicking the 50's and 60's movies of how we've heard robotic voices depicted to us in science fiction films.

This month both Microsoft and Facebook have announced open bot APIs for their respective platforms.  Microsoft’s platform for integration is an open source "Bot Framework" that allows any web developer to re-purpose the code to inject new actions or content tools in the active discussion flow of their conversational chat bot called Cortana, which is built into the search box of every Windows 10 operating system they license.  They also demonstrated how the new bot framework allows their Skype messenger to respond to queries intelligently if they have the right libraries loaded. Amazon refers to the app-sockets for the Echo platform as "talents", whereby you load a specific field of intelligence into the speech engine to allow Alexa to query the external sources you wish.  I noticed that both Alexa team and Cortana team seem to be focusing on pizza ordering in both their product demos.  But one day we'll be able to query beyond the basic necessities.  In my early demonstration back in 2005 of the technology Liesl and Dr. Zakos (her cofounder) built, they had their chat bot ingest all my blog writings about folk percussion, then answer questions about certain topics that were in my personal blog.  If a bot narrows a question to a subject matter, its answers can be uncannily accurate to the field!

Facebook’s plan is to inject bot-intelligence into the main Facebook Messenger app.)  Their announcements actually seem to follow quite closely the concept Microsoft announced of developers being able to port in new capabilities for the chatting engines of each platform vendor.  It may be that both Microsoft and Facebook are planning for the social capabilities of their joint collaborations on the launch of Oculus, Facebook's immersive virtual environment of head-set based virtual world environments which run on Windows 10 machines.

The outliers in this era of chat bot openness are the Apple Siri and Ok Google speech tools that are like a centrally managed brain.  (Siri may query the web using specific sources like Wolfram Alpha, but most of the answers you get from either will be consistent with the answers others receive for similar questions.)  The thing that I think is very elegant about the approaches Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are taking is that they make the knowledge engine of the core platform extensible in ways that a single company could not.  Also, the approach allows customers to personalize their experience of the platform by specifically adding new ported service to the tools.  My interest here is that the speech platforms will become much more like the Internet of today where we are used to having very diverse “content” experiences based on our personal preferences and proclivities.

It is very exciting to see that speech is becoming a very real and useful interface for interacting with computers.  While the content of the web is already one of the knowledge ports of these speech tools, the open-APIs of Cortana, Alexa and Facebook Messenger will usher in a very exciting new means to create compelling internet experiences.  My hope is that there is a bit of standardization so that a merchant like Domino's doesn't have to keep rebuilding their chat bot tools for each platform.

I remember my first experience having a typed conversation with the Dr. Know computer at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry when I was a teenager.  It was a simulated Turing test program designed to give a reasonably acceptable experience of interacting with a computer in a human way.  While Dr. Know was able to artfully dodge or re-frame questions when it detected input that wasn’t in its knowledge database, I can see that the next generations of teenagers will be able to have exactly the same kind of experience I had in the 1980’s.  But their discussions will go in the direction of exploring knowledge and exploring logic structures of a mysterious mind instead of ending up in rhetorical Cul-de-sacs of the Dr. Know program.

While we may not chat with machines with quite the same intimacy of Spike Jonze’s character in “Her”, the days where we talk in robotic tones to operate with the last decade’s speech input systems is soon to end.  Each of these innovative companies is dealing with the hard questions of how to get us out of our stereotypes of robot behavior and get us back to acting like people again, returning to the main interface that humans have used for eons to interact with each other.  Ideally the technology will fade into the background and we'll start acting normally again instead of staring at screens and tapping fingers.

P.S  Of course Mozilla has several initiatives on speech in process.  We'll talk about those very soon.  But this post is just about how the other innovators in the industry are doing an admirable job making our machines more human-friendly.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bluetooth LE beacons and the coming hyper-local web of the physical world

Philz Coffee mobile single-serving brewing truck at San Francisco Marina
Recently, my wife and I were riding bikes around Fort Mason area on the San Francisco peninsula.  Lo-and-behold my wife sees someone with a Philz coffee cup walk by.  She says to herself, “Wait a tick! There’s no Philz in this neighborhood!”  San Franciscans are tribal about their preferred coffees.  We typically know all the physical locations of our favorite roasters and brewers.  My wife knows I’m a Philz-devotee.  So seeing a Philz cup outside of its natural habitat caught her attention.  Minutes later, we ran into the new Philz truck, parked on Marina blvd.  Booyah!

Phil Jaber in the Original Phiz Coffee Shop

This is the first time I had thought about the half-life of a coffee cup in the wild.  The various coffee roasting factions demarcate their turf using the coffee cups they give visitors as a sort of viral advertising strategy.  And the radius of inspiration lasts as long as it takes for a person to consume their beverage, which may be five minutes if a person is walking and drinking at a moderate pace.  This is plenty of time for one customer to inspire Pavlovian thirst reactions in a dozen passersby.

This brings me to the emerging tech trend of the season, the use of bluetooth beacons for transmitting location signals and web content.  (See Apple iBeacon and the Google Eddystone initiatives for the nitty gritty)  We can assume that first applications of these tools will be marketing related like the coffee cups, sending signals that span from a few feet to fifty feet depending on intensity of the signal wavelength.  But one can imagine a scenario where beacons of hundreds of varieties might talk to our wearable devices or phones, without intruding on our attention, in order to sift out topics, events and messages of specific interest to us personally.  As a first step, something has to be written to be read.

Tweetie Nearby View
There have been some interesting initiatives around hyper-local web content discovery in Augmented Reality style applications.  My favorites include Yelp Monocle which spatially rendered restaurant reviews over the viewfinder of a phone's camera, Loren Brichter's Tweetie app which allowed users to point their phone in any direction within the user's proximity to see what was being tweeted there, and Shopkick app that sends audio signals to customers' phones when their phones are listening for the high-pitched signals Shopkick transmitter sent, that are beyond human auditory range.  All of these are app-specific signals.  It becomes very interesting when these kinds of strategies are done in an open fashion that doesn't require a special app to consume it.  The web itself is the best means to move this kind of use case forward.  That is exactly what is happening with this new push to leverage bluetooth.  And of course bluetooth signals decay rapidly over short distances.  So they are only relevant to people nearby, for whom content can be tailored. 

Why is the idea of the decaying signal good?  Think about the movie Chef, and the use case that the protagonist had to tweet their location and updates while they drove across the country.  Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to use a global platform for a location-specific service does it?  Great marketing film for Twitter, but a ridiculous premise.  Chefs need to talk to their communities, not the world, when publicizing today's menu.  And a web where everyone has to manually follow sources and manage inbound information meticulously is a web that will inundate our attention.  When it comes to the things that can matter to us in the tangible world, we need it to speak to us when it's relevant and shut up at other times.  Otherwise, the signal/utility of the web gets lost in the noise.

Google's innovation with the "Eddystone URL" introduces the concept of the beacon being a web server.  The URL a beacon transmits can utilize any modern browser to connect the user to a broad array of web content associated with the specific location without needing a custom application to read it.  Every smart phone in existence can render and interact with web content published in http. 

Admin view of Estimote beacon 
Beacon developer Estimote is joining the Eddystone initiative, soon to support the new URL broadcasting as part of their existing line of bluetooth beacons.  Their current SDKs allow for custom app developers to map locations and tailor apps specific to those locations.  Once Eddystone URLs are integrated they will be readable by notification management tools like Google Now and probably soon custom scanners, mobile web browsers and lock-screen apps.

Once Google exposes support of beacon recognition in Android, the adoption of bluetooth contextual beacons could become fairly mainstream in large metropolitan areas.  (It will be even better if it's done in Android Open Source Project so that Android forked initiatives like Xiaomi and Kindle Fire can benefit from the innovations and efforts of "beacon publishers".) What this could do for our use of Internet tools in daily life is a great deal of simplification of daily tasks.  We will no longer need to have an app specifically to check bus schedules or get restaurant reviews, make reservations, etc.  Those scenarios will be able to happen on demand, as needed with very little hassle for us as users.

In the coming years the companies that provide our phones, browsers and other communications tools will be innovating ways to surface and manage these content signals as they proliferate.  So it is unlikely to be something many of us will need to manage actively.  But very soon the earliest iterations of augmented reality apps will start to surface in our mobile devices in compelling new ways that will allow the physical environment around us to animate and inform us when we want it to.  And it will be easy to ignore at all other times.

One step beyond the mere receiving and sorting of signals is the concept that we might transmit our own signals to beacon receivers in our proximity one day.  Imagine the concept of Vendor Relationship Management, popularized by Doc Searls, a means of us transmitting our preferences to the outside world and having information and services tailor themselves to us.  In a world where we express our wants, needs, opinions digitally, the digital-physical world might in turn tailor messages to us without need for physical action. 

First step for this wave of innovation to be truly useful for us will be to have all the digital world's wealth of subliminal content available to us as needed, nearby.  Second step will be the discovery/revealing in a manageable way.  (This is already in process.)  Third step will be the assertion of preference through the tools the OS, apps and browsers provide.  I think this is the area that will benefit substantially from developer innovation.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mesh Networking for app delivery in Apple OSX and Windows GWX

The upcoming release of Windows 10 operating system is exciting for a number of bold new technologies Microsoft plans to introduce, including the new Microsoft Edge browser and Cortana speech-recognition tools.  This release is called GWX for "Get Windows 10" and will reach all Windows users from version 7 to 8.1.  Particularly interesting to me is that it will be the first time Windows operating system pushes out software over mesh networks in a peer-to-peer (aka "P2P") model. 

Over a decade ago software tools for creating peer-to-peer and mesh networks proliferated as alternative approaches to bandwidth-intensive content delivery and task processing.  Allowing networked devices to mesh and delegate tasks remotely between each other avoids the burden of one-to-one connections between a computer and a central hosting server.  Through this process the originating host server can delegate tasks to other machines connected in the mesh and then turn its attention to other tasks while the function (be it a piece of content to be delivered/streamed or a calculation to be executed) cascades through the meshed devices where there is spare processing capacity.

Offloading one-to-one tasks to mesh networks can unburden infrastructure that provides connectivity to all end users.  So this is a general boon to the broader Internet infrastructure in terms of bandwidth availability.  While the byte volume that reaches the end user is the same, the number of copies sent is fewer.  (To picture this, consider a Netflix stream, which goes from a single server to a single computer, to a torrent stream that is served across a mesh over dozens of computers in the user's proximity.) 

Here are just a small list of initiatives that utilized mesh networking in the past:
SETI-at home (deciphering radio signals in space for pattern interpretation across 1000s of dormant PCs and Macs), Electric Sheep (Collaborative sharing of fractal graphic animations with crowd-sourced feedback), Skype (social networking, telephony, prior to the Microsoft acquisition)
Veoh (video streaming), Bit Torrent (file sharing), Napster (Music sharing), One Laptop per Child (Wifi connectivity in off-grid communities), Firechat (phones create a mesh over Bluetooth frequencies)

Meshing is emerging in software delivery primarily because of the benefit it offers in eliminating burden to Apple and Microsoft in download fulfillment.

 Apple's first introduction of this capability came in the Yosemite operating system update.  Previously, software downloads were managed by laptop/desktop computers and pushed through USB to peripherals like iPods, iPhones and iPads.  When these devices shifted from the hub and spoke model to be able to deliver updates directly over the air, two or more devices from a single wifi access point would make two or more different requests to the iTunes marketplace.  With Apple's new networked permissions flow, one download can be shared between all household computers and all peripherals.  It makes ecological sense to unburden the web from multiple versions of software going to the same person or household.  It benefits Apple directly to send fewer copies of software and serves the user no less.

Microsoft is going a step further with the upcoming Windows 10 release.  Their version of the app distribution method over mesh allows you to fetch copies of the Windows updates not just from those sources who may be familiar to you in your own Wi-Fi network.  Your computer may also decide to pull an update from some other unknown source on the broader Internet that is in your proximity.

What I find very interesting about this is that Microsoft had previously been very restrictive about software distribution processes.  Paid software products is their core business model after all.  So to introduce a process to mesh Windows machines in a peering network for software delivery demonstrates that the issues around software piracy and rights management has largely been resolved.

For more detail about the coming Windows 10 rollout, ZDNet has a very good update.