The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 19th 2015
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
ps: sorry I’m late – minor operation.
1) Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions: Implications for Transport Planning
This is a lengthy and relatively comprehensive look at the impact of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), primarily from the perspective of its impact on Transport Policy, however, the facts, figures, and perspectives are more broadly applicable. Although I believe many projections for AV adoption are unrealistic, one has to be cautious with respect to using past examples of new technologies to predict adoption of AVs. A more or less favorable regulatory environment, rate of cost reduction, and other factors could accelerate or retard AV penetration. I believe AVs will profoundly impact our economy and disrupt many sectors, so this is a “must read”.
“This report explores the impacts that autonomous (also called self-driving, driverless or robotic) vehicles are likely to have on travel demands and transportation planning. It discusses autonomous vehicle benefits and costs, predicts their likely development and implementation based on experience with previous vehicle technologies, and explores how they will affect planning decisions such as optimal road, parking and public transit supply. The analysis indicates that some benefits, such as independent mobility for affluent non-drivers, may begin in the 2020s or 2030s, but most impacts, including reduced traffic and parking congestion (and therefore road and parking facility supply requirements), independent mobility for low-income people (and therefore reduced need to subsidize transit), increased safety, energy conservation and pollution reductions, will only be significant when autonomous vehicles become common and affordable, probably in the 2040s to 2060s, and some benefits may require prohibiting human-driven vehicles on certain roadways, which could take longer.”
PDF download: http://www.vtpi.org/avip.pdf
2) Autonomous Vehicles Will Replace Taxi Drivers, But That’s Just the Beginning
Yet another article discussing the impact of AVs (which are really just robots) on the economy. Such articles tend to speak of absolutes and create a sense of panic. In reality the loss of jobs will likely take 30 years and the labor market will have ample time to adapt. Nevertheless, the numbers are big and worth considering.
“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are about 178,000 people employed as taxi drivers or chauffeurs in the United States. But once driverless technology advances to the point that vehicles can be fully autonomous — without the need for any human behind the wheel in case of emergencies — professional drivers will become a thing of the past. Bus drivers, whether they’re for schools, cities, or long-distance travel, would be made obsolete. Once cars drive themselves, food deliveries will be a matter of restaurants filling a car with orders and sending it off, eliminating the need for a delivery driver. Each of these professions employ more people and are better paid than taxi drivers, as shown in the table below.”
3) Insurers Unprepared for Self-Driving Car Disruption: KPMG
This is evidently the week for AV analysis. One industry which will probably be disrupted out of existence by the emergence of AVs over the next few decades is the auto insurance industry since the collisions, the severity of collisions, and the number and severity of injuries will almost certainly plummet. It is hard to justify a thousand dollars or more for auto insurance when risk levels drop to a few percent of what they are today. Unfortunately, the KPMG study seems to imply 2025 is a time line which should concern insurance companies, however this is unreasonably optimistic (or pessimistic depending on your perspective). Even things like auto-braking are unlikely to have much penetration by then and you really get significant shifts when fleet penetration is high. I doubt I’ll live to see it but I’d be surprised if there is an auto-insurance industry by 2045.
“The majority of property/casualty insurers do not expect autonomous or self-driving vehicles to have a real impact on their auto insurance business for another decade and have not adjusted their business models to prepare for the disruption. Many insurer executives also believe that government will slow the introduction of autonomous vehicles. That’s according to a new report based on the Automobile Insurance in the Era of Autonomous Vehicles Survey by the advisory services firm, KPMG. In surveying senior U.S. insurance executives whose companies, in aggregate, account for almost $85 billion in personal and commercial auto premium, KPMG found skepticism about the potential transformation autonomous vehicles will bring in the near-term.”
4) How will self-driving cars affect the economy?
This is a relatively superficial look at some of the issues associated with autonomous vehicles, and mostly from a Canadian perspective. I rather doubt Canada will be much of a player in the space but that might change over the 20 or so years it will take for the technology to emerge. Among the challenges associated with self driving vehicles in Canada is it’s 3rd world, albeit extremely expensive, telecommunications infrastructure. QNX is often mentioned as a potential platform for AVs. This is extremely unlikely as the segment will almost certainly be exclusively Linux based.
“Automated Vehicles: The Coming of the Next Disruptive Technology, a report from the Conference Board of Canada in collaboration with Calgary’s Van Horne Institute and CAVCOE, calls on governments and business to start planning because automated vehicles will change just about everything: infrastructure needs, the nature of jobs, the economy and healthcare. The report anticipates benefits to be as high as $65 billion largely because of significantly fewer traffic collisions, which immediately translates into healthcare, legal and auto-repair savings. The figures are even more staggering in the US, where traffic accidents alone cost almost US$900 billion annually. This may be why the US seems to be preparing more aggressively for a future with driverless cars than Canada, where only Ontario appears to be working on legislation to permit testing of self-driving vehicles.”
5) DARPA Robotics Challenge: Amazing Moments, Lessons Learned, and What’s Next
The DARPA Robotics Challenge was held recently. Because it was DARPA I assumed it was mostly meant as a test of military robots, but I have read recently that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was more of a motivator. The problem is, how do you send a robot into a place designed for people and turn valves, etc., which were meant for human hands. These are not really fully autonomous robots as per the terminator, but more or less remotely operated. The article has a number of rather comical videos which demonstrate how far we are from having something which can climb a ladder into a reactor and shut it down. Nevertheless, it is worth noting similar DARPA challenges regarding Autonomous Vehicles, with similar results, were being held not that long ago.
“The DARPA Robotics Challenge is over. It will certainly be remembered as one of the defining robotics competitions of the decade—full of drama, hardship, and inspiration. We brought you as much of it as we could, including a detailed look at the winning robot, a fun compilation of robots falling, and our impressions of the first day of the competition. And we still have a lot more to come! But for now, to cap it all off, here are things that stood out to us about the final day of the DRC Finals, and a hint of what to look forward to in the future.”
6) Who Will Own the Robots?
This is a lengthy and somewhat meandering article which looks at the potential impact of automation on the job market. As is typical with such things, the author implies that the current wave of automation (i.e. “robots”) is somehow different from prior waves. It is not. The emergence of novel technologies always takes work away from some while providing work to others. We no longer have keypunch operators and weaving is mostly a craft rather than an occupation. This tends to impact older workers who may find their expertise is no longer required, however, younger workers still have the time to retrain. As always, the least skilled and least educated, get the short end of the still. This is not exactly new.
“Many economists see little convincing evidence that advances in technology will be responsible for a net decrease in the number of jobs, or that what we’re undergoing is any different from earlier transitions when technology destroyed some jobs but improved employment opportunities over time. Still, over the last several years, a number of books and articles have argued that the recent advances in artificial intelligence and automation are inherently different from past technological breakthroughs in what they portend for the future of employment. Martin Ford is one of those who think this time is different. In his new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Ford points to numerous examples of new technologies, such as driverless cars and 3-D printing, that he thinks will indeed eventually replace most workers. How then will we adapt to this “jobless future”?”
7) The Future of Small Radar Technology
Stories about self driving cars and other autonomous systems often mention in passing the use of radar. Most people’s exposure to radar technology is pretty limited and one tends to associate it with military and avionics applications, which are extremely expensive. Of course, cars don’t need radar capable of spotting fast moving objects hundreds of kilometers away: a few hundred feet is more than enough. It turns out that such radar systems are cheap ($10) and readily available for use by even hobbyists. The thing is that their nature remains exotic, even to many hobbyists.
“A tremendous knowledge gap exists between writing the application and emitting, then detecting, scattered microwave fields and understanding the result. Radar was originally developed by physicists who had a deep understanding of electromagnetics and were interested in the theory of microwave propagation and scattering. They created everything from scratch, from antennas to specialized vacuum tubes. Microwave tube development, for example, required a working knowledge of particle physics. Due to this legacy, radar textbooks are often intensely theoretical. Furthermore, microwave components were very expensive—handmade and gold-plated. Radar was primarily developed by governments and the military, which made high-dollar investments for national security. It’s time we make radar a viable option for DIY projects and consumer devices by developing low-cost, easy-to-use, capable technology and bridging the knowledge gap! Today you can buy small radar sensors for less than $10. Couple this with learning practical radar processing methods, and you can solve a critical sensing problem for your project.”
8) A Robotic Dog’s Mortality
This is a rather strange story (watch the video, skip the article which is a summary of the video) which looks at the strange attachment some Japanese have to their “robot dogs”. Alas, like real dogs, robot dogs eventually go live on a farm in the country now that Sony has stopped fixing them. Since the product came out in 1999, it appears the life of a robot dog is roughly the same as the life of a real one but for the intervention of a repair man. These people look genuinely attached to their robots, a sentiment I simply cannot understand. However, there is much about Japanese culture I do not understand.
“Back in 1999, Sony released a robotic dog called Aibo, a canine companion that didn’t crap everywhere and only ate electricity. It sold pretty well — 150,000 units, despite the $2,000 price tag. Some owners became remarkably attached, which makes it even more sad that Sony has stopped repairing Aibo. Slowly but surely, they’re all dying. The New York Times has recorded the plight of current-day Aibo owners in a completely heartbreaking video. They interviewed a series of owners, whose Aibos are a central part of their lives, but are slowly having to come to the fact that their dogs have a life expectancy.”
You really want to watch the video instead of looking at the article.
9) Miniature Heart Sensor Keeps Heart Failure Patients Out of the Hospital
Unfortunately, this article is pretty lean on what CardioMEMS actually is, but that information can be found here www.sjm.com/cardiomems, and, in particular the video here http://videos.sjm.com/health/hfa/CMEMS_Patient_VIDEO_FINAL_5292014_US-2000187AEN.mp4. Essentially the gizmo is a pressure sensor which is installed in the pulmonary artery using a catheter. Once it is installed pressure measurements can be made by the patient at home and the data logged and analyzed, allowing early intervention. I think it is a good example of how implantable electronics system can make a big difference to the practice of medicine.
“Cardiologists at The Mount Sinai Hospital have begun implanting tiny, state-of-the-art microchip sensors in patients with advanced heart failure to better monitor symptoms and reduce their chances of returning to the hospital. The implantable sensor, called the CardioMEMS™ HF System, developed by St. Jude Medical, is a battery-less, dime-sized device placed directly inside the heart to monitor its pulmonary artery. Implanted through a minimally invasive procedure, the sensor detects increases in pulmonary artery pressure, an early sign of worsening heart failure that can be detected before symptoms arise. Among the symptoms of advanced heart failure is shortness of breath, the kind of frightening experience that sends people racing to emergency rooms.”
10) New UW app can detect sleep apnea events via smartphone
This is another example of technology being applied to medicine. Sleep Apnea is a serious condition where you stop breathing during sleep. This places stress on the body’s systems and result in poor sleep, leading to industrial accidents, car accidents, etc.. Chances are if you’ve heard of a middle aged person falling asleep on the job, sleep apnea is to blame. Unfortunately, diagnosis requires a visit to a sleep lab, which is inconvenient and expensive for the medical system. This app seems to allow diagnosis (or, at least, triage) for next to no cost. Of course, treatment with a CPAP machine requires titration (adjusting the machine) which would require a visit to the sleep lab, but inexpensive diagnosis is bound to increase the number of people being treated
“Determining whether your snoring is merely annoying, or crosses the threshold into a life-threatening problem, isn’t convenient or cheap. The gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea — a disease which affects roughly 1 in 13 Americans — requires an overnight hospital stay and costs thousands of dollars. The patient sleeps in a strange bed, gets hooked up to a tangle of wires and undergoes an intensive polysomnography test to count how many times a night he or she struggles to breathe. By contrast, a new app developed at the University of Washington uses a smartphone to wirelessly test for sleep apnea events in a person’s own bedroom. Unlike other home sleep apnea tests in use today, ApneaApp uses inaudible sound waves emanating from the phone’s speakers to track breathing patterns without needing special equipment or sensors attached to the body. In a clinical study that will be presented at the MobiSys 2015 conference in May, ApneaApp captured sleep apnea events as accurately as a hospital polysomnography test 98 percent of the time.”
11) Professors experiment with handheld DNA sequencer
Not long ago sequencing a single gene was 10 years of work for a group of researchers. DNA PCR and automated sequencing have changed things so entire genomes can be sequenced is fairly short order. The equipment remains expensive and bulky which limits its use by doctors and researchers. This project has led to a somewhat rudimentary handheld DNA sequencer which produces remarkable results. In the no so distant future, the technology will result in small, affordable units in every doctor’s office, allowing for inexpensive diagnosis of infections.
“In February, when snowfall closed campus and kept her away from the lab, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who was stuck at home did the kind of work typically reserved for scientists with ample lab space, large machines and a lot of funding. Bonnie Brown, Ph.D., associate chair of the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, plugged a small device into her laptop and sequenced the DNA derived from James River water samples. “From a bucket of water, I can tell what organisms were there, whether it’s frogs, fish or pathogenic microbes,” said Brown, who studies at-risk populations, invasive species and disease-causing organisms in the James River. “And this little device is going to revolutionize sequencing and change the way we collect data.””
12) Amazon says its 30 minute drone delivery service will be ready in a year – if FAA changes it rules on flights
Flying a drone from one place to another isn’t exactly rocket science: hobbyists are building machines that do that every day. The question is whether the FAA (or any other safety body) is willing to let Amazon, and by extension anybody else who wants to, fill the skies with machines large enough to do damage when they fail, as they surely will. One can the benefit of drones in certain applications, however, there are also significant risks to life and property, especially if the number of machines rises. The use of drones in rescue or police work may be an acceptable tradeoff – 15 minute delivery of “50 Shades of Grey” not so much.
“Amazon told Congress its plan to use drones to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less will be ready in a year. However, it warned that FAA regulations needed to change before the service can launch. When government regulations catch up with emerging technologies, ‘it could revolutionize the way people shop for items they need quickly,’ said Paul E. Misener, vice president of global public policy for Amazon.com.”
13) Amazon considering paying people to deliver packages: WSJ
Frankly this make a lot more sense than threatening to deliver stuff with drones. Essentially the model sounds like Uber for delivery: people with time on their hands and transportation can earn money by delivering stuff. Of course, considerable vetting of couriers would be required or a lot of stuff would end up being lost or stolen. Nonetheless, logistical systems have probably developed to the point where the result would not be that dissimilar from UPS. One can imagine that payment would be in piecework (per parcel kilometer) and probably not that high. If the idea catches on, it could possibly be more broadly applied to delivery of practically anything.
“Amazon Inc is developing a mobile application that would pay ordinary people, rather than courier companies, to deliver packages en route to other destinations, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. Amazon would enlist brick-and-mortar retailers in urban areas to store the packages, likely renting space from them or paying a per-package fee, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter. The company’s timing for the service, known internally as “On My Way”, could not be learned, the Journal reported. The service could give Amazon more control over the shopping experience and help limit shipping costs, the report added.”
14) Google Glass for the Shop Floor
Google Glass seemed to be designed to have mass market appeal, something I correctly gauged to be unrealistic. People are people and they have limited capacity to process information and that sets aside the question of whether they even want that information. This is not to say the product is entirely useless: like VR headsets (which will probably find application in entertainment and training) Google Glass and things like can find applications on the shop floor in a variety of applications. I often disassemble parts of a car with a laptop version of the shop manual beside me: it would be a lot easier if I had the same information in my field of vision. I can’t say that bar code scanning would be my first choice of application from a cost benefit perspective but they seem to think so.
“Not long after a Google Glass prototype appeared on the face of Sergey Brin more than three years ago, the technology that has never been nearly as prevalent as Google probably wished started to be mocked, lampooned and dismissed by the general public. TechCrunch described its early “explorers” as “glassholes,” a writer for The New Yorker was told he looked like he had a nervous tic and a lazy eye while wearing a pair, “The Simpsons” and “The Daily Show” railed against its invasiveness, and The New York Times wondered earlier this year what went wrong after Google temporarily appeared to have shuttered the product. None of that matters, though, on the Fisher Dynamics shop floors in St. Clair Shores, Mich. Critics have panned Glass for more popular and wider use, but in certain settings – like the medical and manufacturing industries – it still has tremendous potential. At Fisher, which manufactures engineered seating systems and mechanisms about 20 miles northeast of downtown Detroit, a number of employees recently started to wear Glass in an effort to operate more efficiently and, perhaps in the near future, more safely, too.”
15) 82% of Viewers Want A La Carte Pay TV Options: Digitalsmiths
I don’t watch sports, but I am told that it is a major driver in the broadcast space, and, in particular, with respect to cable TV. The very nature of the cable TV distribution model is to present a “lowest common denominator” offering which bundles channels in such a way that people who never watch something like ESPN end up paying for it. So consumer pay for 100 channels and only watch perhaps 10, most of them very occasionally. The rise of streaming has enabled consumers to pull the plug on cable and stream the content they would otherwise pay the cable company for or to simply do without. Streaming is also asynchronous, meaning you can watch what you want when you want to watch it. “A La Carte” would likely devastate cable company earnings, so they would rather a slow death as it is better for management bonuses. I am rather surprised that Discovery and History were top picks, but garbage sells: where else are you going to “learn” about Ancient Aliens or Megasharks?
“With online TV packages such as Sling TV growing in popularity, video metadata specialist Digitalsmiths decided to examine the area of smaller pay TV bundles in its Q1 2015 Video Trends Report. Of those surveyed, 81.6 percent showed interest in à la carte services. Given a list of 75 popular cable channels and asked to create an ideal lineup, respondents chose an average of 17 channels. The average price they would pay for such a plan is $38. The most popular channels in this hypothetical service were ABC, Discovery channel, CBS, NBC, and the History Channel. The report presents a full ranking of the channels, pointing out that ESPN came in 20th.”
16) Remote Mass. towns welcome broadband’s arrival
A number of months ago we carried an item about UK farmers who had deployed fiber Internet to their respective properties. One thing about farmers is they own the land and can usually do what they want, plus they often have the equipment to do their own excavating. Things are a bit more complicated when dealing with towns. Massachusetts appears to have the sort of enlightened government (at least with respect to Internet service) which is willing to use its resources to extend broadband to “remote areas. This cost is typically not that high, as the article shows.
“By the end of this month, Leverett will have linked every home in town to broadband. Nearby communities are not far behind in bringing broadband to their residents; they see high-speed Internet as an economic boon akin to rural electrification in the 1930s, one that could bring higher home values, better business climates, and easier access to the modern economy. These new connections are the culmination of an eight-year, $90 million effort by the state to build a “backbone” of fiber-optic data transmission lines across Western Massachusetts. The network, financed with state and federal stimulus money, will extend broadband to 45 isolated towns where 40 percent of homes have no Internet access and the rest are relegated to dial-up, DSL, and satellite connections operating at a fraction of speeds available in Eastern Massachusetts.”
17) How Facebook is eating the $140 billion hardware market
I hate carrying BusinessInsider articles but, despite the source, this is a reasonable summary of the Open Compute Project to date. Essentially most of the innards of a data center have become commodities and various contributors, most notably Facebook, have opened the designs which allows anybody to build the systems, including erstwhile contract manufacturers which offer off the shelf versions. Just as Linux is the software which power the Internet, and the most popular operating system (albeit as Android) there is a good chance data center hardware will become Open Compute based. Needless to say this is not good news if you are in the business of supplying hardware for data centers (i.e. Cisco and others) but it is the way these things play out.
“It started out as a controversial idea inside Facebook. In four short years, it has turned the $141 billion data-center computer-hardware industry on its head. Facebook’s extraordinary Open Compute Project is doing for hardware what Linux, Android, and many other popular products did for software: making it free and “open source.” That means that anyone can look at, use, or modify the designs of the hugely expensive computers that big companies use to run their operations — all for free. Contract manufacturers are standing by to build custom designs and to build, in bulk, standard designs agreed upon by the group. In software, open source has been revolutionary and disruptive. That movement created Linux, which is the software running most data centers around the world, and Android, the most popular smartphone platform in the world. Along the way, massively powerful companies like Microsoft, Nokia, and Blackberry were disrupted —some to the brink of extinction. OCP threatens to do the same to decades-old hardware companies like Cisco.”
18) Apple Revokes Monster’s Authority to Make Licensed Accessories
Its really hard to know who to cheer for here: Apple, a large company known for running roughshod over others’ intellectual property while at the same time using the patent system to crush competition, or Monster, a company which produces moderate quality gear and uses marketing to convince rubes to vastly overpay for it. One has to assume Monster was smart enough to evaluate the risk of the loss of its Apple license when it decided to sue Beats but you never never know.
“Audio-equipment maker Monster LLC is finding out the hard way what happens when you cross Apple Inc. Monster said Apple revoked its authority to make licensed accessories for Apple devices after Monster and its chief executive sued Beats Electronics LLC in January. Monster said the move was retribution for the lawsuit against Beats, which Apple acquired last year for $3.2 billion. Monster had been making licensed accessories, including Lightning charging cables and headphones, for Apple devices under Apple’s MFi program since 2005. Short for “Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad,” MFi gives third-party manufacturers components, technical support and a certification logo to ensure that those accessories will work with Apple products. Some of Monster’s accessories were sold in Apple’s retail stores.”
19) The secret alliance that could give the Web a massive speed boost
20) Ex-Googler wants to disable ad-blocking software
Big fleas have little fleas, it seems. Advertisers saturate web content with as many annoying and bandwidth hogging ads as they can and, increasingly, users are adopting adblock technology to hide those ads. Now we have an attempt to frustrate adblock software. Note that there doesn’t seem to be an effort to pull back on the noise generated by advertisers. This may or may not work, but as the article suggests, somebody will doubtless find a workaround which will block the adblock blocker.
“A technology war is brewing between those who want to block internet advertising and those who want to stop their software working. CEO and co-founder is Ben Barokas has founded a company called Sourcepoint which launched yesterday with $10 million in Series A investment funding. Barokas wants to help publishers by providing them with technology to punch through “all the ad blockers”. He said that it was important that publishers have a more open dialogue with readers about the transaction that takes place when they consume content. He said that publishers serve ads in exchange for content being presented for free. And that a transaction needs to take place in the first place because content requires investment.”