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Thursday, February 11, 2016
Get Ready for the Next Industrial Revolution IoT

Get ready for the next industrial revolution. Change is inevitable. Get over it! And in today’s world, it will happen quickly.  The drivers for it are not only structural, political, scientific and economic, but also cultural and social. They are manifested through such things as products and services, platforms and processes, as well as how people, governments and organizations are willing to accept and work with them. On the horizon is a phenomenon that is already changing the way we live. Billions of machine–to-machine (M2M) connections are actively connecting devices and applications that people use everyday such as Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Nest, or Apple’s HomeKit. On the Smart City scene are digital programs ranging from water and air quality sensors to sensor-enabled trash collection, using data to improve efficiency, reduce costs and make better use of our limited resources. The Internet of Things (IoT), which includes M2M connections and sensor-enabled environmental data generators, will probably be one of the most revolutionary impacts on our communities and on our lives since the broad-scale adoption of the Internet. While over 15 billion devices are already connected with one another today including computers with mobile devices, medical and environmental sensors, and industrial and commercial machines, 85% of these devices and other things are still unconnected.  It is expected that 50 billion devices and applications will be connected by 2020. The growing adoption of IoT is driving businesses of all makes and sizes to bring about changes in the way they do business, service customers, attract and retain talented workforce and deal with supply chains.

According to Gartner, Inc., the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company, IoT is also one of the most active areas for innovation. Gartner analysts say that IoT has potential as a breakthrough technology, but its complexities make it a high-risk endeavor.  Nevertheless, according to Cisco, the IoT market will be worth $19 trillion, including the private and public sectors by 2024. Soon, entire companies will dedicate their focus on the IoT marketplace. For instance, at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung said that by 2020, every product the company makes will be “smart” devices. 

In Waterloo Region, we have a rich history of being successful and entrepreneurial makers which our Mennonite and Germanic heritage can attest. Fast forward to the 21st century we too are entering the next industrial revolution…the Internet of Things. There are many local players making an impact in the IoT space. Technology developed by companies like IMS, Miovision, Aeryon Labs, Clearpath Robotics alongside startups like Alert Labs, StressWell IQ, Konectera, Medella Health to name but a few.  We can reap the economic benefits of bringing to Waterloo Region investment dollars and creating an environment of success and support by local stakeholders and organizations like the Accelerator Centre and Communitech. Most importantly, we should attract top talent from all corners of the globe to live, innovate and work here.

Our academic institutions are continuing to invest in research, infrastructure and training the 21st century knowledge worker.  Before IoT became the buzzword of the day, our schools had the expertise to educate at the nexus of hardware and software. Conestoga College has woven electronic & mechanical systems programming into their curriculum, and is well positioned with software development, sensors, prototyping and additive manufacturing labs to meet the demands of the marketplace. Truly one of the leading outfitted colleges in the nation and true to their roots, they’ve been working with industry to pull in projects that focus on high performance ICT enabled manufacturing.  University of Waterloo is building a $70m facility, Engineering 7, with the mission of “educating the engineer of the future”. They’re providing students cutting-edge research labs including those in emerging and disruptive technologies; garages for student design projects and specialized spaces such as machine shops, an electronic components shop, and the RoboHub for aerial vehicles and robotics testing. Business and computer science acumen developed at Wilfird Laurier University round out this robust technology ecosystem.  

By combining our solid roots in manufacturing and engineering with existing strengths in ICT, a qualified workforce and specialized IoT relevant disciplines, we may well have the ingredients for success. Our forefathers from another industrial era of innovation would be proud.

This article first appeared in MyLivableCity (www.mylivablecity.com).

Monday, February 1, 2016
The Trump in the Coal Mine

The multi-billion-dollar circus that is the American Presidential election rolls ever on. We stand amazed that a billionaire real estate developer and reality TV star, spewing a sneering mix of lies and vitriol, dominates the Republican side of the contest. He is less a Presidential candidate than a walking Twitter account, with a gift for finding words and attitudes that speak powerfully to a segment of the American people.

Who is this segment? Who does The Donald speak for? Nate Cohen, writing in The New York Times, shared an analysis conducted by Civis Analytics in an article well worth reading. They are more likely to be white, male and 50 years old or older than the rest of the US population. They are more likely to have a tendency toward racism, which is why Trump’s most revolting views do not send them running. They are also short on higher education; his strongest support is in Census tracts where 20% or less of the population has, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.

What does that add up to? To me, it is a description of people on the losing end of the broadband economy. The growth of the knowledge-based, innovation-focused economy, which so ruthlessly purges uncompetitive industries and companies, has stunted their job prospects and shrunk their hopes. They feel betrayed and angry. So an angry man – despite his riches, reputation and liberal leanings – is the only one who speaks what is in their hearts.

My friends and colleagues around the world may shake their heads at this American phenomenon. But that would be to miss the point. The same anger at being left behind is rising in Europe, fueled by endless recession and now massive migration. It is among the many forces tearing the Middle East apart and roiling Latin America as the commodities boom ends. There is literally no chance that Donald Trump will enter the White House, except perhaps on a visitor’s pass, because he has too few supporters and they are not likely voters. But like the canary in the coal mine, Trump is a sign of trouble that must be addressed. For all of its benefits, the broadband economy is bad news for part of our people and we ignore their needs at our peril.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Looking Forward: Getting Us Closer?

When we look at the adoption of new technologies, there often seem to be two simultaneous divergent trends. The innovators and early adopters push the technology forward, making significant progress every year. The laggards still find many reasons not to use the technology.

The current state of videoconferencing provides a very strong example of this divergence.

While videoconferencing has been steadily increasing in the corporate world, it hasn’t really taken off. Each year, we see new predictions that this next year videoconferencing will be unavoidable.

The obstacles to widespread adoption of videoconferencing in the past included:

  • Cost – which has decreased dramatically over the last few years
  • Quality — the need for high broadband, low latency on both sides of the conversation, which gets better as bandwidth has generally increased
  • Sunk costs that make people wary of investing more money — one estimate is that more than half of businesses have outdated hardware
  • And, as always, human resistance or impediments to change of any kind.

In recent years, consumers have tended to adopt new technologies faster than big corporations do. But reliable data about usage of consumer video, like Skype Video or Apple FaceTime, is not readily available.

Nevertheless, the technology is moving forward with some interesting results.

Two weeks ago, Skype celebrated ten years of video calls by offering group mobile video conferencing.

Using through-the-screen-camera and a holographic illusion, DVETelepresence has worked to make videoconferences appear more natural to participants. This picture is one of my favorites. You’ll notice that to enhance the illusion they even embed the office plant on both sides of the screen, as if it really is to the side of the people who are remote.

Last week, 4Dpresence, a spinoff of DVETelepresence, announced the availability of their “holographic town hall” for political candidates and issues. Taking a page from India’s Prime Minister, who used videoconferences to appear all over that country during their last election, this company is offering to host candidates who can appear as if they are live holograms and interact with audiences. The company claims:

“In live venues, the patented holographic augmented reality podium is so bright the candidates appear more compelling than actually being there in person. The candidates and citizens engage each other naturally as if they are together in person.”

You can see a video on their website.

Personify offers what they call “Video Conversation, With a Hint of Teleportation”. The idea is to eliminate the background that an Intel RealSense 3D camera or a Primesense Carmine 3D cameravideo camera is picking up so that you and the people you’re talking to all seem to share the same virtual space.

Another version of teleportation for videoconferencing was featured a few months ago in a Wall St. Journal article titled “The Future of Remote Work Feels Like Teleportation: Virtual-reality headsets, 3-D cameras help make videoconferencing immersive”. As its author wrote:

“I have experienced the future of remote work, and it feels a lot like teleportation. Whether I was in a conference room studded with monitors, on a video-chat system that leverages 3-D cameras, or strapped into a virtual-reality headset inhabiting the body of a robot, I kept having the same feeling over and over again: I was there — where collaboration needed to happen.”  

The article focused especially on the use of virtual reality gear to achieve this effect. There is DORA from the University of Pennsylvania, in which a person uses the VR headset to see through the eyes of a mobile robot.

This month’s MIT Technology Review also highlighted the use of Microsoft’s Room Alive in an article titled “Can Augmented Reality Make Remote Communication Feel More Intimate? A Microsoft Research study uses augmented reality to project a life-size person into a room with you, perching them in an empty seat.”

Eventually, as the technology gets ever more interesting and intimate, some fraction of the laggards may finally adopt the new technology. Although as Max Planck noted about scientific progress, the adoption pattern may just be generational: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

So it’s interesting that “47% of US teens use video chat including Skype, Oovoo, Facetime and Omegle.

In the meantime, the early adopters are getting all the economic and intellectual benefits that can only occur with the full communication that videoconferencing provides and texting/emails don’t. These people are literally seeing the real potential of global Internet communications and will likely reap the economic gains from realizing that potential.

Friday, January 15, 2016
Looking Forward: Talk to Anyone in Any Language?

It’s been clear for some time that the Internet can connect everyone around the globe – in theory. This opens up tremendous potential for collaboration, mutual economic growth, education and a variety of other benefits. We’ve seen many of those benefits, but we still haven’t touched the surface.

Among other reasons the true potential of a globally connected world hasn’t yet been realized is that many people still can’t communicate when they communicate – they don’t speak the same language.

So it has been interesting to me to see the recent improvements in real time translation on the Internet. I’m not talking about the translation of text that has been around for a couple of years through, for example, Google Translate of websites or even the very useful app, WordLens, which I have used in my travels when I had to read foreign signs.

No, the new improvements are in speech – taking speech from one language and ultimately, quickly converting it correctly into another language. Although text translation is not easy, speech introduces much greater challenges.

These new real-time voice translation services and devices aren’t perfect, but they’ve improved enough that they are usable. And that usability will begin to make all the difference.

Last year, Google took its Translate app into speech. You can see a quick video example here. Google claims it can handle 90 of the world’s languages.

Then, more recently, Skype made its Translator generally available, although it’s clearly still in a sort of test mode. For English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Mandarin, Skype describes its capabilities quite simply:

“You can call almost anyone who has Skype. It will translate your conversation into another language in near real-time. What someone else says is translated back in your language. An on-screen transcript of your call is displayed.”

They have a charming video of school children in the US and Mexico talking to each other somewhat awkwardly.

There’s another video, titled “Speak Chinese Like A Local” with an American photojournalist in China arranging a tour for himself.

This translation work hasn’t only be done in the US. The Japanese have also been busy at this task, in their own way.

While not using the Internet, a Panasonic translator – in the form of a smart megaphone – will be tested at Narita Airport to translate between Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English.

Then there’s the “ili”, a portable device (also not connected to the Internet) which translates between Japanese, Chinese and English. The company describes it as “the world’s first wearable translator for travelers”. They’ve posted a video athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6ngM0LHxuU. The video is a strange combination of cute and creepy, but it gets the point across.

These developments have led some stories to proclaim the arrival of the universal translator of Star Trek. But as Trekkie experts say, unlike the one in Star Trek, this doesn’t read brains, which may have been a necessity to communicate with non-human species.  

On the other hand, if you only want to talk with other people, the new language translators are pretty good substitutes ;-) With more use, they can only get better, faster, all the while helping to improve understanding between people around the world.

Monday, January 11, 2016
Light a Candle, America, for the Common Core

On December 10, President Obama signed a reform of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which had been passed by Congress the day before.  It preserves standardized testing but eliminates any consequences to states and school districts that perform poorly.  It also bars the Federal government from imposing academic requirements like the Common Core, America’s first serious attempt at a national curriculum for elementary and secondary school students.

Parents, weary of test preparation, celebrated.  Teachers rejoiced.  School boards and state education departments cheered. Republican Presidential candidates applauded the brave blow struck against government encroachment on our sacred liberties.

In this season of rejoicing, I make a humble request.  Let us light a candle of mourning for the NCLB and the Common Core. 

The NCLB Act was a bold and bracing vision wrapped in a truly terrible package, like a Ferrari engine shoehorned into one of those Ford Pintos with the exploding gas tanks. It introduced the idea – revolutionary in America – that states and school districts should not be the final judges of what is taught in schools.  There are good reasons for this.  In the best-performing state in 2015, Massachusetts, about 50% of 8th grade students rated proficient or better in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  In the worst-performing state, Alabama, only 17% of 8th graders were proficient or better in math and 31% in reading.  The last time I checked, the residents of both state qualified as American citizens.  In my book, that should entitle children in both states to a decent education at public expense.

The Common Core introduced the idea – another American revolution – that a child in Massachusetts and Alabama should be learning more or less the same thing at each grade level.  That’s not a bad idea in a country where, according to Pew Research, 12% of people change residences every year and 38% say that the place they consider home is not where they are living right now.  If I move my family from the state of New York to the state of California, how much better would it be if my children entered schools teaching essentially what they were teaching in their last school? 

Unfortunately, these goods ideas went up in flames.  NCLB demanded that every student in every school improve every year.  The mathematical impossibility of such a thing boggles the mind, yet ratings of school and teacher performance depended on it.  Testing based on the Common Core was introduced in some states before a curriculum or teacher training was in place.  That’s like building the foundation after you put up the house.

The only way to achieve a poorer outcome would have been to put America’s most bloodthirsty enemies of education reform in charge of implementation.  Conspiracy theorists, check your email.

Why do I want to light a candle to mourn the demise of such a misbegotten creation?  Because in the 2012 international comparison of educational achievement by 15 year olds, called the Performance for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 36th.  The top five spots were held by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.  Also ahead of us were such rich-world peers as the UK, France, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. And let’s not forget such world leaders as Vietnam, Slovenia and Russia, which also bested the USA. 

In most of these nations, the funding of education, design of the curriculum and assessment testing is centralized at national level.  Even in the Netherlands, where more than 70% of educational decisions are made at the local level, the Ministry of Education produces a national curriculum, funds both public and private schools, and administers national assessment testing.  School districts are in charge of how the goals are achieved but nobody gets to play fast and loose with the standards without paying a price. 

A price is paid in every community where weak education fails to prepare the next generation for the global economy.  In the broadband era, that economy is at our doors whether we like it or not.  The “Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015,” which the President called “a Christmas miracle,” turns America back in a direction where Some Students Succeed – if they grow up in a wealthy place where parents demand the best and know how to make their demands count.  

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