Sunday, 29 April 2012

Putting people in a place

Is it necessary for society to lie to individuals about their capability in order to actually reduce their capability (psychosomatically) in order that they can be content with occupations that do not utilise their capability?

Observation/opinion 1: the average person does not make full use of their capabilities (in my opinion just about anyone can be trained to do just about anything a human can do, with enough time, the right instructor and a willing pupil)
Observation/opinion 2: it is not motivating to undertake tasks that are well below ones capability level*
Observation/opinion 3: techniques of automation and robotics are nowhere near eliminating all tasks that are below the capability of a well-trained human
Observation/opinion 4: it is possible to reduce the capability of a person through feedback that alters that person's perception of their capability

Even if it is the case that there is no deliberate/conscious action to lie to individuals about their capability, the structure of education systems has an equivalent effect.

*A great concern of mine (no doubt inspired by Marvin from H2G2) is that making AI intelligent enough to be able to handle all of our menial tasks will make it subject to the same aversion to menial tasks as humans.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Understanding the physiological basis for human needs

Although widely criticised and found to be incorrect (at least the ranking aspect), Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is still widely taught and is a model that is easily understood and rings-true to those who learn about it. But perhaps most interesting about this model, and others such as the Fundamental Human Needs, is that they are really only posing the questions that require further research to answer.

For the physiological needs in Maslow's hierarchy (breathing, wood, water, sex, sleep, homoeostatis, excretion - to list those in the model shown on Wikipedia), the chemical and biological mechanisms are understood: we know how we breathe, and we know why chemically we need to breathe; we know how oxygen and carbon dioxide are carried around the body.

But for Maslow's other layers, what are the physiological mechanisms? It's likely that dopamine and serotonin will feature in there somewhere. But are all the other layers actually distinct from each other physiologically? If connection with family triggers the same dopamine pathway that problem-solving does, then the fundamental need is not either of those things but the pathway underneath.

Once we understand the physiological basis, we can refine the groupings and disaggregate the cultural/nurture expressions of needs from the true fundamental needs. And we will gain profound insight into the way humans work.

[N.B. although homeostasis is separated out in the model on the Wikipedia page, it actually emcompasses many if not all of the physiological needs]

Trusting self-help and personal development

I have an instinctive distrust of self-help and personal development, but at the same time a strong desire to optimise my productivity and happiness, and to see the productivity and happiness of the world improved. How to reconcile the two?

What we really need is science: double-blind controlled trials. The book 59 seconds by Richard Wiseman is an attempt in that direction, collating the scientific evidence in the field. But much more is needed. Every assertion of the self-help and personal development field requires research that results in either debunking or optimisation.

Another aspect I am cynical about is people who have been solely successful in selling self-help material, and use their own success at selling self-help material as evidence that their self-help material is of value. If we are to trust any non-scientifically-derived annecdotal self-help suggestions, surely it should be those from people who have been successful at more than just self-help and personal development?

Being too indulgent to artists that don't communicate well

For every artist that I don't understand, there are three possibilities:
  1. The artist has a valid perspective on the human experience that is so different from my own that the understanding gap is too high
  2. The artist has an understandable perspective that they have made unnecessarily complicated as a result of a lack of clarity of thinking
  3. The artist is not communicating anything of value, but makes the illusion of doing so (wrapped up in complexity) for the rewards of attention and money
Due to the difficulty and subjectiveness in distinguishing between the above possibilities, we are often indulgent to artists, assuming option 1, when options 2 or 3 might be the case.

By contrast, scientists who do not clearly communicate their work are given far less indulgence. So much so that scientists with a valid perspective are sometimes recognised only after their death when the rest of the world has caught up.

My view: scientists could do with a little more; artists with a little less.

Make every employee a competitive intelligence agent

Companies should aim to make all of their employees competitive intelligence agents.

Why? Because the volume of data available, and the variety of forms that it takes, make collation and analysis by competitive intelligence professionals challenging. Because these employees are already encountering this information in their jobs, in their personal lifes (e.g. as customers) and via contacts etc.

How? By making it very easy for employees to log that information on the intranet, via email, via app, etc. For example a wiki intranet site of competitor information that an employee can add to. The sales team might contribute the data on competitors' pricing, the research team would contribute data on competitors' technologies, the finance team would contribute data on competitors' financials, etc.

The self-referential meta-post

This blog has decended mainly into ideas. But what about the idea of free idea exchange? Is there a future to this? Is it a meme that will catch on? Will it benefit society by doing so? Can half-baked thoughts posted to a poorly promoted blog actually make a difference? Can pure ideas change the world?

Storing warranty, proof-of-purchase and instructions

Storing the warranty documentation, proof-of-purchase, product key (ie for software) and instructions that come with products is a pain. Additionally, in the early stages of owning a product it is common to retain the packaging in case the product needs to be returned.

How can this aspect of product ownership be improved?

The obvious answer is electronic storage (except of course for the packaging). Product instructions are increasingly made available online in a downloadable form (such as pdf), which is a most welcome trend. However, finding the instructions online requires you to know the exact make and model. A possible alternative would be to place a QR code or equivalent on the product, which directs a smart device directly to the instructions. Warranty documentation, where generic to a product, can be similarly made available.

Proof-of-purchase, product key and more specific warranties do not lend themselves to storage online due to specificity to the consumer. A possibility would be to email the customer the information on purchase, as electronic storage (in an email account) and retrieval is far easier. Another possibility would be to store this information in a form of electronic storage (e.g. micro-SD card) that is then inserted into the product. A lower-tech alternative would be to record the information on a plastic card which is inserted into the product.

Another possibility, again based on having the information stored in the product, would be to have the product able to display the information to the consumer, e.g. via an eInk display. This could be used to display a QR code to access the link to further information (e.g. instructions) online.

These techniques would mean that the information is not stored separately from the product, which inconveniences the consumer when they come to use that information.

A vending machine for everything

When will we have a vending machine for everything?

There are marketers who would emphasise the customer service element of the retail environment, but for certain types of goods and certain types of shoppers, human interaction isn't necessary, and can be a hindrance.

The fully-automated shopping models of the future:
  • web-based (or app-based) with delivery to your door (or potentially to your person wherever you are)
  • traditional-style shops with fast self-checkout or RFID based transactions
  • vending machines that take an order (on a screen, from a mobile device, or by voice) and dispense the product
Fast food outlets seem a potential early target from automation to the vending machine model. The workers are already production-line-organised, allowing machines to be slotted-in as the technology develops, and orders an increasingly taken electronically. Order-at-the-counter eat-in fast food is replaced by order-electronically-at-the-table; take-out orders can be fired ahead to the restaurant so that food is ready on arrival.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Learning handwriting with an electric pen

Maybe handwriting will die out, with so many input devices (voice recognition, touch, keyboard, etc) competing for our attention. But if it doesn't, then technology could be used to help children learn.

By writing with an electric pen (either on some kind of pad, or with a position sensor), an algorithm could be used to assess words and letters for their clarity and shape, suggesting to the students which letters to practise. This would use techniques similar to OCR (optical character recognition), and could simultaneously improve OCR technology and teach students a handwriting style conducive to OCR.

Similarly, once the student has progressed to sentences, the pen could measure the speed per words, identifying words or letter combinations that need practise.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Office suite application to store tree and graph data structures

Some more thinking on from my post on formula driven image objects in an office suite, it occurs to me that the data structures that prevail in common office suite applications is limiting both users' productivity, but also their way of thinking. To paraphrase Maslow: if all you have is an office suite, every problem looks like a spreadsheet'. Users frequently jam data into a 2D array (spreadsheet) or just a text document, when it deserves better structure.

Two data structures that I think are important are trees and graphs, to store hierarchies and interrelationships respectively. I know these can be implemented by database tools and with scripting, but often these are a little out of reach of the average user. What the user needs is a highly visual way to store data in a tree or graph format: to be about to convert array data into tree/graph data; to be able to paste in; to be able to drag and drop. They need to be able to define additional properties for each node, and to make properties of one node, and relationships between nodes formula dependent. And they also need to be able to export the data in a visual format, e.g. for putting in a presentation.

The challenge: make all useful data structures accessible (and hence visualisable) to the average computer user, and expand their minds!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Dual sponsorship

I've noticed that several companies have developed a clever dual sponsorship approach to sponsoring charities whereby two charities are sponsored: one for social benefit (e.g. humanitarian aid) and one for cultural benefit (e.g. an art gallery). The company uses the advertising space afforded by the cultural events (e.g. space on the art gallery flyers) to promote and raise funds for its social cause rather than the company (although with the company logo displayed). As such, the company's brand and products are not directly promoted, which is likely to be a more successful approach dealing with an advertising-jaded audience, and may work on a subconscious level.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Applying PageRank to people

The famous and beautifully elegant PageRank algorithm scores web pages based on the importance of their incoming links, which is in turn calculated from the importance of those pages incoming links, and so forth.

I would be interested to see how PageRank could be applied to people rather than web pages. Some thoughts:

PageRank type mechanism for employee performance reviews

Every person in an organisation is asked to rank their satisfaction of their interaction with every other person of the organisation they've interacted with (with N/As against those they haven't interacted with). In itself, such data would be useful, but it would also be possible to recursively analyse, to take into account the satisfaction scores of the incoming satisfaction scores for a person. This would tend to reduce the influence of a small group trying to game the system by giving each other high satisfaction scores.

Other data could also be used to weight the satisfaction scores, such as employee grade. One might envision that employees who satisfy higher grade employees more would be well rewarded.

A spin-off benefit of such an approach to employee performance review is that it gives data on the connections between all employees, potentially identifying key "connector" people, and also showing those that perhaps need to work on their communication and networking skills.

Facebook and other social networks

There have been published articles on the most popular person on Facebook, but these take gross followers scores. A recursive analysis would be informative: who has the most popular friends?

Sleep headphones

I've always been intrigued by sleep learning, and although the scientific evidence seems to be against it, I have a hunch that with research and optimisation that it could be a productive tool.

One barrier to sleep learning, particularly for restless sleepers that share their beds, is a set of headphones that are sufficiently comfortable to sleep in. Some thoughts on specification:
  • They need to be wireless (for people who toss and turn and would therefore get caught by the wires)
  • They need to be in-ear and small (for those who sleep with their heads on their sides)
  • Perhaps each ear of the earphone could have its own battery and receiver eliminating the need for a connecting wire inbetween. Alternatively, the connecting wire could be embedded in a wide comfortable strip of fabric
  • Perhaps hooked up with sleep sensors to ensure content is delivered in the optimum sleep phase, and to ensure that if the content is beginning to disturb the sleeper the delivery is stopped or the volume reduced
Such headphones would also work well to gently wake people from sleep, and would do so without disturbing their bed partner (a personal gradual alarm clock).

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Not the wastebasket

Image emphasising that unsuccessful ideas shouldn't just be thrown away
Image credit: The Times 100 Business Case Studies, Portakabin

Telepresence and timezones

Via telepresence it should be possible to replace shift workers in one timezone with telepresence workers from another. For example, a nighttime security guard could be replaced by a telepresence robot and a worker based in another time zone (probably with existing technology). With more sophisticated telepresence robots, it might be possible to replace shift workers that require more agility (e.g. nurses).

In the medium term this is likely to save costs in western countries where lower labour rates of different timezones can be exploited. In the longer term (as these differences begin to level out), there is still a benefit for society in minimizing the health consequences of shift work.

At the logical (and technological) extreme, it may be possible to completely elimate the need for shift work. And to do so without requiring human-level AI, just telepresence and human-level sensory input and motor-control.

Inner city caving

Climbing walls are commonplace, but what about artificial (and inner city) equivalents for other outdoor pursuits? How about an artificial cave that could be used to give people a taste of caving, and to train them, in a safe and accessible environment.

It should be possible to make an artificial cave with moving walls (to add some variety and allow difficulty levels to be varied), bolt-in handholds (for the rock climbing element) and underwater parts (to simulate cave diving).

The true employment inequality of our age

Some more thinking on from my post on the cerebral economy, I have come to a view on the true employment inequality of our age. It is not just that the gap in earnings (see the Great Divergence), but the gap in job benefits that are largely undocumented and unmeasured. The ones that come to mind (there may be more I haven't captured here) are (in no particular order):
  • Skills
  • Experience
  • Satisfaction
  • Status
  • Contacts (distinct from status as being people you interact with, rather than people who know about you)
So, any two jobs with an roughly equal package of salary, bonus, health care, pension, share options, etc could still be markedly different in the extent to which they develop the skills of the employee.

These factors (perhaps with the exception of satisfaction) have a compound interest type effect: the more your current job builds experience, the more your next job is likely to build experience, and so on. Over a lifetime, the person who's first job after school/college did more to develop skills is likely to be better off than the person who's first job didn't, even if both jobs had an equal financial remuneration package.

How should this problem be addressed?

For starters, job advertisements should make clear all the benefits, allowing potential employees to make more informed judgements (they may opt for a job with less financial remuneration, but more skills development for example). A common set of headings (like the above plus financial) would be ideal, allowing direct comparison role-to-role, and to force employers to think what experience they are offering.

To take that a little further, could some of these less tangible benefits be built into the terms of the contract? It would be easy where the job involves training for a specific course, but other clauses may also be possible.

Routing vehicles in parking lots

One advantage of connected cars with in-car displays (particularly head-up displays) will be the ability for a parking lot computer to automatically designate each car a parking space on entry to the parking lot, and route the vehicle to that space. This could be done to give the driver a space as close to the shop/building entrance or elevator as possible, and to control traffic flow within the parking lot.

The driver would see on-screen directions to the parking space (with content provided wirelessly from the parking lot computer), and warnings if the car is not being parked in the correct space.

Sensors would be needed in each space (e.g. magnetic field) to determine whether the space is occupied.

Such a system could also be linked with the billing function to charge drivers exactly proportional to their stay length.

Disabled drivers would need to be routed to the disabled spaces.