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10 Things

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
March, 2014 Issue
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Michael E. Duffy
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Without further ado….
 
1. Über über alles. Recent news reports state that 30 percent of cabbies in San Francisco have gone over to working for black-car provider Uber (www.uber.com) and its competitors, Sidecar and Lyft, based on the number of registered cabs that have been idled since those services began operations. Google, known for its self-driving car technology, recently invested more than $250 million in Uber. Imagine what happens when you’ve trained riders to call for cars using your app, and then you take the humans out of the loop with an automated cab. It’s coming, people. As I said in a previous column, cabbies are the walking dead.
 
2. So are waiters. Applebee’s is planning to put seven-inch tablets at every one of its U.S. locations by the end of this year. That’s more than 100,000 tablets! Diners can only order drinks, desserts and appetizers from the tablet. They can also choose “Call Server” for other things or pay their bill. Still, it’s the thin end of the wedge. Get customers used to interacting with the tablet, and move in the direction of eliminating printed menus and order takers over time. It’s not hard to imagine a specialized robot food runner, either (although it might require some floorplan changes to allow for ramps instead of the stairs you commonly see). Labor makes up the biggest part of restaurant costs, so automation is a driving force.
 
3. Managers, however. The Atlantic (tinyurl.com/techtalk2014-03c —worth reading) cites research that 47 percent of the jobs in America could be automated in a “decade or two.” But the article concludes that managers may have some of the safest jobs: “Computers are historically good at executing routines, but they’re bad at finding patterns, communicating with people and making decisions, which is what managers are paid to do. This is why some people think managers are, for the moment, one of the largest categories immune to the rushing wave of AI.”
 
4. Math literacy. There’s a commercial running on KCBS radio that irritates the hell out of me. No, it’s not the Kars for Kids commercial (there’s a special hell for the creator of that one). It’s for a window installation company that trumpets 40 percent off, only to gradually explain that it’s “buy one, get 40 percent off the second” and then to add a sotto voce disclaimer at the very end that you must buy a minimum four windows. So, it’s really buy four windows and get 20 percent off. While that’s still a decent deal if you need four windows, I’m just left with the feeling that the company must think I’m too stupid to do the arithmetic.
 
5. On Target. As almost everyone knows by now, if you shopped at Target between November 27 and December 15 2013, there’s a good chance that your credit card information was stolen. Although the details of how the security breach was accomplished have not been revealed by Target, outside researchers believe it was done via logging into a third-party software product that had been installed on Target’s network. The software still had a default password on one of its known accounts (perhaps “admin”). The guy who discovered the breach writes about it here: tinyurl.com/techtalk2014-03b.
 
6. Alibaba.com. This website bills itself as “the global leader in e-commerce for small businesses.” It’s really a way to make bulk purchases of large quantities of (mostly) Chinese-made goods. I was looking for a part I’ve been using to make prototype designs of a new product that costs me $10 when I order it from Sparkfun.com (a DIY-electronics site). On Alibaba.com, I can get the same part for $1.50, which could be important if my design becomes a real product. Pro tip: Its sister site, aliexpress.com, makes it possible to order smaller quantities (even just one) of some of the products. You can also buy finished goods, which presumably you could sell through other channels with a nice markup. If you make or sell stuff, it’s a fascinating site to browse.
 
7. Things that astound me. It’s really hard to understand how healthcare.gov cost $690 million to create and will cost $90 million per year to maintain. There are many companies that could do the job just as incompetently as the current providers for one-tenth the cost. The process by which the government contracts for products and services needs serious overhaul. And technology could help, but not if the same process is used to acquire it.
 
8. Breakthrough tech of 2013. According to the MIT Technology Review, the top 10 recent technology breakthroughs are deep learning (machine learning begins to actually work); temporary social media (like SnapChat); prenatal DNA sequencing (see also Brave New World); additive manufacturing (such as 3D printing); Baxter the Robot (www.rethinkrobotics.com); memory implants (no more senior moments); smart watches (like Pebble); ultra-efficient solar panels; big data from cell phones; and supergrids (DC- instead of AC-based power grids). Baxter-like robots are certainly going to become more common, as they’re designed to work with people, say at Applebee’s. An interesting list, but I don’t really want a smart watch. I want my skin to display the time in glowing letters (see “In Time” with Justin Timberlake).
 
9. They never saw it coming. The FDA has approved the Argus Retinal Implant for people who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa (tinyurl.com/techtalk2014-03d). It’s a long way from Steve Austin’s bionic eye in "The Six-Million-Dollar Man," but it’s a sign of things to come. And Google announced a smart contact lens that broadcasts the eye pressure of a glaucoma patient. Once a thing becomes possible, technological improvement will make it ubiquitous if there’s any demand for it. And with demand come economies of scale. Consider all the amazing tech packed into a smartphone or tablet costing less than $1,000. Amazing stuff is happening all around you, every day.
 
10. You never write. If you’ve read this far, I thank you, Faithful Reader. Let me encourage you to ask a question or suggest a topic for the next installment of Tech Talk at mduffy@northbaybiz.com.

 

      

 

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