Category Archives: Podcasts

A Point of Review

Transcript of podcast below.

I get the feeling that YouTube may probably contain a review of almost any product available on the planet. I could, for example, watch reviews featuring someone unboxing a wet toaster, showing off a new pair of jeans or even eating army rations of the world. In each case the reviewer is taking a finished product and passing their judgement about it to their audience. I’ve got the feeling that I could probably spend longer watching reviews of a product that I would actually using the object of the review itself, such is the selection of alternative viewpoints.

But what if the product wasn’t finished? Would you trust a review of a car despite the fact that it had no engine in it? Would you trust the review of a pair of jeans if the pair on display only had one leg? I think we’d exercise a healthy dose of scepticism. We’d want to see the finished product.

Being sceptical about an unfinished physical object is fair enough but what about the digital world? How do we know that anything’s finished, particularly when software companies continue to push out updates for established, and new, software at an ever increasing rate?

Take computer games as a good example. Game developers now release “early access” games, inviting enthusiastic early adopters to pay for an unfinished game. Now there are individuals who don’t think reviewing unfinished products is legitimate but that neatly illustrates the divide between physical and digital objects.

Most people would think it quite odd if someone were to publish a review of a toaster that didn’t actually toast anything because it wasn’t a complete product. On the other hand if we jump into the digital domain it’s pretty evident that reviews of unfinished digital products are commonplace. Human curiosity is such that people want to know as much as possible about digital products, even if they’re not quite finished yet.

Of course multiple changing reviews of digital products can lead to search engines serving up an out of date review, for an earlier version of the digital product that we’re interested in. This adds to the challenge of working out whether review is worth considering, or not.

The changing nature of reviews reflects our change in expectations for digital products. In the physical world I don’t expect my jeans to suddenly sprout a pair of pockets, where none had existed before, but that’s exactly what I expect of my digital products. I expect new features, fixes to known bugs (or problems) and with it a fresh review of that product, produced by the endless army of amateur and professional reviewers on the Internet.

Welcome to the digital age where it’s perfectly reasonable to review a car without an engine or a pair of trousers with only one leg.

On Loan

Transcript of podcast below.

If I wanted to start a business 30 years ago I’d probably have gone to the bank, obtained a loan, put up some kind of guarantee against the loan eventually paying off that loan over a period of years.

Of course this being the 21st century we don’t have to look to the bank to start a business, nor even our close friends, although both might still lend a helping hand. The power of the Internet and crowdfunding services enable tens, hundreds or even thousands of Internet “friends” to contribute towards an overall business funding goal.

To pick an example of the success of crowdfunding services, let’s take a look at Kickstarter, one of the more visible services. Since it’s launch in 2009 it’s raised more than $2 billion, has funded nearly 97,000 projects and has nearly 10 million individual backers who have made 27 million pledges in total. Now that’s pretty big, but what about the old fashioned banks?

Well given that Kickstarter is a US service, let’s look at a US bank like Wells Fargo, which loaned $1.9 billion dollars to small businesses in 2015 alone, with the top 100 US banks loaning $15 billion dollars in 2015. If you looked at stock market investment in companies seeking to list on the stock market in 2014, the total was $83.9 billion dollars. Crowdfunding may be the darling of the Internet, but old fashioned ways of raising money for businesses aren’t dead yet. I guess a good question to ask is this: why not?

I guess this is where we get to the truth of it. It doesn’t matter where you attempt to raise funding from, prospective investors will always want to know the same thing: what’s the product, what’s the plan, and just who is going to buy this thing anyway? The more convincing, and realistic, the business plan and product is, the better the chances of raising money. If you look at crowdfunding, banks and stock markets, each has a different appetite for risk, and the less risky a proposition looks, the more investment cash it’s likely to attract. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at crowdfunding – what kind of products are raising the cash?

I’m not sure about you but could you see a major bank funding a project called “Exploding Kittens”? I’m not sure that I can but I do know that crowdfunding helped raise $8 million for the project. In fact if you take a look at the list of crowdfunding by project you’ll notice that there’s a distinct trend towards video games and computer gadgets.

In other words crowdfunding fills a niche for projects and products that might carry too much risk for a traditional bank, or the stock markets to take a chance on, for now. Perhaps crowdfunding will become a mainstay for new business funding in the future – but that all depends on individual investors appetite for risk, and for that matter their taste in exploding kittens.

It’s Evolution Baby!

Transcript of podcast below.

I’d like to throw some large numbers at you. How many transistors are there in Intel’s latest 18 core Xeon Chip? The answer is 5.5 billion. How many neurons are there in the human brain? There’s a staggering 86 billion of them. It’s worth noting that the part of our brain that does most of the thinking contains about 16 billion neurons, all the other neurons do specialist tasks like dealing with hearing, vision and speech, and so on.

Now comparing an Intel Xeon chip to the human brain is a little strange given that there’s no direct equivalence between a transistor and a neuron. On the other hand 5.5 billion transistors on a tiny CPU is quite a feat of engineering although it’s not a lot compared to the 86 billion neurons in the human brain.

Now consider this. It took Intel 44 years of design evolution to produce a 5.5 billion transistor chip, starting back in 1971 with the 2,300 transistor Intel 4004. It took humans about 30 million years to evolve an 86 billion neuron brain. Computer chip evolution is proceeding at a pace that living organisms should be quite jealous of.

Computer chips will undoubtedly become much more sophisticated in the coming decades but what of the human brain? Well there’s not much evidence that we’re going to get a lot more intelligent unless some dramatic evolutionary change occurs. In fact there’s some evidence that the human brain is actually shrinking.

If we accept that human beings might not get brainier, what about the computer chip? The co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore published a paper in 1965 stating that the number of transistors on a chip would double every two years. Whilst Moore’s law isn’t an accurate prediction of transistor count these days, if it were true someone would design a computer chip with more transistors than the human brain by 2023.

Raw transistor counts don’t mean much without software that does something, and whilst artificial intelligence software can do some quite clever things, no-one’s close to creating a virtual human brain, capable of the vast number of simultaneous tasks that the human brain has to cope with.

Whilst I don’t think human beings will be using computer chips to augment their intelligence in the very near future, I’m guessing that it’ll be inevitable given the pace of change in computer sophistication and complexity.

When that day arrives, posthuman evolution will begin, and given the rate of evolution of computer components, posthuman evolution may be exponentially faster than anything we’ve seen before.

Picture This.

Transcript of podcast below.

This year is the 25th anniversary of a software product known and loved by photographers and designers the world over: Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop enables skilled practitioners to perform simple colour corrections or radical alterations to content and composition. Photoshop and other photographic processing software completely changed the way photographers and designers work, to the point where Photoshop has become an almost essential component of most professional photographers toolkits.

But that same ability to digitally manipulate photographs brings with it a Pandora’s box of problems. Fashion models have their bodies digitally sculpted into more attractive forms, causing many to doubt the reality of a lot of fashion pictures. Whilst female fashion models, and stars appear to be digitally manipulated far more often than we’d like, it’s not just fashion models who experience a little creative re-modelling. National Geographic was hoodwinked in 2010, with a faked picture of a dog.

Now it’s true that some digitally faked pictures can be easy to spot but the are an awful lot of pictures out there that may be almost impossible to spot digital manipulation in, unless we were there when the picture was taken. It’s at this point I begin to wonder what all the fuss is about, after all if someone takes a picture of a bunch of daffodils and turns them into a glowing yellow ball of sunshine, why not? If the picture appeals, where’s the harm?

To a point there probably isn’t harm but what about pictures used in news stories? Is there an absolute guarantee that they’re not digitally manipulated? There are rules that news agencies impose on photographers, but rules get broken. A particularly famous example was a shot of president Obama standing on a beach, head down, during the US gulf oil spill. The dramatic picture of a troubled president, standing alone grabbed a lot of attention. The problem was that he wasn’t alone, two companions were edited out of the shot to make it more dramatic, and appealing to the audience.

The difficulty we have is that we live in an image and media hungry world, where web and social media sites post increasing numbers of pictures and may not have the time, or inclination to verify the authenticity of an image. In some cases an enhanced photograph might be no big deal, but in others it may completely change the emotional impact, or sense of a serious news story.

Whilst Photoshop itself is not the bad guy in this story, the temptation for photographers to tweak and change their photograph, to make it more dramatic will always be there. All we can do as consumers is keep a sceptical eye on the big picture: in a digital age anything can be manipulated, including us, the audience.

A Voyager of Discovery

Around 38 years ago NASA launched a space probe called Voyager in 1977, before most students, and quite a few staff at UCS, were born. I’ll come back to the significance of that point later.

The original concept of Voyager was to take advantage of an alignment of the planets in the solar system, which takes place once every 175 years. Voyager and a sister vessel would fly a pre-planned path in order to survey the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Voyager 2 was intended to survey most of the planets, whilst Voyager 1 was intended to survey one of Saturn’s moons, Titan.

Both spacecraft completed their original missions extremely successfully, much to the delight of NASA engineers and scientists. The Voyager probes sent back quite astonishing pictures of the planets in our solar system, at a level of detail that people had never been able to capture before. But the real surprise hasn’t been the pictures and unparalleled information that’s been gained, it’s how long both probes have lasted.

NASA engineers had projected an expected lifetime for both probes at around 5 years. They’d planned for the long term though, fitting plutonium batteries, and as robust a computer control and management system as they could engineer. Even with the most robust engineering they could produce, no-one expected the probes to last as long as they did, and because they’ve lasted so long they’ve run into a few new problems, that they’d never envisaged.

You see 38 years ago programmers created the management system for Voyager using a fairly arcane programming language, by modern standards. NASA is finding it quite challenging to find software engineers who want to maintain Voyager with such an old language, and on such ancient (by modern standards) computer hardware. The problem arose when the last of the original programming team retired. I guess he deserved to at the grand age of 80.

Voyager might be a unique example of the kind of problems older technology can throw up, but the same parallels exist in modern businesses, who routinely spend millions of pounds to keep their systems up to date, lest they end up as old as Voyagers.

You see whilst technology marches on, there’s a hidden cost: you’ve got to keep it up to date, or you’ll end up losing control over the data, information or system simply because of its age.