Sunday, December 30, 2018
Sunday, December 23, 2018
I'm beginning to think that unmanned aerial vehicles—usually referred to as drones—are going to be next year's must-have Christmas gift after their stunning Christmas-time performance at London's Gatwick Airport.
For those who missed the excitement, mysterious drones appeared at Gatwick last week and shut down the entire airport for three days as security officials could not be certain what threat they posed. Those officials finally deployed "unidentified military technology" to protect the airport, and they have since arrested a man and a woman, neither of whom have been identified.
We might have guessed that giving civilians access to drone technology for fun and profit would lead to problems. After all, their initial use was military for spying on enemies and then assassinating them when desired—extrajudicial killings with a Jetsons-like twist.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
In his bestselling book, Up the Organization, former Avis president Robert Townsend captured the problem of automation precisely. Writing at a time when the vast paper systems of corporate America were being transferred to computers, he warned that it was important first to make sure that a company's paper systems are actually effective and accurate. "Otherwise," he quipped, "your new computer will just speed up the mess."
Today, we are faced with a new wave of optimism about the prospects of what is called artificial intelligence (AI). Just to be clear, here is what the originators of that term meant by it:
[T]he basis of the conjecture [about artificial intelligence is] that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.
It is important to parse these words carefully for they will tell you why artificial intelligence as it is currently conceived will very likely "just speed up the mess."
Sunday, December 09, 2018
Uber remains a darling of the tech world. It is regarded as a disruptive upstart that recognized the unused capacity of privately-owned automobiles and their owners. It unleashed that capacity on cities worldwide using cellphone technology to provide discount rides to customers, ones who might otherwise have taken traditional taxis or public transportation.
It's a truism that startups burn through money like bonfires burn through tinder. But nine years in after becoming a worldwide company, Uber is still burning cash—$1 billion in the most recent quarter and $4.5 billion altogether in 2017.
To understand how Uber continues to enchant the investment and tech worlds despite its miserable financial record requires a little background. The dominant metaphor in the tech world is Moore's Law. Moore's Law is named for Gordon Moore, a semiconductor pioneer, who noted the doubling of transistors on an integrated circuit about every two years. This rapid progress led to rapid increases in the capabilities of computers in terms of speed, memory and computational power even while prices were coming down dramatically. That progress is also seen in the capabilities of practically everything containing circuits including cellphones, cameras and other digital devices.
Sunday, December 02, 2018
If only Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and agricultural seed and chemical giant, had bothered to ask around before acquiring the American-based Monsanto Company for $63 billion in cash last June.
Two months later a jury delivered a $289 million award (later reduced to $78 million) to a groundskeeper who claimed his frequent exposure to Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller had given him cancer and that the company covered up the danger. (In 2015 the World Health Organization classified glyphosate, the name of the active ingredient in Roundup, as a probable carcinogen. Glyphosate is one of the most broadly used herbicides in the world.)
There are over 8,000 cases pending against Monsanto in the United States and many more will surely be filed. Bayer's stock has lost $38 billion in value since Bayer acquired Monsanto. The company would have done better putting its $63 billion in cash into a hole in the ground.