- We wrote a couple of things: why humans make things, the ways mass production has failed human needs, and how we might do things differently in the future, and the tensions that can emerge in developing the user experience aspects of smart home devices that are monetized through data collection and analysis.
- Someone trained a neural network to make up colors and name them, based on training data from Sherwin-Williams. There's not really much of a story here technology wise, but the resulting bland, beige-adjacent colors with derpy names are pretty comical, at least if you're into non sequitur. We can't wait to suggest "Bank Butt" as a color option for a re-branding effort. From a data training perspective it's definitely a flawed proposition - we humans largely derive color names from words we've already connected with various natural phenomena. If the algorithms had used the available RGB data more intelligently (e.g. if G value greater than X, scrape first word of color name from plant database), the names might actually work quite well.
- Emoji watch: though emoji don't have Western origins, much of the voting power in the Unicode Consortium (which is responsible for emoji standards) is held by U.S. centric tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google. This has led to Westernized interpretations of objects or food that read more as parody than cartoony reportage to those in the know. With so many products and services now reaching a truly global audience at scale, there's increasing need for deep cultural expertise and interpreters to make sure messages don't get mangled or stereotypes reproduced.
Roadmapping the Future:
More next week.
- The latest from LEGO on their quest to replace the petroleum-sourced ABS plastic they use for their products with a bioplastic. They seem to have ruled out polylactic acid (PLA), a common material for consumer 3D printers due to its propensity to "creep" and shift form over time. LEGO uses 70,000 metric tons of ABS every year, and if they can make bioplastics a reality for mass production, it could have a massive impact on consumer plastic goods in general. As people who design products for the advantages and constraints of plastics everyday, we're genuinely, nerdily, excited about bioplastics becoming that much closer to a mass-production reality.
- There must be something in the air- more and more people are discussing how 3D printing is on a clear trajectory towards living up to the term additive manufacturing: making end-use components and products as an alternative to traditional methods like injection molding, stamping, and so on. Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal stress tests some 3D printed shoe soles and a metal hinge from Desktop Metal, and Jon Bruner interviews Max Lobvosky of Formlabs on how 3D printing will expand to include more and more industries. While the story of 3D printing supplanting other mass production methods has been a hyped story for awhile, advances in speed, material science, and methods are starting to deliver on some of that promise, at least for goods that require some degree of customization.
- Apple has acquired the sleep tracking hardware company Beddit, likely in a bid to appease people that have a deep desire for round-the-clock quantified self analytics (the Apple Watch has had some criticism from quantified self die-hards as its battery life precluded round-the-clock use). Adding sleep tracking to the buffet of data available will add value for some, but we'd bet that Apple has more in mind for this asset.
More next week.
- Oculus Rift, now under Facebook's ownership, has pulled the plug on their VR movie/video division. VR tech is pretty solid (if expensive) at this point, but creating content that is unique to the format and compelling enough to move the needle for producers is an immense challenge that hasn't been met so far. There are also some cultural and behavior aspects to passive media like movies that VR gets in the way of: social viewing, multi-tasking, live-tweeting, and so on. In 2017, it's awfully rare that we are ready to sit alone, away from our smartphones and friends and give moving images (immersive or not) our full attention.
- Agricultural work has been on the forefront of deploying new technologies for centuries. In 2017 that pattern still holds, with numerous startups working on putting robots into pastures and furrowed fields. GPS guided combines for harvesting grains have been in use for awhile but automating the collection of tender crops like fruit has been a significant challenge only solved through creative approaches, like this apple-sucking robot (the company making the device was spun out of a lab funded by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which is maybe the specific interest group we've ever heard of). The availability of seasonal labor that orchards rely on has been in decline for some time, but concerns about changes in immigration policy are accelerating interest in robotic harvesters. Both nature and technology bend towards the needs and realities of the other - in this case the robots are designed to be delicate with the fruit, but the trees are spaced and tended in certain ways to make robotic (or human) harvesting easier. The tools we make respond to the world as we find it, but also reshape it.
- Uber seems like a natural winner from the development of reliable self-driving cars, but Christopher Mims at The Wall Street Journal lays out the case against it - namely that the real hurdles of running a self-driving empire will come from building and maintaining those vehicles, not from routing them. Which makes Tesla, along with traditional car makers like Ford and GM, real contenders for killing off the app-first ride-share companies over the long term.
Roadmapping the Future:
- This collaboration between Google, Accenture, and a pest control company gives a glimpse of the future of work, where front-line workers are equipped with computational or augmented reality superpowers. The project uses computer vision and machine learning to enable pest-control technicians to snap a photo of a suspicious insect and have it identified via an app.
- From cyberpunk to postapocalyptic wastelands, often our visions of the future are incredibly bleak. That's not without good reason: the existential challenges we face are real and feel more insurmountable by the day. We've been hearing doom-and-gloom stories about the future for a long time, but it seems to have little impact on how we operate in order to avoid those grim outcomes. Some technologists, artists, and writers are trying to create and advocate for a vision of the future called solarpunk, centered on sustainability, community development, and a more humane style of technology and trade. While it seems impossible to will such change into existence, creating the language and rough templates to suggest such a world is important- just look at how pattern matching, trend spotting (and following) works within the world of tech investments. Whether it's social networks, the Internet of Things, or AI, the world we work at creating is reflective of the ideas being surfaced and repeated in a given era. As powerful as technology is, the manner in which it moves is driven at a deeper level by cultural values and political rationale. The future is not yet decided, and if we can avoid the barren wasteland of dystopian visions through talking up and disseminating ideas for more optimistic ones, it's worth a shot.
More next week.