Let us not forget

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in Canada and in many nations around the world, a minute of silence is observed. Remembrance Day, as we call it here, is special this year as it marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice of the First World War, and this profound occasion reminded us of the wise words of two exceptional thinkers and innovators of the previous century, which are well worth sharing.

After the Second World War, which followed the First a mere generation later and concluded with the advent of atomic weapons, Norbert Wiener wrote in the Introduction of his seminal book, Cybernetics:

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers. The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

It is not difficult to replace the word cybernetics with artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things and appreciate the relevance of these words in a modern context. Fortunately, Wiener’s “very slight hope” proved sufficient for humanity to avoid nuclear war, while continuing to advance technology at a relentless pace. To this point, Buckminster Fuller wrote in 1980 in the Introduction of his final work, Critical Path:

History shows that, only when the leaders of the world’s great power structures have become convinced that their power structures are in danger of being destroyed, have the gargantuanly large, adequate funds been appropriated for accomplishing the necessary epoch-opening new technologies. It took preparation for World War III to make available the funds that have given us computers, transistors, rockets and satellites to realistically explore the Universe.

The lessons of history and the words of Wiener and Fuller remind us that great threats to power have brought about great technological progress, but unfortunately, they have also brought about the devastating wars upon which today we reflect and remember. Should you find yourself like Wiener, able only to muster a “very slight hope” about the future, perhaps Jeremy Rifkin‘s contemporary views on the Third Industrial Revolution can elevate such sentiments to a feeling of “guarded optimism”.

Let us not forget that we have history as a guide towards a peaceful and perpetual advancement of humanity, limited only by our collective capacity for technological innovation.

Creating the next computing industry

How often do you interact with computers in a day? Likely on more occasions than you can count or even recognise! Can you remember a time when you didn’t interact with computers on a daily basis?

We’ve just added to our bibliography The Dream Machine, which recounts in splendid detail the history of interactive computing. It may come as a surprise that the essence of our modern computing paradigm (graphical user interfaces, personal computing, laser printing, Ethernet, …) was in working prototype form by the mid-seventies, the fruit of 5 years of corporate-funded research at Xerox PARC preceded by 8 years of government-funded research across US institutions through ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office.

The first director of that office, and the central figure in the book, is J.C.R. Licklider. Two years prior to taking that office, “Lick” would publish his vision of Man-Computer Symbiosis, envisaging the tight coupling of human brains and computing machines. Given that reelyActive’s vision can be summarised as computing machines understanding the world without reliance on human brains — arguably an extension of his vision — we asked ourselves what lessons we can learn from the history of interactive computing?

Coincidentally, we’ve had the recent pleasure of interacting with two key figures from the book: Vint Cerf and Alan Kay. Cerf’s three pillars for the IoT and his three-pronged call to action, which we discussed in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT, resonate even stronger in light of this history. And Kay so eloquently reminded us:

“the goodness of the results is most highly correlated with the goodness of the funding”

Creating a whole new industry, as Kay and his colleagues effectively achieved at PARC, was contingent on good funding served with a good dose of patience: “I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that”.

While Kay’s concern is very much consistent with our experiences fundraising as a startup, it is not without exceptions. In our blog post Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy we highlighted an emerging investment philosophy best described as a two-step process:

  1. create the industry, open to competition
  2. out-execute any competition by leveraging the experience/goodwill gained

Clearly Xerox failed at Step 2 (the book examines this in detail). Incredibly, they’re not even the only textbook case among corporations headquartered in Rochester, NY! Remember Kodak and digital photography? Armed with so many lessons from history, especially concerning the execution of Step 2, would we not again expect good results from good funding, regardless of the funding source?

It has been four decades since the PARC breakthrough. The iPhone has now been around for a decade, today “tightly coupling” (or not!) our primary human-computer interaction through a 5″ screen. It is difficult to argue that this is the culmination of Licklider’s vision, but rather easy to argue that we’re (over)due for the next trillion-dollar computing industry. Goodness! With history as our collective guide, all that seems to be missing is some good funding sprinkled with a pinch of patience!

The next ambitious 5-year plan

To celebrate the five-year anniversary of reelyActive’s incorporation, we compiled the significant milestones of our history. Looking back at our origins, when our mission was to create the first simple and accessible cloud-based active RFID system we were reminded of the problems we were solving in 2012, namely:

A commercially-proven active RFID standard had yet to emerge
– we had to develop and build our own transmitter devices
– we had to develop and build our own receiver infrastructure

Every application was its own silo
– we had to educate clients and partners about the platform model
– we had to develop most applications from scratch

In essence, we were attempting to create both the technology and the market. We were confident about the former, our team benefiting from unparalleled domain experience. The latter, however, was a measured risk. Nonetheless, there was room for optimism thanks to a known, underserved need and to Wibree, the obscure radio protocol that had found itself a home in Bluetooth. Now, fast-forward to today, 2017:

Multiple commercially-proven RFID standards have emerged
– Bluetooth Low Energy became the de facto active standard by 2014
– RAIN RFID became the de facto passive standard almost simultaneously
– tens of billions of such radio-identifiable devices are already deployed!

An ecosystem of complementary technology platforms has emerged
– prospective clients and partners now expect the platform model
– we can forward data to third-party cloud applications in a single click
– smart lighting systems will soon displace our own infrastructure

In essence, the technology and the market now exist. We’re no longer obliged to build and deploy tags, infrastructure and applications. And we’re delighted to leave all that behind us!

Time for the next mission, one that we’ve eagerly awaited all along. It’s time now to make sense of the countless identifiable “things” detected and tracked by a heterogeneous mix of infrastructure generating unparalleled real-world contextual awareness that matters to countless applications. In short, to connect what’s going on in the real world right now with everyone who should rightfully know.

While that’s again quite the challenge, it’s certainly one that we look forward to looking back upon in another five years time!