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Society desperately needs an alternative web

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I see a society that is crumbling. The rampant technology is simultaneously capsizing industries that were previously the bread and butter of economic growth. The working man and woman have felt its effects as wages stagnate and employment opportunities remain fewer amidst a progressively automated economy. Increasing wage inequality and financial vulnerability have given rise to populism, and the domino effects are spreading.

People are angry. They demand fairness and are threatened by policies and outsiders that may endanger their livelihoods. This has caused a greater cultural and racial divide within and between nations. Technology has enabled this anger to spread, influence and manipulate at a much greater speed than ever before resulting in increasing polarization and a sweeping anxiety epidemic.

Globally, we are much more connected – this, to our detriment. We’ve witnessed both government and business leverage technology to spread disinformation for their gains. While regulators struggle to keep pace with these harms, the tech giants continue, unabated, to wield their influence and power to establish footprints that make both consumers and business increasingly dependent on their platforms and technology stacks. We cannot escape them, nor do we want to. Therein lays the concern…

This recent article, “The World is Choking on Data Pollution” offered a profound distillation of what we are witnessing today:

Progress has not been without a price. Like the factories of 200 years ago, digital advances have given rise to a pollution that is reducing the quality of our lives and the strength of our democracy… We are now face-to-face with a system embedded in every structure of our lives and institutions, shaping our society in ways that deeply impact our basic values.

Tim Berners Lee’s Intent for the World Wide Web has Run Off-Course:

Tim Berners Lee had this Pollyannaish view once upon a time that went like this: What if we could develop a web that was free to use for everyone and that would fuel creativity, connection, knowledge and optimism across the globe? He believed the internet to be a basic human right,

…That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live.

Between 1989 and 1991, Tim Berners Lee led the development of the World Wide Web and unleashed the “language HTML (hypertext markup language) to create the webpages HTTP (used to create web pages), HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), and URLs (Universal Resource Locators).”

The now ubiquitous WWW set a movement which has scaled tremendously, reinventing the way we do business, access and consume information, create connections and perpetuating an unrelenting mindset of innovation and optimism.

What has also transpired is a web of unbridled opportunism and exploitation, uncertainty and disparity. We see increasing pockets of silos and echo chambers fueled by anxiety, misplaced trust and confirmation bias. As the mainstream consumer lays witness to these intentions, we notice a growing marginalization that propels more to unplug from these communities and applications to safeguard their mental health. However, the addiction technology has produced cannot be easily remedied. In the meantime, people continue to suffer.

What has been most distressing are the effects of cyberbullying on our children. In 2016, The National Crime Prevention reported 43% of teens were subjects of cyberbullying, an increase of 11% from a decade prior. Some other numbing statistics:

  • “2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting revealed the number of children admitted to hospitals for attempted suicide or expressing suicidal thoughts doubled between 2008 and 2015”
  • “Javelin Research finds that children who are bullied are 9 times more likely to be the victims of identity fraud as well.”
  • “Data from numerous studies also indicate that social media is now the favored medium for cyberbullies”

Big Tech: Too Big to Fail?

As the web evolved throughout the 90s we witnessed the emergence of hefty players like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and later Facebook and Amazon. As Chris Dixon asserted:

During the second era of the internet, from the mid 2000s to the present, for-profit tech companies — most notably Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) — built software and services that rapidly outpaced the capabilities of open protocols. The explosive growth of smartphones accelerated this trend as mobile apps became the majority of internet use. Eventually users migrated from open services to these more sophisticated, centralized services. Even when users still accessed open protocols like the web, they would typically do so mediated by GAFA software and services.

Today, we appropriately apply a few acronyms to these giants: G-MAFIA (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Apple), or FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) and now BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent). These players have created a progressively centralized internet that has limited competition and has stifled the growth of startups, which are more vulnerable to these tech giants. My discussion with a social network founder (who asked to remain nameless) spoke of one of the large platforms which continuously copied newly released features from their site, and they did so transparently because “they could.” He also witnessed a stall of user engagement and eventual churn. He was unable to compete effectively without the necessary resources and eventually relented, changing his business model and withdrawing to the cryptocurrency community to start anew.

Consider this: These eight players Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba are larger than the “market cap of every listed company in the Eurozone in Emerging Markets and in Japan.” G-MAFIA (excluding IBM) combined posted average returns in 2018 of 45% compared with 19% return among S&P500.  Now add the high degree of consolidation of the tech industry. Together FAANG has acquired 398 companies since 2007. The type of acquisitions has heightened interest from regulators and economists towards anti-trust regulation. Add to this list the highest-ever acquisition in history with IBM’s purchase of Red Hatat a reported $34 billion.

Big tech valuations continue to rise despite the sins illuminated by their technologies. There is this dichotomy that pits what’s good for consumers against what’s good for shareholders. We’ve derived some great experiences from these platforms, but we’ve also seen examples of invisible harms. However unintended, they surface as a result of the business mandate to prioritize user growth and engagement. These performance indicators are what drive employee performance and company objectives. When we think about the impact of big tech, their cloud environments and web hosting servers ensure our emails, our social presence, and our websites are available to everyone on the web. In essence, they control how the internet is run.

Amy Webb, Author of  “The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and their Thinking Machines could Warp Humanity” refers not only to G-MAFIA but also BAT (the consortium that has led the charge in the highly controversial Social Credit system to create a trust value among its Chinese citizens). She writes:

We stop assuming that the G-MAFIA (Google, Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Amazon) can serve its DC and Wall Street masters equally and that the free markets and our entrepreneurial spirit will produce the best possible outcomes for AI and humanity

These Nine will shape the future of the internet, no doubt. Webb envisions several scenarios where China’s encroaching influence will enable an AGI to control the world much more pervasively than the Social Credit System, and where “democracy will end” in the United States. This is not implausible as we are already seeing signs of BAT’s increased fundingacross gaming, social media, fintech sectors, outpacing the US in investment.

Webb also foresees a future of stifling individual privacy where our personal information is locked in the operating systems of these tech giants, now functioning oligopolies, fueling a “digital caste system,” mimicking a familiar authoritarian system in China.

This future that Webb forecasts is conceivable. Today, beyond Cambridge Analytica and government’s alleged use of Facebook to manipulate voters and seed chaos, the damages, however divergent, are more pervasive and are more connected to one another than we realize. We have seen Amazon’s facial recognition technology used in law enforcement, which has been deemed ineffective and wrought of racial bias.

In the same vein, Buzzfeed reported the use of facial recognition being used in retail systems without the regard for user consent. We believed in Facebook’s initiative to safeguard our security through two-factor authentication, while they used our mobile numbers to target our behavior and weaken our privacy in the process. Both Facebook and Amazon have been known to have experimented with our data to manipulate our emotions. When Tiktok was fined $5.7 million for illegally collecting children’s data, it was only following the lead of its predecessors.

The biggest data breaches of all time have involved some of the largest tech companies like FB, Yahoo! and Uber as well as established corporations like Marriott and Equifax. The downstream effects are yet to be realized as this data is bought and sold on the dark web to the highest bidders. When 23andMe created the Personal Genome Service as an offer to connect people to their roots, it was, instead, exposed as “front for a massive information-gathering operation against an unwitting public.”

This epidemic continues. What is emerging are the hidden intentions behind the algorithms and technology that make it more difficult to trust our peers, our institutions and our government. While employees were up in arms because of Google’s “Dragonfly” censored search engine with China and its Project Maven’s drone surveillance program with DARPA, there exist very few mechanisms to stop these initiatives from taking flight without proper oversight. The tech community argues they are different than Big Pharma or Banking. Regulating them would strangle the internet.

Technology precedes regulation. This new world has created scenarios that are unaddressable under current laws. There is a prevailing legal threat unleashed through the GDPR, however, there are aspects of it that some argue that may indeed stifle innovation. However, it’s a start. In the meantime, we need to progress so systems and governance are in sync, and tech giants are held in check. This is not an easy task.

Who is responsible for the consequences of AI decisions? What mechanisms should be in place to ensure that the industry does not act in ways that go against the public interest? How can practitioners determine whether a system is appropriate for the task and whether it remains appropriate over time? These were the very questions we attempted to answer at the UK/Canada Symposium on Ethics and Artificial Intelligence. There are no clear answers today.

Back to Basics: Can we re-decentralize an increasingly centralized internet?

Here’s a thought! How do we move our increasingly digital world into a place where we all feel safe; where we control our data; where our needs and desires are met without dependence on any one or two institutions to give us that value? The decentralized web is a mindset and a belief in an alternative structure that can address some of the afflictions that have risen from data pollution. This fringe notion is slowly making its way back to mainstream:

A Web designed to resist attempts to centralize its architecture, services, or protocols [so] that no individual, state, or corporation can substantially control its use.

Is it possible to reverse the deterioration we are experiencing today? I spoke with individuals who are working actively within the values of the decentralized web and are building towards this panacea. Andrew Hill and Carson Farmer developed Textile.IO, a digital wallet for photos that are entirely controlled and owned by the user. Textile.io didn’t start out as a decentralized project. As Andrew recalls:

We started this project asking: what was the future of personal data going to look in the future? We didn’t like the answer at all. It seemed like the ubiquity of data with the speed of computing power and increasing complexity of algorithms would lead us to a state that wouldn’t be good for us: easily manipulated, easily tracked and personal lives easily invaded by third parties (government, individuals and companies)

Carson Farmer noted that GMAIL is fundamentally a better user experience because individuals didn’t need to run their own protocols or set up their own servers. This “natural” progression” to centralized technologies has served the Big Nine well.

Since then, it’s been this runaway because of the capitalist value behind data. They are building business models behind it and it will not go away overnight. By putting our blind trust into a handful of corporations who collect our data, we’ve created a run-away effect (some folks call it ‘data network effects’) where those companies now create value from our data, that is orders of magnitude greater than any new entrant into the market is capable of. This means that the ‘greatest’ innovation around our digital data is coming from only a handful of large companies.

However, people, en-masse, don’t understand this imminent threat. Few really understand the implications of cybersecurity breaches, nor the impact to individual welfare or safety from the data they willingly provide these networks. How much of this needs mainstream to care about it to achieve the scalability it requires? Hill argues that few will abandon technologies unless their values are subdued by risk. Hill explained our “signaled intentions actually differ from our intended behaviors.” For example, many would support legislation to reduced speed limits in certain areas to minimize deaths from auto accidents. However, engineering this feature into self-driving cars so they are unable to go faster, would be far more objectionable because it impedes us.

Adoption of a decentralized web cannot play by the old rules. New experiences and interactions that are outside of current norms needs to appeal to individual values, that enable trust and ease of adoption. Pulling users away from convention is not an easy task. However, emerging organizations are starting to build bridges into the old technology in an effort to re-decentralizeMatrix.org has created an open standard for decentralized communications. The Dat Project, largely funded mainly by donations provides a peer to peer file sharing protocol to create a more human-centered internet, without the risk of data being sold. For Textile.io their version of Instagram allows users to add a photo to their mobile application, which exists on your phone, with a privately encrypted copy existing on an IPFS (“a peer-to-peer protocol for sharing hypermedia in distributed file system”) node off your phone. No one sees the encrypted photo version unless you share the private keys to that photo. Textile has no view into the data, nor an intention of processing or keeping it. Handshake.org is a “permissionless and decentralized naming protocol to replace the DNS root file and servers with a public commons”, uncensorable and free of any gatekeeper. The Internet Archive, started by Brewster Kale, is a non-profit library that has cataloged over 400 billion web pages in the last 22 years, also digitizing all-things analog (books, music, movies), with the attempt to save web history and knowledge with free access to anyone.

Wendy Hanamura, Director of the Internet Archive is also the Founder of DWeb, a summit which started in 2016 bringing together builders and non-builders within the 4 levers of change: 1) laws 2) markets 3) norms and values 4) technology to advocate a better web. The intention was to do a moonshot for the internet and create “A web that’s locked open for good.” Why now? Wendy declared,

In the last few years we have woken up to see that the web is failing us. We turn to our screens for information we are getting, instead, deception in fake news, non reliable information, missing data. A lot of us in the sector feel we could do better. Technology is one path to doing better.

The prevailing vision of the Dweb:

A goal in creating a Decentralized Web is to reduce or eliminate such centralized points of control. That way, if any player drops out, the system still works. Such a system could better help protect user privacy, ensure reliable access, and even make it possible for users to buy and sell directly, without having to go through websites that now serve as middlemen, and collect user data in the process.

While it’s still early day, for at least a decade many players have chosen to become part of this movement to fix the issues that increasing centralization has created. From Diaspora to Bit Torrent, a growing list of technologies continue to develop alternatives for the DWeb: for storage, social nets, communication and collaboration apps, database, cryptocurrencies, etc. Carson sees the Dweb evolving and feels the time is ripe for this opportunity:

Decentralization gives us a new way forward: decentralized data storage, encryption based privacy, and P2P networks give us the tools to imagine a world where individuals own and control their personal data. In that future, all technologies can build and contribute to the same data network effect. That is exciting because it means we can create a world with explosive innovation and value generation from our data, as opposed to one limited by the production capacity and imagination of those few companies…

Can the decentralized web fix this? In a world where trust is fleeting, this may be a significant pathway forward but it’s still early day. The DWeb is reawakening. The emergence of its players sees tremendous promise however, the experiences will need to get better. Many things must work in tandem. The public needs to be more informed of the impact on their individual rights and welfare. Business needs to change its mindset. I was reminded by Dr. George Tomko, Expert in Residence at the University of Toronto, that if business can become more human, to be more compassionate

…and have the ability to feel a person’s pain or discomfort and to care enough by collaborating with others in alleviating her pain or discomfort… what emerges is a society of greater empathy, and a culture that yields more success

Regulation has to also be in lock-step with technology but it must be informed and well thought out to encourage competition and minimize costs to the consumer. More importantly, we must encourage more solutions to bring more data control to the user to give him/her the experiences they want out of the web, without fear of repercussions. This was the original promise of the internet.

This originally appeared on Forbes.

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Retail

IoT + Data Analytics = Store Operations Intelligence

How many times have you visited a grocery store the day before a snowstorm or other major weather event only to find the bread and milk aisles wiped clean? What might be a disappointment for you is also a missed opportunity for grocery stores, an industry with an already razor-thin 2% margin.

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How many times have you visited a grocery store the day before a snowstorm or other major weather event only to find the bread and milk aisles wiped clean? What might be a disappointment for you is also a missed opportunity for grocery stores, an industry with an already razor-thin 2% margin.

Hungry for efficiencies

Inventory management, especially for perishables, is a delicate dance. Too little of it and grocers have lost a revenue opportunity every time a customer leaves empty-handed. Too much of it and grocers lose revenue again, this time from spoilage or having to slash prices to clear shelves. Spoilage is a significant problem — grocery retailers lose an astounding $70 million annually because of food simply going bad. 

Market economics further muddies the picture. A whopping 82% of grocery companies are increasing their stock of fresh foods in response to customer demand so there’s simply more perishables to manage — and therefore more at stake.

To ensure not too much capital is tied up in unsold goods, grocery stores forecast demand and supply based on a variety of conditions, including weather, time of year, and even weekly foot traffic. But as Cognizant as observed, a whole host of additional factors affecting inventory management can drain grocery store revenues.

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Smart systems

One of Cognizant’s clients, a major supermarket chain, found that working with older equipment also challenged inventory management. 

Internet of Things (IoT)-embedded sensors track ambient temperature, temperature of the food, humidity and even electric current flowing into refrigerators to keep a pulse on perishables. But this leads to grocery stores drowning in data. The sensors cry wolf too often forcing the retailer to waste expensive technician time on every perceived crisis. Such waste happens because too often, sensors do not accurately reflect the whole story. 

Cognizant has shown that data alone is not enough, strategic reading of the data tea leaves also matters in increasing efficiencies. Using the IoT sensors, Cognizant helped the grocery retailer monitor inventory in real time — the pressure on sensitized shelves changes when inventory counts drop — and restock accordingly. Even better, Cognizant’s solution analyzed the data feed in real time, at the edge. Algorithms accounted for many variables including work load, cost of energy at different times of the day, whether the door was open or closed, to recommend intelligent solutions. 

Using edge data analytics and IoT sensors, grocery stores can automate many fixes, proactive reorder inventory and even automatically churn out work orders for technicians only as and when needed.

When inventory management is a delicate and challenging operation, grocery retailers need to be strategic about how they invest precious resources. IoT + edge analytics is a game-changer. It gives retailers the intelligence they need to deploy resources effectively and proactively so they can better cater to demand and cut waste. 

IoT-driven asset management and data analytics will be key to success in the grocery industry. Climate change has increased the clamor for sustainability and less food waste. The timing for smart solutions could not be better.

Read more about Cognizant’s IoT refrigeration solution here.

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IoT + Big Data = Facilities Management Intelligence

In the equation IoT + X = Operations Intelligence, what role does big data play in facilities management?

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The way we work today has changed. The workforce is becoming mobile and companies rent temporary space depending on needs.

At the same time, facilities management professionals have a number of mandates, says Nancy Berce, chief information officer at Johnson Controls. They need to control costs while still delivering personalized experiences. They need to regulate access so only authorized personnel can enter key areas of buildings. They need to conform to wider regulations imposed by the pressing concerns of climate change.

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The Internet of Things (IoT) helps deliver such efficiencies by helping facilities management professionals harvest and analyze big data — smarter and at scale.

The parallel evolution of big data and IoT

Facilities management professionals have monitored heating and cooling systems and fire and security systems for decades. But IoT has delivered a fundamental shift in how that monitoring occurs. IoT-embedded devices can relay health of the equipment in real time and the big data from such equipment help professionals manage facilities on a much more granular level.

No more blindly replacing all the light bulbs every six months. A digital-enabled platform can alert professionals to systems that are in danger of failing so the appropriate actions kick into action only as and when needed — with minimum cost to the facility and minimum disruption to the worker. “We now have a level of intelligence and insight from smart algorithms where we can be proactive about preventative maintenance and predict efficiency opportunities a lot sooner,” Berce says. 

How to leverage big data and IoT

Johnson Controls’ Bee’ah green building project, illustrates just how smart IoT-driven buildings can drive efficiencies at scale to deliver a nearly fully automated workplace of the future, with temperature and lighting controls just a few of the parameters that adjust depending on workforce distribution. 

IoT increases the number of data sets that facilities can play with and allows them to pinpoint trouble before it brings down the entire system. How does one leverage the benefits of big data and IoT to deliver intelligence?

Case Study: Advancing Smart Manufacturing Operations Value with Industry 4.0 Platform

First, connecting all the big data points together is key to see the larger picture, Berce says. Companies might already have the information they need for smarter operations, but they might be in silos. IoT data related to security, for example, can be connected to an active employee directory, to automate entry to more sensitive areas of buildings (think operating rooms in hospitals). Companies can even marry IoT systems with external weather data to manage their cooling systems.

Second, understand the insights you are looking for and use IoT accordingly, Berce says.

Third, retrofit legacy systems with IoT devices as needed. 

Finally, make the data analysis easy to visualize, advises Berce. A digital platform where professionals can easily detect anomalies makes it better to find the needle in the haystack and act on the intelligence that big data and IoT are delivering. 

IoT and big data allow professionals to do all things at once — to both zoom in and zoom out as needed. Such flexibility allows facilities management to meet the growing demands for efficiency while customizing personalized experiences for each and every worker.

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IoT + Smart Edge Computing = Operations Intelligence

In the equation IoT + X = Operations Intelligence, what role does smart edge computing play?

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You don’t always need a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The general premise driving the use of the Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics to deliver intelligence is that the end actions usually have to be executed through some kind of blanket (often human) intervention. The shaky fallacy at the core of this idea is that it takes a sledgehammer to a nut in that even small adjustments to operating conditions requires a large investment of resources. Smart edge computing addresses this challenge and applies a solution that is more proportional to the size of the problem.

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Whether it’s a thermostat or a light switch or a card reader, most edge devices that control today’s commercial facilities are passive and wired devices, says Datta Godbole, the chief technology officer for Honeywell Building Technologies. Smart edge computing introduces a more efficient way of corralling the power of IoT to deliver operations intelligence. Smart edge devices can act on intelligence on the frontlines and save the heavy-duty computing for the cloud.

Smart edge computing helps companies, including facility management organizations, distribute computing needs more efficiently: you execute the small changes at the edge and save the heavy lifting for the cloud. “Time critical decisions are executed quickly without going to the cloud, while cloud computing is great for analyzing long-term trends through AI algorithms,” Godbole says.

Decisions at the edge

It is this “quickly” factor, the latency that is saved, that makes smart edge computing so valuable as part of the equation IoT + smart edge computing = operations intelligence.

Imagine a commercial building packed with fire and smoke detectors. Facilities management needs to maintain and periodically inspect these devices, which involves days of intensive work. What if instead the smoke detector could signal when it’s ready for maintenance – much like your car does? “In the future, all equipment in the building will be smart and can diagnose themselves and ask for help,” Godbole says.

The IoT part of the equation comes from the many sensors measuring a variety of parameters including temperature, humidity, light, foot traffic, occupancy and more. The introduction of IoT expands the working data set so management can more finely calibrate the final experience. “If we have IoT sensors that blanket a whole building, that conduct micro-measurements of every part of the building, we get a much truer picture of what’s happening in the building and you can control air conditioning or heating accordingly,” Godbole says.

Case Study: Advancing Smart Manufacturing Operations Value with Industry 4.0 Platform

In a sense, IoT allows for both personalized comfort and efficiencies at scale. When an employee swipes her card and enters her workspace, what if IoT-embedded edge devices automatically gave her what she was looking for: a slightly warmer conference room, lighting that adjusted depending on where she was working and her favorite snacks lined up in the kitchen?

Foot traffic sensors and occupancy patterns in the long term can dictate heating and cooling requirements so management can optimize these over time.

The use of IoT in conjunction with smart edge computing will lead to a more efficient allocation of computing resources and better and faster decision-making. No longer do you need a sledgehammer for every problem, a fine scalpel will work even better.

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