Memia Labs Monthly Digest – May 2017

This month:
//The humans behind the chatbots
//Total transition to autonomous electric vehicles
//(Stop) talking about false meat
//The end of forecasting
//...and space junk.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Bill English saw the future at Christchurch’s EPIC building (which also houses Memia) as part of this month’s NZ Techweek programme. Nice work by AR/VR specialist Corvecto, even attracting the unforgiving attention of John Oliver. (Note to self: make sure there are no cameras around next time I put on a VR headset!).

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AR 25%, VR 75%

“Our base case software scenario is driven 75 percent by VR use cases vs 25 percent for AR use cases,” said a Goldman Sachs research report driving Microsoft’s strategic shift away from enterprise AR towards consumer VR, at least for a few years yet: What Happened to the Amazing HoloLens Future We Were Promised?

AI 100%

Idealab’s CEO Bill Gross writes up his takeaways from this year’s TED conference. In particular AI expert Noriko Arai’s talk about how she’s building an AI that can take (and pass) the University of Tokyo entrance exam, including reading and writing essay questions.

As a user of Clara for over a year now, HI+AI services continue to improve. But how much is HI and how much AI? BloombergTech goes behind the scenes and investigates The Humans Hiding Behind The Chatbots.

More on the BMI debate kicked off by Elon Musk’s Neuralink announcement: Wait but actually why: Brain-Machine Interfaces and Unit Economics of Human Output

And my own contribution from this month: Why Neuralink and Kernel are trying to solve the right problem at the wrong time

Huge fan of Jeff Hawkins and his team’s work at Numenta decoding how the neocortex works and reverse engineering it into software – here’s a rough early preview video of their latest work introducing a new concept in Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM): The Neuroscience Behind HTM Sensory Inference

Meanwhile… for those who want to learn more Machine Learning, FreeCodeCamp’s David Venturi published Every single Machine Learning course on the internet, ranked by your reviews. Background: “A year and a half ago, I dropped out of one of the best computer science programs in Canada. I started creating my own data science master’s program using online resources. I realized that I could learn everything I needed through edX, Coursera, and Udacity instead. And I could learn it faster, more efficiently, and for a fraction of the cost.” A superb resource, traditional universities should feel very afraid.


Roads, Roads and Less Roads

Recently the government here in New Zealand announced a big pre-election spendup on “infrastructure” – a euphemism for “more roads”.

The NZ Ministry of Transport is admirably transparent on its website about the investment and costs associated with roading: NZ$4Bn per year on the “Land Transport System”. Four. Billion. Dollars.  (NZ GDP is NZ$260Bn).

This has set me thinking about how advances in transportation technology could start to be applied now not only to significantly reduce the amount being spent, but to deliver better outcomes for everyone. Auckland’s traffic woes are an example where more roads are not going to solve the problems even today. And flying cars ain’t going to cut it any time soon either.

StartupGrind’s Geoff Nesnow wrote a neat summary last year of 50 implications of driverless cars (and trucks).

Implication no. 21: “Roads will be much emptier and smaller since self-driving cars need much less space between them (major cause of traffic today), people will share vehicles more than today (carpooling), traffic flow will be better regulated and algorithmic timing (i.e. leave at 10 versus 9:30) will optimize infrastructure utilization”.

A recent analysis from thinktank RethinkX predicts an extremely disruptive, total transition to EV / autonomous vehicles in 13 years.

Meanwhile India unveiled an ambitious plan to have only electric cars by 2030

Are any government transport agencies around the world modeling a decline in road usage in the future?

How about borrowing the concept of Negawatts – the amount of power saved from improved energy efficiency – and apply it to road usage – “NegaKm” is the car and truck journey km (and journey times) saved from more efficient and timely road use.

One key tool could be reverse-road-pricing: Rather than spend tens of millions of dollars widening a highway, how about holding that money and rewarding people to stay off that road during peak hours? Surely simple enough to trial for a year, registration through a mobile app and you’re away…Surely…?

Maybe we need 777-size cargo-carrying flying drones or giant cargo-carrying blimps to take freight off the roads instead.


Future of Food

More agri agitprop from provocateur-in-chief Rosie Bosworth: interview on NBR radio podcast on Why New Zealand is becoming the Detroit of Agriculture. (Nice turn of phrase, wonder who came up with that :-)). Synthetic biology (synbio) will disrupt the traditional (and, let’s face it, hugely inefficient, polluting and fundamentally unsustainable) pastoral agricultural model and maybe even allow countries such as NZ to meet our Paris Agreement commitments of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Similar themes at last week’s TechWeekNZ update from SingularityUNZ founder Kaila Colbin – here she is mapping the cost per Kg of synthetic meat.

(Incidentally, I was in a meeting recently when the conversation turned to synbio – one of the bankers in the room – maybe starting to feel a bit exposed – said “let’s stop talking about false meat“. Unlikely.)

More future food:

Startup Nutrient Rescue launched their plant-based wholefood powder shots – 5-10 serves of fruit and veges for $2, takes less than 1 min to prepare. Using.

Functional food leader Soylent raised a $50M Series B round led by GV (Google Ventures). “Soylent is addressing one of the biggest issues we face today: access to complete, affordable nutrition”.


Turning Facebook data into money

“…is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.”I’m an ex-Facebook exec: don’t believe what they tell you about ads

The Half-Life Of Forecasting?

The World Economic Forum published an article on The End Of Forecasting? Given the increasing mainstream acceptance of accelerationism and predictions like “The next double-century (2000-2200) promises no fewer than 150 breakthrough innovations on par with the steam engine, antibiotics and the airplane” – the article argues that

long-term forecasting is simply becoming obsolete and we need to adapt to a post-forecasting era.

Alternatively…the meaning of the phrase “long term” has a half-life attached to it: as technology-driven change accelerates, so our view out to the future shortens. But we can still forecast out effectively for the same order of magnitude change as previously – it’s just this will take exponentially less time to happen.


Dystopian Futures

Sometimes the future doesn’t seem so bright:

There’s a link in the WEF article above to a thought-provoking tweet quoting AliBaba founder Jack Ma – as we all live longer, the need may emerge to legislate for a maximum human lifespan.

And, in 5 years, most Americans won’t be able to afford clean, safe water?


Space Junk

And finally, here’s a hypnotic (12 mins) video from the European Space Agency showing manmade objects journeying from the outer solar system back to Earth.

More again next month – Comments, feedback, suggestions? Email

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Why Neuralink and Kernel are trying to solve the right problem at the wrong time

Why Neuralink and Kernel are trying to solve the right problem at the wrong time

Elon Musk’s recent announcement of his new startup Neuralink (together with an extensive 40,000-word backgrounder from WaitButWhy’s Tim Urban), and Bryan Johnson’s investment in Kernel point to a near-term future where humans are enabled to communicate “telepathically” – in a rich manner at least as expressive as spoken and written language – direct brain-to-brain, using either a Neuralink Brain-Computer Interface (BCI)…           

…or a Kernel BCI…

…or, a few years down the line, a mass-market consumer brand BCI:

This scenario poses an immediate problem – how do we get these different BCI products to talk to each other? If I’ve installed an Apple BCI and I want to communicate telepathically with your Android one, how do they interoperate? I certainly don’t want to get locked away in a walled (mind)garden! So, let’s assume we can implement a BCI translator…

Pretty soon, however, we’re going to have to support an exponential number of point-to-point translations…

…this will quickly get pretty expensive to create and maintain. Looks like we’ll need some kind of common language for all of the BCIs to talk to each other- say (to be glib) “Human Intelligence Markup Language” (HIML):

…and now we can send this easily across the internet too right?

So…to get this straight, in order for me to get any sort of useful network utility from my BCI device, there needs to be a common language which translates my brain’s activities into machine-readable format, sends them across the internet, and then re-translates them into a form that your brain will understand? Basically an abstraction of the whole range space of the human mind’s functionality and content? Hmmm….sounds like …English? Mandarin? Spanish? Japanese? Or that common meta-language that Google’s AI researcher recently observed….? Just less lossy, with more expression. (Instead of just saying “I love you”, somehow our BCIs translate the emotional state into a more directly experienceable message).

However engaging this thought experiment is, (un)fortunately this scenario is unlikely to play out any time soon – it’s more likely that Neuralink and Kernel are going after the right problem – but at the wrong time.

To explain, let’s go a bit further into our thought experiment. So… could a computer speak HIML?

…Pretty much yes, at least with a limited vocabulary initially. But they’ll get smarter, probably Turing-test-smart – to the point that most people, most of the time won’t be able to tell the difference between communicating telepathically with a computer or a human.

At this stage, computers (AIs) and humans would make up a new society of [telepathic] “human intelligences”, some biological, some (probably the vast majority) physically distributed across the datacentres of this world. Whether or not there’s a ghost inside, “humanity” will become a hybrid machine.

Let’s deconstruct the word “telepathically” for a moment. When we use that word – when Tim Urban talks about Elon’s “magic wizard hats” – what we’re actually implying is two things:

  1. It will be wireless, soundless, movement-less – just like thinking or listening
  2. It will be faster (higher outbound bandwidth) than speaking, writing, typing or any other current mode of outbound communication.

Solving problem 1 – cool. Pretty much clear you’ll need a direct BCI (either invasive or non-invasive) for that. Can’t wait.

But solving problem 2 – I’m not so sure. Could we ever get enough bandwidth, with enough accuracy and resolution out of a direct neural interface into our brains to compete with richly expressive speaking, writing or typing? More importantly, could we get it any time soon – and faster than other alternatives that might happen? I love Ramez Naam’s Nexus trilogy – but “Neural Dust” is pure scifi conjecture.

As Tim Urban points out, at current projected rates of progress, Stevenson’s Law suggests that the number of neurons we can simultaneously record seems to consistently double every 7.4 years – and if this continues, it will take until the end of this century to reach a million neurons, and until 2225 to record every neuron in the brain. And even then our brain neurons are biologically constrained to process information at a theoretical maximum of 30 bits per second.

Let’s look at this on a timeline:

Giving us telepathic brain-computer interfaces isn’t going to solve the outbound-bandwidth problem any time soon, especially since computers and AIs are just going to continue evolving off without us. Before long the communications and computational power of non-biological humanity will have eclipsed that of the entirety of human brains on the planet – if we’re not there already. Humanity will start to look like this:

…and then the AIs will continue to evolve at an accelerating pace relative to biological evolution, a moment later humanity will look like this…(look very carefully, you can still see the brains…).

What we have here is a hardware problem – our biological brains are not evolving fast enough to keep up with non-biological intelligence. By the time it becomes practical to wire a human brain into the net, that brain will be such an insignificant part of the overall intelligence infrastructure, it won’t even figure.

The problem we really need to be solving is replacing the physical brain itself – achieving whole-brain emulation, learning how to port / emulate human intelligence onto non-biological hardware so that we have a chance to keep up with the AIs. Science-fiction as it may sound now, given the exponential divergence in capacity this seems to be a far more pressing problem to solve than learning how to jack our biological brains in.

(Incidentally, whole brain emulation will give us richly-expressive telepathy as a by-product. (There are many other implications too, the book The Age of Em by Robin Hanson goes into these in much detail).

And the key to solving whole-brain emulation? It’s the “HIML” discussed above – essentially a richly expressive machine-readable vocabulary of the full range of the human brain’s functionality and content. That is why I’d argue that Neuralink and Kernel are accidentally trying to solve the right problem (HIML), but at the wrong time (after BCIs are workable). Arguably working on a portable model of human intelligence – rather than assuming that it will stay locked inside a skull – would be a better use of the millions of dollars being spent on BCIs in 2017.

Here’s a snap from last year’s SingularityUNZ conference in my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand, which gets the point across quite well, I think – keynote speaker David Roberts speaking on technological disruption was saying at this point: “The next thing on this chart isn’t a bigger fatter skull. Our future is so unlike our past…” Humanity itself is about to be disrupted.

I’ll leave off with one of my favourite quotes in modern science fiction – from writer David Brin in his book Existence – which speaks hopefully about the dwindling – but still crucially important – role that humans may play in a future dominated by non-biological AIs.


“Wanting. Yearning. Desire…Wanting is what we do best. And machines have no facility for it. But with us, by joining us, they’ll find more vivid longing than any striving could ever satisfy. Moreover, if that is the job they assign us – to be in charge of wanting – how could we object?”



Memia Labs Monthly Digest – April 2017

This month: 
// Virtual + augmented realities
// Parallel cyrptoeconomies
// Neural lace (...really?)
// Federated machine learning
// ...and Neo-generalists.

Here’s the regular roundup of what Memia Labs has been reading and thinking this month at the confluence of future technology, business and society. As always please let me know what you’d like to hear more of next…

This selection of links is taken from our the regular Memia Labs Premium* subscription service – if you’re interested in more information please get in touch.

Ben Reid
Consulting Director

* Memia Labs Premium is a monthly service for Memia customers.
Sign up for our regular updates at

“Implicit in VR is the fact that everything – without exception – that occurs in VR is tracked. The virtual world is defined as a world under total surveillance, since nothing happens in VR without tracking it first.”
Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable

Virtual Reality is quickly developing proven real-world applications
This short film from the BBC shows just how far VR has come in the last year – showing applications for charity fundraising, treatment of PTSD, depression, teaching surgeons and, movingly, allowing hospice patients to experience their bucket-list items from their hospital bed.

Augmented Reality is already here, it’s just not widely distributed yet
Last year’s standout AR success of Pokemon Go (doubling Nintendo’s market capitalisation to $42Bn in months) and newly-IPO’d Snap’s continued AR innovation with it’s expanded World Lenses offering – commercial Augmented Reality is already mainstream, but still confined to the ghetto of social media and entertainment (and the under-20s).

@a16z’s Benedict Evans chronicles the end of Smartphone innovation, as the next mass technology platform – AR – rises to take its place in a classic disruption S-curve.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Economies, Cryptocurrencies

As VR and AR technology develops at an amazing rate, the themes that are explored in scifi novels such as Ready Player One and Reamde – where entire parallel realities have developed with their own rules of society, politics and economy – are starting to eventuate.

In addition, the evolution in blockchain-based cryptocurrencies provide a more reliable and permeable substrate for real-virtual-real-world currency transactions than those traditionally backed by the game makers themselves.

Escape to another world
As video games get better and job prospects worse in the real world, this sympathetic article from the Economist’s 1843 magazine profiles the young men dropping out of the job market to spend their time in an alternate, gaming, reality. A justified escape “for those who feel that the outside world is more rigged than the game”?

Parallel economies in virtual gaming worlds have been around for over two decades now – early versions of World of Warcraft launched in 2004 saw the advent of Gold Farming – developing world cybercafes full of virtual “farmers” would churn out higher-level characters with pockets full of virtual “gold”. This practice was since regulated by WoW maker Blizzard but in-game and real-world purchases of virtual world assets are now commonplace across many virtual reality worlds – either using an in-game auction mechanism or using a direct exchange-rate – eg ~256 Linden dollars to one US$ in Second Life (registration required).

The World’s First Cryptocurrency Hedgefund
While not particularly focused on virtual-world currencies, a few months ago saw the unveiling of the world’s first blockchain asset hedgefund, Polychain Capital – with investment from Andreesson Horowitz and Union Square Ventures). Polychain founder Olaf Carlson-Wee is interviewed in a recent @a16z podcast: fascinating.

Can’t not mention Neuralink
More hyperactivity from Elon Musk (who incidentally also believes that we’re already living in a virtual world). Following on from his impromptu musings at last year’s Code Conference about Iain M Banks’ “Neural Lace” concept, he formally launched his new company Neuralink at the end of March. Plenty of noise, not a lot of substance at this stage.

An entertaining readup of Musk’s logic here from WaitButWhy:

Privacy Concerns
Who owns your face? – Modern advanced face recognition lets police identify people (and groups) from far away and without interacting with them. Yet, unlike fingerprinting, in the US no federal law governs face recognition in 2017.

Federated Learning: Collaborative Machine Learning without Centralized Training Data – A gnarly privacy issue of machine learning is that private data has always needed to be processed centrally (and hence may not be kept private any more). Here Google Research outline their solution: all the training data remains on a user’s device, and no individual updates are stored in the cloud. Good stuff.

Other Bits And Pieces
And here are some other links we bookmarked this month:

In Our Time: The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum – The BBC’s Melvyn Bragg is one of those polymaths able to eloquently explore complex ideas across literally any domain of knowledge or culture. This podcast is a fascinating looking back at the fossil record to predict what is likely to happen as a result of current global warming trends – with some scary speculations at the end.

A New Li-Fi System That’s 100 Times Faster Than Wi-Fi – providing speeds of 42.8 Gbit/s over a distance of 2.5 meters – but still about 5 years away from being consumer-ready.

GitHub now lets its workers keep the IP when they use company resources for personal projects  – common sense prevails…

Personally I’m still challenged to find a concise answer when a family member or friend asks “so what exactly do you do in your job?” Apparently this is a classic problem for Neo-Generalists – “…living in an era still dominated by hyperspecialism and experts with ‘the one right answer’, the N-G defies easy classification – tricksters who traverse multiple domains, living between categories and labels.” As one reviewer put it, the book “forces us to re-evaluate traditional career trajectories and consider what it means to live, learn and lead in the 21st century.” Worth a read.

Comments, feedback, suggestions? Email



Memia Labs Monthly Digest March 2017

This month: 
// Quantum Computers Using DNA Storage
// (Don't) Tax The Robots 
// The Useless Class 
// The Astounding Cosmos

Here’s our monthly summary of what Memia Labs has been reading and thinking this month at the confluence of future technology, business and society.

This selection of links is taken from our the regular Memia Labs Premium* subscription service – if you’re interested in more information please get in touch.

Ben Reid
Consulting Director

* Memia Labs Premium is a monthly service for Memia customers.
Sign up for our regular updates at

Back in 1997, French director Luc Besson (accidentally?) imagined DNA-based memory: in this scene from his flamboyant film The Fifth Element, Supreme Being Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) was reconstructed from her orders-of-magnitude-more-complex-than-human DNA – with her memories perfectly intact right up until the moment she had died (in an exploding spaceship, natch). This month, scientists have discovered how to fit the maximum amount of data in a single nucleotide, leading us into a future of DNA-based storage, potentially powering the next generation of Quantum computers (not to mention built-in backups for our minds…).


Full stack vertical AI startups actually work – in amidst all the AI hype 2017 will be the year of breakout successes from a handful of vertically-oriented AI startups solving full-stack industry problems.

…and Robots (they really mean AI)

Taxation without representation? Tax the robots says Bill Gates (…you what!?!). Don’t tax the robots replies the Economist. Why? Because robots will take these 5 jobs (but probably not these 5).

Everyone’s talking about

Homo Deus
414JWlgTXGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This podcast with author Yuval Noah Harari are well worth a listen to get an overview of the themes explored. A clear exposition of the potential near future when humans may no longer the most intelligent beings on the planet. His phrase “the useless class” is particularly sobering…

Azeem Azhar:

Miscellaneous Tech

Welcome to the fog computing era OpenFog Consortium Releases Landmark Reference Architecture for Fog Computing  (but how open is this Cisco-led standard when you have to register to download it…!?).

Hard drives of the future could be made of DNA, just like Leeloo

In fact, asks Wired, What if quantum computers of the future used hard drives of DNA?

Global Tech Industry 

Taking your SaaS product upmarket – Enterprise features are common across the board, this is a great resource

The Human Condition

I usually describe myself as a “destination, not a journey person”. Unfortunately for me, apparently Happiness Is Always Seeking Something More

You’re a different person at 77 than 14

Tensors, Tensors, Everywhere

So What Exactly Is A Tensor Anyway?

Getting cosmological

Finally this month we are seeing ever more astounding visualizations of the cosmos in which we belong. Ever since Hubble Deep Field discovered previously unimagined depth to the universe in 1995, our understanding of our nano-nano-nanoscopic place in the universe is continually reinforced. The universe seems to be layered in multiple orders of magnitude there to be explored and understood. Enjoy these if you haven’t seen them before.

It all started here with the iPhone app Cosmic Eye

Laniakea – our home supercluster


On March 25th spare a thought for me when I will be taking part in the inaugural Breca Wanaka Swimrun event: 42km of trail running and 8km of swimming in the freezing cold depths of despair that is Lake Wanaka, New Zealand.

Assuming I make it back from that in one piece, more in a month’s time.  🙂

Comments, feedback, suggestions? Email


Memia Labs Monthly Digest February 2017

This month:
//Post-branding futures...
//ExO bubbles...
//Teach yourself self-driving cars ... 
//...and (inevitably) Trump

Wanting. Yearning. DesireWanting is what we do best. And machines have no facility for it. But with us, by joining us, they’ll find more vivid longing than any striving could ever satisfy. Moreover, if that is the job they assign us – to be in charge of wanting – how could we object?”

– David Brin – Existence

Here’s the regular roundup of what Memia Labs has been reading and thinking this month at the confluence of technology, business and society.

Please let me know your thoughts on the articles below and what you’d like to see more or less of in future.

Ben Reid
Consulting Director

For regular updates follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.

Sign up for our regular mailing list at

Near Future

The Future Of Branding – personalized logos, brands built by AI, brands that market themselves to machines and even brands literally living inside our bodies

The End Of Intellectual Property – how will we protect the IP embodied in products and services if anyone can reverse engineer their core IP simply by using them and feeding their output into commodity machine learning systems?

Brain hacking – love this from the comments thread: “If someone was hacking my brain right now they’d detect nostalgia for a time when we used to worry about William Gibson or Neal Stephenson style cyberpunk dystopias possibly becoming a reality. What a quaint notion it was, that world events might be swung by valuable information inside people’s head being stolen, rather than valueless nonsense being pumped in on an industrial scale.”

Global Tech Industry

Tech firms as nations?

ExO Bubble? Uber and Lyft are paying huge sums to become a global verb like Google – but at what cost to shareholders?

…Unlike ExO cousin AirBnB which recently announced it had reached profitability. Fundamentally different market dynamics or just execution?


Security expert Bruce Shneier’s clarion call for Government regulation on internet security – otherwise The Big IoT Robot Could Kill Us All


“AI is the next electricity, transforming one industry after another, forever.” Why go long on Artificial Intelligence?

One of the first case studies of practical use of AI in mainstream – Japanese Cucumber Farmer using TensorFlow

Fueling the Gold Rush: The Greatest Public Datasets for AI – the unsung hero of the AI revolution is data – however most products involving machine learning or AI rely heavily on proprietary datasets that are often not released. A curated list of the most important open data sets:

“Oh you’ll look hotter in this,” the shopping bot coos as it pushes a $150 sweater as an alternative to the $25 sweatshirt I was considering. What happens when bots learn to lie?

Mate Labs: making machine learning accessible to everyone

Wearable AI system can detect a conversation’s tone – less awkward moments – or more?


Some Simple Economics Of The Blockchain – seminal paper from late last year ICYMI

Money, Blockchains and Social Scalability – “the secret to Bitcoin’s success is that its prolific resource consumption and poor computational scalability is buying something even more valuable: social scalability.”

From BitCoin to Agriculture – how farmers benefit from blockchain. food traceability and transparency. Obvious, when you think about it.

Data points

Wind turbine breaks world record for wind power generated in just one day

Alphabet Waymo leads by far autonomous car development

LinkedIn workforce report Feb 2017 – above all, this looks like validation that Microsoft paid a fair price for LinkedIn – this is what they can give away for free…

The price of light has fallen by a factor of 500,000, far faster than official inflation statistics suggest.

(Inevitably) Trump

Reactive Autocracy
PS even policies that look deeply unpopular errors (like the travel ban on 7 countries) are actually supported by a popular plurality of Americans.

Fake News…You ain’t seen nothing yet. Sounds terrifying – or just a market opportunity for paid-verification business models?

I’ll never bring my phone on an international flight again. Neither should you.


Is mathematics a performance? Beautiful essay – rather than thinking about maths, natural systems are doing it.

The Evolution of Business Logic from Monoliths through Microservices, to Functions – comprehensive guided tour through key developments in application development leading to modern microservice architectures – enabling an order of magnitude increase in developer productivity and hence changing the economics of re-writing and replacing legacy monoliths.

Teach Yourself

How to encrypt your entire life in less than an hour

Everything you need to know about which Javascript frameworks to learn in 2017

Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) in 50 lines of code

Udacity Self Driving Car Nanodegree–nd013

1 hour well spent:

Hardware is the new software – delightful Wired documentary from last year on the history of Shenzhen, Silicon Valley Of The Future

More in a month’s time.

Comments, feedback, suggestions? Email


“Overtaking Lane” Strategy For Digital Disruptors

Disruptive companies need to check their surroundings before overtaking.


Three Types Of Company

There are three types of companies in the world today:

  1. Dinosaurs: Traditional companies who are facing digital disruption in the marketplace driven by fast-changing technologies. These “cold blooded” businesses struggle to effect change – they are stuck with stodgy, outdated delivery models and immovable cost structures – but still enjoy significant revenues from their established customer base. There are increasing examples of formerly successful businesses who failed to react to changes coming and paid the price – Kodak, Blockbuster, Yellow Pages, the entire newspaper publishing industry…the list is long and getting longer. Established company lifespans are getting shorter:
“Since 2000, 52% of companies in the Fortune 500 
have either gone bankrupt, been acquired or ceased to exist”
  1. Innovators: There is also a new group of businesses who are successfully leveraging new technologies into their existing business models and are successfully transforming themselves for the new digital age. To name a few: Disney, McDonalds, GE, IKEA, Starbucks, Air New Zealand. These businesses typically hire a dedicated Chief Digital Officer – an experienced digital expert who can take the lead in a permanent cycle of change and break down traditional internal silos. They will be fast to learn from disruptive competition and also to leverage their incumbent strength to protect market share and adapt to wider change as it happens.
  2. Disruptors:  And then there are the fast-growing disruptors – those nimble, ambitious businesses who are using new digital technologies to effect a wholesale restructure of a traditional value chain – and in the process putting the old dinosaurs out of business. There are huge opportunities ahead of today’s disruptors to achieve a landgrab from established industries. But there are also risks in the timing and resourcing of tactics, together with anticipating the retaliatory defensive moves of incumbents.

What are the options for the leaders of today’s fast-growing disruptive business to keep looking up and ahead at the opportunities and risks – while keeping effective hold on the operational controls to steer firmly to the envisioned future?


Making Time For Strategy Is Hard When You’re Accelerating

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re unlikely to get there”

Digital Disruption is not just about the underlying technology – this is just an enabler of the changes brought about in the wider economic value chain. A business with a technology advantage needs to solve wider problems in order to effect a successful disruption strategy.

But think about typical fast-growing companies today – made it to a few million dollars revenue, growing 100% year on year, problems hiring people fast enough, projects are constantly under-resourced and running behind, sales are stacking up and needing even more resources next year, another round of capital to raise….the Board and CEO have their hands full just keeping the engine running. Over time, this can lead to strategic deficit – a blindness to the landscape changes that are happening around the company at just the critical moment when clarity of vision is needed.

Put simply, many fast-growing companies struggle to find space to fit strategy into their business cycle – leaving them vulnerable to missing external marketplace change risks and – more importantly – opportunities.

Some of the key challenges are summed up in the following quotes:

“We have our technology vision - pulling together a strategic plan is a distraction”
“The CEO is too busy running the business”
“The strategy will just sit on a (virtual) shelf”
“The tech industry too fast-changing, by the time you’ve written a strategy it’s out of date”
“There are lots of strategic plan templates and tools out there - none of them apply to our business”
“We can’t articulate our key success metrics because we’re disrupting the marketplace”
“Large strategic consulting firms don’t understand high growth tech business and cost too much”

“Overtaking Lane” Strategy

Digital Disruptors, like any business, should map out a clear strategy to guide their route through a changing market over a period of years, enabling them to overtake and accelerate away from incumbents. This change will be slow at first, like pushing a boulder continously uphill until, if successful, finally the business reaches a tipping point where there is clear momentum and the market dynamics change in the new entrant’s favour.

A useful metaphor for the four phases for disruption is “Overtaking Lane” Strategy:


Focus: Startup

  • All the learnings from the Lean Startup movement apply here – Customer Development, Customer Validation, Customer Creation, early Company Building.
  • It’s hard work getting a company off the ground, but the real work’s only just beginning.

Check Surroundings

Focus: Early Momentum, Preparation

  • Gaining market traction, starting to win deals against incumbents.
  • Go-to market is still “pre-chasm”, wider market acceptance is building but not there yet.
  • Identify the competition: dinosaurs, innovators and watch out for other disruptors coming up fast behind you.
  • Strike surgically where you have a clear advantage. Stay away where you don’t.
  • Check that your business is prepared and ready for what’s coming up.


Focus: Direct Competition

  • Ride the wave of change through your value chain as the mainstream market rapidly comes around to your way of thinking. Pick off your dinosaur competition rapidly with your clearly superior offering. Leave large innovators alone.
  • Anticipate retaliatory defensive actions from incumbents.

Accelerate Away

Focus: Scale and Defend Market Share

  • You’re now recognized as a market leader in your newly restructured value chain.Keep investing in innovation at scale, investing in defending your hard-won market share and building out features which maximize the advantages of your new platform.
  • You are now the incumbent!

Fundamentally: Strategy Shouldn’t Slow You Down

Disruptors shouldn’t need to slow down on their execution to build effective strategy into their business operations and get on with overtaking the competition. It just needs a lean and agile approach to the early strategic review and setup, together with an ongoing cadence of regular reviews and disciplined measurement.

Bringing in an experienced strategy facilitation resource can speed up the delivery of the right sized strategic framework and choose the right planning tools. (Here’s a great resource of roadmapping tools  I like to dive back into from time to time).

A typical 1-year programme to embed strong strategic practices into a fast-growing business is shown below:

Month 1:

  • 3-4 Half-day workshops with Board, CEO, Exec Team.
  • Define clarity of Purpose, Vision, and competitive position.
  • Clearly understand how the market dynamics and value chain will change if you are successful.

Month 2:

  • Develop what success looks like: achieving the vision. What KPIs will you measure? How will you measure them?
  • Define KPIs and targets.

Month 3:

  • Define strategic initiatives – what do you need to do to reach the targets set?
  • Plan the resourcing to these initiatives and schedule the highest priority ones into a roadmap for the next year. (You can even treat this exercise as you would normal Agile planning for a Scrum project – define quarterly strategic “Sprints” and a backlog of strategic initiatives.)

Months 4-12:

  • Diligently measure KPIs and report against them regularly – at least every month.
  • Hold quarterly half-day strategic progress reviews.
  • Keep a close eye on the competition but don’t get distracted.
  • Aim to keep the strategic plan refreshed and looking out at least 3 years ahead.

The outcome of this investment in strategy gives the Board and Management the clarity of vision, timing and control to confidently steer and accelerate the company to success against a rapidly changing competitive landscape.

Fundamentally: don’t be afraid to continuously refresh and iterate the Vision and KPIs as the company makes progress. – strategy is something we “do”, not just write down!


10 essential reads for doing Tech Business Strategy today

I’ve been helping quite a few software and tech businesses with strategy development, forward scenario modeling and business planning over the last year and a common question which comes up is “what reading would you recommend to find out more?”

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more of a skimmer of web articles than a long-form reader and I very rarely make it to the end of any business book – though I do like to keep things on my Kindle to dip in and out when I need to refer back / when I’ve got time to read on the plane.

[Also I find that it’s often in sci-fi where the best ideas about long term technology trends get explored and surfaced as tangible outcomes – and although these concepts aren’t often directly applicable to today’s businesses, they help to extend the mind as to what *could* be possible.]


So anyway… the 10 books, blogs, newsletters and articles below (some old, some new) have helped form my thinking about how to understand and *do* effective tech business strategy against a constant background of exponential, disruptive change. Enjoy. 🙂

1. The Startup Owner’s Manual – Steve Blank and Bob Dorf


Not a book about strategy at all – in fact, the “Lean Startup” movement of which Steve Blank is the progenitor is arguably “anti strategy”, advocating as it does rapid iterative experimentation and exploration to find that elusive product-market fit. There is more practical wisdom in Lean Startup guru Steve Blank‘s book than in most others put together. Fundamentally, don’t build it until you know they’ll come.

2. Good to Great – Jim Collins


The classic timeless book which teaches about getting the right team on the bus first and then building a great, long lasting, business. Essential, uplifting reading.

3. The Singularity is Near


Technological change is accelerating. Ray Kurzweil’s seminal work from 2005 seemed crazy at the time – but now his law of accelerating returns is generally accepted as underpinning the increasingly rapid changes we are seeing in the tech industry and society generally.

4. Crossing the Chasm– Geoffrey Moore

Crossing The Chasm Cover

Another classic text, focussing on the strategies and tactics for marketing technology products. The book leads from its opening definition of a Market:

“A set of actual or potential customers
for a given set of products or services
who have a common set of needs or wants, and
who reference each other when making a buying decision.”

…to define the technology adoption lifecycle and how there is a “chasm” between the “early adopters” and the “early majority”.


5. Both Sides Of The Table – Mark Suster


Entrepreneur turned investor Mark Suster’s blog provides insight, experience and purpose to guide tech entrepreneurs everywhere in the world.

6. The Business of Venture Capital – Mahendra Ramsinghani


So much of today’s tech business is driven by VCs, it pays to know what drives them. This accessible guide is a great primer to the way the Valley works.

7. Exponential Organizations – Salim Ismail et al


Salim Ismail hails from Singularity University where he has seen on a daily basis the impact of new exponential technologies on the business world. For example, Instagram, the classic “ExO” sold for $1Bn with only 13 employees. This book is the result of researching around 100 “exponential” companies across the world and looking for patterns in their data – and then creating a how-to guide: How can you build a new business with these principles? How can you retrofit these ideas into large organizations? The book introduces the IDEAS SCALE framework to identify the most common attributes of these “ExO”s:



(Reminder: SingularityU NZ is happening in Christchurch, New Zealand this year 14-16 Nov).

8. The Innovator’s Dilemma – Clayton Christensen

innovators dilemma

Another classic text: Clayton Christensen’s book argues that today’s successful companies put too much emphasis on customers’ current needs, and fail to adopt new technology or business models that will meet their customers’ needs in the future, leaving them open to “disruption”. A whole subgenre of business books has been written taking one side or the other of this argument…

9. For Entrepreneurs by David Skok


David Skok, VC at Matrix Partners is the granddaddy of SaaS. His classic 2012 article SaaS Metrics 2.0 – A Guide to Measuring and Improving what Matters is arguably the cornerstone of how the SaaS industry benchmarks itself today. His blog For Entrepreneurs goes wider and deeper and is a rich resource of writing to understand the software industry, tech business strategy and marketing.

10. Big Bang Disruption by Larry Downes and Paul Nunes

HBR Big Bang

This forthright Harvard Business Review paper from 2013 shows that disruption can come from nowhere and wipe out incumbent businesses – required reading for doing business strategy in the 21st century.

Bonus no. 11 – I’ve recently become an avid reader of the Andreesson Horowitz weekly email newsletter – a curated eclectic mix of what the folks at @a16z have been reading this month, at the bleeding front edge of tech, business and societal change. Sign up here:

Bonus no. 12 – This slideshare from RadiantMinds software (acquired by Atlassian in 2014) provides a whole practical roadmapping toolbox that I love to dip into from time to time.


“Driving On The Curve” – digital disruption presentation June 2016

It was my pleasure to give a short presentation on Digital Disruption and Technology Strategy to a friendly audience at the Results Group yesterday evening – my slides below. Key messages:

NZ business needs to develop a stronger posture towards [digital] disruption (other than ignorance / indifference…):

– more technology industry experience at board and senior management levels
– see disruption coming: invest now to better understand disruption risks, timescales and opportunities
– incubate ideas to explore these themes without spending vast $$$
– develop strategies to address disruption before it happens to you


SingularityU New Zealand is happening – 14-16 Nov

SUNZI’ve been following the development of Singularity University and the former Singularity Summit globally for years now – and thanks to Christchurch-based New Yorker // rainmaker // infinitely renewable energy source Kaila Colbin, New Zealand will be one of the first venues outside Silicon Valley to host a SingularityU Summit event.

Amazing opportunity for our small, *high growth potential* (in every sense of the word growth…) country to plug in to what’s happening at the forefront of global technological and societal change and make a substantial investment in the future of our country and the world.

Premier global events like this don’t happen in our neck of the woods too often…get your tickets now, I say. 🙂



Introducing the Meta 2 – *Real* Augmented Reality in 2016

An occasional blog entry…I’ve been researching virtual / augmented reality productivity paradigms for a while now and just came across this TED talk from February (just released) from Meron Gribetz, co-founder of Silicon Valley-based Meta Vision.  Watch it and let the reality sink in: follow the “path of least neural resistance”…Pre-order the development kit here for US$949