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Software continues to eat the world

Software continues to eat the world

One year ago Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Software Is Eating The World“. It is interesting to reflect back to this piece and some of the predictions made back at a time when Internet company LinkedIn had just gone public and Groupon was just filing for an IPO.

Andreessen’s observation was simply this: Software has become so powerful and computer infrastructure so cheap and ubiquitous that many industries are being disrupted by new business models enabled by that software. Examples listed were books (Amazon disrupting Borders), movie rental (NetFlix disrupting Blockbuster), music industry (Pandora, iTunes), animation movies (Pixar), photo-sharing services (disrupting Kodak), job recruiting (LinkedIn), telecommunication (Skype), video-gaming (Zynga) and others.

On the infrastructure side one can bolster this argument by pointing at the rapid development of new technologies such as cloud computing or big data analytics. Andreessen gave one example of the cost of running an Internet application in the cloud dropping by a factor of 100x in the last decade (from $150,000 / month in 2000 using LoudCloud to about $1500 / month in 2011 using Amazon Web Services). Microsoft now has infrastructure with Windows Azure where procuring an instance of a modern server at one (or even multiple) data center(s) takes only minutes and costs you less than $1 per CPU hour.

Likewise, the number of Internet users has grown from some 50 million around 2000 to more than 2 billion with broadband access in 2011. This is certainly one aspect fueling the enormous growth of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. To be sure, not every high-flying startup goes on to be as successful after its IPO. Facebook trades at half the value of opening day after three months. Groupon trades at less than 20% of its IPO value some 9 months ago. But LinkedIn has sustained and even modestly grown its market capitalization. And Google and Apple both trade near or at their all-time high, with Apple today at $621b becoming the most valuable company of all time (non inflation-adjusted).

The growing dominance and ubiquitous reach of software shows in other areas as well. Take automobiles. Software is increasingly been used for comfort and safety in modern cars. In fact, self-driving cars – once the realm of science fiction such as flying hover cars – are now technically feasible and knocking on the door of broad industrial adoption. After driving 300.000 miles in test Google is now deploying its fleet of self-driving cars for the benefit of its employees. Engineers even take self-driving cars to the racetracks, such as up on Pikes Peak or the Thunderhill raceway. Performance is now at the level of very good drivers, with the benefit of not having the human flaws (drinking, falling asleep, texting, showing off, etc.) which cause so many accidents. Expert drivers still outperform the computer-driven cars. (That said, even human experts sometimes make mistakes with terrible consequences, such as this crash on Pikes Peak this year.) The situation is similar to how computers got so proficient at chess in the mid-nineties that finally even the world champion was defeated.

In this post I want to look at some other areas specifically impacting my own life, such as digital photography. I am not a professional photographer, but over the years my wife and I have owned dozens of cameras and have followed the evolution of digital photography and its software for many years. Of course, there is an ongoing development towards chips with higher resolution and lenses with better optic and faster controls. But the major innovation comes from better software. Things like High Dynamic Range (HDR) to compensate for stark contrast in lighting such as a portrait photo against a bright background. Or stitching multiple photos together to a panorama, with Microsoft’s PhotoSynth taking this to a new level by building 3D models from multiple shots of a scene.

One recent innovation comes in the form of the new Sony RX100 camera, which science writer David Pogue raved about in the New York Times as “the best pocket camera ever made”. My wife bought one a few weeks ago and we both have been learning all it can do ever since. Despite the many impressive features and specifications about lens, optics, chip, controls, etc. what I find most interesting is the software running on such a small device. The intelligent Automatic setting will decide most settings for your everyday use, while one can always direct priorities (aperture, shutter, program) or manually override most aspects. There are a great many menus and it is not trivial to get to use all capabilities of this camera, as it’s extremely feature-rich. Some examples of the more creative software come in modes such as ‘water color’ or ‘illustration’. The original image is processed right then and there to generate effects as if it was a painting or a drawing. Both original and processed photo are stored on the mini-SD card.

Flower close-up in ‘illustration’ mode

One interesting effect is to filter to just the main colors (Yellow, Red, Green, Blue). Many of these effects are shown on the display, with the aperture ring serving as a flexible multi-functional dial for more convenient handling with two hands. (Actually, the camera body is so small that it is a challenge to use all dials while holding the device; just like the BlackBerry keyboard made us write with two thumbs instead of ten fingers.) The point of such software features is not so much that they are radically new; you could do so with a good photo editing software for many years. The point is that with the ease and integration of having them at your fingertips you are much more likely to use them.

Example of suppressing all colors except yellow

The camera will allow registering of faces and detect those in images. You can set it up such that it will take a picture only when it detects a small/medium/large smile on the subject being photographed. One setting allows you to take self-portrait, with the timer starting to count down as soon as the camera detects one (or two) faces in the picture! It is an eerie experience when the camera starts to “understand” what is happening in the image!

There is an automatic panorama stitching mode where you just hold the button and swipe the camera left-right or up-down while the camera takes multiple shots. It automatically stitches them into one composite, so no more uploading of the individual photos and stitching on the computer required.

Beach panorama stitched on the camera using swipe-&-shoot

I have been experimenting with panorama photos since 2005 (see my collection or my Panoramas from the Panamerican Peaks adventure). It’s always been somewhat tedious and results were often mixed (lens distortions, lighting changes sun vs. cloud or objects moving during the individual frames, not holding the camera level, skipping a part of the horizon, etc.) despite crafty post-processing on the computer with image software. I have read about special 360 degree lenses to take high-end panoramas, but who wants to go to those lengths just for the occasional panorama photo? From my experience, nothing moves the needle as much as the ease and integration of taking panoramas right in the camera as the RX100 does.

Or take the field of healthcare. Big Data, Mobility and Cloud Computing make possible entirely new business models. Let’s just look at mobility. The smartphone is evolving into a universal healthcare device for measuring, tracking and visualizing medical information. Since many people have their smartphone with them at almost all times, one can start tracking and analyzing personal medical data over time. And for almost any medical measurement, “there is an app for that”. One interesting example is this optical heart-rate monitor app Cardiio for the iPhone. (Cardio + IO ?)

Screenshots of Cardiio iPhone app to optically track heart rate

It is amazing that this app can track your heart rate just by analyzing the changes of light reflected from your face with its built-in camera. Not even a plug-in required!

Another system comes from Withings, this one designed to turn the iPhone into a blood pressure monitor. A velcro sleeve with battery mount and cable plugs into the iPhone and an app controls the inflation of the sleeve, the measurement and some simple statistics.

Blood pressure monitor system from Withings for iPhone

Again, it’s fairly simple to just put the sleeve around one upper arm and push the button on the iPhone app. The results are systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings and heart rate.

Sample blood pressure and pulse measurement

Like many other monitoring apps this one also keeps track of the readings and does some simple form of visual plotting and averaging.

Plot of several blood pressure readings

There is also a separate app which will allow you to upload your data and create a more comprehensive record of your own health over time. Withings provides a few other medical devices such as scales to add body weight and body fat readings. The company tagline is “smart and connected things”.

One final example is an award-winning contribution from a student team from Australia called Stethocloud. This system is aimed at diagnosing pneumonia. It is comprised of an app for the iPhone, a simple stethoscope plug-in for the iPhone and on the back-end some server-based software analyzing the measurements in the Windows Azure cloud according to standards defined by the World Health Organization. The winning team (in Microsoft’s 2012 Imagine Cup) built a prototype in only 2 weeks and had only minimal upfront investments.

StethoCloud system for iPhone to diagnose pneumonia

This last example perhaps illustrates best the opportunities of new software technologies to bring unprecedented advances to healthcare – and to many other fields and industries. I think Marc Andreessen was spot on with his observation that software is eating the world. It certainly does in my world.

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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Industrial, Medical, Socioeconomic

 

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Global Trends 2025

Global Trends 2025

If you like to do some big-picture thinking, here is a document put together by the National Intelligence Council and titled “Global Trends”. It is published every five years to analyze trends and forecast likely scenarios of worldwide development fifteen years into the future. The most recent is called “Global Trends 2025” and was published in November 2008. It’s a 120 page document which can be downloaded for free in PDF format here.

To get a feel for the content, here are the chapter headers:

  1. The Globalizing Economy
  2. The Demographics of Discord
  3. The New Players
  4. Scarcity in the Midst of Plenty?
  5. Growing Potential for Conflict
  6. Will the International System Be Up to the Challenges?
  7. Power-Sharing in a Multipolar World

From the NIC Global Trends 2025 project website:

Some of our preliminary assessments are highlighted below:

  • The whole international system—as constructed following WWII—will be revolutionized. Not only will new players—Brazil, Russia, India and China— have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game.
  • The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Unprecedented economic growth, coupled with 1.5 billion more people, will put pressure on resources—particularly energy, food, and water—raising the specter of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
  • The potential for conflict will increase owing partly to political turbulence in parts of the greater Middle East.

As interesting as the topic may be, from a data visualization perspective the report is somewhat underwhelming. I counted just 5 maps and 5 charts in the entire document. The maps are interesting, such as the following on World Age Structure:

World Age Structure 2005

World Age Structure 2025 (Projected)

These maps show the different age of countries’ populations by geographical region. The Northern countries have less young people, and the aging trend is particularly strong for Eastern Europe and Japan. In 2025 almost all of the countries with very young population will be in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab Peninsula. Population growth will slow as a result; there will be approximately 8 billion people alive in 2025, 1 billion more than the 7 billion today.

In this day and age one is spoiled by interactive charts such as the Bubble-Charts of Gapminder’s Trendalyzer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an interactive chart where you could set the Age intervals and perhaps filter in various ways (geographic regions, GDP, population, etc.) and then see the dynamic change of such colored world-maps over time? How much more insight would this convey about the changing demographics and relative sizes of age cohorts? Or perhaps display interactive population pyramids such as those found here by Jorge Camoes?

Another somewhat misguided ‘graphical angle’ are the slightly rotated graphics on the chapter headers. For example, Chapter 2 starts with this useful color-coded map of the Youth in countries of the Middle East. But why rotate it slightly and make the fonts less readable?

Youth in the Middle East (from Global Trends 2025 report)

I don’t want to be too critical; it’s just that reports put together with so much systematic research and focusing on long-range, international trends should employ more state-of-the-art visualizations, in particular interactive charts rather than just pages and pages of static text…

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Industrial, Socioeconomic

 

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Scientific Research Trends

Scientific Research Trends

The site worldmapper.org has published hundreds of cartogram world maps; cartograms are geographic maps with the size of the depicted areas proportional to a specified metric. This leads to the distorted versions of countries or entire continents relative to the original geographical size we are used to. (We recently looked at cartograms of world mobile phone adoption here.)

One interesting set of cartograms from worldmapper.org relates to scientific research. The first shows the amounts of science papers (as of 2001) authored by people living in the respective areas:

Science Research (Number of research articles, Source: Worldmapper.org)

Another shows the growth in the above number between 1990 and 2001:

Science Growth (Change in Number of research articles, Source: Worldmapper.org)

From worldmapper.org:

This map shows the growth in scientific research of territories between 1990 and 2001. If there was no increase in scientific publications that territory has no area on the map.

In 1990, 80 scientific papers were published per million people living in the world, this increased to 106 per million by 2001. This increase was experienced primarily in territories with strong existing scientific research. However, the United States, with the highest total publications in 2001, experienced a smaller increase since 1990 than that in Japan, China, Germany and the Republic of Korea. Singapore had the greatest per person increase in scientific publications.

It is worth noting that the trends depicted are based on data one decade old. It is likely, however, that those trends have continued over the past decade, something which Neil deGrasse Tyson points out with concern regarding the relative decline of scientific research in America in this YouTube video:

Another point Tyson emphasizes is the near total absence of scientific research from the entire continent of Africa as evidenced by the disappearance of the continent on the cartogram. With about a billion people living there it is one of the stark visualizations of the challenges they face to escape from their poverty trap.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2012 in Scientific, Socioeconomic

 

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