I was reading an interesting article about IBM’s proclamation that Africa is the next growth frontier and it got me thinking about what that means exactly. The article claims that IBM’s strategy calls for increased investment in the region to reach an objective of US$ 1 billion per year by 2015. It does not take a genius to see the potential of Africa but as I have always thought, leveraging the potential comes with significant challenges that most of these corporations need to either adjust to or simply find better ways of going about it. I am optimistic about the prospects for Africa but I am always pragmatic enough not to shout it at the top of the hills.
Pragmatism, I would have to insist ,has little reflection on the hope that represents the current state of affairs in the continent. Major wars are gradually being resolved and most post-conflict countries (Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda) are holding their own. In that regard then the necessary foundational requirement for any grass roots development going forward is either being laid down or gradually taking hold. However, most people who are optimistic about Africa would mostly accept that Africans are increasingly becoming more involved in what happens to them. More importantly, it is the nature of this involvement and where it is geared towards that is bother encouraging and very interesting to observe.
The financial sector in the continent is increasingly being advanced and expanded by indigenous banks which are increasingly looking beyond their regional boundaries. Examples of such banks include (off the top of my head) Equity, KCB and EcoBank. Equity and KCB have only recently started venturing beyond their comfort zones (geopolitically speaking). However, EcoBank is far ahead in this apparent strategy to see Africa (Sub-Sahara Africa in any case) as a single market. While political realities in the East Africa region and the wider Eastern Africa region have made the expansion of KCB and Equity a worthwhile venture, they still remain in the early stages of their respective strategy. However, the interesting angle of the situation is how these indigenous banks operate: you are more likely to find an Equity bank branch in the most unlikely places than a branch of a multinational, non-indigenous bank. The experience in these two banks is remarkably different, if you bother to notice the difference.
Given the experiences in the financial sector and in the telecommunications sector in Africa, then it is important to keep in mind that while Africa may indeed be the next growth frontier, that growth comes with its own unique challenges that need to be dealt with. In identifying the potential of Africa and investing it, then the IBMs and Google of this world are doing what their corporate mandate demands of them. How much of these investments are mere façades for finding new markets as opposed to a real investment in the continued development of locally relevant technologies and processes remains to be seen.
The use of telecommunications in the financial industry has long since been a no brainer but the third world requires a more different approach from what exists in the west and the other developed nations. Whereas they would have a huge network of ATMs spread all over the country to serve their customers, the oft quoted MPESA transforms your mobile phone into an ATM in your pocket scenario. It is hoped that MPESA is one of those prove of concept ideas that shows the true potential of a mobile phone. A mobile phone centric revolution holds a greater potential than the corresponding idea of delivering computers since the latter would require an inordinate amount of power to say the list and far too prone to various problems that clearly plagued the developing countries: chief on the list – dust.
The researchers at IBM decided to make a spectre of their latest efforts into machine intelligence through the Jeopardy game show. In essence, the game show tests the machine’s ability to understand natural language and to deliver responses that are correct. On those two tasks, it performed quite well and good enough to best human competitors of the venerable game show.
That may sound like an over generalization of the research team achievement but it is not meant to be as Watson represents the latest progress in algorithms, combined with even more powerful hardware which work together to calculate and render responses within a short period of time. In a way this is an almost natural and expected progression as search engines, which are continually crawling the web for analysis and using their immense data repositories, may very well need a more refined interface like what Watson may make possible.
At the moment internet search is largely keywords driven with little in terms of contextual meaning of what is sought and indeed better filtering of the results; it would be easy to just have your search engine present you with the first 3 responses to your query and rank them according to the likelihood of their correctness. That is certain a more general use case than what is being considered Watson’s next challenge: a diagnostic aid for doctors. This certainly makes sense as the next logical area of progression for this device; the subject area is specialized and the ability to continuously add new medical research and findings may well improve decisions that doctors make. This could perhaps even bring the medical community closer to more automated or at the very least computer aided research as recently championed by one of Google’s founders. This may not be something that Watson can do but with a few modifications and adjustments, it will be a natural extension for the device.
End of Human Intelligence Dominance?
Reading the buzz around Watson’s jeopardy victory on the internet, you would think that our dominance as the most intelligent beings is at an end however the victory, while important, does not pose any direct threat to human intelligence as yet. It is more prudent to restrain from using terms like artificial intelligence as AI has the connotation of emulating human intelligence and hence a crude approximation of the latter. Machine intelligence on the other hand can freely evolve to their own capabilities as defined by advancements in hardware and algorithms as well as programming methods.
The only time when machine intelligence can overshadow human intelligence is when the former reaches a point that it achieves sentience and as such be capable of acting as a fully independent moral agent. That in itself is a much bigger challenge than emulating human intelligence since sentience does not guarantee free will and thus rational behaviour. Before getting carried away with that train of thought, machine intelligence is far from outshining human intelligence any time soon, if ever.
Information and communication technologies are increasingly seen as an integral component to development and global organizations like the world bank are doing more to support and seed the development of technologies that will empower the marginalized. However, post-conflict reconstruction remains a particularly challenging aspect of any community, society and country coming out of a war – more so when the way has persisted for decades.
In most of the cases, the main use of ICT would be in humanitarian assistance first of all as tends to happen at the end of a conflict however ICT in that sense is more likely to be used by international players in the humanitarian assistance field. However as time passes then the emphasis shifts from humanitarian assistance to providing more long term development support which often means that the government in question is increasingly become more capable in delivery services to its people.
Countries that have emerged from conflict provide unique challenges that are staggering in both their scale and immediacy. While it is often easy to see the need for services delivery, it is often harder to figure out the necessary support structures and mechanisms that need to enable a more transparent and accountable execution of service provision. ICT, like anything else requires an agreeable support system in place that can provide continued support and further development of the foundational pieces that have been put in place. Give someone a computer and sooner or later they are going to need someone who knows how to fix that computer – preferably without incurring the costs of a consultant.
Questions of reliable power supply become imperative in post-conflict areas and as such more often than not ICT can’t be implemented at scale and sophistication that would be possible in a conflict-free scenario.
From a systems design and implementation perspective, the challenge of ICT in a post-conflict situation becomes slightly different from the challenges faced by ICT in development; while overtime, infrastructural challenges are largely overcome questions policy, human resources and the development of the two will still affect the smooth functioning of ICT. The design of systems to cope with post-conflict reconstruction and eventual development need to take into account the unique challenges brought about by the end of war.
If you are a keen consumer of tech news and rumours then you are well into feeling buzz-word fatigue with regard to applications markets or stores or places for that matter. Every other day, it seems everyone is announcing a way for their end users to access applications from a centralized location, while also acting as transaction broker for developers who want to sell their applications. This is a model that has been popularized and successfully leveraged into the sale of millions of iPhones and iPod units by Apple. Now, every big player in the industry wants to create some kind of an App Store or some variant of the same model.
Interestingly, this is not a new thing at all – at least on the personal computer front, Linux and its many distribution have always come with a package manager that pulls down, as it were, whatever you want from a central repository; you even have the customization options to add additional repositories as your needs may require. Open source being what it is, didn’t push for the payment option of it which alas was perhaps one of those things that could have pushed the development model faster and farther. However, open source has a number of backers who may well benefit from this apps store craze. Having operated such a model since their inception, it is conceivable to think that Linux distributions like Ubuntu would have the requisite experience and expertise in managing an app store model as a way to earn revenue. More recent versions of Ubuntu have interestingly focused on making this particular variant of Linux more cloud friendly which would fit in the app store model since the cloud would form the foundational infrastructure to add more developer and consumer facing capabilities into the mix.
Within the last 24 hours, rumours of Windows 8 surfaced and one of the features rumoured to be in the works is a Windows App store. Motivations aside, but the more interesting question to ponder with regard to that rumour (if it ever comes to see the light of day) is: how would such a thing work in the Windows ecosystem? Windows is a versatile platform but one of the things that people have been used to doing is to hunt down software binaries to install on Windows. You either download them or buy them on a CD and then do the needful installation and then voila – you have your application. What kind of confusion would an app store course amongst more casual users of Windows. Windows has been popular in the corporate world and these are environment in which they exercise total control over the behaviour of the operating system then the question that would beg an answer is how does corporate IT deal with app stores? Where exactly do their policies go in such a mix?
I must admit that Microsoft is not without experience in managing such large scale deployments of software and their associated management though the experience that they have may not scale that well. As the overseers of the most widely used operating system on the planet, one must recognize the fact that distributing updates to millions of desktops and servers around the world requires administrative and organization capacity that would lend itself easily to an app store model. Contrasting this ability with what Ubuntu can brag about, then the only problem with Microsoft’s know-how is that fact that much of it is probably kept within Microsoft’s walls and/or require you to be more than just a casual user of the operating system. Distribution and deployment of Windows updates may not (at least initially) scale well to include third party applications that may have nothing to do with the core operating system in any case.
The apps store model does present a great opportunity for small and/or first time developers as the ability to reach a great number of users with a useful and critical application has become that much easier. While there are business advantages to the app stores, they also do raise the question of how to keep your wares up to date across myriads of app stores, may targeting different variety of consumers while maintaining feature and/or performance parity across all stores.
The launch of Windows Phone 7 is fast approaching and if the initial impressions of the OS is to be trusted, it is likely to be a credible account from Microsoft in the mobile space. The OS borrows heavily from the user experience found on the Zune HD which is both a pleasure to use and can become easily superior on a mobile phone. I have used both an iPod Touch and a Zune HD and I must admit that the latter presents a superior user experience. As personal as all preferences, I am intrigued by dynamic aspects of the Zune HD user experience. For example, it is quite easy to find new entries to device because they are prominently displayed and hence easy to reach quickly. Also the device is capable of remembering up to the last 6 artefacts that you played including media as well as games and radio stations that you have listened to recently. I have not come across such an offer on the iPod Touch though subsequent upgrades to iOS have brought better organization on the device through universal search that is so far lacking in the Zune HD.
Recently the number of applications available to Zune HD users has steadily increased; all the applications available on the Zune HD thus far are not frivolous applications – there is no iFart type application (yet). While that speaks to the value of the application available on the Zune HD so far, any (if not all) of these applications have been not been developed by third parties. All of them remain Microsoft applications; given that some of them may rely on other existing web services like Facebook and Twitter but they retain Microsoft as developer. How is the imminent launch and subsequent release of Windows Phone 7 going to affect the third party application count is a matter that will become apparent with time. Microsoft is certainly not a player to be discounted as they have been platform and tools vendors for quite sometime and there are is a general consensus that one her strength lies on rallying developers to its tools and platforms.
However, Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft’s attempts to get back into the smartphone mobile operating system game. It is an interesting play as well since Microsoft is coming into the game with what is essentially its desktop and server business model – charging OEM licenses to use its platform. Based on noises made by senior Microsoft officials in the media, they believe that paying for Windows Phone 7 is an advantage as the license fee is virtually a guarantee that any of the licensees will not be sued for intellectual properties infringement. I am yet to catch wind of a case that has resulted in clear cut victory for whoever is suing though what has been evident so far is that players in the industry end up counter suing each other. However, if the main attraction of Windows Phone 7 (at least to OEM) is in its lack of any likely law suites then it becomes a platform of choices for licensees whose business models are not strong enough that they can’t protect themselves from litigation and/or they are not aggressive enough to push products to market that dare to challenge the status quo.
Other players in the smartphone industry have advantages that are unique to each one: so far Apple by far as the best laid out infrastructure (the hardware, iTunes) and the accompanying processes and people that have contributed positively to their bottom line.
Google’s environment is increasingly becoming more robust as additional phones are released and the platform continues to make progress by leap and bounds. Android will face growing pains as it tries to maintain its open nature while balancing it with the fact that the operating system is maturing thus issues of backward compatibility become ever more pressing. People have voiced concerns about fragmentation of Android; a valid question to ponder but it also calls for the OEMs that support Android to ensure that the chances of fragmentation are reduced.
Windows Phone 7 is an important project for Microsoft has computing is steadily shifting towards mobile devices. However, third party application development and environment remains important for the success of the platform. Based on the challenges that Microsoft has faced in the smartphone operating system space, it becomes acceptable to postulate that they are in this for the long term. This will hopefully translate into better applications for corresponding devices like the Zune HD.
Hasn’t anybody ever mentioned that all the rage about cloud computing is like a return to the mainframe computing era? The principles are more or less the same (from a certain perspective) and it still remains an effective way of running and provisioning computing resources. Everybody is touting cloud computing this and cloud computing that but very few people actually see that we have been here before. At the just concluded JavaOne conference, Oracle made some product announcements around “cloud in a box”. How this is different from a mainframe is the question that begs an answer.
Cloud computing is as much a hardware paradigm shift (compared to the mainframe era) as well as shift in the way that software is accessed, run and maintained by users. However, cloud computing is also concerned with data and its accessibility to the public. With increased use of the internet, data silos have become great pointers to lost opportunities and even great potential for revenue stream expansion. Yes, the marketing department in the IT industry have an unbelievable ability to rebrand the same old stuff in some colourful words that essentially boil down to the same notion but please forgive them for they have to sell the next versions just as well.
The combined improvements in hardware, software algorithms as well as data explosion gave rise to cloud computing but like all nascent computing paradigm shift there remain great challenges. Data security that very well encompass privacy remains a key concern amongst customers but the lure of a large amount of data that can be analysed and sorted into bottom-line impacting outputs is too great to ignore. So, here we are back to the yesteryears of power existing away from the end user but making sure that shared resources and reasonably and reliably shared amongst all users at any given moment.
I can’t help but wonder if this is not the shape of computing as it was meant to be. The age of the personal computer resulted in a more powerful end user who is so empowered to the point that it would be acceptable to postulate the current data explosion is the direct outcome. There is no need to feel concern for the power of the end user as I would suspect most of them already realize that the power they wield has become too much to contain. We are more comfortable with search engines and would much rather consult with them before starting off looking for information. In any case, the very notion of knowing where to find your data is increasing a losing proposition; casual computer users are ever getting closer to terabytes range for their computer hard disk configuration and this is tantamount to having your very own provide mess of data for your pleasure.
Besides, I think the power of the end user is shifting more towards mobile devices than personal computers. It is not that personal computers will become obsolete but they would generally be those devices you leave at home or at the very least suffer the indignity of hauling a load about. However, the possibility exists that the next generation of end users may not be too interested in personal computers as their mobile devices adequately meet their personal computing needs. The lost of computing power therefore (as a result of the shift in personal computing form factor) needs to be be augmented with a cloud infrastructure.
By all means let us get cloudy but let us also remember that cloud computing is as much a shift (to yesteryears?) in data processing paradigm as a shift in data accessibility paradigms. Users want their data whenever they want it but also want it secure and almost always reachable. We are dealing with some pretty powerful users who would just as easily prefer to haul around their supposedly balky laptops than trust a cloud computing service provider that can not address their need for data access whenever they want it. If the story of cloud computing is data centric, perhaps we may want to keep an eye on the ever more powerful mobile phone, with ever increasing storage capacities.
Some time back I stumbled upon the sweet revelation that written sci-fi (more specifically novels) is much more entertaining than your typical TV shows and/or movies of the same genre. Don’t get me wrong, those still remain my favourite pastimes when I need to unwind. I must admit that I have not been very diligent in my readings lately (cue the appropriate excuses …) though I have at least taken a look at some of the luminaries in the genre including Isaac Asimov and more modern authors such as Iain M. Banks. Banks’ Culture series is classified as a space opera (I know, never thought I would be into anything soap) that presents some pretty intriguing concepts, immersed in wide spanning geographic (in any case galactic) and time scales. I think the series is popular enough that checking out its page on Wikipedia would give you a detailed overview about the fictional society itself and what goes into making this fictional universe.
I have always emphasised that sci-fi should be looked at beyond the fancy technologies and more as a commentary on human nature. The Culture is a symbiotic human/machine civilization that is more an idea than anything concrete that you can point at. For example, most modern states and indeed our current civilization can point to global treaties and written laws and constitutions and all the documents, mores and norms that define our existence. For the Culture though, they don’t have anything that resembles a law – the Wikipedia entry refers to this fictional civilization as a socialist, utopian anarchy.
In our normal lives we can’t envision a society without laws as this essentially means an unprecedented level of violence and chaos but here is someone presenting an idea that explore the possibility of anarchic society that is largely a utopia. As a concept under consideration, The Culture is more of an idea that is constantly maintained at a stable state that its various citizens want and/or can agree to bring about; it is certainly a deliberate effort to more forcefully create that which you believe to be right – challenging the very notion of what reality is. The AIs in this fictional scenario essentially enables everything that the Culture is and they themselves are irrevocably part of the same loose principles and norms that makes up the Culture. As story telling devices, the Minds present that crucial unimaginably complex means to neatly (albeit unsatisfactorily) wrap up a story but going beyond that and looking in-universe and you may come to the realization that the very post scarcity nature of the Culture creates a new set of problems and many of which are conveniently side-stepped by the fact that the very backbone of the Culture (the Minds) are benevolent and deeply uninterested in oppressing their creators (at least the creators of their first generation) and their subsequent progenies.
Life in the Culture is unbelievably dull and less than exciting – at least for those who want more than indulging every whim you can conjure up in an environment in which all physical hazards can be managed and calibrated to your particular liking; interestingly enough, the Culture is aware of this and hence provide those determined enough to do more to live a lasting mark an outlet through contact with other civilization. The Culture as a civilization runs an organization that handles its interactions with other civilizations as well as engage in any military actions if necessary; within contact there is Special Circumstances which is the civilization’s military intelligence and espionage and counter espionage organizations. The whole scenario is one in which the potential of true freedom of choice is mostly possible: you can choose to live your life in whatever fashion you want and there is no one accountable for it other than yourself. I can’t help get the feeling that these are just diversions in the same vein as you have solved all the conceivable problems that you have in life and the next thing remaining is to spread your particular world view to everybody else. The biological citizens of the Culture need such escapes but ultimately I would expect that the core group of Culture Minds that run the entire racket would know that they are just watching a bunch of unpredictable variables mixing it up in slow but hopefully, eventually interesting combination.
Examining any coverage about freedom, what you will mostly overlook is that nobody ever mentions the idea that freedom is not absolute; a truly free individual can equally choose not to be free as that choice is something that has to be afforded to him or her by virtue of his/her freedom. It is a concept that many people would dismiss outright for it sits at odd with their so very human nature but it may point to the notion that we tend to think of freedom as an end in and of itself. To anyone who has spent some thought on the subject, it becomes eminently obvious that the proper end of freedom is happiness and that in itself means that the choice to forgo freedom in order to achieve happiness is just as valid as those who fight to be free of their shackles.
However, take the notion of freedom in the context of a hypothetical post-scarcity scenario, then the interesting question that begs an answer is: does freedom fought for and struggled for leads to greater happiness compared to a freedom that you are given (for lack of a better word)? Look at it in another way: does the fact that you are born rich and hence suffer hunger out of choice make your choice less important compared to someone who does not have such degree of choice? By that analogy then you may postulate the notion that given riches (and the freedom that they afford), you may not end up being happy after all. Don’t get me wrong: not having choice is not a guarantee that you will be happy either as the very lack of choice degrades your very dignity but with an ever more globalized world, it is quite possible to go from rags to riches and then you have the riches problem all over again. Absolute freedom as a means to happiness remains a fallacy.
As more studies into the intersection of sociology, psychology and neuroscience continue, it becomes interesting to ask a question like: is poverty a social disease? I don’t mean it in the material sense of the word but more in a sense that our societal structures encourages abhorrent behaviour in ourselves and with very little chance of actually realizing that there is a much better, more satisfying scope to living life and looking at life. I find the economic concept of positional good quite intriguing in exploring poverty as a social disease; with positional good – you value something because others don’t have it and this applies to luxury goods mostly though I have a hard time figuring out where this line gets drawn when you deal with basic commodities. Our economic frameworks firmly follow the rules of supply and demand and in some sectors it actually becomes necessary to artificially manage supply and demand in order to ensure healthy profits.
Earning money is not an evil in and of itself (I am yet to figure out a convincing way in which a post-scarcity paradigm would emerge from our current economic model but that is a story for another day) but manipulating the system and the rules to up your profit margins is fundamentally wrong on so many levels. The blind pursuit of profits have always made me wonder what drives a true entrepreneur; no doubt, the returns from the business is a key motivator but that is not a sustainable motive as you will soon become encumbered in ways that you will find both limiting and demoralizing to say the least.
List any large corporation that has gained prominence through ruthless attention to its margins and show me the number of tussles they have had with the legal system and/or regulators. It is easy to flippantly conclude that success attracts enemies but please go beyond the enemies’ attempts to get their pound of flesh and you will realize that continued exposure to these fights will at some point limit the ability of the company to rigorously pursue its purpose for being. If this purpose is to make money then there is the unfortunate side-effect that the dominant company in the sector or industry will snap up all and/or the best resources available in the industry/sector and thus becomes more of an inhibitor to true progress through farther transformation and improvement of people’s lives. Money is power and that power can be used to effectively rewrite the laws and/or cause the legal system to grind to a halt as business proceeds but these fights do take their toll on the company in the long run.
Let me circle back to the fictional Culture universe. What underpins Banks’ fiction in the context of Culture is that human spirit, ingenuity, restlessness, inventiveness, curiosity, etc. are largely preserved albeit sometimes taken so far as to be given their own sentience and as such effectively become a moral agent that must fulfil its purpose for being. Too far fetch? Think of a habitat – a house that is sentient and/or damn near sentience and fully aware that it collapsing is definitely against is reason for being and not being habitable is equally an abhorrent outcome to contemplate. The upside of such a contrived analogy is that the house would ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that it is just as worthy of being a house – puts it beyond any casual corruption and definitely any petty thieving (arsonist, burglars – I am looking at you). Of course a determined individual and/or an army would easily bring it down so that should also act as an incentive to stick to the business of being a house (a good little house).
Post-scarcity/Singularity/Heaven can’t come if we can’t relinquish our grasp on things that need not be within our control. We are becoming too powerful in our ability without the necessary fortitude to realize that this same power is easily corrupting us. We need a better way to put away the best of what we are as rational beings and worry about things that we have not figured out yet. The pertinent question remains: what is the best way to put our collective well being beyond our corruption? This is not a new question and since the beginning of time, we have struggled with this question. God exists as the most perfect embodiment of the best of what we are and through the ages people have believed in a supreme being who takes a benevolent interest in the affairs of mere mortals.
Overtime as our knowledge and understanding improved, these believes have shifted subtly but their essence remain the same. We live in a technological age where things are just beginning – for the last 50 years or so all our electronics advances have largely been about replicating our physical, old world. Want an example: you still call the collection of related information on your computer a file and you put them into folders/directories (file cabinets) and the list continues. We have only realized that these electronics can crunch big numbers and serve as vast repositories of data. Replicating our physical and somewhat old ways of looking at the world is a necessary step and it is my hope that in that process we have secured what is good about the past because our increased capabilities are likely to be frightening without the proper foundation. All the improvements in computer hardware and software as well as communication technologies has led some futurist to consider the possibility that we may end up creating the means necessary to put the best of ourselves beyond corruption and the vagaries of our conflicted nature. Most of the said futurist refer to this as the singularity; there is enough literature on the singularity online both in support of and those who are convinced that we are on the verge of creating the famed SkyNet.
My take? I don’t think the singularity is going to be a good thing or a bad thing when and if it happens. The probability that it will be completely sentient at the time of emergence is doubtful at best because that would suggest a trigger event that will make it all come together. At the moment, it is hard to figure out what that is but a possibility exists that sentience will be more an emergent characteristic of the singularity and at least for sometime it will become a true companion to human beings who can afford to use them to their desired ends. This raises the possibility that both good and evil singularities will emerge as these will learn from their makers the various demeanour and tone that they will believe. The scenario presents the most plausible ways to teach and transfer human social constructs like trust and group dynamics; increased use of technologies will enhance (hopefully) our social interactions and in the process also yield hard data which can be analysed and codified into a general framework of human behaviour.
Based on this model then it seems we are just transferring our problems to yet another realm because if it is entirely possible to end up with good and bad singularities, then these are likely to wage wars against each other. So here we go, civil wars wages through AI proxies – but more interesting I think this will give a new level of drama to personal feuds as commanding a horde of these singularities towards your particular goal would be most plausible. Oh, don’t forget that these will quickly come under some sort of legislation which means either you create Judge Dread type singularities or if the law remains as arcane (with regard to the internet specifically) as it is at the moment, then it is just a matter of the law being a polite suggestion without any real chances at enforcements (of course except for instances in which your opponents want to manoeuvre thusly.