Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Universal Basic Income and a new Economics of Abundance -- "When looms weave by themselves, man's slavery will end"

Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become a hot topic, as noted in a recent NY Times article by Farhad Manjoo.  Confronting the rise of automation and robots, even libertarians and conservatives are warming to the idea of a universal income provided by the government, and some prominent technology VCs have become very interested. What we face is a new economics of abundance, and it will have many pervasive ramifications we can only dimly foresee -- some sooner than we may think.

The roots of this idea go back as far as Aristotle: “When looms weave by them­selves, man's slavery will end.” I read this quote in a 1964 NY Times article on automation, and it helped set the path of my "user-centered" career in technology. I wrote a high school essay taking off on it, extrapolating how it enabled utopias that blended Bellamy's "Looking Backward" and Wells' "Men Like Gods." Of course that was over 50 years ago, and my youthful utopian views were less seasoned with experience and pragmatism, but the core idea I expressed then still stands up:
...This raises the question whether the product of human labor is necessarily limited. The answer is that it most certainly is not. In this century a messiah has arisen -- perhaps Messiac* might be a better name for this role of automation. As Aristotle said, "when looms weave by themselves man' s slavery will end." The looms are now beginning to weave.
...One can easily conceive a giant automated complex, call it Messiac, that can produce nearly unlimited quantities of goods with only the labor of a few operators and repairmen. Similarly, farms can be improved greatly in efficiency by automation and eventually synthetic, mass-producable foods will be developed. Messiac could thus provide all with everything they needed or desired. It would not only eliminate poverty, but also remove all cause for stealing -- it is easier to push a few buttons for something than to steal it. Any individual who did not want to would not even need to work. The necessary labor would be of sufficient interest and lightness that volunteers could handle it. This remaining work would be of a professional nature and as such would have a high degree of interest... Messiac is thus an economic system that is far more utopian than that of the best traditional utopia.
It is timely that UBI is getting attention just as I have embarked on a much narrower and more immediate quest to develop a step toward that economics of abundance, based on some more sophisticated economics. While we undertake the long conversation about UBI, and the first baby steps on this road, there is a little-recognized opportunity for a related change in that direction.

Digital content and services already weave by themselves -- in the sense that they can be infinitely replicated at almost no cost. This has already caused great turmoil in the content industries -- journalism and music have been in crisis, and TV/video is not far behind. Content can be free, but who will work to create it, and how will they be compensated?

In my other blog, I suggest that the answer is in FairPay, a radically new strategy for pricing that adaptively seeks win-win compensation for creating products and services. Since there is no scarcity with digital, there is no invisible hand to allocate scarcity. Instead we need an invisible handshake, an agreement to set prices fairly to sustain creators, based on allocating "share of wallet" (whether hard-earned dollars, or UBI allowances).  FairPay suggests a simple, pragmatic mechanism for balancing power between consumers and creators/producers to agree on an equitable share of wallet.

Check it out. I suggest FairPay will shed light on how we will live soon, and even more so in a future world where all the looms weave by themselves.

*That was the era where computers had names like UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), ENIAC, and EDSAC.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Cuba's Digital Future -- Market Incentives, Resource Allocation, and FairPay as a New Path

My recent one-week People-to-People tour in Cuba presented a fascinating contrast to our market economy and suggests an interesting path forward for Cuba. I was focused mostly on what I saw of the real economy (there is not yet much of a digital economy), but on reflection, realized that Cuba's digital future could be unusually interesting. 

I began to think that the new FairPay strategy for more efficient and more customer-friendly pricing (especially for digital content and services) might fit particularly nicely with Cuba's desire to modernize and privatize its economy without giving up on its strong social values. Maybe Cuba has an opportunity to find a unique path to creating a new kind of market for user-centered media services.

Cuba's evolving real economy

What I saw of the real economy presented a sharp lesson in how essential markets are to providing incentives for productivity and efficient resource allocation. My tour program contacts presented an impressive view of how Cubans have applied socialist ideas resourcefully to develop sustainable production of food and provide strong education and medical care, but the backdrop was one of inefficiency and wasted potential.

  • Most striking was the story of the owner/driver of the beautifully maintained 1950's Ford convertible serving as tourist taxi that I had a short ride in. He had been an experienced medical doctor with a specialty, who was making $80 per month (actually 80 CUCs, but close enough -- a very good salary for Cuba). Now, as as a taxi driver who owns an attractive car, he makes $80 per day! -- 20-30 times as much as he made as a medical specialist!  What a waste of education and scarce skills!
  • Similar surprises were apparent under the surface in farms and food markets, the low standard of living of most of the population, and the striking decay of pre-revolution buildings and other infrastructure.
  • The food markets in particular showed the contrast of government ration books and subsidized prices for a very limited selection of basic food items, combined with gradually increased acceptance of a level of black market trade in more scarce and desirable items.
  • Modest efforts at allowing private development of restaurants ("paladares"), some of which were very nice, also presented a striking (but still very limited) contrast in how market incentives fuel productive enterprise.
A Q&A session with Reuters economic correspondent Marc Frank (in Cuba for over 20 years) added an interesting perspective on Raul Castro's ongoing efforts to shift toward more private enterprise and prepare Cuba to more fully participate in the world market -- now likely to accelerate with the thaw in US relations and a probable end to our trade embargo.

(Of course my understanding of the Cuban economy is quite limited -- these are just my impressions from what I saw in my one week there.)

Cuba's future digital economy

While Internet use and literacy in Cuba is low and will take time to grow, this cultural/economic climate raises the interesting idea that the new FairPay strategy for digital services might be especially relevant to development of user-centered media services for Cuban consumers. 
  • A core objective of the Cuban economy has been the socialist/communist ideal of "to each according to his need," The problem has been that the "from each according to his ability" does not work well (incentives are too weak), and the combination fails to provide efficient allocation of resources. That has led toward privatization -- but with conventional pricing practices, privatization does not deliver "to each according to his need."
  • FairPay creates a market solution to this problem -- not by hoping that productivity will be achieved "from each according to his ability," but by providing direct profit incentives for producers to learn what each consumer wants and what they should pay, and to produce the digital services that are desired accordingly. More like payment from each according to the value received (and willingness to pay fairly for that, to the extent able), and profit to the producer as a fair share of the actual value created
Consider the contrast between FairPay and conventional pricing models for digital:
  • Both conventional models and FairPay seek to enable businesses to price their services in the way that realistically maximizes profits.
  • Conventional models for pricing digital services, like freemium (and soft paywalls), may provide limited free services to all who want them, but support themselves by charging set prices for more advanced "premium" services. That prices the premium services out of reach of many consumers who can't justify that set price, but who would happily pay less. That is a loss to the market because digital services can be replicated at almost no cost, to serve a very wide population of consumers who would gain value from such services. Thus the value these services could bring to the wider market is wasted, as explained in my post: Beyond the Deadweight Loss of "All You Can Eat" Subscriptions.
  • FairPay seeks to maximize profit by finding the right price for each consumer who finds value in a service. It does this by using an adaptive process to set win-win prices tailored to each consumer's needs: based on usage, value obtained, and ability to pay. FairPay exploits the unlimited replication of digital -- a lack of scarcity that makes rationing unnecessary. FairPay seeks to approximate an individually fair (and affordable) price for each consumer -- adapting over the life of the relationship -- to ensure that production is sustainably supported and incentivized, 
  • The FairPayZone blog explains in detail how that works in a market-driven, dynamically adaptive way. FairPay is aimed at broad use in the current market-based environment of the US and most of the world. But the wondrous new economics of abundance in digital markets now makes it possible to achieve many of the ideals of socialism out of a profit-driven market-based system, in ways that are not yet widely recognized. 
So perhaps, as Cuba expands its Internet infrastructure to enable wide use, FairPay will resonate as a way to achieve its ideals of fairness in a market-driven way. Businesses can seek profits, and do so in a way that adapts to the needs (and resources) of each individual consumer. 
  • For most of the world, FairPay can be viewed as adding a kinder, gentler (and smarter, more efficient) touch to the invisible hand -- what I refer to as an invisible handshake
  • For Cuba, FairPay may be seen as adding new market drivers to a social handshake, to make it more productive and economically efficient (at least in the digital realm, and perhaps more widely).
For a full introduction to FairPay see the Overview and the sidebar on How FairPay Works at There is also a guide to More Details (including links to a video).  (While most of my posts on FairPay are on the FairPayZone blog, this one seemed better suited to this blog.)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Patents for Entrepreneurs – Crown Jewels or Shiny Objects? -- MITEF-NYC Panel NYC 11/19

“If you don’t have a patent, you don’t have a prayer on Shark Tank,” as John Oliver began his diatribe on the problems with patents.  Black humor with questionable substance, but never has there been such widespread and deep confusion about patents, from the man on the street, to the press, the courts, Congress, the Supreme Court, and President Obama.  Joking aside, how should entrepreneurs view patents?
That is the subject of this MIT Enterprise Forum of NYC panel session on 11/19 that I am co-organizing:  Patents for Entrepreneurs – Crown Jewels or Shiny Objects?
We assemble a panel of entrepreneurs who have successfully navigated these issues and shepherded companies through the life-cycle of seeking and using patents -- working with investors and licensees.  We bolster that with patent lawyers who can update us on the fundamental legal turmoil that bears on this.
This is not Patents 101 -- it is aimed at a strategic perspective for entrepreneurs and those investing in their companies.

The John Oliver bit is very funny, but does a disservice to the real issues of why the patent system is valuable. For a perspective on the harder reality, check out this post on a respected IP blog, A toxic concoction of myth, media and money is killing the patent system.

But this is also not a debate on IP policy -- the focus will be on understanding the current landscape, directions, and uncertainties for good or bad, to address the strategic questions of whether and how young companies should seek patents.

(My personal view is that while there should be an important place for patents, those trying to fix the system have broken it so badly that the value of patents for many kinds of innovation is now highly doubtful -- at least until the pendulum swings back a bit. I did well as an inventor with patents in the past, but am no longer spending much time on that now.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wearables 2.0 Event at MIT Enterprise Forum of NYC 9/29/15

Once again, MITEF-NYC is presenting a thought-leading event on one of the most clearly "user-centered" aspects of User-Centered Media -- Wearables 2.0! (we have covered wearables for over a decade).

This 9/29 evening panel features Academy Award-winner Ken Perlin (NYU) along with other panelists, moderated by Dan Rosenbaum, Publisher of Wearable Tech Insider.

From the event description:
What seems certain is that as wearable technology evolves in the next five years, it will affect our lives in ways we can only imagine -- changing our ideas of wellness and medical treatment, how we work, experience entertainment, shop, and what we wear. With trillions of new sensors coming on line each year, and with more than 3 billion people connected to the Internet, and those who have access to it will also become increasingly "aware" of the wearables themselves, the people wearing them and the environment in which they live. 
How will this play out? How do we keep data safe while also staying on the bleeding edge of technology?
 Join us for a stimulating event!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Digital Camelot - The Once and Future Web of Engelbart and Nelson

If you care about modern culture and how technology is shaping it, this is worth thinking about -- A powerful eulogy for where the Web might have gone, and still may someday, and the friendship of the two people most responsible for envisioning the Web*  --  Ted Nelson's eulogy for his friend Doug Engelbart, as reported by John Markoff in The Times -- with Nelson's inimitable flair.

As Markoff says:
Theodor Holm Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, has been a thorn in the side of the computing establishment for more than a half century. Last week, in an encomium to his friend Douglas Engelbart, he took his critique to Shakespearean levels. It deserves a wider audience. 
Dr. Engelbart and Ted Nelson became acquaintances at the dawn of the modern computing era. They had envisioned and invented the computing that we have come to take for granted.
I first encountered both of them in 1969, and what I saw set the direction for my life's work.  Engelbart gave "The Mother of All Demos" (I first saw him give a follow-up the next year, and read most of his work).  Nelson dreamed of hypertext and hypermedia, and wrote papers on what he called "hypertext" in the '60s and the highly influential Whole Earth Catalog of "Computer Lib / Dream Machines" in 1974.

As Nelson laments, both received a degree of recognition, but both were marginalized. Powerful as it may be, expediency took the Web in more limiting directions.

Their ideas remain profound and forward looking. Anyone who really cares about the future of media, intellect, and culture, and how information technology can augment that, should consider their work.  Just because the Web took a turn to expediency in the past does not mean it will not realize its richer potential in the future. (One hint of that is noted in the next section.)


As to Nelson's comment about "keeping the links outside the file," he refers to the important point that HTML embeds the links in the HTML file, which largely limits linking and annotating to the author/distributor of the HTML page. Nelson views this a crippling to the vision he and Engelbart (and Bush) had, in which links could be created by third parties and associated with the page from outside, thus allowing anyone to link from, annotate, and enhance any work.

I was struck by the fact that  interactive hypermedia centered on TV and video are becoming mainstream, and much of it now does keep the links outside the file. Perhaps just a primitive version of Engelbart and Nelson's ideas, but a step in the right direction that might lead to further movement, and maybe spill over into other Web services...

Prime examples are the growing use of Automatic Content Recognition (ACR), which recognize a program and current viewing time-position, and is used to associate independent linkbases with video.  This is occurring both with 2-screen apps like Shazam, Zeebox, and IntoNow (Yahoo), and with 1-screen apps in smart TVs from most of the major TV vendors, and with support from major studios.

Video seems to naturally make embedded links problematic (where to put them?).  The TV industry tried to embed the links into the content (in such forms as ATVEF trigger streams in the VBI, and more recently in cable operator OCAP/EBIF platforms), but this has proven difficult to get to mass market.  Meanwhile, ACR has become popular -- first on the fringes, but now increasingly accepted by both the market and the industry.  Studios like Fox are even opening up their TV enhancement content to let independents like Zeebox use that content apart from (and in competition with) the Fox apps.  They recognize that the value of their services is enhanced by letting others re-distribute enhancements to their shows (along with independent enhancements) -- anything to increase attention to their shows.

*Of course there were others, most notably Vannevar Bush, who inspired both Engelbart and Nelson.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"The Future of TV" - MITEF-NYC Think Tank Session 1/14 (First in a Series)

Given our success at thought leadership in MITEF-NYC events, we are trying a new kind of Think Tank session that builds on the inventiveness of our MITEF community.  The Future of TV is the first of a series of Think Tank sessions on different industries, "The Future of X."
MITEF Think Tank Session: The Future of TV - January 14, 2014, NYC
Propositions for an audience that has seized (the remote) control

The first of a series of MITEF Think Tank Sessions on The Future of X
Tech-based opportunities for changing industries and changing audiences

...It is up to the brightest minds in technology to find solutions to these exciting challenges--and how to profit from that. MITEF-NYC is therefore introducing a new event format. In a highly engaged and interactive setting, a Think Tank session will gather ideas and concrete answers on how technology and innovation can shape the future of television
Some prominent industry participants (including seasoned executives and consultants, respected columnists, and successful entrepreneurs and inventors) are already registered, and space is filling up. Now is the time to register if you have not already.

We look forward to a stimulating session with strong audience participation. We hope to not only generate lots of good ideas for innovators, but also for learning how this format works and can be extended. 

Future events might target other industries in disruptive transitions where technology is both a challenge and an opportunity, such as publishing, music, retail, transportation, and education.

Some background on our Think Tank format...

As a long time co-chair of the programming committee, and co-organizer of this event, I am enjoying the process of trying this new format. I have been involved in applying several successful formats at MITEF since the late '90s, notably panel sessions, and we have done many ground-breaking events that established our reputation for thought leading coverage of important developments, panels of top-level innovators, and sophisticated audiences of entrepreneurs and those who work with them.

The Think Tank idea arose at a member/volunteer brainstorming session we did in August to generate new program ideas for the coming year, and emerged as the brainchild of one of our recently joined members, now co-organizer of this event, Katja Bartholmess. She is an energetic champion of new ideas with an eclectic background in e-commerce and branding. She pointed out that we have such smart audiences that maybe we don't need formal speakers and panelists, just a little catalyzing. We began to work together, settled on TV as the place to start the series, and are working to find a format that is manageable, brings out the best in our base of attendees, and lets them create. We thought of calling it a salon, brainstorming, or a round table, but went with think tank. We see our roles as facilitators, to help frame and herd the discussion, but with the real energy coming from our participants. We also hope to find ways to give the session continuing life, to build on ideas and human connections made that evening.

We are identifying a small number of "lead" participants who have experience innovating in the industry to help stimulate discussion, and shape it with their knowledge, but view them as "first among equals," with the idea that all of our audience participate actively, and that creative outsiders can often bring new thinking, outside the box, to sometime see opportunities that insiders ignore.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Twiiter Ad Targeting + Comcast Show It -- Crossing the Chasm?

Two very interesting moves toward mass market Interactive TV and T-commerce were made recently, and I suggest putting them together will lead to a major step beyond.

Twitter announced that its ad targeting now allows advertisers to send you promoted tweets if you tweet about a program during which their ad appeared.  A one-two punch, to follow up on the TV ad impression. A crude but clever way to synchronize Internet with TV, but potentially on massive scale, and thus a big step.  You tweet; that tells them what you are watching; they know what ads air with it; and let the advertisers tweet you. There are better ways (such as ACR and triggers), but not in wide deployment (but that will come).

Comcast announced that it is working with Twitter and NBC to enable tweets to include a Show It button that when clicked, tunes your TV to the program that was tweeted about (or sets your DVR to record it).  That is if you have Comcast's new X1 set top box. In any case you can also view the video on your Twitter device (second screen on phone or tablet). Comcast says they hope this will become a standard, used by other networks and distribution partners.

Given the scale of Twitter and Comcast, this could finally get Interactive TV across the chasm. Their reach can bring it to the masses, show the economic imperative, and lead to far richer versions. If the money is shown to be there, along with the mass market to deliver it, that will launch a major build-out.

[***Update 12/12:  A nice analyst commentary by Joel Espelien that agrees on the importance of these moves (in spite of little press attention) was posted today. (In the I almost told you so department, I had this post largely complete in mid-October, but let it sit as a draft until this week.)]

Soon:  Once these first steps take hold, other advanced features will be easy to add.

Some of this is suggested by Comcast: expansion to Facebook, and presumably any other Web service or app. This enables the idea of "the Web as program guide" that I described in my CoTV work,
...where all media types can be fully interlinked, in a manner that is fully consistent. Hotspots can serve as link anchors whether in text, image or video, and targets can be of any media type -- rich combinations of hypermedia browsing and navigation across devices.
It also seems that one valuable enhancement in TV advertising will be easy: telescoping ads synchronized across two screens.  From an ad on your TV to a video follow up on your phone or tablet. This has been done for years on some TV platforms, but not on a scale that gets much recognition or much interest from advertisers. But there is money there, if it reaches scale.

Telescoping to a second screen could be easy with Twitter Ad Targeting combined with See It with just one small twist.
  • As it is now, See It is described as linking to a program, in the sense of content you could select by channel, or from a program guide. Nice, but what about advertising?
  • As it could be, it might also enable links to advertising video-on-demand.  Comcast may have enabled this already, but if not, it should not be hard to add.
That enables telescoping across two screens. Ad Targeting flags a viewer who is seeing the ad on TV, and sends a link to his companion device that links (via See It) to a commercial video that picks up from there. A 15 or 30 second spot can link to a longer form video that drives home the message -- and can also include an online call to action, with all of the ease of interaction via a phone or tablet. All with widely deployed and widely used technology.