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Archive for the ‘Software, Technology, and Wow I Didn't Know That’ Category

We’re hearing more and more these days about the advent of the new 5G cellular technology.  While previous iterations of the first, second, third and even mostly fourth gen cell tech have been primarily about how we use our phones or stream movies, 5G is going to be a game changer.  And since we here at the blog are all about business, technology, software and the future… we thought we’d share a few thoughts published by the editors of The Wall Street Journal in the May 2018 booklet entitled “The Future of Everything.”

As the editors note, “5G has the potential to dramatically reshape our lives.”  Following then are some of the impacts they see coming to all of us, thanks to the impending 5G network upgrades that will be coming to a town near you – and sooner than you think!

  1. 5G gives everything from cars and homes to drones and medical equipment instant access to the internet. This will extend wireless technology beyond our phones and “radically enhance machine-to-machine connections.”  5G will be available in dozens of U.S. cities by 2018, and is slated to roll out nationwide by 2020.
  2. Want to watch a movie? Today it takes about four minutes to download a move on a 4G network.  With 5G, you’ll have it on your tablet, phone or smart TV in six seconds.  And those 5G speeds will also allow theme-park visitors with connected headsets to stream hi-def virtual reality experiences while on a speeding roller coaster.  You go first.
  3. 5G makes self-driving cars a practical reality, with safety. 5G-equipped cars will see, know and understand their surroundings instantly, alerting their vehicles to, say, accidents ahead and perhaps even averting those dreaded pile-ups.  An ambulance can signal those cars to pull over long before a human driver could react to its siren, say the editors.
  4. The combination of cloud with real-time video and analytics will allow cities to better manage everything from power grids to traffic patterns. Sensors in water systems could detect and fix leaks before a break occurs, and smart streetlights could direct cars to parking spaces.  Energy monitoring will lead to reduced power usage and improved air quality.
  5. But as the Journal’s editors warn in their concluding comments, resources will be called for to make it all happen. Governments manage spectrum, and there simply isn’t enough high-powered spectrum allocations currently to bring 5G everywhere it should be.  Without bandwidth, “we’ll be bottlenecking 5G’s game-changing speed and capping its potential.”  Governments need to allocate that spectrum ASAP, so industry can begin new network deployments, and make universal 5G services a reality.

Somehow, it always comes back to the government, doesn’t it?

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We noted in our previous post how Elkhart, Indiana now leads the nation in robots per capita.  That opened us up to the broader topic of just where robots do, and don’t fit best.  We noted how analyses reported on by The Wall Street Journal found that the most successful robot-implementing companies have found it best to assign “repetitive, precise tasks to robots, freeing human workers to undertake creative, problem-solving duties that machines aren’t very good at.“

The big question becomes, do robots displace workers, or do they simply take on more of the “repetitive tasks” so that humans can handle the higher-value work?  In other words, do companies and their employees win or lose?

It turns out that at places like Robert Bosch in Germany and at BMW here in the U.S., letting robots take on the strenuous, dangerous and repetitive tasks have led to all-around benefits.  For example, over the past decade of automation efforts, BMW has doubled its annual auto production at it Spartanburg, S.C. plant, while more than doubling its workforce – all while handling vastly more complex autos with five times the number of parts previously used.  Clearly, that’s a win-win, both for the company and its employees.

Tesla has struggled a bit more with production of its Model 3 in Fremont, CA.  There, the use of robots reportedly got “out of hand” and caused production bottlenecks, thus halving the number of cars that could be produced each week.  One key mistake was for Tesla to try to automate much of the final assembly work, where everything has to come together.  Put simply, they learned, automating in final assembly doesn’t work.

In the end, it is reported that robots have resulted in pay cuts for low-skilled machine operators and they have eliminated positions in some occupations, like simple manufacturing, especially where there aren’t value-added jobs for those workers to move to.  For example, mining giant Rio Tinto is laying off drivers as it implements self-driving trucks which can operate longer than humans and are more reliable.  Underground, robotic drilling rigs have taken over the dangerous work of inserting explosive in shafts.

Similarly, garment and footwear workers are losing their out to technological breakthroughs made on robots that increasingly have taken on more delicate tasks like manipulating pliable fabrics.

But at an “aggregate level” the jobs created by automation outnumber those being destroyed, according to analysis done at M.I.T.  It’s just that those losing jobs are not necessarily the ones who are gaining those new jobs, as different skills are usually required.  In the U.K. for example, 800,000 lower-skilled jobs have been lost to automation in the past 15 years, but automation has created 3.5 million higher-skilled ones, according to Deloitte.  In Germany, industrial employment will rise nearly 2% by 2021 because robots are making the country’s factories more competitive.

The key, of course, is training.  While indeed many newer, better, safer, less tedious an better paying jobs will be created by this current onslaught of automation, the challenge to businesses, schools and nations will be in how quickly they can adapt to this changing landscape and create the training programs, education and internships that will be required to handle this inevitable wave of innovation.  It’s a challenge for everyone, and few jobs will be immune – but the ingenuity required and unleashed are sure to fulfill the dreams of the next generation for the course of the 21st century.

 

 

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According to Kiplinger’s, Elkhart, Indiana leads the nation in most robots per capita.  Elkhart has seen “a boom in manufacturing related to the city’s thriving bus- and RV-making industries,” noted The Kiplinger Letter in its March, 2018 issue.

With a strong economy giving rise to increased demand for RVs and cities ordering new business now that finances have improved, denizens of Elkhart are employed to the max and they, and the factory robots, are busy working overtime.  Kiplinger’s notes how Elkhart’s “tech-savvy workforce is drawing more manufacturers to the region, including boat builders,” and concludes with the comment that it’s a success story “other regions will be trying to emulate.”

Meanwhile, as The Wall Street Journal reports recently, robots are taking over some of the jobs that, frankly, you’d want them to.  Like picking up scalding-hot auto parts from an oven and inspecting them for safety, as happened at a Robert Bosch plant in Germany.  Not only does the robot reduce exposure to serious injury to the human worker, but that human worker now has the time to test 20% more parts than he did before the robots arrived.

So which industries are helped the most by automation, both for the employer and the employee?

Those who have, in the words of Journal editor William Wilkes, “cracked the code” are those that “can assign repetitive, precise tasks to robots, freeing human workers to undertake creative, problem-solving duties that machines aren’t very good at.“  That means, in short, manufacturing, the food sector and certain service sectors jobs such as billing, where time spreadsheets can be automated, freeing up workers to do higher-value tasks.

None of the above should come as a surprise, logically speaking.  Bosch factories worldwide how use 140 robotic arms, up from zero just 7 years ago, and as a result, an engineer there said “We can’t see robots having a negative impact on our workforce.”

As it turns out, robots and computers are best suited to repetitive – even if very highly or complex math-based – tasks, from playing chess or repeating a set of precise movements, while they pale in comparison to humans in the seemingly mundane tasks like brushing your teeth or running through the woods.

In the end, tasks best left to humans remain those that require involving judgment and quality control, while leaving the heavy lifting – often, quite literally – to the machines.

In our concluding post on robots in industry today, we’ll take a quick look at where they’ve made most sense, and what impact they’ve had on employment and the types of jobs they are creating today.  So, stay tuned…

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We’ve written several times here about the importance of the new technology called blockchain.  (If you missed those try here for a two-parter outlining the importance of blockchain to supply chains, as well as here for a quick primer blockchain, and finally here for a quick take on blockchain’s benefits to the supply chain.)

 

 

 

Today, we’ll take a very quick look at 3 obvious ways that the folks at ERP consultant Panorama Consulting see blockchain affecting life in the supply chain, in an article found here.

 

  1. Blockchain allows for streamlining secure transactions between logistics suppliers, manufacturers and third-party partners. Blockchain as we’ve noted is a secure ledger consisting of encrypted transactions that appears the same to every member of the chain.  It lives on multiple computer – not just a single one – where all members have an equal view of all its records, permanently.  (For the record, a blockchain has never been hacked, for this reason.)  Thus, all members of the supply chain from source to user see the same record of the data.  Imagine the possibilities…
  2. Blockchain makes everything traceable and enhances accountability. With every transaction visible to every party in the chain, blockchain essentially eliminates fraud, waste and duplication.  Once data has been added to a chain, it cannot be deleted or altered – only amended, publicly.  It promotes integrity of data, intrinsically.
  3. Overall, blockchain makes most things easier. To quote Panorama’s paper directly: “When it comes to the supply chain market, the use of blockchain simplifies almost everything. It virtually eliminates fraud and reduces errors. Additionally, it becomes much easier to manage inventory, improve partner and consumer trust and identify and fix any potential problems. Courier and payment costs are reduced, and the need for paperwork is eliminated. Finally, the long process of reconciling and auditing separate ledgers from different entities in the supply chain is eliminated.”

You’ll continue to hear and read about blockchain, both here and elsewhere, in the months and years ahead.  It’s a topic worth paying attention to for anyone involved in the world of business, transactions and supply chains.  Which in the ends means, pretty much all of us.

 

 

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As machines get smarter, will jobs become increasingly scarcer?  That’s the fear of many, including some economists.  And while yes, some jobs will be lost, those with the right skills will partake of the silver lining of smarter machines and the future of artificial intelligence.  According to an article in the April 30th issue of The Wall Street Journal, AI “opens up opportunities for many new jobs to be created — some that we can imagine and many we probably can’t right now.”

For those who tool up, the Journal expects the following list of jobs to be among those that will benefit from our smart new future.

  1. AI Builder. Case in point: iRobot, a maker of robotic mops and vacuums has quadrupled its staff of software engineers focused on consumer robots, making robots smarter through advanced AI and computer-vision systems.  Many of these are Ph.D.-level scientists, so they’re certainly not Everyman-style jobs, and so the company has expanded its talent search to a global effort.
  2. Customer-Robot Liaisons. People are going to need help easing into working with robotic systems, and this role is currently among the most sought-after AI-related positions according to jobsite ZipRecruiter.  Ensuring clients are happy with robots that have been rented out as security guards on a graveyard shift is the job of one 36 year-old at Palo Alto’s Cobalt Robotics.  The trick, they say, is to get a “good handle” on how comfortable clients are interacting with robots by monitoring usage reports, interacting with customers through calls, texts and visits, and (what else?) building relationships.
  3. Robot Managers. While robots can be amazingly smart, their judgment and the judgment within the AI realm generally, is lacking when compared to humans. Ditto for empathy, customer relationships and a myriad of other soft skills.  The need for human oversight might be the most underestimated part of all according to one McKinsey partner who focuses on automation.
  4. Data Labelers. For AI to understand the world, it needs humans to explain what things are. That means labels.  Identifying objects in images or parsing sentences may be things we humans take for granted, but robots will need our help.  Self-driving car developers, for instance, can have hundreds of folks labeling data.  Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s subtle.  Posters and pictures around an office may seem like trespassers to a robot, and they need to be ‘taught’ that these are not potential threats.
  5. Drone Performance Artists. Drones are becoming more and more a fixture in the film world, flying props, handling lighting and providing overhead shots at sporting events.  Artists who can customize them to suit the needs of different performances like concerts, musicals, circuses and sporting events are increasingly in demand.  Said one such artist, “It’s a crazy opportunity because I have a blank slate and can develop whatever I want this field to be.”
  6. AI Lab Scientists. Smart software is remaking drug development, sifting through vast troves of data faster than humans to come up with new directions for medical research.  Data scientists like computational biologists can help AI systems learn so that computers can surface novel ideas, with human technicians also testing the AI results to see which are valid and which are not.  The feedback they give AI machines only serves to make them smarter.
  7. Safety and Test Drivers. Self-driving vehicles are not there yet, in the opinion of industry insiders, but they are expected to spread slowly across the automotive landscape.  That provides opportunities for people to help the vehicles do their jobs safely, and take over when necessary.  Testers today provide feedback to manufacturers when a vehicle encounters a situation it’s unsure how to handle.  One company doing so is tripling its number of testers, and hiring test engineers to devise scenarios for shuttles, not to mention maintenance, testing and cleaning crews.

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Reporting and business intelligence can both be of critical importance to a company today.  After all, it’s often said that in the past we adopted technology to aid the business (or perished along the way), whereas today, we are all technology companies.  So let’s take a quick look at a few key distinctions between these two entities.

A Washington D.C. company called T3 Information Systems offers the following two definitions which seem to fit the bill nicely:

Reporting refers to an account or statement that describes in detail an event or situation. The purpose of reporting is to give a detailed status update of a situation.

Business Intelligence (BI) refers to technologies, applications and practices for the collection, integration, analysis, and presentation of business information. The purpose of Business Intelligence is to support better decision-making in business.

Reporting is mostly concerned with what happened in the past (recent or otherwise) or with the current status of things (i.e., sales, receivables, inventory).  Aging reports, sales analyses, customer ledgers and income statements are examples of reporting.

Business intelligence, on the other hand, is concerned with what has happened so far, or what exists in our repositories of data, that can be used to effect and improve future business performance.

3T explains BI simply as… Business Intelligence is built using multiple sources of data, giving the user the ability to cross-analyze and explore relationships that may not have been previously considered. The main goal of BI technology is to be flexible and open to discovering new insights.

An easy-to-understand example of a real-life business intelligence situation would be discount cards. Stores use discount cards to track customer purchases and targeted marketing campaigns. Business intelligence then analyzes and explores this data to inform future decisions.

In short then, business reporting is about status updates, past and current.  BI is about making future decisions. They involve different tools (a topic for another time) provided by an ever-increasing range of software vendors.  In some respects, it’s fair to say that one is intended to pick up where the other leaves off.

Yet you need both — eventually.  It’s just important to recognize the distinctions, and to decide for yourself when you need more than just reporting.  Then you can start exploring your options.

 

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The average American checks their phone 47 times a day – that’s every 19 minutes of our working lives – according to Haley Edwards in a Technology Section article in Time Magazine published recently under the title “The Masters of Mind Control.”

If you find that troubling, some folks at an outfit called Boundless Mind would like to help you change that.  According to the American Psychological Association two-thirds of Americans think it’s a good idea to unplug for the sake of our mental health, while a University of Texas study showed that the “mere presence of our smartphones, face down on the desk in front of us, undercuts our ability to perform basic cognitive tasks.”

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s basic premise is to keep us engaged, enthralled even, with our devices.  Some have called it a “full-blown epidemic.”  We are not the customers for Facebook and Google, it has been said – we are the product.

The phenomenon is known as persuasive technology, the study of how computers can be used to control human thoughts and actions.  In the tech realm, it has fueled the proliferation of interfaces and devices that “deliberately encourage certain behaviors (keep scrolling) while discouraging others (convey thoughtful, nuanced ideas),”according to Edwards.  And every major consumer tech company today from Amazon to Candy Crush uses some form of it.

It’s not that we’re weak-willed, it turns out.  When your child collects Snapchat badges to maintain daily consecutive use streaks, his “brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”

The brain’s basic process it turns out is trigger, action, reward.  And that’s just the beginning of the feedback loop engineers can work on.

Boundless Mind’s business model is to develop new versions of these same persuasive tools, but then use them to sell to nonprofits and companies promoting education, health or social welfare.  For example, they apply VR (virtual reality) therapy to patients with chronic pain at 190 hospitals.  One application is a virtual game that helps manage post-operative pain by challenging patients to shoot little red balls at bears in a virtual world.  To work, the therapy needs to create an addictive interface to get patients to keep coming back, from which the interface can learn from the patient’s behavior and be personalized to make it uniquely rewarding for each user.

Boundless Mind debates the potential ethics of a client before taking on a new one, to ensure their tools are put to good use, and to hold themselves accountable.  The owners hope to be something of a “counterbalance” to the massive data scraping conducted by the big players, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google and their ilk.  They plan to develop persuasive-technology tools and then “release them to everybody” as their way of leveling the playing field.  They see the future as “promising,” and co-founder Ramsay Brown notes “We have the power to control our minds.  That’s quite a gift.”

It’s good to see someone trying to apply our device addiction more broadly for nobler purposes.

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