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Tip of the Spear: Part 1

“The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”  William Gibson, 1992

Two questions: What do Donald Trump and Ray Kurzweil have in common; and who the heck is Ray Kurzweil?

Donald Trump?  Well, we have had to create a separate Internet just to handle the digital spew written about him.  I’ll get to him in a moment.

From his biography: Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS selected Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries. He is considered one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists, with a 30-year track record of accurate predictions.

Ray has written many things but it is his two books that have defined an age:  Age of Spiritual Machines has been translated into nine languages and was the #1 best-selling book on Amazon in science. The Singularity Is Near, was a New York Times bestseller, and has been the #1 book on Amazon in both science and philosophy.  It predicts a future date in time, “the Singularity,” when machine intelligence crosses human intelligence.  An amazing and frightening read.

How can these two impossibly different humans have anything remotely in common?

It was a strange occurrence in my daily reading when I read an Economist magazine treatise on the state of Artificial Intelligence followed immediately followed by their artful bashing of Mr. Trump that got me thinking, “Is there a connection here?”

As I thought about it, I finally put into focus something that has been concerning me for a while: the growing distance between the promise of the future and those driving it forward and those that have very little chance of benefiting from this future – what I call the future disenfranchised.

So what to do? 

This 3-part blog post looks at the Tip of the Spear phenomenon with an eye to providing some concrete thoughts to move ahead.

This first post asks us to “appreciate” the growing distance from the “tip” to the “tail” by providing some background, links and context.  The second post will look at the questions we need to “ask” and of whom.  The third will look at some people making a difference as they “act” to help make the arrow fly straighter (to continue the analogy).

 Part 1:  “Appreciate”:  The problem is a lot bigger than you think.

If any of my  colleagues and readers/followers haven’t read where things are at in the state of technology, do so.  Some of you may say, “Got it, read all about it…”   I can assure {most} of you that you haven’t.

From digital disruption in almost every imaginable business arena to fundamental change in the everyday fabric of our personal and social lives – change is coming fast.  I believe it. I have lived it. I make my living understanding the implications, causes, and strategies for these technologies.  And I have never experienced such clarity assessing the impact of these relentless waves of change. The tide cannot be turned back.

Do me a favour: Read the latest posts from the Singularity Hub blog (after Ray’s vision) about the top eight technologies, their current state and the impacts in the next five years. I can assure you that after reading you will appreciate that we are on the “elbow” of the exponential curve – it’s just getting started.   Or just as good, a16z’s Chris Dixon’s “What’s Next in Computing”Or if you want a more humorous but equally accurate and engaging post, read “WaitButWhy?”  from Tim Urban – a reality check on Artificial Intelligence.

Do it.  Then come back and continue this read.  Or read the following excerpts.

As the Singularity Hub notes, an expert might be reasonably good at predicting the growth of a single exponential technology (e.g., 3D printing), but try to predict the future when AI, robotics, VR, drones, and computation are all doubling, morphing and recombining. You have a very exciting (read: unpredictable) future…

To paraphrase Kurzweil: The Law of Accelerating Returns: Looking at biological evolution on Earth, the first step was the emergence of DNA, which provided a digital method to record the results of evolutionary experiments. Then, the evolution of cells, tissues, organs and a multitude of species that ultimately combined rational thought with an opposable appendage (we’re all thumbs and then some) caused a fundamental paradigm shift from biology to technology. The first technological steps — sharp edges, fire, the wheel — took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years.

By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the 19th century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first 20 years of the 20th century, we saw more advancement than in all of the 19th century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years’ time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a decade ago, and didn’t exist at all two decades before that. As these exponential developments continue, we will begin to unlock unfathomably productive capabilities and begin to understand how to solve the world’s most challenging problems. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive.

After you have read enough, you cannot help feel exhilarated on the one hand and a deep feeling of unease that there are going to be a lot of folks who will be deeply messed up by these changes. Many of whom don’t yet have a clue and a very select few, the tip of the spear, who have had the luxury including time, intelligence, education, capital, etc to anticipate, plan for, and obtain the keys to this new digital kingdom.

Now where does Donald Trump fit?

He is the butt of the spear isn’t he? Or perhaps he represents the rabble outside the binary walls of the digital kingdom. Trump is simply an amplifier for a growing class of human beings that are increasingly at odds with the world around them.  He is the manifestation (or more likely the exploiter) of disenfranchised and angry humans who sense (and rightly so) they are being left behind and are “mad as hell” and “not going to take it any more”.

I also believe he represents a hint as to what a dystopian future might look like. I am concerned because history has shown many times when the “ruling” class gets too far ahead of the masses, heads roll – literally in many cases.  As noted, we have witnessed incredible technological change in the past 10, 20 and 50 years but I can assure you that the “reptilian brain” that drives our basest needs and desires has changed very, very little in the same time period and some would argue that in the scale of evolutionary time frame, there isn’t a chance it could.

Even more troubling is that the very systems of governance, market forces, laws and other fundamental frameworks are simply not capable of moving at the speed of change. Not even close. Think of the standoff between Apple and the FBI, the dilemma Netflix poses to the CRTC or FTC or the havoc Uber has wreaked on the taxi industry.  The free-market alone will not “solve” this calculus of change.

On the other side of the equation are the makers, inventors and those profiting from this digital disruption. My hard glare at them is simple:  Ask the fundamental questions:  Just because I can, does it mean I should and if I should, then how?

Fun times.

So what to do? 

 Part 2:  “Ask” …  coming soon

The Future of {Re}search

As many of my colleagues and followers know, I have been given the brilliant opportunity through my book research to work with a company called Quid and their extraordinary semantic search tool.  This post is a summary of my observations and my best guess at the implications of such a tool for both general search and focused research after a couple of months of hands-on usage.  As a full disclaimer, I have no direct economic investment or interest in the company. I like their tool.  They believe I have something to add to their discussion with influencers and companies. We are both happy!

This is a long post, here is the TL;DR version:

Quid is a tool that is changing the research and search game. It has four implications:

  • The Future of search is Semantic:   Understanding deep inter-connections of people, places and things is essential to navigating an increasingly complex world. This is done – in part – by semantic ontologies and Quid has done a fabulous job at this.
  • Visualization Matters:  New methods of information visualization and presentation are required to show and interact with Semantic search  results and what has been started with Quid is very compelling.
  • Humans and Machines need to do what they do best:  The true value of the Quid tool is the head start it gives those with some domain knowledge. You can immediately see what the “division of labour” should be when you use a tool like Quid.
  • Bots are the Future of Search:  Looking ahead and speculating, I think that automation and “search for me” tools will become essential next steps as the speed of change increase in every domain.  This would be a natural add-on to Quid’s technology.

In summary, on the surface, Quid is changing the very nature research and search.  But more profoundly it is changing how we interpret the future and how professionals can provide value in this future.  It is also changing the opportunities in public policy research and in understanding complex ecosystems such as start-ups and health care.

Quid here…


Strategy is Hard. Tactics are {Easier}

Innovation and change comes primarily from the intersection of existing and new disciplines. What makes today’s reality challenging – business, economic, political and social – is that most of these combinations were not possible even a few years ago.  And there are new possibilities coming every day at an increasing rate.

Understanding these intersections help us identify business opportunities and threats or at a minimum provides interesting social media and cocktail party fodder.

But it’s really hard.

Sifting through what’s happening and where things are going requires new tools to help you understand the big picture, distinguish between central and peripheral concepts, brands or products and to see how concepts are influenced and change over time.

I have seen some of them in my current research and they are very, very cool. For example, see what the folks at Quid are up to  www.quid.com. In future blogs I will point out more of these gems.

But what makes it more complicated is that even when armed with this new knowledge, we need to decide whether we are on defense (i.e. “getting in the new game”) or offense (i.e. “changing the game”) all the while the rules of the game are morphing.

It occurred to me, therefore, that while it is traditional to say that “strategy is easy; tactics are hard”, I would argue that for the next 3-5 years, the opposite is true.

In an age of disruption, strategy is hard.  Once the course is set, our access to the talent, teams, capital and other resources is now global, virtual and mobile.  Tactics are becoming easier.

Strategy and Tactics: Welcome to the AND economy.

The Future is a Roundabout

The Future Roundabout by kevin dooley, on Flickr

I have always loved roundabouts – traffic circles – or whatever name you give to those delightful road configurations that move traffic in most parts of the world except North America. I could never figure out why I liked them so much until I starting writing my book about the new intersections of science, technology, culture and the world in general.

Intersections are exciting for me because as someone once said, “… the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet … roads, shorelines, weather fronts, international borders …”

Love it!

But the roundabout is a different kind of intersection, isn’t it?  It is fluid, it is highly evolved and most importantly it requires a skill level that lifts the driver beyond the ordinary.  We must pay attention as the interactions of the drivers are entirely mutually dependent.  It ONLY works if the rules are obeyed and people pay attention.  It is efficient and sometimes {often} messy.

It is collaborative.   A traffic LIGHT is not.  A stop sign is not. Simple binary rules – go or stop.


But a roundabout!!  Anticipate, weave, integrate, go, left check, right check, exit. Always some uncertainty about the outcome.  And the best is the first time in a complex urban roundabout (think London or Paris). Even better when driving on the opposite side of the road.

My first roundabout was in Adelaide, Australia after spending 4 hours in the Barossa wine country with a manual shift, driving on the opposite of the car and road.  It was awesome!!  That I am alive today –  we will leave that for another day.

As we think of the future where incredible intersections of all forms of human knowledge will begin to solve the really hard problems, I am thinking that it will look and feel much more like roundabouts than the traditional two-line affair.

I am paying attention!



On Reading and Writing.

Humble readers and followers:

One of the great joys of clearing  space in my work world to begin researching and – if all the universe lines up – writing a book is the self-permission to read new and -mostly – very cool stuff.

Coming from the world of ‘instant gratification’ reading,  to have the space to absorb reflect, understand and internalize has been pure pleasure.  You know what?  There is some very smart stuff out there.

Humbling mostly.  But it has been very valuable.

So, I thought I would share.  Presenting the first annual JAGYYC:  Shit you need to read over Christmas because you have time – List

  1. Wait but Why   –  The best blog for nerds and thoughtful folks everywhere.  Tim Urban’s massively popular blog is some of the finest writing I have read in non-fiction for a long, long time.  His four-part series on Elon Musk is the best 2 hours you will spend.  Read it.  Completely and in one shot.  If it doesn’t change your view of the world of innovation, nothing will.  Find it here.
  2. After you have blown your mind reading WBW, watch this (because your reading brain will need a rest).  Tim’s take on why Artificial Intelligence is the single scariest thing ever and is worth the hour.  Don’t skip ahead etc.  Watch it.  Bring scotch.
  3.  Staying in non-fiction, I just finished an extraordinary book called, The Rainforest:  The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley by Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt.  Basic thesis:  There is a reason the Valley is successful. Good news? It is repeatable.  I am a big fan of not sending people, capital and other good shit south.  This tells us how.  Heavy, not for the light casual read, but super solid and really well written.  All you big thinkers and ecosystem fans, read it!
  4. My fiction read is a blog and a book.  My very dear friend and a writer since grade 4 (and that’s a long, long time ago) is Edmontonian / Montrealer Geoff Moore.  His blog (here) is fine, fine writing.  Funny and insightful as hell and easily consumed.  His newest book, Duke Street Kings, is getting great reviews and is #2 on the current best sellers list here in Alberta.  It’s a big one (~500 pages) and I am about 1/3 of the way through but I can tell you it is a perfect holiday read. Acerbic, funny with great, great characters (some I recognize to be sure).  Get it at Bookstores or Falcon Press here.

That’s it.  Now spend some quality time in your head this Christmas. Put down social media and schedule a couple of hours with your beverage of choice and get back to the joy of great reading. You won’t regret it.

Merry Christmas all.




Alberta’s Start-up Tech Ecosystem: Why not here?

It occurred to me as I watched another western Canadian technology firm head down to spend 42 hours in the valley ecosystem, that there is an unfortunate analogy with the Canadian Oil and Gas industry.  Instead of bitumen, unprocessed heavy crude and natural gas, we are speaking of intellectual property, human capital and innovation moving south.  And instead of moving to the Gulf refineries, we are “shipping the crude” to that other refinery – Silicon Valley.

Let’s build the technology equivalent of upgraders and refineries right here.  There is no reason that we need to go south in a world as connected as ours. We are sending our talent, intellectual property, unfinished opportunities, highly skilled jobs, diversification opportunities and tax dollars south by doing so.

Locally, I look to the A100 (and the AEC backed Accelerate Fund) and its ecosystem; StartUp Calgary and its university allegiances.  In the east we have the superb iNovia team, OMERS and the Canadian Council of Innovators; I look to local companies like Benevity (Global sales and US funded but staying put) headed by the indefatigable Brian deLottinville as excellent examples of a Canada first approach.

Our small economic size means the need for connectivity, efficiency and speed.  We have that in spades.  Its time for thoughtful government macro policy, broad based entrepreneurial mentoring and capital maturity to think beyond – to modernize an old Canadian chestnut,  “hewers of wood, drawers of water and writers of code”.

Time to put the shovel in the ground.

Game On!

The Era of Getting S–T Done!

I have been involved with technology for exactly 30 years this fall. My first job was a “Micro-computer Analyst” with Ultramar – a UK based Oil & Gas company.  I had the fortune to catch the absolute ground zero of the personal computing revolution; proud to have carried a screw driver and to have known how to flip dip switches on a 512K (K!) memory expansion board for an IBM AT.

Reflecting back on the years, there have been 3 great epochs:  Personal Computing, The Internet and most recently, Social/Mobile. I have been involved in all.

I am super excited to be healthy and relevant {enough} to participate in the fourth.  I call it the Getting Sh!t Done {GSD!}. The basic thesis of GSD! is that these past 30 years have simply been about “plumbing” and now it’s time to solve some really hard problems.

Machine Learning, Global Collaboration and Digital Natives meet Big Problems – Health Care, Energy, Food and Education.  Sciences begin to mesh:  Biology and medicine meets computing science meets material science.  Behavioral Sciences meets machine learning meets big data.

The GSD! era will see very smart people and new thinking applied to new and old problems with incredibly capable and accessible tools. The great new entrepreneurs will not be plumbers or the technocrats.  They will be the “Meshers” and “Collaborators” who see the adjacencies and will understand and exploit the edges of where previous silos of culture, science and technology intersect.  Think Elon Musk.

As my buddy Ken says, “Game on!”

It starts with listening …

Listening: Some say that disruptive innovation is really about being able to manage the unknown / unknowns; creating new value by anticipating the future. Think about it:  Managing what we don’t know we don’t know.  That’s really impossible stuff.

Or is it?

The problem is the word managing. We can’t possible manage what we don’t know.  Pretty simple.

What we need to do is not manage but listen.  Disruptive innovation begins by being excellent at listening for what is about to happen.

The digital “plumbing” of the past 30 odd years has given us plenty to listen to and plenty to listen with.

The problem is that we have forgotten that in order to listen we have to be ready to hear; to the customer, to the team, to each other.

So before you “disrupt” ask yourself:  Are you ready to hear?

Collective Brilliance: A New Leadership Paradigm

If you have read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Steve Jobs you will know that one of the central themes of the book – whether intended or not – is the nature of business leadership.   The book’s detailed chronicles of the “corporate misogyny” of Mr Jobs juxtaposed against the failures and ultimate global success of Apple & Pixar makes for compelling reading and raises a fundamental question about leadership:  “To make extraordinary things happen, does a leader have to be an A–hole?”

Or put less colloquially: “Are great strides only achievable through huge and often ‘extra-human’ sacrifice?”

The stories of Mark Zukerberg of Facebook are legendary.  Similarly, at Microsoft, a meeting with Bill Gates would often end with the line. “Are you just ignorant or stupid?”

Is that what leadership has become in technology companies?   You either are a God or you suck;  Your product succeeds quickly or it fails fast.  Binary.  Black.  White?  While in extremely rare cases these leadership approaches can generate huge wins, they are also hugely divisive and create enormous costs to employees and society.  They are also horrible models to emulate for the average technology start-up and their leaders.

The real truth is that leading a modern technology company is a far more complex calculus.