The Limits of Technology

As part of my home entertainment during lock-down, I have been enjoying a series of Web TV programmes called This Is Imminent hosted by Simon Waller, and whose broad theme asks “how are we learning to live with new technology?” – in short, the good, the bad and the ugly of AI, robotics, computers, productivity tools etc.

Niska robots are designed to serve ice cream…. image sourced from Weekend Notes

Despite the challenges of Zoom overload, choked internet capacity, and constant screen-time, the lock-down has shown how reliant we are upon tech for communications, e-commerce, streaming services and working from home. Without them, many of us would not have been able to cope with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The value of Simon’s interactive webinars is two-fold – as the audience, we get to hear from experts in their respective fields, and gain exposure to new ideas; and we have the opportunity to explore ways in which technology impacts our own lives and experience – and in a totally non-judgmental way. What’s particularly interesting is the non-binary nature of the discussion. It’s not “this tech good, that tech bad”, nor is it about taking absolute positions – it thrives in the margins and in the grey areas, where we are uncertain, unsure, or just undecided.

In parallel with these programmes, I have been reading a number of novels that discuss different aspects of AI. These books seem to be both enamoured with, and in awe of, the potential of AI – William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein” – although they take quite different approaches to the pros and cons of the subject and the technology itself. (When added to my recent reading list of Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” and John Lanchester’s “The Wall”, you can see what fun and games I’m having during lock-down….)

What this viewing and reading suggests to me is that we quickly run into the limitations of any new technology. Either it never delivers what it promises, or we become bored with it. We over-invest and place too much hope in it, then take it for granted (or worse, come to resent it). What the above novelists identify is our inability to trust ourselves when confronted with the opportunity for human advancement. Largely because the same leaps in technology also induce existential angst or challenge our very existence itself – not least because they are highly disruptive as well as innovative.

On the other hand, despite a general shift towards open source protocols and platforms, we still see age-old format wars whenever any new tech comes along. For example, this means most apps lack interoperability, tying us into rigid and vertically integrated ecosystems. The plethora of apps launched for mobile devices can mean premature obsolescence (built-in or otherwise), as developers can’t be bothered to maintain and upgrade them (or the app stores focus on the more popular products, and gradually weed out anything that doesn’t fit their distribution model or operating system). Worse, newer apps are not retrofitted to run on older platforms, or older software programs and content suffer digital decay and degradation. (Developers will also tell you about tech debt – the eventual higher costs of upgrading products that were built using “quick and cheap” short-term solutions, rather than taking a longer-term perspective.)

Consequently, new technology tends to over-engineer a solution, or create niche, hard-coded products (robots serving ice cream?). In the former, it can make existing tasks even harder; in the latter, it can create tech dead ends and generate waste. Rather than aiming for giant leaps forward within narrow applications, perhaps we need more modular and accretive solutions that are adaptable, interchangeable, easier to maintain, and cheaper to upgrade.

Next week: Distractions during Lock-down

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

The Australian Government recently published its National Blockchain Roadmap – less than 12 months after announcing this initiative. While it’s an admirable development (and generally, to be encouraged), it feels largely aspirational and tends towards the more theoretical rather than the practical or concrete.

First, it references the US Department of Homeland Security, to define the use case for Blockchain. According to these criteria, if a project or application displays three of the four following requirements, then Blockchain technology may offer a suitable solution:

  • data redundancy
  • information transparency
  • data immutability
  • a consensus mechanism

In a recent podcast for The Crypto Conversation, Bram Cohen, the inventor of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, defined the primary use case for Blockchain as a “secure decentralized/distributed database”. On the one hand, he describes this as a “total oxymoron; on the other, he acknowledges that Blockchain provides a solution to the twin problems of having to have trusted third parties to verify transactions, and preventing double-spend on the network. This solution lies in having to have consensus on the state of the database.

Second, the Roadmap speaks of adopting a “principles based but technology-neutral” approach when it comes to policy, regulation and standards. Experience tells us that striking a balance between encouraging innovation and regulating a new technology is never easy. Take the example of VOIP: at the time, this new technology (itself built on the newish technology of the internet) was threatened by incumbent telephone companies and existing communications legislation. If the monopolistic telcos had managed to get their way, maybe the Post Office would then have wanted to start charging us for sending e-mails?

With social media (another internet-enabled technology), we continue to see considerable tension as to how such platforms should be regulated in relation to news, broadcasting, publishing, political advertising, copyright, financial services and privacy. In the music and film industries, content owners have attempted to own and control the means of production, manufacture and distribution, not just the content – hence the format wars of the past in videotape, compact discs and digital file protocols. (A recurring theme within  Blockchain commentary is the need for cross-chain interoperability.)

Third, the Roadmap mentions the Government support for Standards Australia in leading the ISO’s Technical Committee 307 on Blockchain and DLT Standards. While such support is to be welcomed, the technology is outpacing both regulation and standards. TC 307 only published its First Technical Report on Smart Contracts in September 2019 – three years after its creation. In other areas, regulation is still trying to catch up with the technology that enables Initial Coin Offerings, Security Token Offerings and Decentralized Autonomous Organizations.

If the ICO phenomenon of 2016-18 demonstrated anything, it revealed that within traditional corporate and market structures, companies no longer have a monopoly on financial capital (issuance was largely subscribed via crowdfunding and informal syndication); human capital (ICO teams were largely self-forming, self-sufficient and self-directed); or networks and markets (decentralized, peer-to-peer and trustless became catch words of the ICO movement). Extend this to DAOs, and the very existence of, and need for traditional boards and shareholders gets called into question.

Fourth, the Roadmap makes reference to some existing government-related projects and initiatives in the area of Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. One is the Digital Transformation Agency’s “Trusted Digital Identity Framework”; another is AUSTRAC’s “Digital Currency Exchange” regulation and registration framework. With the former, a more universal commercial and government solution lies in self-sovereign identity – for example, if I have achieved a 100 point identity check with Bank A, then surely I should be able to “passport” that same ID verification to Bank B, without having to go through a whole new 100 point process? And with the latter, as far as I have been able to ascertain, AUSTRAC does not publish a list of those digital currency exchanges that have registered, and exchanges are not required to publish their registration number on their websites.

Fifth, the need for relevant training is evident from the Roadmap. However, as we know from computer coding and software engineering courses, students often end up learning “yesterday’s language”, rather than acquiring flexible and adaptable coding skills and core building blocks in software development. It’s equally evident that many of today’s developers are increasingly self-taught, especially in Blockchain and related technologies – largely because it is a new and rapidly-evolving landscape.

Finally, the Roadmap has identified three “showcase” examples of where Blockchain can deliver significant outcomes. One is in agricultural supply chains (to track the provenance of wine exports), one is in education and training (to enable trusted credentialing), and one is in financial services (to streamline KYC checks). I think that while each of these is of interest, they are probably just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Next week: Brexit Blues (Part II)

 

Startup Victoria – Best of the Startup State Pitch Night

In support of Victoria’s reputation as “Australia’s Startup State”, last week’s Startup Victoria pitch night was designed to showcase four of the best local startups. Hosted by Stone & Chalk, the judges were drawn from Mentorloop, Brosa, Giant Leap Fund, Rampersand and Vinomofo.

The pitches in order of presentation were (website links embedded in the titles):

Code Like A Girl

Founded four years ago, Code Like A Girl’s stated mission is to bring greater gender diversity to the ICT sector (information and communications technology), within both the industry and education spheres. To do this, the founders say we need more female coders, which they plan to achieve via coding camps, internships, and community events. Positioning itself as a social impact enterprise, the business is active in four States, and 75% of interns are placed into full time roles.

To support the ongoing development of its “role ready” value chain and to prepare for possible overseas expansion, Code Like A Girl is seeking $1.5m in seed funding. Currently piloting the training model via education providers (RTOs, boot camps, universities, online code schools), the business takes a 10% commission on courses sold (held twice a year), plus it charges placement fees of $2k per person.

But the model is difficult to scale, especially as Code Like A Girl does not own or create the actual training content – it is acting as a sales channel for third party courseware, and providing platform for advocacy, engagement and influence. Its key metrics are based on things like social impact scores – such as 30% of kids return to boot camps. The panel felt that the community platform is a huge cost centre, and it might be preferable to try a TedX model, where Code Like A Girl provides branding and foundational support to build more of a network effect – but without its own curriculum, the business will still struggle to scale.

Seer Medical

The business claims to make epilepsy diagnosis easier, and is currently raising $14m for European expansion (UK & Germany). To improve current diagnosis, the model needs to capture time series data to distinguish epilepsy from other conditions, but do so faster, cheaper and more efficiently than current processes. Founded in 2017, Seer has already serviced more than 1500 patients via 200 clinicians.

Using the Seer Cloud infrastructure,  it can achieve diagnostic outcomes 10x faster than traditional methods, and the platform is using machine learning to train its algorithms. The service is subject to Medicare reimbursement, which has no doubt assisted adoption.

Asked by the judges if the platform could be used to diagnose other conditions, the founders mentioned cardio, sleep and other health domains. As for competition, this comes mainly from the status quo – i.e., hospital based services. With advocacy from neurologists, giving them access to customers, the founders have a strong track record in the research field, which helps to open doors with clinicians. Along with research partnerships, plus the public health cost reimbursement, data is the fuel of the business –  Seer even have access to some third party data on which to train their diagnostic.

Liven

A dining rewards app, Liven is also bringing a behavioral gamification layer to a real world use case. Currently, there is a poor linkage between loyalty programmes and gamification. So, Liven has launched a universal reward token (the LVN token) for use in a digital/real world context.  The details were scant, and the status of the LVN token sale is unclear, but it seems users can earn LVN tokens from completing certain “missions”. The token (using a standard ERC 20 token format on the Ethereum blockchain), is designed to be interoperable and fungible (but Liven does not yet appear to use blockchain in its end user app or merchant point of sale solution).

The said merchants pay a 10-25% commission on app-based sales, of which upto 40% is paid back to the end user in the form of LVN tokens – if I got the maths right, Liven itself is securing $15 profit on every $100 of sales. Currently only available in Melbourne and Sydney, the judges wanted to know what the appeal is to merchants. According to the founders, users typically spend more in an average transaction when they use the app. It also seems that the app only works in brick and mortar restaurants, cafes and bars. The path to scaling will be via channel partners such as PoS systems.

Although not yet deployed, in future, it was suggested that users will be able to pay in any crypto – which raises all sorts of questions about the tokenomics of the LVN token, and whether LVN will be subject to exchange rate volatility (and even token speculation) or act as a stable coin; if the latter, what will it be backed by or pegged to?

Phoria

Phoria is in the business of extended reality technology (XR). Started in 2014, Phoria was an entrant to the Melbourne Accelerator Programme (MAP), with the stated goal of moving VR into a mobile experience (“democratize VR”).  Having gained some clinical VR research experience, Phoria has since worked on commercial projects such as “Captured” (turning a 3D scan of a building or structure into a Digital Twin), “Rewild Our Planet” (a Singapore-based AR experience), and various art installations museum exhibits.

Phoria is commissioned by tech and media brands to create XR content. It has developed a SaaS model, whereby it can turn real space into virtual space (“virtualising internal space”).

The judges wondered where we are along the cycle of mass adoption vs peak hype. In response, the founders mentioned that the first wireless headsets are now available, although consumer-facing mixed reality hardware is still 3-5 years away. With a growing customer base in engineering and architecture applications, Phoria’s main focus is on spatial information.

After the votes were counted, the People’s choice was Seer Medical, who also won the overall prize.

Next week: 30 years in publishing

Gigster is coming to town….

Melbourne’s Work Club recently hosted Gigster Senior Project Engineer, Catherine Waggoner, in conversation with Venture-Store’s George Tomeski. Part of Startup Victoria‘s Fireside Chats, it likely herald’s Gigster opening an office in Melbourne, to service local clients and to tap into the local developer community.

gigsterFor the uninitiated, Gigster describes itself as the “world’s engineering firm”, that helps clients scope, design and build software, apps and digital products. Using an established product development methodology, and drawing on the resources of a 1,000 strong network of freelance designers, developers and product managers, Gigster is taking much of the pain out of the costing and requirements process for new projects, as well as building a growing client base of enterprise customers.

Not mincing her words, Ms Waggoner opened her remarks by commenting, “The software development industry model is f*#$ed”, because:

  • Requirements are poorly defined
  • Scoping is laborious
  • Development costs blow out, and
  • The whole process is not very transparent and not very accessible.

As a case in point, she mentioned the significant cost disparity between what some digital design agencies or app studios might quote for building an iOS product compared to what Gigster would estimate. By: breaking projects down into the distinct stages of scoping, design and pre- and post-MVP; only engaging the “best of the best talent”; using proprietary tools both to estimate fixed rate costs (rather than billable hours) and to define and source solutions; and re-using content from a library of “Community Software” resources, Gigster is able to deliver quality projects in shorter time, and on more modest budgets. For example, based on the large number of projects that they have fulfilled, their “Gigulator” estimating tool incorporates 5,000 possible features.

From an investor perspective, Mr Tomeski mentioned that the “VC inflexion point is getting much earlier” in tech startups. Meaning, with lower development costs (and potentially, reduced valuation multiples), investors are looking to get in sooner, with lower exposure, but still generate reasonable returns on exit, thanks to cheaper establishment costs.

Of course, Gigster sits at the heart of the gig economy, a huge issue when it comes to discussing the Future of Work. Interestingly, many of Gigster’s contractors are themselves startup founders, who freelance while building their own businesses. But such is the strength of the network, something like 35%40% of their contractors work full-time for Gigster – they like the flexibility combined with the continuity. Many of the contractors are referrals from existing team members, and a number of teams (known at Gigster as “houses” – presumably a frat thing?) have bonded to such an extent that they get allocated specific projects to work on together, even though they themselves may be working in different locations, based on previous projects.

Working for Gigster is probably a career choice for some contractors, because there is a variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to be involved from start to finish. Which may be the opposite if working in a more corporate or enterprise environment, where work may be routine, repetitive and reasonably narrow in scope.

If Gigster does decide to set up shop in Melbourne (with encouragement from
InvestVictoria) they will be joining the likes of Slack, Stripe and Square, tempted by financial and other incentives. Such a move may challenge a number of local digital agencies, who will face even more competition for talent and customers.

According to Ms Waggoner, enterprise clients represent 40% of the business, and should comprise 60%-80% very soon. Not only that, but the average deal was initially $15k, now it’s more like $100k. However, enterprise clients have a much longer sales cycle. Plus, many innovation teams within enterprises are more like loosely formed groups of niche experts, so they need training on how to think like a startup. When you consider the greater dependency on legacy software by corporate clients (where it may make financial sense to retire some assets and build afresh, but the emotional disruption can be huge…), combined with the greater emphasis placed on after-sales service, Gigster has had to adapt its business model accordingly.

But Gigster must be doing something right. They’ve stopped outbound marketing and prospecting, relying on in-bound leads, repeat business and client referrals. There has been a shift from a sales focus to a customer focus, complete with a dedicated customer success team.

A number of audience questions related to getting VCs interested in your idea: What do they look for? How do they assess opportunities? How far should you go in building a product before you can attract funding? What’s the best way to validate an idea? etc. Much of this is about product/market fit, building the right team, getting customer traction, and executing on your strategy (aka Product Development 101.) As part of her closing comments, Ms Waggoner noted that unlike some of the high-profile VC funds (e.g, Y-Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups) many VCs are becoming more sector specific, because they prefer to invest in what they know and understand.

Next week: Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy