Startup Funds People Rather Than Businesses

In 2002, I wrote a sci-fi short story titled Blockbuster that depicted a world in which individual people go IPO. In such a world, investors would want to start young, picking the winners early, funding their education and public launches in exchange for “stock” in the person and, effectively, a cut of their future earnings. I mean, if corporations can be people, then why can’t people be corporations?

It’s a dystopian vision, in which the main character, the most successful such funded individual in history, groomed from childhood for ultimate success, bankrupts himself in every possible way to finally become “fully self-owned.”

We should never do this in real life.

It’s not that there is no value in attending a top kindergarten, a great private school, the best ivy league university, the best  startup incubator, etc… There’s generally a reason why these are vaunted. But when we place so much value on the promise of success vs. the actual evaluation of good ideas, we set ourselves up for a kind of “blockbuster effect” that plagues movies and books, in which only the most fundable ideas get supported, because no one wants to take a risk. Everyone wants a winner.

For example, the funding model sounds reasonable. Instead of a loan, individuals promise a cut of future earnings. Imagine if universities worked this way (ignoring alumni contributions, which are voluntary). Universities would by nature want to accept only students who will likely make a lot of money. And that would often mean picking students who start out with a lot of money, valuable connections, or who attended only the best kindergartens, etc..

And that’s unfortunately a lot like the admission process for the best ivy league universities already. Do we want all of life to be like that? What do we lose by focusing only on the fat head and losing the long tail?

Of course, there’s something to be said for bringing back the benefactor model, in which the wealthy don’t just invest in people (artists, writers, visionaries) for the sake of profit, but to make the world a richer place.

Startup Funds People Rather Than Businesses.

Brain Implant Controls Robotic Arm

We may have seen the monkey controlling a robotic arm, but here it is in human trials with much more impressive results. Researchers were able to train the system by having the participant think about moving her arm. With several months of training, her motions were fluid and precise (see video below). Future improvements would make the system more tolerable to brain tissue and wireless, paving the way for those direct brain/machine interfaces we’ve imagined.

Still, it requires surgery. Gives new meaning to “you are the controller,” doesn’t it?

Mind over matter helps paralysed woman control robotic arm | Science | The Guardian.


Wrong Turn


I tend not to wade into the whole “Apple Screwed Up Maps” thing. For one thing, I don’t have a dog in this fight. Yes, I indirectly helped Google (before Keyhole became Google Earth). And I more directly helped Microsoft in ways we can’t get into. I do have friends in most of these companies, but they know me well enough to know that I speak my mind or not at all.

Mostly, I really just want maps to work well everywhere, and that’s best served by healthy competition, great (free and open) data, and really good crowd-sourcing for keeping things accurate and fresh.

If anything, what I’m most disappointed by is that Apple had the golden opportunity to crowd-source their map data. If something was wrong somewhere on the globe, it could be fixed in 20 seconds by a dedicated user. Everyone else would see an improved result, well before reporters started harping on it.

Alas, they ditched Google’s mostly automated Ground Truth. They barely used Open Street Map, and not where (and how) it counted. Waze, as well, would have been a great ally to improve their  ground truth and real-time updates.

But here’s the real insight worth considering: try running Google’s “new” iOS maps app and then run Google Earth on the same device, switching back and forth for the same areas.

Tell me if you can spot the differences.

  1. Google Maps on iOS has turn by turn directions. GEarth has this on other platforms, in the form of similar animated tours.
  2. Google Maps on iOS has traffic info — but this can be added to Google Earth too as a layer.
  3. Google Maps on IOS apparently uses  the same web services that their web maps do for directions, navigation, etc..
  4. The icons are slightly different, but the road label rendering looks the same.
  5. Map rendering and manipulation are virtually identical.

What I take from this is that the team may have used engine code from Google Earth to power their new maps app, stripping out some features but keeping others. I’m guessing they spent the last few months adding dedicated UX specific to the more targeted use case — directions, traffic, turn-by-turn, etc..

If true, that’s exactly the kind of convergence I’d hoped to see when Google bought Keyhole.

But what’s most remarkable about that is that Google Earth never left iOS. It was there throughout the whole “Apple booted Google” fiasco. All it was missing were some UI tweaks and the above features, which I figure were left out of the iOS version initially because of  ‘locked-up’ features like “turn by turn.” So in a sense, Google fixed that and now re-released it under the name “Maps.”

Of course, the Google Maps browser version was also available the whole time. But people like the native “Maps” app entry point, it seems.

If true, this means that in a next update or two, Google can add 3D buildings to the iOS Maps app with relative ease to compete handily with Apple’s acquired C3 technologies 3D buildings. Oops.

But does Google really want their iOS Maps app to be so great?

That’s a harder question to suss out, and I bet it depends who at Google you ask. I have no doubt that Android sales improved this Christmas due to Apple’s map problems. People just can’t risk having their maps suck, even if only 0.05% of users had problems. But I expect the Google Geo team just wants to be the best possible solution everywhere.

So what we have now is a Google Maps app that could totally rock anything Apple does on their own platform, and more on Google’s own terms. At some point, “people” can even force Apple to make the default maps provider user-selectable, so geospatial links will open whichever app is so registered.

I mean, this is basically what happened to Microsoft with IE bundling, right? Just a matter of time, given ‘reality’ is creeping back in. That is, no doubt, what Apple was afraid of — losing control of a differentiating feature on their own devices — and rightly so. But they seem to have played their hand rather poorly and that’s the inevitable result.



I’ve always been fascinated by the grand civil engineering challenges. Our cities are still so much the products of centuries-old thinking. However, sometimes the new ideas have non-obvious challenges too. That’s one reason they weren’t tried already.

Take the gravity-train. It has the benefit of needing no engine, saving massive amounts of energy otherwise lost to braking and accelerating huge masses of metal and meat. Gravity (and some occasional lifting engines built into key sections of track) can do all the work. Put the stations at the high-points and the trains will naturally start slow, accelerate, decelerate and stop at the next station with very little energy. Viola.   (ignore the picture above — there’s no good reason for that camelback hill except for fun).

If you think about it, the fastest and most efficient way to get from New York to Tokyo is not a scramjet flying to the edge of space, but rather a straight line tube through the earth.

Such a tube would want to be sealed at both ends to maintain vacuum against atmospheric pressures and more importantly lower drag. It’s the vacuum tube delivery system from my childhood. I loved that toy. I think Costco still uses these for sending stuff from cashiers to the office.

Relative to the surface (i.e., if you unrolled the planet to make it flat), this tube or track would be curved, just like a rollercoaster valley, with the train cars accelerating “down” until the halfway point and then decelerating back “up” the hill to gently stop at the destination.

Gravity would be significantly less at the low-point, depending on the actual distance you’re bridging. But who cares? You have bigger problems if you ever dig below the earth’s crust.

Such a system would require very little power, once built, just enough to overcome any friction, and maybe an emergency drive mode. I’d expect much more power required for active cooling than any acceleration.

For the much smaller city-sized version, you could also employ the same underground gravity train technique, if you’re tunneling subways anyway. Why not?

Well, there is always the logistical issue of multiple trains on the same track…

Think about it. One needs a way to stop, wait, and start trains almost anywhere, including, in the worst case, on a hill. Trains get stuck at stations, or worse. Police interventions, accidents, etc.. can cause these kind of delays. Just consider what it means to build a walkway along the track for emergency evacuations, etc..

Themepark rollercoasters solve this by having special flat sections of track where the cars can be braked and later re-accelerated — generally one of these areas for each car you want to run simultaneously, so they can all stop, if necessary, without collision.

They also, if you didn’t notice,  have places where you can get out and climb down in an emergency. And maybe most importantly, they have people whose main job is to walk the track every single day looking for weaknesses.

Still, it would be a lot of fun, don’t you think?

Commute to work on the roller coaster train – tech – 07 December 2012 – New Scientist.

The Crowd-Sourced Virtual Assistant

Why make Siri-like interfaces smart, when people are still so much smarter?

Premier was developed by MobileWorks, a crowdsourcing company, which is currently testing the new assistant with some existing customers. Testers are given a private e-mail address and encouraged to treat it as they would a conventional personal assistant. “You talk to it in natural language and it talks back to you the same way,” says Anand Kulkarni, cofounder of MobileWorks.

via Mobileworks’ Virtual Assistant, Premier, Is Created from a Crowd of Workers | MIT Technology Review.


This is awesome progress on the best AR delivery approach we can currently conceive (short of neural implants, which are a very long ways off).

AR Contact Lenses are the right way to go because they would provide the ultimate field of view, best use of spatial resolution (no wasted pixels), best ways to track eye gaze direction (track the lenses relative to some fixed point on the head), the least geeky form factor (often no glasses required), integrate with individually corrective lenses, and probably provide the lowest power consumption of any approach. And as a bonus, they provide a natural way to turn AR into VR at any time — just close your eyes and you can be “anywhere else.”

For all the hope and hype, glasses are just a stepping stone. Alas, they’re currently 100x easier to solve (and that’s not saying they’re easy either).

In terms of challenges for these AR contact lenses, there’s the small problem of focusing the image properly. It’s non-trivial to build a lens that can sit on the cornea and also focus on the cornea. And the power issues are yet to be solved. The device will either need wireless power from nearby RF/induction or sip your body’s natural power (electric, metabolic) at suitably low levels. That’s being looked at too, but I imagine will be the last problem solved here. Less challenging is the issue of rotation and drift of the lenses w.r.t. the pupil.

One very basic thing to keep in mind is LCDs don’t actually emit any light, only filter (and usually starting at around 50% opacity). So even when perfected, these babies can only selectively reduce natural light (making the AR/VR combo above not quite feasible with this approach). That’s good enough for some applications, like text overlays, but it generally requires a bright natural environment or other backlight to work in the general case. No light = no contrast.

A clever combination of this LCD and something like OLED or edge-lit LEDs might do the trick (and also make your eyes glow). However, I have not heard of similar OLEDs that are also transparent — yet. The closest I’ve seen is a transparent OLED for cell phones, and that is probably better termed “translucent” since the pass-through is not exactly crisp and clear.

All in all, this is great progress. It makes me think 2020 is the magic date for AR contact lenses. I’d expect to see much more progress in the next 3-5 years.

LCD Contact Lenses To Rival Google Glasses [Video] – PSFK – PSFK.