Online, quality beats quantity

Online used to be a world of “the more the better”. Search engines would brag about indexing X zillion of pages, the race for LinkedIn contacts was raging between users, and even professional sites like Alibaba would base their communication on the fact they allowed to reach thousands of suppliers in one click.

For early adopters, every single piece of information published on the network was a small victory. Each page indexed by Altavista was one more step towards the society of information that we were trying to build.

This was the old world of megabytes. Not the world of 2011, measured in exabytes. Tons of information have now created noise when we increasingly need relevance. From a world whose problem was to add information, we now enter a world where the problem is to find which one can be ignored, hidden, or deleted. Let’s take the three examples again:

  • Do you really care if Google indexes one or two more billion pages? No, you care about the top 10 results. The challenge is not to index 90 million pages containing the word “bank”, it is to hide the 89.99M that are not relevant to the current context.
  • Users are coming back from the “more friends is more fun” mantra. I see people remove or hide friends, some now cap the number of contacts to a “few” hundred. But the key is advertising: once social advertising happens (whatever it’s form), more friends will likely mean more ads. “De-Friendization” will then accelerate. And what is the point anyway, when we all lost the followers race to Lady Gaga anyway 😉
  • If you have to find a supplier, would you rather have a lot of offers, or the right ones? Sites like needeo work with selected suppliers, not “all the world’s suppliers”, and in that case quality and trust will always beat quantity.

Another sign this trend is here to stay can be found in services like Path which, in their DNA, embed the fact that you can not keep in touch with more than 50 people. Also Beluga (acquired by Facebook), Brizzly, the trend is now to launch closed group apps, to capitalize on the fact that it will be easier to monetize systems based on quality relationships than on a lof of relationships. The data mining will be easier (less data to make sense of), the social ads will be more effective (users are more likely to click on a recommendation coming from a close friend than from an acquaintance), and it will be possible to create real trust between the users and the system, with no fear of privacy boundaries being crossed.

From a world of quantity, we now live in a world of quality. The key is not to have a lot of signals, but to have the right ones. Social networks make it possible as long as they don’t encourage us to have lots of friends, just the right ones. Do you now better understand the 75b$ valuations of Facebook?

The ambitious job titles of the bubble years

Following up on my brief history of internet hype (updated timeline here), Emily Turrettini sent me a link to a presentation she gave on the bubble years. I like this particular excerpt on the titles entrepreneurs were giving themselves during the euphoria of 1998-2001:

Tim Roberts — Chief Visionary Officer — Broadband Investment Group

David Roberts — Chief Zaplet — FireDrop Inc.

Sheri Falco — Chief Catalyst —

John Sculley — Chief Listener — Apple Computer

Dark Jedi—Organic Inc.

Code Therapist — Organic Inc.

Duchess of Chaos — Netscape Communications Corp

Virtual Reality Evangelist — Silicon Graphics


The history of Internet hype

I am working on a slide retracing the history of Internet/Web hype. Remember the “you need a second life island” days, or the “portal” phenomena? What were the things you HAD to have as an organization or business to survive on the Internet? Did it work out (Facebook, Twitter), did it dissolve in the rest of the web (homepage, blog, portal) or did it falter (MySpace, RSS)?

Please help me add what is missing via email or comments!

[Updated image following your feedback, click to enlarge]

First version:

The ideas, hopes and challenges of today’s robots

Robolift was a superb conference. Nicolas did an amazing job of assembling a diverse and passionate group of  who discussed the current challenges, hopes and promises of robotics. For three full days, robots have taken the center stage and all those sessions ended up forming a coherent picture made of several key ideas and questions surrounding what will be major market in the future. Here is a quick recap of the key points that were made:

We can create emotional connections to robots
I’m human. Sometimes there are things that I believe against all logic. For me robots had to be objects we were keeping a certain distance with. Several speakers showed how that is not true: the Paro robot was one of the most striking example. Used with Alzheimer patients, this robotic seal creates authentic relationships with the people using it (see video, choose “PARO for patients in Italy”). Beyond these special usages, several talks showed how we engage with robots, whether it is kids helping a Roomba clean their bathroom’s floor, or people giving bots nicknames and treating them as members of the family.

As Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino pointed during her Q&A session, “Robots are objects, and we spend our life creating emotional attachment to objects. You feel sad when you break a vase your grandma offered you. It is the same with robots, we mourn them when they break down.” Robots are just regular objects, my intuitions and culture was creating an intriguing distance with that notion, but one can indeed be emotionally attached to them.

Robots really don’t have to look like robots

To make a long story short: movements and attitudes mean more than shape. That was clear after seeing tenth of videos, like those presented by Fumiya Iida. His robots mimic the movements of animals, and it is striking how this is enough to make you relate to and engage with the robot. You completely forget the fact it is a piece of metal you are watching, and start making a lot of parallels with creatures made of flesh and blood. You engage more than when looking at those humanoid robots that always fail at recreating the human touch effectively.

Robots can do amazing things, and stupid things

We saw a ball throwing robot, and a robot helping alzheimer patients. We saw Aibo learning to recognize objects with more or less success, and robots fighting in Afghanistan. The universal laws of innovation apply to robotics: technology is neutral. You can not say they are either smart or stupid. They are what people do with them, with all the diversity that represents.

Robots make us more social, and they make us less social

Another area where robots are just like other technologies (= neutral). Cynthia Breazeal talked about how a robot could allow a grandma to read a story to her grandchildren, and therefore expand our social capacities, allowing interactions that used to be more complicated, less fun, or otherwise impossible.

But robots could also be interpreted in a negative way. We saw kids playing with their roomba, and not with other kids. So expect many people to say “robots make us lonelier, we will stop interacting with humans”. As usual the truth is in a balanced view: sometimes the robot will allow us to expand our social horizon, sometimes they will make us choose to communicate with a machine rather than with other humans physically close to us.

There are a lot of open questions with ethics and legal

Robotics is like the internet in 1995. A space for hackers and pioneers, starting to be recognized by businesses, with a couple of success stories under its belt. The problem (or is it the opportunity…?) is that the field is way too young to be legislated by governments that barely know this is happening. So it is up to those pioneers to self regulate. And now is a time of big questions. Do we want robots to kill? Drones are being used by politicians because they offer a “dream” equation: fight with no risk of human casualties, at least on the drone’s army side. The problem according to Noel Sharkey: the “buffer” created between the fighter and the field, materialized by a 2 second delay between a command and it’s concretization on the field.

The army is apparently recruiting the video games generation with ads like “you were a good fighter on your PS3? Come and join us, we have a job for you!” Civilized war has several principles, like applying a proportional response to a specific threat. Judgment capabilities that robots are not yet able to reach (will they ever be?), yet we have them fight our wars, more and more every day. Another question: who is responsible if your Google car crushes adog  on a pedestrian passage? Are you responsible because you signed a 500 pages user agreement approval you never read, or are the programmers responsible? Tons of open questions here, probably a few decades of legal debate and landmark cases before we have answers.

Cultures approach robots differently

One of the quote of the conference came from Fujiko Suda who answered my question on “why robots are coming from Asian countries like Japan or Korea?” by saying that Japanese “are not afraid to play god as they already have 8 millions of them”. There is an intriguing idea here, that our culture shapes how we perceive robots. Apparently in the West, we all consider that there is a superior being above us, the only entity allowed to create life-like creatures. Robots are, at least in our imagination, going to one day equal men in their appearance and intelligence. Maybe surpass us, and get out of control?

All this conditions our vision, and makes us more nervous than Japanese who see god in many aspects of their daily life. When they build a machine, they don’t cross as many lines as we do, hence their early adoption of these technology. It is not the only factor (an aging population in need of care is another one) but it is an important one.

Robots have something to do with god

As mentionned in my previous post, god came up quite a few times, and it seems there is definitely a relation between robots and religion. Dominique Sciamma claimed that “robots will finish the work Nietzche started, and kill god”. Maybe inventing and creating something as sophisticated and intelligent as humans will make Christians reconsider the genius of god? If a man can do it…

Overall, all the speakers gave very good talks. Congrats to Nicolas and the whole Lift team for doing such a great job. As Frédéric Kaplan told me in the train that was taking us back home, “it is rare to see a conference on Robotics able to make that topic as informative, thought provoking and entertaining”.

Technologies increase the “cost of repression”

I have been thinking a lot about the true role of technologies in the recent political movements in Northern Africa. I feel right now it is wise to wait a bit while the facts are gathered.

I am panicked when I see pretty serious magazines making simplifications like “the Facebook group « We are all Khaled Saïd » has 500 000 members, 10 % of Egypt’s internet users“.

How do you know these 500’000 members are all from Egypt? A recent research on Twitter users active during the revolution showed only 0.027% of users were identifying their location as Egypt, Yemen or Tunisia. Smart users from those countries “likely do not provide their location information to protect their identities”, but it still hints that the massive amount of traction social media gave to these phenomena was very likely coming from outside of these countries.

As I said, let’s wait before hurrying up to conclusions as NOBODY knows right now if the protesters gathered because of Facebook, Al Jazeera, SMS, word to mouth, or something else. We will probably never know for sure.

Trying to find a relevant and neutral point of view, I came across this article from Marc Saint-Upéry on the Russian International News Agency, making a key point: new communication raise considerably the cost of repression.

The new electronic media do not miraculously abolish the laws of the political universe. They create new synergies, but they do not invent or recombine at will the arsenal of social protest. The young Egyptian cyberactivists knew that. […] They also knew that “something was in the air,” as blogger Hossama Halawy, a consummate interpreter of Egyptian street life, had already written back in October. “No one knows when the explosion is going to happen, but it seems everyone I meet or bump into today feels it’s inevitable,” reads one of his posts. […]

Since 2004, there was a growing number of social protests. Blue-collar workers, doctors, lawyers, judges, slum residents and even real estate tax collectors would stage a sit-in in front of their workplace or any significant institution and call the desks of private newspapers such as Al Masri al Youm, Al Shuruk or Al Dustur. Photographs and reporters would be sent and, the day after, the protesters were often invited to a talk-show seen by millions of Egyptians.

That’s also how police brutality could become part of the show. New communication technologies don’t build social movements out of thin air, but they do raise considerably the cost of repression by enhancing its visibility.