Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Presentation

"Blue Marble - 2002", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Blue Marble – 2002”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

On June 1, 2016, at the 2016 Code Conference held this week in California, Mary Meeker, a world-renowned Internet expert and partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, presented her fifteenth annual in-depth and highly analytical presentation on current Internet trends. It is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment that is highly respected throughout the global technology industry and economy. The video of her speech is available here on Recode.com

Her 2016 Internet Trends presentation file is divided into a series of eight main sections covering, among many other things: Internet user and financial growth rates, online advertising, generational market segments and technological preferences, new products and vendors, mobile screens for nearly everything, e-commerce, big data, privacy issues, video growth on social media platforms, messaging systems , smartphone growth,  voice interfaces, consumer spending, online security, connectivity, Facebook’s v. Google’s growth rates, and massive consumer markets in China and India. That is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg in this 213-slide file.

Ms. Meeker’s assessments and predictions here form an extraordinarily comprehensive and insightful piece of work. There is much here for anyone and everyone to learn and consider in the current and trending states nearly anything and everything online. Moreover, there are likely many potential opportunities for new and established businesses, as well as other institutions, within this file.

I very highly recommend that you set aside some time to thoroughly read through Ms. Meeker’s full presentation. You will be richly rewarded with knowledge and insight that can potentially yield a world of informative and practical dividends.

Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

Visionary Developments: Bionic Eyes and Mechanized Rides Derived from Dragonflies

"Transparency and Colors", Image by coniferconifer

“Transparency and Colors”, Image by coniferconifer

All manner of software and hardware development projects strive to diligently take out every single bug that can be identified¹. However, a team of researchers who is currently working on a fascinating and potentially valuable project is doing everything possible to, at least figuratively, leave their bugs in.

This involves a team of Australian researchers who are working on modeling the vision of dragonflies. If they are successful, there could be some very helpful implications for applying their work to the advancement of bionic eyes and driverless cars.

When the design and operation of biological systems in nature are adapted to improve man-made technologies as they are being here, such developments are often referred to as being biomimetic².

The very interesting story of this, well, visionary work was reported in an article in the October 6, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Scientists Tap Dragonfly Vision to Build a Better Bionic Eye by Rachel Pannett. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some bug-free questions of my own. Let’s have a look and see what all of this organic and electronic buzz is really about.

Bionic Eyes

A research team from the University of Adelaide has recently developed this system modeled upon a dragonfly’s vision. It is built upon a foundation that also uses artificial intelligence (AI)³. Their findings appeared in an article entitled Properties of Neuronal Facilitation that Improve Target Tracking in Natural Pursuit Simulations that was published in the June 6, 2015 edition of The Royal Society Interface (access credentials required). The authors include Zahra M. Bagheri, Steven D. Wiederman, Benjamin S. Cazzolato, Steven Grainger, and David C. O’Carroll. The funding grant for their project was provided by the Australian Research Council.

While the vision of dragonflies “cannot distinguish details and shapes of objects” as well as humans, it does possess a “wide field of vision and ability to detect fast movements”. Thus, they can readily track of targets even within an insect swarm.

The researchers, including Dr. Steven Wiederman, the leader of the University of Adelaide team, believe their work could be helpful to the development work on bionic eyes. These devices consist of an  artificial implant placed in a person’s retina that, in turn, is connected to a video camera. What a visually impaired person “sees” while wearing this system is converted into electrical signals that are communicated to the brain. By adding the software model of the dragonfly’s 360-degree field of vision, this will add the capability for the people using it to more readily detect, among other things, “when someone unexpectedly veers into their path”.

Another member of the research team and one of the co-authors of their research paper, a Ph.D. candidate named Zahra Bageri, said that dragonflies are able to fly so quickly and be so accurate “despite their visual acuity and a tiny brain around the size of a grain of rice”4 In other areas of advanced robotics development, this type of “sight and dexterity” needed to avoid humans and objects has proven quite challenging to express in computer code.

One commercial company working on bionic eye systems is Second Sight Medical Products Inc., located in California. They have received US regulatory approval to sell their retinal prosthesis.

Driverless Cars

In the next stage of their work, the research team is currently studying “the motion-detecting neurons in insect optic lobes”, in an effort to build a system that can predict and react to moving objects. They believe this might one day be integrated into driverless cars in order to avoid pedestrians and other cars5. Dr. Wiederman foresees the possible commercialization of their work within the next five to ten years.

However, obstacles remain in getting this to market. Any integration into a test robot would require a “processor big enough to simulate a biological brain”. The research team believes that is can be scaled down since the “insect-based algorithms are much more efficient”.

Ms. Bagheri noted that “detecting and tracking small objects against complex backgrounds” is quite a technical challenge. She gave as an example of this a  baseball outfielder who has only seconds to spot, track and predict where a ball hit will fall in the field in the midst of a colorful stadium and enthusiastic fans6.

My Questions

  • As suggested in the article, might this vision model be applicable in sports to enhancing live broadcasts of games, helping teams review their game day videos afterwards by improving their overall play, and assisting individual players to analyze how they react during key plays?
  • Is the vision model applicable in other potential safety systems for mass transportation such as planes, trains, boats and bicycles?
  • Could this vision model be added to enhance the accuracy, resolution and interactivity of virtual reality and augmented reality systems? (These 11 Subway Fold posts appearing in the category of Virtual and Augmented Reality cover a range of interesting developments in this field.)

 


1.  See this Wikipedia page for a summary of the extraordinary career Admiral Grace Hopper. Among her many technological accomplishments, she was a pioneer in developing modern computer programming. She was also the originator of the term computer “bug”.

2For an earlier example of this, see the August 18, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled IBM’s New TrueNorth Chip Mimics Brain Functions.

3The Subway Fold category of Smart Systems contains 10 posts on AI.

4Speaking of rice-sized technology, see also the April 14, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Smart Dust: Specialized Computers Fabricated to Be Smaller Than a Single Grain of Rice.

5While the University of Adelaide research team is not working with Google, nonetheless the company has been a leader in the development of autonomous cars with their Google’s Self-Driving Car Project.

6New York’s beloved @Mets might also prove to be worthwhile subjects to model because of their stellar play in the 2015 playoffs. Let’s vanquish those dastardly LA Dodgers on Thursday night. GO METS!

Google’s A/B Testing Method is Being Applied to Improve Government Operations

"A/B", Image by Alan Rothman

“A/B”, Image by Alan Rothman

During my annual visit with my ophthalmologist, he always checks the accuracy of the prescription for my glasses by trying out different pairs of lenses and then asking me to read the letter chart on the wall. For each eye, he switches the lenses back and forth and asks me a series of times “Which is better, 1 or 2?”. This is called a refraction test. My answers either confirm that my current lenses are correct or that I need an updated prescription for new lenses.

I never realized until recently that this method of testing is very similar to one tech companies use to measure and adjust the usability of their products and services. (I view this as my own bit of, well, in-sight.) This process is called “A/B testing“, where test subjects are shown two nearly identical versions of something with one of them containing some slight variation.  Then they are asked to choose which one they prefer between the two.

What if this method was transposed and applied in a seemingly non-intuitive leap to the public sector? A new initiative founded upon this by the US federal government was reported on in a fascinating and instructive article in the September 26, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled A Better Government, One Tweak at a Time, by Justin Wolfers*. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then ask some of my own non-A/B questions. (There is another very informative article on this topic, covering the US and elsewhere, in today’s September 30, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled Behaviorists Show the U.S. How to Improve Government Operations, by Binyamin Appelbaum.)

Google makes extensive use of this method in their testing and development projects. Their A/B testing has confirmed an effect that social scientists have known for years in that “small changes in how choices are presented can lead to big changes in behavior”. Moreover, effective design is not so much about an aesthetically pleasing appearance as it is about testing competing ideas and gathering data to evaluate which of them works best.

Last year, this project team introduced the effectiveness and success of A/B to the public sector was launched when  the federal government organized a group of officials (enlisted from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions), called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST). It is also referred to as the “Nudge Unit“. Their mandate was to “design a better government”. They set out to A/B test different government functions to see what works and what does not.

After a year in operation, they have recently released their first annual report, detailing the many “small tweaks” they have implemented. Each of these changes was subjected to A/B testing. Their results have been “impressive” and imply that their efforts will save $Millions, if not $Billions. Moreover, because these changes are so relatively inexpensive, “even moderate impacts” could produce remarkably “high cost-benefit ratios”.

Among the SBST’s accomplishments are the following:

  • Improving Printing Efficiency: Some, but not all, printers at the US Department of Agriculture presented users with a pop-up message to encourage two-sided printing. As a result, two-sided printing rose by 6%. While this sounds small, its magnitude quickly scales up because US government printers produce 18 billion pages each year. The SBST report suggests that implementing this for the entire federal government could potentially save more than half a billion pages a year.
  • Reminding High School Graduates to Finish Their College Enrollment: Text messages were sent by the researchers to high school students   during the summer after their graduation, urging them to follow-up on the next steps needed to enroll in college. The differential of those who received the texts and those who did not, in terms of completing their enrollment, was 68% to 65%, respectively. The positive effect was more pronounced for low-income students who got these texts. While this 3% improvement also might not sound so large, at a mere cost of doing this at $7 per student, it proved to be tremendously cost-effective as compared to the $Thousands it otherwise costs to offer “grant and scholarship aid”.
  • Increasing Vendors’ Honesty on Tax Forms: Prompts were randomly placed on some versions of a federal-vendor tax collection form asking vendors to be truthful in completing it. Those who used the form containing the prompt reported more taxable sales than those using the untweaked form. In turn, this resulted in vendors voluntarily paying “an additional $1.6 million in taxes”. Again, scaling up this experiment could potentially raise additional $Billions in tax revenue.
  • Raising Applications by Those Eligible for Student Loan Relief: The government knows, through their own methods, who is struggling to repay their federally funded student loans. Another experiment sent a selected group of them emails about applying for loan relief resulted in “many more” applying for it than those who did not receive this message.
  • Lifting Savings Rates for People in the Military: When members of the military service were transferred to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia, they received a prompt to enroll in the military’s savings plan. The result was a significant rise in participants. This contrasts with no increase by other who were transferred to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and not prompted.
  • Other Successful Experimental “Nudges”:
    • Well written letters resulting in more health care sign-ups
    • Emails urging employees to join workplace savings plans
    • Shortened URLs encouraging more people to pay bills online
    • Telling veterans that they earned rather than were entitled to a program increased their participation in it.

Justin Wolfers, the author of this article, concludes that it is the testing itself that makes for these successes. He very succinctly summarizes this by stating:

“Experiment relentlessly, keep what works, and discard what doesn’t.”

He further asserts that if this is done as Google has done it, the US government might likewise become “clear, user-friendly and unflinchingly effective”.

My own questions about A/B testing by the government include:

  • Would it also produce cost-effective results for state and local governments? Are there any applications that could be done on a multi-national or even global level?
  • Could it be applied to improve electronic and perhaps even online public voting systems?
  • Could it bring incremental improvements in government administered health programs?
  • What would be the result if the government asked the public to submit suggestions online for new A/B testing applications? Could A/B testing itself be done by governments online?
  • Does it lend itself to being open sourced for test projects in the design, collection and interpretation of data?

An earlier and well-regarded book about using a variety of forms of nudges to improve public policies and functions is Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Susstein (Penguin Press, 2009).


*  The author’s bio in this article states he is “a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan“. (The links were added by me and not included in the original text.)

New Visualization Maps Out the Concepts of the “Theory of Everything”

“DC891- Black Hole”, Image by Adriana Arias

January 6, 2017: An update on this post appears below.


While I was a student in the fourth grade at Public School 79, my teacher introduced the class to the concept of fractions. She demonstrated this using the classic example of the cutting up a pie into different numbers of slices. She explained to the class about slicing it into halves, thirds, quarters and so on. During this introductory lesson, she kept emphasizing that the sum of all the parts always added up to the whole pie and that they could never be equal to more than or less than the whole.

I thought I could deal with this fractions business back then. As far as I know, it still holds up pretty well today.

On an infinitely grander and brain-bendingly complex scale that is more than just pieces of π, physicists have been working for decades on a Theory of Everything (ToE). The objective is to build a comprehensive framework that fully unites and explains the theoretical foundations of physics across the universe. The greatest minds in this field have approached this ultimate challenge with a variety of highly complex and advanced mathematics, theoretical constructs and proposals. Many individuals and multidisciplinary teams are still at work try to achieve the ToE. If and when anyone of them succeeds formulating and proving it, the result will be the type of breakthrough that will potentially have profound changes on our understanding of our world and the universe we inhabit.

Einstein was one of the early pioneers in this field. He invested a great deal of effort in this challenge but even a Promethean genius such as him never succeeded at it.  His General Theory of Relativity continues to be one of the cornerstones of the ToE endeavor. The entire September 2015 issue of Scientific American is devoted to the 100th anniversary of this monumental accomplishment. I highly recommend reading this issue in its entirety.

I also strongly urge you to check out a remarkable interactive visualization of the component theories and concepts of the ToE that was posted in an August 3, 2015 post on Quantamagazine.org entitled Theories of Everything, Mapped by Natalie Wolchover. The author very concisely explains how the builder of the map, developer Emily Fuhrman, created it in order to teach people about ToE. Furthermore, it shows that there are areas with substantial “disunions, holes and inconsistencies” remaining that comprise the “deep questions that must be answered” in order to achieve the ToE.

The full map is embedded at the top of the article, ready for visitors to click into it and immerse themselves immerse in such topics as, among many others, grand unification, quantum gravity and dark matter.  All along the way, there are numerous linked resources within it available for further extensive explorations. In my humble opinion, Ms. Fuhrman has done a brilliant job of creating this.

Having now spent a bit of time clicking all over this bounty of fascinating information, I was reminded of my favorite line from Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages that goes “Using ideas as my maps”. (The Byrds also had a hauntingly beautiful Top 40 hit covering this.)

In these 26 prior Subway Fold posts we have examined a wide range of the highly inventive and creative work that can be done with contemporary visualization tools. This ToE map is yet another inspiring example. Even if subjects like space-time and the cosmological constant are not familiar to you, this particularly engaging visualization expertly arranges and explains the basics of these theoretical worlds. It also speaks to the power of effective visualization in capturing the viewer’s imagination about a subject which, if otherwise only left as text, would not succeed in drawing most online viewers in so deeply.


 

January 6, 2017 Update:

Well, it looks like those Grand Unified Fielders have recently suffered another disappointing bump in the road (or perhaps in the universe), as they have been unable to find any genuine proton decay. Although this might sound like something your dentist has repeatedly warned you about, it is rather an anticipated physical phenomenon on the road to the finding the Theory of Everything that has yet to be observed and measured. This put that quest on hold for time being unless and until either it is observed or physicists and theorists can work around its absence. The full details appear in a new article entitled Grand Unification Dream Kept at Bay, by Natalie Wolchover (the same author whose earlier article on this was summarized above), in QuantaMagazine.com, posted on December 15, 2016.

Prints Charming: A New App Combines Music With 3D Printing

"Totem", Image by Brooke Novak

“Totem”, Image by Brooke Novak

What does a song actually look like in 3D? Everyone knows that music has always been evocative of all kinds of people, memories, emotions and sensations. In a Subway Fold post back on November 30, 2014, we first looked at Music Visualizations and Visualizations About Music. But can a representation of a tune now be taken further and transformed into a tangible object?

Yes, and it looks pretty darn cool. A fascinating article was posted on Wired.com on July 15, 2015, entitled What Songs Look Like as 3-D Printed Sculptures by Liz Stinson, about a new Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for the NYC startup called Reify working on this. I will sum up, annotate and try to sculpt a few questions of my own.

Reify’s technology uses sound waves in conjunction with 3D printing¹ to shape a physical “totem” or object of it. (The Wired article and the Reify website contain pictures of samples.) Then an augmented reality² app in a mobile device will provide an on-screen visual experience accompanying the song when the camera is pointed towards it. This page on their website contains a video of a demo of their system.

The firm is led by Allison Wood and Kei Gowda. Ms. Wood founded it in order to study “digital synesthesia”. (Synthesia is a rare condition where people can use multiple senses in unusual combinations to, for example, “hear” colors, and was previously covered in the Subway Fold post about music visualization linked to above.) She began to explore how to “translate music’s ephemeral nature” into a genuine object and came up with the concept of using a totem.

Designing each totem is an individualized process. It starts with analyzing a song’s “structure, rhythm, amplitude, and more” by playing it through the Echo Nest API.³ In turn, the results generated correspond to measurements including “height, weight and mass”. The tempo and genre of a song also have a direct influence on the shaping of the totem. As well, the musical artists themselves have significant input into the final form.

The mobile app comes into play when it is used to “read” the totem and interpret its form “like a stylus on a record player or a laser on a CD”. The result is, while the music playing, the augmented reality component of the app captures and then generates an animated visualization incorporating the totem on-screen.  The process is vividly shown in the demo video linked above.

Reify’s work can also be likened to a form of information design in the form of data visualization4. According to Ms. Wood, the process involves “translating data from one form into another”.

My questions are as follows:

  • Is Reify working with, or considering working with, Microsoft on its pending HoloLens augmented reality system and/or companies such as Oculus, Samsung and Google on their virtual reality platforms as covered in the posts linked to in Footnote 2 below?
  • How might Reify’s system be integrated into the marketing strategies of musicians? For example, perhaps printing up a number of totems for a band and then distributing them at concerts.
  • Would long-established musicians and performers possibly use Reify to create totems of some their classics? For instance, what might a totem and augmented reality visualization for Springsteen’s anthem, Born to Run, look like?

1.  See these two Subway Fold posts mentioning 3D printing.

2.  See these eight Subway Fold posts covering some of the latest developments in virtual and augmented reality.

3API’s in a medical and scientific context were covered in a July 2, 2015 Subway Fold Post entitled The Need for Specialized Application Programming Interfaces for Human Genomics R&D Initiatives.

4.  This topic is covered extensively in dozens of Subway Fold posts in the Big Data and Analytics and Visualization categories.

New Analytics Process Uses Patent Data to Predict Advancements in Specific Technologies

"Crystal Ball", Image by Christian Schnettelker

“Crystal Ball”, Image by Christian Schnettelker

John Oliver did a brilliant and hilarious takedown of patent trolls on his April 19, 2015 edition of his Last Week Tonight show. He raved about the absurdity of such companies who buy up patents and yet produce nothing much themselves other than lawsuits to enforce theses patents. As he said, this is a form of “extortion” that impedes progress and ends up costing the defendants in these actions a great deal of money. If you did not see the show or have not seen the video yet, please have a look and a laugh.

Then compare and contrast that economic fear and needless cost of using patent data in such a negative manner with the publication of a paper last week about how US patent filings are now being used in an entirely opposite, innovative and productive manner. The contrast could not be more dramatic. Indeed, as presented in a new paper published online on April 15, 2015 on PLoS One entitled Quantitative Determination of Technological Improvement from Patent Data, by MIT researchers Christopher L. Benson and Christopher L. Magee, mining recent filings in the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) massive database using their new methodology, can determine which technologies are genuinely advancing and at what relative rate.

This very exciting news was reported and analyzed in an article posted on Phys.org on April 15, 2015 entitled New Method Uses Patent Data to Estimate a Technology’s Future Rate of Improvement. I will sum up, annotate and add a few questions to this. I highly recommend clicking through on both this article for the details of how this prediction tool was developed and the full-text of the PLoS One paper for the granular details of how it actually works.

(For cross-reference purposes, this advancement follows on and partially mixes together the topics of two previous Subway Fold posts, one on April 9, 2014 entitled Comprehensive Visualization of Future Paths of Technological Innovations and another on August 8, 2014 entitled New Visualization Service for US Patent and Trademark Data.)

Benson and Magee have devised an analytical means to sift through the USPTO database for precisely choosing the latest patents that “best represent” 28 specific technological domains. These include, among others,  “solar photovoltaics, 3-D printing, fuel-cell technology, and genome sequencing”. Then, applying their methodology, based upon the number of subsequent citations in other new patent filings, they were able to determine those some of the relevant patents displayed an increased likelihood in predicting “a technology’s improvement rate”. In effect, the higher the rate of subsequent citation of Patent X, the higher the rate of innovation. The equations in their predictive tool also include some other patent characteristics.

Among the 28 technologies, those showing the highest rates of advancement were “optical¹ and wireless communications, 3-D printing, and MRI technology²“, while others with slower rates of advance included “batteries, wind turbines, and combustion engines”.

Benson believes that his prediction method could possibly be useful to venture capitalists, startups³. Magee hopes that it may be applied as a form of “rating system” for investors searching out potential “breakthroughs”. Both developers also foresee the possibility that public and private laboratories could use it to investigate potential new areas for research. Furthermore, Magee believes that their approach can be applied to lower the level of uncertainty about the future of a particular technology to “a more manageable number”.

My questions are as follows:

  • Would the accuracy of the predictions from this new system be enhanced by applying its underlying equations to add in other data sources such as online news, social media mentions, and citations to other relevant industry news publications? (X-ref to the December 2, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Startup is Visualizing and Interpreting Massive Quantities of Daily Online News Content.)
  • Could the underlying equations be applied to other fields such as law to predict the possible outcomes of cases based upon the densities and propensities of cases cited in similar matters and jurisdictions? What about possible applications in medical research or the financial markets?
  • Can levels of probability be quantified with this new system? For example, can it derive a 70% probability that driverless cars will continue to gather technological momentum and then commercially succeed in the marketplace? If so, how might such probabilities be used by the public, governments, researchers and investors?

 


1Could references to patents for optical technologies also be considered, well, cites for sore eyes?

2.  X-ref a September 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains.

3.  There are currently 22 Subway Fold posts on a broad range of startups in many industries.