That Decisive Qualitative Edge

So I am reading this book called “Israel’s Edge.”


It’s basically about their elite genius program, “Talpiot,” in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).  


Each year the program accepts only the top 50 out of 100,000 graduating high school students for a 9-year commitment. 


There are the mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists that help give the IDF the cutting edge in military R&D and other innovations. 


These are the brain trust behind Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and Trophy tank active protection system and many more both military and industrial advances. 


This program was born after the almost disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War where Israel misjudged the intelligence and the advances in their enemies capability and almost lost the war. 


I like the philosophy of General Yitzhak Ben-Israel who understands the importance of challenging the status quo and looking differently at critical situations and avoiding confirmation bias:

My method is not to look for supporting evidence. I look for refuting evidence…you see one white swan, then a second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. You still can’t conclude that all swans are white…nature builds us to be inductive, to make generalizations from past experience…this standard way of scientific thinking can be limiting and destructive.”

Instead we must be continuously curious, think outside the box, be creative, and innovate. 


Especially, where we don’t have a quantitative advantage like with Israel surrounded by many enemies, then we must rely on a very sharp qualitative edge. 😉


(Credit Photo: Andy Blumenthal) 

Apple Desperately Needs Some New Fruit

Apple

I love my Apple iPhone, but this core product debuted in January 2007.


We’re going on almost 9 years!!!


Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone is enormously successful:


– It accounts for 92% of the smartphone industry’s profits (even though it only sells 20% of the smartphones). 


– The iPhone bring in almost 2/3 of Apple’s total revenue now going on almost $200 billion. 


But, the new growth that Apple seeks in not based on any real exciting innovation.


Take for example Apple’s announcements this week:


– A new larger 12.9 inch iPad with a stylus (the Apple Pencil).


– A revamped Apple TV set-top box. 


– Apple’s iPhone 3-D Touch that controls the smartphone based on how hard you press. 


Uh, ho-hum–this is all V-E-R-Y boring!


Google has a similar problem with their core business of advertising on Search and YouTube accounting for 89% of their revenue.


But at least Google continues working towards their next moonshot, and has reorganized their innovation labs into a separate entity called Alphabet–working on everything from:


– Self-driving cars


– Delivery drones


– Internet balloons


– Smart thermostats (Nest)


– Broadband services (Google Fiber)


– Longevity research (Calico)


– Smart contact lenses


– Robotics


Unfortunately for Apple, the death of Steve Jobs in 2011 has meant the loss of their driving force for innovation. 


Despite a workforce of about 100,000 and a gorgeous new flying saucer-looking headquarters, can you think of any major new products since Jobs?


Apple is a fruit in it’s prime–ripe and shiny and hugely smart and successful, but without any new fruits going forward, they are at risk of becoming a stale mealy apple, versus a bountiful and delicious fruit salad. 


Apple is very secretive, so maybe the fruit is coming. 


I hope for our sake and theirs that Apple is seriously planting for the future and not just harvesting on the past. 😉


(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

The Pen From A Puddle

Pen
You know how ideas just sort of come to you…



Well, major innovations that have changed the course of history haven’t really happened that way. 



All innovation and development start from somewhere–usually where G-d or someone else has left off–and then we take things a cycle forward. 



In the Wall Street Journal, James Ward describes how the simple yet profound ballpoint pen was invented. 



Not until 1899 was it founded giving everyone the ability to write away with a ball at the point (a ballpoint) that rolls and dispenses the ink with ease. 



The ballpoint pen was invented by Liszlo Biro of Budapest. 



Observing that in printing presses the machine cylinder could only roll ink back and forth, however for everyday writing people needed an all-directional mechanism. 



So what happens…



Sitting at a cafe and thinking, he sees children playing with marbles.



And one child’s marble rolls through a puddle of water. 



The marble leaves “a line of water in its wake.”



Boom…the idea for the ballpoint bearing comes in being with “minute grooves” in the pen head to draw the ink to the tip and unto the paper. 



With further experimentation, the famous Bic (Cristal) pen named after Frenchman, Marcel Bich, was born in 1959.  It has a “hexagonal body (inspired by the shape of aa traditional wooden pencil) and instantly recognizable lid”–since it’s launch, more than 100 billion of these pens have been manufactured and sold!



By the way, remember the hilarious commercial for the Bic Banana Ink Crayon Pens (watch here to laugh a little).



So in both instances of the invention of the pen, the developers found other things in their environment from which they learned and then they applied it to something new (in one instance the child with the marble and water, and in the other the shape of the good ‘ol pencil). 



Lesson learned here: 



Watch, learn, experiment, learn, apply — change the world! 😉



(Source Photo: here with attribution to photosteve101)

At The Speed Of Innovation

Mars_explorer

Here are three perspectives on how we can speed up the innovation cycle and get great new ideas to market more quickly:

1) Coordinating R&D–While competition is a good thing in driving innovation, it can also be hinder progress when we are not sharing good ideas, findings, and methods in a timely manner–in a sense we are having to do the same things multiple times, by different entities, and in some more and other in less efficient ways wasting precious national resources. Forbes (10 February 2012) describes the staggering costs in pharmaceutical R&D such that despite about $800 billion invested in drug research between 2007-2011, only 139 new drugs came out the pipeline. Bloomberg BusinessWeek (29 Nov 2012) notes that for “every 5,000 to 10,000 potential treatments discovered in the lab, only one makes it to market” and out of the pharmaceutical “valley of death.” The medical research system is broken because “there ultimately no one in charge.”  The result is that we are wasting time and money “funding disparate studies and waiting for researchers to publish results months or years later.” If instead we work towards our goals collaboratively and share results immediately then we could potentially work together rather than at odds. The challenge in my mind is that you would need to devise a fair and profitable incentive model for both driving results and for sharing those with others–this is similar to a clear mandate of together we stand, divided we fall. 

2) “Rapid Fielding”–The military develops large and complex weapon systems and this can take too long for the warfighters who need to counter evolving daily threats on the battlefield. Federal Computer Week (19 July 2001) emphasizes this point when it states, “Faster acquisition methods are needed to counter an improvised explosive device that tends to evolve on a 30-day cycle or a seven-year process for replacing a Humvee.” There according to the Wall Street Journal (11 December 2012) we need to move to a model that more quickly bring new innovative technologies to our forces.  The challenge is to do this with reliable solutions while at the same time fast tracking through the budgeting, acquisition, oversight, testing, and deployment phases. The question is can we apply agile development to military weapons systems and live with 70 to 80% solutions that we refine over time, rather than wait for perfection out of the gate.

3) Seeds and Standards–To get innovation out in the hands of consumers, there is a change management process that needs to occur. You are asking people to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek (17 December 2012) on an article of how bar codes changed the world–it comes down to basics like simplicity and reliability of the product itself, but also seeding the market and creating standards for adoption to occur. Like with electric automobiles, you need to seed the market with tax incentives for making the initial purchases of hybrids or plug-in electric vehicles–to get things going as well as overset the initial development expense and get to mass development and cheaper production. Additionally, we need standards to ensure interoperability with existing infrastructure and other emerging technologies. In the case of the electric automobiles, charging stations need to be deployed across wide swathes of the country in convenient filling locations (near highways, shopping, and so on) and they need to be standards-based, so that the charger at any station can fit in any electronic vehicle, regardless of the make or model. 

Innovation is the lifeblood of our nation in keeping us safe, globally competitive, and employed.  Therefore, these three ideas for enhancing collaboration, developing and fielding incremental improvements through agile methodologies, and fostering change with market incentives and standards are important ideas to get us from pure exploration to colonization of the next great world idea. 😉

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

Cyberwar–Threat Level Severe

!This video is of an incredible opening statement by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Subcommittee Chairman on Oversight, Investigations, and Management on the topic–Cybersecurity Threats to the United States.Some of the highlights from his statement:- America’s computers are under attack and every American is at risk.

– The attacks are real, stealthy, persistent, and can devastate our nation.

– Cyber attacks occur at the speed of light, are global, can come from anywhere, and can penetrate our traditional defenses.

– In the event of a major cyber attack, what could we expect? Department off Defense networks collapsing, oil refinery fires, lethal clouds of gas from chemical plants, the financial systems collapsing with no idea of who owns what, pipeliness of natural gas exploding, trains and subways derailed, a nationwide blackout. This is not science fiction scenarios. (Adapted from Richard Clark, former Senior Advisor of Cyber Security)

– It is not a matter of if, but whena Cyber Pearl Harbor will occur.  We have been fortunate [so far]. (Adapted from General Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA).

I believe we must address these threats and our vulnerabilities in at least five main ways:

1) Increase research and developmentfor new tools and techniques–both defensive and offensive–for fighting cyberwar.

2) Establish a regulatory frameworkwith meaningful incentives and disincentives to significantly tighten cybersecurity across our critical infrastructure.

3) Create a cybersecurity corpsof highly trained and experienced personnel with expertise in both the strategic and operational aspects of cybersecurity.

4) Prepare nationwide contingency plansfor the fallout of a cyberwar, if and when it should occur.

5) Create a clear policyfor preventing cyberattacks by taking preemptive action when their is a known threat as well as for responding with devastating force when attacks do occur.

With cyberwar, just as in conventional war, there is no way to guarantee we will not be attacked, but we must prepare with the same commitment and zeal–because the consequences can be just, if not more, deadly.

Seeing Is Believing

This robotic seeing eye dog from Japanese company NSK is an incredible display of how technology can help the blind and was profiled in PopSci on 9 November 2011.
While there are reports of many advances in returning sight to the blind through such breakthroughs as stem cell molecular regeneration and camera-like retinal implants, there will unfortunately be medical cases that cannot be readily cured and herein lies the promise for robotic guide dogs.
These dogs do not provide the same companionship that perhaps real dogs do, but they also don’t require the same care and feeding that can be taxing, especially, I would imagine, on someone with a handicap.
The Robotic Seeing Eye Dog can roll on flat surfaces and can climb stairs or over other obstacles.
It is activated by a person holding and putting pressure on it’s “collar” handle bar.
The robotic dog can also speak alerting its handler to specific environmental conditions and potential obstacles, obviously better than through a traditional dog bark.
The dog is outfitted with Microsoft Kinect technologyfor sensing and navigating the world.
It is amazing to me how gaming technology here ends up helping the blind. But every technological advance has the potential to spur unintended uses and benefits in other areas of our life.
Recently, I saw an advertisement for MetLife insurance that proclaimed “for the ifs in life” and given all the uncertainties that can happen to us at virtually anytime, I feel grateful to G-d for the innovation and technology that he bestows on people for helping us handle these; sometimes the advances are direct like with Apple’s laser-like focus on user-centric design for numerous commercial technologies, and other times these are more indirect like with the Kinect being used for helping the blind, or even the Internet itself once developed by the military’s DARPA.
I imagine the technology cures and advances that we achieve are almost like a race against the clock, where people come up with counters to the ifs and threats out there, adapting and adopting from the latest and greatest technology advances available.
Advances such as Kinect and then taking us to the robotic seeing eye dog, bring us a little closer–step by step, each time incrementally–to handling the next challenge that calls.
This week, I was reminded again, with the massive asteroid YU55 speeding past us at 29,000 mph and within only 202,000 mile of a potential Earth collision (within the Moon’s orbit!), how there are many more ifs to come and I wonder will we be ready, can we really, and whether through direct or indirect discoveries to handle these.

What’s In That Container?

Container-ship

Ever since 9-11, there has been acute concern about preventing “the next” big attack on our nation.

 

Will it be a suitcase bomb, anthrax in the mail, an attack on our mass transit systems, or perhaps a nuclear device smuggled into one of our ports–all very frightening scenarios!

 

The last one though has been of particular fascination and concern given the amount of commerce that passes through our ports–more than 95% of our international trade–and hence the damage that could be done to our economy should these ports be hit as well as the challenges in being able adequately screen all the containers coming through–a massive undertaking.

 

Wired Magazine (November 2011) did a feature story on this topic in an article called “Mystery Box.”

 

The article highlights the unbelievable damage that could occur if a dirty bomb (“a radiological dispersion device”) were to get through in one of the millions of 20 foot long by 8 foot wide shipping containers out there–aside from the risk to lives, “it would result in a major national freak-out…cause billions and billions of dollars in economic damage…dirty bombs are weapons of mass disruption.”

 

While 99% of shipping containers are scanned when they arrive in the U.S., DHS is supposedly challenged in implementing a bill requiring scanning every container before they enter the U.S.–“some 66,000 [containers] a day.

 

Instead “100 percent screening” is being pursued where, shipping information is checked before arrival–including vessel, people, and cargo, origination, and destination–and when an anomaly or cause for concern is detected–if there is a U.S. Customs Officer at the origination port, they can check it there already.

 

However, there are still at least four major issues affecting our port security today:

 

1) Most containers are still checked only once they actually get onshore.
2) The scanners are too easily foiled–“most detectors are set to ignore low radiation levels. [And] basic shielding would be enough to mask all but the strongest sources.”
3) Thoroughly scanning every container is consideredtoo time-consuming using current processes and technology and therefore, would adversely affect our commerce and economy.
4) Around the world “Customs tends not focus on containers being transshipped [those moving from ship to ship]. Their attitude is ‘It’s not my container, it’s just passing through.'”

 

This is a perfect example of technology desperately needed to address a very serious issue.

 

Certainly, we cannot bring our economy to a standstilleither by unnecessarily checking every “widget” that comes over or by risking the catastrophic effects of a WMD attack.

 

So for now, we are in a catch-22, darned if we do check everything as well as if we don’t.

 

This is where continued research and development, technological innovation, and business process reengineering must be directed–to secure our country sooner than later.

 

The risks are being managed best we can for now, but we must overcome the current obstacles to screening bybreaking the paradigm that we are boxed into today.

 

(Source Photo: here)