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Alexa – what should tech do next?

Alexa – what should tech do next?
by Don Dingee on 09-16-2016 at 4:00 pm

In the ongoing debate over substantive use cases and the difference between we “can” do something and we “should” do something, technologists and the firms they work for may be all that stand between the rebirth of innovation and the decline of civilization.

Noise about disruption is one of my favorite subjects. Remember when that report card came home from elementary school saying, “Donny is disruptive in class”, and that was a bad thing? Somewhere after the Innovator’s Dilemma was published, every aspiring techie decided to be a disruptor when they grew up – but most misunderstood the message. Disruptive innovation and disruption are far from the same thing: one becomes clear in retrospect and is a lasting, permanent change; the other is temporary and subject to undoing by other forces.

I’m not talking about blowing up the headphone jack so we can replace it with fashionably conscious wireless earbuds. Or creating a voice interface device that spews easter egg answers to deep questions. Those are features that sell devices to the masses. They aren’t innovations at all.

We have some real problems that need real innovation. Mark Cuban was recently asked a few questions by BusinessWeek on his political stance – I’m not going there, you can Google it and agree or disagree. However, he’s a tech guy at heart, and his answer to the question of jobs disappearing to automation is seriously depressing:

Going forward, we will be automating the creation of automation. The business process of iteration will be in many cases automated. That will lead to jobs that we value today as being advanced and technical, like programmers, engineers, drafts people, and others, being replaced by future iterations of today’s machine and deep learning.

The libertarian in me hopes that the future markets will figure out new jobs and careers for workers. The pragmatist in me thinks that it could take decades for this to work itself out, so we will need to come up with programs that provide jobs to the millions of workers that will be displaced here in the States and plan for the global disruption that will occur when robotics displace low-paying jobs around the world.

We have met the enemy, and they are leaving most of us behind.

While everyone was chasing Moore’s Law and thousands of likes and billions of phones and trillions of sensors, we did some awesome things. Some businesses and captains of industry have made astounding amounts of money. Makers and startups have more access to technology than ever.

But, did we fix anything that matters? We’re saddled with both personal and government debt. We have people with no clean water. We have temperatures rising. We have landfills overflowing. We’re still using fossil fuels. We have earthquakes from fracking. We’re bombing six countries on one day, many using drones. We have aging bridges and roads. We have no cure for cancer, or ebola, or Zika. We have people discarded in plain sight due to aging, unemployment, homelessness, racism, genderism, religion, and other bias.

What did we miss in innovation that made the hard problems too hard? Pre-disruption, entrepreneurs chased breakthroughs and raced for the patent office. Investors rewarded those patent holders with capital to scale businesses. Generations of youth aspired to roles in science and engineering, keeping a labor pool refreshed with cutting edge knowledge.

Entering post-disruption, which is what we call something when we’re not sure what comes next, things look very different. Anyone with any idea can get a patent under first-to-file. Investors are often punished for not producing immediate short term wins. College is an expensive waste of time in many cases, not leading to stable employment.

There’s an old saying. Marketing is having what you can sell. Sales is selling what you have. In a downturn, it’s very necessary to focus on selling. It’s a matter of survival. But after two decades of selling since the global recession started in 2001 – and the IMF argues that GDPs growing less than 3% annually are still recession – we don’t have what we can sell anymore. It shows. PCs are mostly flat. Smartphones are moving down market. Wearables are mostly fitness gadgets.

How do we break the post-disruption cycle? Some would say that this is the natural course of events. Europe was the world leader until the US emerged, and now in many ways economic power has shifted toward China and India. I’d submit that if you believe the economy is truly globalized, then we can’t afford to have only certain geographic regions prospering while others struggle. Everything and everyone is now connected.

The only solution for post-disruption is marketing and innovation. Technology needs to redefine itself for the big problems, and stop waiting for some government to say it’s OK or to mandate change. We need an equivalent of the moon-shot, but on multiple fronts. Stop talking about disruption and start talking about real innovation. Stop investing in only sure things and start exploring again. Stop asking people what they think they need now and start figuring out where we need to be in 10 years, or 20 years, or 50 years.

It’s up to each of us to be the real innovators.

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