Why everyone must understand manufacturing, and why the most creative companies design hardware and software together.
It was a pleasure, as always, to talk with Joi Ito a couple of weeks ago. He and I are co-chairing Solid, our new conference about the intersection of software and the physical world, and we recorded part of our conversation in the video below to frame the program we’ve assembled.
Joi is, of course, the director of the MIT Media Lab, where the emphasis is on working across disciplines: engineers take on art and designers hit the oscilloscopes. The kind of development process standard in the new generation of hardware startups — small groups of people hacking away at electronics and software to come up with products that combine both — has been familiar at the Media Lab for decades.
Now the Media Lab’s emphasis is on projects that go all the way to manufacturing and distributing: moving from “demo or die” to “deploy or die,” as Joi puts it. Projects that deploy can be vastly more impactful than those that just demo — putting thousands of devices into the hands of users rather than just a couple. Plus, the manufacturing process is a crucial source of both constraints and creative possibility. Joi says, “Understanding manufacturing is going to be key to design, just like understanding the Internet has become key to running a company.”
Other topics that arose in our conversation — and that are also central to Solid: the merging disciplines of hardware and software, the role of expertise in creating manufactured products, agile hardware development, the importance of having software design and hardware design in the same place, and the need for a new ethics as manufacturing becomes democratized.
Data tools are less important than the way you frame your questions.
Max Shron and Jake Porway spoke with me at Strata a few weeks ago about frameworks for making reasoned arguments with data. Max’s recent O’Reilly book, Thinking with Data, outlines the crucial process of developing good questions and creating a plan to answer them. Jake’s nonprofit, DataKind, connects data scientists with worthy causes where they can apply their skills.
A few of the things we talked about:
- The importance of publishing negative scientific results
- Give Directly, an organization that facilitates donations directly to households in Kenya and Uganda. Give Directly was able to model income using satellite data to distinguish thatched roofs from metal roofs.
- Moritz Stefaner calling for a “macroscope”
- Project Cybersyn, Salvador Allende’s plan for encompassing the entire Chilean economy in a single real-time computer system
- Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
After we recorded this podcast episode at Strata Santa Clara, Max presided over a webcast on his book that’s archived here.
A multitude of signals points to the convergence of software and the physical world.
Our new Solid conference is about the “intersection of software and hardware.” But what does the intersection of software and hardware mean? We’re putting on a conference because we see something distinctly new happening.
Roughly a year ago, we sat around a table in Sebastopol to survey some interesting trends in technology. There were many: robotics, sensor networks, the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet, the professionalization of the Maker movement, hardware-oriented startups. It was a confusing picture, until we realized that these weren’t separate trends. They’re all more alike than different—they are all the visible result of the same underlying forces. Startups like FitBit and Withings were taking familiar old devices, like pedometers and bathroom scales, and making them intelligent by adding computer power and network connections. At the other end of the industrial scale, GE was doing the same thing to jet engines and locomotives. Our homes are increasingly the domain of smart robots, including Roombas and 3D printers, and we’ve started looking forward to self-driving cars and personal autonomous drones. Every interesting new product has a network connection—be it WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, or even a basic form of piggybacking through a USB connection to a PC. Everything has a sensor, and devices as dissimilar as an iPhone and a Kinect are stuffed with them. We spent 30 or more years moving from atoms to bits; now it feels like we’re pushing the bits back into the atoms. And we realized that the intersection of these trends—the conjunction of hardware, software, networking, data, and intelligence—was the real “news,” far more important than any individual trend. Read more…
Finding ways to make media interact with the physical world
Reporters, editors and designers are looking for new ways to interact with readers and with the physical world–drawing data in through sensors and expressing it through new immersive formats.
In this episode of the Radar podcast, recorded at News Foo Camp in Phoenix on November 10, Jenn and I talk with three people who are working on new modes of interaction:
- Mark Trammell, of Sonos, previously of Obama HQ and Twitter
- Rebekah Monson, of the University of Miami
- Robert Hernandez, of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School
Along the way:
- SensorSub, a project Rebekah is working on that uses data-gathering submarines to measure water quality
- Robert’s students are working on augmented-reality projects at the Los Angeles Central Library–building story-time experiences for children and interpreting the library’s famous murals
- How a lengthier sign-up process brought more people onto Twitter
- Mark’s efforts to understand user interaction on physical hardware
- Wise Kaplan and Cranky Kaplan, the fictional Twitter alter-egos of former New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan, who passed away shortly after we recorded this episode. In the same vein: Mayor Emanuel, Twitter satire from Dan Sinker that was subsequently anthologized.
- Snow Fall
For more on the intersection of software and the physical world, be sure to check out Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference program about the collision of real and virtual.
What will stop the march of technological progress?
Tim O’Reilly gave some sobering remarks last week at Techonomy about the things that might halt the sort of technological progress that has come to feel inexorable: war, fundamentalism, anti-science sentiment, etc. Human progress has practically stopped over many long periods in recorded history, he pointed out, and we won’t necessarily be able to predict the next dark age by reading out from the patterns of history.
After the conference ended, I spent the afternoon driving to San Diego across some really spectacular Sonoran terrain that’s been repeatedly reshaped by cataclysmic floods and dried out by thousand-year droughts in a flourish/perish cycle that’s much longer than any in human history. I took a long side-trip to see the Salton Sea, which is an accidental re-creation of an ancient lake, formed in 1905 when a canal levy that was built during a period of land speculation broke and diverted the entire flow of the Colorado River into a below-sea-level basin for two years. The highly-saline ecological disaster that resulted, and the horizon-to-horizon industrial farming that surrounds it, is really striking for the relentless speed at which that environment was created on human terms and in cycles that are totally uncoupled from nature’s.
The punch line to a day of thinking about sustainability came on checking into a pretty ordinary hotel in San Diego and finding the scene in the above photo: bathroom tiles full of ancient fossils that were preserved and stored on a timeline of millions of years and rendered into building materials on a timeline that’s probably six orders of magnitude shorter.
A conversation with Chris Anderson, Nick Pinkston, and Jie Qi
Manufacturing is hard, but it’s getting easier. In every stage of the manufacturing process–prototyping, small runs, large runs, marketing, fulfillment–cheap tools and service models have become available, dramatically decreasing the amount of capital required to start building something and the expense of revising and improving a product once it’s in production.
In this episode of the Radar podcast, we speak with Chris Anderson, CEO and co-founder of 3D Robotics; Nick Pinkston, a manufacturing expert who’s working to make building things easy for anyone; and Jie Qi, a student at the MIT Media Lab whose recent research has focused on the factories of Shenzhen.
Along the way we talk about the differences between Tesla’s auto plant and its previous incarnation as the NUMMI plant; the differences between on-shoring, re-shoring and near-shoring; and how the innovative energy of Kickstarter and the Maker movement can be brought to underprivileged populations.
Many of these topics will come up at Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference about the intersection of software and the physical world. Solid’s call for proposals open through December 9. We’re planning a series of Solid meet-ups, plant tours, and books about the collision of real and virtual; if you’ve got an idea for something the series should explore, please reach out!
Software and hardware are moving together, and the combined result is a new medium.
An updated version of this essay was published in December 2014.
The result is an entirely new medium that’s just beginning to emerge. We can see it in Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels, which use drones to render a three-dimensional pixel field; in Baxter, which layers emotive software onto an industrial robot so that anyone can operate it safely and efficiently; in OpenXC, which gives even hobbyist-level programmers access to the software in their cars; in SmartThings, which ties Web services to light switches.
The new medium is something broader than terms like “Internet of Things,” “Industrial Internet,” or “connected devices” suggest. It’s an entirely new discipline that’s being built by software developers, roboticists, manufacturers, hardware engineers, artists, and designers. Read more…
A conversation with Sean Taylor, Hilary Mason, and John Myles White about how ratings affect our thinking
Is popularity just a matter of simple luck–of some early advantage compounded by human preference for things that are already popular? A paper published today in Science offers some insight into the way that popularity emerges in online ratings. Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral, and Sean Taylor were able to set up a randomized experiment on a popular Reddit-like message board in which they gave some posts a one-point upvote on publication and others a one-point downvote. Posts that were “born lucky” ended up with 25% higher scores on average than those without modification.
In our latest podcast, Renee DiResta and I are joined by Sean Taylor, Hilary Mason and John Myles White to talk about Sean’s findings and about ratings, rankings and reviews in general. Bits and pieces that come up in the podcast:
- Anchoring and adjustment
- Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; his Nobel Prize lecture is worth watching, too
- Amazon reviews both satirical and just poorly informed
- Health inspection results can be predicted from online reviews
- Restaurant grades are less effective in the age of Yelp
- Speaking of Yelp: