Soft Robots: Has Their Time Come?

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image: University of Toronto

When I first saw a room full of soft robots I was a little freaked out. A bunch of guys standing over what looked like colostomy bags or oversized centipedes as they navigated an obstacle course. It was hard to see the potential in it, but when I took a closer look I realised soft robots were the missing link in the computational evolutionary chain. The biggest problem we have with robots — whether they’re on industrial production lines, in homes, offices, airports — they’re too rigid. They’re parodies, robots that look like robots, instead of assuming the contours, movements, materials of nature, which is where they should be heading. Think adaptable, flexible, dexterous, able to go places rigid robots can’t — and safer. Hence soft robots. (Here’s the piece I wrote more than two years ago for Reuters) 

There’s been huge progress in the limbs, skin, movement and energy sources of soft robots. But there’s still a long way to go. For example, soft robots by definition have soft outer layers, and those layers need to stretch and adapt like the outer layers of the animals they loosely mimic. They also need to be energy-sensitive, since soft robots are (usually) self-contained, untethered things that rely on portable electronics for power — if that. 

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed such a material that can adapt its shape in response to its environment — shape-morphing, in the words of the researchers. Carmel Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who directs the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon is quoted as saying:  “Just like a human recoils when touching something hot or sharp, the material senses, processes, and responds to its environment without any external hardware. Because it has neural-like electrical pathways, it is one step closer to artificial nervous tissue.” (You can see some videos of the material in action here.) 

The composite, which is made up of liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs, a type of the LCD you see in flat panel displays but linked together like rubber) and liquid metal gallium indium, is also resilient and, to an extent, self healing:

“We observed both electrical self-healing and damage detection capabilities for this composite, but the damage detection went one step further than previous liquid metal composites,” explained Michael Ford, a postdoctoral research associate in the Soft Machines Lab and the lead author of the study. “Since the damage creates new conductive traces that can activate shape-morphing, the composite uniquely responds to damage.”

The researchers believe the material could be used in healthcare, clothing, wearable computing, assistance devices and robots, and space travel.

Another problem with soft robotics relying on soft actuators is that they tend to be bulky. Soft robots need to move and do stuff, and often this is done by pumping air or fluids through chambers. One — the colostomy bag lookalike — moved around in this way, and it was effective but took up a lot of space — a pump or something like it is usually required, which keeps them tethered and unwieldy. Researchers at UC San Diego reckon they have a solution in creating soft actuators that are controlled not by air or fluid but by electricity. (h/t Nanowerk)

If that sounds like a step backward, the point here is less that they’re using electricity, but are using material that is used for artificial muscles in robots, the LCEs I mentioned above. As with the CMU researchers, the UC San Diego team focused on how LCEs change shape, move and contract in response to stimuli such as heat or electricity. They sandwiched three heating wires between two thin films of LCE. The material was then rolled into a tube, pre-stretched and exposed to UV light. Each heating wire can be controlled independently to make the tube bend in six different directions, as well as contracting. 

The researchers built an untethered, walking robot using four actuators as legs. This robot is powered by a small lithium/polymer battery on board. They also built a soft gripper using three actuators as fingers. The thing was slow — each leg takes about 30 seconds to bend and contract, but they’re working on ways of speeding it up. 

Movement of soft robotics is a challenge. There’s lots of biomimicry involved, where researchers seek inspiration from land and sea creatures. Researchers at the University of Toronto have created a miniature robot that can crawl like an inchworm. This uses electrothermal actuators (ETAs), devices made of specialized polymers that can be programmed to physically respond to electrical or thermal change. A robotic inchworm in itself isn’t that novel— I saw one up the road at NUS here in Singapore a couple of years ago  — but the Toronto folk say theirs is different largely because it’s more efficient. And, I’d have to say, more like a real inchworm. They say their approach can be applied to other movements, including the wings of a butterfly. 

Their goal: to see it in clothing. “We’re working to apply this material to garments. These garments would compress or release based on body temperature, which could be therapeutic to athletes,” says Hani Naguib director of the Toronto Institute of Advanced Manufacturing, and the manufacturing robotics lead of U of T’s Robotics Institute. The team is also studying whether smart garments could be beneficial for spinal cord injuries.

There are other announcements — all of them in the past few weeks — that suggest major progress in this field: 

  • A Florida State University research team has developed methods to manipulate polymers in a way that changes their fundamental structure (think caterpillar turning into butterfly);
  • Soft robots could get smarter at solving everyday tasks after a team from MIT and Tsinghua University have developed a “soft finger” with embedded cameras and deep learning methods to allow the robot to better understand and manipulate their position, environment and items in it; 
  • Researchers from Linköping University in Sweden have come up with a way to fabricate soft microrobots from a single design process, hopefully making it easier to use soft robots in minimally invasive surgery or drug delivery. The researchers, intriguingly, say they “are now working on soft robots that function in air.” 

Look, I don’t think these things are going to find their way out of the lab any time soon. But clearly serious headway is being made. And in the end if it’s seen as commercially viable we’ll see big players get involved. So far there are a few players: Breeze Automation of San Francisco (a piece on them here from TechCrunch), and Fusion Fund, which says it’s interested in funding entrepreneurs using soft robots for “task automation beyond the capacities of current robotics technology.” It see soft robotics beyond industrial manufacturing — and I think they’re probably right. Soft robots will thrive in places either humans (and other devices) can’t get to — think search and rescue, like a Thai cave to reach stranded boys, or in interacting with humans safely and in an engaging way (a robot that can hug or catch a falling person, anyone?) and in miniature — hard to reach places inside an engine, inside a blood vessel, or in water. 

Big, or Bigger: Southeast Asia’s Tech Economy in 2025

Google and Temasek have been taking a crack at estimating and predicting the size of Southeast Asia’s ecommerce economy for the past four years, starting in 2016 (yes, I know that’s three years but they’ve put out four reports, the latest this week, so there.) 

I’ve not had a close look at this report, there’s obviously some good stuff in there, and it’s easy to pick holes in this kind of thing, but it pays to be humble. I’ve done my own chart, below, taken the data from each report about their predictions for 2025, and how they’ve changed over time. The four left columns are more or less the years of the estimate (2016 assessed 2015 for some reason, while the others did the year the report was released in); the right four stacks are the estimates for 2025 in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. You can see how much their view has changed. 

The first year there was no separate estimate for ride hailing; it clearly wasn’t considered to be a significant sector, or likely to be one. I think a smarter analysis would have seen that one coming. It was 2016 already, and Grab was already the region’s biggest unicorn. Then there’s the huge disparity in estimates between 2017 and 2018, the third- and second-to right columns, and then between last year and this. Overall, between 2016 and 2019 the report upped its project by 50%, from $200 billion to $300 billion. 

Of course, it pays for all those involved to cheerlead the region; no one is going to say things are going to get better, and it’s a good headline to say ‘we goofed up by underestimating how well things are going’. But these are big numbers, and big discrepancies. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that such estimates need to be taken with a big grain of salt. 

Google Temasek estimate of ecommerce market size in Southeast Asia 2016 2019

A New Form Factor for the Phone?

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photo @arubin via twitter

The smartphone hasn’t changed much, at least in terms of proportions, since the first iPhone (the iPhone belatedly adopted the 16:9 aspect ratio most other phones had long assumed in 2012 with the iPhone 5). Yes, Samsung made it bigger, an idea considered dumb at the time but one which has largely become the norm. Phones have gotten thinner — anorexic, in the words of one writer — which has produced its own problems (and may hold back 5G). But the essential dimensions of the phone haven’t changed in more than 10 years. 

That is, sort of, changing, with Samsung’s Fold and the Surface Duo hinged Android phone. But that in itself isn’t that radical — both are just two phones stuck together, design-wise, which is something that designers have been playing with for a while. (I wrote about bendable screens back in 2013 and revisited it a year ago).

Step up Andy Rubin, the former Android guy who left Google over allegations of sexual misconduct (retaining a huge severance package). He now works at Essential, which make a nice-looking but essentially conventionally sized phone. 

The phone, pictured above, seems to be about the same length as a conventional phone, but is maybe half the width. At first that doesn’t seem to make any sense, but looking at the way it sits in the hand, it seems to fit more snugly. I’m guessing the idea here is that most of the time we’re operating a phone with one hand while moving — walking, on a bus, hopefully not driving, jogging, abseiling, windsurfing, under-the-desk-in-meetings — so this form factor makes a lot of sense. I assume that’s why the screenshots are of maps. 

And I suppose that lain horizontal it would make for one pretty cool cinematic perspective. Although nowadays everyone seems to be shooting vertically, so who knows? It’s not clear whether this phone is an Essential one according to Sean Hollister at the Verge.

It’s good that we’re seeing experimentation in this space again. This isn’t a massive leap forward, but it does suggest that some minds are showing signs of thinking outside the box. It also shows that we are probably using our phones in ways we didn’t a few years ago. Certainly navigating the average street these days involves having to dodge people glued to videos or games while in motion. 

Smart cities without digging

Smart cities sound like a great idea — who wouldn’t want your city to be smart, or at least smarter? — but it usually involves lots of digging. What if we could have the sensors that make cities smart, without the holes?

Sensors need to be lain in the ground, or on street furniture, and often cables lain to connect them. This means more holes, which is something residents don’t like. A mayor in the Indian state of Goa threatened to seize the equipment of the local smart city corporation, Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Corporation Ltd, in May after they ignored the city’s ban on digging up its streets. (India is in the throes of developing 100 smart cities and is trying to come up with alternatives to the chaos wrought by digging — the city of Dehradun is proposing a ‘multi utility duct’ (see illustration) to house electricity cables and telephone cables. “This will avoid frequent digging roads for connections and repair of telephone cables.” Not a pretty solution, I have to say.) 

Anyway, for those cities that already have broadband fibre lain in the ground, Verizon has an interesting solution: converting these fibre cables into sensors using a technology called optical fibre sensing. Optical fibre sensing is used for monitoring power cables, tunnels, mines, railways and dams for fires, temperature, strain, rupture  — or even for whether someone violates a perimeter. But they require laying purpose-built cable, usually close to the surface. 

Verizon and NEC said this week they had used software and AI to monitor traffic — including density of vehicles, direction, speed, acceleration and deceleration — on Verizon’s existing communications cables. Purpose-built optical fibre has long been used for sensing but this, the two companies say, is the first time it can do both — carrying high speed data, while also performing sensing. 

The technology needn’t just be used for traffic: the companies say it could also “support public functions such as helping first responders detect and respond to gun shots and enhancing municipalities’ ability to more quickly and efficiently identify earlier deterioration of bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure.” 

“This test marks an important milestone for technology that could provide a huge leap forward for those building smart cities and those tasked to manage them,” the press release quoted Adam Koeppe, Senior Vice President of Technology Planning and Development with Verizon as saying. “Instead of ripping up tarmac to place road and traffic-sensing technology, cities will be able to simply piggyback Verizon’s existing fiber optic network.”

They’re not the only ones trying to make use of existing fibre without more digging. A British company called OptaSense is developing something called Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) that “enables continuous, real-time measurements along the entire length of a new or existing, single mode fibre optic cable. The fibre optic cable is transformed into a sensor by an Interrogator Unit plugged onto the end of a single unused spare core.” The unit injects a pulse of laser light into the cable which then creates a “virtual microphone” every 10 metres along the cable. The sensor would be able to detect different size vehicles, traffic jams etc. (It wasn’t clear from the Verizon press release whether their solution also required the presence of a similiar unit or some other hardware installation.)

5G’s Achilles Heel: Heat

5G promises a lot. a mobile internet of things, new immersive VR and AR experiences, lower latency, washboard stomachs. But something the industry isn’t addressing is that the devices themselves heat up. A lot. This from Digits to Dollars‘ Jonathan Goldberg: 

5G phones get hot. Really hot. Probably not hot enough to ignite your battery (probably), but enough to generate a definite burning sensation in your pants pockets. At Mobile World Congress in February, we spoke with an engineer from Sony who was demo’ing a phone (behind glass) that was clocking 1 Gbps speeds. Wow, fast. We asked the engineer why it was not going faster and he said “It overheats.” A good solid answer, from a nuts-and-bolts-and-antenna person. We will wager any amount that at next year’s show, no one on the floor will be as open about this problem.

The industry, Goldberg writes, is tackling this issue by er, ignoring it. And indeed the standard response appears to be that “we’ve seen heat problems with every new generation and what we have with 5G is nothing significant, 3G was way worse,” as one commenter said he’d been told at a 5G conference. But that may be underestimating the problem — Goldberg says the “heat budget” is 67% higher than current phones. (Heat budget is the total amount of thermal energy transferred to the chip when the device is in operation.) And he points out that both no-one seems yet to be offering a solutions and “solving the issue in 3G broke a couple vendors.” 

Some background: what we call 5G is actually two stages of technology. What most carriers are currently rolling out is phase 1, or what is called, confusingly, sub 6, an evolution of 4G that bring (quoting Goldberg again in a different post): “modest improvements in data rates as well as some important, but hard to observe, changes in the software the operators use to run their networks.” The big step will be the second phase, mmWave, “will bring much more tangible changes, notably including data rates at or above 1 Gbps.”It’s these mmWave radios that are (indirectly) causing the problem. 

As I understand it, these mmWave operate at very high frequencies — close to microwave — which require high clock speeds in the chips. The heat this creates is concentrated in a small subset of the electronic components within the phone, and there’s no easy way to move that energy around. Goldberg again: 

Of course there are some solutions, but none of them are complete and they all have serious drawbacks. It turns out that the way we cool electronics has not advanced in 40 years. There are really two methods used currently to cool Things down- Fans and Dissipation.

Fans are what you think they are. Anyone who has ever opened up their desktop PC or overclocked their laptop knows what these look like. But fans have two problems: they are big and they have moving parts. Both of those require design decisions that go counter to every mobile design trend in the past 15 years.

Dissipation is just the idea of moving the heat around to hasten air cooling. In a PC, this is typified by those funny looking prong-things that sit on top of CPUs. Those things are too tall to fit inside a 10mm thick phone. So for mobiles, OEMs are looking at using ‘straws’, or copper pipes that span the length of the phone. These take up a lot of space and inserting a large conductive element (copper!) inside a phone wreaks havoc on mobile radios, (i.e. hurting data rates).

We all know the problems of overheating phones, but what is surprising is how little this issue seems to be addressed. Goldberg says that this is a problem on a whole new level to previous generations, and one that is only now being addressed: “The problems with 5G mmWave are larger and will not go away as quickly. Handset makers are just waking up to the existence of this problem.”

The only place to find discussion of this issue appears to be in academia, which itself notes the lack of discussion. In a paper published last year three researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology wrote (PDF):

the heat dissipation of smartphones restricts the maximum receiving rate of smartphones. Although the maximum receiving rate of smartphones is restricted by the computation capability and heat dissipation, detailed studies of basic models used for evaluating the maximum receiving rate of smartphones are surprisingly rare in the available literature.

The researchers ran their own tests and reached some sobering conclusions: 

– anything above 4 Gbps and the temperature of the smartphone reaches above 45 C “within a few seconds.” (5G has promised peak data rates up to 20 Gbps and Qualcomm’s first 5G modem “is designed to achieve up to 5Gbps downlink peak data rate.” So the smartphone has to “decrease the computation capability of the chip to reduce the heat generation, e.g., decrease the working frequency of the chip, to prevent low-temperature burns on the user’s skin. Thus, smartphones cannot sustain the original receiving rate and may even have to shut off wireless communications.” This is obviously not an optimal outcome. This is already happening with the first mmWave 5G rollouts (what AT&T calls 5G+) — which, remember, is not the one that involves mmWave radios: The Wall Street Journal wrote in July that their Galaxy S10’s 5G switched off in the Icelandic summer. Others have reported similar problems.

The researchers recommend that to address this”using new materials or redesigning the components’ structure to improve the heat conduction rate from the chip to other low-temperature components in smartphones. Additionally, mobile edge computing, one of the 5G technologies, can be applied to improve the maximum receiving rate of smartphones by offloading the computation assignments in the chips.” It’s hard to imagine that would be a welcome advance, since as I understand it it would mean transferring a lot of the hard work from the phone to the base station — and who exactly would pay for that? 

The researchers are, in their academic way, somewhat scathing of how the field has failed to address the serious matter of device heat: “In 5G and future 6G cellular networks, most of research is focused on the core networks and BSs. However, many potential impacts triggered by the maximum receiving rate of smartphones have not yet been investigated. How to design reasonable mobile terminals for matching with 5G and future 6G wireless communication systems is still an open issue for industries and academic researchers.” 

That was a year ago. One can only hope the device manufacturers are addressing this. For now, it seems to make sense to take 5G promises with a pinch of salt and a bucket of ice.

Too Far Ahead of the Curve?

Imperial Furniture Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Imperial Furniture Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

My former employers used (I’m stressing used here ) to like my tech stories because they had never heard about the stuff I wrote about before, which was considered good. But in later years as the editors were replaced by other, saner heads, and there were grumbles.

Write about what’s happening now, not what’s going to happen, was usually the refrain. They had a point. But I didn’t think that was my job, and I still don’t. But it does raise a question which journalists in any field often have to address: When is the right time to write about something that you know will happen, but hasn’t happened yet?

Take curved and foldable screens.

We have the former already, in TVs and the occasional Samsung mobile phone. And the excellent and venerated Tim Bajarin, who has watched this world since the early 1980s, writes in Tech.pinions this week (subscription required) about Samsung being about to introduce their first foldable smartphone. His headline says it all: Apple’s Foldable iPhone Patents and the Inevitability of Foldable Displays

He points to a patent that Patently Apple wrote about which specifically covered a foldable iPhone — submitted to the patent office years ago. “That means,” Tim writes, “that Apple has been working on a foldable iPhone for quite some time and this is not a knee-jerk reaction to Samsung doing a foldable phone now.” While Tim is more interested in the legal implications, I’m more interested in the journalistic implications — when is it too soon to write about these things?

Well, I wrote about flexible displays for Reuters back in 2013, and I was by no means a trailblazer:

The touted arrival this year of wearable gadgets such as computer displays strapped to wrists and in wrap-around glasses is just a step towards a bigger revolution in screens – those that can be bent, folded and rolled up.

Once freed from today’s relatively heavy, breakable and fixed glass displays, tomorrow’s devices may look very different, with screens that can be rolled out, attached to uneven surfaces, or even stretched.

But there’s still some way to go.

“It becomes a product designer’s paradise – once the technology is sorted out,” says Jonathan Melnick, who analyses display technology for Lux Research.

There is no shortage of prototypes – South Korea’s Samsung Electronics this year showed off a display screen that extends from the side of a device – but obstacles remain: overcoming technical issues, figuring out how to mass produce parts cheaply, and coming up with devices compelling enough for gadget buyers. The story went on in that vein. I didn’t really tease out anything new, but if I had cared to look I would have found that Apple was filing patents around that time on flexible displays, which became the basis of its later more elaborate patent filings. This one, for example, was filed on April 20, 2012, a year before my story, and was titled “Electronic devices with flexible displays having fastened bent edges”.

My argument as a technology journalist is that it’s never too early to write about a technology if you can prove that it’s real — that means, are there people investing in it, turning it into something that can be practical used? It doesn’t have to be generating revenue, it doesn’t have to have a business model, it doesn’t have to have a customer, it doesn’t even have to have a tried and tested use case. But if I was someone making investment decisions I would prefer to know that somewhere down the track — and I would hope the journalist would give me an idea of how far that track might be in the story — this technology is going to find its way to market. I wouldn’t want to wait. My argument — and they were quite frequently arguments — was that if we waited until usual newsroom yardsticks applied, we would never write about Facebook, Google, Baidu, Alibaba, Uber, Airbnb, Netflix or any of these industry-shifting companies until they’d already shifted industries.

But five years? Was that too early? I don’t think so, but I’m biased.

Windshift: Malware Recycled

A recently published deck (PDF) by Abu Dhabi-based DarkMatter’s Taha Karim draws an interesting conclusion: that an Indian cybersecurity group called Appin, active a few years ago, was either targeted by an advanced APT group (and its tools stolen), or its tools stolen by a rogue employee, or that its tools were sold to a third party. The reason: Karim found evidence of Appin’s tools and infrastructure in covert hacks into governments by a group with overlaps to several existing APT actors, some with links to Russia.

The groups that Karim’s report finds overlaps with (either modus operandi, infrastructure, similarities in coding practice etc) are:

The possible connection with Appin is in a likely rewrite of surveillance malware called Hack Back aka KitM OSX: DarkMatter found the exact helper function re-used, the same C&C servers and some other similarities.

DarkMatter calls the APT it has discovered Windshift and says it is currently targeting government using Appin tools. It does not attempt to offer attribution, says it’s been operating since at least January 2017, goes after specific individuals (judging from the screenshots, Gulf states) using “versatile, sophisticated and unpredictable” spearphish, and is still active.

Appin was an Indian cybersecurity company blamed in some accounts for cyberespionage attacks back in 2013. The company fiercely denied the reports. Not much has been heard of the company since though reports of its tools appearing elsewhere have surfaced from time to time. Last Year a company called Cymmetria believed it saw a connection with Appin in an attack it called Patchwork that was aimed at South Asian and Southeast Asian targets, and appeared to be ‘pro-Indian’:

Carefully, we feel obligated to note that further evidence suggests potential links between this threat actor and the operations known as Hangover/Appin, but this possible link is still being researched and is far from conclusive.

Appin has been out of the public eye for a few years now, but its CEO, Rajat Khare has recently resurfaced as an investor, via his Boundary Holding company, in a Singapore video analytics startup called XRVision.

Microsoft, never sexy, grows up

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We didn’t really notice it but the past week or so has seen the passing of an era. We are no longer in a world where Microsoft wants to peer through our Windows, as it were. As Ben Thompson noted in his Stratechery newsletter, the company’s recent Ignite Conference passed largely unnoticed by the wider world, in part because it was aimed squarely at “information technology professionals”. All the talk was of cloud, AI, office.

This is the market for Microsoft these days, not consumers. No more queuing up round the block for the next version of Windows. No more bossing you around to get Microsoft’s own browser to be the default on your computer. Well, actually, that’s not completely true. In September, Microsoft did try to prod Windows 10 users away from Google’s Chrome or Firefox browsers but later thought better of it. Bad habits die hard.

It’s not that Macs have taken over PCs, though if you attend any geek fest, or give a lecture, you’re bound to be struck by how many Macbooks there are. Macbooks are about the 4th biggest brand of notebook out there — all the rest run Windows. But of course people aren’t usin notebooks, or laptops, or whatever we call them, as much anymore. We use smartphones. In the last quarter there were 350 million smartphones shipped. In the same quarter there were 62 million PCs shipped. (And as smartphones get bigger and more powerful, they are also nudging out tablets of which only 33 million were shipped in the quarter, its 15th straight decline.)

The stark reality: Microsoft, which you may recall once owned Nokia, is no longer in the consumer mobile phone business, and is in full and open retreat. Last month it said it would not update its Office Mobile apps, which had been designed for its Windows Phone and smaller Windows 10 tablets. Tellingly, and perhaps humiliatingly, it’s continuing to develop versions of the app for Android and Apple’s iOS.

This doesn’t mean that Microsoft is out of the consumer world. Its Surface devices get good press, some more are about to be announced, and 700 million PCs are running the latest version of Windows. But the world has changed and Microsoft has woken up to it. Apple now produces the devices we like to stroke; Google produces the operating system every manufacturer of a mobile device will happily install; others will sit happily somewhere in between. Microsoft, under Nadella, has realised that sitting on the device at your workplace, and increasingly in the cloud behind it, is not a bad place to be. If it can also be one of the main apps that you use on your Galaxy or iPhone all the better.

It won’t be a sexy business, but Microsoft, let’s face it, was never sexy. We took their stuff, from the mid 1980s to the the late noughties, because we weren’t seriously offered anything else. We were in a way the enterprise customer of today: we accepted what we were given, and made the most of it. Installing apps seemed somehow radical, unless they were from Microsoft — and most were, let’s face it, from word processsing to encyclopedias. Microsoft was the Ford of the computer world.

But now the world is a lot different to 20 years ago, when what we saw on our desktop screens was the vista of our digital world (no mistake that the desktop background of Windows was a sloping field leading to enticing blue sky.) Microsoft could box us in because it was the only window we had onto that world: now we have a mobile phone, which while smaller, moves around with us, holding our gaze. Soon virtual, augmented and mixed realities will be the new normals. In between will sit algorithms, data, artificial intelligence, sensors, haptics, collecting, anticipating, feeling, trying to understand us better. The consumer world will move a little too quickly for some.

The enterprise, on the other hand, will be what the consumer world once was: less demanding, more uniform. Led by demands of security, compatibility, standards, efficiency. There will be overlaps, and a lot of the AI and other innovations driving the consumer world will be there in the enterprise world too. But the enterprise will be a safer bet for Microsoft, one it understands better. It may do very well.

For the tech hubs of the future, look to Asia’s smaller cities

This is an update on a piece I’d written for Reuters six years ago on remote freelancing in emerging markets. It was written in part for a new Cisco report on Technology and the future of ASEAN jobs (PDF), launched this week at WEF.

 

Much of the disruptive change in Southeast Asia in the past five years has been been by adding formalized systems and layers to existing sectors, most of that in what broadly be called mobile commerce. Think Grab, Go-Jek, Lazada.

The investment has been concentrated, in country, sector and in companies. But the real change in skills and work in the long run may come more from the backroads of Southeast Asia, tapping into a vibrant but hidden economy of online knowledge workers.

According to data collected by Google last year, the majority of investments in Southeast Asia have targeted companies based in Singapore and Indonesia — together accounting for 92% of funds. In turn most of that money ($9 billion — 73%) found its way to unicorns — those companies with more than a $1 billion valuation — while companies worth less than $100 million got $1.9 billion and those between $100 million and $1 billion attracted $1.4 billion.

These figures are good, in the sense that it had taken some time for Southeast Asia to attract significant venture capital attention, but it illustrates how slanted the overall picture is. Those unicorns are: Go-Jek, Grab, Lazada, Razer, Sea Ltd, Traveloka and Tokopedia. All are essentially platforms for retail selling: transport, consumer goods, travel etc. All capitalize on inherent problems in the free flow of goods and people in Southeast Asia, because of inadequate infrastructure, be it physical, financial or social.

And most are now trying to extend their presence beyond the major regional cities. But I think what has been happening in these smaller cities and towns for several years may be the more significant development in the long run. Indeed, when these platform players bring their services to these cities, there may be an interesting confluence of improved infrastructure and pent-up B2C or B2B demand. It should be here that companies and governments are focusing their attention — on building infrastructure, on tapping into these self-replenishing skill pools, and hubs of quiet entrepreneurialism. In the long run these skills are going to help to even out and possibly reverse the long term trend of migration to the cities, or megacities.

Take, for example, 99designs, an Australian crowdsourcing design company. They’ve been operating for several years, providing a platform for graphic designers to submit their work and earn business. I interviewed their CEO six years ago and he told me he was awestruck by how one city in Indonesia — central Java’s Yogyakarta — consistently beat other cities for quality and contracts won. He eventually went to see for himself, and was greeted like a rock star by the city’s 99designs community — one of the biggest in the world. Those young men and women were tapping into a deep well of artistry that stretches back hundreds of years, and can still be seen in carvings, batik and other artwork around the city.

I asked 99designs for an update, and they told me the trend has only increased: 95% of the Indonesian designers on the platform live outside Jakarta. Nearly 70% of them live outside the country’s top five cities. This is not just an Indonesian phenomenon: In fact the numbers are higher in the Philippines and India, two other big contributors to 99designs.

I checked Upwork, one of the main providers of freelance services and I lost count of the number of services being offered by freelancers based in Yogyakarta (and in other Indonesian cities like Makassar and Medan.) These services are not basic, either: they range from Ruby developers to 3D rendering artists.

Another important thing to note about these freelancers is that they are constantly taking on new skills. For this piece I caught up with a Philippines librarian I had met when I wrote my story six years ago. Back then Sheila was using her library skills to work with clients in Australia and the U.S. to enter metadata as they digitised their libraries. Now, she tells, me she’s taken some online courses in personnel management and is now working as a project management for a startup. Freelancers are well-motivated to acquire skills and their clients are keen to help them do it because they like working with them.

The implications are clear. As technologies emerge and develop more quickly so will companies have to look elsewhere for skills. This benefits freelancers like Sheila because they can more readily and rapidly identify what skills they should acquire and position themselves. The top fastest growing skills on Upwork in Q2 2018, for example, included blockchain, Google Cloud, ecommerce software volusion, risk management and rapid prototyping. While most of these skills are likely to be found in the U.S., they can also be found in Southeast Asia, where rates are significantly lower: rapid prototyping in Southeast Asia fetches mostly $10-30 an hour, whereas in the U.S. evenly between $10-$30 and 30-60 and 60 and above). Of course there are many more in the U.S. offering that skill, but expect that to change.

This hidden economy is growing, and is impressively independent. But it could do with support. This will come in part as Go-Jek and others further expand beyond the big cities, bringing improved transportation and better support services. But governments too, could lend a hand. Internet connectivity is still patchy in some parts, and a lot of those hoping to switch from a long commute to working at home often find it hard to get that first job. If those who do succeed can be encouraged to help build out these communities and share their skills, a whole new generation of home-based knowledge workers could lift towns like Yogyakarta and even further afield into hubs of the future.

Solving the Tragedy of the Commons

(edited for clarity)

Bike sharing has become something of a plague for those who don’t appreciate its advantages. Even for those who do, the sight of bikes lying all over the place, broken, is jarring in a place like Singapore. But the solution is not obvious. First off, you need to have a mechanism for policing errant bikes and the companies that own them. You need to find a way for users to report them. Then to punish the offending companies.

But wouldn’t that just encourage companies to damage or mislay their rival companies’ bikes? I am pretty sure that’s already happening — I see lots of slashed seats and vandalized bikes, which I’m willing to bet are not all caused by deviant residents.

The result: the old problem of the tragedy of the commons, where common resources, in this case space, is damaged for all by those who choose to externalise their costs. In this case that’s the bike companies, who have no clear incentive to keep their bikes tidy and shipshape. So the supposed ‘commons service’ they’re offering — cheap, available, healthy personal transportation — in fact is a downgrade for those people who appreciate their public spaces — sidewalks, parks, verges — clean.

So I have a solution:

* instead of fining each company for transgressions of their bikes, you fine all companies equally for each bike that is out of place, broken, or obstructing. Three bike companies, say, get the same fine for any bike misplaced, whichever company owned the bike.
* Each company would be required to include in their app a standard method of reporting broken or misplaced bikes. This information would go to the company — but would also go through to a central repository managed by whatever government agency oversees the bike companies. Individuals reporting a case that is subsequently found to be accurate are rewarded by the bike company in question — free rides, or whatever. If the bike company can resolve the incident within 24 hours there will be no fine.
* Fines are collected by the agency and pay for the inspection teams and for publicity.
* A tally is kept. If one company is clearly more egregious than the others, action might be taken by the agency.

In the long run I think a better system would be to use LoRa or another narrowband technology to better monitor the location of bikes and theitr state. But for now this might just be enough. I’ll write a more detailed proposal on that later.