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Archive for the ‘Technologies’ category

Searching for Synthia – hottest innovation of the 21st century

August 22nd, 2010

Introducing Synthia

So popular is she, that 3 months after her birth, she already has her own Wikipedia page. Synthia may be the hottest innovation of the 21st Century.Yet, for many of us, we read about it casually on May 21st on our iPads  or home-delivered newspapers, next to stories about the latest Giants-A’s series showdown and local murder trials.  If you happened to miss the news that day, read on, as you might want to become familiar with this innovation.

“Synthia” is the nickname for a brand new bacterium developed by Craig Venter and his J. Craig Venter Institute.  You may recognize Venter’s name – he led a team at  TIGR (The Institute for Genomic Research) which in is credited as first to fully decode the genome sequence for a free living organism, Haemophilus influenzae in 1995;  in 2001, Venter and his team along with Celera Genomics decoded the first human genome entirely.  After leaving TIGR, Venter went on to form the the J. Craig Venter Institute and several related companies, such as Synthetic Genomics.  Bottom line:  Venter is among the leaders in understanding how to decode the basic building blocks of life and has a significant advantage in combining creative ideas on how to use this information commercially in the future.  It’s no wonder several investors and VCs like Steve Jurvetson kept close to him.

Her Story

The story of Synthia is truly something out of a Robin Cook novel – but in this case, the technology that has been perfected may truly have lasting effect on our lives and the lives of our progeny. It’s no simply science fiction.

Synthia was created by a synthetic genome. The team at Venter’s institute essentially pieced together from DNA fragments a modified version of a natural genome (mycoplasma mycoides - a chromosome with some 1.2 million base pairs) and implanted the hand-made genome into the shell of a  bacterium.  The new organism essentially came to live and is self-replicating.  That means that it essentially takes on a life of its own.

Uses and Abuses

One can only image the possible uses of this new approach to synthesizing life, as Synthia only represents the very beginning in a likely long exercise in creating new life forms.

Other areas that Venter and his team are apparently already exploring, and hoping to use their approaches on are:  fuel/energy, vaccination production, pollution control/clean-up,cell production,

Since genomes are the building blocks of heredity and proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of cells, and cells are the components of complex systems (organs, etc) within living organisms, the implication is that a synthetic self-replicating organism can become the basic building block to almost any change in life one can imagine.

Shades of “Singularity”

The question that many have had is whether biologists will soon be playing God with this new-found approach.  The new technology ultimately leads the way to new forms of genetically produced bacteria, viruses, plants and animals – and since they would be new to our world there would be no way of predicting how they might affect our global environment, ecosystem or biosphere.

What  might occur when eventually the recipe for synthetic life falls into naive or evil hands?

This is the essentially the first time that an artificially-created organism can self-replicate. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the predictions by author Ray Kurzweil who has written numerous books predicting new innovations that will explode from the intersection of biology/biotech/genetics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology around the year 2030 (for more on this read The Singularity is Near by Kurzweil).

Love Her, Hate Her

So, that’s Synthia.  The bacterium you will come to love and hate.  Either we’ve unleashed a new “Manhattan Project” or we’ve got the beginning of a new Era in science.   Or, both.

I’d like to hear your impressions on this important innovation.

The Future of Virtual Puppeteering and Grandparenting

April 24th, 2010

OK, so I’m still (likely?) many years away from being a grandparent, but if you can’t apply Business Innovation and Creativity to the future grand-parenting skills, then you’re not really trying…

One of my students at UC Berkeley brought up an interesting experiment by Nokia with the artists from Sesame Street.  An article on this can be read here. The experiment has taken place at Nokia’s Palo Alto research center and at first seems far-fetched.

Are you a fan of the science-fiction writer, Neil Stephensen?  Have you read Snow Crash? (virtual reality and the internet at its best)  Cryptonomicom (long but mathematically pleasing)?

My favorite Stephensen book is The Diamond Age, written in 1995. In this story, Stephensen imagines devices not too far off from the iPad, but with a little more communications built in. In the story, a young girl Nell is given a special book by her father, which she becomes quite attached to. The book reads to her and has motion photos and video embedded in it (think iPad).

“Once upon a time,” said a woman’s voice [from the book], “there was a little girl named Elizabeth who liked to sit in the bower of her grandfather’s garden and read story-books.” The voice was soft, meant just for her, with an expensive Victorian accent.”

After some time, the book becomes personalized to Nell, using her name and the name of her belongings and life – and it interacts with her in strange and magical ways. It turns out that the book is animatronically controlled by an actor (or puppeteer) located in China and selected to be young Nell’s guide. The puppeteer does more than TEACH young Nell, by showing up in her life and revealing emotional stories and lessons she gets into the head of Nell and alters her persona.

A quick pause her, as Puppeteering is not all that new to me. As a teenager in Leonia, New Jersey, I created my own puppet show for the local schools and summer camp program, then took the show “on the road”, paying part of my education at Brown University as a puppeteer.  So, I’ve Bert-and-Ernied with the best of them. :>)  Let it not be said that I am ONE DIMENSIONAL entrepreneur-turned venture capitalist-turned-educator-turned-musician-turned-mentor –> there is of course the puppetry.  In 1990, as an Apple employee interested in advanced technologies I worked with Apple’s ATG (Advanced Technology Group) to prepare a speech on “Virtual Puppetry”for a conference on virtual reality.

The device created by Nokia and Sesame Street is an interesting technological combination of virtual puppeteering, distance learning and edu-tainment.  The device allows a child to learn a story, interact with a distant person (grandparent, parent, friend, Chinese puppeteer?), and interact with Sesame Street characters, like Elmo.   Although physically clumsy in its current format, Nokia has essentially brought the concept of Neil Stephensen’s Diamond Age living book to life.

This has several amazing consequences.  Picture, 5 years from now an advance book version of the colorful iPad that is more interactive – a reader can flip thin pages (each interactive, connected via internet and created in virtual ink) to simulate the experience of a real book. Built into the book is a camera that can read the facial expressions of the reader… built into the book is a virtual connection to live people and experts around the world. The book becomes a living communication and learning device that brings to the world literally to the reader and INTERACTS in real time with the needs of the reader.

Apply this to Wikipedia to create the worlds most interactive encyclopedia, apply this to early childhood learning, apply this to games, apply this to sports, entertainment, and research.

Technology is only a few years away from inexpensive paper-thin, computer screens combined with the power of global communication (think: Skype) over internet, we are now just a few short years away from Neil Stephensen’s seemingly incredible dream of virtual puppetry in 1995.

I’d like to her your thoughts on this vision. I’d like to hear Neal’s thoughts on this !

RH

The New Garage Renaissance and emergence of C2B businesses

April 10th, 2010

As a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur and “mentor” capitalist , I like to look for bets in new spaces and keep on top of industry trends…and historically I’ve placed my bets on software- and Internet-oriented companies, with the occasional excursion into biotech, med device, or cleantech.

What’s caught my attention lately is a shift I perceive in manufacturing and hard-goods spaces - perhaps something set to become a revolution in the coming 10 years – one that could potentially lead some traditional venture capital away from software and back to manufacturing and hardware.

The revolution is in the global manufacturing space and in the ability of “micro-entrepreneurs” to design products from their home/garage, easily prototype their ideas, and eventually produce the products in small lots using a global supply chain that is available, for the most part, online.  This revolution has recently been enabled by a global marketplace (enabled by the Internet), 3D design and printing technology,  and a more flexible approach to manufacturing in the US, China and other parts of the world.

This was the “Old Paradigm” for producing physical products :  an inventor comes up with a concept – sends ideas or sketches to product design house which uses sophisticated CAD programs to design the blueprints for the product – then sends designs off to China to have a prototype build and shipped back. If prototype looked good, show to distributors/channels and take advance orders (or raise money for manufacturing on spec) and use advance orders to hire a manufacturing facility (in East) to produce first run of products. If first run sells out, expand capacity, take additional advance orders and make more goods.  Overall time to market – months or years.

The “New Paradigm” emerging is radically different:  inventors and designers anywhere in the world collaborate over the social net on new designs, and use crowd-sourcing to come up with the best ideas – then rapidly prototype their ideas using 3D printers.  The prototype is modified to match market needs and individual parts are ordered from a global smorgasbord of manufacturing options, assembly occurs in China or perhaps locally (“en garage“), and enough product to fulfill real-time need is producted in JIT fashion.  Products can be modified, customized in small batches. Overall time – weeks or months.

The recent Wired Magazine article by Editor in Chief Chris Anderson calls this new world of manufacturing, “The New Industrial Revolution”.  It’s democratized industry, combined with new ways to rapidly prototype and visualize solid-state models of ideas, and online approaches to open-sourcing just about any part, labor, or manufacturing process needed – right off the web. As Anderson puts it: “Atoms are the new bits“.  The diagram to the left is from the Wired article and spells out the New Paradigm.

You’ve  heard of B2C (business to consumer), and B2B (business to business) – well, this is “C2B” – Consumer to Business – millions of garage entrepreneurs who are close to the consumer , crowd-sourcing ideas for future products and THEN manufacturing them.

I spoke with Ross Stevens, world-renown designer who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington and has a passion for this new culture he calls the “Maker Revolution”. We looked at his way-cool website of design work that he and students at Victoria University are working on futures projects which you can see here.

Stevens, who teaches a course called “Materials & Processes”,  believes that in the coming years, we will be able to make or “print” just about anything we can conceptualize — right to our home  on a low-cost printer. Check out this company that Ross suggested I review:   Ponoko, based in SF calls itself: “a creative place where you can make your ideas real … and sell them to the world. The Ponoko website is like having your own personal workshop and factory … and online showroom to sell your designs.”

Other companies and sites I’ll be tracking in this “maker-market” space include:

  • Makerbot Industries – company makes open-source, low-cost 3D printers and has a great blog on the top of “garage Renaissance and 21st Century manufacturing”
  • Reprap wiki - intriguing community site for sharing “designs that create designs (or self-replicating machines)” – go hear to learn how to print a printer that can print another printer that can print another printer…well you get the idea.\
  • ThingyVerse – a site for sharing 3D printable design and connecting to the global supply chain
  • Panjiva Corp – one of the leading marketplaces for the global supply chain, particularly for small-lot work

…………………


After reflecting on this “new industrial revolution”, printers that print themselves, and the future of 3D design and small lot manufacturing, I have just one question:  when will they invent a 3D bakery printer that can print a truly great cup of coffee and top-notch bagel each morning for me?

Creativity at Any Age

February 20th, 2010

I read this week’s Wall Street Journal article “Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity” (WSJ, Feb 20, 1010, p. W3) with fascination…

The article, by Jonah Lehrer, suggests the following:

  • Scientific & technical revolutions are often led by younger minds (think Newton, Watson, Einstein, Madame Curie, Jobs, Andreessen)
  • Certain fields lend themselves to innovation by younger minds, including Physics, Math & Poetry, Chess
  • There seems to be an inverted U-curve that describes human capacity for creative thought, with the top of the u-curve coming somewhere between the ages of 25 and 50.
  • The disciplines of  Biology, History, Novel-writing, and Philosophy might not peak until their late 40′s
  • Many individuals have increased their creativity later in life by switching fields of study (thus potentially applying learnings from one field to another in a “intersectional” manner (see my prior blog post on this called “Intersectional Creativity& Mash-ups”)

One key part of this argument I do buy is this:  when we are young, we are likely to take more risks and we are likely to be less encumbered by rules bestowed upon us by marriage, work, community, church, etc.  In other words the YOUNGER MIND, in general, does have the advantage of being FREE to make key connections that the older mind has to work harder to achieve amidst a cadre of society-driven rules which have been enforced for a longer period of time.

While I don’t disagree with the premise that certain professions require young/fresh minds to attack them, the author neglected to mention the wide variety of creative careers that have taken off for LATE BLOOMERS in many fields.

Old Farts Have Been Creative Too!

The NY Times article highlights “Five sicentists who made their marks while they were young”, including: Archimedes (in his 20s when sitting in the bathtub), Marie Curie (just turned 30 when investigating radioactivity), Galileo Galilei (speed of objects falling in late 20′s), William Lawrence Bragg (x-rays and crystal structure; Nobel laureate at age 25), and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Manhattan Project lead, first discoveries at 23 years old).

Indeed, these great discoveries (involving major sciences) were made by youngsters who could view the world in an alternative way and remove themselves from the scientific “rule-sets” of their days. (Archimedes was quite fortunate to thrive in an ancient society of Greece that rewarded created thinking)

But there is a variety of evidence that older humans have the capacity for creativity & innovation – well into their “retirement” years.

Here are a few I immediately dug up:

1) Ben Franklin - perhaps one of the greatest of all American Inventors – invented the Lightening Rod at age 44 and discovered electricity at 46, drafted the Declaration of Independence at age 70, invented bifocals in late 70′s.

2) Henry Ford - founded Ford Motors in late 30s and geared up production lines in his late 40′s.

3) Sam Walton – launched the first Walmart, in , at age 44.

4) Ray Kroc – was 52 when he incorporated the innovative new approach later called “McDonalds”.

5) Ray Kurzweil - author of more than 10 books on topic of scientific thought and futuristic thinking, has come up with some of his most impressive new ideas long after the age of 50 (he was born in 1948 and is 62 this year).  His book The Singularity Is Near was published when he was 55)

6) Alfred Hitchcock - his best and most creative films were done after the age of 50.

7) Guru Singh – one of my friends and mentors, Guru Singh, who is now over 60 is one of the most creative authors, teachers and global social conscience innovators that I know. Check out his blog !

Can you think of other examples?

Conceptual vs Experimental Innovators

A great article from Wired Magazine, written in July 2006, reminds us that Genius can come at many ages. Researcher David Galenson (Harvard) underscores the difference between creative activity can be found in two forms: “Conceptual” innovators and “Experimental Innovators”.  The Conceptual Innovators tend to come up with their ideas at an early age, in big dramatic leaps into new vectors – the Experimental Innovators seem to have a slower path to the great “aha” moment, trying many variations over time (think: Thomas Edison).
I like to think about Bill Gates – he appears to be a Conceptual Innovator in his youth in the area of software, but in later life (post 50 now), he is starting to innovate in new areas  Oddly enough, a number of employees attracted to Microsoft, including Jeff Raikes, Nathan Myrvold, Paul Allen – all seem to be blooming in new creative ways – I suppose they are “experimental” innovators now.

In my role at UC Berkeley, I try to surround myself with the ideas, theory, practice and real world examples of great minds, creativity and innovation…and it seems to come in many forms and many ages.  It all gives me comfort in knowing that at age 49, I still have plenty of time to make my major creative contribution to society.  

What are your thoughts on this topic? Respond below or  Tweet me at http://twitter.com/randyhaykin

Back to the Future? – The Apple iPad

February 2nd, 2010

Reminiscing the old Apple Days

This week’s announcement of the iPad was “reminiscent” of my time from 1988-1993 as an Apple employee and reminded me of the difference between “Creativity” and “Innovation.”

In the mid/late 1980′s, John Sculley was CEO of Apple – and constant clashes with the head of R&D, Jean-Luis Gassee, finally led to Gassee’s departure from the company.  But they did create some magic together. One of my favorite bits of magic was the introduction of a video that would articulate the future direction of Apple – a creative vision for what Apple could be when it grew up.

But, oddly, Apple then took a series of twists and turns that took it away from vision and into the personal computer wars – wars it could not win.  It wasn’t until Jobs returned to Apple in the ’90s that the firm could go back to its old creative self and begin to innovate on a series of products that would eventually take it BACK TO THE FUTURE.

A Creative Vision

In 1987, in Cupertino, Apple employees and press were treated to a video, which we found to be incredibly imaginative at the time and provided us with a glimpse of what would someday come. If you haven’t seen this, or had forgotten about it…check this out:

The Apple Navigator, in my mind, was an incredible creative vision for the future.  “Internet-like” access is implied in the vision, but is 8 years ahead of its time.  Also included:  a book-like interface, ubiquitous Search, voice-recognition, intelligent agents, touch screen, virtual assistant, high-resolution graphics, integrated (video) telephone, visual analysis and simulation, 3D graphics, embedded camera/video, distance-learning, virtual scheduling/calendaring, and more (how many things did I miss?).

Fast-forward to last week’s announcement of the iPad:

We all watched the announcement of the iPad this week, and it was the talk of most circles.

OK.  In 1985 the  folks at Apple missed a few things that were part of this week’s iPad launch:

- access to the world’s library of magazines, books and reading materials

- access to100 million websites, 6 million blogs and 1 million new-sites

- the integration of the music, movies, television and video in a book-like interface

- hand-movement recognition

Still, even having missed these features, it’s amazing the number of features that early Apple inventors were thinking about…Keep in mind, this is only 5 years after the launch of the IBM PC, and  8 years before the Internet came into vogue for the consumer masses, 15 years before Skype was accepted as a workable communications solution, and 20 years before I projected a lecturer onto the screen of my classroom at UC Berkeley!

Is it any wonder Apple us regarded as one of the greatest think-tanks and most innovative companies in the world?

Creativity vs Innovation

Creativity is about great new ideas – ideas that transcend our current status-quo, ideas that are “intersectional” (combining elements from 2 or more previously unrelated sources), ideas that make us see things in new ways.

Innovation is about bringing these ideas to life and making them work in the economic, social, business and market context.

I think it is pretty intriguing that  last week’s launch of the iPad brings Apple one huge step closer to turning a Creative vision of the 1985 Navigator into an actual market-place Innovation, that is likely to be sold to tens of millions of consumers and businesses in the coming years.