Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How Blockchain Could Give Us a Smarter Energy Grid

This issue is explained by a brief article in the MIT Technology Review, sent by classmate Jorge Cardona. It takes a look at how experts are predicting that blockchain will free data about the grid and reveal more about usage patterns and other critical measures. Here's an excerpt, showing a case of where entrepreneurs are moving in this space:
To unleash the potential of blockchain in the energy sector, Jesse Morris’s team at RMI has joined with Austria-based blockchain startup Grid Singularity to create a new nonprofit called the Energy Web Foundation. Earlier this month, the EWF launched its own blockchain, which Morris says is “purpose-built for the energy sector.” Based on Ethereum, the network will be a test bed for promising use cases. To validate transactions during the test, EWF will rely on 10 major energy companies that have signed on as affiliates.

Millions of high-security crypto keys crippled by newly discovered flaw

Classmate Wei Wang sends over the following short article, published in Ars Technica. The piece looks at how attackers have exploited a factorization weakness to steal identities. An excerpt:

A crippling flaw in a widely used code library has fatally undermined the security of millions of encryption keys used in some of the highest-stakes settings, including national identity cards, software- and application-signing, and trusted platform modules protecting government and corporate computers. 
The weakness allows attackers to calculate the private portion of any vulnerable key using nothing more than the corresponding public portion. Hackers can then use the private key to impersonate key owners, decrypt sensitive data, sneak malicious code into digitally signed software, and bypass protections that prevent accessing or tampering with stolen PCs. The five-year-old flaw is also troubling because it's located in code that complies with two internationally recognized security certification standards that are binding on many governments, contractors, and companies around the world. The code library was developed by German chipmaker Infineon and has been generating weak keys since 2012 at the latest. 

What Facebook Did to American Democracy

Classmate Nehal Mehta just forwarded on this piece, published by Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic. It looks at how Facebook shaped the outcome of the last election -- and why that effect was so difficult to predict. Key quote:
The information systems that people use to process news have been rerouted through Facebook, and in the process, mostly broken and hidden from view. It wasn’t just liberal bias that kept the media from putting everything together. Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars that was spent during the election cycle came in the form of “dark ads.” 
The truth is that while many reporters knew some things that were going on on Facebook, no one knew everything that was going on on Facebook, not even Facebook. And so, during the most significant shift in the technology of politics since the television, the first draft of history is filled with undecipherable whorls and empty pages. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterms loom.

Google’s $400 Million Bet Is Starting to Pay Off

Classmate Jerry Woytash sends over the following article, "Google's $400 Million Bet Is Starting to Pay Off." It's an interesting look at Alphabet's initial steps to commercialize its A.I. research. Author Jeremy Kahn writes,
... DeepMind continues to remain independent from its parent company, but its contribution to Google’s product launch is well timed. It reported its first-ever revenues – 40 million pounds ($52 million) in 2016 – from products and services it supplied to other Alphabet companies, according to filings made public on the U.K. business registry Companies House on Monday.
This is just one example of how DeepMind is starting to help Google. Some others that DeepMind has been willing to talk about include supplying algorithms that have helped Google boost the energy efficiency of its data centers by 15 percent, and also improvements to Google’s core ad words product that DeepMind says it cannot detail... 

The Surprising Power of Online Experiments

Here's a look at A/B testing, sent over by classmate Rajiv Gupta. The article, published in the Harvard Business Review, looks at the benefits of running experiments on the cheap -- and often. Key quote:
By combining the power of software with the scientific rigor of controlled experiments, your company can create a learning lab. The returns you reap—in cost savings, new revenue, and improved user experience—can be huge. If you want to gain a competitive advantage, your firm should build an experimentation capability and master the science of conducting online tests.

Amazon Is Testing Its Own Delivery Service to Rival FedEx and UPS

Classmate Jerry Woytash provides this look at one of Amazon's next ventures, delivery service. "Amazon Is Testing Its Own Delivery Service to Rival FedEx and UPS," published in Bloomberg, outlines this strategy which is being hatched and tested on the West Coast now. Here's a key quote:
The service began two years ago in India, and Amazon has been slowly marketing it to U.S. merchants in preparation for a national expansion, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the U.S. pilot project is confidential. Amazon is calling the project Seller Flex, one person said. The service began on a trial basis this year in West Coast states with a broader rollout planned in 2018, the people said. Amazon declined to comment.

Going Deeper into Cryptocurrency

Classmate Alan teGroen forwards a resource -- Princeton's CS department's cryptocurrency course. Alan says the following:
It's slightly technical, but if someone has any kind of basic programming experience, it can be unbelievably helpful in understanding what's actually going on "under the hood" of bitcoin. It's short but covers everything from hashing to Merkle trees to the actual Blockchain infrastructure. I watched it over the summer and 100% recommend to anyone interested in the topics.

Managing Our Hub Economy

Classmate Varit Sukhum sends along "Managing Our Hub Economy," published in the Harvard Business Review this month. It's a fascinating look at the winner-take-all question which we debated in class, elaborated on in some detail and given a fair trial. Here's a look:
A real opportunity exists for hub firms to truly lead our economy. This will require hubs to fully consider the long-term societal impact of their decisions and to prioritize their ethical responsibilities to the large economic ecosystems that increasingly revolve around them. At the same time, the rest of us—whether in established enterprises or start-ups, in institutions or communities—will need to serve as checks and balances, helping to shape the hub economy by providing critical, informed input and, as needed, pushback.

Amazon Takes Over the World

Classmate Diego Grove sends over this article from the WSJ: "Amazon Takes Over the World." The content should be self-explanatory, but this paragraph, about the MBA experience, may resonate with us.
At New York University’s business school, where I teach, I have for years kept a close watch on which firms are winning the competition for the most talented students. A decade ago, the top recruiter was American Express, with investment banks vying for second position. Now the clear winner is Amazon: 12 students from my most recent class have opted for a life of rain and overrated coffee in the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Finding the Platform in Your Product

Classmate Sumit Aggarwal sends over an informative article published in the July-August edition of the Harvard Business Review -- "Find the Platform in Your Product". The title is fairly self-explanatory; the article looks at four ways in which products and services can become multisided platforms. Here's a sample:
Why seek to transform products and services into MSPs in the first place? As one Intuit executive told us, it comes down to “fear and greed.” Greed, of course, refers to the potential for new revenue sources that could speed growth and increase a company’s value. Fear refers to the danger that existing and incoming competitors will steal market share from your product or service. Transforming an offering into a platform might enhance your company’s competitive advantage and raise barriers to entry via network effects and higher switching costs. We’re not suggesting that every company should try to emulate Airbnb, Alibaba, Facebook, or Uber. But many companies would benefit from adding elements of a platform business to their offerings.

Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony?

Classmate Yifei Wu provides a thought-provoking new article from the MIT Technology Review, "Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony?". The piece is a rejoinder to some of the more optimistic takes on AI that we've seen in the class, as it shows in considerable detail just why the breakthroughs we expect may not be so near. The culprit? Outmoded technology that only appears cutting-edge. Here's an illustrative quote:
When you boil it down, AI today is deep learning, and deep learning is backprop—which is amazing, considering that backprop is more than 30 years old. It’s worth understanding how that happened—how a technique could lie in wait for so long and then cause such an explosion—because once you understand the story of backprop, you’ll start to understand the current moment in AI, and in particular the fact that maybe we’re not actually at the beginning of a revolution. Maybe we’re at the end of one.

How health tech platforms are transforming healthcare

Classmate Chin-Chia Liang has sent over an interesting look at health tech platforms, written by Martin Blinder, an entrepreneur in the space. The article examines how technology is altering our awareness of personal health, showing why platforms are driving some of this change. As Blinder writes,
A sleep monitoring app might tell an individual their sleep pattern is irregular, for example, but how do they understand how best to rectify this? Is it because they haven’t been exercising recently? Or perhaps it’s down to how much sugar they’ve consumed. By pulling the data together from all their devices into one place, it’s a lot easier to look at patterns and draw accurate conclusions.
That’s why I believe platforms like ours are cementing their rightful place as the next phase of progression in the health tech space. People want to understand more about what makes them tick, but they need the right tools to make sense of all the lifestyle data they generate every day.

Japan's Foray into Blockchain

Classmate Sumit Aggarwal provides a couple good looks at blockchain, each from cryptocoinsnews. The first is about Japan's digital ID for banks, and the second concerns the Japanese government's recent testing of blockchain. Here's a sample from the latter, which details the impetus behind the move to blockchain:
According to the Nikkei, the common identification platform will allow a bank account holder to register for a ‘shared ID’ which could then – as an example – be used to open another account at a different bank. The applicant would be required to provide the shared ID through a smartphone app authenticated through a fingerprint or a facial scan. Fundamentally, the shared ID would negate the need to enter, or re-enter personal information when applying for banking services at a new financial institution.

New largest number factored on a quantum device is 56,153

Classmate Alan Yan has just sent an article from phys.org that answers the question you've always wanted to answer: what's the biggest prime number ever factored? Here are some more details on this thrilling bit of research:
Researchers have set a new record for the quantum factorization of the largest number to date, 56,153, smashing the previous record of 143 that was set in 2012. They have shown that the exact same room-temperature nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) experiment used to factor 143 can actually factor an entire class of numbers, although this was not known until now. Because this computation, which is based on a minimization algorithm involving 4 qubits, does not require prior knowledge of the answer, it outperforms all implementations of Shor's algorithm to date, which do require prior knowledge of the answer. Expanding on this method, the researchers also theoretically show how the same minimization algorithm can be used to factor even larger numbers, such as 291,311, with only 6 qubits.

Good words on UBI

Classmate Torsten Walbaum has sent over a couple interesting links that focus on the universal basic income -- what merits it has and how it may be implemented. The first article is from Fortune and it summarizes the problem at hand --

A University of Oxford study from 2013 estimated that 47% of U.S. jobs may be at risk within the next two decades because of advances in artificial intelligence and automation. Last year, the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated that workers making below $20 an hour would have an 83% chance of losing their jobs to robots in that span. Those odds dropped as workers’ education and income levels grew. But as software gets smarter, that too is subject to change: Companies will eliminate even jobs that were long considered immune from technological displacement.
... and the second piece, published by Futurism.com, is the infographic from which the banner image above it pulled.

John Oliver's take on Corporate Consolidation

Classmate Jorge Cardona has sent along the video below. It features the Last Week Tonight host's entertaining, totally-not-biased take on consolidation.

Along with the video, Jorge asks the following.
On the service part, could this deteriorated service offering end up happening to Amazon, Google, etc.? With Amazon now delivering Chipotle, Shake Shack, etc. how many other industries will they consolidate? With such power consolidation, will regulators step in? If they do, ala Standard Oil, what opportunities could be leveraged?

The Math Behind Encryption

Classmate Rachel Insoft recommends Simon Singh's book The Code Book as an introduction to the mathematics behind encryption.

Also: classmate Prem Sharma has sent over the following video, released by VC firm Andreesen Horowitz. It offers a quick primer on some of the subjects referenced in several recent classes.

The Netflix of Fashion

Classmate Rachel Moore has gone above and beyond the call of duty, sending three articles on StitchFix, the new company using machine-learning to design clothes.

Here's Quartz's version of the story and an interactive page from the company itself. Fast Company also provides a helpful backgrounder on the firm and what it's up to. See a sample below.

Here’s how Stitch Fix normally works: Customers join the site, fill out a detailed questionnaire about their size, how they like their clothing to fit, what their style is like, what colors they love and loathe, and how often they dress for certain occasions (like work, events, dates, etc.). Last year, the company introduced a Pinterest integration that lets the company learn more about what customers want. Users can create boards of images they like–which can come from any source–and algorithms analyze the assortment and feed that information into a customer’s profile. Using all that data, an algorithm then mines Stitch Fix’s inventory to find pieces that match their profile.

5 Reasons the UN Is Jumping on the Blockchain Bandwagon

Classmate Sumika Singh sent over this article, posted on Singularity Hub.

Using the Ethereum blockchain, the UN is attempting to solve some of its most pressing challenges, from refugee resettlement to food distribution. As the article notes:

The UN explains blockchain as “a distributed database that is continuously updated and verified by its users. Each added block of data is ‘chained’ and becomes part of a growing list of records, under the surveillance of network members. This technology enables the transfer of assets and the recording of transactions through a secure database.”