Connect with us

Startups

The Most Important Tech Job that Doesn’t Exist

Published

on

Yesterday I asked a prominent VC a question:

“Why is it that, despite the fact that so many successful startup ideas come from academic research, on the investment side there doesn’t seem to be anyone vetting companies on the basis of whether or not what they’re doing is consistent with the relevant research and best practices from academia?”

His response was that, unlike with startups in other sectors (e.g. biotech, cleantech, etc.), most tech startups don’t come out of academia, but rather are created to fill an unmet need in the marketplace. And that neither he nor many of his colleagues spent much time talking with academics for this reason.

This seems to be the standard thinking across the industry right now. But despite having nothing but respect for this investor, I think the party line here is unequivocally wrong.

Let’s start with the notion that most tech startups don’t come out of academia. While this may be true if you consider only the one-sentence pitch, once you look at the actual design and implementation choices these startups are making there is typically quite a lot to work with.

For example, there is a startup I recently looked at that works to match mentors with mentees. Though one might not be aware of it, there is actually a wealth of research into best practices:

  • What factors should be used when matching mentors with mentees?
  • How should the relationship between the mentor and mentee be structured?
  • What kind of training, if any, should be given to the participants?

That’s not to say that a startup that’s doing something outside the research, or even contraindicated by the research, is in any way suspect. But it does raise some questions: Does the startup have a good reason for what they’re doing? Are they aware of the relevant research? Is there something they know that we don’t?

If the entrepreneurs have good answers to these questions then it’s all the more reason to take them seriously. But if they don’t then this should raise a few red flags. And it’s not only niche startups in wonky areas where this is an issue.

For example, I rarely post to Facebook anymore, but people who follow me can still get a good idea of what I’m up to. Why? Because Facebook leverages the idea of behavioral residue to figure out what I’m doing (and let my friends know) without me having to explicitly post updates. It does this by using both interior behavioral residue, e.g. what I’m reading and clicking on within the site, and exterior behavioral residue, e.g. photos of me taken outside of Facebook.

To understand why leveraging behavioral residue is so important for social networks, consider that of people who visit the typical website only about 10% will make an account. Of those about 10% will make at least one content contribution, and of those about 10% will become core contributors. So if you consider your typical user with a couple hundred friends, this translates into seeing content from only a tiny handful of other people on a regular basis.

In contrast with Facebook, one of the reason why FourSquare has yet to succeed is due to significant problems with their initial design decisions:

  • The only content on the site comes from users who manually check into locations and post updates. This means that of my 150 or so friends, I’m only seeing what one or two of them are actually doing, so what’s the value?
  • The heavy use of extrinsic motivation (e.g. badges) has been shown time and again that extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation.

The latter especially is a good example of why investing on traction alone is problematic: many startups that leverage extrinsic rewards are able to get a good amount of initial traction, but almost none of them are able to retain users or cross the chasm into the mainstream. Why isn’t it anyone’s job to know this, even though the research is readily available for any who wants to read it? And why is it so hard to go to any major startup event without seeing VCs showering money on these sorts of startups that are so contraindicated by the research that they have almost no realistic chance of succeeding?

This same critique of investors applies equally to the startups themselves. You probably wouldn’t hire an attorney who wasn’t willing to familiarize himself with the relevant case law before going to court. So why is it that the vast majority of people hired as community managers and growth marketers have never read Robert Kraut? And the vast majority of people hired to create mobile apps have never heard of Mizuko Ito?

A lot of people associate the word design with fonts, colors, and graphics, but what the word actually means is fate — in the most existential sense of the word. That is, good design literally makes it inevitable that the user will take certain actions and have certain subjective experiences. While good UX and graphic design are essential, they’re only valuable to the extent that the person doing them knows how to create an authentic connection with the users and elicit specific emotional and social outcomes. So why are we hiring designers mainly on their Photoshop skills and maybe knowing a few tricks for optimizing conversions on landing pages? What a waste.

Of all the social sciences, the following seem to be disproportionately valuable in terms of creating and evaluating startups:

  • Psychology / Social Psychology
  • Internet Psychology / Computer Mediated Communication
  • Cognitive Development / Early Childhood Education
  • Organizational Behavior
  • Sociology
  • Education Research
  • Behavioral Economics

And yet not only is no one hiring for this, but having expertise in these areas likely won’t even get you so much as a nominal bonus. I realize that traction and team will always be the two biggest factors in determining which startups get funded, but have we really become so myopic as to place zero value on knowing whether or not a startup is congruent or contraindicated by the last 80+ years of research?

So should you invest in (or work for) the startup that sends text messages to people reminding them to take their medicine? How about the one that lets you hire temp laborers using cell phones? Or the app for club owners that purports to increase the amount of money spent on drinks? In each of these cases there is a wealth of relevant literature that can be used to help figure out whether or not the founders have done their homework and how likely they are to succeed. And it seems like if you don’t have someone whose willing to invest a few hours to read the literature then you’re playing with a significant handicap.

Investors often wait months before investing in order to let a little more information surface, during which time the valuation can (and often does) increase by literally millions. Given that the cost of doing the extra research for each deal would be nominal in the grand scheme of things, and given the fact that this research can benefit not only the investors but also the portfolio companies themselves, does it really make sense to be so confident that there’s nothing of value here?

What makes the web special is that it’s not just a technology or a place, but a set of values. That’s what we were all originally so excited about. But as startups become more and more prosaic, these values are largely becoming lost. As Howard Rheingold once said, “The ‘killer app’ of tomorrow won’t be software or hardware devices, but the social practices they make possible.” You can’t step in the same river twice, but I think there’s something to be said for startups that make possible truly novel and valuable social practices, and for creating a larger ecosystem that enables them.

___________________________________________________________________

About the Author

This article was written by Alex Krupp. see more.

Continue Reading
Comments

Entrepreneurship

How Google’s AI Mastered All Chess Knowledge in Just 4 Hours

Published

on

Chess isn’t an easy game, by human standards. But for an artificial intelligence powered by a formidable, almost alien mindset, the trivial diversion can be mastered in a few spare hours.

In a new paper, Google researchers detail how their latest AI evolution, AlphaZero, developed “superhuman performance” in chess, taking just four hours to learn the rules before obliterating the world champion chess program, Stockfish.

In other words, all of humanity’s chess knowledge – and beyond – was absorbed and surpassed by an AI in about as long as it takes to drive from New York City to Washington, DC.

After being programmed with only the rules of chess (no strategies), in just four hours AlphaZero had mastered the game to the extent it was able to best the highest-rated chess-playing program Stockfish.

In a series of 100 games against Stockfish, AlphaZero won 25 games while playing as white (with first mover advantage), and picked up three games playing as black. The rest of the contests were draws, with Stockfish recording no wins and AlphaZero no losses.

“We now know who our new overlord is,” said chess researcher David Kramaley, the CEO of chess science website Chessable.

“It will no doubt revolutionise the game, but think about how this could be applied outside chess. This algorithm could run cities, continents, universes.”

Developed by Google’s DeepMind AI lab, AlphaZero is a tweaked, more generic version of AlphaGo Zero, which specialises in playing the Chinese board game, Go.

DeepMind has been refining this AI for years, in the process besting a series of human champions who fell like dominoes before the indomitable, “Godlike” neural network.

That victory streak culminated in a startling success in October, in which a new fully autonomous version of the AI – which only learns by playing itself, never facing humans – bested all its former incarnations.

By contrast, AlphaGo Zero’s predecessors partly learned how to play the game by watching moves made by human players.

That effort was intended to assist the fledgling AI in learning strategy, but it seems it may have actually been a handicap, since AlphaGo Zero’s fully self-reliant learning proved devastatingly more effective in one-on-one competition.

“It’s like an alien civilisation inventing its own mathematics,” computer scientist Nick Hynes from MIT told Gizmodo in October.

“What we’re seeing here is a model free from human bias and presuppositions. It can learn whatever it determines is optimal, which may indeed be more nuanced that our own conceptions of the same.”

But things are moving so fast in this field that already the October accomplishment may have been outmoded.

In their new paper, the team outlines how the very latest AlphaZero AI takes the self-playing reliance – called reinforcement learning – and applies it with a much more generalised streak that gives it a broader focus to problem solving.

That broader focus means AlphaZero doesn’t just play chess. It also plays Shogi (aka Japanese chess) and Go too – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it only took two and eight hours respectively to master those games as well.

For now, Google and DeepMind’s computer scientists aren’t commenting publicly on the new research, which hasn’t as yet been peer-reviewed.

But from what we can tell so far, this algorithm’s dizzying ascent to the pinnacle of artificial intelligence is far from over, and even chess grandmasters are bewildered by the spectacle before them.

“I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on Earth and showed us how they played chess,” grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen told the BBC.

“Now I know.”

____________________________________________________________

About the Author 

This article was produced by Grendz. Grendz is the definitive place for new mind-blowing technology trends, science breakthroughs and green and positive ideas and news. Sign up is Free and special services are available. see more.

Continue Reading

Featured

Innovation and Happiness

Published

on

What, exactly, is value? Or, in a less philosophical way: how is it that you practically know when you have experienced something of value?

From my experience so far, I believe that our experience of value is deeply related to our true emotions and feelings, and is thus rooted in our common humanity. Building on what I’ve written about previously on innovation (innovation being the simultaneous movement towards new and better) our entire perception of “value” and “better” is inextricably intertwined with our emotional experience of our world. In this perspective, being able to make ourselves happy is a precondition to being able to make others happy, and this includes how we craft products, services and experiences for others.

Let me explain.

Our Emotions

We, as human beings, have a limited number of emotions that we can experience and that motivate us to action. Opinions differ as to what those emotions are, but one popular perspective is that they include happiness, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, guilt and surprise. As practical experience tells us, we can experience these emotions to different levels of intensity. We can also experience several emotions simultaneously, because our brains are highly complex, interconnected webs of living cells, all interacting simultaneously.

The regions of the brain that deal with emotions are quite close to the centre of the brain – closer, in fact, than the regions of your brain that are responsible for our rational, critical thinking processes. The centre of the brain is, of course, closer to the mid-brain and spinal cord, and, thus, it can be conjectured that emotions are more powerful movers of our selves than our rational thoughts. Think about this for yourself: are you more likely to be moved to action by an appeal to your emotions, or by an appeal to your logic? Are you very easily able to commit and see through your New Year’s resolutions, or do you give up on them within a few short weeks (like most of us)? I suppose the answer to that will depend on how much discipline you have over your emotions, and how in touch you are with your emotions.

How dull would life be if you only lived by way of logic, ignoring all of your feelings of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and so on? Emotion and logic both have their place in our daily lives, and wisdom involves knowing which to give precedence at the right time.

How is it, though, that emotions could possibly lead us to experience what we deem to be “valuable”?

Emotions and Value

What are the things that facilitate happiness for you, personally? Are those not the things that you consider valuable? Tony Robbins speaks of the things that motivate us as human beings, listed here for convenience:

  1. Certainty/safety – I need to feel safe now, and that I will feel safe in the future.
  2. Uncertainty/variety – I need to experience new things and encounter unexpected challenges or experiences (note how this contradicts our first need).
  3. Significance – I need to feel as though I am significant to another person.
  4. Love/connection – I need to feel as though I am loving others and am loved by others, and/or connected to others.
  5. Growth – I need to feel as though I am growing and developing as a human being in all of my various spheres.
  6. Giving – I need to feel as though I am giving back to others in a meaningful way.

The first four needs are basic needs that everyone has and will find some way of meeting, regardless of how healthy or sustainable those ways are. Very few people seem to get to the point in their lives where they realise that they need the last two things: to grow personally, and to give to others. It is, in fact, a need of ours to give to others in meaningful ways! This is, however, quite difficult if you have not yet found healthy ways of having your other, more basic needs met first.

The degree to which we experience those different needs is different for each and every one of us. Some of us need more variety and uncertainty or excitement than others. Some of us have a greater need for significance than others. And others still have a greater need for personal growth. The intensity of each of those needs also varies over time, depending on what’s going on in our lives.

Think, for example, of a situation where, on a rather average day at work, you feel hungry. You start looking around for new something to eat at the cafeteria (it would be “valuable” to you right now to ensure your own longevity and satisfaction by eating something, but you also want a bit of variety), when all of a sudden the fire alarm goes off and people start running and screaming around you as smoke fills the corridors. Immediately, your priorities shift to a different kind of bodily safety or certainty. The last thing you’d probably be thinking of right now is food, or, for that matter, connecting with other people in meaningful ways or about your career growth path (if you’re laughing at this picture right now, it most certainly highlights the practical absurdity of thinking of inappropriate needs for the situation). Your immediate perception of what’s “valuable” shifts to preserving your own life, and you too probably start to run towards safety.

Similarly, your needs shift and change as you go through different phases of your life. When you are young and unattached, you generally have a greater need for uncertainty and variety – to go explore the world and its various options. The moment that you start to “settle down” and start having children, your priorities may start to shift a bit more towards providing you and your loved ones with greater safety. As the children leave the house, you may start once again engaging in hobbies that you have neglected for a long time, and perhaps go back to school, as growing as a person again becomes a focal point for you. As you grow, you also start realising that you have a desire to give back, and so start volunteering at a local shelter, or volunteering to teach others. (This is, of course, a highly stereotypical view, and is not necessarily the healthiest approach to life – that is up to you to discover for yourself).

In all of these examples, it is in the meeting of these fundamental needs of ours that we experience what we intuitively call “value”. That is, of course, given that we’re doing so in healthy ways. And how is it that we know that these needs of ours are or are not being met? Through our emotions, of course! We usually tend to feel happy once our needs have been met, and happily surprised when met unexpectedly. We tend to feel angry, sad or disappointed, or disgusted when they are not met. We tend to feel guilty when we act in ways that hurt others and go against the meeting of our own needs. (An important caveat here: this is not always the case though. When we come from dysfunctional relational backgrounds or have experienced a lot of pain and suffering at the hands of others in our past, our emotional responses to the world need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Psychotherapy is an incredibly effective tool in helping to sift our true feelings/emotions from those generated by PTSD).

Meeting Our Own Needs

Part and parcel of our highly dysfunctional society today is the lack of being able to meet our own needs in healthy ways, while trying to meet the needs of others, thinking that if we meet their needs then they’ll meet ours. This is a particular pattern of dysfunction that sets in in early childhood when parents cannot meet the needs of their children, and children assume that they have to teach their parents to how look after them (an oversimplification of codependency theory, I know). Unfortunately, their parents are so disconnected from themselves and their own emotions that there is no way that they would be able to be in touch with the emotions of their children. Children then preoccupy themselves with their external environments and external distractions, never really learning to be in touch with their own emotions, and so the cycle is perpetuated through the generations. As adults, we preoccupy ourselves with trying to please everybody around us (colleagues, managers, friends, partners) so they will like us and maybe, just maybe, they will help us meet our needs. Unfortunately, meeting one’s own needs is a full- time job for one person, and so the chances of them catering to your needs will be very slim.

This pattern of dysfunction is incredibly common nowadays, and is especially evident by how much codependency, addiction and abuse (physical and emotional) there is in the world today – our world of endless, instantly available distractions. We need to bring ourselves to a standstill, before life does this on our behalf in the form of catastrophe, and recognise that we need to take up full responsibility for having our own needs met and for our own happiness. This, of course, does not mean that we have full control over having our needs met, such as in the example of connectedness and love, where one cannot possibly control another person into loving you or being friends. All we can do is adjust ourselves, and rationally put ourselves in the best position we can to be able to have those needs met, and then be okay with being dependent on another person as they could be on you.

I say all of this because, before we can actually give back to others in meaningful, healthy ways, we have to be able to give to ourselves in healthy, meaningful ways.

Innovating Through Empathy

Once we are regularly in touch with and can meet our own basic needs by creatively coming up with ways of finding happiness in healthy ways, we can then start to look at meeting the needs of others in healthy ways (which, as said earlier, happens to be one of our own personal needs). By being in touch with oneself, knowing oneself and how to work with your own emotions, you can build up your ability to empathise with others. This allows you to feel what they feel, as if you were in their shoes. By being well-versed in looking after yourself and your own needs, you can then more easily help them find ways to have their own needs met.

This is especially relevant and pertinent in a business context. If we, as individual human beings (who happen to be employees as well), are out of touch with ourselves, how could we possibly be crafting products, services or experiences for other people that will make them happy enough, by way of having their needs/desires met, that they will pay you their hard-earned money and keep coming back to you for those offerings?

Coming back to the idea that innovating is about the simultaneous movement towards things that are both new and better, there is the underlying sense that it requires both creativity and an understanding of what’s valuable. Thinking only about the value/betteraspect, my reasoning, as explained above, is that being in touch with your own emotions as guides as to what’s valuable to you will allow you to come up with ways of structuring your life to facilitate greater happiness for yourself. This is the primary way in which you will be able to empathise with others and help to give them that which is valuable to them.

Conclusion

It would appear to me as though innovating on behalf of others and our own personal happiness and fulfilment are inextricably interwoven. We cannot separate our humanity from the business world, because our business, as human beings, is the business, challenge and art of finding and facilitating happiness in a challenging, dynamic world, for ourselves and others. The way in which we help others find happiness through our products, services and experiences, is for us to first find ways of making ourselves happy – a journey on which our true emotions and feelings will be our guides.

Commit yourself to making yourself happy, and being the only person in your life who is truly and ultimately responsible for your own happiness, and you will see that, within a few short months, you will be more capable of seeing what’s valuable for yourself and others. You will also be more capable of facilitating the happiness of others in healthier, more sustainable ways, and in so doing meet your own need to give back to others.

The rest of the challenge of innovating is in being able to facilitate the “new” – a topic which most certainly deserves its own special treatment.

About the Author

This article was written by Thane Thomson, who is currently working for DStv Digital Media in research and development.

Continue Reading

Trending