The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Mon, 2008-Sep-08, 08:39

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What End Users Really Want: Featuring Mabel and the White Mice

Here is my talk "What End Users Really Want: Featuring Mabel and the White Mice," which I gave at the August 2008 SpeechTek conference. The talk focuses on innovative services in speech technology, but aside from some jargon the overall point of the talk should be fairly clear.

The video consists of the conference audio track synchrnoized to the slides (download, PDF). If you find the correct icon (the screen icon, to the left of the progress bar) you can view this presentation in full-screen mode.

Fri, 2008-Sep-05, 07:34

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Video: If Information Wants to Be Free, Where Is It Hiding?

The keynote address I gave at Cluecon — "If Information Wants to Be Free, Where Is It Hiding?" — now available online as a video presentation. Here are the slides in PDF format.

The abstract of the talk:

Interesting web applications demonstrate that information really does want to be free. Developers mix and match data from various sources to create new, fascinating, and useful web sites. By comparison, telephony applications incorporate limited information and -- in a mobile world -- almost nothing in the way of location-sensitive information. What information will be free in twenty years? How will telephony applications incorporate this information? How do we get there from here? How can we make money during the journey?

I've also updated both parts (Part I, Part II) of the CCXML Workshop. If there are any remaining problems with the video, please contact me.

And with any luck, I should have another interesting (but much shorter!) talk available online later today.

Mon, 2008-Mar-17, 12:52

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Video Blog

Dan York interviewed me to discuss my Phone 2 Directions idea; here's the video.

Mon, 2008-Feb-25, 12:05

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Turning Phone Numbers into Directions

As much as I'd like to attend the eComm conference, I can't be there in person because of a schedule conflict; if you can, try to make it to the conference, which promises to be very interesting. To help you find the way... here's something new. Call +1 312 252 1758 to get directions to the conference location. And you don't have to enter an starting address — instead, you enter a phone number.

If you've been wondering why the blog hasn't been updated lately, I've been quite busy working on this little invention. I call it "Phone 2 Directions," and it's based on a very simple principle: if I know a phone number, there's a good possibility I know the location of that phone number.

Here's a simple example. I'm driving along in an unfamiliar city on my way from the airport to a meeting. I get a bit lost. I don't really know what street I'm on, and often I might not even be certain what town I'm actually in. As a result, most conventional map services won't help me — I need to enter an address for them to work. Besides, map services require keyboards and that's not useful (or safe) when I am trying to drive.

A GPS system would work, but I'd still have to enter my destination, which isn't fun while driving. The same for cell phones that locate (approximately) where you are based on proximity to cell phone towers. Even worse, that requires that I download the cell-phone-tower-finding software to my cell phone in advance. And what if I'm using a plain old telephone inside a gas station to get the directions?

The easiest way to find a location is to do something the telphone is designed to do: enter a telephone number. Telephone numbers are everywhere: on doors of businesses, on signs, in people's homes, at the desks of hotel lobbies. If you're driving along and you see a telephone number, you can use the "Phone 2 Directions" service to get directions.

The basic idea is quite simple. By performing reverse directory lookup, Phone 2 Directions finds the starting location and the destination; it gets the route from a driving-directions service; it reads the results back. It's a great solution for this problem> I call this idea "Telephone Accessible Geotags," using telephone numbers as a way to find and mark physical locations, and there are many more services that quickly come to mind.

A few words about Ifbyphone. The demonstration is hosted at Ifbyphone, which provides the telephony, speech recognition, and text-to-speech services. The interface to Ifbyphone uses the familiar web services pattern, and Phone 2 Directions is one of the first "phone mashups" available. Ifbyphone gives away one million minutes (yes — that's 1,000,000 minutes) of phone connection time to developers each month. If you want an account with them to try your own phone mashup, just sign up.

The source code for a demonstration version of this software is available in open-source.

Or, of course, you can just contact me if you'd like to use a hosted version of this software.

Tue, 2007-Dec-11, 10:33

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Seven Years Later: 7,305,550

I'm always somewhat bemused by the fact that the way I find out about my own patents is not because the government's Patent Office contacts me; not because the company I work for (or worked for in the past, in this case) contacts me; but because a private company that sells commemorative patent plaques contacts me to see if I want to purchase one. The profit motive trumps bureaucratic inertia every time.

I've just received patent 7,305,550, which I first applied for almost exactly seven years ago. Given that it's bouncing between Intel's lawyers and the patent office all this time, I hesitate to say exactly what the patent covers; from reading the abstract, the patent seems to have retained its original purpose, which is to help authenticate people over the telephone using biometrics stored in a central server.

I recall being careful when I wrote this patent to make certain that the innovation was genuine and that I didn't inadvertently damage my industry's ecology by staking out some territory that wasn't really mine. Today I'd be even more careful, as patents have become scarier over the years. Starting in the mid-1990's, the patent office issued many vague patents for "innovations" that were completely obvious to anyone skilled in the art but not to the patent office examiners. The glut of rotten patents gave rise to the "patent trolls" who perform no innovation but simply loot the real innovators who have built real products. Given the huge damages to both individual companies who are caught out by the patent trolls, and the damage to the US economy that results from improper ownership of innovation, I expect that the laws will change to make challenging patents easier.

Mon, 2007-Dec-10, 08:06

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Five New Ideas for Mortgage Innovations

Forbes has a fascinating article about mortgages and the lack of innovation.

Certainly we've seem some innovation in the mortgage industry, as mortgages were disaggregated into separate parts, re-bundled, and sold in different ways, but all almost that innovation was focused on post-mortgage processing, and the core mortgage has remained substantially the same. In the Forbes article, Bernard Condon argues for even more disaggregation. For example, at present the homeowner owns all the appreciation of the value of the house; why not let investors purchase some of that appreciation in return for lower interest rates?

I don't agree with all of Mr. Condon's rosy suggestions; I strongly suspect that some of the innovations he proposes would, if implemented, quickly degenerate into schemes to squeeze more money out of mortgage holders. But the fundamental ideas are sound, and Mr. Condon's main point is quite germane: Why is there so little true innovations in mortgage contracts?