We all have a back story.
Sharing them helps others to understand our motivations, circumstances and achievements in context. My story is below and is probably TLDR, but let me tell it anyway…
You might want to read my definition of technology, but I mostly invent technologies and technology-based strategies. I do this to help businesses innovate.
Besides being a hardcore technologist, I am also an amateur philosopher and artist. I believe in renaissance thinking (“polymathy”) whereby a well-rounded person should understand a range of topics besides his speciality. Whilst there is no “secret” to innovation, nor any single approach, it is a truism that individual creativity stems from the ability to synthesize and think abstractly whilst having the tools, resources and opportunities to act practically. Polymathy gives the inventor sufficient tools of speculation to see other meanings in his or her work.
As an example, a naive engineer might think of ways to make a mobile address book a “nicer” user experience. But, armed with my knowledge of network theory, I formed a different view.
Before Facebook was even an idea, I had attempted to persuade carriers to turn the ubiquitous address book app into an open social platform (using FOAF). [They didn’t listen, nor understand. But this taught me a lot about how incumbents view the world and proved useful when I found myself, many times since, trying to innovate within large organizations.]
I have been lucky enough to pursue a “career” (only ever had one permanent job) at the frontier of technology. It has given me insights into innovation, or how it actually works (if we really know, which is doubtful when we step back from the retrospective stories that we tell ourselves).
My own view of innovation is that it stems from emergence out of complex biological systems that tend to exhibit chaotic behavior (in the mathematical sense of chaos). In short, we try to use our brains to redistribute and convert information into meaningful outputs, but random (chaotic) processes often intervene to allow new ideas to emerge. All one can do is be prepared for its emergence by setting the right scene. This might equate to golfer Nick Faldo’s aphorism: “I make my own luck.” (Indeed, if we believe that Silicon Valley is the peak of technological innovation activity, then we need look no further than the behavior of VCs, which is essentially “more swings at the bat“.)
The “realities” of delivering technology in a chaotic setting – i.e. the messy workplace and market – led me deep into the world of cognitive science. The biggest tension in innovation and work is between the stories we tell ourselves and what we really think, and do. In science, it is said that the advancement of ideas proceeds one funeral at a time – i.e. not at the speed of discovery of ideas, but at the speed of shedding dogmas (as the proponents of dogmas die). Innovation within an org is somewhat similar – i.e. velocity is not just a matter of process, but of mindset. Hence why I found it necessary to understand how the mind works.
Besides technology, innovation requires cognitive techniques to deliver results, especially within an existing org (with its many predispositions and proclivities). Just as behavioral economics has reinvented our naive understanding of economic activity, if our theories were ever right to begin with (see Steve Keen) I expect that similar approaches are needed to shed light on how innovation really works at both the macro and micro levels.
My view is that large corporations should be viewed as biological entities rather than “systems of economic production” per se – i.e. cognitive science and evolutionary psychology probably have more explanatory and predictive power than management science or economics. Indeed, our increasing reliance upon the god of data science is short-sighted. Actual science works by rethinking simple things.
Graduating with a First in Electronic Engineering in the UK, where I also won the coveted IEE Prize, I started my career by designing silicon chips for cell phones at the dawn of the digital mobile era (GSM). Via a series of significant inventions, patents and accolades, I later qualified for a US “Extraordinary Ability” visa without any sponsor (which is very rare). I initially wanted to work in the field of Digital Signal Processing (DSP) because it presented the perfect blend of engineering, silicon design and mathematics. I was lucky to get a job as a DSP engineer in Motorola back when it was the tour de force of communications chip design.
Engineering is deeply practical, even in its complex use of seemingly abstract mathematics. It should come as no surprise that I am also highly practical by habit, including a tendency to do most of my own construction, electrical and plumbing work around my Oakland home. Note the apparent cognitive irony that this is probably a poor economic use of my time. But then the only measure of time should not be economic. This too, is a dogma.
I am also a hands-on solver in the workplace even though I sometimes give the impression of living in my head, or, as one of my client’s used to say: “three steps ahead of everybody else.”
As an example, when we needed an electronics lab to design and prototype digital art devices for one client of mine, I did not hesitate to help design the lab itself, mostly because it was the only way to get it done. Similarly, when the CEO agreed to fund the lab only if I built a business case for digital art, I did not hesitate to use a spreadsheet and build some business-case scenarios, even with my limited financial expertise. In other words, I did whatever it took to get the job done. This attitude has got me far. On another occasion, I struggled to get funding for an idea (to build a telephony application platform) in O2 UK, so I flew to various teams in its parent, Telefonica, until I found someone with an interest – and some funding – to pursue the idea.
I moved to Silicon Valley from the UK. You might think it’s the obvious destination for someone like myself. Indeed, I had planned to make the move many moons ago, but I met my now wife and wandered down a different path.
I only returned to the idea after having kids and wanting to avail them of the Bay Area’s creative potential, even though the region and its culture has a somewhat narrow vision of creativity. I also came in search of counterculture, but struggled to find it. The valley is surprisingly conformist to a certain set of techno-venture rules. That said, my middle son is now running his own start-up without ever setting foot in a college. And my daughter is his technical co-founder. I doubt this would have happened so easily in my home town in rural Wiltshire, UK.
As an interesting anecdote of the Bay Area’s creative potential, I took one of my sons to meet a science tutor in San Jose and she didn’t bat an eyelid when my son suggested that he might design and build a bat suit (yes, as in Batman) as a genuine science project (to protect motorcyclists from injury). In the UK, such a proposal would have fallen well into the boundaries of eccentricity, even though the British eccentric tradition has yielded plenty of great engineers, like Dyson, Brunel and so on. On the other hand, when I went in search of math tutors with the brief: “teach my kids something interesting – forget about grades”, most of them were too entrenched in the culture of teaching the preferred syllabus in expectation of helping students get A grades. I failed quite miserably to find a mathematics enthusiast.
In the early 90s I developed 3D compression techniques whilst studying for a PhD (sponsored by Motorola). I studied at the prestigious Mobile Multimedia Lab in University of Southampton. My motivation was to make augmented reality possible on mobile devices. However, I got waylaid by the much lauded challenge of solving the canonical wireless interference problem (“co-channel interference”) that sits at the root of determining the capacity of a cellular system (outside of shrinking cell sizes). I did this using fuzzy logic AI (and later neural nets). It strengthened my interest in algorithms, almost as a kind of philosophical foundationalism.
It was already obvious to me that mobile apps (or “mobile multimedia” as we called it back then) was the future, even though the mobile app was yet to be invented. This is what motivated my attraction to Motorola’s cellular R&D division and to solving mobile problems. I wrote one of the world’s first books about mobile apps, a category that I helped to invent. I was one of the only individual expert members of the Java community that invented the “midlet,” the first mobile app framework. So yes, I really am one of the inventors of the mobile app. As it happens, I invented lots of industry firsts in mobile, including the first SMS API back when the number of text messages sent per day was only in the thousands across the entire UK cellular network! (For more of my inventions, see some of the entries in my work.)
By way of “confirmation” I was also the first developer, some years later, to get an Apple staff pick for an iPhone productivity app. I had built a mobile web app (pre iPhone native apps) to take notes on the phone. It was a simple first step of a more ambitious vision to build an AI that made sense of my notes. I have resurrected this ambition many times since and even postulated a “Gravitational Theory of Thought” that I have used to build a novel knowledge-based AI, mostly as a passion project.
Some of my best work in my “early career” was done via my own start-up: Magic E Company. It was Europe’s first ever mobile apps company, 11 years before the iPhone. As early as 97, I invented and built the world’s first mobile portal for Lucent Technologies that featured location-based services and was later adopted by Netscape in a partnership with Lucent. Ironically, or perhaps not, even the great Netscape failed to see the significance of mobile and eventually dismissed the opportunity.
I designed one of the world’s first smartphone interfaces when I consulted for NTT DoCoMo (98) and this led to me becoming a consulting CTO for MetroWalker, Asia’s first location-services start-up (before mobiles had GPS) based out of Hong Kong.
In a later attempt to persuade carriers to “think like internet guys”, I was hired by O2 UK (2008) to stimulate such a vision. This mostly centered upon the notion of converting their network into an open platform. To this end, I helped to create a CEO-sponsored innovation lab (“O2 Labs”) where I invented a number of products, including an open telephony platform (connFu) with its own Ruby-flavored domain-specific language (DSL) that would allow anyone to build mobile services with just a few lines of code. I think this is probably the first and last time that any carrier in the world created a programming language!
“Programmable telephony” has since become a convention of the next-gen platform/API economy with the likes of Twilio (whom I recommended Telefonica to acquire back in 2010).
I strongly advocated that carriers should become “connected services” companies rather than “dumb pipes” and wrote a book to explain the concept, which was widely read, but mostly ignored, by carrier executives.
After moving to the US in 2012, I continued to invent strategies, products and technologies, and file patents, for various clients. For example, as consulting Chief Scientist at Art.com, I helped to create Klio, an attempt to establish digital décor as a new type of art experience.
I still believe that the “digital art” category has the potential to reinvent art and our relationship with it, but it requires some kind of “tipping point” around the notion of owning digital objects. Nonetheless, I filed various patents fundamental to digital art rendering after I invented a novel file format (.art containers) to allow for long-playing art pieces that could evolve over the period of a year!
Klio re-awakened a latent interest in art and I have since produced several “generative” works of my own that use algorithms to create an aesthetic. Most of these works were available on Klio (now defunct) but I plan to release others in due course once I figure out where best to publish them. Many of my pieces explore our relationship with data and AI at a deeply philosophical level.
[Update: Klio was abandoned by art.com after I left and art.com has since been sold to Walmart.]
Via many projects, I have found myself often leading technological transformation within a kind of “intrapreneurial” setting within existing companies, often within the rubric of a “lab.” Back when I was consulting for O2, I had already pioneered the use of “Silicon Valley” start-up techniques (such as a modified form of Lean/Agile) inside of large orgs, as contradictory as that sounds (and might well be). However, the bigger challenges I faced were in overcoming organizational cognitive illusions, hence why a good deal of my research interests gravitated towards mapping common cognitive delusions to the causes of innovation failure. This work proved far more valuable than any deep technological invention.
I am told that I am hard to pigeon-hole, but I’m fine with that. I believe in challenging established thought patterns and striving to achieve progress at the speed of thought rather than the rate of decay of dogma. I suspect that I have anarchic tendencies, within the classical anarchist tradition (of bottom-up organization) and have often harnessed this to “disrupt from below” when the usual “top down” methods fail, which is often (and for too many reasons to elaborate here).
This attitude informs my “transcendence” philosophy which is the belief in the directed bottom-up (or emergent) “political” use of technology to transcend biological biases (e.g. misplaced tribalism) that might distract us from certain truths, if they really exist. That said, such a philosophy is riddled with problems and contradictions. But that’s the work of thinkers – to figure the hard things out, or illuminate the pathway.
Related to transcendence, my research interests include developing models of creative thinking with a view to using machines to “amplify thought.” I call this “augmented cognition” and it relates to the aforementioned obsession with trying to meaningfully digitize my notes and have an AI “make sense” of them beyond mere NLP-type probabilistic classifications.
It is different to AI and certainly not an attempt to solve the “Hard AI” problem, which I think is insolvable anyway. If AI is making machines more “human”, I am excited by making humans more machine at the risk of sounding dystopian or even utopian. Despite seeming dystopian, making humans more machine-like is really what mechanized technology of any kind aims to do. The flip side is that it ought to allow us to be more human by relieving us of all the lower-level Maslow needs, but I am aware of how naive this might seem.
This interest in “making sense” of my “digital thoughts” (e.g. via notes, or emails, or whatever), plus work I did in computational aesthetics for Art.com, fuels a number of side projects in AI to figure out what “augmented cognition” might look like, but that would be a long and deep conversation.
In the realm of education, I favor methods of teaching mathematics that assume the use of available computation wherever possible (e.g. Mathematica) instead of rote-learning useless facts like sin^2(a) + cos^2(a) = 1. In this regard, I consider the work of Conrad Wolfram as worthy of attention.
Homeschooling (“alt ed”) of my kids greatly informed this insight. When you take education into your own hands, especially for renaissance reasons, many of its common forms and supposed agendas become quite puzzling (or not).
I like helping people to improve themselves, which is probably a healthy memetic mutation. I am mostly a pessimist by nature, or most likely a depressive realist, but one optimism I do have is that I believe that I can learn something from everyone I meet and that no innovation problem is insurmountable, at least in the first degree. (Of course, there are real obstacles to human achievement, but this is a debated topic in philosophy.)
Perhaps I will learn from you one day, or get a chance to solve a pressing problem that keeps you awake at night.
Thank you for spending some of your valuable and irreplaceable Earth minutes visiting my website. I am in your debt.