Welcome back to This Week in Modern Software, or TWiMS, our weekly breakdown and analysis of the need-to-know news, stories, and events of interest surrounding the software and analytics industries. This week, everyone was talking about the prominent role President Obama gave technology in his final State of the Union Address, and our top two items delve into that subject.
Obama Touts Technology as the Answer to America’s Ills in State of the Union—Mashable
What it’s about: Technology has played a major role in President’s Obama two terms in office. U.S. Chief Data Scientist and former LinkedIn exec DJ Patil has called him “literally the most data-driven president we’ve had.” So it wasn’t too surprising to hear the president give tech a lot of air time in his final State of the Union address. According to Mashable’s Patrick Kulp, the key line was this: “How do we make technology work for us, and not against us?” But Yahoo’s Rob Pegoraro pointed out that Obama didn’t say much about Net Neutrality, and completely ignored a number of hot—and potentially controversial—tech topics like encryption, self-driving cars, drones, and patent reform. And multiple watchers noted that it was the first time in four years that President Obama did not use the word “cyber” during the State of the Union address. It’s also worth mentioning that this was the first time the SOTU address streamed on Amazon Instant Video as well as on YouTube.
Why you should care: What the president says in a SOTU address matters, even if it’s a lame duck commander-in-chief mostly talking in high-level platitudes instead of hard-nosed specifics. Who could be against “innovation,” for example? But by devoting so much of such a high-profile occasion to tech issues and accomplishments, he helped cement the role of technology—and entrepreneurs “from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley”—as the drivers of progress in America. We especially appreciated the shout out to “online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.”
- President Obama Calls on Tech to Combat America’s ‘Urgent Challenges’—Re/code
- State of the Union’s Technology? What Obama Didn’t Say—Yahoo
- President Touts Net Neutrality Win During State of the Union—The Hill
- Remarks of President Barack Obama—State of the Union Address as Delivered—WhiteHouse.gov
- Michelle Obama Invites Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to State of the Union—CNN Money
What it’s about: With all attention paid to tech in Obama’s SOTU address (see above), one particular area is worth a closer look: The intersection of the president’s technology and education agendas. “Helping students learn to write computer code” was first on Obama’s opening list of policy topics. Moreover, after summarizing education achievements during his administration, he looked ahead to the future: “In the coming years, we should build on that progress … offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.” It’s a noble idea but one that’s unlikely to be realized during the final year of the Obama administration. The big question: Will it ever come to pass?
Why you should care: The boldness of the idea is reflected in its distance from implementation. GeekWire’s Todd Bishop notes that Obama put computer science on the same level as math, which has long been a fundamental of school curriculums. Yet Bishop notes reason for tempered expectations: While interest and enrollment is rising quickly, just 25% of U.S. schools currently teach computer science and programming. NPR’s Anya Kamenetz includes an even more sobering stat: According to the Computer Science Teachers Association, just 10% of U.S. high schools offer a comp sci class today. Despite skyrocketing interest from students and parents, the challenges are complex: For starters, individual states have a lot of control over their schools’ curricula, and not all may be equally committed. Even then, there aren’t enough people qualified to teach the subject. “There’s no certification for teaching computer science [in New York]. We’re taking people who trained to be teachers and giving them some CS knowledge so they can step into a classroom and help kids. This is a Band-Aid,” CSNYC’s Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser told NPR. So think of this as an aspirational goal, not a concrete plan.
Nest Thermostat Glitch Leaves Users in the Cold—New York Times
What it’s about: Due to a software glitch in Google’s highly touted—and highly priced—programmable smart thermostat, a bunch of users woke up to chilly houses early this year when their devices shut down and heating systems were turned off. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton wrote the story first hand, as he was awoken by a chilly—and squalling—baby when his Nest went kaput. But he was hardly the only person affected, as social media and Nest forums lit up with frosty users. Apparently, the problem resulted from a December software update that manifested itself in January by causing uncontrolled battery drain. According to Bilton, Nest says the issue has now been fixed for “99.5 percent of its customers,” but many of them remain unhappy. Particularly because Nest’s fix involved a nine-step procedure so complicated Nest offered to send a plumber to users who couldn’t figure it out.
Why you should care: At New Relic, we like to say “life’s too short for bad software.” In this case, it seems, “winter is too cold for bad software.” While a chilly house for a day may not sound like a big deal, users worried about pipes bursting in unattended homes in freezing temperatures. And the incident highlights the dependence we all have on software in a variety of places, not just in our computers and smartphones. The growth of the Internet of Things—see the smart refrigerators announced at CES—only increased the vulnerability. Finally, as one user pointed out on Twitter, glitches like this suggest that the default failure mode should be to keep things running based on offline instructions, and alert users ASAP. Remember in the original Jurassic Park when all the dinosaur pens opened after the power went off? Not a good design choice.
- Software Bug Forced Nest Thermostats Offline—Engadget
- Google Nest’s Battery-Drain: Chilly Users Turn Up Heat Over Thermostat Software Glitch—ZDNet
What it’s about: Over at DZone, software pro and Daedtech founder Erik Dietrich recalls witnessing a New Year’s resolver struggling to use the treadmill in a hotel gym during a recent business trip. Not wanting to seem like a pedantic gym guy, Dietrich didn’t offer to help. What’s this got to do with software, you ask? It made Dietrich wonder: Shouldn’t the treadmill offer the help when someone struggles to operate it properly? That’s the way it should work, right? The RTFM mindset is dead in the modern software era, according to Dietrich, and usability and user experience should be every programmer’s concern—no more scoffing from behind your laptop screen.
Why you should care: Dietrich details the treadmill anecdote’s applicability to modern software: “Software is about helping people solve non-technical problems and improve the quality of their lives, which one might loosely term ‘user experience.’” But he also identifies a problem with UX: It sounds kind of abstract or wishy-washy—“as if the whole idea were to code up the software equivalent of an aromatherapy spa experience.” But that’s most definitely not the point: In fact, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line: Dietrich equates software programming to a form of entrepreneurship, and usability as “a path to the ‘shut up and take my money’ moment” that so many apps strive for but few truly achieve. Developers are uniquely positioned to identify and capture those moments, because they can create them without needing to rely on anyone else: There are plenty of “ideas people,” but how many of them can actually build those ideas? Recommended reading for the new year, even if you’ve already caved on your workout resolutions.
The Search for the Killer Bot—The Verge
What it’s about: It’s 2016, and robots have not yet taken over the world. But could this be the year software bots take over the Web? That’s the question behind Casey Newton’s feature for The Verge, which dives into the history and hype around bots. (Newton rightfully notes that “bot” and related terms have been applied to quite a few things in software, but here refers generally to a program that can understand and respond to human text or speech.) Increasing attention is focusing on consumer messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat as well as workplace chat tools like Slack and HipChat. And those may just be a precursor for what’s to come in the virtual assistant world of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Facebook’s M, Google Now, and others. Bots—and their increasing ability to process human language and respond in meaningful ways—should play a major role in those ecosystems, though “should” might be the key word.
Why you should care: Not everyone’s sold on bots as the future of software. Newton cites one VC, for example, who thinks the bot is this year’s Bitcoin—largely driven by the Silicon Valley hype machine. Moreover, he points out that bot intelligence is still relatively low—true AI is still short at least a handful of major breakthroughs. But that’s OK, says XOXCO co-founder Ben Brown, whose team built Howdy for Slack. “We’re not trying to reach consciousness here,” Brown tells Newton, “We’re just trying to expose certain functionality through language.” Despite other challenges, including scalability, platform dependence, and usability, there’s a reason why the big players in the technology industry have spent so much time and energy in the field. A “killer” bot could possess the force to unseat the current rulers of the tech universe.
What it’s about: In a Washington Post profile of the new $600,000 Fresno, Calif., Real Time Crime Center, author Justin Jouvenal focuses on the emerging use of Intrado’s Beware, a software program that uses a proprietary algorithm to determine a color-coded “threat assessment” for private citizens (green, yellow, or high-risk red), based on a wide variety of publicly available data sources, including criminal records and social media activity. As Fresno Police Chief Larry Dyer explained, officers responding to calls are expected to make split-second decisions when rushing headlong into unknown situations. Much like a bank would run a credit check for a FICO score before making a loan, “The more you can provide in terms of intelligence and video, the more safely you can respond to calls,” he said. But constituents, privacy advocates, and even the Fresno City Council are worried about potential police surveillance overreach.
Why you should care: The transformative power of “big data” has come to law enforcement, and it has left many worried about the implications for privacy and public safety. As the Post notes, technology such as Beware gives law enforcement officials “unprecedented power to peer into the lives of citizens, ” but because Intrado considers its shadowy algorithm a trade secret, we don’t know what weight is given to a person’s actual criminal history versus social media comments or other factors. And if public criticism of the police or other officials could trigger a higher threat assessment, it conjures the specter of an Orwellian dystopia in which every tweet or Internet search determines how much of a “threat” you are in the eyes of the police. Perhaps worse, preconceived notions of threat levels—or ones based on inaccurate data—could escalate encounters between citizens and law enforcement in potentially dangerous ways.
- Beware: Surveillance Software Police Are Using to Score Citizens’ Threat Level—Network World
- Big Data Plays Growing Role as Police Track, Analyze Threats Posed by Individuals—Wall Street Journal
- The Most Disturbing Tech Story of 2015 That No One Is Talking About—Network World
Fredric Paul and David Hennessy contributed to this post.
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