🤔 Is this web 3.0?

This week looks at the return of decentralisation to the Internet. Is it really web 3.0?

Command and Control rules today.

Every now and again an article makes you look up and think. That happened this week when I was reading about decentralisation.

The internet was created on the back of the idea that a decentralised network is stronger than a centralised one.

The decentralised nature of the web, combined with open standards destroyed the closed experiences of AOL and its brethren.

Fast forward to the 2000s and peer to peer music providers like Napster appeared and severely dented the music industry.

Today though, the major digital music services are centralised and there is limited peer to peer distribution of music today.

Centralised platforms have taken over, be it Facebook, Google or Spotify. This has been further exacerbated by the rise of the cloud – it has made it faster and easier to created centralised platforms than ever before. 

Platforms: Decentralised vs Centralised

The article also suggested that centralised platforms have a life cycle which can be boiled down to initially working overtime to attract users and partner ecosystems in order to scale the platform until those same partners become a threat and control is retaken.

This results in slowing platform innovation and a lack of wider market opportunities from the ecosystem.

On the other hand, a decentralised platform will often be inferior to a centralised platform but over time and with the right ingredients can out innovate and out scale the centralised platform.

Why is this relevent today?

Blockchain, which sits at the core of bitcoin offers the potential to allow for rapid innovation and creation of decentralised systems. It still needs to overcome some major technical hurdles as it struggles to perform at scale but these challenges are being worked on at the moment.

The article by Chris Dixon goes into much further depth and I urge you to go and read it.

Is the future decentralised?

Muneeb Ali, cofounder of Blockstack expands on blockchain and decentralisation imagining what a new world might look like. It is 10 minutes long and worth a watch.

Muneeb Ali – Truth in a post-truth world | The Conference 2017 – YouTube

I think he paints a good picture of what a decentralised world may look like but the actual path to get there is unclear and a tricky one.

Just building decentralised versions of centralised platforms is not enough to make people switch.

Figuring out how to pay for maintaining and building those platforms is an even bigger challenge.

📰📰Major changes to the way we read news.

This week the focus is on publishers and their changing worlds. Could we be on the cusp of a major change in the way we interact with publishing online?

Google launches an ad blocker?

Pigs are seemingly flying overhead as I type this. Google’s latest version of Chrome includes an ad blocker. How will Google survive without ads paying its bills?

Once you install the latest version , the answer becomes clear. Nothing noticeable changed. When Google says ad blocker it is really saying bad ad blocker. It removes ads that slow your computer down or interfere with content you are trying to read.

Google’s hope is that this stops people downloading other true ad blocking software, which in turn are increasingly opaque. It turns out some of them allow publishers to pay them to bypass the block.

Wired discusses Google’s move further and interestingly mentions other ad blocking software but only links to uBlock, an open source ad blocking platform.

Or maybe, it is the worst performing of the ad blockers so a publisher linked to it knowing it can be bypassed…

Ad blockers have been steadily increasing as each year passes. The unknown today is whether this move will backfire on Google and result in increased uptake of tools like uBlock or whether Google’s ad blocker will be sufficient to stem the tide.

If usage of tools like uBlock does increase, could we see paywalls coming to Google or Facebook?

What now for publishers?

The rise of ad blocking has caused issues with an already embattled publishing industry.

They continue to fight the ad blockers though this I believe is a waste of time – giving readers the choice would be a better approach. 

Publishers have increasingly been turning to paywalls to drive revenue, though they remain stuck on subscriptions as the only alternative after a select number of free articles. 

Being able to pay for individual articles would seem to make more sense but has been difficult due to the fees charged by payment providers. This is surely surmountable though by purchasing packs of credits that can be used across multiple publishers.

Media group Salon have turned to mining cryptocurrency as an alternative approach. It allows users who do not want ads to turn over their computer power to mining coins which in turn earns money for the publisher.

An interesting idea albeit one that creates an unknown cost for the user, who indirectly pay via their energy bills.

…and Facebook

Facebook has been busy updating its algorithms to create “more meaningful social interactions”. This has not been defined and will likely change over time, not least because somewhere people are working away to take advantage. Zynga did it first with their viral games, Buzzfeed after with their quizzes before the last update which encouraged the creation of fake news. 

One Buzzfeed journalist has already tried to game the algorithm, identifying that commenting seem to prioritise posts more than before.

Publishers have the most at stake with this algorithm change as it is their posts that are being demoted in favour of your friends and family. 

A cynic might note that this could be bypassed by paying Facebook to advertise their articles!

One other emphasis vocalised by Facebook is a focus on local topics over national topics. Why this shouldn’t be subject to fake news is beyond me but maybe Facebook hopes the issue will not attract national news coverage…

One way they are getting around this is with a local section in the Facebook app with pre-approved publishers. This is still being tested so no news yet on when this hits the UK.

Pre-approving publishers is of course not scalable and open to bias as well. It also doesn’t stop the spread of self published content on not just Facebook but Twitter or YouTube as well.

Have some pocket change

Finally whilst Facebook is downgrading publishers inside the newsfeed, they are providing a boost to their revenue via the Facebook mobile app.

Since October, users have been able to read up to ten articles for free before subscribing to the publisher. This was not possible on iPhone as Apple took 30% of any subscription revenue. Now that has been resolved and Facebook sends users to the publisher’s subscription page giving them all 100% of the revenue.

Publishers are now incentivised to keep users subscribing within Facebook rather than their mobile apps, where they get only 70% of the revenue.

🍁🤖O Canada. Artificial Intelligence’s cradle and the death of the musician?

This week looks behind the scenes of artificial intelligence, gaps today and changes already in motion.

The AI Winter

Early AI (The Mark I Perceptron)
(via Wikipedia/Cornell University Library website)

Tucked away in the depths of universities are projects that have little love in the wider world and yet can lead to a significant breakthrough.

For decades, experts were down on the idea of neural networks but over in Canada, a small group of expertise grew regardless. These approaches led to the advances in machine learning and the now very popular area of artificial intelligence.

Toronto Life has an excellent article on Geoffrey Hinton, one of these early pioneers and describes the “AI Winter” when few believed.

One of the reasons for persevering with neural networks was due to our lack of understanding of how the brain worked. Hinton said:

“The brain has got to work somehow and it sure as hell doesn’t work by someone writing programs and sticking them in there,”

The article also looks into his history and he has a fantastic family tree ranging from the founder of Boolean Logic to Everest and the Manhattan Project. He also happens to come from Wimbledon 😊

More here.

Artificial Intelligence’s holes

How far we have come with artificial intelligence should be celebrated but there are still holes. Wired takes a look at the downsides finding it:

  • cannot think abstractly;
  • does not scale to become human-like;
  • useless without large data sets.

One of the benefits of this breakthrough though is the billions of pounds being spent finding other techniques that improve on these drawbacks. Without it, the AI winter would have continued.

Changing workforces

The unknown can create angst and the potential of AI and robotics has many worrying about jobs (though automating away manual repetitive tasks can only be a good thing for people if we get it right).

Wired looks at how robots have entered the workplace as painters and changed the jobs of the people around them.  The robots took over brute sanding and painting, while humans did the more complicated tasks like assembly, with some looking after the robots.

Reuters takes a look at how eastern Europe is also automating its factories as the cost of labour increases and the number of workers decreases.

In the US, a lack of labour is resulting in cows being increasingly milked by robots. A study by University of Minnesota researchers shows that the economic benefits are not uniform though. Robots were more profitable with upto 240 cows but at larger numbers (they studied 1,500 cows) parlours remained more profitable. More here.

Finally Newsweek has a rather alarmist article about the end of the musician based on Spotify hiring an AI scientist. 

Spotify has an army of people working on the huge swathes of data available to it and when I see them at conferences, what they achieve never fails to astound.

Spotify and indeed IBM say their focus is on assisting the musician rather than replacing them, which holds true today. If the AI cannot interpret quality, which of course it cannot with current techniques, all it can do is generate millions of tracks in the hope of creating a gem. 

Would you trawl through the results?