AI First

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Founder’s Letter, April 2016

My Library recently finalized a Vision Document for our virtual library presence. Happily, our vision was aligned with the long-term direction of technology as understood by movers and shakers like Google.

As I’ve written previously, the Library Website will disappear. But this is because the Internet (as we currently understand it) will also disappear.

In its place, a new mode of information retrieval and creation will move us away from the paper-based metaphor of web pages. Information will be more ubiquitous. It will be more free-form, more adaptable, more contextualized, more interactive.

Part of this is already underway. For example, people are becoming a data set. And other apps are learning about you and changing how they work based on who you are. Your personal data set contains location data, patterns in speech and movement around the world, consumer history, keywords particular to your interests, associations based on your social networks, etc.

AI Emerging

All of this information makes it possible for emerging AI systems like Siri and Cortana to better serve you. Soon, it will allow AI to control the flow of information based on your mood and other factors to help you be more productive. And like a good friend that knows you very, very well, AI will even be able to alert you to serendipitous events or inconveniences so that you can navigate life more happily.

People’s expectations are already being set for this kind of experience. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself getting annoyed when your personal assistant just fetches a Wikipedia article when you ask it something. You’re left wanting. What we want is that kernel of gold we asked about. But what we get right now, is something too general to be useful.

But soon, that will all change. Nascent AI will soon be able to provide exactly the piece of information that you really want rather than a generalized web page. This is what Google means when they make statements like “AI First” or “the Web will die.” They’re talking about a world where information is not only presented as article-like web pages, but broken down into actual kernels of information that are both discrete and yet interconnected.

AI First in the Library

Library discussions often focus on building better web pages or navigation menus or providing responsive websites. But the conversation we need to have is about pulling our data out of siloed systems and websites and making it available to all modes like AI, apps and basic data harvesters.

You hear this conversation in bits and pieces. The ongoing linked data project is part of this long-term strategy. So too with next-gen OPACs. But on the ground, in our local strategy meetings, we need to tie every big project we do to this emerging reality where web browsers are increasingly no longer relevant.

We need to think AI First.

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ProtonMail: A Survivors Tale

Beginning November 3rd, encrypted email service provider, ProtonMail, came under a DDOS attack by blackmailers. Here is my experience, as a supporter and subscriber, watching from the sidelines. It’s a survival story with many heroes that reads like a Mr. Robot script.

Why Encrypt Your Email?

ProtonMail is an encrypted email service that I just love. It overcomes the problems with email providers’ harvesting your personal data for resale, the pitfalls of these databases falling into criminal hands and just plain weirdness you feel when every word, attachment and contact is shared to whomever.

To make my point on why everyone should use encrypted email, like ProtonMail, consider this experience: I recently had to fill out an affidavit confirming my identity but did not have all the particulars with me, such as past addresses, etc. No problem, I just logged into my 12 year old Gmail account and did some searching. In no time, I had all the personal info the affidavit required to prove my identity.

It’s not that I purposely saved all this information in there. It just accumulates over the years organically.

Imagine if that data fell into the wrong hands.

ProtonMail is a crowd-funded, free email service that comes out of the CERN laboratories in Switzerland and MIT. The engineers at these research facilities were inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowdon about back doors into email servers and the general collection of data by governments, so they built ProtonMail.

The service is simple, elegant and super secure. The encryption happens through the use of a client-side password, so theoretically, nobody, not even ProtonMail, can decrypt your emails and read them.

ProtonMail Taken Down

The recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack began on November 3rd when a group held for ransom access to ProtonMail’s email service. This was a very sophisticated attack that flooded their servers with requests, but also their ISP. The result was that ProtonMail and several other sites, including e-commerce and banking sites, were unreachable. After failing to successfully fight back, the ISP and other firms put enormous pressure on ProtonMail to pay off the cyber gang. They did so and the attack stopped…momentarily.

Less than half a day later, the attack re-commenced. This time it was even more sophisticated and destructive. And, things got even weirder. The original blackmailers actually contacted ProtonMail to let them know they were not involved in the new attack. ProtonMail is pretty certain that the second attack was likely a state entity.

You can read all the details on their blog post on the incident.

Over this past weekend, November 7-8th, ProtonMail launched a response to the ongoing attack, deploying new defensive technologies used by large Internet firms, funded through a GoFundeMe campaign. As of this writing nearly 1,500 individuals donated $50,000 in just 3 days to help in this regard.

Those would be the first, rather large, set of heroes. Thanks to you guys!

Click here to add to the fund.

Social Networks Get the Word Out

The media was really late to this story. It was not until the end of the week that the first news reports came out about the blackmail story made sexier by the fact that the ransom was paid with bitcoins.

Most of the breaking news, however, was only available on ProtonMail’s Twitter feed and their Sub-Reddit.

It was on their Twitter page that they first disclosed the moment-by-moment details of their fight to restore access and their ultimate attempt to fund new defensive technologies. It was on Reddit that the controversy and pain was aired such as reactions to their payment of the ransom and frustration of everyday users at not being able to access their email.

People really gave them a lot of credit, however. And it was heartening that, despite some rather single-minded rants, most people rallied around ProtonMail.

Lessons Learned

One thing I was surprised about were some of the complaints from business people that were using ProtonMail as their exclusive business email. They were losing money during the attack so they were often the most irate. But you have to wonder about someone using an emerging tool like ProtonMail for something so critical as company email. Obviously, new Internet services take time, especially when they are not backed by seasoned VCs who are risk adverse.

I personally had not made the switch to ProtonMail entirely. Part of this was because they don’t have an iPhone app yet, which is where I do about 50% of my emailing. But I was getting close.

So, yes, I had a few important emails get bounced back to the senders. And perhaps one or two have been lost permanently (I may never know). But it does go to show that, for the foreseeable future, ProtonMail is not a reliable sole-email solution. However, given the work they are doing in response to the latest attack, this event may be the turning point that makes them a truly stable email service.

Just this morning, they came under another attack, but unlike previous days over the past week, they were back online very quickly. Hopefully this means their new defenses are paying off.

Bottom Line

ProtonMail rocks. I really love it. The recent DDOS attack only confirms that the good team at CERN and MIT are dedicated to doing what it takes to keep this alive. I can think of other such services that have folded when they came under similar pressure. In fact, the user community around ProtonMail is as serious as ever, shelling out the money required to safeguard encrypted email just when it counted.

There will likely be further trouble ahead. The British government has suggested it might ban encrypted email services. And who knows how the US will respond long term. So, there could be more chop ahead. But for the time being, it seems that ProtonMail may have survived a very critical test of its resilience.

Stay tuned!

Is Apple Pay Really Private?

Apply Pay, the new payment system unveiled by Apple yesterday was an intriguing alternative to using Debit and Credit Cards. But how private, and how secure, is this new payment system going to really be?

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, made it very clear that Apple intends to never collect data on you or what you purchase via Apple Pay. The service, in fact, adds a few new layers of security to transactions. But you have to wonder.

A typical model for data collection business models is to promise robust privacy assurances in their service agreements and marketing even though the long-term strategy is to leverage that data for profit. Anyone who was with Facebook early on knows how quickly these terms can change.

So, when we’re assured that our purchases will remain wholly private and marketing firms will never have access to them, how can we really be confident that this will always remain the case? We can’t. So, as users, we should approach such services with skepticism.

As with anything related to personal data, we should assume that enterprising hackers or government agents can and will figure out a way to access and exploit our information. Just last week, celebrities using Apple’s iCloud had their accounts compromised and embarrassing photos were made public. And while Apple has done a pretty good job at securing Apple Pay, it’s still possible someone could figure out a way in…and then you’re not just dealing with incriminating photos, you’ve got your financial history exposed.

So ask yourself:

  1. Can you think of things you buy that could prove embarrassing or might give people with malign intent a way to blackmail or do financial damage to me?
  2. If my most embarrassing purchases were to become permanently public, can I live with that?
  3. How would such public exposure impact my reputation, professionally and personally?
  4. Does the convenience of purchasing something with my phone outweigh the risks to my financial security?

Depending on how you answer this, you may want to stick with your credit card.

Or just go the analog route and use the most anonymous medium of exchange: cash.

This Too Shall Pass – Deleting My Facebook Account

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 10.18.57 AMI’m killing my Facebook account.

And with it, I’m severing that company’s ability to collect data on my web habits, whereabouts, social connections (including off-Facebook connections) and financial transactions.

Apparently, I’ll also be reducing my exposure to NSA malware, as Mark Zuckerberg revealed in a public thrashing of Obama and the intelligence services that have been spreading malware through imposter Facebook sites.

This really won’t be that hard. Last year, I began experimenting with not using the social network, just to see how that was. This impulse was born from a general annoyance about FB’s murky privacy policies and the general tone of content on FB which had became increasingly irrelevant to my real social connections with people. (Remember when people started to appreciate that group emails were rude and began with the lines, “sorry for the group email!”…That’s how Facebook seems to me now, without the apologetic preface.)

BTW, if you’ve got your own suspicions about Facebook, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has put together a great timeline of Facebook’s shifting privacy policies. Reading their timeline is a great way to get your head around how free Internet services (FB, Gmail, etc.) are really about hooking you in with very clear and considered privacy policies that are planned to be revoked once they’ve got you dependent on them…or at least that’s how the timeline suggests this business model works.

Of course, deleting my Facebook account won’t be without costs.

If you’ve been a rolling stone like me, you have friends in many far-flung places. Facebook did make those connections feel stronger, so that aspect will be missed. But I’m online and quite findable, so if my pals from Japan or Europe want to find me, they only need know my name.

It turns out that completely deleting your account is a two-week process, described quite well on Digital Trends. The trick is that once you delete your account, you cannot log in for two weeks, or your account will be reactivated. That means you should first delete all apps from phones, tablets, etc. before deleting your account. You should probably delete your cookies too, just to be sure you don’t inadvertently reactivate it by triggering all those FB web beacons that mine the Interwebs.

Anyway, I’ll give my FB contacts a few days to run across my post and then I’ll zap it for good.

Better living through anonymity!

The Library Website Will Disappear

A new year always elicits thoughts about the future, but this month, my library has been considering our next strategic plan, which has focused those thoughts for me on my library and the profession in general.

Since I’m principally charged with managing the online aspects of my library, I come to these kinds of discussions focused on web platforms, online communication and consumer technology trends. One of the biggest trends (you may have noticed) has been the adoption of mobile, touch screen devices like iPhones and tablets. I include even Microsoft’s attempt at reinventing the PC with its Surface Tablet, despite early failures to woo consumers. And given this apparently irresistable move toward mobile, tablet-like computing, I have to ask: what does this ultimately mean for the library’s web properties: our websites, our online instruction guides, our discovery systems and our digital collections?

Palo Alto Venture Capital firm KPCB recently explored this very issue in their 2012 Internet Trends Report. Some major insights from their report include:

  • Mobile traffic is now 13% of all global Internet traffic, up from just 1% in 2009. In some countries, like India, mobile Internet traffic has surpassed desktop traffic.
  • Almost 1/3 of US adults own a tablet or e-reader
  • Together, iOS and Android are 45% of the OS market share, vs. 35% for Windows
  • The install base of Tablets + Smartphones will surpass PCs + Notebooks this year

But one trend that stands out in KPCB’s analysis is that of the Asset-Light generation. A long-form definition can be found via a very Asset-Light resource: Quib.ly. But to put it more succinctly, being asset-light means your lifestyle is one less reliant on physical commodities and personal know-how, but instead, relies on cloud and crowd-sourcing just about everything. You don’t carry around notepads, you don’t buy maps, you don’t rely on “experts” for medical advice or which movie to see next. Asset-lighters, meet their needs by streaming, connecting and sharing.

From KPCB’s perspective, this is quite important in terms of where the web is heading. Some notable examples relavent to libraries include: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Amazon Textbook Rental and of course, good-ole Wikipedia.

So, socially, we’re moving toward a very different economy and radically different means of information distribution, especially when it comes to learning.

Add to this, two major and imminent innovations and you will get a glimpse at just how different the world will be in only 5 years:

  1. Wearable devices, especially eyeware will give people the ability to navigate the Internet by voice command, gesture and all through lenses fixed to their faces. Status: Google Glasses are expected to enter the market in early 2013 and Apple won’t be far behind.
  2. Artificially-intelligent agents will not quite resemble HAL from 2001, but be very capable of understanding your vocal commands and then ferreting quite reliable answers to your questions or carrying out mundane tasks, like creating appointments or sending messages for you. Status: Did you see IBM Watson slaughter Jeopardy’s world champions or used SIRI on your iPhone?

So, the way we gather information and where we go to get it is already changing. And the interfaces are already being revolutionized and that pace will accelerate dramatically over the next 5 years as voice and sight overtake the the very impractical and immobile keyboard…even the touchscreen may be reduced to the point where iPads seem like a whimsical dead-end much like 8 track or Beta tapes.

All of these changes will have an immediate effect on the core of our current Internet paradigm: the Web Page.

Text and links with a smattering of images have been the key content types of of web pages since Tim Berners Lee first formulated the WWW. Mobile devices have changed all that. Not only do they steer away from typical web interfaces in favor of “apps,” they actually de-link parts of the web from each other. The result, in most cases is a much more curated and manageable Internet.

And this is important for libraries, whose pages are almost hard-wired around interconnecting pages together in rather daunting tangles of hyperlinks, portals and gateways. Unfortunately, this paradigm is increasingly less relevant to today’s devices and today’s Asset-lighters, who expect a web page to cut through the clutter and get them the answer. In fact, they want an app to do the heavy-lifting for them.

And add to this, semi-intelligent software agents and a re-conceived commercial Internet based around voice and sight and you can see how much work libraries have ahead of them.

The users 5 years from now that enter our libraries’ virtual spaces, will expect a curated, largely automated experience. Already, we see this on the ground where incoming students are completely beside themselves in the antiquated library environment. One recent Facebook post on my library’s newsfeed noted: “The Library has a website?”

Another telling anecdote: One colleague of mine defined her job as teaching people to fish. I then asked: How many people actually go fishing anymore. Fishing to them is dropping by the supermarket. Full-stop.

The world is just getting too complicated for people to be expected to take the time to find information on their own. Information will continue to be a commodity, yes. Information will continue to badger the human mind. But AI servants and wildly different means of gathering information, will mean that single individuals will never have to tackle almost any information problem alone. The crowd, the bots and the apps will do the fishing.

And the web page will be like Matrix code that few ever need to concern themselves with. Get ready…

Below the Microsoft Surface

Silverlight required to get product info: #FAIL

Coming back from Thanksgiving with my family, I came across a Microsoft Surface demo in the airport. Normally, I would have dismissed it immediately, the same way you might dismiss suggestions about trying a new dish at Chipotle after that first, stale burrito you had on your initial visit. But, I was trapped in airport limbo for 40 minutes, so the Surface seemed like a good way to pass some time.

Microsoft’s new tablet is really a new spin on the laptop, which, if you’re like me and need to create more than you consume online, is a much better solution than the typical Android or Apple tablet. That is, Microsoft kept the keyboard in mind when looking for their much required business strategy. Unfortunately, the new tablet does not come equipped with the full-blown Windows 8 OS, which seems like a big, bad burrito. That won’t come until after Xmas (did someone say missed opportunity here?).

Anyway, I was impressed, generally. Of course, we’re still talking Windoze, so the experience was fraught with so many error messages and OS-fails, that even the woman giving the demo seemed annoyed. But is still had enough new takes on what is now an old market (for tablets), that I had to give Microsoft some credit.

The most telling experience, though, came after the demo when I was asked to take a brief survey. The questions just said it all:

  • What would you buy before seeing the Surface/after seeing the Surface? (Apple)
  • Did you consider MSFT an innovative company before seeing the Surface? How about now? (If you have to ask, the answer is no)

But at least they woke up to the bleakness of their market position to even start asking these questions and try to change things, albeit soooooo late. On the train back from the airport, a fellow passenger and I discussed the Surface. He noted that MSFT is opening retail shops beside Apple Stores in shopping malls across the country. When I mentioned this to a colleague at work, he laughed, mentioning that he’d seen one of these shops. Apparently the Apple Store was jam-packed, while the MSFT store went ignored.

For now, at least, people will get their tacos from the place with the fresh ingredients.