JimPinto.com - Connections for Growth & Success™
No. 32 : February 6, 2001

Business, marketing & futures commentary.
New attitudes, no platitudes.
Stay e-tuned....

  • MIT Tech Review 10 : Brain-machine Interface
  • Baan Returns to Profit - will that save Invensys?
  • Bill Gates the Humanitarian
  • Singularity Watch
  • Dertouzos Book : Unfinished Revolution
  • eFeedback - Napster & Distributed Computing

Tech Review : Brain-machine interface

The Jan/Fe 2001 MIT Review Technology Trends listed their selection of the 10 most important technology trends.

Click MIT TECH Review 10

In this issue of eNews, let's think about brain-machine interface.

Scientists are gaining a better understanding of how the mind works and using that knowledge to build implant systems that would make brain control of computers and other machines possible. These systems are called "hybrid brain-machine interfaces" or HBMIs. Recently, the Laboratory for Human and Machine Haptics at MIT was able to send signals from individual neurons in a monkey's brain to a robot, which used the data to mimic the monkey's arm movements in real time.

In the long run, HBMIs will allow human brains to control artificial devices designed to restore lost sensory and motor functions. Paralysis sufferers, for example, might gain control over a motorized wheelchair or a prosthetic arm-perhaps even regain control over their own limbs. In much the same way that musicians learn to feel that an instrument is a part of their own body, the brain will prove capable of readily assimilating human-made devices.

This impending revolution that could eventually make HBMIs as commonplace as Palm Pilots and spawn a whole new industry-centered around the brain.

Click MIT-Review article on Brain-Machine Interface

BAAN achieves Q3 profit - will that save Invensys?

From time to time, I discuss industrial automation events and companies - relating to the many enews readers who are in that type of business. Others, please bear with me while I provide my opinions and feedback.

You will recall that we featured the Invensys acquisition of Baan in August 2000. The latest release of details of performance for the third quarter (Dec. 31 2000) shows that Baan has returned to profitability far faster than even Invensys had forecast. After nine consecutive quarters of significant operating losses, Baan's growth in revenues and successful program of cost reduction combined to achieve an operating performance above break-even. Baan grew total sales to $100 million, an increase of 37 percent over the prior three months. Looking forward, Invensys expects Baan's sales in the final quarter of the current fiscal year to be similar to the third quarter.

Click Invensys press release about Baan's performance

The Invensys Interim statement for the first half (September 2000) starts:

    "A challenging second quarter in the automation and controls market, combined with certain cost overruns and margin pressures, has reduced our overall profitability in the first half. We are responding with specific actions to return the Group to profitable growth. Our decision to fully separate our Power Systems business also underlines our clear commitment to restore shareholder value."

Click Invensys Intermin Statement - Sept. 2000

Pinto Prognostications
Will these moves allow Invensys' gutsy CEO Allen Yurko to keep his job and save Invensys from being sold off? Probably not.
  1. Yurko is a strong financial manager, and is pushing his people to yield every penny of profit they can muster, to close the year (March 31 2001) with a positive result. But inevitably, short-sighted short-cuts cause damage as the mindless minions rush around frantically cutting advertising, development and growth opportunities to boost the bottom line. Invensys is known to walk a taut financial tightrope and canny analysts see through the short-term shenanigans.
  2. The move to spin-off Power Systems may indeed provides some additional shareholder value, but will inevitably highlight the poor performance of the remaining pieces, negating the positive intentions.
  3. On 6 Feb 2001, Invensys share-price was at 178p, an improvement from its lows of 120p a few months ago, but still a major drop from the 52-week high of 310p, which itself was a big decline from the higher levels at which companies like Eurotherm and Wonderware were acquired.

The big test will come with year-end results (April 2001) when Yurko must deliver credibility - not squeaking through the short-term, but demonstrating that organic growth is indeed possible for the company mainstream. With industrial automation still in the doldrums, those dreams are doubtful.

When asked about interest in acquiring Invensys, one key player retorted:

    "Our ardor for Invensys has cooled. We know way too much about the shape of their operations and technology. It is very unlikely that Invensys will be sold complete. Dismemberment seems the most likely possibility. BTG and Baan are very effective poison pills."

Tyco, Emerson, Siemens and a couple of other majors are waiting out there, ready to pounce on the pieces.

Bill Gates the Humanitarian

The Bill Gates pilloried by the government as a business vulture is not the Bill Gates the future will remember. Software may be the smallest part of his legacy. Future generations will perhaps remember him as a humanitarian, one who helped make life better for all mankind.

In a recent fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates described his vision of the future in terms of vaccines, improvements in agriculture and education, a world where the death of an African child will be considered just as important as the death of an American child.

Sure, it is easy to ignore this as just so much spouting for the newspapers, to present Bill as more of a human being and less the corporate tough guy. But, see for yourself - this interview shows Bill Gates as a real human being, a matured father, who realizes that his wealth also carries with it a responsibility, a man with enough ego to think he can make a real difference. He says he is becoming increasingly concerned about the spread of disease in the developing parts of the world.

Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was set up, capitalized with $21.8 billion of Microsoft stock to promote research and other programs into potentially-treatable third-world illnesses.

Click Bill Gates Interview

Singularity Watch

Bear with me - let's review how advanced, far-future futurists are thinking.

Some 20 to 140 years from now - depending on which evolutionary or systems theorist, computer scientist, or futurist you happen to agree with - the rate of self-organizing technological change in our local environment will undergo a significant change, incomprehensible from the perspective of current biological humanity. The futurists who study this accelerating progression and its current and anticipated effect on humanity call it "the Singularity" - a place or time in any environment at which one's existing models of reality are no longer valid.

John Smart (yes, that’s his name) is a futurist who has studied science and technological culture with the aim of understanding change and the future. He's currently writing his first book and doing occasional public speaking on the topic. Here is his theme :

Consider our planet's history of accelerating creation of first pre-biological, then genetic, then memetic (brain-based) and finally, technologic (extra-cerebral) evolutionary epochs, each requiring less space, energy, resources, and time to perform any computation.

Digital computers have moved through five jumps over the last century: mechanical, electromechanical, vacuum tube, transistor, and integrated circuits, making this process of accelerated evolution clear. Evolution involves the continuous movement to new revolutions, with emergent forms always exponentially increasing their information processing capability over time.

Smart suggests that we are on a wild ride to a rate of computational change so fast and powerful that it will have a profound effect. As a result of this hyper-techno-growth, biological human beings will not be able to meaningfully understand the computer-driven world of the near future unless they make some kind of transition to "transhumanity."

If this interests (or surprises) you, take a look at John Smart's website.

Click John Smart's Singularity website

New Dertouzos book : The Unfinished Revolution

If you're like me, you probably sometimes feel that you are serving the techno-gadgets in your life, rather than them serving you.

Some time ago, I saw Michael Dertouzos (head of the MIT Computer Lab for 25 years) conversing quite naturally with his computer. I recommended his previous (1997) book: “What will be” and many people enjoyed it. Now he has written a new book (2001) about "human-centric" computing. It connects his strong vision of the near future with practical ways computer users and designers can help create that future.

At the book's core, Dertouzos identifies five human-centric forces: speech understanding, automation, individualized information access, collaboration, and customization. He provides specific examples of how each can be used to improve how we work with information technology.

Click Dertouzos : The Unfinished Revolution


I had several responses to the discussion on Napster and Distributed Computing.

Nick Sheble, [sheble@ISA.org] e-wrote:

    "I'm considering a separate, Napster-dedicated computer at home so that I can get even on my computer when I need - that's how much my daughter is on the box, either downloading or listening to music.

    "I see that Napster has partnered with a large publishing group and the lawsuits have faded away. Apparently the notion that Napster would affect the big companies' CD sales proved to be incorrect. The situation was compared to the old days when the record companies tried to get radio stations to pay royalties to them whenever they played a record. "Why will anybody buy our records if they can listen to them for free on the radio?" was the prevailing school of thought at the time. Wrong then and wrong now."

Phil Bessler, [pbessler@Spang.com] e-responded on the same topic:

    " I've been using Napster for months now and have my own debate as to the ethics of it. It reminds me of my youth, as a music lover growing up in NYC; I listed to Murry the K and Cousin Brucie, two famed radio disk jockeys. I would tape songs from the radio so that I could listen to them over and over, whenever I wanted. Friends would bring over their reel-to-reel tape recorders and copy songs they liked.

    "So here we are, 40 years later doing the same thing. The quality is better; the song is available for "taping" whenever I want it; but is it any different? Only the technology has changed."

Will Smith, [willy@numatico.com] from his self-exile in beautiful Costa Rica, sent this National Post story about the possibility that the remaining anti-Napster lawsuits may disappear, as music companies and assorted copyright and patent holders adjust to what may soon become a copyright-free universe.

Click Napster in a Copyright-free Universe

On the awesome, underlying trend towards peer-to-peer distributed computing, Walt Boyes [wboyes@ix.netcom.com] e-xtolled :

    "Distributed computing leads directly to distributed manufacturing. It is clear that as soon as you can distribute the power to control an enterprise, there is no longer any need to concentrate the equipment and manpower used to run the enterprise, and therefore, almost any enterprise can be virtual - even up to light-to-medium manufacturing. "

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