Read for Later - Future of Work, Learning Machines, and the Internet of Things

This week’s news scan features a lot about the future of work and the on-demand or gig economy, including several articles from the MIT Technology Review’s new business report, The Future of Work 2015. Check out the Center's trend collection to see how this scanning comes together to identify trends relevant to our future work - and let us know what you're reading this week to help think about later.

Assorted Interests

  • An argument for openness for digital books and their software, that places the best interests of users first
  • MOOCs have thus far focused on being massive, when they should strive to feel individual – what if they could transform into massive adaptive interactive texts (MAIT) that provide automated, individual assessments; interactivity; adaptivity; and modularity
  • Over 160,000 visitors will attend the International Spieltage in Germany, a board game convention that is both fan gathering and trade show
  • The market for hobby games has grown to $880 million a year in the US and Canada alone, spurred by the internet’s help in bringing fans together for get-togethers and tournaments
  • Google launches a pilot project promoting a virtual field trip system using low-cost Cardboard devices and about 100 trips in its Expeditions program, 360-degree views that stitch together photographs from Google Street View
  • Anchor institutions like universities, medical centers, and hospitals, provide cities with a significant and growing number of jobs and a focus on innovation that is important in a knowledge-based economy
  • As older workers stay on the job longer, technologists and ergonomics experts are rethinking working conditions – digital eyestrain, office lighting, single vs. double-clicking, even robot assistants
  • Passivhaus  or “Passive House” is a building method developed in Germany in the early 1990s that relies on an airtight envelope of the roof, exterior walls and floors, to create a building that consumes 80% less energy than a standard house
  • In Europe, supermarkets, schools, churches, factories, and hospitals have been built to passive house standards, but its adoption in the US has been smaller – and has changed some of the model’s standards  
  • Even as the Modern Language Association reports that the number of American students who learned a language other than English decreased by about 100,000 between 2009 and 2013, language continues to be important - and the importance of specific languages varies based on economic, population, and cultural factors
  • Delaware’s Senator Chris Coons writes on Open Innovation – applications and projects that connect people with common interests to share in some goal – and its potential to present solutions to real challenges.

Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Learning Machines

  • Spotify’s music-intelligence platform Echo Nest, which listens to music and tries to discern identifying elements and reads information written about music on the web, identified 1,369 genres of music
  • IBM’s Watson utilizes “cognitive computing,” software that can modify itself and learn as it goes along – questions posed to Watson are compared to a database of potential answers, generating a long list of possible response that are then scored against the contents of other databases, with fact-checking algorithms moderating the process according to perceived reliability of sources and determining a most-probably correct result, and all the while human experts rate and fine-tune the results to help improve the system
  • IBM has pushed Watson into general business use, with over 350 firms signing up to create and market their own Watson-based apps – and recent announcements have made a new set of tools available to help outsiders develop commercial applications for Watson
  • Interview with Steve Jurvetson, founding partner in VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and a board member at SpaceX and Tesla Motors – “In the long run, 500 years from now, everyone is going to be involved in some kind of information or entertainment”
  • Recommendation systems guide which products to buy, movies to watch, and restaurants to try, and they are changing the ways we make decisions in an increasingly digital world
  • RS are fueled by explicit (preferences via ratings or reviews and profile data provided to the system) and implicit (location, weather, device used for access) interactions and are built around one of three designs or system types - Collaborative Filtering, Content-Based Filtering (CBF), or Hybrid Methods


  • The newly created US Digital Service has released the US Web Design Standards, a toolkit that includes a visual style guide and collection of common interface elements that will be the same across all government sites
  • With every step forward, positives of participation must be carefully weighed against potential issues – biometric applications (classes of enhanced and un-enhanced people); internet of things (privacy); robotics (loss of jobs)
  • Leaders of five major projects talk about what smart components they have and how they made those choices  - Las Vegas (light posts and parking meters that track public safety and provide coupons for passers-by); Albuquerque (parking awareness); New York (affordable or free home Internet and LinkNYC to provide wi-fi throughout the city); Atlanta (fiber network); and Toronto (open-access high speed broadband)
  • The White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team or “Nudge Unit” is pushing the use of A/B testing to improve the effectiveness of government, borrowing lessons from Google about experimenting with behavior to improve design


  • Highlights from the Smithsonian’s second Innovation Festival include PepGel, a hydrogel that can go quickly from liquid to gel based on pressure exerted on it; insulated concrete blocks to improve buildings’ thermal performance; and a 3D braille printer designed by a 9th grader

Internet of Things

  • The Internet of Things and the overall growth of devices is leading toward a new era in software engineering – API-first design 
  • There is an unexploited strength in connected homes – connected communities that can scale to address issues like water and energy consumption
  • The next phase of IoT might be an Internet of Moving Things, a network of physical objects that are mobile and moveable and can be wirelessly measured and controlled
  • Accommodating this new development will require an acknowledgement that things move; that movement can sometimes be newsworthy (the IoT bike that is moving might be stolen) and that its absence might also be important (is someone or something hurt and immobilized); that tracking movement might be the primary goal of some IoT enabled devices; that movement will be a new big data point for analysis; and that moving things will need to quickly connect in order to be useful

On-Demand, Gig, and the Future of Work

  • There are almost 54 million freelancers in the US, an increase of 700,000 over last year, with Millennials freelancing at a higher rate than other groups
  • Freelancers’ satisfaction with their work has also increased with 60% of respondents saying they freelance by choice, drawn by the flexibility, freedom and balance it offers
  • Work 3.0, prompted by the rapid rise of marketplaces-for-services, has companies (Uber, TaskRabbit, etc.) connect large numbers of independent contractors with customers seeking their services while the companies profit by taking a cut of the revenue for playing matchmaker and facilitating the ongoing worker/customer relationship
  • Work 3.0’s challenge will be to retain the principles underlying the employee/contractor dichotomy, guaranteeing employer flexibility and worker protections while permitting a spectrum of options: “employee” at one end, “independent contractor” at the other, and lots of novel ideas in the middle
  • The large number of workers moving from working for organizations to freelancing on job networks and platforms run the risk that, as the platforms grow, they will exert greater control over the career prospects and livelihood of the workers who participate
  • Careers of the future will depend on an individual’s ability to strategically choose a platform or network of platforms where they can effectively build a reputation and customer base, without becoming overtly dependent on any one platform