Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Woz in Derry - curiosity, social revolution, young innovators, DIY builders, RPN, Google Glass, watches and strong views on Apple’s low taxes in Ireland #EPNcongress

Hardware hacker, engineer, philanthropist and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak spoke at the European Business Network Congress in DerryUK City of Culture 2013 – on Thursday morning. [You can listen to the two parts.]

The conference brought together representatives from European (and further afield) business and innovation centres, incubators, businesses as well as entrepreneurs. This year’s congress was organised by NORIBIC, the Northern Ireland Business Innovation Centre.

Change is the new norm; change is the new status quo.

Wozniak touched on society’s general loss of mental arithmetic skills in light of the availability of calculators:
We’re taught a lot of things in school and we’re told this is what a complete, educated life is about. You learn all these subjects. When you finally wind up actually working in creative things for society you’re pretty narrow, you’re in one field. And yes you might be in a field that has to use a lot of mathematics, a lot of science, a lot of physics. You might be in another field that doesn’t.

We don’t need everybody in society to be a mathematical genius and be able to do differential calculations and solve circuits. So we don’t have to teach everything to everyone. That’s one mistake we make with schools.

Wozniak spoke about an innate human curiosity:
We have some inner urge that we’re born with to be curious, to explore, to see how the universe is made, and what we can make different.

He explained to delegates about the influence of the Home Brew Computer Club which brought together intellectuals, academics and technologists as well as younger hackers like Wozniak.
They would talk to us about how some day when everyone had computers of their own the world was going to change. Communication – our view of how greatly the world was going to change was that somebody was going to be able to type a message they wanted to communicate to another group of people with a similar interest. They would type a message. It would go over a modem and be stored on a computer. And over the next hour, one hundred people could dial in one at a time to that computer and read the message. You could get a message to a hundred people. That was a dream that was amazing.

I was so shy in those days. I would never raise my hand, never engage in the conversation, sat in the back row of 550 of us, just listening and listening. The most important day of my life every two weeks to hear what these people were talking about technology and how we could help others and how we could provide technological parts, and what we needed to get things built. And I listened to this kind of talk and I thought: this is so amazing, what we’re going to do to the world.

He contrasted the old pattern of new technology being so expensive that only the military could initially exploit it with today’s reversed situation where:
the greatest most powerful chips are designed for personal computers and for game machines and because of their high volume … the prices came down so far now the military uses those devices and takes advantage of the prices that are due to normal consumer needs.

I wanted to help this social revolution happen. People changing their life in education, in communication, and the technical guy being important. So my approach was I will build the computer – which I had a lot of pieces at my hand that I’d built up to at that stage – I’ll build a computer and I gave it away for free.

I gave out the design. No copyright notices. I said build your own. I wanted everyone to build there own that was going to help start this revolution of social norms.

He spoke about why young people are successful innovators.

Since young people are generally not connected to a big company, to the status quo [of] how things are made, they’re willing to go off and try new things that might just be for fun – they don’t have to be for value. They don’t have a lot of money in their lives. They’re often very shy like I was. and they do a lot of internal thinking to themselves. They’re independent thinkers. They don’t have to have everyone else going in the direction they’re going. They don’t have to do things by the standard rules.

That means that young people are much greater risk takers. Once you have a big success in your life, success will sometimes change you and you want now to only pursue greater success, more money, more wealth, more power. Those become your goals. But they aren’t the goals when you start young.

Now when the young people get going at something, they’re usually going off in such a new direction – I’m talking about things like Google or Facebook or even Apple – going off in a new direction, something that hasn’t been done before. It’s not that you’re doing the same thing a different way, it’s like you’re doing something that is just like so different and out of the book that you’re really writing the book.

When you go to school you read a lot of books and you get information – it’s called knowledge, it’s called intelligence – and you’re judged by scores of how much you can remember. But that isn’t really thinking … But if you go off and you start working on something very different, your own ideas, your approaches, without having read the book on how people make a certain kind of product, you invent it yourself if you’re smart enough and you know the building blocks.

He pointed to modern-day hacker spaces providing low cost access to soldering irons, tools and 3D printers – “the sorts of devices that young people with an interest can use” – supporting “builders” and “do it yourselfers”.

He spoke of the highly motivating intrinsic “inside” rewards that come when “your own head is doing what it wants to do” rather than being a business goal or means to profit. He used his own example of developing a floppy disk drive for the Apple II from scratch over Christmas and the New Year in time to demonstrate at a trade show in Las Vegas. Being able to attend the Las Vegas show was his personal motivator.

There was a wonderfully geeky moment as he explained Reverse Polish Notation to the Derry audience!

Asked about what innovations were “creeping over the hill” Wozniak suggested talked about flexible displays, Google Glass and a smart watch.
I think we’re going to go for a couple of decades towards our mobile devices seeming more like real humans. Obviously I read the same things as everyone else, I couldn’t guess beyond that, but for many, many years I’ve been hoping that we’d finally get these organic LED displays that were foldable.

I want to see objects like you’re used to a globe being a round circle. I want to see a globe that is glowing. It’s Google Earth and you can zoom in on parts of it with your fingers. Because it fits the human style of looking at a really round globe better than a flat screen.

I’d love to get low, low cost plastics that I could put on the side of my car and push buttons inside to change the colour of my car or make it look like a cop car. [audience laughs]

Wearable technology is one of the ones we’re hearing so much about lately. And I am getting so jealous – I don’t know if the marketing plan was ripe to hit someone like myself or not – [of] the people who have Google Glasses. I haven’t had time to be a full explorer with that so I didn’t get the Google Glasses yet, but boy that’s starting to seem like an interesting thing that I sure want to try.

But I also don’t mind the idea of a watch as long as the watch is my smartphone that I can basically do all my smartphone stuff on including asking Siri questions. Wouldn’t mind a watch but if all it’s going to be is pretty much music and measuring how many steps I walk per day, nah, that wouldn’t be enough.

Wozniak’s attendance was timely given the recent interest in Apple’s Irish tax affairs. While he didn’t have time in his headline speech to the assembled congress to address the issue of tax, it was the issue that most interested journalists at the press conference afterwards.

Wozniak spoke out against the current differences between personal and corporate taxation. The BBC report:
People are not taxed on profit, they are taxed on income, corporations should be taxed the same as people in my mind, that is how it should be, that would make things fair and right.

That means corporations pay taxes on all of their revenues or people only pay it on a tiny amount called profit and until we rectify that the whole problem is just with us forever.

That is why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and I am always for the individual being much more important than their training, same reason I created the Apple computer at the start, it was to empower the little guy.

Why do businessmen get to write off lunches and cars? If normal people did they would have more savings. That is really not fair, that businesses are not treated the same as people.

A person would say, 'my life is my business and I have to pay for my home, pay for my clothes, my food and what is left over if I make a little money some year and put it in savings, that is my profit', but people are not taxed on profit, they are taxed on income.

It hasn’t yet appeared on the NI Business News podcast, but until it does here’s a clip from Friday’s Good Morning Ulster programme on Radio Ulster with part of business reporter Colletta Smith’s interview with Steve Wozniak. Have Apple done anything wrong?
Well first of all, every company has to go for the minimal tax, the maximum profits. But why hasn’t Apple been open about it for twenty years saying here is how we make our taxes small? If they felt that they were doing the right thing they would come out and say we’re doing the right thing, here is what it is. No, when you hide stuff it’s that you feel it’s really wrong and I do think it hurts Apple’s image a bit.

They’re not doing anything more wrong than anyone else. People say the system is wrong. The system is only there because big companies with money control who makes the rules. A company like Apple doesn’t pay anything like the taxes I pay. Not even close. For Apple to pay what I pay they would pay 50% of their income not their profits. Corporations are never taxed the same as people.

Was Wozniak disappointed with the business decisions [around tax] that Apple have made over the past twenty years?
No, they had no choice in the business decisions. They could have though been honest to the public and said here is how we minimise our taxes. They could have even gone to governments and said this is sort of not right, you really should have found some better compromise.

He was asked about Ireland’s favourable corporation tax regime [under which Apple have “paid just 2% tax on $74bn (£48.8bn) in overseas income, mainly by exploiting a loophole in Ireland's tax code”].
Taxation systems around the world are different. So I’m not going to criticise another country just because they are different. I don’t see any harm in that. Every state that adjusts tax rates to be very favourable, they’re trying to attract businesses. Sometimes states in the United States do it. Sometimes countries outside of the United States like Ireland obviously must have done this to attract companies like Apple to be here because it creates a lot of jobs and good and other things. There’s a lot more income than taxes.

Later on I got a chance to interview Steve Wozniak – he was tickled that an iPod Touch was being used as the recording device. He explained what influenced him to create and innovate, relating the story of the first time he thought that he was good at something. The Home Brew Computer Club was important in his engineering journey.
I think we need to approach very young people who are in school and yes give them places but not only that they can just talk and hear about things … that they can show things off, that companies will come in and show them products, that they can actually build a few things on their own, the do it yourself builders.

I was a builder my whole life, project after project after project. Here’s the thing: when an inventor-type person – not just an engineer but an inventor – comes up with an idea in their head, they want to run into a laboratory, hook something together, and have a working model very quickly. Something to test their theory. And I was always able to do that. Whereas a lot of people that were interested in computers and technology weren’t builders and couldn’t really go in and just try something and make it. I saw a Pong game, I wanted it, I built my own. They couldn’t do that.

Exploitation of new technologies is often followed by exploiting people. Steve Wozniak was an early funder of EFF/Electronic Frontier Foundation – was probably the first dot org website I visited – a non-profit which defends civil liberties.
To me it’s very important because I grew up in a counter-culture time, the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area. People were talking about different styles of life and different ways you could live your life. Well heck, I helped bring a lot of that through technology. But it meant so much to me that they weren’t talking about rules. But one of the things they were very focussed on was civil liberties and the idea that you could be conscripted to go into wars, and who caused the wars, and were they right or wrong, and a lot of that sort of thinking.
So I was very much, my whole life, aligned with civil liberties. I read books about how our guarantees of freedom starting with the Magna Carta and then working through hundreds of years of improvements that basically protected innocent people – the burden of proof is always on the accuser – and it put down a set of rules. Sure those rules are getting undone now, I’m very worried about it, but my reason for starting the EFF was basically a very proponent of what the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] does in the United States but in the technical framework.

There’s still a need?
There’s a huge need. Because now we’ve got into ideas of patents and some people and countries even say patents almost shouldn’t exist, or certain kinds of patents. Should you give a monopoly – maybe only if someone has to invest huge amounts of money to get a return. Software patents are extremely questionable. Software patents' almost a method to do it. How can you just choose a method that normal people would come up with the same method [in the future]. So there’s a lot of these issues. Copyright issues. The EFF fought a court case against Disney, and Disney won … because what do people really own versus what do all the big huge controlling companies [own]?

He also explained the background to the huge steampunk watch on his wrist. When he tilts his write the two vacuum tubes illuminate first with the two-digit hour, and then with the minutes before going dark again. The video below visualises it a little better!

I saw somebody wearing one at a computer show. I Googled NIXIE Tubes and I found the watch. It’s handmade by a guy in Tucson, Arizona. He’s sold quite a few of these. It has old vacuum tubes running on 140V. These vacuum tubes haven’t been made in at least 40 years. They’re old technology. It’s pretty amazing. When I turn my wrist to see the time it shows me big giant glowing digits that [are] very easy to read.

My brain feels more comfortable reading this time than it does any watch I’ve ever owned. So I keep wearing it. My intent at first when I first put it on was to show it off to gadget friends: the sort of people who like unusual things. But I decided after three days rather than go back to my nice beautiful thin Movado watch …

I’ll blog about some of the other sessions over coming days – Sir Tim Smit (Eden Project), Benjamin Southworth (deputy CEO of Tech Cities) and leading urbanist and proponent of the Creative Class Richard Florida. In the meantime you can peruse their talks and listen on-demand.

Over 500 delegates attended the event. In a welcome innovation, the conference sessions were punctuated with artistic items from local Derry musicians and dancers, including one of the Wonder Villains singing Just say Yes (the unofficial theme tune of the City of Culture) and the Inishowen Gospel Choir. More conferences should showcase local culture: it softens the whole event and gives tired delegates a lift. After NORIBIC's stunning success in Derry, the next EBN Congress will have a lot to live up to.