Mickey McManus, CEO of Pittsburgh-based computing innovation company, MAYA, is an entrepreneur, author, tech guru, and visionary. An expert on making computers user friendly and on the emerging science of information connectivity, he traces his career to the “great good luck” of winning at “ovarian lotto.”
“My mother was a scientist and science teacher,” he says. “She taught me that you can inspect the physical world. You can peel back the universe.”
In a tough neighborhood in Chicago, where classmates were shot, stabbed, and raped, McManus lived in a home where books lined every wall and his dad, a mechanic who “rode motorcycles and didn’t even finish high school,” spent his spare time scouting alleyways for spare parts with which he and his son built all sorts of fantastical machines.
“We built crazy things,” McManus says, “little robots.” And more dangerous things, too. There were broken bones, but there was no end to experimentation — to altering inventions in all sorts of ways by adding and subtracting scavenged parts.
“I learned how to weld,” says McManus, “how to field swap out a tire, to take engines out and put them back.” Summing up the zest for discovery and innovation that his childhood provided, he says, “I was lucky beyond measure.”
McManus, whose book, “Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology,” was just published, speaks on this subject on Wednesday, October 24, at 4:30 p.m. at the Keller Center on the Princeton University campus.
In demand as a speaker, McManus exudes enthusiasm as he talks about a technology future so big that even using the word “technology” is completely inadequate. He sees a coming integration of information so pervasive that humans will barely notice that it exists, but at the same time will be transformed by it. There will be opportunities for success that our recession-mired world can barely imagine.
“We’re living in a pretty amazing world,” McManus says. “We’ve gone from a PC on a desk to a supercomputer in a pocket.” But we’re just at the very, very beginning of the information age. “It’s like we’re standing on the edge of the sea, putting our toes in.” The sea is warm, and we like it, but we have not even ducked under the first wave, let alone surfed it.
“Today we go to a publisher of information,” he says, referring to Googling and the like. “It’s like we’re going to different vending machines.” But tomorrow, he says, “humans really are the information.”
McManus’ take on just a few aspects of the coming age of connectivity:
The end is near. We’ve gotten just about all that we can out of computing innovations that stretch back to the 1950s. “We’re at the top of the peak,” he says. “It has narrowed, and we’re fighting for the last few inches. MySpace has to die for Facebook to win.”
The mountain will emerge. We cannot yet see the “massive mountain” that is just beyond the computing hill on which we are standing, says McManus, but he is sure that it is there and that it will blow away all that came before it.
In this new information age, every object will include a sort of living databank of everything that it has seen and done. A building’s history will be built right into it, and it will grow over time. The same will be true for a car, or for a campus, or a town.
McManus is not sure exactly how this knowledge, this “digital shadow,” will be stored. “Maybe it will be another object in the room,” he guesses. “Maybe glasses, maybe sight or sound.” The details are not yet known. But right now, the exact form the aggregated knowledge will take is not as important as his certainty that it will exist.
On the road. A step down the road has already been taken, says McManus, who points to all of the emerging geolocal apps as an example of how future information integration will work. But even these apps, he says, fall short of their full potential.
As an example, he says, you can review a restaurant on Yelp or Urban Spoon, but such services tend to last for only 10 to 15 years. When comprehensive databases like these go away, all of their information goes away with them. In the future, he says, the information will be more durable and more permanent.
Riding the big bubble. There will be a “massive” bubble around new information technology, one that will make the dotcom bubble look like the product of a straw-thin bubble wand. “It will be the mother of all bubbles!” says McManus, who thinks there is lots to like about bubbles. “They breed exuberance and experimentation,” he says, “and the dumb stuff dies.”
From this bubble, he is sure, many industries will be born. Many jobs will be created, and many people will become very rich.
Playing it like a card game. Two types of people, or companies, will triumph in the coming age of trillions, says McManus. In seeking an analogy, he asks, “Who wins in Vegas?”
One kind of winner, he says, is the person who knows that he will surely lose his shirt at every casino game but one. With blackjack, he says, a card counter can beat the house by possessing all of the information on what is in the cards and an understanding of the underlying patterns that play out in the game. (“It’s legal,” says McManus, “but casinos don’t like it. They’ll break your legs.”)
Swap computer systems for card patterns in blackjack and the vital information that leads to success is a deep knowledge of how information works. “Amazon knew the game,” says McManus. “Google knew the game. It hired skilled reference librarians.”
His own company, he says, wrote “Trillions” to give people the patterns that explain how all of the millions and billions and trillions of data processors and sensors in the world can interact to form new systems.
The other class of winner will not necessarily need to master these patterns. Just as in Vegas, there will be those who come away with lots of money because of luck.
“Just look at Instagram,” McManus gives as an example. “It was just 12 guys.” They didn’t need to be the smartest people in the room. They spent a short time coming up with a way to mess with and post photographs online, were bought out, and walked away with $1 billion. “They were in the right place at the right time,” he says.
Turning waste data into gold. Right now, says McManus, gadgets all around us are busy mining data, but much of it is instantly thrown away, creating oceans of potentially valuable “waste data.”
As an example, he says that the dials of many new washers and dryers light up when they sense that someone has stepped into the laundry room. This feature is intended to save energy, and doesn’t go beyond that.
The time that a user typically does laundry is not stored. But it could be, and the manufacturer could sell that data, perhaps for a fraction of a cent each, to an entrepreneur.
The entrepreneur could then add that data to other types of data. It could be used as a safeguard — “Grandma always goes into that room by 7 p.m. Why hasn’t she gone in tonight?” Or data on laundry room use in general might be sold, maybe to detergent manufacturers or home alarm marketers or utility companies.
But what about privacy? “People should own their data,” McManus says unequivocally. The data has value and people should be free to safeguard it or sell it as they see fit.
Yes, there is a push back against the collection and sale of data, and McManus acknowledges that it could grow stronger. He says, though, that an unwanted invasion of privacy is just one more danger that we will learn to live with and to tame as the information society matures.
Drawing upon lessons he learned back in that basement workshop he compares privacy to technologies that were new not much more than 100 years ago — things like electricity and plumbing.
“Electricity is dangerous, yes?” he asks. “If you put a fork in those outlets in the wall, you’ll get quite a shock. Yet we’ve learned to live with it.”
Contractors, for example, learned early on that a fuse box should be at least three feet from a wall. “If it’s any closer, and you get a shock, you’ll just hit the wall, bounce back into it, and get another shock,” he says with just the trace of a chuckle.
Similarly, “plumbers know never to put a faucet below the lip of a sink,” he says. Otherwise, he points out, dirty water could back up into the faucet, travel into the main water supply, “and poison the whole town.”
Yes, technology of all kinds can be dangerous — but also endlessly exciting, especially when connections are made by the trillions.