What Your Webmaster Won't Tell You

By Carl Weiss

If you have a website, then you know your webmaster has the power of life or death over it.  You probably also know that he or she speaks in tongues, where terms like “Link Equity,” “SERPS,” and “Meta Tags,” have a meaning all their own.  In today’s blog, I will part the curtain and allow you to take a look at what the wizard of the web knows that you don’t.  I will also endeavor to show you what you need to know if you want your web presence to be more than a billboard in the desert. 

Who’s On First?

The term “Webmaster” is somewhat nebulous, since the creation, optimization and control of your website can actually take anywhere from 1 to 3 individuals. 
Image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

1.      Web Designer – There are two flavors of web designer.  The first and best is an online marketer who understands that the look of your website needs to take a backseat to the functionality of your website.  A marketing-centric web designer starts by determining what it is you wish your site to accomplish (generate leads, generate calls, or sell directly from the site).  Then he or she will build the vehicle that is designed to generate the desired result. 

The second type of designer is more or less a glorified graphic artist who is mostly interested in the look of the site.  This type of designer will show you graphically intense designs that are beautiful, that most often don’t generate results.  (If you see a lot of rotating images and morphing graphics, this indicates the use of either Java (which the search engines hate) or Flash (which the search engines hate even more than Java).

2.      Search Engine Optimizer – It helps if your web designer understands the ins and outs of SEO.  If not, then you will be forced to hire an optimizer to help you sell your site to the search engines.  This will entail having a conversation with a person that will spout all kinds of arcane jargon in order to describe what it is they need to do to make your website search engine friendly.  (This is another reason to hire a designer that is ready, willing and able to take care of this during the design phase.)

Courtesy commons.wikimedia.org
Unless you want to bring your techno babble/English dictionary with you when you meet with your SEO pro, I suggest you find a firm that can explain in plain English what it is they are going to do for you and how often they intend on doing it.  For the most part you should only need to optimize your on-page assets once.  Anyone who tries to sell your ongoing SEO services other than link building is wasting your money.

3.      Website Hosting and Updating – There are a number of “Webmasters” that only provide hosting and updating of your website.  If this is the case you need to be cognizant of the fact that should you need to make a change to your website, you will first need to go through your web designer who will then need to motivate your webmaster to grant him or her access to make the desired change.  You may also be required to pay both of these individuals to make said change.  Obviously the best solution is to hire an individual or firm who can do all this at once instead of by committee.

Webmasters are a throwback to a time when it required a skilled IT professional to manage the server that contained your website.  This is no longer the case since nearly all servers are now cloud based.  This makes it doubly galling when you submit a change order to a webmaster and he or she sits on a job for days that literally takes a couple of minutes to accomplish. 

What’s on Second?

Once your website is up and running, you next need to register it with search engines and directories. 
image courtesy of flickr.com
You can either do this manually or you can hire a firm to do this for you.  Again, there are professionals who will offer to perform this time consuming service.  The devil, however, is in the details.  That the task needs to be accomplished is obvious.  If you don’t register with search engines and directories your website will never get found.  The trick is to 

get your site or sites registered with as many search engines and directories as possible without breaking the bank.  (Working the Web to Win offers a search engine push package that will register a site on 100 directories for $300.)

Once your site(s) registered on scads of search engines and directories the traffic will start rolling in, right?  WRONG. Even a perfectly optimized site registered on 100 high quality search engines and directories will not prove sufficient to generate significant traffic all by itself.  Why?  That’s because the game of generating search engine position has gotten a lot more complicated in the past few years.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com
Prior to 2005, all you needed to do to generate high ranking on the search engines was create an optimized website and register your site with the search engines.  The search engines would then send their spiders to analyze your site and determine its rank. That’s literally all there was to it.  Today on-page SEO only accounts for 25% of ranking criteria, the other 75% is comprised of off-site assets, such as blogs, social networks, videos, images and podcasts.  More crucially, not only do you need to create, publish and distribute this online content, you have to do so consistently.  Simply having a Facebook or Twitter feed on your site isn’t enough.  You also need to grow and engage your following.  The same is true of your blogs, videos and podcasts. 

Add to this the fact that the search engine spiders can not only read, but understand your website, blogs and social posts and you can see why generating ranking today is a huge undertaking.  I refer to the Internet as the elephant in the room.  Everybody knows it’s there, but nobody is prepared to talk about it.  As search engine spiders continue to evolve, you need to understand that your success online comes down to a popularity contest.  The spiders award their favors to websites that create and engage the biggest audience.  Therefore, you need to either assign the task of feeding the elephant to several staffers, or you need to outsource the task to a company that will put a team at your disposal to get the task done.  (No single human being is capable of handling all these tasks.  It takes a team.)

I Don’t Know Who’s on Third

The other three factors you need to take into consideration if you hope to prevail are geotargeting, mobile marketing and reputation management.

The Internet is no longer a World Wide Wad.  It is now not only possible, but desirable to geotarget your online assets to attract the best audience.  This is done embedding geographic information in all your online assets.  Before you go about creating or retooling a website, you first need to define who and where your best customers are located.  There is a big difference between creating a website for say a chiropractor that will have a reach of 10 miles from his or her location, to a company that needs to market to a regional or national scope.  Today geotargeting can be employed to narrow your scope to as little as an individual neighborhood.

The first thing you should do is register your business with Google Local and create a Google Map.  Since Google controls more than two thirds of all traffic in this country, the more Google friendly you become, the better your chances of success.  Even better is the fact that once created, you can embed your Google map right on your homepage.  This is another important thing to do if you hope to convert traffic into customers.  Nobody wants to search your site to find out where you are located.  Since people spend less than 2 minutes on your website, it is vital you give them everything they need to make a buying decision as quickly as possible.  Gone are the days when a web surfer would click around your site to check you out.  Today the next click you hear will be them going back to where they found you to check out somebody else.

This is also why it is vital you put your best foot forward in a hurry.  This requires video.  If your current website is composed of a bunch of stock images, what does this tell prospects about your company?  Nothing.  If you want to entice prospects to take the next step they need to know what you are all about.  Since you only have 2 minutes or less to accomplish this task, an intro video that shows who you are, what makes you special and why a prospect should take the next step is vital to your success.  It is also vital that the video be located prominently on your homepage, not buried below the fold.

Even better is a second video that shows satisfied customers extolling your virtues.  Like it or not, the biggest obstacle to converting clicks into cash is credibility.  Video testimonials are the ultimate credibility builder.  That and lots of reviews on Google will not only help you seal the deal, but it is a great way to create Google Juice.  When we shoot video testimonials for us or our clients, we routinely take the person being interviewed over to Google Maps to post a review as soon as the video is complete.  Once you get 10 reviews four red stars will also appear next to your listing which helps you separate yourself from the herd once you make it to page 1 on Google.

Getting Mobilized
Image courtesy of linkedin.com
This brings us to the last and currently most important requirement for generating traction with Google: Mobile.  Several months back, Google made it a requirement for websites to be “mobile-friendly.”  This means that if your website is not designed to reconfigure itself to tablets and smartphones, your chances of getting on page 1 are nil.  To see if your site makes the grade, simply do a search for it on any smartphone.  If the page doesn’t change shape to accommodate the platform it is definitely time you did a site makeover.  Make sure your web designer is using a dynamic language such as HTML 5.  If not, you will need to redo the redo.

What’s It All About?

Unless you have to means to hire an in-house online marketing team that has what it takes to create and distribute content to Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube on a continual basis, you need to find a firm you can trust to outsource your online destiny if you hope to make your web presence work for you.  If not, you will find yourself at more and more of a disadvantage as your competitors reap the rewards online and eat up more market share.  Because the biggest thing you need to understand online is this, “If you are not coming up on page 1 of the search engines and your competition is, does that help or hurt your business?”

Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio   

Something Very Small Could Soon be Very BIG

By Carl Weiss

Everyone is always looking for the “Next BIG Thing.”  That’s a given.  But what most people don’t realize is one of the biggest things of all could soon have its origin in the very small.  What I’m talking about is the rapidly rising realm of nanotechnology.  While the term has been around for a few decades, the emergence of Nanotech onto the world stage has, to date been more of a whimper than a bang.  Well, all that is set to change soon as the very tiny makes a quantum leap onto the world stage that could have a bigger impact on your world than the birth of the microcomputer.

Image courtesy of pt.wikipedia.org
The funny thing is, nanotechnology has been around almost as long as the personal computer.  The first microcomputers made their presence known in the mid to late 1970’s.  Nanotech arrived in 1985 with the discovery of Fullerenes, otherwise known as Bucky Balls.  These microscopic structures, similar in structure to graphite, are composed of carbon atoms that can take on the shape of a sphere where they are called Buckminsterfullerenes, or a cylinder, otherwise known as a carbon nanotube.  While their structure seems familiar, one has to realize that in order to see them, the use of a scanning electron microscope needs to be employed.  While fullerenes do occur in nature and even in the vacuum of outer space, it is the potential uses of this super light, super strong material that spawned the Nanotech revolution.

 There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom

As early as 1959, when physicist Richard Feynman postulated that it might soon be possible to manipulate individual atoms to create unique structures at the microscopic level, it wasn’t until K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book, “Engines of Creation,” that Dr. Feynman’s dream of a billion tiny factories finally began to take shape.  The shape of Nanotech innovation in the 1980’s was relegated to two researchers by the name of Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer, both of whom worked at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, who arranged 35 xenon atoms to spell out the IBM logo. While an interesting parlor trick, the technique was nonetheless the harbinger of more exotic constructions at the molecular level. 

Image from commons.wikimedia.org
The 1990’s saw the application of nanotechnology in everything from electronics and pharmaceuticals, to textiles and communications.  Still to the world at large, Nanotech was not exactly a household word.  Let’s be honest, when Moungi Bawendi at MIT devised a method for controlled synthesis of nanocrystals, otherwise known as quantum dots, he had hardly achieved the kind of rock star status that Steve Jobs and Woz did when they introduced the Apple II.  Still, Bawendi and other researcher’s progress did not go entirely unnoticed.  Slow but steady progress was being made in molecular manipulation.  New technologies, such as nanolithography were developed by 1999 that allowed the writing of electronic circuits and the manufacturing of biomaterials used in biological research.

The Presidents Pile On

In 2000, Bill Clinton gave a speech at Cal Tech where mentioned the infant Nanotech industry. "Some of our research goals may take twenty or more years to achieve, but that is precisely why there is an important role for the federal government." 

During the same speech, President Clinton also announced the founding of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), during which he pledged $500 million in government funding.  When George Bush took the helm as Commander in Chief, he signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology research and Development Act, that increased the government’s commitment to this initiative by pledging an additional $3.63 billion over 4 years.  
Image courtesy of flickr.com

No sooner had President Obama taken office, when he was introduced to nanotechnology in a big way when a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Michigan decided to immortalize the President by etching microscopic copies of Barack Obama’s likeness on a metal substrate, which went viral when the “Nanobama’s” were published online.  Nanobama’s notwithstanding, the President has continued to fund NNI to the tune of $1.5 billion in 2015. (See the video at http://www.azonano.com/nanotechnology-video-details.aspx?VidID=270)

Where’s the Nano-Beef?

While some new uses of Nanotech saw the light of day during the first 10 years of the new millennium, including the introduction of passive nanoparticles in disinfectants and sunscreen, clothing and cosmetics, the promise of nanomachines far outstripped their reality, causing some pundits such as  David Berube to wonder what all the Nano-Hype was all about. 

According to Wikipedia, “His study concludes that much of what is sold as “nanotechnology” is in fact a recasting of straightforward materials science, which is leading to a “nanotech industry built solely on selling nanotubes, nanowires, and the like” which will “end up with a few suppliers selling low margin products in huge volumes." Further applications which require actual manipulation or arrangement of nanoscale components await further research. Though technologies branded with the term 'nano' are sometimes little related to and fall far short of the most ambitious and transformative technological goals of the sort in molecular manufacturing proposals, the term still connotes such ideas. According to Berube, there may be a danger that a "nano bubble" will form, or is forming already, from the use of the term by scientists and entrepreneurs to garner funding, regardless of interest in the transformative possibilities of more ambitious and far-sighted work.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_nanotechnology

Up until the past few years, the naysayers had a point.  While more effective sunscreen had its place, where were the self-replicating nanobots that everyone had long awaited?  What happened to Eric Drexler and Richard Feynman’s “Engines of Creation” that could turn out nanites by the billions?  Where was the Nano-Beef?

In order for micromachines to become a reality, they needed to not only be produced, but mass produced.  Since it is impossible to shrink factory workers to scale, that meant that humans had to learn something that nature has been doing on this planet for billions of years: Self-replication.  It wasn’t until 2010, that researchers were able to manipulate individual atoms and even combine them to form structures, to date, they were unable to cause their micromachines to replicate.  Then in early 2010, geneticist J. Craig Ventner, managed to create the world’s first biological organism from scratch, when he constructed a bacterium using off-the-shelf chemicals. 

Courtesy en.wikipedia.org
While whipping up a batch of bacteria might not seem like an earth shattering accomplishment, bear in mind that this was the first time in 4 billion years that anyone on the planet had managed to create a living creature that was not only viable, but able to reproduce.  Armed with this knowledge, it wasn’t long before other researchers applied the discovery to their own work.

Below are a couple of videos that point out some of the latest advances in nanotechnology:

Whether you realize it or not, there are already a number of products on the market that contain Nanotech elements, such as:

Artificial Atoms (Quantum Dots) 

The next few years will see these tiny things becoming bigger and bigger players, as the world as we know it is literally transformed from the inside out.  If you’d like to learn more about the coming Nanotech revolution, check out this week’s Working the Web to Win radio show, where we will explore how something very small will soon be very BIG.

Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio   

The Ghosts of Employees Past

By Carl Weiss

Everyone has heard of the Ghost of Christmas Past, right?  Well, today’s blog is a twist on that theme as we explore the problems that occur as the result of employees being fired or put out to pasture.  Like it or not, having to deal with the digital footprints left by former staffers can be problematic to say the least.  In the best case scenario, someone needs to be assigned to pick up where they left off in areas such as social networking, file management and even online security.  In the worst case, former employees have been known to rifle their employer’s server, plant malware or even lock their former bosses out of their own systems.  Before you start experiencing digital things that go bump in the night, let’s take a hard look at a number of cases involving the ghosts of employees past.

Working the Web of Deceit

In 2010, a major defense contractor (Lockheed) had its email system crashed for six hours after one terminated employee sent 60,000 coworkers a personal email laced with malware  The contractor was then forced to fly in a Microsoft rescue squad to repair the damage.

More recently, a terminated computer technician at a New York publisher (Forbes) caused five of the publisher’s servers to crash.  As a result all the information that had been stored on the servers was erased and none of the data was able to be restored. The losses sustained were in excess of $100,000.

If you think that’s bad, an engineering firm suffered $10 million in losses when a terminated network manager unleashed a data bomb in the network he helped create.

Bear in mind that the defense contractor, the publisher and the engineering firm were all major players that had in their employ teams of skilled programmers and technicians whose job it was to safeguard their electronic assets.  If they’re vulnerable to attack by former insiders, what do you think that says about the cyber security of smaller firms?

When the Attack Becomes Personal

Far from being relegated to eSabotage, disgruntled former employees have been known to get personal when they are out for revenge.  A blog by hitc.com called, “10 Ways Fired Employees Got Revenge on their Bosses,” included the following:

“A former IT manager received a suspended jail sentence for illegally hacking into his old company’s IT systems and rigging his former boss’s Powerpoint presentation to display pornographic photos.”

“An unhappy ex-employee who was made redundant, hacked into his bosses email and sent obscene messages to the senior management team and the company 

“A disgruntled ex-employee posted a listing for 'free household and garage contents', quoting his former boss's address. The listing claimed the homeowners were moving to Puerto Rico and didn't want to keep anything. The ad indicated anyone could come down and take whatever they want. Investigators say the listing gave directions to the home, and even provided the garage code.”

“An angry employee who was given 4 weeks notice used the company credit card to get a year’s supply of 'male enhancement' pills delivered to a variety of senior staff around the office.”

Are you starting to detect a pattern here?  Hell hath no fury like an employee burned.  Terminated employees have been known to do everything from destroying equipment or a company’s reputation, to taking out their frustration on bosses or coworkers who they feel were responsible for their downfall.  In today’s wired world, it’s all too easy for anyone to talk trash online.  Worse is when an ex-employee has uncovered a boss or coworker’s password in order to make it seem as though the victim is the one who was talking trash.

While terminating an employee is always an unpleasant task, it is important to remember that not all those who are fired are going to take the matter lying down.  The problem is that while most businesses have some form of hiring manual, I have yet to see a company create a firing manual.  Aside from brushing off the psychological shock to the system that being terminated has on most people, the majority of HR departments in businesses large and small as a rule shrug off creating procedures that can mitigate the damage likely to be caused by former employees.

Locking the Barn Door

Here are the top 5 items that need to be addressed before any employee is given his or her walking papers:

1.      How much access does the employee have to the company’s servers and intranet?
2.      What kind of company communication is the employee privy to?
3.      Does the employee have a company-issued smartphone, tablet or laptop?
4.      How long will it take you to change or delete all related company passwords?
5.      What email lists, customer lists and company intranets does the employee have access?

While every company automatically restricts an ex-employees access to the company’s premises and bank accounts, you’d be surprised to learn how few conduct an audit of all the electronic means through which an employee can gain access to potentially disruptive technology.  Don’t find out the hard way like the folks who manage Chicago O’Hare Airport.  In September 2014, more than 2,000 flights were cancelled and pandemonium ensued when an employee who was facing a transfer, sabotaged the air traffic control center after posting a suicide note on Facebook.

A quote from Business Insider read:
“Authorities say a contract employee started a fire Friday morning in the basement of a control center in the Chicago suburb of Aurora and then attempted to commit suicide by slashing his throat. Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, was charged with destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities, a felony. The FBI said Howard remains hospitalized and no court date has been scheduled.”
“As of midday Saturday, total Chicago flight cancelations for the day stood at more than 700 — still a damagingly high number, but an improvement. Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at Midway, had hoped to resume a full flight schedule Saturday, but had to cancel all flights between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. CDT.”
“Lines remained long at O'Hare, which is a major U.S. hub. Many travelers stranded overnight slept on cots provided by the airport, in scenes reminiscent of winter storm disruptions.”

Neither the FBI nor the TSA had any comment to make regarding the incident.  Republican Senator Mark Kirk had this to say:
"Chicago O'Hare International Airport cannot be brought to a screeching halt.  I want to see not only an immediate review by the FAA of the screening process at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora, but also a report within 30 days outlining changes the FAA will make to prevent any one individual from having this type of impact on the heart of the United States economy."

The moral of the story is that even after spending billions of dollars to keep out terrorists and hijackers, all it took to shut down one of the world’s busiest airports was a disgruntled employee with a gas can and a match.  With that in mind, if you own or manage a business that hires and fires, you need to take steps to ensure your firm isn’t blindsided by the ghosts of employees past. 

Bot Buddy or Robot Rage?

by Carl Weiss

Courtesy of wikipedia.org
Is there a robot in your future? More importantly, what will the ultimate effect on society be once robots start taking over much of what has until now made humans unique? Until recently, robots have for the most part been relegated to factories and the living room rug. But all that is about to change. A number of firms are currently making robots that are designed to work alongside us in warehouses, retail establishments and offices. More importantly, as these droids become more autonomous, will they slowly but surely push their human counterparts out of the picture altogether? Will their growing intelligence become a threat to the human species itself, as a number of scientists believe? Whether human beings embrace these automated assistants as a boon, or people begin to rage against the very machines meant to do their bidding is still too soon to tell. Love them or hate them, join me today as I take a look at the rise of the robots.

Robot Renaissance

Contrary to popular opinion, robots are hardly what one would call a recent invention.  As far back as 350 B.C., robots have been a reality.  That’s when the Greek mathematician Archytas crafted a mechanical pigeon that got its motive power via steam.  The Renaissance saw a number of automata created, including a robotic musical band as well as an automated waitress that would serve drinks.  Leonardo DaVinci himself drew up detailed plans for a mechanized medieval knight.  Although it was never built, other imitators took delight in creating a number of “machines” that were designed to mystify and delight royalty and commoners alike.

The chief difference between these early automata and todays robots was the fact that, with notable exceptions, these robots were only intended to mimic the living creatures around them.  They were never designed to carry out the tasks that these living creatures performed.  It wasn't so much the technology that was lacking, but the ability to program these mechanical beasties.  That all changed in 1801, when Joseph Jacquard built a totally automated loom that was programmed via punched cards.  While this innovation represented the earliest form of software, it was so effective that punched cards were still being used to program computers more than 200 years later.

It wasn’t until the advent of World War II that the digital computer was first created by Alan Turing to help the Allies beat the German Enigma code machine.  Fifteen years after the end of the war, it was also Turing who published the book Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he postulated a test designed to determine whether a machine had attained the power of intelligent thought.  It became known as the Turing Test and to date no robot has yet passed the test.

That does not mean that the rise of robot intelligence has not progressed.  Since the 1960’s when the first industrial robots were introduced, automation has continued to make inroads in industry.  Today’s auto factories are 90% robotized.  Amazon warehouses continue to become more automated.  (Amazon has even been lobbying the FAA to let them use drones to deliver packages.)  Yet with the exception of big business, few of us labor cheek to jowl with robots in the workplace.  Sure, you might see a Roomba Robot scurrying across the office floor in search of those ever elusive dust bunnies.  But at this juncture, if you have a secretary or office assistant, he or she is made of flesh and blood. 

Can BeamPro Put the Kibosh on Office Hijinx?

Image courtesy of Suitable Technologies
While teleconferencing has been reducing the need for busy executives to fly the friendly skies, until recently these conferences were relegated to conference rooms and boardrooms.  But an enterprising company called Suitable Technologies recently introduced a 5-foot tall rolling robot called BeamPro that takes teleconferencing to the streets. (Or, at least the hallway.)  Think of BeamPro like a tablet pc on wheels, because that is essentially what it is.  The bot allows busy executives the ability not only to interface with far flung colleagues and employees, but it provides mobility that enables said executives to roam the halls of an office across town or around the world.  Equipped with webcam and speakers, BeamPro is kind of like a corporate nannycam on steroids, since it not only allows the boss to keep watch on his staff, but it also enables he or she to interface with and direct the action of far flung staffers.  http://time.com/3923648/rolling-robot-screen-beam/

While this bot threatens to undermine the “While the boss is away, the staff will play” mentality prevalent at many offices, it is still a far cry from replacing said staff.  Nor does it assist the current staff in performing their duties. (Unless having a full-time robotic office Nazi can be considered helpful to overworked and underpaid employees.)  However, that doesn’t mean that help isn’t on the way.

Baxter and His Buddies

While office automation has come a long way, that doesn’t mean you can order a robotic office assistant that can take a letter.  But there is a robot made by Rethink Robotics named Baxter that could put a new face on your shipping department… literally. 

Image courtesy of Rethink Robotics

Where science fiction has usually characterized robots as replacing their human counterparts, Baxter is actually designed to work alongside them.  If you have ever seen automated factories where robots are kept like caged animals that are too dangerous to be allowed near their flesh and blood coworkers, Baxter was designed from the ground up to be user (and human) friendly. The homepage at RethinkRobotics.com sums it up as follows,

“If you walk the floor of your facility and see lightweight parts being handled near people, you’ve likely just found a great job for Baxter.  This smart, collaborative robot is ready to get to work for your company – doing the monotonous tasks that free up your skilled human labor to be exactly that. Baxter is safe to operate next to in production environments, without the need for caging – saving money and valuable floor space.  Baxter deploys quickly and connects seamlessly to other automation – often without third party integration.  With Baxter, no traditional programming is required. Instead, it’s manually trainable by in-house staff, reducing the time and cost of third party programmers.”

Designed with a “Monkey see, monkey do” programming subroutine where employees literally show Baxter how to accomplish a task, this in one easy-to-employ bot.  At a base price of $25,000, he and his one-armed counterpart Sawyer could be just the ticket for etailers and cottage industry production facilities that perform a lot of repetitive tasks involved in everything from packaging and material handling to machine tending and line loading.  Still, with their limited mobility, tinkertoy appendages and industrial demeanor, even these handy droids are unlikely to give your receptionist a run for her money any time soon.

Bring on the Humanoid Androids

What most of us are waiting (or dreading) the arrival of robots that can walk, talk and act a little more like human beings.  DARPA recently completed its Robotics Challenge where teams of human robotics experts competed for millions of dollars in prizes.  Their task was to create ambulatory robots that were required to complete a number of disaster response tasks, including driving a rescue vehicle, walking through rubble, climbing stairs and turning valves.  Twenty three teams from around the world fielded robots and three teams shared $3.5 million in prize money, including South Korea’s Team Kaist and two teams from the US, IHMC Robotics and Tartan Rescue.  

No matinee idols by any stretch of the imagination, while these robots can move like humans, their looks are such that if you weren’t completely incapacitated, the sight of these robotic rescuers would in all likelihood scare most of us to death. 

Aren’t there any cute robots out there?

While most research has gone into giving robots the ability to walk and talk like people, few have given aesthetics much thought.  However, there are a couple of notable exceptions such as motor car manufacturer Honda that has been working diligently on a lively little bipedal droid that while not exactly cute as a button, does have a persona less derivative of an industrial monstrosity. 

Able to walk, talk, run, climb stairs and as President Obama discovered during a trip to Japan, kick a soccer ball, this lively little android has been under development for nearly 20 years.  Unlike the industrial manipulators that most bots come equipped, Asimo’s “hands” have four fingers and a thumb just like you and I.  Looking like a 4’3” astronaut, replete with backpack, this humanoid robot is not currently for sale.  However, the little guy has become something of a robot ambassador, having travelled to and performed in dozens of countries worldwide.  http://asimo.honda.com/

Wouldn’t You Like to See a Pepper Too?

More importantly, while Asimo may be a giant step forward in robot evolution, he is still not something you are likely to introduce to your parents.  That’s where Pepper comes in.  Designed with an emotional engine that has been designed to read everything from body language to voice inflection, this little robot is even cuter than Asimo.  Better still, the little droid has been designed with one specific purpose in mind: to be a companion.  While Pepper can’t climb stairs, it is still able to get around on wheels set into its base.  More importantly, Pepper is for sale, at least in Japan, for around $1.600 + $200/month in service fees.  Created by Softbank and backed by Foxconn Technology Group and Alibaba, when Pepper was put on sale on June 20, 1,000 units were sold in the first minute, forcing Softbank to suspend sales.

Before you reach for your wallet, you also need to understand what Pepper can and can’t do.  While the little droid can hold a conversation, react to your emotions and respond autonomously, he doesn’t cook, clean or vacuum the rugs.  However, that doesn’t mean he can’t earn his keep.  Softbank mobile, one of the prime cellphone operators in Japan, as well as Pepper’s creator, have been employing him in their retail outlets as a greeter.  Last year, another Japanese firm, Nestle Japan “employed” Pepper in its appliance stores in order to sell Nescafe coffee machines.  Said, Nestle Japan’s CEO Kohzoh Takaoka,
"Pepper will be able to explain Nescafe products and services and engage in conversation with consumers.”
Beginning this fall, Softbank and its marketing partners are expected to roll out a special business model of the robot named, “Pepper for Biz.”  The success of Softwank’s initial rollout has also propelled a number of other entrepreneurs into the game.  How long will it be before you can purchase or lease a NannyBot to mind your kids or your elderly parents.  With the government’s increased use of drones and warbots, can it be all that far off before security droids come to a warehouse near you?  And it wouldn't it seem like child’s play to craft robotic lawnmowers that rolls out of a truck under its own power to tend to your lawn.

Let’s face it, once the robotic genie is let out of the bottle, there will be no way to put it back.  This means that robots intended to “assist” us will soon transmogrify into androids that can replace us.  As the units get more sophisticated and autonomous, will it be long before jobs currently being performed by humans are taken over by robots?  Or worse, how long will it be before robots reach a point in understanding deemed a singularity by researchers, at which point they will become self-aware.  A number of notable scientists and industrialists, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned that once robots achieve parity with humans on an intellectual level, there is a real possibility that they will decide  they no longer require or desire to share the planet with their human counterparts. 

Also, there is a real danger that once people begin to be replaced in the workplace by robots, they could well rise up to picket and boycott the companies that formerly employed them.  I could see protest marches and civil disobedience taking place as people become displaced and dispossessed.   Political and religious leaders will be mobilized to thwart this inhuman form of slavery.  I can see the headlines now, “Al Sharpton takes on AI.”

My point is that robotics and artificial intelligence are going to be the mother of all two-edged swords that our wired world will soon be forced to deal with.  Whether the verdict will ultimately be bot buddies or robot rage is still too early to compute.  But if Terry Gou of Foxconn and Jack Ma of Alibaba are right, robots could soon be as important as the automobile in the coming decades.  That means we’ll all have to deal with the debate regarding robot rights a lot sooner than you think.

Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio   

Basics of Biohacking

By Carl Weiss

Is your body letting you down?  How much time out of your daily schedule do you relinquish for exercise?  Are you tired of moving heaven and earth to support that bag of chemicals and water?  Do you wish you could enhance your senses or even add new capabilities to your existing body?  While this used to be the realm of science fiction only a few years ago, current and rapidly emerging technologies allow you to repair, replace or enhance that old bag of bones here and now.  In this week's Working the Web to Win blog, I will take you into the lab to explore bio-tech that is being used to repair, replace or enhance human beings.  I will also introduce you to a new cult of devotees who are ready, willing and able to undergo painful medical procedures to take the cyborg plunge and bio-hack their way to a better life. 
Dr. Geekenstein, I Presume

The name Steve Haworth isn’t exactly a household word.  At least not yet.  Unlike the other two Steve’s of Apple Computer fame, Steve Haworth has not yet achieved the level of rockstar geek status that Jobs and Woz did.  But he could well be on his way.  That’s because he is one of the pioneers of body modification who routinely performs surgery on people looking to add enhancements to their body.  Since he is not a board certified surgeon, this means that these procedures are done without the aid of anesthetic, unless you count ice. 

Although Haworth’s family has long been associated with medical device engineering, Steve cut his teeth in the 90’s by dabbling with body piercing, 3D tattoos and something called the Metal Mohawk.  (You can’t make this stuff up folks.)  Fast forward fifteen years and Steve’s modifications are now more sci-fi than technopunk.  One of the enhancements that Steve routinely performs is the surgical implantation of rare earth magnets.  Now I know what you’re thinking, “Why would anybody pay to get turned into a refrigerator magnet?” 

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.  While Steve and other bio-hacking enthusiasts have posted videos which show them moving metal objects with the magnetic field generated by their enhanced digits, apparently there is another side effect of the procedure.  Apparently this enhancement also provides the recipient with a virtual Spidey sense that allows them to perceive magnetic fields.  For $350 you too can experience the pulse of electric motors, junction boxes, high tension wires and any device that imparts a magnetic field. 

Is a DIYborg Really a Cyborg?

Of course, there are more ways to enhance your senses than by simply implanting magnets.  Adventurous people have implanted everything from RFID chips that allows them to control nearby devices, turn on and off the lights, not to mention open their garage door without the use of a clicker.  There is another popular procedure called Southpaw that involves the implantation of a compass that in essence turns you into a homing pigeon by letting you sense kinesthetically when you are facing north.  (I should probably get one of these for my mother, since she is terrible when it comes to following directions.) 

You can also have computer chips implanted that sense your biometric data, turning you into the human equivalent of a FitBit.  Others have had led lights implanted beneath their skin, turning them into a cross between a tattoo and a casino marquis.  While most of the devices are tiny, I have seen at least one adventurous lad named Ted Cannon, who had a device the size of a smartphone implanted beneath the skin of his forearm.  You can view his video interview here:    (Just make sure you haven’t eaten recently.)

More telling is that Ted’s company, Grindhouse Wetware, builds devices that are designed to integrate with the human body. 

Geordi LaForge, Here We Come

Aside from DIYborgs, there are also apparently eyeborgs, ala Geordi LaForge of Star Trek fame.  This was the character in the Next Generation series played by LeVar Burton.  Having been born blind, Geordi sported a pair of high tech spectacles that not only permitted him to see, he could see light spectra that no human eye could, including infrared, ultraviolet and radio waves.  While today’s version of Star Trek tech isn’t quite as extraordinary as that of Geordi LaForge, it’s getting there.  Scientists have already reverse-engineered the retina and created an app that not only reproduces its operation, but it allows a camera to be connected through the optic nerve.  In principle, this enhancement could be used to augment the tiny fraction of the light spectrum we currently are able to see.  Holy x-ray vision, Batman!  (Another group in England is conducting experiments with an implantable lens that can not only provide perfect 20/20 vision to all you who wear glasses, but they claim the lens even provides a zoom capability.)

Do You Want Fries with That?

On the other side of the coin, there are people who are so unconcerned with appearances that they will risk ridicule, or even worse, to possess enhanced abilities.  One of these acolytes is Steve Mann, who has become something of a biohacking legend since he was forcibly ejected from a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris France when he walked into the establishment sporting what amounts to a DIY version of Google Glass.  The chief difference was that Steve Mann’s glasses were bolted to his head.  Referred to as the “Father of Wearable Computing,” he has been making a techno fashion statement for years.

While much of the biohacking scene has been taking place in basements and back alleys, that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon hasn’t garnered academic attention.  One notable is Captain Cyborg, otherwise known as Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Coventry University.  In a 2013 interview in Forbes Magazine that took place in Warwick’s office, which writer Emma Byrne described as “a cross between a toyshop and Tony Stark’s basement,” the professor was asked which project he was most proud.

“No question, it would have to be when I hooked up with my wife.”  He’s not talking about dating: In 2002, he and his wife Irena installed matching implants that recorded signals from their central nervous systems.  They were able to correctly identify each other’s nerve signals around 98% of the time.

“Sam Morse, the inventor of Morse code, talked about brain-to-brain communication.  He sorted out the distance, but he still needed that physical interface, the finger on the key.  Over the years we’ve made loads of improvements in bandwidth and distance, but we still haven’t got past the interface problem.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/netapp/2013/09/30/kevin-warwick-captain-cyborg/

Like Steve Hawaorth’s rare earth magnets, the brain-to-brain interface Dr. Warwick shared with his wife was more akin to a sixth sense than mere communication.  (How many men reading this would love to never be asked again what they are thinking by their wives?)  More significantly, it’s this extrasensory perception that has Warwick and other researchers interested in exploring the possibilities yet further.  When asked about the possibilities as well as the perils in experimenting with the human body, Warwick replied,

“When Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, at first people couldn’t see the point in what he was doing.  What’s the point of the first phone?  But it didn’t stop there.  I think what I’m doing is like that.  Maybe when I’ve been dead ten years people will go, ‘Oh! That’s what that was for.’  What you do in terms of prizes and degrees and all that – that’s absolutely nothing.  It’s when you do something no one’s done before.  When you push it, that’s what’s exciting.”

While that may hold true, just as advances in medicine in the past, such as joint replacement and transplantation have become commonplace, I can’t help thinking that somewhere the ghost of Mary Shelley is spinning in her grave.

“It’s Alive!”

  Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio