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The Rise of the Virtual Cyborg

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Inconvenience comes in many shapes and sizes, and alongside hypocrisy, being inconvenienced appears to be considered a modern-day deadly sin. Remember the last time you had a flat tire? How long did it take you to get it fixed, and how convenient was it for you?

We don't all need our high-speed tire changes, but more and more of us do need to process information quickly, efficiently and conveniently. Big companies spend millions of dollars seeking to systematize, streamline and automate tasks that previously required individual human effort and expertise. It even works sometimes...

We have come to expect that better software and faster computers should mean better results. (At least that's what the brochures say.) The truth is, in many cases machines are terrible at doing things that humans do easily. So technology by itself is often not the most convenient solution.

Some of the greatest breakthroughs of the Internet have resulted from combining human intelligence with software. Google's famous PageRank algorithm, for instance, would soon become worthless without the team that constantly refines it to prevent search results from being manipulated. The choices it makes are largely the result of individual human
activity.

All this sophistication applies to only a small fraction of the world we live in, a world where the stark reality is that 80 percent of the population lives on less than $10 a day, and many live below $1 a day. There has been a global rise in literacy, and far more people have access to good basic education but little or no opportunity to work at anything but the most menial, laborious tasks. The good news is that nearly everywhere, people are getting connected and are eager for digital work.

LinkedIn and Facebook have recognized that paying real people in developing countries can be much more efficient than writing code to perform the same task. People learn, and often they improve, getting better and more efficient, and bringing passion and creativity to
their work.

Organizations like Samasource are connecting corporations to distributed workers, and they provide assurance on the quality of the work. More importantly, they ensure that workers are not being unfairly exploited. In a connected world, the dark-alley sweat shop is not so easy to hide.

For individuals and small businesses, there are also many inconvenient tasks that require human intelligence but now must be done in a painfully inefficient way. We don't perform these tasks often enough to become expert (nor would we wish to be), yet we can't automate them, and it's expensive to outsource them or delegate them because we can't easily package the tasks for someone else.

Worse still, these chores are so far removed from our passion that we procrastinate. We dread them; they take space in our brains and time in our schedules that could be used for more fun, productivity and enjoyment.

Mobile apps are supposed to make our life easier, but many are just huge time sinks that are overly complex to use and don't actually improve our ability to get stuff done. And if you read my post on time management, you know that I am all about getting stuff done.

Why is it that every expense tracker I see makes it hard for the user to get the job done? I mean, all they do is replace a paper-based system with manual data entry. You have to key everything yourself, and they keep adding feature after feature without addressing what would
be a real benefit: outsourcing my blasted receipt management.

So when I was asked to advise a new startup in the expense management app space, I was deeply unimpressed, until the moment I saw how it worked. The people-powered approach is being used by Plendi to track expenses for individuals and small business. The mobile app has one feature: count it, one! It takes pictures of receipts and uploads them to a server.

Then the magic starts. You see, rather than making me type the vendor, the amount or the currency, I can just leave it to them because they use real people in their backend to sort everything out and deliver me the real benefit: having all my expense reporting done for me for few bucks a month. I just handed my accountant a login to the website and she downloads it all. Bingo. (I also quickly write a code letter on each receipt before I snap it so that I remember which customer gets the bill.)

The combination of smartphones as low-cost data-capture devices and global connectivity for workers in the developing world is creating enormous opportunities for new services in voice, image, data and document processing. The chores that we hate can be turned into meaningful work and opportunity for those who need it most, and that's a convenient win for everyone.

If you're still wondering about the car tires, a Formula 1 team changes all four tires and fills the tank in under 10 seconds. With the right tools and a good process, people can be amazingly efficient.

The real opportunity here is in finding more and more ways of using human effort enhanced by technology to get stuff done better, easier, more profitably and with more fun. That's the point in the virtual world.

The virtual cyborg is here, and its star is rising.

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