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Chips and Skin: The Mark of the Beast?

In a bid to get people thinking about the issues involved, one office development in Sweden is offering tenants exactly that option, and it has caused a bit of a stir.

This is one of those stories that captures the attention of radio producers and the public alike. After a couple of interviews on the BBC World Service on the topic (and a morning of local radio interviews to come), my Twitter account is as busy as it has been since I discussed climate change with Katie Melua on Sunday Brunch (an odd, if thoroughly enjoyable episode in my media career).

So why does this idea get people worked up? Well there’s the reasons I’ve discussed on the radio, and the reasons people have been discussing on Twitter.

For most people I think the one will be a natural human queasiness about inserting anything under the skin. We don’t like injections when they provide us with life-saving vaccines, why would we

 

choose to inject ourselves with a microchip? Especially when it fulfils a function already supported by a whole range of different form factors today: I have credit cards, keyrings, phones and a watch that all support wireless communication over short range using the same standards as this implant (Radio Frequency Identification or RFID and/or Near Field Communication or NFC).

For the techies there’s the issue of security: this type of short range wireless chip has been shown to be susceptible to hacking using widely available hardware. If your implanted chip gets hacked, do you really want to be slicing it out and replacing it? Not ideal. Much easier to replace a copied credit card.

Then there are the religious objections, based on Revelations 13: “Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” Some (many, based on my Twitter feed) equate the implanting of a chip in the hand to the mark of the beast…

Let’s just say it’s not a belief I share.

For me, this is not about to be a mass-market technology. It’s functionally flawed (the range on the tiny chips involved is limited) and the queasiness factor is simply too great. Very few organisations outside perhaps the military will consider asking their employees to embed such a chip in their bodies.

Me? It’s tempting for the Stark* factor but, no. For all my love of technology, I think I’ll stay 100% flesh and bones until medical need dictates otherwise.

*Tony Stark (also known as Iron Man), not Ned

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Digital SWOT 2015: Don’t Redesign the Web, Redesign the World

At Digital SWOT last year I encouraged the audience to carry the lessons learned with digital technologies at the edge of the business into its heart, deploying measurement, analytics and data-driven decision making in operations. So many organisations are increasingly sophisticated in the way they attract new customers using digital tools but fail to carry that sophistication into their day-to-day operations.

At this year’s event I took that message a stage further. With the ready availability and falling skill barriers around hardware, digital change no longer needs to be limited to the software arena. Organisations should be looking at the weaknesses in their interactions with the physical world and seeing how innovative technologies can be applied and developed inside the organisation, using platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone and others — we’re currently testing the Pure MIPS Creator CI20 and soon to test the Gemalto Cinterion development board.

For many of these platforms there are libraries of code out there and piles of other people’s projects that can be rapidly hacked together to perform incredible functions. For Project Canary, a distributed wireless air quality sensor and demonstration project for the capabilities of Republic of Things, we hacked together a prototype in just two hours for around £15. Sure, it was ugly and hacky, but it worked and proved the concept.

If people can accept the idea that nearly anyone can start hacking with hardware these days, the next question becomes, ‘What problem do we tackle?’ Answering this question formed the second half of my talk, which I used to introduce the audience, in very quickfire fashion, to our Intersectionsprocess.

Intersections is a way of looking at how future tech trends will intersect (hence the name) with the pressure points in any industry, in order to divine what the most important trends to watch might be. I believe it would serve equally well as a means of deciding on which aspects of the business might be worth addressing with technology innovation.

The process is simple enough, though we will be publishing full templates for other people to follow at some point, to make it even simpler.

The first step is to understand why we focus on tech-driven trends when looking at the future. This comes down to the idea that in a specific geography (the UK) over a specific time frame (maximum 20 years) we believe the only change driver from the classic PESTLE set that will be exponential rather than linear, is technology.

The second step is to break technology down into a series of macro trends: diversity, agility, performance, ubiquity, and scale. This is a topic for another post — we’ve updated our list since the last one here.

The third step is to understand the pressure points in your organisation, both internal, and external.

The fourth step is to look for intersections between the macro trends and the pressure points. There are likely to be many.

Finally we come back to our exponential factor to filter the results, discarding anything that might have a linear-scaled effect on the organisation and focusing on those with an exponential effect — for example, a 10x increase/reduction in delivery costs.

You can find the full slide deck from the event here — just use your arrow keys to browse through the slides: http://bookofthefuture.co.uk/presentations/digitalswot/

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Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

Yesterday morning a BBC producer suggested I was the one bringing a bright spot to the otherwise bleak Breakfast news. Why? Because I was explaining that the hack of the US military’s Twitter feed wasn’t quite as bad as it had appeared.

In one of those increasingly-frequent days of media interviews, I was also doing the newspaper review on BBC Radio Manchester. There again, I tried to find some light amongst the gloom: murder, war, cultural conflict. Usually I can find a scientific breakthrough (real or spuriously boosted by those newspapers for which every substance must either cause or cure cancer). Yesterday the lightest story was about the campaign to restore the Creme Egg to its former sickly standard.

With only the media as a guide it’s easy to believe the world is getting ‘worse’. But it’s a view I can’t accept.

How would you measure such a thing? How do you measure the quality of human existence? It’s a challenge philosophers and politicians have struggled with for centuries. Happiness is hard to benchmark over time, and is both subjective and relative. But harder numbers: health, wealth, longevity, crime are easier to track. And all appear to be moving in a positive direction when assessed over a reasonable time period. We live longer, healthier lives as a species. For all that war and murder fill the news, deaths from either cause are dramatically lower in the last decade than any previous. Far fewer of us live in poverty than ever before.

The world is a long way from where any right-thinking person would like it to be. But the human experience is, almost inarguably, improving.

This is little succour when your own individual, short-term experience does not fit the broader trend. It’s easy to look to the long term from a position of relative comfort. But such is the job of a futurist. To look at the future and remind people that for all the risks and challenges, it is likely bright.

Threats like climate change worry me deeply: this is a species-wide threat that we must address. You don’t have to believe everything the papers say to recognise that there is growing potential for a global, cultural conflict. But still, I remain positive.

In a time of darkness centred on a cartoon, it seems apt to quote a comic book character:

“By default, optimists make the future. Because pessimists never even try.”

Tony Stark/Iron Man.

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Caution: Friction Starts Fires

If you want to know how new technological innovation will change our future society, it pays to keep an eye on the latest research. But the variety of research being undertaken is so vast that the best a generalist like me can do is track broad research trends and their potential: nanotech, new materials, synthetic biology etc.

If you want to know where business innovation will change our future society, the research base is equally broad. But as a consumer or businessperson, you don’t need to subscribe to any expensive journals or learn any jargon. Because one of the best indicators of coming innovation is friction.

Friction comes in many forms. It’s in those bureaucratic interactions that the supplier has failed to reform. It’s in those high costs that the supplier continues to charge, even though their own costs have fallen dramatically — or should have done if they had invested in new systems. It’s in the manual processes that frankly there is no good reason not to have automated.

A great example of all of these different ‘frictions’ is in banking. It’s a little cliché now to wail on the banks. But this isn’t about dishonesty, this is about inefficiency. Inefficiency that frustrates us today, but will kill them in the future.

Take what should be a simple process: opening a business account. Wow this is harder than it should be. Walk into a branch they ask you to call instead. Call and some banks will post(!) out physical forms to you. These forms don’t always arrive (we waited over a month for one bank recently — despite repeated chasing, the forms never arrived).

Other banks will ask you to come in for an appointment where someone with very little (if any) business experience will try to understand your 21st century business and describe it in a way that fits the 20th century forms they need to fill out. This is the best case scenario in which you don’t need any borrowing facilities and you have been a customer of the bank for nearly two decades.

Banks have certain responsibilities, under law and industry regulation, to maintain checks and balances. To ensure that the people they serve are legitimate (and not laundering money) and not getting themselves into difficulties. But none of this excuses the incredible burden of friction that they incorporate into this process.

And so what always happens in the face of friction like this will happen again: new, innovative competitors will find ways to challenge the established players. The barrier to entry for banking is higher than most, but it’s not insurmountable. Look at the players that have already emerged, taking slices of what might traditionally have been the banks’ business: PayPal, iZettle, Stripe. In the next few years we will see others chip away at other aspects of their business.

And then there is the big threat on the horizon: alternative currencies. There remains a lot of scepticism about the prospects of currencies like Bitcoin. But one look at the quality of people beginning to tackle the challenge of making alternative currencies into mainstream options to see that this is only going one way: there will be a very real, very low-friction alternative to the legacy banks for a lot of functions in the none-too-distant future.

Whatever market you’re in, look for the friction in your business, your suppliers and your competitors. Wherever there’s friction, there’s going to be a fire.

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Finding Love in the Future

Do you believe in ‘the one’? That perfect person, that ‘soul mate’, who is right just for you? It’s a beautiful, if implausible idea, as both Tim Minchin and Randall Munroe have pointed out.

In ‘What If?’, Munroe suggests (comic) ideas for maximising contact between human beings to increase our chance of finding that special one. But the maths is against us: the chances are minuscule that we would ever meet our perfect partner, even with all sorts of technological interventions.

Yet technological interventions are increasingly the means by which we do find our partners. Whether it’s match.com or Tinder, there’s a very good chance that your next encounter will be digitally brokered. It’s not quite the ‘Soul Mate Roulette’ that Munroe suggests, but it’s not far off.

If anything, it’s arguably better.

Munroe’s suggestion is predicated on the idea that there are no filtering factors for ‘the one’. It is just a random individual from somewhere in the world who happens to be your match. But in reality there are many matches, and there are all sorts of filtering factors. These not only allow us to sort through our options but also determine how well we ‘match’. The ‘hardness’ of these rules varies, but you could include gender and age, appearance and location, education, interests, career and much more.

All of these filtering factors have long been applied by our own preferences and prejudices, and by simple fact of the way we live: various studies (including one by LSBU) suggest that between 16 and 25% of graduates meet their life partner at University. Figures from the US suggest another 10% of us meet our partners at work. The most common form of introduction is through friends — an incredibly strong filtering factor (though yes, friends often also get it wrong).

Today, we codify many of these filters into software, allowing the machines to do the early filtering for us. With an app we can scan the remaining pool of possible partners incredibly quickly, albeit based on limited (mostly visual) criteria.

The result of this, combined with the shrinking world that the internet and web, and cheap global travel have brought about, is that we probably assess many more possible partners today than we have ever done before. And we do so in a more systematic way.

One Tinder user even suggested to me a ‘dating automation system’, much like the marketing automation systems that increasingly drive our early interactions with companies. A scripted series of steps lures people towards a purchase. With the right mindset a Tinder user could easily automate the first round of interactions with a huge number of possible partners, triggering an automated series of actions when they swiped right on a possible match’s profile. They could even A/B test opening lines to see what was most successful — either at getting people to a date, or at filtering out the poor matches.

With this level of sophisticated, statistically-driven capability, perhaps we are closer now than we ever have been to the possibility of meeting ‘the one’?

Or perhaps you go with the Tim Minchin view, which, for all my soft-hearted romanticism, I have to concede is more realistic:

Your love is one in a million
You couldn’t buy it at any price
But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves
Statistically, some of them would be equally nice

We have increased our range of options for finding love, but we have also increased the barriers that we put up, and perhaps we have decreased our openness to chance. The simple act of codifying the soft filters of life, work, and friends into hard, digital rules means that we are more likely to confine ourselves to niches. The more we believe in the idea of being able to compute ‘the one’, the less we might be willing to work at the relationships we have.

The internet has proven to be a fantastic way for people to meet and fall in love, and now accounts for a large proportion of all partnerships. Some even attribute the recent halving in the proportion of American couples who met at work to the growth of online dating. But in the future I think digital dating aides will need to be more subtle, more sophisticated.

Our range of possible ‘matches’ will continue to grow, as social networks spread, and geographic and language barriers fall. We will want to take advantage of these opportunities. But we will also be refocused on place and physicality as technology is better integrated into our lives and loses some of its novelty and stark separation. The machines that help us match will need to account for all of this, continuing to assist us in finding matches but also allowing for a little random chance, and not always tempting us with the possibility of that perfect ‘one’.

Tom Cheesewright