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Maintaining the Exponential

Every time I start a new engagement with clients I have to justify our starting position: that technology will be the largest single driver of change in the UK for the next twenty years. This belief is the basis of our Intersections foresight methodology. It is what helps us to ‘zoom in’ on existential threats and extreme opportunities for clients fast.

We often face two questions.

Firstly, people often ask if we think that technology is the answer to everything. Or similarly, if every answer we present is based on technology. Neither of these things is true.

Technology isn’t the answer to everything, and we don’t present it to be. But technology is the source of the most questions right now. It touches (intersects with) every aspect of life and business. Everywhere there is pressure already, technology-driven change will amplify, or address that pressure.

In short, technology isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s a great starting point when you’re looking for the questions.

The second question new clients often ask, particularly the more science and technology-literate, is about the continuing progress of technology. “Isn’t Moore’s Law coming to an end?” they say.

The answer to this is almost as straightforward.

Moore’s Law is the best known representation of the exponential progress of technology, but it is quite specific: the number of transistors that can economically be put on a silicon chip doubles every two years. Moore’s Law has a number of parallels in communications, storage and other areas of technology. Each one is specific to its field, but from each of them you can extrapolate the same basic rule:

The bang that technology delivers for your buck doubles every two years.

Transistors may or may not be the technology delivering this ‘bang’ for much longer. But stories like this one give me confidence that the progress of technology will continue on an exponential curve. As does the ongoing development of substances like graphene that offer us an exponential improvement in performance over today’s materials.

Technology has been the biggest driver of change in the UK for the past twenty years. It is the force that has had the greatest effect on the way we live and work, day to day. I strongly believe it will continue to be so for the next twenty years as technology maintains its exponential rate of progress.

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Lessons from Back to the Future Day: Four Rules for Better Predictions

Last week was the most hectic week since I started Book of the Future. Not least because of Back to the Future Day, the date that Marty and Doc went forward to in the second instalment of the trilogy.

For me this meant 30 broadcast interviews, ending with a Sky News satellite truck parked outside my house. In them I made all sorts of predictions about the future: gadgets disappearing into clothes, furniture and accessories (an old theme), artificial intelligences augmenting us but also displacing humans in the workplace, and new materials starting to have a dramatic effect on the way our world looks.

Only now, few days later, am I getting to finish the blog post I started on the day, considering what makes predictions accurate — or not.

Entertainment over Foresight

The producers of Back to the Future had no interest in accuracy. According to the director, they chose gadgets that made them laugh. But still, they got a lot right: flat screens, video calling, tablets and drones. All realities today. And I’m fairly confident we will see home hydroponics bays as an increasingly normal kitchen appliance in the not-too-distant future.

But the flying car, portable waste-fuelled fusion generator and the hoverboard? Not so much.

So how might you go about making accurate predictions of the future? There’s no hard and fast rules — there are simply too many variables. Our Intersections methodology is valuable for helping you to understand what you need to focus on next, but looking further out you need some broader rules.

Here’s what I’ve taken from a few years making longer term predictions.

1. What Is Easier Than When

If you can follow the science you can make a pretty good guess at what could be. If it could, and it offers genuine advantage, then it probably will be at some point. But nailing down that point in time with any degree of accuracy is incredibly hard. Who would have thought it would take so long for 3D printers to go truly mainstream? Not me.

If Back to the Future were a real exercise in futurism you could perhaps forgive them for believing faxes would still be around in 2015, and conversely, getting a little ahead of themselves with the hoverboard.

2. Two Decades from Lab to High Street

This is a very rough rule of thumb, but if you look at a lot of major innovations it seems to take about two decades for them to go from the first breakthrough in the lab to being a serious, mass-market product.

If the science hasn’t been discovered yet that supports a breakthrough you want to see, then I’m afraid you’re going to be waiting a while.

3. Don’t Underestimate the Human Factor

People are often a drag on progress as well as its driver, and that’s not always a bad thing. Legislation and regulation are often there to protect people (as well as being abused to protect some organisations’ market positions). Even outside the law, you have to deal with simple human factors of fallibility, preference and acceptance.

Until these can be overcome for a particular technology, it is never going to be mainstream. And humans all adapt at very different speeds to change. It’s not just a generational thing.

Even if something is possible, and economic, you need to factor in a period of time for it to be regulated and accepted.

4. Simple Economics

Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s viable at any price. A surprising number of people may join the auctions for Nike’s self-lacing shoes, but they’re unlikely to be economic to produce at a mass market price any time soon.

I don’t trust most drivers with their cars on the road, let alone in the air. But even if flying cars were self-piloting, I think the economics of keeping them in the air would mean they won’t be a mass market product until the cost of energy generation falls dramatically.

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Shorten the distance or increase the speed

One of the first questions that I ask organisations when we’re beginning a consulting engagement is this: “How fast does information move from your customer, to your CEO, and back again?”

It’s a somewhat imprecise question that needs a little refining for each different client, but it gets people thinking. How fast does evidence of changing market conditions reach decision-makers who can do something about them? And how fast can they respond?

The answer is often measured in weeks, even months.

This is too slow. In a slow-moving market you might get by like this for years. In a fast-moving market this behaviour is an existential threat.

The solution can come in many forms. People’s natural instinct is to speed the flow of information. Invest in new technologies. This is often part of the answer. Working on the future finance function recently I saw stories of just how dramatic the effect can be for organisations when they can see their true financial position with a latency of just hours rather than weeks.

Managers also tend to look at the people involved in the communications chain. Long-established companies and public sector bodies often have information flow through multi-tiered committees before it is rubber-stamped and presented to managers to act on. Sometimes this improves the quality of the information, but often it is over-polished by people covering their own behinds. It loses some of its raw value the more it is cooked. The information flow is often speeded when these committees (and often the people who sit on them) are stripped away in cost-cutting exercises.

Perhaps the most effective way to improve responsiveness though is to shorten the distance the data has to travel before it reaches someone who can act on it. This makes many managers uncomfortable, delegating power out to the edges of the organisation. But done right, as it is for example by some e-commerce companies with their merchandisers, it is incredibly powerful. Merchandisers can pick up on social trends and news events and create rapid, responsive promotional campaigns for goods on their site, piggybacking on memes that would be un-catchable if they had to pass information up the chain and get authority back down it.

Ask your clients or colleagues: how fast does it take information to reach those with authority in your organisation? And how can you speed the response?

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Home Intelligence Needs Discretion and Design

I spent Monday afternoon kitting out someone else’s home with automation technologies in the company of TV’s Phil Spencer and a film crew. Not all of it will make it into the episode, due on digital channels later this year, but we played with smart security systems, remote lighting and power sockets, and connected appliances including a washing machine, microwave and kettle.

Some of it was very cool and functional. Some of it was a little bit frivolous. But the home owners were blown away by what is already possible. This wasn’t a great surprise: on the way down to the shoot someone sent me some research from Context, showing that nearly two thirds of the UK (and French and German) public have never heard of smart home technology, and of the minority that have, roughly two thirds of them don’t feel they know enough to make a purchase.

This is a segment in the early days of its lifespan.

It also happens to be home security month at the moment, so I’ve been testing some additional smart home security tech for The Loadout and BBC Radio Manchester.

Testing all this gear has reinforced some lessons I’ve learned in the past while playing with smart home gear.

1. Smart Home Technology Needs to be Discreet

The first lesson is that smart home technology needs to be unobtrusive and discreet. This has a number of implications.

Firstly, those in the house who don’t want to use the technology shouldn’t have to. So smart lightbulbs still have to work off the normal switches. Smart sockets still need to be accessible — easily and intuitively — without the non-techie user having to unplug them.

Secondly, the technology can’t make you feel like you’re being studied in your own home. Some people are uncomfortable enough with the passive IR sensors of a traditional burglar alarm. Start putting cameras around the house and people get naturally quite self-conscious*.

MyFox, one of the brands I’ve been testing, has a neat and simple solution for this. Its camera has a motorised shutter than flips down over the camera lens when people are home, but opens up when the alarm is armed. All the benefits of CCTV, none of the disadvantages. The camera doesn’t even look like a camera with the lens covered.

Thirdly, it has to work as reliably as dumb technology. Lots of the products I have tested in recent years have had short lifespans or intermittent problems that rapidly become very irritating for technies and non-techies alike.

2. Smart Home Technology is The Most Design-Sensitive

The success of technology in the home is also extremely design-sensitive. While this might sound obvious, it clearly isn’t to some manufacturers.

We all want our personal technology to look good, but its design only has to satisfy the owner. Smart home technology has to satisfy all the occupants of the home, both aesthetically, and also functionally.

I think this means that the design rules are different. While we’ve put up with shiny black and silver boxes in the corner of our living rooms for years, increasingly home entertainment technology is being designed to blend in: frameless TVs and tiny streaming boxes that can be tucked out of sight.

Somehow these lessons seem to have been lost on the makers of a lot of smart home tech. I don’t think it should look like technology in the same way that a phone or a tablet might. It should look like a part of the home: furniture or decoration.

This is where the ability to design away the user interface is hugely valuable. The fewer screens, buttons and lights a device needs, the more discreet it can be, the easier it is to blend in. This isn’t about putting a wood veneer on a surface, it’s about minimising the surface area.

Even having achieved this some companies go on to finish their products in shiny plastics that look like something out of Star Trek not your average family home.

The caveat to this is wholly app-driven devices, of which I am not a fan. Apps are fine for configuration and monitoring, but they’re trumped by simple switches for universal access, easy reach and intuitive use. Unless you can design the user interface away altogether, a device should always have a chunky manual control, either mounted on the device or remotely.

Barriers to Adoption

It’s a certainty that we will be adding layers of intelligence to our homes. There are hard drivers like increasing safety and security, and cutting energy bills. And there are soft ones like increasing comfort. Exactly when we start to adopt these technologies en masse will depend very strongly on the ability of the manufacturers to adapt their approach, in order to deliver more discreet devices with more universally appealing design.

*They might be even more so if they knew about the terrible security on many of them.

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Extend Yourself

Last night I gave a talk at the launch of a new piece of social media management software called ‘Sociomole’. In it I tried to put some context around the growing array of semi-autonomous tools that are increasingly available to us at home and at work. My point was that while concerns around technological unemployment, autonomous weapons and AI are valid, we should also be excited about the possibilities of a new range of tools. Tools that might be the beginning of an ‘age of robots’.

Here’s the full script:

Does everyone here know where the word ‘robot’ comes from?

It’s from the Czech, robota, meaning ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. The term was coined nearly a hundred years ago by a playwrite, Karel Capek. In his play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, the machines eventually rise up, overthrow and exterminate the human race.

This cycle of creation, uprising, destruction has set the tone for much of the narrative around robots, both fictional and factual ever since.

For every bumbling C3PO and lovable R2D2 there’s murderous Hal9000, Skynet or Roy Batty.

From Fiction to Fact

Thirty or forty years ago when those genre-defining films, Star Wars, 2001, Terminator and Blade Runner, were made, robots were very much science fiction. Even the remote control R2D2 couldn’t be made to drive in a straight line.

But today robots are a much more realistic proposition, in both hardware and software form. And so the debate about them has moved from cinema screen to newspaper headlines.

In the recent past we have seen warnings from academics, the UN and human rights campaigners against the development of killer robots.

Luminaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates pointing to the threat that artificial intelligence presents.

And serious research organisations such as Boston Consulting group and the Oxford Martin School of Management suggesting that 25–35% of all jobs could be automated in the next ten to twenty years.

In the words of another robot, Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “It’s all rather depressing really.”

And I think that’s a shame. Because while all of these concerns are valid, they conceal the potential joy in what we are on the verge of achieving.

We Are Defined by Our Tools

One of the defining characteristics of the human being, what sets human beings apart from other species, is the ability to create and use tools. To extend our frail physicality and limited mental capacity beyond the bounds that evolution has defined.

Throughout history we have been augmenting ourselves, both physically and mentally. We wanted to communicate more clearly, so we created language. We wanted to calculate more accurately, so we created the abacus. We wanted to travel fast so we built cars and trains. We wanted to fly so we built planes.

These innovations are so important to us that we classify whole ages of history by the underlying technology. The stone age. The bronze age. The steam age.

And now, the silicon age.

You Are All Bionic

In the past few years we have used our mastery of the silicon chip to develop an incredible array of mental augmentations. So popular are they that I will happily say that everyone in this room is a cyborg.

You are all bionic.

Don’t believe me? Who looked up a number today on their phone? Who searched Google for a piece of information? Who used satellite navigation to find their way here?

The technology may not be embedded in our heads but the interface is slick enough that it doesn’t matter. Technology augments us all the time. Personally I have outsourced large parts of my memory to my calendar and my phone book. Google Maps is my sense of direction.

This isn’t weakness. It is strength. Building tools to augment our capabilities is what humans do.

Autonomous Tools

There is an obvious next step in the evolution of our digital prosthetics.

Autonomy.

Have you ever been so busy you wished you could clone yourself? Well now you can.

From automating the simplest of office tasks to training a robot like sociomole to be you in your absence, you can now create limited digital clones of yourself to multiply your capabilities.

And here’s where the joy turns into commercial power. Because the most successful companies in the world are incredibly good at empowering small numbers of people to be incredibly effective.

When Facebook bought Whatsapp in 2014 it paid $22bn. For a team of 55 people. If anyone thinks that’s insane, WhatsApp now has nearly a billion active users around the world — twice what it had when Facebook bought it a year ago — and it remains on an incredible growth track.

The venture capitalist Tomas Tonguz did some analysis a while back looking at the turnover of silicon valley companies broken down per employee. He found that the average was $100–200,000 per head. While Google turned over $1m per head and Apple twice that.

Part of this is because of their incredible business models but part of it is because these companies empower their employees to do more with the right tools at their finger tips.

And increasingly these tools have a level of autonomy.

Early Days

These are early days for our little digital elves. Their functions are limited today and they still need close supervision. But already they are having a huge impact for those people and companies adopting them.

My advice is to look at what’s out there. See what it could do for you today. Get in on the ground floor and be the people and the organisations using and refining the tools. Getting value.

Be aware of the threats. But don’t be put off by them. We should take joy in our new found powers, as well as being conscious of the risks.

Thank you.

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The Smart Glider: Designed for Life?

I’ve been riding around on a Future Wheels Smart Glider, one of the many brands of balance board, for a couple of weeks now. One of the joys of my sideline on radio and with The Loadout is that I get to test gadgets like this. And with the Smart Glider it’s fair to say that my colleague Mason and I have put the effort in. It shows.

The Smart Glider is one of the higher-quality balance boards out there. It is equipped with a pair of strong motors and good quality batteries. If things go wrong you have a UK importer or retailer to turn to for support. But because it is encased in the same plastic case as cheaper models, it suffers some of the same design and cosmetic problems: a tumble here and a tumble there (and you will tumble — especially if you experiment with its top speed as I did) and it soon looks pretty scratched.

This doesn’t affect its function: apart from an occasionally over-sensitive safety cut-off throwing me off, it has been very reliable and good fun. And I believe the manufacturers when they say its batteries will be good for a few thousand cycles.

But this isn’t true of all of these boards. Many are made to a price more than a standard. Cheaper internal components means less-powerful motors, lower quality, and lower capacity batteries, and weaker structure. Some of them have their internals held together with masking tape. Search the forums and you’ll find all sorts of horror stories.

If the swegway/balance board/hoverboard/whatever you want to call it is the success I’m expecting this Christmas, there will be an awful lot of them junked by the end of January.

This will disappoint a lot of parents and children, but more importantly it suggests the extension of a depressing trend in consumer technology: design for rapid obsolescence.

This is not new of course: we have been designing goods to need replacing for a very long time, in order to maintain the consumer cycle. But there was some evidence that simple economics was driving a slight slowdown in the replacement cycle for many categories.
Laptops lasting longer because web-based applications simply didn’t need more grunt from old devices (and because in a downturn companies are glad to slow the churn of hardware). Phones lasting two years rather than 18 months because operators didn’t want to keep subsidising new devices at short intervals. Tablet and eReader sales falling because like the laptops, once bought they remained capable for a few years.

Now that the mass manufacturing capabilities of China can turn out mechatronic goods like the Smart Glider at a consumer-friendly price point we might see a new wave of carbon-intensive, short-lived kit bound for land-fill.

Or perhaps we might see something else.

Because the design of these devices is largely universal, all drawn from the same source, it’s possible that many of their parts will be interchangeable. They’re not designed to be easily maintained, but like a bike or a skateboard, perhaps the keen will find a way.

If the appeal of these devices sustains, maybe we’ll see skate shops or bike shops start to offer to service and upgrade them? Maybe there will be a market for customisation and performance components? Their lives might be extended in a way that isn’t possible for more tightly integrated consumer electronics.

This may well be a vain hope. Some of my initial optimism that these devices will go beyond a sci-fi novelty has worn off.

But you never know. Riding around the reaction I have had has been a mixture of wild excitement (usually from the under 12s), amused interest (most adults) and abuse (my friends). Will that translate into a more sustained user base?

Maybe.

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Time to Get Comfortable with Robot Citizens-and Workers

Technology in the third quarter of 2015 seems to have been dominated by robot stories of one form and another. Last week another study, this one by Boston Consulting group, suggesting that 25% of our jobs are up for grabs by robots in the next decade — in line with the previous figures from the Oxford Martin study that suggested 35% by 2025.

On the same day, two academics launched a campaign against ‘sex robots’, on the grounds that the concept perpetuates gender inequalities. And earlier Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and others signed an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons.

I’m tracking some technologies that seem to support the forecasts from Oxford Martin and Boston Consulting. I may disagree with precisely which jobs are at threat, but it’s clear that machines will soon be able to do many routine tasks that form the bulk of much paid employment.

Personally, I believe white collar jobs are the most at risk in the UK, as software robots become rapidly more capable, and improvements in usability allow fewer people to do more. The costly mechanics and materials of hardware robots, combined with weaknesses in their perception and contextual understanding mean they are a little further out — certainly in any ‘general purpose’ guise. Just look at the recent DARPA trials for evidence.

Lobbying and public squeamishness will slow the adoption of more specialist robots: for example, self-driving cars and trucks, and delivery drones.

But we may only be able to sustain any rejection for so long. Because almost without realising it, robots are becoming part of our lives and workplaces.

Often when we interact with call centres now, our initial interactions are with a — often frustrating — simple robot. Siri and Cortana are becoming increasingly integrated into our lives along with personal assistants like EasilyDo, and automation tools like Zapier.

Corporate social media accounts — even ours — is often handled in part by a robot, helping us to navigate the mass of content out there and identify potentially interesting interactions. As individuals we will increasingly use similar tools as the complexity of global media becomes nearly unnavigable without algorithmic assistance.

A company I’ve worked with has even developed a robot sales director, who impersonates the real one, sending out instructions to employees about who to contact and when. Imagine this extended to its natural conclusion: a company run by a robot but with human employees.

Sex robots, killer robots and robots that take our jobs might be grabbing the headlines but it’s always with an eye on the future. The reality is that this is happening today. I don’t think it has to be a bad thing for us as a society, but it will be if we walk blindly into an automated future without considering the consequences.

For companies, the need for internal debate is urgent. Robots aren’t a question for tomorrow, they are a challenge for today. And what you do about them will define your success over a much shorter term than you may think.

Tom Cheesewright