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These Are the Droids You’re Looking For

My generation of geeks was raised on Star Wars, Transformers and Terrahawks. OK, maybe I’m the only one who had nightmares about Zelda, but these shows were important. They defined for us the robot as something physical. A creature of action and interaction, hewn from steel and silicon.

Today the robots that excite us most continue to follow this model. From Boston Dynamics’ Atlas to the new Star Wars’ BB-8. Lifelike androids and sleek drones.

But these will not going to be the robots that have the greatest impact on our lives in the near future. Instead, these are the droids you’re looking for:

1. The Office Bore

The first place you’re really going to notice robots in the next few years…

Actually scratch that. You probably won’t notice them at all. You’ll just notice that half your colleagues have disappeared. And not because some Hal-esque machine is bumping them off.

The Office Bore is a limited artificial intelligence that cane be rapidly programmed to replicate many human tasks: administration, customer service, reconciliation, data entry and correction. All the sorts of white-collar busy work that should have been eliminated the first time around in the digital revolution, but wasn’t because none of our systems talked to each other properly and we designed the user interfaces so badly.

A limited AI can overcome problems like a lack of interface between systems by pretending to be a human being when it needs to. Because processing power is so cheap now, the efficiency overhead in this is less of a problem.

The Office Bore lives in the machine, never sleeps and just quietly gets on with the tasks it has been set, forever. It won’t kill you, but it might take your job and you’ll never see it coming.

2. The Phantom Pilot

Human beings are an expensive, and let’s be honest, unreliable way to pilot machines. As I often point out, we’ve long known that machines can fly and drive better than we can: the US Navy first handed landing on aircraft carriers over to machines back in the 60s. It’s only a matter of time before machines replace us in the drivers seat altogether.

Self-driving cars that carry passengers will be held back by regulation. But small parcel delivery drones — on wings and wheels — will likely be here before too long.

Human beings do have the advantage of being good, general purpose units: once we drive a truck somewhere we can then get out, find the right parcel in the back, take it to the right door (sometimes) and find the right person to give us a signature. Robots that can do that are still some way off, but the sake of cheap, reliable delivery we might be willing to do some of the work ourselves or engineer alternative solutions.

3. Jack of One Trade

If there’s a repeatable task, physical or mental, then the chances are a machine can do it faster and more reliably than a human. As the cost of technology falls, you’re starting to see highly-specialised machines enter all sorts of trades. Like the variety of models of robot bricklayer entering the market now that can allow one person to do the work of many, and do it faster.

It’s estimated that the construction industry needs a million new recruits by 2020 to meet the housing targets laid out before yesterday’s increase to 400,000 by George Osborne. Not all of those million new recruits are likely to be human.

4. The Thin Controller

It now costs a tiny amount of money to connect something to the internet. With Republic of Things we do it for under £3, just using off-the-shelf parts.

The cost of cloud-based hosting and processing power is also trending towards zero. Which means that you can now put a lot of intelligence into just about anything for very little money. Book of the Future’s ‘law of ubiquity’, one of our five Vectors of Change, says that if there is a competitive advantage to be had from the application of technology then someone will do it. And competitive pressures will force everyone to follow suit (as long as the advance proves attractive to consumers: no-one needs a connected kettle).

There will be little pieces of smart technology in just about everything before too long: ‘thin controllers’, sensing data, learning and responding, like a Nest heating system. Doors that self-shut and lock if you forget. Tables that detect and charge devices. Lights that control themselves.

5. Pepper Potts

With all these slightly-smart devices around, and a wealth of information sources vying for your attention, you’re going to want some help controlling everything and filtering the signal from the noise. This is where your personal assistant, Pepper, comes in.

Pepper is also cloud-based but with access to all your personal information: contact books, banking, social networks, calendars, communications. She knows you better than you know yourself and interfaces with the digital devices and services that surround you to optimise them to your needs. She can control your environment, organise your diary, even shop on your behalf.

Now Iron Man fans may think this sounds more like JARVIS. So why have I called her Pepper? Because Pepper ends up running the company…

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The Nonsense of the Knowledge Economy

The phrase ‘knowledge economy’ has always raised my hackles. Maybe because it’s usually spoken by a politician whose knowledge of work doesn’t stretch much beyond campaigns and committees.

My rather flippant response has always been to question the value of a knowledge economy when most facts can be discovered with a few taps on any smartphone.

In preparing a talk for the annual conference of the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, I have found myself developing the argument somewhat beyond the facetious.

Not another commodity

On one level, my instinctive response was right. The issue is in treating knowledge as facts, and thinking that those facts in themselves have a saleable value.
If the fact in question is a new scientific breakthrough or piece of service or technology design then it does have a value that can be traded.

But in this accelerated world the value of this knowledge differential is smaller than ever.

For a start, some of the most powerful facts in the world are increasingly shared: just look at the technologies that underpin so much of our lives. They are open, shared, and as a result their is no value in knowing them, only in the skills to utilise them.

You can’t sell someone HTML but you can sell them your time to manipulate it.

Even if the fact you have discovered or the design you have created is unique and defensible, its lifetime is now shorter than ever. The rate of progress means that in short order it will be replicated (legally) or superseded totally.

If you are to monetise your knowledge you have to do so quickly.

Platforms and Players

The narrow definition of knowledge as a collection of facts is clearly problematic. But I believe that even a broader definition of a knowledge economy incorporating skills and experience is limiting.

Picture a ‘knowledge economy’ built on this basis and you imagine two primary forms of industry: intellectual property and the human services around them. Neither of these things on their own or when combined describe the transformational businesses reshaping our world today: platforms.

Increasingly it appears the world — both public and private — is being divided into ‘platforms’ and ‘players’.

Platforms are collections of services that span multiple horizontal sectors or service large populations and use this super scale to do so at small marginal cost. Amazon, Facebook and Google are good examples, though they themselves are supported by the global collectively-owned platforms of the Internet and the Web.

Players operate above, below or between these platforms, adding a measure of value — usually on a per-hour basis — to a much smaller audience. but at a higher margin.

To me, today’s definition of a knowledge economy does not provide for the creation of platforms. Only players.

Agile and Diverse

So what’s the alternative to a knowledge economy? The advice will be familiar to anyone who actually pays attention when doctors give sensible advice about healthy eating.

A balanced diet.

If we are to have a competitive economy, one that creates platforms as well as players, then we need to ensure that we develop two characteristics. Agility and Diversity — words that will be familiar to any regular reader of this blog.

Firstly, we need to ensure that what new knowledge we develop is applied fast. That the relationship between education and enterprise is closer, allowing us to leverage advantage in the small window that it provides us with a differential. We need our organisations to have greater foresight and the agility to act on what this foresight shows them.

Secondly, those organisations need to be diverse in nature. The coming wave of automation will likely hit the white collar jobs hardest, first. All of the ‘knowledge industries’ on which we have prided ourselves — finance, law, accounting, and even technology — are ripe for massive disruption. They need to be balanced with manufacturing, energy, farming.

Platforms can only scale if they can support large, diverse customer bases. Without exposure to this diversity in our domestic market we are unlikely to develop platforms that can then grow globally*.

No More Prescriptions

The reality is that any political prescription for the type of economy we need — knowledge or otherwise — is going to be wrong. Reducing this complexity to the size of a soundbite will always leave the proposition sounding one-dimensional.

And a successful economy will always be an ecosystem, not a monoculture.


*I concede this may seem to be in conflict with my earlier post about Unicorns. To some extent this is a question of timescales. While we have the economy we do, we want it to be a success. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be seeking to disrupt its foundations in the longer term.

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Learn to Learn Faster

The Three Cs are all you need to know: Curation, Creation, Communication. As I’ve explained on this blog before, these are the three sets of skills that I believe will stand anyone in good stead for their future career. In an age of accelerated business and widespread automation, people who are strong in the Three Cs will remain in demand.

Having written about Communication recently, I thought I’d tackle Curation.

What I mean by Curation is the skill to discover and qualify information. This is slightly different to the way the word may be used in the context of content marketing or an art gallery or museum.

I’ll take it in two parts.


Discovery is about knowing how to ask the right questions in a number of contexts. It’s about the ability to identify a problem and even from a very small knowledge base, begin exploring it until you can start to find a solution.

This is challenging because when facing a completely new problem you often don’t know the language to use to shape the question. The language in which the answer is written may be as unfamiliar to you as the problem itself. But through an iterative process of asking questions, absorbing answers, and using the new knowledge to ask better questions, you can begin to explore.

This is perhaps best illustrated with search strings. The first place most of us turn for an answer these days is to a search engine. But what do you type to get the answer if you’re exploring something completely new? You start with your best-guess approximation, learn from what it returns and progressively refine until you find the answer.


When you find that answer, the skills of qualification kick in. How do you know you can trust what you have found?

Too often people take what they have read on face value and compound the error or untruth by sharing it to their own networks. The skills of qualification are about building tests in your own mind based on your existing knowledge and what you can glean from other sources around the topic you’re examining.

Some of this may become almost intuitive: inaccuracies often just ‘feel’ wrong to those with a sceptical nature. Some of this may be based on acquired knowledge: a quick bit of maths can often tell you that a reported number must be false. But sometimes the qualification can only come through rigour and discipline, double and triple-checking with reliable sources.

Self-Directed Learning

Together, discovery and qualification represent Curation, a fundamental skill for self-sufficiency in the future workplace. In a fast-changing environment we will all need to learn to learn faster and there often won’t be people who can teach us because we are the first — in our own organisations or anywhere — to do what we are doing. The ability to recognise a barrier, define it and scale it, is invaluable in that situation.

So ask yourself: how good are your curation skills?

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Life is the Best Model for Agility

A couple of weeks ago I gave a brief talk to the 150th anniversary of the Manchester Society of Architects — now called simply, Manchester Architects. The theme of my talk was around ‘The Living City’. This is shorthand for a collection of technology-driven developments in our cities that will fundamentally change how buildings and public spaces are designed, built and operated, and how we interact with them.

We are beginning to issue our constructions with their own DNA, through advances in Building Information Modelling (BIM). Today this means better planning and projects, but tomorrow it could mean buildings and spaces that can evolve to better serve the needs of their users.

Imagine a building that can understand the brief to which it was built, the materials of its own construction, and the constraints of its environment. Imagine it could adapt, autonomously, to better meet the needs of its tenants and the environment around it.

That is the promise.

Of course it will take more than BIM to deliver this vision. Buildings will need the ability to capture what is happening inside and outside of them, and processing power to comprehend it. But with smart buildings and cities we are already equipping our spaces with just this: senses and brains.

The only piece missing that would allow buildings to grow like organisms rather than dead structures is some form of limb, but the advent of 3D printing in construction and robot bricklayers, means that there is now a serious prospect that spaces could reshape themselves automatically in response to perceived need, rather than be reshaped manually against some formalised plan.

I see these structures growing like a garden — or a ‘concrete jungle’, if you prefer. Constantly adapting to our needs. My point to the architects was that this new ‘garden’ of structures will require tending. Not maintenance but management by people with a skill set that combines form and function. Who better than an architect for this role?

There’s a broader point though. Our cities (as a proxy for our race) are facing some serious challenges, both economic and ecological. And it appears that one of the best models for solutions to these problems might be life itself, in its endless ability to adapt to its environment.

We may not have created a true artificial intelligence yet, but our level of technological sophistication means that we can nonetheless aspire to build life-like structures.

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The Surveillance Bill: Combating Privacy, Not Crime

And so the snoopers charter Surveillance Bill has been revealed. And parts of it are as perverse as expected.

Lots of people are notionally in favour of increased surveillance because they buy the argument made by law enforcement and the Home Secretary, that greater powers are needed to combat serious threats, most notably from terrorism.

This seems reasonable if you don’t really understand how the internet and the web work. Most people don’t, and most of the time they don’t need to. It’s only when an issue like this comes up that an understanding becomes important. Because without it, you just can’t understand why what is being proposed is so wrong.

I can’t explain the internet in sufficient depth to those who don’t understand it. Partly because, beyond a certain point, I don’t understand it well enough. And partly because if I did, no-one would read it.

But maybe there’s an analogy that will get it across.

It’s not always easy to create a good offline analogy to the online world. Because increasingly the online context is so rich and layered that it isn’t easily translated.

But I’ll have a go.

The dragnet being proposed by this legislation will only hoover up the most minor of offences committed by the dullest of criminals. It’s like enhancing the police’s powers to crack down on bad parking in response to a spate of ram raids.

Best I can do so far. It’s late and it has been a long day. Alternatives welcome in the comments below

There may be good parts to this bill. I haven’t had a chance to read all 250-something pages. But as far as the most famous provisions around tracking our online activity are concerned? No-one conducting any sort of serious crime will be caught by these laws. They will dance around them while the police and intelligence services drown in irrelevant data. That is, if the internet service providers can find a practical way to collect and store the data being requested.

If they can, we have perhaps an even bigger problem. The new powers would put an arsenal of potentially very powerful personal information into a small number highly attackable locations. And place it into the hands of people who have proven they can’t be trusted with such information.

There are lots of things that people do online that are entirely legal but which, if revealed, could be embarrassing or much worse. Holding that sort of data over someone is a level of power I don’t really want anyone to have — especially since it has almost no bearing on the detection of crime.

People have a right to be sensitive about protecting their privacy. The simple fact of which sites they have visited may open up questions about their sexuality and sexual preferences, fidelity, financial status, political affiliations, employment and career plans, location and much, much more.

Even if we had a police service that had not so recently been proven to abuse the privacy, rights and reputation of victims, this would not be acceptable. It’s a good general principle that you shouldn’t equip states with powers they don’t need.

This proposed legislation would give powers to the police and intelligence services that would handicap them, blinding them with a blizzard of irrelevance while their supposed targets continue to sneak around in the shadows. It would place huge amounts of valuable, private data in the hands of people we can’t trust to use it responsibly. And it would make that data highly accessible to motivated hackers while placing a great burden on our internet service providers.

The only real value this portion of the bill seems to offer is to the government, who get to look like they’re doing something. But that’s no substitute for an effective attempt to combat online crime. And it’s certainly no justification for the loss of our privacy.

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Do we want to make unicorns?

If you’re my daughters, the answer to this question is clearly a resounding ‘yes’. Of course we want unicorns! Unfortunately for them I’m not talking about genetically engineering mythical creatures (though I’m sure some evil genius is considering this in a secret lair somewhere).
What I mean by ‘unicorn’ is a start-up with super-scale potential. They’re the hot topic in the UK tech community at the moment. Lots of people are very focused on our ability to create the next Facebook, Uber or Alibaba.

Sitting in a Northern Stars pitch event at Thinking Digital Manchesteryesterday, I listened to a number of start-ups present their vision for how they may — or may not — be the next unicorn. None of them expressed this as an explicit desire, though two of them clearly had the potential to achieve it. Both are addressing fundamental aspects of human existence: sex and food.

M14 Industries has created a niche dating platform off the back of its initial success with Bristlr, a site for matching pogonophiles to beard owners. This was a joke gone right that is now a successful business. If the founder, John Kershaw, can successfully attract people to curate their own niche sites on his platform, the business could scale incredibly rapidly.

Biospheric Studios is the result of Vincent Walsh’s years of PhD work tackling a range of challenges presented by dense urban living around the production of food and the management of waste and pollution. If he can successfully commercialise one of his innovations in a scalable fashion then it could be enormously valuable. Though today he is focused largely on the local market.

I’d be delighted to see either of these organisations scale to unicorn size. They’d contribute to the local economy and they’re tackling issues of some value to humanity. Whatever you think of online dating, a third of couples now meet online.

But should we be so focused on the super-scale successes? I think there’s an argument to be made for turning some of the bright lights currently focused on the nurturing of unicorns on to something that is almost their antithesis.

One of the other people I encountered at the event yesterday was not from a start-up. Well not exactly. He was a developer working on the NHS’s Project Alpha. This rather sci-fi title is the name for a programme aimed at prototyping new health applications. We had one of those brief conversations where you realise you violently agree. The solution to many health (and other public sector) technology problems was not another massive, poorly procured project with a giant vendor. Nor was it about just better procurement. Instead what government digital teams should be doing is laying down standards and interfaces and inviting third parties to develop applications that conform to those standards and interfaces.

This is the basis for the most successful software ecosystems in the world, not least the web itself. And while it occasionally throws up unicorns, like Facebook and Google, it supports millions more niche solutions to individual problems.

We may rue the fact that though a Briton created the Web, none of the most successful businesses it has produced are from here. But I think if we focus on trying to change that, we’re missing the point. The real challenge, and the one that stands to deliver the greatest benefit to this country and others, is not creating the next unicorn.

It is creating the next web.

Tom Cheesewright