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Tech Trends for 2018

Tech Trends for 2018

The new year brings curiosity about what’s coming next. So, as usual, I’ll be doing a clutch of interviews over the next few days. Here are some of the things I’ll be talking about.

AI: Holding your hand through life

The invisible hand we’re talking about in 2018 won’t be anything to do with Adam Smith. It will be the widespread application of artificial intelligence technologies to smooth our path through life — and guide us towards the paths that brands may want us to follow.

While we’re perhaps decades from anything approaching a truly human-scale generalised intelligence, narrow applications of machine learning and predictive systems fed on large data sets from our health trackers, home automation systems, shopping habits and social networks, will be more and more prevalent.

Expect to see more and better systems to guide you, shop for you, source your content, sort your digital collections, and generally ease your path through life. There will be more AI-driven toys like Cozmo, upgrades to systems like Siri and Alexa, and of course, increasingly self-driven cars.

Synthetic Biology: Just another code

Tech firms around the world are working to turn DNA into just another code, making it easier and easier for us to create new life tailored to our specifications. Whether that’s spinning super-strong spider silk from yeast, creating antibiotic alternatives, producing biofuels or growing food more efficiently, these companies are all working towards the same goal: to give us mastery over nature.

There is still much we don’t understand, but billions in investment is accelerating both learning and applied capabilities.

Materials: Novelty leaves the lab

Materials science has been one of the areas that most excites me for a year or two now. The chance to change the way the world looks, as well as the way it works, is hugely exciting, as new classes of material (particularly single layer materials) bring us physical properties that dramatically outperform our traditional options.

The challenge has been scaling innovations from the lab: what is possible isn’t always easy to reproduce in a manufacturing environment. In 2018 I’d hope we see more evidence of production scaling up, or at least practical advances that make it more realistic.

Energy: The case for solar gets more stark

If you haven’t been tracking the energy market, it’s worth reading the report I produced early in 2017. It reached a very simple conclusion: renewable electricity will increasingly displace fossil fuels in almost all applications. Solar energy particularly is becoming so cost-effective as to offset the cost of storage to guarantee supply.

The economics of the energy market and the slow progress of large-scale generation projects will see our energy grid increasingly distributed and decentralised, with more and more generation and storage at the edge.

Mixed reality remains clunky like a carphone

Mixed Reality’s carphone moment

With the final (and somewhat disappointing) unveiling of Magic Leap’s hardware after $1.9bn of investment, the great white hope of Mixed Reality has lost some of its mystery. Nonetheless, we can expect MR (or Augmented Reality if you prefer) to become an increasingly mainstream pursuit in 2018, with improved hardware in devices like the iPhone X, and new content like Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Right now the technology is still clunky, like the carphones of the 90s, but the direction of travel is clear. In a few years we will be passing hours each day in a mixed reality of physical and digital.

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Be plastic

Be plastic

What does the word ‘plastic’ mean to you? Cheap, colourful toys? Credit cards? Something fake?

It’s hard to see why I might exhort anyone to be any of those things. But plasticity is also the ability to take on a new shape in response to external forces. I’ve talked about this being an important characteristic for companies and organisations. I think it’s increasingly a critical quality for people.

We talk about resilience for people a lot. The ability to take pressure and rebound. But what if your resistance to that pressure is more damaging than accepting it?

I’m not arguing for unquestioning acquiescence. Nor against a level of conservatism: every change should meet resistance and challenge. Its value should be questioned and tested. But as far as possible, this testing should be objective. Certainly more divorced than it is currently from our tendency to cling to what we have, or what we think we know.

The Descent of Man

I’ve been reading (rather belatedly) Grayson Perry’s ‘The Descent of Man’ over Christmas. In it, he makes the point that much of our view of what is ‘right’ and rational is coloured by the perspective of the ‘Default Man’ — straight, white, middle-class.

Many people — mostly fitting this description — find it hard to accept this is true. They see it as a personal attack and worry that their position will be undermined by attempts to change it. You can argue that elements of the Trump and Brexit votes were both reactions to such attempts.

But as Perry also argues, for many there is much to be gained by accepting that the perspective they have held to may no longer be correct, if it ever was. It’s a hard thing to let go of closely-held truths. But is it any harder than the damage done by holding to them? The clearest victims of the Trump administration and the UK’s exit from the EU will be many people who campaigned for them.

War on Christmas

When we hold on to certain beliefs strongly, we tend to believe they are immutable laws of nature, whether they are gender differences, political truths or faith in the power of markets. What we often miss is how relatively recent these ideas really are, and how little it would mean, in the grand scheme of history, to leave them behind.

There is no time of year better than Christmas to consider this. When those of a particular persuasion are fighting against a wholly fake ‘war on Christmas’, few of them realising that our Christmas traditions are perhaps less than a century old. They are modern inventions, as much about marketing as religion, and even the religious traditions are a relatively recent (in historical terms) appropriation of pagan rituals.

This doesn’t mean I don’t love Christmas — I do with all my heart — but I accept it for what it is. I know that it has changed radically over the last hundred years and will continue to change radically over the next hundred.

Age of acceleration

Anyone who has seen me speak will likely have heard me paraphrase something I heard Professor Ian Morris say in a guest lecture once: “Change is accelerated when civilisations collide.” Combine this with the conclusions of Parag Khanna’s Connectography, showing just how hyper-connected all global civilisations are today, and we should not be surprised at the accelerated rate of change.

New ideas abound. Other people’s beliefs and traditions flow around us. We should hold on to what is best of our own beliefs but always be willing to weigh them against the challengers. To extract ourselves as best we can from our own comfortable prejudices and consider the options with the most objectivity we can muster.

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The value of VR

The value of VR
Testing a nuclear meltdown simulator alongside Accenture’s Aidan Quilligan at The Dock research facility in Dublin

So many of the conversations about virtual reality are centred — perhaps naturally — on the consumer side of the business. But look beyond the PlayStations and the Rifts, and there is a maturing business delivering real value for some very unexpected companies.

I know this from two recent conversations and experiences.

First, from catching up with a contact at EON Reality, one of the few industrial-scale providers of VR technology and content into big enterprises. It’s a company I’ve been tracking for a few years now and every time I meet with my contact there, I’m impressed at the new niches they have discovered, for what to most people remains a gaming gimmick.

And second, from my visit to The Dock, Accenture’s research facility in Dublin, where I got to try a nuclear melt-down simulators using HTC’s Vive platform.

Safety first

Think for a second about what it means to be able to train someone in a virtual environment, rather than the real thing. For a start, the virtual environment is safer. Many of the training applications for VR are for high risk environments: oil rigs, manufacturing plants, military equipment.

In VR, someone can make mistakes until they get it right, and you don’t have to worry about what they might do to themselves or anyone around them. Well, mostly — I did manage to bash someone with a Vive controller. But that’s still less of a risk than the real environment.

Over and over

Which leads to the second point: repetition. We get good at things by doing them over, and over again. In VR, someone can practice and practice until completing their task is as much a matter of muscle memory as it is of conscious memory. And they’re wasting no consumables in the process.

The third point is about supervision. Having someone watch over a trainee is expensive. A VR environment can contain both the instruction and the exercise, meaning that a whole cohort of trainees can be instructed at once, with only minimal supervision.

Objective measurement

All of these are fairly established arguments for the use of VR in training. The one that really caught my attention recently was about measurement.

Because someone is interacting with a fully digital environment in VR, you can capture every last movement in great detail. This means that not only can you validate their ability to complete certain tasks, you can measure improvements in performance over time.

This presents a fascinating opportunity to monitor and optimise training and validate added value from any particular programme or approach. What would have been grand-scale time and motion-style studies in an analogue world can be conducted by a single data scientist with access to data from VR simulations.

For organisations providing training at scale, this presents an incredible opportunity for improvement — and savings.

While VR may remain largely a gimmick in the consumer world, in business it is starting to look very serious indeed.

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In an AI gold rush, sell shovels

In an AI gold rush, sell shovels

Whatever you believe about the realities of AI and its impact, the goldrush is on. Every company that five years ago was touting its ‘Big Data’ credentials is now referencing AI as a cornerstone of its business. I’ve heard tales of the most unlikely organisations clamouring for AI expertise to help them solve complex business problems.

What we mean by the term AI, is still up for debate of course. Clearly, we don’t mean a generalised intelligence in any way comparable to human. For the most part, we mean some form of machine learning — primarily through large data sets, but increasingly through modelling and adversarial systems — and automated analysis.

Golden data

Data has had a lot of focus as a critical asset, often presented as the gold in this rush. But there are many other critical tools, and the makers of these stand to benefit perhaps more than those holding the data or applying the tools.

The obvious companies here are the tech giants that have developed or offer the raw processing power or the core tools of machine learning: Amazon, Google, IBM, for example. But there are others too — like Bellrock, a company I came across recently that offers a platform for more rapidly applying models to data for predictive analytics.

There are also the companies to whom you can outsource the ‘mining’ of gold — or perhaps a more accurate analogy might be the production of automated mining systems. Consultancies who can build AI tools for organisations to use. From the very large, like Accenture, who recently showed me an interesting demo of automated document analysis for the pharmaceutical sector, to the relatively small, like US.Ai, whose co-founder I met at a BIMA event recently.

Early days

For all the hype, we are in the early days of artificial intelligence. It’s still hard to know what the most valuable applications will be, or what will come first. But while everyone’s trying to find those answers, those companies that provide the shovels for this gold rush are likely to profit.

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Indexing an infinite world

Indexing an infinite world

Listen to people speak about search engines (I’m speaking at a search engine marketing conference today), and you’ll hear one word a lot: index. The role of a search engine marketer is to get their client’s sites, products or services, to the top of the relevant indexes.

The problem with this is that an index is, by definition, finite. However fast the sum of sites and content on the web is growing, right now its scope is still essentially finite. It takes a huge amount of smarts and a great whack of processing power, but search engines can index pretty much everything people might want to find.

What happens when the supply of content scales exponentially? We’re already seeing a dramatic increase in automated content creation. People are using programmatic techniques to create everything from news articles, to t-shirt slogans, to phone case covers, to children’s videos. This trend is only going to increase, particularly with the growing ability to remix existing content in new and disturbing ways.

But this is just the beginning. The real game-changer is ubiquitous cameras coupled with machine learning.

Imagine that most of the population spends most of the day walking around with a camera, capturing everything around them. (How will this happen? I’ve written about that here.)

Now imagine the output of all those cameras is piped through machine learning systems that doesn’t just recognise objects, it understands their state and context. Is that bottle full or empty? Is it in a kitchen or a bathroom? What’s that text on the front of it? Can I scan that barcode?

Every person, place, object, and state is indexed in ultra-high resolution, in real time.

Now the index of possible answers to any search query is essentially infinite. How does search work in this context?

Firstly, I think it has to be hugely personalised. The engines searching for us will need a deep understanding of us and our needs in order to filter signal from noise.

To some extent they have this already: all our search results are personalised by our location and previous behaviour, amongst other signals. But they might need more information to match our needs more precisely: emotion, health, social graph and more.

Second, I think more of the process will be automated. Machines will effectively pre-search for us based on their understanding of our needs and often present us with results before we have formulated the question.

These shifts present enormous challenges and risks. The risk that our worldview is narrowed. The risk that our buying behaviours are essentially controlled.

That’s why I’m increasingly of the opinion that the machines we let do this on our behalf — tomorrow’s discovery engines — must work for us. That means we must pay for them, not trade access to them for our personal data. And it means we must understand them: they cannot be a black box.

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The first Jedi

The first Jedi

Maker videos are just about my favourite YouTube rabbit hole to disappear down. You can start with James Bruton’s Xrobots, Colin Furze, or Simone Giertz, and follow link after link until you end up watching someone building a replica Han Solo blaster from a customised Lego kit.

On a recent odyssey I found myself watching Allen Pan demonstrating a series of Mjolnir models at Tested Live. Pan’s YouTube channel is called ‘Sufficiently Advanced’, from Arthur C. Clarke’s third law:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Given the film being released as I write this (and the suit I’m wearing right now), this got me thinking about Jedi powers. How realistic might these be in the future? Could we use technology to give us Jedi powers that are indistinguishable from magic?

Let’s ignore the lightning for now and focus on three less destructive powers: telekinesis, influence over weaker minds, and a sixth sense for distant events.

Telekinesis

Can you move things with your mind? There’s two parts to this:

— can we read signals from a mind to trigger physical motion?

— can we move items without any physical contact?

The answer to both of these is a very qualified ‘yes’. Though the technology is still in its early stages, there are now multiple research projects taking information from the brain and using it to control robotic systems. In this example, they are even sending feedback to the brain to restore a sense of touch from the robot arm.

How about using a ‘force’ to move objects? Well, at smaller scales, soundwaves have been used to move objects around in three dimensions. Could you scale this up? Sure, but to throw rocks or bits of Death Star around, you’d have to be carrying equipment the scale of a Glastonbury sound rig. Not exactly practical.

Are there other ways we could move objects around remotely? Possibly, but I don’t think they’ve been discovered yet.

Mental influence

Hypnosis is surprisingly well researched and proven, albeit it doesn’t work on everyone. But that’s OK, Obi Wan qualifies the use of the force for influencing people in Episode IV — that doesn’t work on everyone either. Could a hypnotist achieve the same effects as a Jedi? Probably not outside of a more controlled environment, but in principle it’s not far apart.

What isn’t equivalent to the Jedi power is Neuro Linguistic Programming. This technique may have some interesting aspects, but it has just about no basis in science, as far as I can tell.

Sixth Sense

What is social media but a way to sense what’s going on remotely through a network of connected beings? Twitter is The Force!

OK, it’s not quite. But if you combine social media sentiment data with David Eagleman’s work on sensory substitution, you could have a very subtle sense of what’s happening remotely — just as Obi Wan does when Alderaan is destroyed.

This is perhaps the closest thing we have to a Jedi power right now. Imagine combining various data sets — social sentiment, the condition of your house from sensors, Bitcoin prices — and having a ‘feeling’ about the state of all of them through some form of sensory substitution. That could be very cool.

I’ll add project number 98,348 to the roster…

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Existential threats and exponential opportunities

Existential threats and exponential opportunities

“What is missing from your to-do list?“

Fifteen years ago, Donald Rumsfeld was somewhat ridiculed for his statement about ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’. But in the last fifteen years these terms have become increasingly widely-used. They describe neatly the reality for many planning business strategy: you can account for your experience and project forward based on known factors, but it’s much harder to incorporate things from beyond your own experience.

This is the role of the Applied Futurist: to bring a different, wider perspective. To bring information from beyond the experience of the client, and a framework to make it relevant to their specific environment and challenges.

ETs & EOs

What we’re really looking for is existential threats and exponential opportunities. Some more mundane, marginal ideas might drop out of the process. But it’s these super-scale challenges that come from left-field that are so often absent from the to-do list.

Until recently I’ve worried that too much of my work ends up being about threats, rather than opportunities. More than once people have said to me when working through the Intersections process that they only see the pressures on their organisation growing. But I’ve realised recently that you can rarely separate existential threats from exponential opportunities.

Is it a rocket, or a missile? Existential threat or exponential opportunity?

Few organisations are as unique as they think they are. What are challenges for them are almost certainly challenges for their peers. If you can solve an existential threat, you either gain competitive advantage, or create a valuable solution that you can share. Threat becomes opportunity.

What’s on the horizon?

So, what’s missing from your to-do list? Almost certainly the majority of existential threats and exponential opportunities. Time to think about scanning the horizon.

Next week I run my next course in Futurism for Business at the University of Salford. You can find more information on these course, and book online, at https://futurism-tools.com

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Building the Future Council

Building the Future Council

My recent post about the future council gained a lot of attention, so I thought I’d share more of the thinking that I’ve done so far. What might it look like when you re-orient a council around people and places, rather than services?

This thinking started with a question from a council chief executive a few years ago, but was actually refined through work with a medium-large (£250m turnover) corporate. Despite being very different organisations on the outside, once you got under the skin their problems were very similar. All of this work combined now forms the Stratification framework that is part of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit.

Fundamental units

The first thing to identify in the council’s case was that the fundamental unit of organisation was services. The whole organisation had been assembled by bolting services onto the side of the existing organisation, and even the radical transformations driven by austerity had not really changed that architecture. As long as it persisted, there would be massive ‘parallelism’ in the way the organisation operated, preventing efficiencies but more importantly, fragmenting data and adding friction to service, analysis and communication.

As I wrote about in the last post, the first and most important step was to re-orient the organisation around the citizen rather than the service. But we also had to recognise that this didn’t cover everything: a significant proportion of the council’s work is also place-centric, with granularity ranging from a single bin, to a building, to a whole street or park.

Hence we were left with two fundamental units that could be cross-indexed: people, and places.

Unifying the citizen interface

Unifying the customer interface

With the citizen at the centre of the organisation, it was clear that we needed to unify the customer interface. The multiple touchpoints of the old architecture were highly inefficient, creating confusion, cost, disparate data and a governance nightmare, with little oversight.

A unified customer interface means a common written language style, with content written to the appropriate standard for the majority of the audience. It means ensuring that there is a single answer to each question, not multiple, conflicting answers. It means using a common design language to help those with limited English or poorer vision to understand information, whether presented in a face to face, written, digital or video context.

A unified customer interface means a coherent view of that experience across communications channels, using insight from contact centres to drive digital development, and vice versa.

Ultimately it led to the proposal of new internal agency, equipped with the skills and resource to handle these tasks, where previously responsibility had been distributed across multiple teams.

Making services more transparent

Creating coherent service units

Behind the unified communications layer sit the services, the core propositions of the council: education, public health, adult social care, environmental services, highways, revenue and benefits — obviously these will vary depending on the type of council.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the delivery of any of these services. But one thing was clear when looking at them and their interactions inside the organisation: it was hard for them to understand each other’s work and for leaders to really understand their performance.

As organisations grow and develop over time their activities often become more complex on the inside and opaque from the outside. Complex isn’t inherently bad: these teams are dealing with challenging issues. But the lack of transparency makes many things harder: partnering with other teams, reporting success, analysing failure, inducting new staff.

We created a template to help these teams revisit their understanding of their core processes, their inputs, outputs and key metrics so that the could be more easily communicated to others. Sort of a paper ‘API’, that described how you might interact with them. Ultimately, it would be good to turn paper into code.

Creating a common data layer

A common data layer

Underpinning the unified customer interface and more transparent interaction between services is a shared data layer. Once you acknowledge that there are only two fundamental units that the organisation deals with — three if you count numbers (finance) — it’s clear that the council needs many fewer software systems and databases than it has acquired under a service-oriented architecture (not this SOA).

The realities of the current estate, data protection legislation, and security choices may mean that you don’t actually condense everything down to a handful of systems. But as a notional vision, a unified data store of people and places is valuable because of the business value it can drive. Most people have few interactions with their council, and those they do have are relatively mundane — even automatic. But for those people who need more intensive support, more coherent information can drive much more effective intervention: earlier and more targeted, meaning better for the citizen and cheaper for the council.

External API

External interface wrapper

The nature of the post-austerity council is that much of its work is commissioning, either to third parties or to its own services companies. Streamlining these interactions is less important than streamlining the customer interactions, but nonetheless valuable. Building a largely-digital wrapper that allows the two way flow of information for commissioning, payments, the sharing of data, and the monitoring of SLAs, would speed the flow of information right through the organisation, and ideally improve the delivery of services.

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The language of disruption

The language of disruption

I’ve been wrestling recently with the language of change. Disruption and innovation are terms that have become so over-used as to lose their meaning in this accelerated time. But even without this desensitising effect, they are broad, imprecise terms that do little to describe the acute nature of the challenge that some sectors are facing, or the effort required to address those challenges.

I spent yesterday with a collection of terrifyingly bright people at Accenture’s Dublin innovation centre, The Dock. When I say terrifyingly bright, I mean people with decades of academic and commercial experience with AI, people who left prestigious academic institutions to tackle more practical challenges.

I’m glad to say that despite their intelligence, they too wrestle with the language of change. But I picked up a few nuggets that I found useful. I thought you might too.

Compressive Disruption

One, from Accenture Digital’s MD Arabel Bailey, was the idea of ‘compressive disruption’. This neatly describes to me the effect of increased competition that technology enables by lowering barriers to entry into markets. Many companies are finding shards of their profitable business shaved off by new entrants, or seeing non-traditional competitors start to squeeze their margins, coming in from other countries or adjacent industries. That sense of compression seems to neatly sum up the effect this has on a business, boxing in their opportunities.

Above and below

The other was from Aidan Quilligan, global leader of Accenture’s ‘Industry X.0’ practice. He neatly broke innovation down into ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’, in terminology that will be familiar to any marketer. In this case, below the line innovation is about addressing the cost base. Above the line innovation drives new revenue streams.

Most people are focused on below the line activity — at least initially. In an ideal world, resources released by this investment are redirected into above the line innovation. Though that might depend how much work you do below the line, and whether you do it fast enough.

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Social Networks: Pub or publication?

Social Networks: Pub or publication?

Is Twitter a pub or a publication? I had this debate with Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkRadio a few weeks back. I’m willing to listen to both arguments but I’ve largely come down on the ‘pub’ side of the argument.

The laws we have created to regulate the media are based on organisations that restrict, through recruitment, employment, training, who can publish through their outlets. There are multiple checks, for tone and legality, on everything they put out.

Socials networks are open to just about anyone, with — like a pub — some age controls. They are venues for debate where all are welcome. Some will speak to big groups, some to small, and some will take the mic and talk bollocks on open mic night.

Bouncers

The key thing about a pub is that while it may not have editors, it does have bouncers, or at worst a surly landlord (or lady) to eject anyone exhibiting bad behaviour.

Defining bad behaviour

What is ‘bad behaviour’? There are laws about serving people who are inebriated. There are laws protecting other people in the pub from verbal and physical abuse. There are laws about equal treatment, and inciting violence. And there are generally accepted standards of public behaviour. It’s right to expect the pub to enforce all of these on its customers. Some pubs might choose to go further with their own customers, just like Sam Smiths pubs have a no swearing policy.

Unless policies enforcing a standard of behaviour are enforced, and enforced on every denizen, then the pub descends in to a place of chaos. If this happens, something bad happens to the establishment. Fail to control behaviour for too long and you lose your licence to operate.

This is the way we should think of — and regulate — social networks. They cannot be responsible for checking everything that is published. And I don’t think we want them to be: they lose their value if everything said is subject to a strict editorial policy. As has been seen recently, the necessarily automated approach this requires at the scale of a social network results in a lot of mistakes.

We also shouldn’t expect them to eject everyone for a first offence, unless it is particularly egregious. The equivalent of a verbal warning from the landlady/lord should be all that is needed.

But, if there are persistent offenders, reported by the other denizens, then the pub needs to act swiftly. Eject and bar. The regulatory consequences should come if they fail to act. And they should be serious, as they are for a bar.

All of which means that at some point, Twitter is going to have to say: “Go home Donald, you’re drunk. And you’re barred.”

Tom Cheesewright