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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The bandwidth between us and our machines is falling

The bandwidth between us and our machines is falling

There aren’t many people still working who remember passing instructions to machines via punched cards. But that’s what we used to do. Humans would go to great lengths to translate a problem into a format a machine could understand, encode it in punched cards, and ensure the machine had the contextual information it needed to produce an answer.

Since this time, our instructions to machines have become progressively less explicit. With the WIMP (windows, icons, menu, pointer) era we started to click on what we wanted and let the machine (and the developers) do the work translating commands into easily-recognisable icons.

This moved further in the touch era, with machines applying their growing power to interpret touches from our fat fingers into recognisable commands. Now with voice, we have reached a point where huge amounts of processing work goes in to make sense of our voice commands, and does it surprisingly well.

What is also clear with voice is that the return channel is also lower bandwidth. Where the 19in screen on my desktop PC offered a huge amount of real estate on which to display a response, and hence could give me choices, a voice interface can comfortably only really offer one option.

This again is the progression of a trend: building experiences for mobile devices has always been about maximising the value of a limited amount of screen space. Part of the value of personalisation technologies in a mobile context is that they can increase the chance that what is displayed on the screen is what the customer might actually be searching for.

The impact of this is that we are relying on machines to make more decisions on our behalf. We are trading choice for convenience, or trust that the answers being offered to us are right for us, and not the best answers for the provider of that information, service or product.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal there has been lots of discussion about what happens to our personal data, albeit it has little effect on people’s actual behaviour, as I predicted (with help). There has been lots of discussion about the narrowing of our circles of influence as we are increasingly targeted with search results and news articles that fit our existing views. But I’ve seen very little discussion of the levels of power we are giving up over our buying decisions. And I think it’s definitely an important conversation.

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This article is based on a talk I’m giving at the EpiServer Ascend London 2018 event. If you would like access to the full script and slide deck, check out my Patreon campaign at patreon.com/bookofthefuture

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flying car reality check

Flying car reality check

I started this morning early, talking to James Max on TalkRadio about Uber’s latest announcements on self-flying drone taxis. At its second Elevate summit, the company announced partnerships with NASA and five aerospace companies to design, build, and test such vehicles, as well as some design mockups of what they could look like.

A few things were clear from the announcement, if they weren’t already.

Firstly, this is not a tomorrow technology, it’s at least a decade out. Partly the tech just isn’t ready: we need better batteries, lighter materials, quieter rotors, new safety systems, more reliable object detection and more. Partly, we’re not ready: the regulations surrounding this are many and complex, we don’t yet have confidence in robot pilots, and we haven’t even started thinking practically about what these devices might mean for our lives and work.

Secondly, this is not an ‘everywhere’ technology. The flying taxi isn’t a straight replacement for its wheeled alternative. Door-to-door flying is impractical in built-up areas. More likely these vehicles would have to land on a nearby pad. Yes, there may be many more of these than there are airports — eventually — but you’re still going to need last mile transit from the pad.

Where is it for then? I can see a business case for these devices doing short suburban or intercity hops. Uber is aiming for a range of 60 miles with a five minute recharge time. In the UK that might be a quick trip from Manchester to Liverpool or Leeds, around larger cities like London, or from London to Brighton. The speed of this travel might make it an attractive alternative to rail or road, particularly for business travel, and when a self-driving car can complete the trip.

In places like the US, with giant sprawling conurbations like LA or the Tri-State area, this form of transport really comes into its own. Rapid connections between business districts might be enormously valuable there.

This of course assumes that physical travel remains a realistic proposition in the face of rapidly-improving virtual communication. I’m confident that this is the case: the bandwidth of personal interaction face to face remains exponentially greater than that which can be achieved in any current virtual space. Replicating it will take time, and even then, I think our cultural attachment to physical interactions will mean it retains added value.

For now then, watch this space. Self-flying taxis are absolutely practical in a defined set of scenarios. But they won’t be replacing your commute any time soon.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

What is a phone for? It sounds like a daft question. It certainly would have done twenty years ago. A phone is for calling other people, right? It’s a second rate alternative to seeing them in person, that has advantages of range and convenience.

Today, of course, a phone is rarely for calling other people. It’s for listening to music, browsing social networks, playing games or watching films. Cue the complaints of commentators around the world that no-one talks anymore, that we’re all lost in our screens.

There is certainly a measure of that. My only conversation on my regular train journeys up and down to London this week, was to help someone else connect their screen to the Wi-Fi. Maybe in the past I might have chatted more to other passengers. Maybe that would be ‘a good thing’.

But look at how we actually use our phones, particularly the youngest group of adults, and I think the picture is rather rosier than usually painted. Four of the top five iOS apps for 2017 were communications apps. Not solo pursuits like video streaming, or even books, or news. But ways to interact with other people. Our phones have become a more common medium of communication, often acting as a broker for physical interaction — as dating apps have become — but the virtual world remains clearly subordinate to the real.

Invisible digital

This is not a brief respite in an long decline. I don’t believe the direction of travel is downward. Our technology is becoming more transparent, not more opaque. There will be a digital layer to our reality for most of our waking (and possibly sleeping) lives within a few short years. But this technology enables us to design interfaces and interactions that are natural and derived from our long-developed experience with the physical world. Instead of staring at screens we will have digital information naturally inserted into our physical world. And our need to interact with it will be progressively reduced as we hand over more decision making to semi-autonomous systems: exception management replaces remote control.

This terrifies many, particularly those with clarity about the security implications. They are right to be scared. But I don’t think this fear will slow the direction of travel: we will simply have to address the threats as we go.

Direction from the vinyl groove

Swallow down this fear though, and I think the picture is largely positive. More things will be digital and virtual. But just as has happened with music, there is a counter trend when this happens. We’re happy for the day-to-day to be low friction and virtual, but this almost enhances our desire for richer experiences: live music, and vinyl.

Tomorrow is not sterile screens and pallid human automata. It’s rich, tactile and human.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

TSB: When tech is everything, failure is only human

TSB: When tech is everything, failure is only human

There’s a new technology event coming to the North next year, and I have the pleasure of chairing it (watch this space for more information). This week, we brought together two steering groups to help us to shape the event in terms of its format and content.

In talking about the potential audience, one point came across clearly: technology is everything now. It permeates every aspect of business and life. It’s hard to discuss tech in isolation from its applications, and for a broad audience, it’s only the applications that are interesting.

Case studies

The success or failure of those applications — which everyone agreed is the most interesting part — is often little to do with the technology itself. It’s about how the technology is applied. It’s about how humans chose to develop, integrate and deploy it.

This reality has been brought into sharp relief by the ongoing TSB saga. Without getting into too much detail, TSB has left many of its customers with incorrect information and no access to banking by bodging the transfer from its old platform — leased at great expense from its former parent, RBS — to its new one, provided by new parent Banco Sabadell.

The old platform was famously poor, as evidenced by RBS’s own digital woes. The new platform looks better on the face of it, but transitioning nearly two million customers is no small feat. TSB appears to have tried to complete the process in far too tight a timescale, in a bid to end the fees it was paying to RBS more quickly.

The big questions

The questions I get asked on local and regional radio in the wake of these disasters are my bellwether for the mood of the nation. What are people really thinking, and who — or what — are they blaming? In the wake of the TSB disaster (though incredibly, it’s still not over as I write), their answer is in part the company, but also the technology. People’s existing scepticism about online banking and our general reliance on technology is amplified and validated.

The point I always try to get across in these cases, is that the failures are human. Technology always has vulnerabilities to failure or corruption. The more we use, the more vulnerabilities we will have. But there’s a reason why we use these technologies: they allow us to do more and be more. The benefits outweigh the risks, as long as people do their jobs in mitigating them.

Technology is not a weakness, it’s a strength. In fact it’s arguably the defining strength of the human race: the systematic application of our understanding of the world. We can do it well or we can do it badly, but that’s on us, not the inanimate (for now) objects.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Life in a quantum world

Life in a quantum world

We live in a Newtonian world. One constructed largely on the basis of an understanding of physics established over three hundred years ago.

There are many exceptions to this generalisation. Living examples of Gibson’s note that the future is unevenly distributed. From the nuclear weapon to the phone in your pocket, we unknowingly bear witness to the rising quantum age on a daily basis.

But, as the song goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I spent a couple of hours on Friday afternoon listening to talks by academics at the National Graphene Institute, where I am taking up a six month informal post as ‘resident futurist’. I plan to spend a half a day there every few weeks, interviewing researchers and writing about the possibilities presented by two dimensional materials.

Friday’s talks were not designed to be easily digestible. I was probably the only person in the room without, at the minimum, a Masters degree in physics. There was at least one Nobel prize winner. I found myself scribbling down terms and acronyms for later research.

Changing reality

Despite my lack of understanding of the terminology and some of the fundamental concepts, I found the talks absolutely fascinating. One thing was absolutely clear: we are rapidly gaining a much greater level of clarity about the fundamental building blocks of matter, how to manipulate them and apply their properties. In the next few years we will be using that understanding in a much broader range of scenarios, transitioning us to a truly quantum age.

What I mean by that is that we will see greater changes in the physical reality of our world, not just in its digital overlays (though the boundary between the two will be increasingly blurred by connected devices and mixed reality). The materials from which we make our world will continue to change, shifting the dimensions of our world and disrupting long-embedded technologies that have served us well for centuries.

Of course, this will not happen overnight. It seems absurd to talk of rapid change in the media of our environment while sat in a 150 year old house, with a cracked and pot-holed road outside revealing its original cobbles. But in those areas of our life with relatively high turnover: clothes, consumables, packaging, even cars, expect to see some new and unexpected shapes, and properties in coming years.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Blockchain will change the world. Or not.

Blockchain will change the world. Or not.

Twice this week, people have relayed to me incredible promises for the power of blockchain and how it will change the way we do everything. This is quite some feat for a technology that few people understand, even in principle, and even fewer can describe with clarity.

I have a number of issues with this idea. It’s not that I don’t think blockchain has great potential. There’s a clear attraction in the robustness of its distributed nature and the potential for transparency that represents. I can see how it might be valuable for managing contracts and deeds — matters of public record that don’t necessarily have tight privacy concerns around them.

But blockchain is an architectural choice, not a technological solution in its own right. It is one way we might choose to tackle particular problems, and one of many. It is suited to some situations and not to others — like the storage of personal data.

However well encrypted it may be, you cannot store personal data in a blockchain-based system and comply with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). The regulations may change, though I’m not totally convinced that they should. Even if they do, it will take a long time.

Why Blockchain is not like IoT or AI

It’s great that people are enthused by the idea of a technology and its potential applications. But blockchain is quite different to other technological buzzwords doing the rounds at the moment, like AI and IoT (internet of things).

These are much broader classifications of groups of technologies (at least in the way that the terms are commonly used — academics might object to broader uses of the term ‘AI’). This leads to criticism that they are nothing more than marketing terms, and sometimes that is fair. These terms don’t define single architectural choices, but rather opportunities to tackle new problems, or address old ones differently. Within these definitions your solution can be endlessly tailored to the challenge at hand.

But say you’re going to apply blockchain technology to a particular problem and you are dramatically narrowing your range of choices — perhaps beyond what is wise.

Blockchain will change some worlds

There will undoubtedly be some industries for which blockchain is a revolutionary technology. Some people will get incredibly rich off the back of it. Ultimately, perhaps it will prove to be a good basis for alternative currencies. But it isn’t some universal technological panacea that will solve everything. While it might changes some worlds, it won’t change every world.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Adaptable or optimal? You can’t be both

Adaptable or optimal? You can’t be both

No item is more over-used in analogies than the humble Lego brick (I refused to call them ‘Legos’). I acknowledge that as a pre-emptive request for forgiveness for the cliche that follows. Because I have yet to find a better way of explaining the difference between being adaptable, and being optimal, than the comparison between a die cast toy car and a Lego model of the same vehicle.

Before I get to that though, some context. I believe we live in an age of high frequency change. This is distinct from more general accelerated change in that it acknowledges the big technological changes of the last century: the shift from horse and cart to car, the advent of international air travel, and the rise of domestic automation, to name but three. These were massive economic and cultural changes.

The internet may prove to be a change on the same order, but perhaps we don’t yet have the perspective to see it. What we can see is a rapid series of shocks that may not drive change on a global scale but that can individually disrupt whole industries. These generally result from the continuing rise in accessibility of new technologies and their subsequent application to new verticals.

In the context of this age of high frequency change, companies need to play the game of business rather differently. The longevity of a product, service, or operating model may be significantly shortened. Investment in optimising for that operation, beyond a certain point, may be wasted. Worse, it may lock the company into that particular operation. I call this ‘polishing the rut’. You may be able to move within that rut with ever less friction, but it will be damned hard to get out of it.

No excuse for friction

This isn’t to say that companies should be deliberately inefficient. I have had a few chats with web design and build agencies recently about licensing the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit. Many of them are being drawn from traditional design and build projects into digital transformation programmes for their SME clients. And they believe the Toolkit may help them. What’s shocking is that the challenges they uncover inside their clients are exactly the same as those I was coming across when I ran a digital agency a decade ago. There is still a massive deficit in the application of technology across UK business. Addressing this could have a dramatic impact on productivity.

But an excessive focus on efficiency, something we have seen in both public and private sectors over recent years, is antithetical to agility. There is such a thing as being too lean, too specialised.

And so companies and their leaders have a choice. Do you want to be hyper-optimised for today’s environment? Or do you want to build be agile so that you can adapt to tomorrow’s? You can’t be both.

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Tom Cheesewright