You’ve heard so many of the headline Tomorrow’s Worldy terms, but what are some of the implications already for here-and-now business when it comes to robotics, smart city development, AI in industry, or using drones for more than nice establishing shots in property telly shows? A little favour for a mate turned out to be a very engaging day meeting some smart souls attempting to build positive entrepreneurial bits of the actual future today, as I hosted a little Silicon Salon in an historic old room on a not very business as usual day.
I think the future seems a lot more exciting when you get talking to someone already inspired by the possibilities. When you know people who are already trying things out and looking for other people exploring things with similar attitude. Like a cat in a thunderstorm, you can get all sort of worked up. Well, I can. But I think it’s just infectious. So when you have interesting mates like Matt Desmier, you’re likely to find yourself feeling encouraged that all is far from lost if you’ve been getting bogged down in your outlook. You never quite know what might happen in your inbox, if he’s connected to it.
Founder of the fully splendid Silicon Beach ideas festivals and umpteen other creative events designed to get your brain humming, the Wise Old Uncle himself is basically brilliant at convincing people to meet each other and do things. So when he asked me to cover for him looking after a group of speakers he’d curated together (talked into making slidedecks) for VentureFest South at the start of March, I found myself saying yes. Even on email, he has some kind of voodoo in his eyes. He also had a really interesting group of future-facing makers and doers on the rosta, so I was booking my train to Winchester before my reply had gone woosh.
As VentureFest itself puts it: “Once a year, the region’s innovators, entrepreneurs and investors come together in one place to showcase the latest technology, share thinking and explore new ideas.” And this might be reason enough to consider going, if you’re in the region. Because, as I and the lovely first lady of Momo found, you’re going to meet people there who are already stuck into exploring good ideas for how humans can do things a little better, if such a thing interests you. It interests me – because it’s inspiring, pondering the posibilities for doing any normal things from a different perspective, which new tech can help us develop. But I personally find such thinking most especially interesting when considering how such fresh problem-solving might all fit together into a connected new outlook on the human planet. Looking for patterns that link. I may have said this before just the once or twice. But I saw some of it in just the collection of ideas from our speakers that morning.
CONNECTION AND PRECISION.
The Guildhall in Winchester is a nicely rennovated historic building with touches of old grandieur about it, and Portsmouth Uni’s sort of tech biz engagement tzar, Jo Stark, was manning our Silicon Salon in the leather-buttoned, wood-paneled cosiness of the mayor’s palour. Ghosts of worthy civic leaders past surrounded us as we gathered to consider some of the implications of future technology trends, while snow fell silently beyond the tall windows. For yes, it was the Thursday of the great freeze this year and us Momos had ventured out by rail into the weather front, clad in ski jackets and old fashioned wellies and clutching a flask of coffee with cheery stoicism. Which seemed extra fun when your own business isn’t very usual; distruption, mate – like a creative bit of it. But I’m not a dairy farmer or a paramedic. Or a rail operator. Either way, beezer or ball-ache, the unusual weather did mean we didn’t know who else would make it that day. Or if we’d make it through the simple technological challenges of getting home again.
It made for an interestingly out of time setting for our considerations that day. What if we just stopped the way we normally come and go, and think outside the things we take for granted?
Four of our five speakers arrived just fine and helped us consider just such different thinking in unfantastical applied ways. And I was very happy to first introduce Ben Scott-Robinson of Small Robot Company. An agri-startup, his project espouses a very 21st century sounding idea – “small robots not big tractors”.
Their work finds application in the idea that robotic plant care is: “kinder to soil, kinder to the environment, is more efficient, more precise and more productive.” Essentially because you can acurately tend each individual plant in a field. It’s no small challenge in a world attempting to feed ever greater numbers of us when, as they put it, “95% of all farm energy is used in ploughing”.
Greater digitally-driven precision between a small network of all-terrain rovers, akin to lunar or Mars rovers, can turn big-grunt tasks into much more exacting tending of land and planting, using far less energy and chemicals volume for potentially greater yeild. I put it to him that this sounds a very tech-enabled nature-minded permaculture kind of approach, not the more typical brute-industry minded farming. Something I first started to get my head around in Unsee The Future episode 4, which looked at the global challenges of food culture.
He agreed, but said that farmers are listening, because his team speak their language.
“We only want to make robots that help people. My partner Sam is a farmer, and knows the pressures. So the idea of bringing down costs for them for better results makes sense.”
By devising a leasing structure for the bots, the farmers don’t have to invest up front in massive infrastructure. An approach very on trend with where other automating industries are going – buying the miles not the car.
His talk was entitled From slaves to overlords to friends? and, it asked: “As robots become more real, the relationship has become more fragmented. Are they our workplace friends, designed to do the jobs we hate, our oppressors, stealing our chance of happiness, or subtle forms of control developed by Big Tech to monitor our every move for financial gain?” The reality is, he suggested, that robots, like all new tech, are actually designed for a context – they can only work within certain parameters. And within those, they can help us do things simply better. But they bring with them new questions to answer.”
When Czech writer Karel Capek invented the term ‘robot’ in the book Rossum’s Universal Robots, said Ben, the replicant-like ‘slaves’ in question in the end did destroy the human race but looked like they might have signed their own death warrant in the process because they couldn’t reproduce. Which might not sound like a realistic salvation to us today, given that robots will surely reproduce by just replicating their own technology and building or growing more robot replicant overlords faster than we could. But in the spirit of the book that conclusion is more akin to understanding that robots are a very long way from driving markets through creative tastes, or by making things for the sheer fun of it, or from pondering existential questions. Because they don’t desire anything.
A point echoed by Alex Hill of Senseye.
“Robots don’t drive the markets, we do” he said. Because, essentially, we still want things and robots don’t.
Of course, as he also concurred with Ben, robots are just tools that are effectively driven by AI – machine learning algorithms. And this can be useful for industry in a big way – maintenance. Because the larger your set of systems and machines in manufacturing or any sector, the larger your problem when you get problems – downtime.
“Up until recently, predictive maintenance has simply not been scaleable” he said. “It still takes experts to monitor the specific data to read potential upcoming problems into it.” And then he flicked up a graph.
“Know what this is?” he asked, to a reluctant room. “Trick question – none of us will likely know. It’s a very specific data set from a niche product in a particular production cycle. The point is that very few people in your business likely know the niche software, and that’s a lot of costly down time if you get a problem with it. AI can simply help create context faster – predicting problems much more efficiently by understanding all the specialist graphs and how they work together.”
It could save industry generally a lot of money, deploying such systems. There is a lot of data noise generated by analytical software, but the right AI could turn it into much more adaptive response metrics. And if Adaptive Response Metrics isn’t an acroynm used by tech speakers widely yet, I think it should be. Use it today. Then say something about much more powerful scope and monitory nuance. Because you’ll be on to something.
But even Senseye is comparatively nacent at tackling the opportunity. The industry, Alex commented, is slow to adapt to this in the UK.
“Why?” I asked him, picking up on it.
“There is less of a progressive culture in UK industry somehow” he simply said. “A reluctance to move forward more fundamentally, challenge the operational status quo.”
It’s some kind of cultural thing. For all the knowledge in the interphasing industry, tech and digital sectors in the UK, maybe there’s something not joined up enough about it, and so not very… I’d say inspired. Not as much as it could be.
There’s something so ruddy British about keeping everything in its place. Sectors, classes, boxes of thought. Something of this establishment thinking lingers across the country’s business and politics, I think. Even in a time of unpleasant political discourse, the B-word divisions in the UK at the moment are driven by desires for different stati-quo. Resetting the past or remaining in the present. Not genuine new outlooks. We have just one Green MP in Parliament. Everyone else is still banging on about left and right. Not forward. Or back.
VISION AND MOTIVATION
For all the innovation and creative thinking in my home country, it’s not culturally driven by barriers-breaking connected thinking. But it’s the connectedness of possibilities that I think may be the very secret of a possible new level of inspiration we’ll certainly need to fire better global responses to the climate crisis, and that could put a rocket under the UK economy, if we wanted it.
It’s a theme very relevant to the concept of the smart city. As Chris Cooper of KnowNow explored.
Often touted as the model for managing urban health as more of us than not live away from rural life, the smart city is, said Chris, not simply about joining things up with technology. It’s not just about finding efficiencies – saying things like: “Working smarter not harder, mate” while knowingly tapping our nose. It’s tech that’s driven by outlook, or it’s a waste of effort.
“Digital systems are built on numbers,” he said, “but we’re not. We’re built on feelings. We have to change how we appraoch problems to get better outputs.”
It’s not simply about working up the deployment of 5G or public WIFI so people can hook up devices more easily. “It sounds like you’re doing something futury and techy when you tell everyone you’re working up a 5G network. But it’s not tackling the fundamental thinking needed in itself” he says. “Plus, 5G is still problematic. It’s not going to be easy to get those high radio frequencies to transmit far enough.” 5G will take a lot more physical infrastructure, apart from anything else, as Wired explained. Love mobile masts on the urban skyline already? You may be in for a treat.
His point is that a truly smart city will be built from a more connected outlook that infects and drives everything. Something a long way from possible in the grumbling UK, you might think, or indeed anywhere.
“Hands up who thinks we have any smart cities?” he asked. “We don’t. Not really. Not yet. Because it’s hard to really grow the culture for it.”
The point, I think, is that smart city thinking isn’t driven by engineering, but by values. “Open data isn’t free data. It’s loved data. Curated, cared-for data” said Chris.
It is, he suggested, why data networks should all be free. “Connectivity is like a road. You don’t build a housing estate without one. Provide free connectivity and things will follow.”
Economic things, and human wellbeing things. Such thinking broadcasts an attitude. At the moment, where would all that metric data from the Internet of Things be going? What would it be feeding? Helping? It’s all pointing somewhere, and it all speaks of values in the end.
Ben Scott-Robinson illustrated an example chillingly, with video evidence. “In the T&Cs of the Amazon Echo, it doesn’t say they can’t always listen.”
What can be done with Alexa’s little array of microphones that are always on and always connected to the internet? Invited into your home, as it has been? Who decides the boundary? And who impliments it? Does our private home drive the shape of the connected city, or the other way around? Home is certainly where our values can most honestly be found.
I asked Chris Cooper: “What about Singapore? It’s achieved a remarkably joined up rennovation of its water systems and other things – isn’t that a good example of joined up thinking working well?”
“Yes,” he replied, “but it’s a dictatorship. You can get a lot done with a dictatorship. I’d love to be a benign dictator.”
Values. If there’s one thing the future is going to be built with, it’s these. Our sleepy agnosticism to belief is not going to keep turning the lights on or paying the bills for all kinds of business, as individuals wake up slowly to the consequences of ‘better’ ways of doing things. Many walls we think are comforting boundaires will simply fade away. Are fading away already.
WALLS AND BOUNDARIES
Maybe one little symbol is the ever-techy seeming unmanned aerial vehicle – the drone. It’s impossible to imagine TV filmmaking without these four-fan floating camera platforms now; we can pick ’em up plakky-cheap from Argos these days, not just Maplins. And they are designed to do anything but respect walls and boundaries.
As used to them as we already are, buzzing about, could they be useful for rather more than snooping on the neighbours and making movies? Gemma Alcock of Skybound Rescuer thinks so. They could play a lifesaving role in search and rescue.
Sounds obvious, you find yourself saying. But who’s done it? Working in the SAR sector for four years, Gemma says not many have looked into it – and almost no one from a search and rescue background, but she’s been looking into ways to deploy drones in much more affordable and manoeuvrable ways than helicopters. Not just in the search bit, but the rescue bit – dropping liferafts at sea, and the like. But it’s not just mucking about with a remote control toy.
“True innovation comes from a strong foundation in research and evidence” she said. And she’s someone who interestingly combines a love for the boffin bit – finding things out – and the bally hero bit – getting out in the weather to pull people from the waves. An instinctively values-driven life, I’d suggest, throwing mind and body together into something she believes in and turning it into an opportunity. Taking something we think we know and wonking it a little to do something better with it.
“What would you most like to see happen next to help unlock its potential?” I asked her.
She said simply: “A big challenge is the civial aviation restrictions. Even trained SAR operators aren’t allowed to fly drones out of line of sight, so we’re really restricted in how we can get to people in emergencies, compared with what we could do.”
Interesting. The boundaries we set for our very safety can hold us back from truly making the most from innovation. It’s the age-old problem of trying to connect today to tomorrow. We didn’t get into this end of the potential discussion, but it made me think about the potential to deploy drone SAR much better when a flight control grid is in place one day. AI that the flying bot could connect to, rather like the same implication for driverless cars. Raising the question immediately again – so who will be driving the direction of what AI drivers will be able to do in our lives? Skynet? Or just Sky?
I think today, more than ever, it won’t just take the inspiration of new technology to light the fires of possibility in industry and business, it will take the inspiration of seeing real human values in action, making a difference, to help us see the world more change-makingly differently to how we have. And that may come down to who you get talking with.
And I doubt seriously that such utopian sounding emotional philosophy among increasingly connecting groups of entrepreneurial thinkers and business owners won’t dent the empty cynicism of older, more constrained market ways of doing things. I think it already is. Real systemic culture change works across generational, not tech-conference annual timescales, but it has its flashpoints – and when values and opportunity mix, such inspiration may even put a torch under old ideas of success eventually. A little heat wakes us all up.
That night, the heating broke down in our train carriage. But we ourselves did make it home from VentureFest essentially fine, after a nice little adventure out in unusual climes, and didn’t get snowed in overnight on the line outside Christchurch, for example. Others did. For many, the beast from the East was a big headache and more, struggling to keep our normal ways of doing things running in changed circumstances. Circumstances that may or may not be climatically linked to everyone’s old ways of doing business. For others of us, it unlocked life away from business as usual, opening neighbours doors and time with the family and a little time to see things differently.
If we spent a little more time pondering how to connect the way we normally do things, and who we go find to help us do so, just how much might we spin up the engines of inspiration? We might even reach ‘the future’ rather faster than we imagined.