May 232017
 

How can small businesses use Artificial Intelligence? On Flying Solo, Rob Gerrish and I discuss the various ways AI is going to affect smaller enterprises.

One of the important things about the discussion is how AI is going to change a range of industries and jobs. The effect on small businesses over the next twenty years will be as great at the Personal Computer was.

The big takeaway I have for business owners is to actively think about how AI and automation are going to affect their industries, customers and individual companies.

Have a listen.

May 142017
 

Last week finished with a big bang as the Wannacry ransomware attack spread around the world with a curious twist which led one New York Times columnist to suggest software companies need to take more responsibility on security.

In the meantime the world goes on companies still struggling with the definition of innovation and Facebook crushing anyone who dares to try out-innovating them.

On a lighter note, Cary Grant spend much of his Hollywood years on LSD but it all turned out well and VentureBeat asks do humans have a role in a world run by Artificial Intelligence?

The future of humans

Is there a future for humans in a world run by artificial intelligence controlled robots? Venture Beat staged a panel in New Orleans that looks at where we fit into the automated world.

Ultimately the panel concluded, it’s up to us to make some serious choices. Something we shouldn’t leave to engineers.

The ethics of driverless cars

Autonomous vehicles should give priority to occupant over passers by in the case of an emergency suggests a Mercedes Benz engineer.

Christoph von Hugo, Mercedes’s manager of driver assistance systems, probably hasn’t helped the development of autonomous vehicles with his comments but the ethics of driverless vehicles is a discussion we should be having.

Defining innovation

Innovation is very simple, it’s about trying new ideas says Pete Williams, Deloitte Australia’s chief edge officer.

“You need ideas, they need to be new, new for you. If everyone in the world is doing something and you haven’t done it and you do it for the first time, you’re innovating. You’ve got to try stuff. Not just have new ideas, you’ve got to try stuff. Innovation is something you do,” he said.

Rethinking public transport

British transport app Citymapper is to launch its own ‘popup’ bus service in London with the promise of a modern and user friendly operation. An interesting twist for a software service.

“There will be a large screen that shows riders where they are in real time, and what’s coming up on the route — similar to how its smartphone app works. And they also have USB charging ports.”

Snapchat feels the market chill

One the darling unicorns of the tech industry, Snap, reported its first results as a listed company and the results were not good as Facebook’s shameless copying of the service’s features takes its toll.

Sadly Facebook seems to be following the Amazon playbook of crushing upcoming competitors that refuse to be bought out. This is a part of a broader problem with modern American capitalism.

What is Wannacry

Security researcher par excellence, Troy Hunt, gives a full run down on the Wannacry ransomware and how to combat it.

Towards the end of his article he has a list of eight actions computer users – from major organisations to households can do to protect their systems. Depressingly these are exactly what the computer tech support industry has been telling people to do for the past twenty years.

Wannacry’s accidental hero

An anonymous British IT security researcher realised the malware has a ‘kill switch’ – so he activated it. He does have an important message for computer users though.

“This is not over. The attackers will realise how we stopped it, they’ll change the code and then they’ll start again. Enable windows update, update and then reboot.”

An age of insecure machines

One of things that might bring down an AI controlled world is insecure machines as Wannacry shows. In the New York Times technology commentator Zeynep Tufekci suggests we can’t stop the wave of attacks taking advantage of systems running out of date software and vendors need to take responsibility.

“It is time to consider whether the current regulatory setup, which allows all software vendors to externalize the costs of all defects and problems to their customers with zero liability, needs re-examination.”

100 trips in tinseltown

Cary Grant got through his Hollywood years by microdosing on LSD claims a new documentary. When he retired from the movies he quit the speed and lived happily every after.

Interestingly, microdosing is one of the strategies used by today’s Silicon Valley workers to get by in their stressful and demanding roles. Some things never change.

Earworm of the week

May 032017
 
the decline of voicemail and SMS text is hurting telcos

Voice authentication has become a standard in recent years but now it appears software has bitten with a Canadian startup, Lyrebird, demonstrating how they can mimic people’s speech.

Last year at one of their industry events Adobe showed off their ‘photoshop for voice‘ where anyone’s voice can be analysed and then remixed.

So voice recognition turns out not to be a foolproof as many in the security industry hoped. Like most biometric systems, anything that can be captured electronically can be spoofed or modified.

What’s notable in the Lyrebird story is how voice security companies like Nuance are deploying artificial intelligence to counter digital fakes. Once again we see security being a technological race.

May 012017
 

Once upon a time computers were unusual, getting time on one was only for select employees of large corporations and scientists. Famously IBM’s Tom Watson forecast there would only be a need for five computers, although it seems he never said that.

Today we’re surrounded by computers in everything from our cars and phones to our teapots and razors and now we’re considering how those devices will affect our future workforce.

At the core of the discussion about computers and the future of work, is artificial intelligence. What’s notable though is it’s unlikely that AI is going to be an competitive advantage for technology vendors as the functions become built in.

This is already being seen with Microsoft building AI into its databases and increasingly the intelligence is going to built into the chips themselves.

In our recent interview with Xero founder Rod Drury, he flagged how AI is going to drive small business accounting. Drury was speaking at the Sydney AWS summit where the hosting company was showing off many of its AI driven services.

While artificial intelligence is going to be embedded and almost invisible to the user, it is going to be important. A good example is Google’s struggle to maintain quality and honesty in its local search results, a process that is beyond the company’s resources if done manually.

For the software vendors, the quality of their AI features is going to be one of their key selling points. This is why AWS, Amazon and almost company in the industry is announcing their own initiatives. Google itself should be one of the leaders in this field.

As automation becomes increasingly taken for granted, artificial intelligence is going to be seen as a fundamental, and invisible, part of computing.

While AI is going to be essential for the technology vendors, for users we won’t notice it as long as it works properly.

Apr 202017
 

It’s been another big year for Xero after the company passed its million user milestone, at the recent AWS Summit in Sydney founder Rod Drury to spoke to Decoding the New Economy about what’s next for the company and for small businesses.

For a company founded a decade ago, having a million paying customers is a substantial milestone and one Drury seems quite bemused by.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet. When we did our IPO our promise was a hundred customers and I can remember when it was our first year our target was twelve hundred customers – I think we got to 1300 – so to pass a million is pretty nuts.

“What we’ve found is the accounting software market is probably one of the key industries where you’ll see the benefits of machine learning and AI. The reason for that is massive amounts of data but a pretty tight and structured taxonomy so we processed 1.2 trillion pieces of data in the last 12 months so the graph of data is huge.”

Far more modest volumes of data threaten to overwhelm smaller businesses and this is where Drury sees Artificial Intelligence and machine learning as essential for simplifying services and driving user adoption.

“One of the challenges is that small businesses might be great landscape gardeners or plumbers but they are terrible at actually coding transactions so we’re now seeing that wisdom of the crowd and all that data that we can code better than most normal people can. So the big epiphany was ‘why don’t we get rid of coding?’

“Effectively all a small business has to do make sure things like the data of the invoice is in the system and we can do the accounting for them and the accountants can check and see what’s going on.”

This automation of basic accounting tasks, and how these features are now embedded in cloud computing offerings, is changing how businesses – particularly software companies – are operating.

“You can’t run domestic platforms any more, because every accountant will have customers that are exporting and what we’re seeing now is global platforms connecting together so, for example, HSBC announced its bank feeds and what we’re doing with Stripe and Square.

All of the accountants need to be coaching the small businesses exporting. That’s what creates jobs.”

That global focus of business is now changing companies grow, particularly those from smaller or remote economies like Australia and New Zealand.

“What we’re finding now is the last generation of the late 90s and early 2000s was very much enterprise technology and normally companies would get to a certain point and then a US public company would have to buy them.

“Now we’re seeing truly global businesses that aren’t selling out quickly they’re actually creating businesses from this part of the world. People don’t have to live in Silicon Valley anymore, they can live in Sydney’s Northern Beaches or Auckland or Wellington and do world class work.

That remoteness is something that challenges Xero though as the company tries to get traction in the US market which is dominated by Intuit and fragmented across regional and industry lines.

“As you start off as a company listed in Australia and New Zealand it’s harder as you don’t get the benefit of the density in a smaller market. Now we’ve done enough to get these bank deals, we can now attract executives of the calibre that feels like long term leadership and that’s the benefit of doing the hard yards for a few years.

We’re past the beach head phase now and now we’re building the long term business. We want to be a big fish in a small pond.”

Overall Drury sees the cloud, particularly Amazon Web Services, as being one of the great liberators for business as smaller companies follow Xero’s footsteps.

“This is one of the amazing things AWS have done, they’ve created this flat global playing field.”

Apr 192017
 

This piece originally appeared in The Australian in July 2014. I’m republishing it here given the recent future of work related posts.

For the past four decades it’s been the working class that has suffered the brunt of the effects of globalisation and automation in the workforce. Now machines are taking middle class jobs, with serious implications for societies like Australia that have staked their future on white collar, knowledge-based service industries.

Yesterday, the Associated Press announced it was replacing business journalists with computer programs, following sports reporting where algorithms have delivering match reports for some years.

Some cynical media industry commentators would argue rewriting PR releases or other people’s stories — the model of many new media organisations — is something that should be done by machines. Associated Press’ management has come to the same view with business data feeds.

AP’s managing editor Lou Ferrara explained in a company blog post how the service will pull information out of company announcements and format them into standard news reports.

Ferrara wrote of the efficiencies this brings for AP: “Instead of providing 300 stories manually, we can provide up to 4,400 automatically for companies throughout the United States each quarter.”

The benefit for readers is that AP can cover more companies with fewer journalists, the question is how many people can afford to read financial journals if they no longer have jobs?

Making middle managers redundant

Many of those fields that cheered the loss of manufacturing are themselves affected by the same computer programs taking the jobs of journalists; any job, trade or profession that is based on regurgitating information already stored on a database can be processed the same way.

For lawyers, accountants, and armies of form processing public servants, computers are already threatening jobs — as with journalism, things are about to get much worse in those fields, as mining workers are finding with automated mine trucks taking high-paid jobs.

Most vulnerable of all could well be managers; when computers can automate financial reports, monitor the workplace and make many day-to-day decisions then there’s little reason for many middle management positions.

Removing information gatekeepers

To make matters worse for white collar middle managers, many of their positions are only needed in organisations built around paper based communication flows; in an age of collaborative tools there’s no need to gatekeepers to control the movement of information to the executive suite.

Irish economist David McWilliams — his television series on the rise of the Celtic Tiger, The Pope’s Children, and the causes of the Global Financial Crisis, Follow The Money, are highly recommended viewing – last week suggested that the forces that disrupted the working classes in the 1970s and 80s are now coming for middle classes.

“The industrial class was undermined by both technological change and globalisation, but rather than lament this, many people who were unaffected by this social catastrophe labelled what happened from 1980 to 2010 as the “inevitable consequences” of global competition.” Mc Williams writes.

Those ‘inevitable consequences’ are now coming for the middle classes, asserts McWilliams.

On the right side of progress

While this is sounds frightening it may not be bad for society as whole; the Twentieth Century saw two massive shifts in employment — the shift from manufacturing to services in the later years, and the shift from agriculture to city-based occupations earlier in the century.

A hundred years ago nearly a third of Australians worked in the agriculture sector; today it’s three per cent. Despite the cost to regional communities, the overall economy prospered from this shift.

Answers in the makers movement

The question today though is what jobs are going to replace those white collar jobs that did so well from the 1980s? The Maker Movement may have answers for governments and businesses wondering how to adapt to a new economy.

Two weeks ago President Barack Obama welcomed several dozen leaders of America’s new manufacturing movement to a Maker Faire at the White House, where he proclaimed “Today’s DIY Is Tomorrow’s ‘Made in America'”.

In Singapore, the government is putting its hopes on these new technologies boosting the country’s manufacturing industry in one of the world’s highest-cost centres.

“The future of manufacturing for us is about disruptive technologies, areas like 3D printing, automation and robotics,” Singapore’s Economic Development Board Managing Director Yeoh Keat Chuan told Reuters earlier this year.

Britain too is experimenting with modern technologies, as the BBC’s World of Business reports about how the country is reinventing its manufacturing industry.

Tim Chapman of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre describes how the economics of manufacturing changes in a high-cost economy with a simple advance in machining rotor disks for Rolls-Royce Trent jet engines.

“These quite complex shaped grooves were taking 54 minutes of machining to make each of these slots. Rolls-Royce came to us and said can ‘can you improve the efficiency of this? Can you cut these slots faster?'”

“We reduced the cutting time from 54 minutes to 90 seconds.”

“That’s the kind of process improvement that companies need to achieve to manufacture in the UK.”

While leaders in the US, UK and Singapore ponder the future of manufacturing, Australian governments continue to have faith in their 1980s models of white collar employment — little illustrates how far out of touch the nation’s political classes are with reality when they proclaim Sydney’s future as an Asian banking centre or Renminbi trading hub.

Old business ideas

In the apparatchiks’ fevered imaginations this involves rooms full of sweaty white men in red braces yelling ‘buy’ into telephones as shown in 1980s Wall Street movies. In truth, the computers took most of those jobs two decades ago.

As McWilliams points out, the dislocations to the manufacturing industries of the 1970s and 80s were welcomed by those in the professions as the inevitable cost of ‘progress’.

Now progress might be coming for them. Our challenge is to make sure we’re on the right side of that progress.

Apr 102017
 
business customer service is essential in the new economy

The call centre business is very much an example of an industry driven by technological change, having only coming into being over the last 50 years as telecommunications became ubiquitous and affordable before being one of the biggest offshored industries.

In an age of artificial intelligence, web based help pages and chatbots, it’s easy to think the call centre era may be coming to a close but Acticall Sitel Group’s Australian and New Zealand managers Steve Barker, the regional Chief Operating Officer, and Sally Holloway, Director of Business Operations, believe the industry has a long way to go yet.

Miami based Acticall Sitel Group operates call centres in 22 countries with 75,000 ‘associates’ providing services to over 200 major companies so their view on how the industry is evolving is worth hearing.

Technological shifts

Naturally technology is the driving force with the increasing availability of broadband meaning more ‘associates’ can work from home rather than in call centres while cloud services are reducing the cost and complexity of call centres.

The work from home aspect is proving popular with their clients as well as businesses see retaining skilled staff and the expense of real estate driving many organisations to extend their programs. An interesting observation given IBM’s and Yahoo!’s moves in restricting home office options in recent times.

Social media has also changed the type of interactions consumers are having with organisations while artificial intelligence and robots – chatbots – are automating many call centre functions.

A broader industry

Holloway though says she doesn’t see voice services going away, “some interactions still require the personal touch”, but technology is broadening the ways customers interact with businesses.

Interestingly, both Holloway and Barker believe that the commoditization of call centres is over as companies have realised the importance of good service in competitive markets although that varies between industries.

Added to that is the stripping out of costs in areas like customer service has largely run its course over the past few decades and in most organisations there is little fat left to cut from client facing functions.

Falling prices for technology, if not labour, does offer scope for smaller businesses to engage call centre providers that were once only available to larger corporates.

Like most industries, the relationship between workers and automation in call centres is playing out in complex ways as staff get to use more advanced skills and low value tasks are given to machines.

The evolution of the call centre may well be a pointer for other industries as we all grapple with the effects of automation.