Apr 202016
 
the taxi industry is being disrupted by mobile apps

“It has to be disruptive technology,” bleated the consulting firm facilitator at the Future Transport Summit in Sydney earlier this week.

The hapless, but well paid, consultant — a depressingly frequent feature of Australia’s current ‘ideas boom’ — was protesting when one of the participants at his ‘ideation session’ had raised topics such as integrated timetables and changing commuting habits.

Mr Consultant’s running orders for his ‘ideation session’ were to focus on ‘digital disruption’ and his employer;s cluelessness illustrates a danger for business leaders and policy makers.

Selling the snake oil

Digital disruption is real however it’s not just the only factor facing governments and industries. Demographics, economics, politics and climate change will have greater influences on business and society.

Uber, the favourite lovechild of those spruiking digital disruption snake oil, is a very good case in point. While the service certainly has disrupted the taxi and motor vehicle industries, these sectors were facing major challenges as governments enacted policies to reduce carbon emissions, voters became tired of cartel like taxi companies and the Western world’s young and wealthy moved back to the cities and away from owning motor vehicles.

If anything, Uber was the result of GenY entrepreneurs like Travis Kalanick finding existing services didn’t meet their needs rather than the result of technology desperately looking for a problem to solve finding a niche.

Complex changes

While the smartphone was critical in Uber’s success in disrupting the global taxi industry, technology was only one facet of a much more complex set of changes.

The motor industry is a good example of the complexity of change. A hundred years ago it was clear the transport industry was about to be disrupted by the automobile, it was by no means obvious access to affordable personal transport would allow urban sprawl and the suburbanisation of western society.

Coupled with the motor car and truck, the availabilty of mains electricity meant refrigeration also became accessible which lead to the rise of supermarkets after World War II. This disrupted the local corner store in ways shopkeepers could never have foreseen in the interwar years.

Shifting demographics

Now, the opposite is happening as the young and affluent reject long commuting times from distant suburbs and city densities start increasing.

The social and economic factors that drove Uber are affecting public transport usage patterns and it’s no coincidence that the cities where ride sharing services have most successful, such as Sydney, also have underfunded public transport systems that are struggling to meet their population’s demands.

Which brings us back to the foolishness of discussing the future of transport only in relation to technology. Smartphones, apps, big data and the internet of things will all be critical parts of future transportation but the social and economic factors will shape how people use the networks.

Focusing on technology while ignoring the other big influences is a folly that will cost businesses and government dearly. Although one suspects the management consultancies will do well regardless of how well change is managed.

Apr 012016
 
Raven_II_medical_robot

Despite the embarrassment of their foul mouthed racist bot, Microsoft are pressing on with a move into artificial intelligence.

Ahead of this week’s Launch event in San Francisco, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella laid out his vision for the company’s Artificial Intelligence efforts in describing a range of ‘bots’ that carry out small tasks.

Bloomberg tagged Nadella’s vision as ‘the spawn of clippy’, referring to the incredibly irritating help assistant Microsoft included with Office 97.

Tech site The Register parodied Clippy mercilessly in their short lived IT comedy program Salmon Days, as shown in this not safe for work trailer. While The Reg staff were brutal in their language and treatment of Clippy, most Microsoft Office users at the time shared their feelings.

While Clippy may be making a comeback at Microsoft, albeit in a less irritating form, other companies are moving ahead with AI in the workplace.

Robot manufacturer Fanuc showed off their self learning machine a few weeks ago which shows just how deeply AI is embedding itself in industry. Already there are many AI apps in software like Facebook’s algorithm and Google’s search functions with the search engine’s engineers acknowledging they aren’t quite sure what the robots are up to.

For organisations dealing with massive amounts of data, artificial intelligence based programs are going to be essential in dealing with unexpected or fast moving events. Those programs will also affect a lot of occupations we currently think are immune from workplace automation.

 

Jan 222016
 
SepuKuma-assisted-suicide-robot

It turns out Seppukuma is a parody and I fell for it. My apologies.

Continuing the theme of Japanese robotics meet SeppuKuma, the friendly robot bear that might be the last thing you ever see.

When we look at the future of work, health care comes up as one of the fields that is least vulnerable to automation. Seppukuma shows we shouldn’t take that for granted.

Seppukuma is also an interesting example of how technology can subvert laws. Banning assisted suicide means little when a robot can be programmed to it.

As cheap and accessible robotics become commonplace so too do devices like suicide assisting androids which raise a whole range of legal and ethical issues.

Even though Seppukuma is a joke, the technology is feasible. We need to consider the issues and risk these devices will raise.

Dec 192015
 
Google-self-driving-car

With the rapid advances in driverless cars, it was only a matter of time before the question of what happens when people encounter them would be answered.

It turns out not too well for the autonomous vehicles reports Bloomberg citing a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute that found driverless cars have accident rates double those of normal vehicles.

As it turns out, those accidents are usually minor and are caused by humans colliding with the autonomous vehicles as the law abiding computers catch drivers unawares.

That people aren’t very good at driving cars isn’t a surprise but now we’re seeing what happens when distracted, mistake prone humans encounter cautious and usually correct computers.

We now have to start thinking about what happens when artificial intelligence encounters human frailty.

Dec 172015
 
commonwealth-bank-in-lockart-nsw

Earlier this week the Financial Times reported how the eleven biggest North American and European banks had shed 100,000 jobs this year, so it when I was asked to do a segment on the future of banking for radio station ABC666 in Canberra I was more than delighted.

The ABC producer’s interest had been piqued by an Ovum research paper detailing the IT spending of banks and their increasing focus on security.

Rethinking payments

In Ovum’s view much of the banking industry’s security  comes from the diverse range of payment options coming onto the marketplace. Another factor in the increased spend are the US credit cards moving to contactless payments.

Certainly the increased focus on payments security is being driven by the range of new devices with smartphones, wearable technologies and the Internet of Things opening up a whole new range of commercial channels. This is something driving the development of services like Apple’s and Google’s payment system and part of a wider battle over who controls those channels.

Underpinning much of the security focus is the interest in blockchain technologies which move the authentication records off central ledgers – historically one of the core functions of banking – onto a distributed network of databases.

Core challenges

That shift in record keeping is just one of changes affected the banking industry’s core functions, crowd funding and peer to peer lending threaten to displace banks from being the main providers of business capital, one of the fundamental reasons for the banking sectors existence.

It should be noted though the banks have largely stepped away from being the providers of small business capital over recent decades as the ill conceived ‘reforms’ of the 1980s and 90s saw the finance sector being more focused on housing lending and doing mega M&A deals with the big end of town.

The Financial Times report notes a decline in M&A deals is one of the drivers for the staff lay offs at the major banks, it’s notable that technology is changing that business function as much of the due diligence can be better done by artificial intelligence and algorithms rather than highly paid corporate lawyers and bankers.

Where have the bankers gone?

As the banks lay off senior staff, it’s notable many are finding their way to fintech companies. The Wall Street Journal however describes the relationship between incumbent banks and their would be disrupters as far more complex than it seems.

Increasingly banks are buying or taking stakes in promising startups along with establishing their own investment arms and running hackathons to identify potential disruptors. Many in the banking industry are quite aware of the changes happening.

That the banks are adopting the new technologies and identifying the threats shouldn’t be surprising, over the past fifty years the sector has been adept at applying technology from batch processing on mainframe computers through to deploying Automatic Teller Machines and rolling out credit cards to improve their business operations. Banking is one sector that’s proved itself fast to identify and adopt technological changes.

Are the banks going away?

So with fintech startups snapping at their heels, is it likely today’s banks are heading for extinction? Probably not suggests the CEO of fintech startup Currency Cloud, Mike Laven who describes such talk as being part of the “Level 39 bubble”, referring to the financial services startup hub based in London’s Canary Wharf.

Laven’s view is some banks will evolve while others won’t do so well and historically that’s what we’ve seen with other technological shifts – some of the incumbents adapt and reinvent themselves while others are not so adept and wither away.

Some of the bigger threats to banking may be social and economic change. Today’s rising of interest rates by the US Federal Reserve may mark the end of the last decade’s ‘free money’ mentality that’s been so profitable for them in recent times. The end of the consumerist era also challenges those financial institutions basing their business models on a never ending growth of consumer spending and household debt.

Almost certainly the banking industry is not going to vanish, however it is going to be a very different – most definitely a much leaner – beast in a few years time. What is certain though is the days of banks as we’ve known them in the second half of the Twentieth Century are undergoing dramatic change in the face of technological and social change.

Dec 032015
 
Autodesk University 2015 Las Vegas

The second day of Autodesk University 2015 in Las Vegas continued the focus on innovation and changing industries, the afternoon innovation session was particularly focused on some of the opportunities being realised in drones, pre-fabricated buildings and lampshades made out of fungus.

Brooklyn based designer Danielle Trofe gave a great demonstration of how she’s using fungus to create a range of sustainable light shades. Interestingly in a conversation earlier in the day with Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski the topic of growing products out of Mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus that Trofe uses, was discussed in terms of smart packaging and biodegradable products.

Growing products out of organic material is one of the themes explored in Mercedes Benz’s Biome concept car which proposes to grow the chassis out of seeds. While realising that concept is some way off, Trofe’s Mush-Lume idea shows some products are already at that stage.

Rethinking prefab buildings

Following Trofe was Jos Mulkens, the CEO of Dutch building company Voorbij Prefab, who described how by using sophisticated design tools and 3D printing to make prefabricated building panels they had reduced to the time to fabricate elements from days to hours.

Mulkens gave a good insight into how design and production workflows are being accelerated with modern technology, particularly in replacing manual form makers to make the moulds for the precast panels. Voobij Prefab are flagging a lot of disruption heading for the building industry.

At one the media breakout sessions a group of senior Autodesk managers discussed the trends in design and materials engineering. This turned out to be an interesting session on the limits of current technologies.

Composite technologies

Max Moruzzi, Autodesk’s Principal Research Scientist, is a passionate believer in composite materials and the benefits they promise. However he conceded when challenged by his colleague Steve Hobbs, who joined Autodesk last year with the acquisition of  UK based Computer Aided Manufacturing company Delcam, about the structural properties of composites that we still have a lot to understand about how they behave and fail.

Bringing a touch of English scepticism to the panel, Hobbs pointed out almost all metallic components made by 3D printing require some sort of mechanical, subtractive finishing such as milling or polishing.

Hobbs went onto warn that we risk introducing a “hairball of complexity” into the design and manufacturing industries as people experiment with developing products with materials and techniques they don’t fully understand.

All the panel, which also included Carl White – Autodesk’s senior director of marketing for advanced manufacturing – and Benjamin Schrauwen who leads the company’s Spark 3D printing division, agreed that applying current design and manufacturing methods need to be rethought in the light of new methods being developed.

The limits of 3D printing

It was notable in the panel Q&A around the revelation that 70% of 3D printing projects fail, the panel put this down to the relative immaturity of software and machinery along with the technologies currently being poorly understood. Hobbs observed that for GE to 3D print their jet engine parts they rebuild and reprogram the printers they buy to their own higher specifications.

For the final session CEO Carl Bass and CTO Jeff Kowalski faced a Q&A from analysts and the media, that session was interesting in exploring some of the directions Autodesk sees industry and business heading and I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

Overall, the Autodesk University has been an interesting insight into the future of design and manufacturing along with the effects this has on other industries. With these technologies at an early stage, it’s a field that is going to evolve rapidly.

Paul Wallbank travelled to Autodesk University in Las Vegas as a guest of Autodesk.

Aug 192015
 
Stagecoaches were dominant in the 19th Century but failed when technology changed

One of the constant questions posed to anyone reporting on the technologies changing the workforce is “where are the jobs coming from?”

A paper by Deloitte UK economists Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole titled Technology and people: The great job-creating machine looks at how technological change has affected the British workforce over the past 170 years.

While the study itself seems somewhat hard to get hold of, The Guardian earlier this week reported on what the economists found when they examined employment patterns through the rapidly changing economy of the last 150 years.

One clear shift the collapse in manual jobs, particularly farm labourers whose numbers fell from a peak of 950,000 in 1881 – 7% of the workforce – to less than 50,000 or 0.02% in 2012.

UK-agriculture-labour-employment

The decline in the employment of farm labourers shouldn’t be surprising – in 1871 the proportion of the British workforce employed in agriculture was 15% while today it is less than 1%. A graph from the UK Census office illustrates that shift.

UK-employment-infographic

It’s notable comparing the UK to the US in this respect; at the beginning of the Twentieth Century nearly half the US workforce was still working in agriculture while the Britain had been a predominantly service economy for nearly fifty years.

Even today nearly 3% of American workers are employed on farms, a number not seen in Britain since the mid 1930s.

In both countries, the late Twentieth Century saw a shift to a service economy, something illustrated in the Deloitte survey by the rise of the British barman where the proportion of workers in the liquor industry tripled from 0.2% of the workforce between 1961 and today.

UK-barstaff-workforce-proportion

That British bar employment tripled in the post World War II years probably illustrates best the rise of the consumerist culture during the late 20th Century.

What should be flagged is those transitions away from agriculture to consumerism weren’t painless, much of Britain’s economy was racked by recessions through the Twentieth Century and many of the nation’s regions were devastated by the shift away from manufacturing in the 1970s and 80s.

In the US, the transition away from an agricultural economy in the 1920s was particularly painful, Steinbeck’s book the Grapes of Wrath tells of the human costs to families displaced from their mid-west farms during that time.

That technological and economic factors have driven massive changes over the centuries isn’t new, but the fact the vast majority of today’s workforce are in jobs which couldn’t have been imagined a hundred years ago should encourage us about the prospects for the future workforce.

However, assuming the future will look like today and that employment will be largely in consumer service industries may be as mistaken of the beliefs among 1960s policy makers that manufacturing would be the future.

Even more pressing for today’s policy makers and leaders is to prepare for the pain of transition. If we are seeing a workforce shifting to new business models then there will be high community and personal costs. We need to be preparing for the pain of the shift as much as we anticipate the benefits.