Apr 212017
 

Every tech boom has its excesses and it’s hard to go past the Juicero as the most egregious of today’s mania.

A number of high profile investors, including Google’s venture capital arm, have poured $120 million dollars into the internet connected device that squeezes juice from pre-prepared pouches of pulped fruit and vegetables.

Bloomberg found the devices don’t a great deal as the juice can be squeezed out of the packs by hand, which is just as well given the microchipped pulp containers can be disabled by the manufacturer.

While the Juicero aims to be the juicer equivalent of the Keurig coffee capsule, the device’s expense, built in obsolescence and unnecessary waste is emblematic of everything  that’s wrong with the current Silicon Valley culture.

The fundamental question of any business idea is ‘what problem does this solve?’ It’s hard to think of anything the Juicero fixes.

Apr 182017
 

While politicians clamour to ‘bring jobs home’, automation is increasingly taking those jobs away with the mining industry being the best example.

In 2015, McKinsey looked at the effects of automation in various US industries and found the production component of mining could lose over 80% of its jobs in coming years.

In a piece for Diginomica this week, I looked at a case study featuring Western Australia’s Fortescue Metal Group (FMG) from the recent AWS Summit in Sydney.

Slashing costs

When Fortescue planned their Solomon groups of iron ore mines in the Pilbara region of North-Western Australia in 2010, they estimated 75 manned trucks would be needed. As it turned out they only needed 49 robotic vehicles.

The savings, both in capital expenditure and operational costs was substantial and the entire operation saw its costs nearly halved.

It’s not just trucks becoming autonomous, functions like drilling and explosives laying are also being automated reducing costs and risks even further.

Dashed hopes

So mining communities like those in the United States hoping Donald Trump will bring back prosperity or Australians who believe a billion dollar subsidy to an Indian coal mining company will guarantee jobs are doomed to disappointment.

A modern mine is likely to employ more workers in an office thousands of miles away than on the site itself. Where once the surrounding region would get hundreds of jobs from a large mine, today it’s only going to be a handful.

It isn’t just the mine workers themselves though, McKinsey’s study also forecast the mining industry’s administrative workforce could see 90% of jobs going while senior management had the potential of being 99% automated.

Beyond blue collar roles

That this wave of automation will affect ‘white collar’ jobs as much as trades or unskilled workers isn’t new – this piece in 2015 for The Australian described how many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs will soon be done by robots or artificial intelligence.

Mining is a good indicator of where technology and employment is heading. We, and our political leaders, are going to have to think carefully where the future jobs are coming from as they aren’t going to be found in resurrecting old industries.

Mar 232017
 

What happens when a vehicle manufacturer locks down their products’ software? John Deere’s customers are finding out as American farmers turn to Ukrainian software vendors for software to maintain their tractors.

John Deere’s behaviour is extreme as almost every component of a modern tractor has a software component which leaves farmers at the mercy of the company’s dealers and authorised mechanics.

So understandably the farmers are finding ways to hack their equipment to reduce downtime and costs, something permitted in the US after an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) was granted to vehicle software.

Vendor control over connected vehicles is a bigger problem for consumers than just maintaining the software, as the information collected from these devices becomes more valuable who controls that data becomes more important.

With global supply chains, increased regulatory requirements and demanding markets, the agricultural industries are probably leading the world in applying the Internet of Things and Big Data, so the challenges faced by farmers are things which will affect us all.

As everything from toasters to motor cars become connected and dependent upon code, the conflict between proprietary software, open markets and user rights is going to grow.

Consumers and the free market can only do so much to control the flows of data and who owns them. It’s hard to see how governments can’t become involved in how information is owned, traded and stored.

Mar 212017
 

Data collection agency Experian’s deal with Finicity to collect and process borrower information is an example of the how Big Data is being used by the financial services sector.

Recently I wrote a piece for Fairfax Media on the Science of Money which included some quotes from Experian’s Australian managers. They were quite explicit about their use of data.

That a company like Experian is adopting more advanced analytics isn’t surprising given the power of the tools available. What’s also driving the adoption is the proliferation of devices available to track people.

Notable among those devices are personal assistants, as David Pogue writes in Scientific American, household technologies like Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple Siri are vacuuming up huge amounts of data on our behaviour, likes and dislikes.

Increasingly all of this is being fed into machines that determine our suitability for marketing campaigns, credit and financial services.

For companies like Experian this is a massive opportunity although the focus on credit suitability betrays a mindset more suited to the 1980s finance boom than the more complex times of the early 21st century.

It’s hard though not to think that given a choice the finance sector will happily use these tools to take us into another subprime lending crisis which would be a shame as these technologies’ potential for allowing us to make better decisions is immense.

How we use these tools will define our businesses, economies and communities over the next thirty years. We need to be careful about some of the choices we make.

Mar 022017
 
how are we using data in our business

Last week I wrote a piece for Fairfax Metro – the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age – looking at how government agencies and private credit companies are mining data.

That story sparked a range of interest with my doing a twenty minute segment on ABC Brisbane today on the topic which morphed into a deeper discussion on surveillance, particularly with the Australian government’s ‘metadata’ laws.

I’ll also be talking on ABC Radio Perth on Monday, March 6 about this story at 6.15am local time (9.15am Sydney and Melbourne).

In the wake of the Australian government’s Centrelink scandala national disgrace that is only getting worse – it’s worthwhile discussing exactly what data is being gathered and how it is being used.

The answer is almost everything with commercial operators like Experian pulling in data from sources ranging from credit card applications to social media services although store loyalty cards remain the richest information source.

As the Australian Tax Office spokesperson pointed out, none of this is particularly new as they have been collecting bank deposit data since the Federal government introduced income taxes in the 1930s.

The arrival of computers in 1960s changed the scale and scope of tax offices’ abilities to track citizens’ finances and gave rise to the major commercial credit bureaus.

With the explosion of personal electronics and internet connected devices in recent years along with increased surveillance powers being granted to government and private agencies, that monitoring is only going to grow.

The best citizens can expect is to have their data protected and respected with financial providers only using what is ethical and relevant in determining our access to banking and insurance products.

Politically the only way to ensure that is to make it clear through the ballot box, the question is do we care enough?

Feb 222017
 

In the tropical north of Australia, one university is looking at using the Internet of Things to expand the reach of its research and open new opportunities for the local economy.

On Monday James Cook University opened Australia’s first university IoT lab in Australia.

Based at the Cairns campus in Far North Queensland, the lab is part of the university’s new Internet of Things engineering degree and is supported by Chinese telco vendor Huawei.

The university, which also has campuses in Townsville and Singapore, boasts expertise in areas such as marine sciences, tropical ecology and tropical medicine, all of which are relevant to the IoT and made more relevant by Cairns being the main service centre for much of Australia’s remote Top End and the Torres Strait.

Part of a central mission

“The Internet of Things is based on something that is central to our mission in the Tropics: building greater connectivity between people, place and technology,” said the university’s Vice Chancellor Professor Sandra Harding.

JCU’s IoT degree, the first of its kind in Australia, combines the study of electronic engineering with internet technologies, wireless communications, sensor device, industrial design and cloud computing.

Currently the IoT faculty has 57 first year students, which the university hopes to grow to over 200. The head of the IoT faculty, Professor Wei Xiang, explained why the university decided to offer this course.

Economic drivers

“Primarily it’s driven by the economy, Australia is transitioning from a mining boom to a knowledge and innovation driven economy. So in the middle of 2015, JCU decided to offer an engineering degree in Cairns.”

“The IoT places nicely into traditional strengths at JCU in fields like marine science, marine biology and remote medicine, for example we can use the IoT for reef condition monitoring and our Daintree Rainforest project.”

An electronics Engineer himself, Professor Xiang sees the IoT as the future of industry and leapt at the chance to lead a course when the opportunity arose.

“In the middle of 2015 I thought, ‘this is what I want to do as this is where the future is.'”

Smartcity opportunities

Along with the remote health, marine science and agricultural aspects the City of Cairns itself offers smartcity opportunities. As a moderate sized town of 142,000 relatively isolated from the rest of Australia, Cairns has large tourist traffic coupled with weather extremes – the city gets nearly two meters (80 inches) of rain every summer. Making it a good test bed for new city technologies.

“Cairns Regional Council is very interested in smartcities, I’ve been working very closely with the city council and its innovation team,” says Professor Xiang. “We are also rolling out our smart campus.”

Part of the smart campus initiative is the university installing a NarrowBand-IoT base station provided by its program supporter, Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

Huawei’s NB-IoT base station

Along with supporting the IoT lab, Huawei also plans to offer JCU IoT students the opportunity to travel to Huawei’s global headquarters in China and its Australian headquarters in Sydney as part of its Seeds for the Future program.

“It gives our students and staff an experimental platform that conforms to the latest IoT international standard,” Professor Xiang said. “It means that as we design devices and sensor networks we can test and configure them using that standard.”

The university’s Vice Chancellor, Sandra Harding shares Professor Xiang’s enthusiasm. “From designing smarter cities, to growing precision agricultural systems, monitoring natural environments in real-time, and creating clever health solutions that work in remote communities,” she says. “We don’t want to be just a part of that future, we want to lead it.”

Paul travelled to James Cook University’s Cairns campus as a guest of Huawei.

Dec 212016
 

What happens when the founder and CEO of one of the world’s biggest tech companies decides to create a genuinely smart home? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spend 2016 finding out.

“My goal was to learn about the state of artificial intelligence — where we’re further along than people realize and where we’re still a long ways off,” Zuckerberg writes in a blog post.

The immediate problem Zuckerberg faced in creating his home made Jarvis automation system was many household appliances are not network ready and for those that are,  the proliferation of standards makes tying them together difficult.

For assistants like Jarvis to be able to control everything in homes for more people, we need more devices to be connected and the industry needs to develop common APIs and standards for the devices to talk to each other.

Having jerry rigged a number of workarounds, including a cannon to fire his favourite t-shirts from the wardrobe and retrofitting a 1950s toaster to make his breakfast, Zuckerberg then faced another problem – the user interface.

While voice is presumed to be the main way people will control the smart homes of the future, it turns out that text is a much less obtrusive way to communicate with the system.

One thing that surprised me about my communication with Jarvis is that when I have the choice of either speaking or texting, I text much more than I would have expected. This is for a number of reasons, but mostly it feels less disturbing to people around me. If I’m doing something that relates to them, like playing music for all of us, then speaking feels fine, but most of the time text feels more appropriate. Similarly, when Jarvis communicates with me, I’d much rather receive that over text message than voice. That’s because voice can be disruptive and text gives you more control of when you want to look at it.

Given the lead companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple have over Facebook in voice recognition, it’s easy to dismiss Zuckerberg’s emphasis on text, but his view does feel correct. Having a HAL type voice booming through house isn’t optimal when you have a sleeping partner, children or house guests.

Zuckerberg’s view also overlooks other control methods, Microsoft and Apple have been doing much in the realm of touch interfaces while wearables offer a range of possibilities for people to communicate with systems.

The bigger problem Zuckerberg identifies is with Artificial Intelligence itself. At this stage of its development AI struggles to understand context and machine learning is far from mature.

Another interesting limitation of speech recognition systems — and machine learning systems more generally — is that they are more optimized for specific problems than most people realize. For example, understanding a person talking to a computer is subtly different problem from understanding a person talking to another person.

Ultimately Zuckerberg concludes that we have a long way to go with Artificial Intelligence and while there’s many things we’re going to be able to do in the near term, the real challenge lies in understanding the learning process itself, not to mention the concept of intelligence.

In a way, AI is both closer and farther off than we imagine. AI is closer to being able to do more powerful things than most people expect — driving cars, curing diseases, discovering planets, understanding media. Those will each have a great impact on the world, but we’re still figuring out what real intelligence is.

Perhaps we’re looking at the what intelligence and learning from a human perspective. Maybe we to approach artificial intelligence and machine learning from the computer’s perspective – what does intelligence look like to a machine?