May 252017
 

“The future isn’t pre-determined, technology doesn’t come from some outside force. It’s created by us. Some people have more power than others in that system, such as the big tech entrepreneurs, but at the end it’s people and organisations that have the power.”

Nicholas Davis, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Society and Innovation, was discussing at the recent Sydney CeBIT conference how we can take control of the digital economy and where workers fit into an increasingly automated world.

Technology and online platforms aren’t neutral system, Davis observes. “It’s not just about how we use them, but the values that are designed into the systems, technology is not just a neutral thing. During a conversation like this if I put my iPhone between us, it’s proven that reduces our memory of that discussion and our sense of connection.”

Politics and addiction

“The purpose of the technology, the design of it, affects us in different ways.” Davis says, “if we design technologies for addiction, if we design business models that involve us being sucked into systems at the expense of other things in our lives, then that is a value choice that companies make and that we as users are trading off in our lives.”

“In understanding that technology is not neutral then the question is how we, as revolutionaries have that political discussion? I don’t mean political like ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ but these are value decisions that we need to engage with.”

“The difficulties about having discussions about technology is not getting sucked into a left-right divide and letting one group of people own innovation, but to say what do we want, How do we get there and how do we avoid the mistakes of previous industrial revolutions where the environment suffered, kids suffered and vulnerable populations suffered.”

A change in thinking

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t have regulatory or even democratic institutions where we can make collective decisions about technologies,” says Davis.

“The average AI researcher, at the top of their game anywhere in the world, would only understand a small percentage of the AI space. So how do you expect a politician or a voter, to come to grips with it.”

One of the key discussions missing in the public sphere is around automation and concepts like the Universal Basic Income, Davis believes. “We should have a serious chat about giving everyone the space to build up their skills.”

In the development policy, Davis sees growing inequality and applying last century’s thinking to today’s challenges as among the biggest risks facing governments and communities.

Rippling beyond business

For business, the imperative is to recognise the effects of decisions on the wider community.

“The big thing for business is understanding the technology decisions you make have a ripple effect beyond your company, you need to look forward to new ways of value adding.”

Davis warns we are seeing a backlash against innovation and technology with concerns about privacy and security growing.

“So much of the world is build on their use of data. Most companies and organisations don’t have good data hygiene or ontology to classify their information. People say data is their greatest assets – some say it’s the new oil – but it’s also their greatest liability. So understanding information security at the board level is critical.”

The power of individuals

For individuals, Davis believes the power lies with us in the choices we make as consumers.

“Don’t underestimate your own power, but also don’t underestimate that more and more products around us are designed to influence our behaviour in ways we need to be aware of.”

“In most cases, if the product is free then you and your data are the product, understand that and on what terms is important.”

Conscious choices

“Understand the externalities of these services as well. Appreciate the effects it has on your family, your mental health, on the ability to connect is important. Being able to make conscious choices about these things.”

“Supporting open data standards and competition – not just accepting Android or Apple for instance – rather than allowing politicians and big business to fight over these things.”

So in Davis’ view being an ‘industrial revolutionary’ in the digital era is a matter of being an informed, and empowered, consumer. Will that be enough?

May 192017
 

The passing of Roger Ailes, former NIxon advisor and founder of Fox News, is an opportunity to reflect on how the media has evolved over the past forty years.

Ailes’ work shows how click bait, fake news and filter bubbles are not products of the world wide web but pre-date it by at least twenty years with the rise of tabloid television and the modern version of yellow journalism designed to scare people.

While the web and social media proved wonderful ways to spread such messages, it was the arrival of programs  like A Current Affair twenty years earlier in the United States and reporters like Steve Dunleavy who changed popular journalism and taught us to fear our neighbours.

The results of that have been profound in everything from kids not walking to school any more to the magnificently wasteful prison systems all of the English speaking countries have built in response to hysteria over crime rates.

Ailes and his colleagues found a successful media model that attracted viewers and advertisers which set the pattern for today’s febrile environment of fake news and filter bubbles that have ushered in the most unstable and reactionary political climate since the early 1930s.

Where we go next remains to be seen, it’s a shame Ailes won’t be around to pay the price of his works.

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

Dec 032016
 

“Like all great ideas it was conceived over a beer and executed over coffee,” says John Bishop, the joint founder and co-CEO of Pet Rescue. “A couple of friends and I were sitting in a bar back in 2003 and we came up with the idea, had a look around and there was no-one doing it in Australia at the time.”

John was talking to Decoding the New Economy at last week’s AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas where he some time to explain how Pet Rescue uses the web to connect prospective pet owners with rescue shelters.

“Basically we help people find rescue pets in need of adoption,” John explains. “We work with the vast number of rescue groups in Australia. By rescue groups I mean pounds, shelters, vet clinics and foster care networks. There’s about 950 of those in Pet Rescue at the moment.”

Rabbits, guinea pigs and rats

The system allows accredited animal rescue services to list the pets they have available for adoption, “primarily cats and dogs but also rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, chickens, there’s even one rat we’ve rehomed,” John laughs.

John was working as an IT manager with a consulting business on the side in 2004 when the site launched. “We didn’t know if it would work but I had the idea in my head the whole time I was building it that if one pet found a home rather than being killed then it would be worthwhile.”

“From day one I designed Pet Rescue to be as hands off as possible, once the members had access to it they could upload their own photos and things like that. It wasn’t groundbreaking in 2003 but it wasn’t that common”

“One of the biggest problems we faced in those early days was many of the rescue groups didn’t have digital cameras. So we did a promotion with a bunch of Kodak digital cameras that had been donated to us and gave them to the groups.”

A problem of scale

The site was quickly a success but that came with issues, particularly when the site was mentioned in the press or had a lot of social media attention. “Eventually we hit problems as I had gave no thought of architecting a site that would scale.”

While that scaling process didn’t go without problems, the service now sits in the public cloud with AWS so the Pet Rescue team can get on with connecting pets with owners, and John expects to help rehouse four thousand pets by the end of the year.

“Our challenge at the moment is we have a weird supply and demand problem happening, we have half a million unique visitors a month and helping rehome about five to six thousand. Another challenge is we’re still working on an old model of handling enquiries about the pets.”

“Our goal is to get to the point where we rehome 200,000 pets a year. Right now we’re looking at 90,000. It’s a bit of a magic number because that’s the number of pets that are unnecessirly killed each year so if we can get to that two hundred thousand we can zero that out.”

Finding funding

The bigger task for Pet Rescue is to find funding with the organisation as John doesn’t believe paid registration for the rescue groups or users is the best thing for the site, “we want to have as few barriers as possible,” he says.

Currently the service earns some money from advertising with some corporate partnerships in the pipeline. “We need money, it costs a lot to keep the site up and costs a lot for development.”

While many startups and corporations talk about using tech for good, Pet Rescue’s and John Bishop’s mission of ending unnecessary deaths of unplaced pets is a genuine worthy cause. By making it easier for companion animals to be adopted by the right households shows what technology can do.

Paul travelled to Las Vegas and the Re:Invent conference as a guest of Amazon Web Services.

Aug 122016
 

Last night I went along to the Awesome Foundation’s Sydney chapter‘s celebration of dispensing two million dollars in grants.

The Awesome foundation trustees and ambassadors meet once a month, throw a hundred dollars into the pot and grant a thousand dollars every month to the most awesome pitch they hear. Past Sydney winners have included super pollinators for native bees, Friday lunches for at-risk youth and setting up a rooftop garden for refugees.

What’s particularly impressive about the Foundation is that how the grants come with no strings. It’s a really good way to create grass roots projects.

Hopefully we’ll be seeing more programs like the Awesome Foundation, and more people like the trustees who make it possible.

Apr 072016
 
how can governments tax the internet?

Governments are struggling with the new channels of communication and the structures that will manage our societies are far from certain.

Last night the University of New South Wales’ School of Computer Science and Engineering in Sydney held a panel discussion about Digital citizens and the future of government. The group looked at how the open government movement is progressing and how public servants and politicians are dealing with a data driven world.

The panel featured Dominic Campbell, the founder of the UK’s FutureGov who are currently advising the Australian Digital Transformation office; Penny Webb-Smart, the Executive Director of Service Reform for the NSW Government’s clumsily named Department of Finance, Services and Innovation and Amelia Loye, a social scientist who worked on Australia’s first Action Plan for Open Government.

Centralising decision making

One key question for the panel was how governments use data which gives rise to two views. The prevalent view is information systems tend to centralise power – something that has been a feature of the last two centuries – while access to information is a democratising forces that hands control back to individuals and local communities.

Amelia made the point in some respects we’re already at the point where individuals can take control, “the tools for participatory government are already available, we have to start looking at – and talking about – how to use them,” she said.

That conversation certainly isn’t happening at the moment despite the odd blurting of fine words from ministers and public servants and while in some areas government data is being freed up, in others it’s increasingly being hoarded for political purposes or due to ill thought out privatisations.

Commercial in confidence

Private sector data is another problem for the open data movement as many of the functions carried out by governments are outsourced to companies which generally reluctant to share information with the public. This leaves communities with an incomplete picture of the data affecting them.

The main unanswered question in the discussion was the relationship between local and central governments, the panel’s consensus was central government would become more dominant and in the Australian context the states would become irrelevant. This however may not be true.

Centralised government is by no means a given, as the prevailing corporatist ideologies of Western governments strive to cut services it’s likely communities are going to increasingly find ways of delivering those services independent of national bureaucracies and politicians in capital cities.

Cumbersome central governments

Another unspoken aspect was the increasing cumbersome nature of central government. In fast moving economies it’s hard for the decision making structures based in capital cities to quickly react to societal and political changes. National governments may simply be too big to manage the data flows coming into them.

The main conclusion out of the evening’s discussion is there is great uncertainty about the structure of government in the digital era.

Uncertainty over how governments will be shaped by today’s changes isn’t surprising, increased communications and the change in public finances radically altered the role of government last century – the wars and economic downturns of the first third of the century saw the introduction of central government income taxes which central power in capital cities.

Changing communications

Similarly mass media communications, the radio and television, dramatically changed the politician’s role and how citizens interacted with government.

One great mistake today is many of our political, public service and business leaders think the current models are inviolate and fixed when in actual fact they are dynamic systems which are evolving with technology.

Governments are a reflection of the societies and economies they lead. Just as both the economy and society are changing so too will the structures of the public service and politics. We may not recognise some of those changes until well after they’ve happened.

Oct 242015
 

Thought of the day. We’re in at point of change in social and consumer behaviour similar to that of the late 1950s.

Sixty years ago the drivers were; the first baby boomers entering their teenage years, the rise of television, an era of accessible and cheap energy, along with rising incomes from the post World War II reconstruction.

Today the drivers are; the baby boomers entering retirement, the rise of the internet, an era of abundant and easily accessible data, the rise of the internet along with stagnant living standards following the late 20th Century credit orgy.

Your thoughts on where this goes?