There’s nothing as embarrassing as a politician trying to explain complex technology and completely missing the point. And as IT is increasingly seen as ‘cool’ and therefore something they want to be associated with, you can see a growing number of our elected leaders showing their ignorance in public. Following George Osborne’s cringeworthy appearance in the Year of Code video, and David Cameron’s attempted hijacking of Silicon Roundabout, the PM is at it again.
Speaking at CeBIT in Germany this week Cameron started off well, lauding the potential of the Internet of Things, praising the innovation of UK companies such as ARM and Neul, talking about Anglo-German co-operation and doubling funding for the area. But then what example did he trot out to show what it means to the general public? That our fridges can talk to each other, and order a pint of milk when we’re running low. Hardly a New Industrial Revolution.
The internet enabled fridge has been around as long as I’ve been in PR (nearly 20 years) and despite regular press appearances (and some actual products), it has failed to take off. Primarily because it is a stupid idea. Most of us (apart from one of my old housemates), can see when they are running low on food/milk and visit the shops accordingly. If not, are supermarkets expected to drop everything and rush you a single pint of semi-skimmed because your fridge told them to? Hardly economically viable. And what happens if you bought something and didn’t like it – will your fridge keep ordering more until your house is full of Dairylea cheese triangles? How will privacy be managed? Will the device send your eating habits direct to FMCG companies, like a giant ClubCard? What about security?
Poking fun at ill-advised politicians is easy, but the danger with the fridge fixation is it masks the real benefits of the Internet of Things and paints the wrong picture to the general population. We are talking about the ability to monitor our health, reduce the need for hospital stays as patients can be treated in their own homes, better manage our energy use, save us money and create smart cities that share information to make our travel and lives easier and more fulfilling. It is probably true to say that the real innovations of the Internet of Things haven’t even been thought of yet – but will develop on the platform once it becomes prevalent.
Due to the combination of the UK’s existing strengths in low power chip design, Bluetooth, availability of radio spectrum and the efforts of pioneers in the smart home space, there is a real chance that the country (and Cambridge) can become a major player in the Internet of Things. And given that the sector is expected to be worth £8.7 trillion globally when it hits maturity (according to Cisco), it is definitely the right market to target.
To succeed, UK companies need support, a well-defined technology plan that maximises investment in the right areas and a long term vision, rather than lazy examples of machines that no-one wants that will put people off the entire concept, raise potential privacy concerns and stifle acceptance. Install an internet-enabled fridge in Number 10 by all means, but do a better job of explaining the bigger benefits to the wider population if you want the Internet of Things to really take off.
I’ve talked before about the new ways marketers are trying to engage with consumers. This ranges from QR codes to augmented reality and relies on using the one device we always have with us – the smartphone. Being able to pinpoint exactly where someone is, for example the specific aisle of a shop, means they can serve up relevant marketing material that could turn a browser into a buyer. It is no wonder that the likes of Apple and Google are investing in technology that can help make indoor mapping more granular and detailed.
The latest technology to be touted to drive engagement is the beacon. Essentially a small, low cost, Bluetooth-enabled box that can be quickly fitted inside a building, it enables companies to send messages to suitably equipped smartphones in the near vicinity. As beacon technology is built into the latest Apple products, there are already over 200 million iOS devices out there that can act as both receivers and transmitters.
The possibilities are getting marketers, particularly in the US, extremely excited. Companies can automatically send relevant offers if you are in particular areas of a shop, such as in front of their products (or, if you’re being sneaky, in front of your rivals’ products). Airports or train stations could send automatic updates on delays or gate/platforms changes. Beacons can be used to measure dwell time in specific areas and provide offers of help. William Hill is planning to use beacons to send in-app betting messages at the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival, while outdoor advertising companies are looking at how it can drive engagement with adverts. Mobile phone networks EE, O2 and Vodafone have invested to create a joint venture – Weve, to target the space, with Eat trialling their technology. The reason for the interest is that essentially beacons promise the same digital tracking possibilities as online, but in the physical world.
However there are a still a couple of elephants in the room when it comes to mass market adoption. Consumers need to switch on Bluetooth, download an app, enable location services for the app and opt-in to receive notifications. So, even though iPhones now come with Bluetooth on as standard you still need to jump through a lot of hoops to be beacon ready.
And then there’s privacy. Perhaps you don’t want marketers to know whereabouts in the shop you were loitering or what you are buying at a detailed level. As the success of social media and loyalty cards have shown, people are willing to give up some of their privacy in return for a better experience and targeted offers, but none of these are as instant and real-world as beacons zapping a message straight onto your screen in real-time. At the moment all the advantages seem to be skewed towards retailers, with very little concrete benefit for consumers that will make them want to go through the rigmarole of making their phones ‘beaconable’.
At a time when consumers are just about getting their heads round paying for things by swiping cards rather than laboriously typing their PIN, I think beacons have a big job ahead to accelerate consumer adoption. The whole process needs to be made seamless and simple, with a focus on the benefits, rather than looking like another way to invade privacy and sell you more stuff. Only then will beacons deliver the insight that marketers and businesses are looking for.
I’m a passionate believer in getting more people to learn to code. Like a lot of those my age I grew up with a ZX Spectrum and learned basic programming on a BBC Computer at school. Not only did it reap benefits then (my horse racing game was a triumph, albeit not a financial one), but it gave me an idea of how computers worked that removed any fear of them when I went into the workplace.
And, as my career in PR has progressed, more and more of what I do has a technical element to it – whether that is getting a WordPress site up and running or stitching together data from different tools to measure the impact of campaigns. Not understanding technology or being unable to use it would significantly impact my productivity and my overall job prospects.
When I look back, comparing my childhood to now, the world has changed dramatically. On the plus side we’re now in an era where geekiness is cool and entrepreneurs are celebrated for their ideas. But the opportunities we have to code have been lessened – rather than ZX Spectrums we have gaming consoles that cannot be programmed, except by studios with multi-million pound budgets. Yes, we have the iOS and Android ecosystems where anyone can create an app, but the majority of us are consumers, not programmers.
Clearly there’s a need for change, and initiatives such as the Raspberry Pi and the inclusion of coding in the National Curriculum from September are helping accelerate this. However the fiasco that is the government-backed Year of Code project is an unwelcome bump in the road to the future. For those that haven’t heard of it, the Year of Code is supposed to be an umbrella organisation to encourage everyone to learn to code in 2014.
Unfortunately so far it appears to be a PR-led initiative to muscle in on the work that is already being done. Backed by venture capitalists, and the TechCity community, its main claim to fame is the ill-fated appearance of its executive director Lottie Dexter on Newsnight, where she earned the ire of Jeremy Paxman by admitting that she didn’t actually know how to code. More importantly it appears to have alienated many people who have been working in the space for years by simply not recognising what has already been done.
And, judging by its website, apart from a promotional film (warning – contains footage of George Osborne) and a commitment to “banging the drum for all the fantastic coding initiatives taking place over the course of year and helping many more people engage with technology and access important training opportunities,” it isn’t actually going to do much that is concrete. Essentially it is PR spin on a serious subject, trying to take the lead in the same way as the government has decreed that TechCity is the only viable tech cluster in the UK. It is jumping on a bandwagon and trying to take the reins from those that know what they are doing.
Coding is essential to our competiveness and the future of our children – it is simply too important to be left to a slick marketing machine that is imposed from the top down. Time for the Year of Code to be switched off and then on again to remove the bugs from the system.
The world of work has changed immeasurably over the last ten years, not just in the UK but across all developed countries. Repetitive, process driven jobs have been automated, with technology replacing paper-based workflows. In many cases this has led to a hollowing out of sectors and companies, with the remaining workforce split between menial roles and higher level management.
And these changes are accelerating. A report in The Economist points to new technological disruption in the workplace, driven by computers getting cleverer and becoming self-learning. Lightweight sensors, more powerful cameras, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data and advances in processing power are all contributing to helping computers do brain work. Innovations such as driverless cars and household robots don’t require human intervention to operate, and can do more than traditional machines.
Research from Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated within the next 20 years. Many of these roles are in previously ‘safe’ middle class professions such as accountancy, the law and even journalism.
So, this begs two questions. What skills do people need if they are going to thrive in this new world – and are we teaching them to children quickly enough?
The employees of the future will require skills that complement machine intelligence, rather than mirror it. Empathy, the ability to motivate, and being able to think outside the box will all be needed. Essentially soft skills, backed up by specialist knowledge that is based on experience that cannot be replicated by machines. Professions such as therapists, dentists, personal trainers and the clergy are all seen as being relatively safe from replacement by robots. Interestingly entrepreneurs often possess these talents, so expect them to thrive as they use technology such as the cloud to bring their innovations to market quickly.
As a knock on effect, the will be a change in the size of companies people work for. Before the Industrial Revolution most people worked either for themselves or in small organisations (the village carpenter and his apprentice for example). Industrialisation required scale, so vast mega companies grew up. These won’t disappear, but the number of people working for them will shrink dramatically as intelligent machines take over. We’ll move to a larger proportion of the population being self-employed, providing their services on a personal basis.
Looking at education, schools will also need to change. Pupils need to understand the world around them, so they have to be taught a certain number of facts and dates, but rote learning of what made the British Empire great is going to be useless for a large proportion of people’s careers. What is needed is to teach skills for learning and adapting, thinking for yourself and how to motivate and show empathy to others. Essentially, children starting school today will be going into careers that may not even exist yet – so lifelong learning and flexibility are critical.
The predictions of the havoc that technology will cause to the world of work may be overstated – just because something is technically possible, it doesn’t mean it will quickly become mass market. And governments, worried about massive social change, are likely to step in to mitigate the worst impact through legislation. But changes are coming, and we need to think more like entrepreneurs and less like machines if we’re going to thrive.
In many ways the news that Google has bought smart home company Nest Labs shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been talking to the company for some time and apparently lots of Google employees had installed the company’s sensor based thermostat in their own homes.
More to the point I think it fits in with Google’s overall objectives. As analysts have pointed out, Google isn’t a search engine company (and hasn’t been for some time), but is about data – collecting it (analysing search results, Google Glass, StreetView) and then using it to either sell you things (through adverts) or make your life better in some way.
With billions of sensors embedded in previously dumb objects that will be communicating in real-time, the Internet of Things promises to create a tidal wave of data. Each piece will be tiny, but if you can bring it together and analyse it you can get an even deeper view of the world around us, and the people in it. Nest’s products are much more than thermostats, and provide Google with the sensor/Internet of Things expertise it needs to add to its product portfolio. It already has Android-based smartphones/tablets to act as controllers, the mapping technology to show where sensors are located and the technology to analyse billions of events in real-time. And with Google Fiber rolling out in several US cities, it has a network to send the data through as well.
A simple example – your Nest thermostat notifies you that your boiler has gone wrong via your smartphone while you are at work. And suggests a registered tradesman that can fix it by trawling the web and any recommendations in your Google+ circles. Or alternatively gives you the address of the nearest clothing shop, so you can stock up on thick jumpers.
Many people (myself included) would find this a bit creepy, but it is potentially possible if you can knit all the technology together. What I think is interesting is how utilities will respond to the future entry of Google into the market. After all, as publishers and others have found, Googlification can squeeze out incumbents through sheer scale and by engaging more closely with customers. Utilities have to decide whether they want to partner with the likes of Google, risk losing the customer relationship and become commodity suppliers of gas and electricity or take a stand and build stronger engagement with customers. In current circumstances that’ll be difficult – people are at best ambivalent about their utility supplier, and in an era of rising prices and poor customer service many actively dislike them.
So there’s a big opportunity here – and something that Cambridge’s cluster of smart home/green tech companies could exploit. For example, AlertMe already has a partnership with British Gas, while Sentec is working with metering companies to make their products smarter. If energy companies don’t want to work with Google then they have two choices – do it themselves (teaming up with smaller tech companies), or partner with larger industrial tech companies, such as Siemens or Bosch. And these industrial giants will need the specialist expertise that smart home companies can provide.
The utility market doesn’t move fast, so don’t expect to see Google running your home in the next year, but the Nest acquisition should actually spur the whole sector on, attracting both interest and investment. The world just got more interested in smart homes, which is good news for relevant startups in Cambridge and beyond.
It’s CES time again, and one of the key trends at the world’s largest consumer electronics show is wearable tech. That, and the need to make sure your autocue is working in the case of film director Michael Bay.
I’ve previously talked about how devices such as smart watches (and Google Glass) only really have a market to monitor vital signs and provide information on how our bodies are performing, and the products on show at CES bear this out. Intel launched a $1.3m competition to find the best uses for wearable tech (as well as a copy of the ARM-based Raspberry Pi) while Sony unveiled life-logging software and a device called the Core that monitors time spent on various activities, from jogging to watching movies. So if you’re bored with your life you can revisit what you were doing ten minutes ago, which sounds like the recipe for getting trapped in an infinite, ultra-mundane loop.
But the best uses of wearable tech are all linked to fitness. There’s a very good reason for this – as someone that runs a bit (and the husband of a hardened marathoner) I’ve seen how lucrative the market is. After all, like paying for gym membership, money spent on clothes/equipment used for keeping fit is guilt-free – so you can invest in five pairs of trainers and 23 different tops that may make you go faster without worrying too much. Add in the obsession runners have with stats and there is a large, and affluent, sector to target. Products on show at CES include headbands that monitor heart rates and core body temperature as well as smart socks that check your running style. Copying a project seen at Idea Transform several years ago, there’s a sensor that attaches to your baseball bat, golf club or tennis racquet to provide real-time information on your swing to enable you to improve. Pity it came too late for England’s batsmen.
For once, I can see some of the wackier products announced at CES as having a future. Everything is there to make wearables work – sensors have been miniaturised, communication technologies such as Bluetooth are widespread and most of us have smartphones to provide control. This offers the chance to provide unprecedented, real-time information on your body that can either improve your fitness or guard your well-being. There are definitely going to be privacy issues that need to be tackled, but the market is there. Whether that’s the same for the connected toothbrush that ticks you off for not brushing properly, I somewhat doubt……….