The announcement that Chris Evans has been signed to headline the new Top Gear is a rare good news story for the BBC. Following the furore over Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension and subsequent non-renewal of contract after punching a producer there was a real danger that one of its prized assets could be under permanent threat.
This was a big issue for two reasons. Not only does Top Gear make a lot of money for the BBC in terms of overseas sales, but it is also one of the most popular programmes on TV, particularly (but not exclusively) with middle-aged men such as myself. At a time when charter renewal is looming, showing that the BBC provides something for everyone is crucial to successful negotiations, especially as many see it as a bastion of a left-leaning metropolitan elite, rather than an organisation that is in touch with the rest of the UK. Not a viewpoint I personally subscribe to, but one that can be seen regularly in newspaper coverage of the corporation.
So setting out a plan for the future of Top Gear was about more than simply replacing a presenter. And the whole negotiations with both Evans and the outgoing presenting duo of James May and Richard Hammond seem to have been handled confidentially, respectfully and without any of the noted HR cock-ups that the BBC has made in the past. With Evans on board, the BBC has recruited a noted car nut who is a familiar face to the UK audience, with a wide appeal and a similar sense of humour to the old Top Gear team. He’s also been through the public wringer in the past, rising to stardom with The Big Breakfast and the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, before becoming a staple story in the tabloids for his drinking and bad behaviour. He’s obviously learnt from his mistakes – and what drove him to them – something that Clarkson never really seemed to do.
So, now there is a one host in place for Top Gear, the rumour mill is in full swing about who else will present it with him. Rather than follow the bookmakers favourites (the likes of Jodie Kidd and Guy Martin), here are some other potentials:
1. Ed Miliband
Currently at a bit of a loose end, he’d be perfect as the earnest one to replace James May. Rather than endlessly explaining about internal combustion engines he could bore the audience with his views on the redistribution of wealth, and why Labour’s electoral defeat was not to do with carving promises into pieces of stone. Counting against him is what seems to be a complete lack of interest in cars, but I’d tune in to see him attempt to lap the track while eating a bacon sandwich.
2. Prince Philip
A direct replacement for Clarkson with his views on foreigners, and a chance to increase viewers in the pensioner category. Well known for owning a London taxi that he drives around the city, so has an interest in cars, alongside carriage racing. Possibly not up for driving long distances in Top Gear specials, but presumably could get a chauffeur to do this for him.
3. Alexis Tsipras
Another Greek, and one who may be looking for a new role depending on how well current negotiations with his country’s creditors go. Unlike his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who is a noted biker, his transport preferences are unknown. However as someone that has driven in Athens (and survived), I know that all residents of the Greek capital have nerves of steel on the road, coupled with a wanton disregard for indicators, making him a perfect role model on the track.
4. Mary Berry
There have been rumours of Great British Bake Off host Sue Perkins joining the team, prompting death threats from assorted morons on Twitter, but why not go for the real star – the fragrant Mary Berry. She’d not take any nonsense from anyone and, I suspect, would be a demon behind the wheel. I’d like to see her challenge the other presenters to make fairy cakes while lapping the Nurburgring in under 7 minutes.
5. Bradley Wiggins
Another coming to the end of his first sporting career, and potentially looking for a new challenge post-Rio 2016. While not as much of a car nut as his fellow Olympian Chris Hoy, he’d bring plenty of irreverence to the programme if he swapped two wheels for four. Main stumbling block could be the previous hostility between Top Gear presenters and cyclists, but the perfect opportunity for the show to bring the two groups together and benefit from the rise of the MAMIL.
In a previous blog I wondered whether the rise of technology would mean the end of interesting, creative ads, to be replaced by a combination of content-based marketing and basic, fast, algorithmic ads powered by our online behaviour.
I still believe that the ability for us to zone out ads on digital media (whether TV or the internet) means that brands are going to have to try harder to engage our attention on these channels. One area I didn’t talk about was print advertising in newspapers and magazines. After all most commentators have been saying for a while that the internet has pretty much killed off physical publications, with old media facing falling circulations and rising costs. But recently listening to Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of advertising giant WPP, has made me think again. As a man who spends millions of client money on online and offline ads, he obviously knows what he is talking about, and he believes that while digital advertising may be getting the eyeballs, traditional media is getting the engagement.
He points out that having tens of thousands of Facebook Likes, mentions on Twitter or prominent online campaigns is meaningless if it is merely transitory and consumers simply skip onto the next big thing, without lingering over your message. Additionally, it is quite possible for online ad campaigns to be subject to clever frauds where views are artificially inflated to justify increased spend.
In contrast, offline readers spend more time reading a newspaper or magazine, including viewing the adverts, driving a deeper engagement that means both PR and advertising messages are more likely to be remembered. Obviously it still means the story or advert has to be memorable, interesting and targeted, but if it meets those criteria, it could do more for your brand than ten times as many online ads or mentions.
The other advantage of print is that, battered by digital, advertising prices have come down considerably over the past few years. This makes print more cost-effective than it was previously, adding another reason to invest in the channel.
The disadvantage of print is it is that much more difficult to measure who has seen your article or advert and how it has moved engagement forward. Clearly every reader does not read a paper cover to cover, including the ads, but there’s no set way of working out its impact. It is no coincidence that WPP has recently invested heavily in measurement technology as this will be key to really demonstrating engagement – both on and offline. In the past print measurement, particularly for PR, was incredibly vague. For many years the standard way of demonstrating PR ‘value’ for a particular piece of coverage was to take the equivalent cost of the same size advert and multiply it by three as editorial was deemed much more believable by readers. Thankfully those days have gone, but it does leave a gap. By contrast you can measure everything online – but sheer numbers don’t tell you everything, particularly about engagement.
What is needed is a new approach that can link the two – but in a way that isn’t intrusive, respects user privacy, and doesn’t involve in extra work for the publication, brand or reader. Google Glass would have met some of these needs, but certainly didn’t tick the privacy box. So, the search goes on – but until then, marketers should bear in mind that eyeballs don’t equal engagement and choose their media channels accordingly.
There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.
Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.
This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.
They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).
Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.
Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.
The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..
So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….
50 years ago, engineer Gordon Moore wrote an article that has become the bedrock of computing. Moore’s Law, as first described in the article, states that the number of elements that could be fitted onto the same size piece of silicon doubles every year. It was then revised to every two years, and elements changed to transistors, but has basically held true for five decades. Essentially it means that computing power doubles every two years – and consequently gets considerably cheaper over time.
What is interesting is to look back over the last 50 years and see how completely different the IT landscape is today. Pretty much all companies that were active in the market when Moore’s Law was penned have disappeared (with IBM being a notable exception and HP staggering on). Even Intel, the company Moore co-founded, didn’t get started until after he’d written the original article. At the same time IT has moved from a centralised mainframe world, with users interacting through dumb terminals to a more distributed model of a powerful PC on every desk. Arguably, it is now is heading back to an environment where the Cloud provides the processing power and we use PCs, tablets or phones that, while powerful, cannot come close to the speed of Cloud-based servers. This centralised model works well when you have fast connectivity but doesn’t function at all when your internet connection is down, leaving you twiddling your thumbs.
Looking around and comparing a 1960’s mainframe and today’s smartphone you can see Moore’s Law in action, but how long will it continue to work for? The law’s demise has been predicted for some time, and as chips become ever smaller the processes and fabs needed to make them become more complex and therefore more expensive. This means that the costs have to be passed on somehow – at the moment high end smartphone users are happy to pay a premium for the latest, fastest model, but it is difficult to see this lasting for ever, particularly as the whizzier the processor the quicker batteries drain. The Internet of Things (IoT) will require chips with everything, but size and power constraints, and the fact that the majority of IoT sensors will not need huge processing power means that Moore’s Law isn’t necessary to build the smart environments of the future.
Desktop and laptop PCs used to be the biggest users of chips, and the largest beneficiaries of Moore’s Law, becoming increasingly powerful without the form factor having to be changed. But sales are slowing, as people turn to a combination of tablets/phones and the processing power of the Cloud. Devices such as Google Chromebooks can use lower spec chips as it uses the Cloud for the heavy lifting, thus making it cheaper. At the same time, the servers within the datacentres that are running these Cloud services aren’t as space constrained, so miniaturisation is less of a priority.
Taken together these factors probably mean that while Moore’s Law could theoretically carry on for a long time, the economics of a changing IT landscape could finish it off within the next 10 years. However, its death has been predicted many times before, so it would take a brave person to write its epitaph just yet.
It is easy to write off 3D printing as a niche technology, best left to hobbyists or for businesses producing extremely specialised, one-off components. But having seen some of the latest products made with the technology, I think it is moving very quickly towards the mainstream. You can now produce incredibly intricate pieces on a home 3D printer, albeit a high spec one, and industrial 3D printers provide even more power, speed and performance. There are now more and more community spaces with 3D printers (like Makespace in Cambridge), and even some local copy shops have one, delivering another way of bringing the technology to the mass market.
So, why do I think 3D printing is going mainstream? Because it taps into three key trends:
In our mass produced, brand-led world, we have an increasing a desire for personalisation. Many people want to show their individuality, and are willing to pay for it. So whether it is jewellery customised to fit your own body shape or a sculpture you’ve designed yourself, there is a market for 3D printed objects.
2 Need for precision
The boundaries of the possible are being pushed back. Medical science can do things that were previously thought impossible, while miniaturisation is shrinking the size of everyday objects around us, while making them much more complex. 3D printing enables the creation of precisely made replacement bones for medical use, as well as significant parts of intricate jet engines. All of these are high value objects, but the same methods can be used on more mundane applications. Take spare parts for consumer goods – normally if something small breaks (such as the shelf bracket of your fridge), you need to buy a replacement from the manufacturer at an exorbitant price. And that’s if you can even track down the part. Now, it is technically possible to 3D print the replacement, and while this obviously infringes copyright, it will be difficult for the original manufacturer to find out, let alone prosecute, you.
3 Infrastructure in the Cloud
The combination of the internet, the Cloud and smartphones provides a complete, cost-effective infrastructure to support 3D printing. You can take high resolution photos with your phone, upload them and have them turned into product plans by using the immense processing power available on the Cloud. Short of inspiration? You can find and download plans for just about anything to make yourself (unfortunately including guns) through a quick search.
So what markets will it disrupt? Recent announcements point to two that have real potential. As mentioned before, parts for jet engines are being made experimentally using 3D printing by both Rolls-Royce and academic researchers in Australia. As well as the ability to work to extremely fine tolerances, 3D printing also has the benefit of producing much less waste, as objects are built up, layer by layer, rather than carved out from a larger block of expensive material.
Secondly, and more in the consumer space, Argos has announced that it will run a trial that allows people to customise jewellery, both by adding messages and also changing the item’s dimensions. Previously the likes of the Royal Mail, Amazon and Asda have run 3D printing trials. Moving to more of a “make to order” model will help Argos in keeping stock costs down – and also help differentiate it against other retailers on the high street through exclusive products. Given that the likes of Argos have been hard hit by the rise of online shopping, it is a smart move that could well be expanded to other products.
Like many technologies, 3D printing will not only change existing markets, but also spawn completely new ones that have not yet been thought up. What is definite is that it provides brands and companies with a challenge – will the ability for complex customisation be a threat or an opportunity to their business?
If you needed evidence of the growth of the smartphone market and its move into every part of our lives, then this week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) provides it. It wasn’t that long ago that the event was dominated by network infrastructure companies, but now it is essentially a consumer electronics show in all but name. And one that looks far beyond the handset itself. Ford launched an electric bike, Ikea announced furniture that charged your smartphone and a crowdfunded startup showed a suitcase that knows where it is and how much it weighs.
Five years ago none of these companies would have even thought of attending MWC – and it is all down to the rise of the smartphone. It is difficult to comprehend that the first iPhone was only launched in 2007, at a time when Apple was a niche technology player. It is now worth more than any other company in the world and 2 billion people globally have an internet-connected smartphone. By 2020 analysts predict that 80% of the world’s adults will own a smartphone.
As any honest iPhone owner will freely admit, they may be sleek, but they are actually rubbish for making and receiving calls. What they do provide is two things – a truly personal computer that fits in your pocket, and access to a global network of cloud-based apps. It is the mixture of the personal and the industrial that make smartphones central to our lives. We can monitor our own vital signs, and the environment around us through fitness and health trackers and mapping apps, and at the same time access any piece of information in the world and monitor and control devices hundreds or thousands of miles away. Provided you have a signal……….
So, based on what is on show at MWC, what are the next steps for the smartphone? So far it seems to split into two strands – virtual reality and the Internet of Things. HTC launched a new virtual reality headset, joining the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Samsung and Oculus Rift, promising a more immersive experience. Sensors to measure (and control) everything from bikes and cars to tennis racquets are also on show. The sole common denominator is that they rely on a smartphone and its connectivity to get information in and out quickly.
It is easy to look at some of the more outlandish predictions for connected technology and write them off as unlikely to make it into the mainstream. But then, back in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, there were plenty of people who thought it would never take off. The smartphone revolution will continue to take over our lives – though I’m not looking forward to navigating streets full of people wearing virtual reality headsets who think they are on the beach, rather than on their way to work…………