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………….
After announcements last year, this week saw the launch of the first Apple Watches, although they won’t go on sale until 24 April. The cutely named Spring Forward event saw the tech giant reveal all 38 models, which will range in price from £299 (for the sport model) to £8,000+, depending on screen size, design and whether you want it in 18 carat gold.
More importantly Apple showed a selection of the apps that it expects to drive demand for the device. You can make touchless payments, receive phone calls, open a compatible hotel room door (rather than using a keycard), and remotely open an internet-connected garage door (no, I don’t have one of those either). However for a large number of functions, such as messaging, GPS tracking and making phone calls you’ll need an iPhone 5 to run alongside your new watch.
Apple is not a stupid company and has grown to be the biggest quoted business in the world by revenues through reinventing the music and smartphone markets. It hired former Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts to head up its online and physical stores, partly to help its move from technology into fashion with watches. I remember loudly proclaiming that the iPad would never catch on due its innate pointlessness, and now I rely on it every day. But I still see some serious challenges to the Apple Watch attaining critical mass. Here are four of them:
The cost of the Sport model begins at £299, with prices for the mid-tier Watch version starting at £479. To me, this is a lot of money to spend on a watch, even one that looks as sleek as the
Apple device. And for £900+ you can buy a low-end TAG Heuer, that you know will last for a long time without needing to be upgraded as software advances. Yes, millions of people have iPhones, but the vast majority got them on subsidised deals that meant they didn’t have to fork out close to the real sales price. A better comparison is the similarly priced iPad, which has seen sales slow as the market becomes saturated over time. Therefore predictions of sales of 60 million seem excessive, with the market much more limited than that.
2. Does it do anything different?
Anyone of a certain age who saw or read Dick Tracy loves the idea of using their watch to make a call, even if it is to the office rather than for police back up. But Dick Tracy didn’t have a smartphone, which can do pretty much everything a watch can do – and more besides. And as Apple has said, you’ll need to retain your iPhone to provide many of the functions that can’t be squeezed into the watch. Admittedly the iPhone is getting bigger, making it more difficult to use for things such as contactless payments, but equally the watch could be seen as too small for many other activities.
3. A whole new market
Apple has always been known for its design excellence, and the Watch appears to be equally stunning, admittedly with a bulkier face than a traditional wristwatch. Hiring Ahrendts also points to a desire to bring in luxury marketing nous to help it move into a different sector, where factors outside technology excellence and cool apps could be more important. Can it become the fashion accessory that everyone wants? In the ultra-competitive watch market it will be difficult, though expect Apple to try to jump the chasm from geek to cool.
4. Battery life
Watch batteries traditionally last for years. In contrast iPhones provide just hours of charge, depending on how much Candy Crush you are actually playing. So the news that the Apple Watch will keep going for 18 hours is disappointing to say the least (although the company says that it will continue to show the time for up to 72 hours after that). Essentially consumers will need to charge the watch every night, plugging it in alongside their iPhone ready for the morning. It just reinforces that this is a technology product, rather than something you wear, and is bound to put some people off.
I could be as wrong about the Apple Watch as I was about the iPad, but to me, despite the hype, it won’t move beyond being a niche product for fanboys and girls who want to pair it with their latest iPhones. For me, if I had the spare cash I’d buy a TAG instead and leave technology to my phone……….
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…………
Forget city-based startup clusters, as, according to new government figures, the countryside is now the place to launch your business. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report points out that the rural population will grow by 6% over the next decade, with more people moving from cities to the countryside than vice versa. More businesses are starting in the countryside than in cities, and rural productivity is growing for the first time since the industrial revolution.
All very positive, leading to Environment Secretary Liz Truss to talk up the innovation within rural areas and point out that people will no longer have to commute to cities, but can work from home using newly deployed superfast broadband.
This all sounds incredibly positive, but as someone who lives (and works) in the countryside I can see four big issues that are holding back rural growth.
1 Networking in a field
While there are more businesses being started outside urban areas, London is still the dominant place for startups, reflecting its position as the centre of the economy. One of the advantages that London and other cities/towns have, is a concentration of people and companies in a small space. This means that it is easy to network, partner and find suppliers to help you grow. Things are much more scattered in rural areas and it is more difficult to identify other companies. I only know about the two people in my village of 3,000 people running complementary businesses to my own because of chance meetings in the school playground. So, there needs to be more done to link rural businesses together in order to help them network.
2 Intermittent infrastructure
A lot has been made about the rollout of rural superfast broadband, and that is improving. But I still don’t have a 3G signal or decent mobile reception in my office, making it more difficult to work. Getting all communications channels right is vital if companies are going to set up and thrive in rural areas. The government has talked about addressing rural mobile “notspots” and this has to be a priority to help everyone in the countryside (not just businesses).
3 Transport by tractor
I’m obviously speaking personally about where I live but rail transport links to London are rickety and slow, while roads can be congested and prone to traffic jams. This means getting anywhere takes time – more time than it should. And, given that for a lot of businesses, including mine, you still need to get to London relatively regularly, this is a cost to doing business in the countryside.
4 Finding skills
Locating staff with the right skills to help your business grow is hard, wherever you are based. But it is much more difficult in rural areas due to the lack of networking and also that a lot of the best talent disappears off to cities and universities straight after school. That is perfectly understandable – but it does mean people don’t tend to return to the countryside until they are settling down and starting a family. This leaves a gap in the market when looking for bright, ambitious staff with some experience who are willing to learn. A lack of affordable housing doesn’t help persuade people to stay in the countryside either.
Don’t get me wrong, I love working in the countryside and contributing to a thriving rural economy. However, government needs to do more if it is to create sustainable, knowledge-based companies and that starts with investment in infrastructure, networking and skills.