Contrary to popular belief, I do occasionally venture outside the Greater Reading area. Last week I was fortunate enough to go to Lisbon for Web Summit, a world-renowned technology conference. From virtual reality to flying cars, in this post I’ll cover some of the innovations coming down the road (or hovering above it), as well as considering some of the implications for us locally.
One of my memorable experiences at primary school was building and burying a class time capsule. We each had to draw a future invention we thought would exist in 30 years’ time, in 2021. I vividly recall rubbishing my classmates’ depictions of hover boards and personal jetpacks; I was convinced I had a more realistic prospect. My invention was the Ceefax Watch. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to check the football scores when you’re out? Now, I know to be nit-picky, Ceefax was killed off in 2012, but I still think I can argue I was reasonably on the money. I need to wait four years then I can head back to Earley and unearth the proof that I effectively invented the Apple Watch and sue for my millions! So back to Web Summit – which predictions got me rolling my eyes and which ones might be the next Ceefax Watch?
Perhaps surprisingly, the overriding theme of the conference was one of conflict. I had expected more of a trade show, but what I got was a 3 day-long debate on the future of our lives. Stephen Hawking set the tone with an opening night video message warning of the dangers of AI reaching, and then surpassing our own capabilities. Throughout the event, tech leaders and entrepreneurs found themselves mauled in panel discussions by journalists, politicians and government officials about the impacts of their organisations and innovations.
Are we addicted to social networks? Is increasing personalisation a time-saver, or a path to prejudice by exposing us only to opinions with which we’re known to agree? Will AI remove unfulfilling jobs and replace them with better work, or cast millions into unemployment? Is eCommerce making us sedentary and obese? Is our data being treated appropriately? Are we being deprived our anonymity, or do we choose to give it up too easily for convenience? Are we being hacked? Is constant connectivity making us stressed? “But we have a health app that senses when you need a break”. “But won’t I be stressed out by a gizmo shouting at me to do mindfulness every five minutes?”. “Our app means you’ll all be self-employed – free to choose where and when you work”. “You mean with no rights and benefits?”. “We’re all working too hard”. “But our self-driving cars will mean you can work whilst you’re in the car”. “Will we ever have the time for a physical relationship?”. “Ah, we got this covered – we’ve made a sex robot”. “Why aren’t you paying any tax?”…
One speaker (skip to 10:30) used a tale I’d heard before, a story from Plato of a king rejecting the new innovation of “writing” based on a concern that it “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls”. His point was that each innovation has a potential downside. But I think there’s a wider point that in the modern world there is no king (or queen). Each new development is unleashed on the public and only controlled retrospectively by governments who are struggling to keep up. Entrepreneurs race to create solutions to mitigate the unintended consequences of the innovations that went before: the computer virus checker; the app that tells you you’ve used your phone too much; the wearable device to tell you to move; the social network that doesn’t retain your posts forever; etc. Nobody is empowered to judge whether the side effects of the medication are worse than the disease. I think that’s what Stephen Hawking is saying when he’s encouraging pro-active organised oversight of AI. The examples in my list perhaps illustrate our ability, through free markets, to innovate solutions to our own self-created problems, but will this always be the case?
One clear example of this debate is urban mobility. A highlight of the event was a big announcement from Uber (skip to 16:00). They’ve made progress with their Uber Elevate project to provide what are essentially flying taxis. Their speaker was very bullish about the concept. He also announced a partnership with NASA to create an airspace management solution. With property developments for the ports already in the pipeline, he targets a 2023 service launch, and flying cars a common sight across the skies of Los Angeles during their Olympics in 2028. But the debate to which I refer is the question of whether addressing cities’ chronic growing pains is the right direction at all. On another stage, a speaker was selling a vision of sending us back to the country, and harnessing technology to facilitate working wherever we want, reversing the trend of cramming ourselves into a small number of cities. We could spread out again – 90% of us were farmers only 200 years ago – could we be happier and healthier in a more natural environment? You would also even out regional disparities that showed through so dramatically in the US elections and Brexit referendum. Maybe his strategy could save an escalation of those tensions. Of course, he had a work allocation app that could manage the whole thing, with a self-employment model I heard being given the hair-dryer treatment by a firebrand trade unionist in another excellent panel debate.
In the world of runaway technology, there was a constant sense of unease at the uncertainty as to where it’s all heading. But I think these sorts of gatherings lose sight of the things that are not changing. When I look at my two young boys and their lifestyle, the impact of technology is not profound. They get up in the morning, eat Weetabix, watch Thunderbirds, walk to school, sit on little plastic chairs watching a teacher write on a whiteboard, do some handwriting with a pencil and paper, run around a playground, come home, watch Thomas the Tank Engine, play football in the garden, eat some fish fingers and a few peas (if we’re lucky), read a couple of pages of a book and go to bed. Ok, so they might be watching programmes on an iPad rather than the TV. They also play iPad games but their favourite – some character you have to move left and right to avoid being hit by a train – is strikingly similar to the sort of handheld low-res games I had in the 80s.
I know it will all change when they’ll old enough for phones. But there are other areas immune. In sport, we’re still playing the games from the 1800’s. Wimbledon barely changes (ok, a roof) but we all tune in year after year. People like tradition. And going back to children, parents like to share their traditions – old habits die hard. It’s interesting to see that natural intuition to limit the influence of technology on our youngsters. Perhaps it’s best to view new technology as new traditions, new habits, that have forced their way into our daily lives through sheer usefulness.
A good example is the clash of civilisations I saw playing out on Lisbon’s streets. With 60,000 technophiles in town, we found ourselves amongst numerous groups looking for somewhere to eat. We were accosted in the street by restaurant owners (not waiters) to a far greater degree than I’ve experienced elsewhere in Europe. “Free bottle of wine just for you…”. Some were incredibly persistent following you down the street. There was this strange scene with successive groups waving their mobile phones at a baffled, aged restauranteur – “Look, you’ve only got two stars on Trip Advisor”. It felt like we’d come from another universe: “we’re from the future – and your restaurant doesn’t exist there.”
There’s another new tradition just establishing itself in how we engage with devices. The BBC ran an article last weekend questioning the need for children to learn joined-up handwriting, and they actually said this: “Shouldn’t children learn to type effectively instead?”. Apart from neglecting our love for the tradition of learning to write, they miss the elephant in the room: voice. Web Summit featured a talk from Amazon on its Alexa voice software. Voice recognition has improved enormously. I’ve found myself using voice for Google search lately – it can even cope with a Reading accent: dropped t’s and “Fridee mornin'” – not a problem. But it’s the ability to process and understand the speech that’s the game-changer. And now Amazon has opened up its software to allow businesses to develop interfaces to Alexa creating many possibilities. I certainly can’t imagine typing this blog for much longer.
Another exciting innovation is around augmented reality. Whilst the industry is still trying to figure out something useful to do with virtual reality – there was still a demo where you could wear a silly headset and flail your arms around pretending to be skydiving – they’re getting further with augmented reality. There was a talk from a business mapping the physical world so that you could hold your phone up and see the street scene in front of you annotated. Perhaps directions super-imposed on the road (handy when emerging disoriented from the tube), or the train times above the train station, or an exclusive offer on the front of a shop. You’d be able to look down a supermarket aisle through your phone and have products meeting your dietary needs highlighted.
Returning to the local lens, I think we need to do two things: firstly, take a more positive attitude to technology, and secondly think ahead to be ready for its impacts. On the first, laudable though it was for the council to try to play the king and take a stand against Uber, that should have been left to central government. A local resistance sends the wrong kind of message about the town’s attitude to change and to technology. Equally, the public’s reaction of hostility when our daily newspaper became one of the first to go online-only could have been one of pride that our town was ahead of the curve and helping define a new model for the digital age. I’m also a little disappointed with the reaction to the Reading 2050 visioning exercise, which has been too cynical.
On my second point, we clearly need to think ahead. If there’s a criticism of the 2050 project, it’s that it should give more consideration to the impact of technology. Even if you don’t believe Uber’s timescales for flying cars, they will definitely have driven down use of the private car, with fleets of electric autonomous cars scuttling around our streets instead. We won’t need large multi-storey car parks – what’s the vision for those sites? But we will need multiple station-like pick-up and drop-off areas for these vehicles. Shouldn’t we also consider a future where there’s more to life than easy access to a Crossrail station? Whilst Reading plans thousands of flats on land just north of the railway station, Swindon has plans on a similar-sized piece of land just north of its station for a huge leisure complex with an Imax, arena, ski slope and more. If we’re less beholden to London for work, and if automation and AI fulfil their promise to give us more leisure time, wouldn’t it be nice to have somewhere to spend it?
Finally, it struck me at Web Summit that despite the worldwide impact of technology, and its promise to provide global opportunities, the entire industry is dominated so heavily by a small area of California. All of the tech giants are there, but that’s where all the investment in start-ups is going too: the Golden State receives fifty times more venture capital funding than Ohio. The exhibition halls at Web Summit were full of minnows hoping to be gobbled up by a Californian big fish in some kind of twisted form of Darwinism. Silicon Valley’s domination has become big tech’s favourite tradition, and I can’t see it changing as long as the grass is green at Wimbledon. We do have many US firms locally providing welcome employment to a large IT workforce, but we need more home-grown success stories so that we’re part of defining the future use of technology, not standing on the sidelines moaning about it, or even being replaced by it. With more enthusiastic public support, maybe the next must-have tech innovation could be made in Reading and we can build a technology tradition all of our own.Follow @readingonthames
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