The machines and us: what I learned from Web Summit 2014

Simon Harwood, Head of Futures, fills us in on what he learned from Web Summit 2014.

Earlier this month, I attended the Web Summit in Dublin; a technology conference intended to be Europe’s answer to SXSW, where the giants of the web converge.   Each talk or panel discussion was limited to 15-20 minutes, so there was a huge volume of opinion and content to be disseminated.

Three key themes emerged for me over the course of the three days in the outlook for how technology will continue to change our lives.

Machine learning

Machine utility

Machine systems

Machine learning

From Tim O’Reilly highlighting the fear mongering over AI ‘summoning the demon’ amid talk of a loss of white collar jobs replaced by machines, to a convincing discussion on the future of programmatic buying, machine learning was one of the dominant themes of the conference.

Several speakers highlighted that we’re not quite there yet – we have lots of ‘idiot savants’ such as Google as an engine for collective intelligence or Twitter bringing events to collective consciousness, but nothing like the artificial intelligence first dreamed of in the 60s.

Programmatic buying meanwhile is set to evolve from buying lots of unwanted inventory for a conversion channel, towards ‘algorithmic advertising’ where high value premium formats are bought as part of a hyper-targeted ‘segment of 1’ communication plan between a brand and an individual consumer. Crucially, emotional intelligence still required – people with contextual information and brand knowledge will still be needed to guide the algorithm.   On the consumer side, people will expect a super personalised service in return for their data.

In the Huffington Post panel on the future of online media, it was suggested that massive personalisation across platforms would meet this need, and that we need to think about atomic units consumed by networks not ‘your audience’.

Content will be increasingly atomised through the social web and reassembled for an individual point of view.  Social media has accelerated the news cycle so a lot of content is required.

This requires a commercial model in line with the atomised networked content, no longer reliant on driving to a publisher’s site.   Programmatic buying is well suited to this networked approach, while brands needs to act as newsrooms, getting into the rhythm of producing a lot of content, particularly when native video opportunities become mainstream.

Machine utility

Tim O’Reilly pointed out that the immediate future in AI lay in what he called ‘Human-computer symbiosis’, and how we are being augmented by AIs, starting with the amazing powers that are within our phones.   Developments in wearable technology are peripherals to phones, which themselves are peripherals to a connected global network that boosts our individual powers. We supply them with data that makes them smarter and they make us smarter.

These tools aren’t intelligent of themselves but look like it – for example predictive analytics making suggestions such as leaving early for work via the traffic data collected from phones.  Apps like Uber or Hailo work with machine intelligence tracking cars in real time, but only work because both driver and passenger carry GPS built into their phones.

Robert Scoble talked of the next wave of wearables getting ever more intimate and personal, with the Apple watch touching skin, tracing the line back from phones in our pockets and PCs sat on our desktops.

Brands can use biometric data from wearables to connect throughout day but this is a very private domain.  The closer you get to the body, the more you need to provide specific relevant value.

The immediate challenges for wearables include the battery life of the Apple Watch, while Google Glass was universally derided as ‘not great’.  This may imply that the third wave of digital is very nascent and we need to move into more compelling use cases before it really takes off.

There was some debate as to whether brands should create their own wearables given the expertise already out there. Nike Fuel recently exited the arena of wearables to focus on software development. Disney’s Magic Band was cited as one good example using simple ideas of personalization.   So as you go around Disney World, Goofy knows your name and that it’s your birthday as you approach.

Smart brands of the future will listen to the customer and use data to deliver better products and services in this space, rather than bombarding people with alerts through their wearables.

For that to happen we need smarter systems to receive notifications that make sense.

Machine systems

Phones are very much part of the ‘internet of things’ revolution which itself relies on a system to connect the everyday objects around us to add value.   Several talks mentioned that there currently isn’t one over-arching system to connect these things, and that the company that gets this right would stand to control a huge amount of data.   Unsurprisingly, the likes of Google and Cisco are already making a play to be that system.

Cisco stated that 99.4% of everything that can be connected is still to be connected.  They gave an example of a system there are working on in a city where traffic lights change automatically for emergency vehicles and they are working on a connected rail system elsewhere.   They want to be the network / operating system for the internet of things, feeding startup apps with intelligent information and analytics

The internet of things means every company becomes an internet company.  Bonin Bough predicted that every single consumer good could be connected by 2020, which would make Mondelez a big tech enterprise.

A talk by the founder of Kickstarter-funded Lifx (a Wi-Fi enabled multi-LED bulb controlled by your phone from anywhere on the world) predicted that the internet of things will dwarf mobile.   There are 5 million light bulbs sold every day and 6 billon sockets in the world – and this is just lights!

This is possible now because silicon chips are so small, cheap and powerful you can put them into anything.  One single light bulb will have more computational power than the first mac computer.

The challenge will be integrating products that we already know how to use, as complicating things doesn’t work.  The way we use products should be the standard for the IoT, with an emphasis on design.  Google’s Nest thermostat was cited as a good example.

Meanwhile, the quickest way to lose would be to create silos, so all IoT product manufacturers have a responsibility to make things work together.   In the case of fire for example, Lifx bulbs can flash to alert danger and call the fire brigade.

Finally, a discussion on drones demonstrated that they have the potential to become integral parts of these systems once the regulation challenges (both a lack of and the threat of a commercial ban in the US) have been overcome.   The opportunity around drones is transformative with an enormous societal impact.   Currently drones are at the ‘early 90s computer club’ stage, with parallels to the PC revolution (homemade in garages, limited use for specific tasks by big government).  But the arena will evolve much faster…

In summary, the internet no longer needs a screen.


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