Many speakers gave a positive vision of the future enhanced by the next generation of technology. What is technology for? Artificial intelligence and machine learning can support us in being human, not undermine us. They can do the things we don’t want to do, and allow us the time to do the things we are best at.
(Though of course the new wave of automation created by AI will create a kind of ‘economic climate change’ that will be challenging and must be addressed.) Danny Lopez of Blippar said that “the capacity for social good that AI offers is limitless”, mentioning healthcare, autonomous cars and education, and observing that, for example, highly trained medical staff are not best used studying thousands of images to find cancer cells.
Fintech writer Chris Skinner spoke about developments in consumer banking in which intelligent machines will get rid of mundane tasks and support us in being human. He said we should aim to build an “internet of me” - it’s about you, not things or devices. Banks will deep dive data and use machine learning to offer proactive intelligence to guide your financial activities. People ultimately want “the invisible bank”, not having to think about financial admin and transactions at all.
"Democratisation and distribution"
Another visionary theme was the democratisation and distribution of technology in many sectors, such as healthcare, energy and education. People can be liberated from dependence on expensive experts and government provision. An inclusive vision of people around the globe collaborating to solve problems in unpredictable ways. Lucien Engelen spoke about the technology-driven movement of healthcare outward from the hospital to the individual. Siraj Raval quoted Elon Musk: “Freedom consists of the distribution of power and despotism its concentration.” and argued that we must spread awareness of AI, risks and benefits, in mainstream culture. Kathryn Myronuk held up the example of the origins of Silicon Valley in the 1950s as a place where there was an openness to collaboration, an environment of innovation, rather than a top-down plan to do specific things with specific technologies.
"Growing relevance of blockchain"
Another recurrent theme was the growing relevance of blockchain, with examples of its application beyond cryptocurrency. For example Bosch is using blockchain to develop a peer-to-peer network of connected cars to prevent instrument tampering fraud. Arash Aazami spoke of blockchain’s potential to enable distributed patterns of energy provision and consumption.
The growing breadth and mainstream uptake of connected devices was in the background of many talks. However there remains a view that connected devices are in general not yet sufficiently easy to use, connect and configure. Not surprisingly the global ransom trojan outbreak immediately prior to the conference brought security implications to the fore. Mikko Hyppönen of F-Secure spoke of the inexorable logic of connecting household devices to the internet, even in situations where the user benefit is negligible (toasters for example), because “data is the new oil”. He argued that any device called ‘smart’ is by definition vulnerable, and observed that manufacturers cannot realistically expect users to carry out intricate security setups.
Continuing with the theme of data sensitivities, Stephanie Alys of Mystery Vibe said that we must respect users different attitudes to privacy, and must go beyond basic acceptance of an unreadable agreement to “enthusiastic, informed consent”. Taking a lead from personal relationships, consent is about asking what you want and respecting different answers equally. In practice this means that smart devices should still work without consent for data sharing, though there may be functional limitations. More broadly, thought needs to be given to smart device behaviour in a range of situations that don’t meet manufacturers idealised scenarios, such as poor connectivity or varying user choices.