Journey interrupted

Contrary to what you might expect, this blog isn’t a reflection of my experience with Southern Rail. Instead it’s a look to the future, inspired by the Sopra Steria Horizon Scanning Team’s trip to Wired 2016.

In our horizon scanning programme, Aurora, we try to look beyond the technologies that are shaping our future and include the behavioural and social changes that are also making an impact, and this is where Wired’s annual event fits in so perfectly with our interests. Though Wired 2016 takes no shame in celebrating the advancements we’ve seen in technology and imagining what may come next, it also takes account of wider sociological and environmental changes, such as mass migration, climate change and global conflict.

The running theme throughout was ‘journey interrupted’ which seemed both to reflect on the individual journeys of many speakers who had set out with what seemed like a clear direction, but ended up somewhere entirely different to what they had planned, but also the inevitable interruption in our unsustainable way of living which needs change more urgently than ever.

In the technology content, an overwhelmingly strong theme was data. Now, data is nothing new at these kinds of events, and has not been for years.  Data in this instance was framed most clearly in machine learning and AI, which again isn’t anything new to us, but what we’re beginning to see is how achievable it is becoming to us.  Historically the privilege of huge projects backed by a great deal of money, we’re now seeing machine learning in the hands of start-ups and individual people who are able to apply the same technology to problems which receive little or no funding, but are important none the less. Applications ranged from health, limiting the spread of Ebola and the Zika virus to cancer discovery and treatment, to migrant demographics, through to the future of AI and the singularity.

The most poignant moments in Wired 2016 however did not focus wholly on technology. They were about the big shifts happening to people and our environment. Predictions on climate change are looking more devastating than ever with even fairly conservative scientists predicting that we may go well beyond the 2C maximum limit for warming since pre-industrial weather reports, going as far as 7C which could wreak untold havoc on our world. The speakers at Wired 2016 were looking both at how we can change the way we live in the developed world to reduce our environmental impact, but also how we can curtail the impact of the developing world, ideally skipping straight to renewable power, in much the same way as they have largely missed out internet on PCs, experiencing the internet for the first time on a mobile device.  The refugee crisis was also a recurring theme, where the journey that people had set for their own lives has been completely torn apart, exploring how communities around the world have found ways for them to get their journeys back on track, through enabling their work and encouraging entrepreneurship.

The story from Wired 2016 is that if we continue on this express train, we’re heading to a bad place. We need to instead take a look at the journey we’re taking, or better still find an entirely new mode of transport to take us there. The technology is there, but the community and widespread adoption is not, and if we want success this is going to need to be a journey we take together.

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Learn more about Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, and the topics that we are researching.

The Brave Little Toaster

We are currently sitting on the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution which is set to re-think the way we live and work on a global scale.  As with the first industrial revolution, what we know roughly is that change is being driven by technology, but we lack any concrete knowledge of how great the change will be or just how dramatically it will disrupt the world we live in.

The technologies driving the upcoming revolution are artificial intelligence and robotics, technologies which have been the territory of sci-fi for generations which think and act as humans would.  Just as steam power, electricity and ultimately computers have replaced  human labour for mechanical and often mathematical tasks, AI looks set to supplant human thinking and creativity in a way which many see as unsettling.  If the first industrial revolution was too much for the ‘luddites’ doing their best to stamp out mechanical progress, the reaction to AI and robotics is going to be even more unsettling.  There are several clear reasons I can perceive that may drive people away from AI which are:

  • Fear of redundancy: the first reason we can see replicates that of the first industrial revolution. People don’t want technology to do what they do, because if a machine is able to do it faster, better and stronger than they can then what will they do?
  • Fear of the singularity: this one is like our fear of nuclear bombs and fusion. There’s an intrinsic fear people hold, entrenched in stories of Pandora’s Box where we believe certain things should not be investigated.  The singularity of AI is when a computer achieves sentience, and though we’re some way off that (without an idea of how we’d get there) the perceived intelligence of a machine can still be very unnerving.
  • The uncanny valley: the valley is the point where machines start to become more human-like, appearing very close, but not exactly like a human in the way they look or interact. If you’re still wondering what it is, I’d recommend watching these Singing Androids.

Just like we’ve seen throughout history, there is resistance to this revolution.  But if history is anything to go by, while it’s likely to be a bumpy road, the rewards will be huge.  Although it’s the back office, nuts and bolts which are driving change behind the scenes, it’s the front end where we interact with it that’s being re-thought to maximize potential and minimize resistance.  What we’re seeing are interfaces designed to appear dumb, or mask their computational brains to make us feel more comfortable, and that’s where the eponymous title of this blog comes in.

“The Brave Little Toaster” is a book from 1980, or – if you’re lazy like me – it’s a film from about 8 years later, ‘set in a world where household appliances and other electronics come to life, pretending to be lifeless in the presence of humans’.  Whilst the film focused on the adventure of these appliances to find their way back to their owner, what I’d like to focus on is how they hide intelligence when they come into sight – and this is what we’re beginning to see being followed by industry.

Journalism is a career typically viewed as creative and the product of human thought, but did you know that a fairly significant chunk of the news that you read isn’t written by a person at all?  For years now weather reports from the BBC have been written by machines using Natural Language Generation algorithms to take data and turn it into words, which can even be tailored to suit different audiences with simple configuration changes.  Earlier this month The Washington Post also announced that their writing on the Rio Olympics would be carried out by robots.  From a consumer standpoint it’s unlikely that we’ll notice that the stories have been written by machines, and if we don’t even notice it shouldn’t be creepy to us at all.  Internally, rather than seeing it as a way to replace reporters, it’s being seen as an opportunity to ‘free them up’, just like the industrial revolution before which saw people be freed up from repetitive manual tasks to more thought based ones.

Platforms like IBMs Watson begin to add a two-way flow to this, with both natural language generation and recognition, so that a person can ask a question just as they would to a person, with a machine understanding their phrasing and replying in turn without ever hinting that it’s an AI.  At the stage when things become too complicated, the AI asks for a person to take action and from there on the conversation is controlled by them, with no obvious transition.

A gradual approach to intelligence and automated systems is also being adopted by some businesses.  Tesla’s autopilot can be seen as an example of this, continuing a story which began with ABS (automatic breaking) over a decade ago, and developed in recent years to develop a car which, in some instances, can drive itself.  In its current state, autopilot is a combination of existing technologies like adaptive cruise control, automatic steering on a motorway and collision avoidance, but the combination of this with the huge amount of data it generates has allowed the system to learn routes and handling, carefully navigating tight turns and traffic (albeit with an alert driver ready to take over control at all times!).  Having seen this progression, it’s easy to imagine a time not too far from the present day where human drivers are no longer needed, with a system that learns, generates data and continually improves itself just as a human would as they learn to drive, only without the road rage, fatigue or human error.

The future as I see it is massively augmented and improved by artificial intelligence and advanced automation.  Only, it’ll be designed so that we don’t see it, where the boundary between human and machine input is perceivable only if you know exactly where to look.

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Augmentation, AI and automation are just some of the topics researched by Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team.

Is Blockchain in the MASH for Local Government?

In their latest insight briefing, SOCITM pose the question, Blockchain technology: could it transform digital-enabled councils?

They urge councils and wider public sector authorities to follow developments around blockchain Distributed Ledger technologies with a view to experimenting with their potential use in the development of future service transformation plans.

It is safe to say that blockchain is currently one of the hot technology topics trying to establish itself as a new way of handling trusted transactions. The rise and publicity surrounding BitCoin has driven this current hype and whilst the underlying technology of blockchain is very appropriate for financial-based systems, it is still unclear what viable (and practical) uses there will be across other sectors.

UK Government has issued a number of articles and papers regarding this topic, and they are actively investigating the potential of the technology to support a number of public-facing services. But the challenge is: ‘what is the use case that can exploit the capabilities of blockchain?’.

As an organisation, Sopra Steria sees the potential of this technology to provide immutable chain of evidence based systems and we are actively working on a number of potential use cases across a number of sectors.

The opportunities for Local Government need further investigation to consider how blockchain could be used to improve services, reduce costs, or help tackle fraud. As the SOCITM article suggests, these opportunities have yet to be clearly defined and articulated. Whilst G-Cloud 8 now shows services related to blockchain, there are only two of any real substance – one from a leading provider of blockchain Distributed Ledger Technologies, and the second a consultative service on what, and how, to use blockchain.  The others simply make reference to blockchain – so there is still a substantial way to go before there are pre-defined services available for Local Government.

Should Local Government be investigating the opportunities for blockchain/Distributed Ledger technology?  Absolutely!

There are a number of potential areas where the ability of providing chain of evidence based capabilities could be used, but the challenge for Local Government is to define the business and application processes needed to use blockchain. One of the areas in which we see major opportunities is the ability of coordinating MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs) by providing a means of identifying master records across different agencies. The ability of establishing a clear data level trust relationship is going to be critical to delivering successful MASH services.

Sopra Steria supports SOCITM’s call to identify the appropriate uses and applications of blockchain which will stand the test of time. As an integral part of their design process, councils should now be considering the advantages of using both blockchain, and other emerging technologies, when shaping future transformation programmes.

Take a look at our paper, “Blockchain: harnessing the power of distributed ledgers”, earlier posts on this topic on our blog or leave your thoughts on this subject below.

Digital at scale: how digital can transform business

If you spend time at pretty much any tech company, from startups to big corporates, you’re likely to hear the word ‘digital’ a bit too much.  Some people are doing it, some are making their journey towards being more digital and others are still struggling to define what exactly it is, and in many ways, it’s that final category that have the most honest answer to the question – What is digital?  And this is what experts from the technology and financial services industry discussed during a recent seminar at London Technology Week.

It’s easy to define digital as being about technologies – that digital is at its core the binary ‘0’s and ‘1’s, on and off and all the brilliant devices and interfaces that have spawned out of it.  While that’s not entirely wrong, it paints a picture that everything digital is very clean cut, with a definite right and wrong answer that follows any question – but the truth is very different.  The technologies are far from a constant, and everything from the technology chosen to the implementation will change not only for different demographics but from person to person, and will adapt to their current situation, desires, needs and moods.  Technology then, is transient, and to be truly digital you must be open to constant and relentless change, throwing away technology, processes and ways of working constantly, and ensuring that the new tool adopted is chosen intelligently, to be the best tool for the job, and the most commercially viable solution.

This however all sounds like the territory of startup businesses.  Businesses that are new to the scene, or with very flexible business models are often far more adept to change as they do not have the long-standing commitments to clients, legacy platforms and some of the regulatory requirements of their big corporate counterparts.  Some may suggest that these big corporates should simply throw away the legacy platforms, circumvent the regulation and transform their clients, and noble though that may be, it’s a fool’s errand.  For these businesses, what they really need is to find a way to take advantage of new technology, whatever that may be, and develop systems that allow them to adapt to change which work alongside and complement their legacy ‘technological debt’ and support their regulatory requirements rather than dispose of them. This is digital at scale.

Put simply, digital at scale explores how businesses can leverage digital, be it technology, ways of working or any other idea that comes under the umbrella of digital to transform their business, supporting existing technologies, commitments and regulation where appropriate, and disposing of them where necessary.

Sopra Steria’s MiFID II project with the FCA is an example of where digital at scale has been implemented. For all the businesses that are wary of how technologies like cloud and open source could work in a highly regulated environment, there’s no better example than that of the regulator itself adopting these technologies.  The MiFID II regulatory support service is built for the cloud, ingesting, processing and persisting files on AWS, with innovative open source platforms like Cassandra and Spark ensuring that all submissions are processed quickly and with an extremely high degree of accuracy, with an architecture that supports changes should a specific client or geography require, like private vs public cloud or separate technology components.  What is particularly profound about this solution though is how it backs into and supports the legacy environment, through a simple FTP gateway, ensuring that the wealth of historical data is utilized and, as is so important in an environment like this, remembered with a system that can speak both the languages of the old and the new into the future, maintaining a stream of communication regardless of changes made on either end.

The MiFID II platform is only one example of these principles put to work, and though the distant future might see us living in a fully digital world we must be conscious today that whether we transition fast or slowly, we must do so safely too, and with a strong commercial focus to build not simply small digital players, but truly successful enterprises with digital at scale.

Find out more about our FCA Market Data Processing project and Sopra Steria’s #intelligentdigital campaign.

Reflections on London Technology Week 2016

 Last week our feet didn’t touch the ground. Throwing ourselves into the annual jamboree of London Technology Week, we were blown away by the vibrancy and energy of the experience. As a dynamic, innovation team, we’re always open to great insights from the cutting edge of tech. And yet, we made surprising discoveries, courtesy of the tech festival’s diverse contributors, on the four consecutive ‘Digital Breakfast Bites’ we hosted.

On Monday, for us it was all about the challenge of moving beyond the prototype. In a lively canter through Blockchain, we investigated the state of play for shared ledgers and how this seemingly unregulated and risky technology can not only work alongside a large enterprise, but be used to enhance their regulatory compliance and security.

On Tuesday, we learnt how great service design is shaping the banks of the future. Stepping out of the wilderness of fintech, we discussed how the foundations of great UX and customer centric design are shared across all industries, and how a fundamental grass-roots upheaval is required by the big players in the banking sector to keep up with innovative new challenger banks.

Wednesday saw us enter the store of the future, with a whistle-stop tour of the technologies and interfaces that are being used to engage with the customer. From virtual reality to motion sensing, we explored how all digital experiences are linked by the fundamental desire to gather and analyse data and to better understand our customers.

On Thursday we traversed the vast reaches of ‘Digital at Scale’, where large enterprises tackle the nexus of digital technology and legacy platforms. We saw how the two, apparently irreconcilable powers can have a symbiotic and not mutually exclusive relationship.

And that’s where we left it – with belief in the reconciliation of two opposable forces to achieve a transformational outcome. Quite apposite you’d think for a week marked by a referendum of tumultuous consequences. When the dust has settled we’ll still be reflecting on the great experiences we has as a London Technology Week host. Bring on 2017.

Did you participate in a London Technology Week 2016 event? Leave your comment below, or contact me by email.

Assisted evolution

Natural selection is Charles Darwin’s most celebrated theory.  It depends on the fact that in each generation there will be mutation. This mutation creates variation in a species affording some with an advantage to survive in a changing world.

Today we are seeing a new world emerging.  A world of rapid change, iteration and re-invention, even within a single lifespan.  This is the digital world.  As we observe the rise of the digital world we are also seeing the evolution of a new ‘breed’ of human, the Digital Human.  In place of favourable genetic mutations the Digital Human augments his or herself in a shroud of technology which is constantly mutating, iterating and updating, and bolting on modular upgrades as and when they see fit to suit their individual needs and desires.

The Digital Human feeds off data, and demands a highly personalised experience from the applications that they use and the services that they interact with.

The evolution of the Digital Human can be seen through the lens of the three technological topics in Aurora, our Horizon Scanning Programme: Intelligent Insight & Automation, Ubiquitous Interaction and Distributed Disruption.

Intelligent Insight & Automation explores the future of data beyond predictive analytics, through to prescriptive analytics and full robotics. Critically this technology is adaptive and able, like the most successful creatures in evolution, to respond to changes in its environment.  For the Digital Human analytics and automation platforms help them to understand the changing world around them and automate responses quickly to survive through, or take advantage of these changes.

The Digital Human feeds its desire for data through a ‘Device Mesh’, a shroud of devices and sensors connected to each other via the cloud.  These devices may manifest in many different forms from manual entry on a PC, to obvious collection on our smartphone and wearable devices to almost invisible gathering and transmission.  All of this data however is nothing without intelligent use of analytics to provide insight back to the user, automating changes, evolving with the world around them seamlessly.

The way that technology is able to play back its insights to us is critical to our digital evolution.  In order for us to interpret an all pervasive layer of information interactions must be subtle but clear.  Technologies like augmented reality offer a platform for information to be layered on top of the world around us, allowing us to draw on the crowd sourced knowledge of the internet to obtain a ‘perfect knowledge’ of any given subject without having the need to learn or memorise any details.  This trend is set to continue with the ‘interfaceless interface’ silently helping us about our daily lives. The ambient or embedded nature of these interactions enhances the sense that we are ‘evolving’ as digital humans.

The way that we interact with services is also shifting from centralised control to distributed mediums.  Services like Airbnb and Uber have been a great expression of this change, connecting consumers directly with individual suppliers of services, but even systems like this still depend on centralised validation for their financial transactions.  A technology taking this world by storm is the blockchain, the fundamental technology behind bitcoins distributed validation of transactions, which has the potential to change not only the way that we carry out payment, but how do we as individuals play a part in the collective validation process, forming a part of a crowd sourced consensus of validity and building up a quantified self, a digitised self through a history of transactions and validations?

It makes you wonder, is it our digitised self that is evolving
or is it us?

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Learn more about Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, and the topics that we are researching.

Securing the Net – Quantum Cryptography

Since the early 2000s, private industries, government and defence agencies alike have been hiding behind the steel wall of encryption offered by the Advanced Encryption Standard, otherwise known as AES, a specification for encryption so secure a brute force attack, even by China’s Tianhe-2, the world’s fastest supercomputer, would be unable to break the cipher of AES256 encryption before the universe is to reach its eventual heat death. However, now there’s a new technology that could turn everything we have come to know about encryption on its head, and that technology is quantum cryptography, but before we get into that, a little more about encryption.

Encryption and cryptography is the process of encoding a message so that information, even if it has been intercepted, cannot be read by unauthorised parties. But how do they work? A great explanation comes from the team at Numberphile who explain that the system is akin to the bank providing you with a lock to store your sensitive data, but both the box and the key is held by the bank alone, so if someone steals your box or tries to open the lock, they will have no key. Imagine you wanted to share secret information with your bank. The keys are made up of two numbers, the first is an RSA number. These numbers are area known as ‘semi-primes’, which are numbers with exactly two prime factors (i.e. are divisible by two prime numbers, no more, no less). These RSA numbers are publicly available and can be accessed by anyone, but the second number is held only by the second party, the bank in this example, and is created by multiplying together two huge prime numbers.

To decode this key, the only practical system is to know the two prime numbers used.  If you don’t have these prime numbers, you will need to factorise this number, and that can take a very long time. So long in fact, that even the most power supercomputers would be unable to break the current level of encryption used by banks before the death of our universe!

So what’s the risk?

There’s a paradigm shift in computing on the horizon. A type of computer which does not abide standard ‘bits’, the ‘0’s and ‘1’s that the computers of today are built upon. These computers introduce the possibility of ‘qubits’ which not only accept these ‘1’s and ‘0’s, but also any possible superposition of these states.  These are quantum computers.

Our present day encryption methods rely upon the belief that a computer will have to carry out huge numbers of processes sequentially.  Each process should take a certain length of time to complete, and the number of processes that it’ll need to complete will take so long that cracking the key in this way becomes effectively impossible.

Quantum computers however do not need to carry out these processes in sequence. Instead, when posed with such a question, they consider all the possible answers simultaneously to arrive at the right answer in what is in essence one process, meaning that it could crack any conventional form of encryption in moments rather than millions of years.

So what can we do?

Fortunately, that same technology which threatens to render our current encryption obsolete also offers us a solution. Quantum Encryption makes use of the strange properties of qubits to create the key which is used to access private information, and these keys can be designed in the same way as our encryption is today, to take thousands if not millions of years for a quantum computer to be able to break the code.

Furthermore, a system for sharing these keys, known as ‘Quantum Key Distribution’ is in development, allowing for the key to be shared between two parties without a third party being able to know anything else about the key, even if the message is intercepted, by encoding the key as quantum data.

Quantum computing looks set to change our cyber security landscape and, I for one am hoping that we get the encryption right before the hackers create any exploits.  I think this technology will revolutionise how we keep our information secure, avoid the recent high-profile attacks repeating themselves and improve national security.

What are your thoughts? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.