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.

The future of transport is digital: transport services production

by Philippe Clapin and Didier Le Guirriec, Sopra Steria France

In the second of our series looking at the challenges and benefits of the digitisation of transport we are going to delve into the area of digitised transport services production and all that entails.

The challenges and the needs

Digitisation is cutting across all layers of society. We have an expectation that virtually every action we take now has a digital approach, and transport and logistics have not escaped this. Digitising transport services, if done well, can improve the efficiency, create better experiences for customers and ultimately increase profitability of an integrated transport infrastructure.

The transportation industry, like many others, is under pressure to improve cost efficiency.  A report by transport and logistics analysts, Oliver Wyman, found that in a ten-year study, the companies involved showed increased revenue, yet reduced profits. Oliver Wyman suggests that to improve the situation, logistics and transport companies should focus on “standardizing and streamlining structures and processes, developing industry oriented and innovative solutions, thinking and acting in terms of networks.”

And digitisation is also being driven by consumer needs. Consumers are pushing the boundaries using ‘collaborative consumption’ to envisage new models of transport, including app-initiated car sharing and personal car rental.

An example of the power of digitisation: traffic management

In a report by Deloitte Research, Digital-Age Transportation: The Future of Urban Mobility’, they speak of American commuters spending 34 hours per year delayed in traffic. Europe can be even worse, with Paris having the worst traffic jams in Europe – unfortunate drivers are losing up to 70 hours a year stuck in traffic. A German Automobile Club study found that the impact of traffic jams on a country’s economy, the related fuel consumed and lost time could be up to 200 billion Euros.

This situation is not good for anyone – for  drivers, the road system or the councils. The issue arises when transport planners try to rectify these issues by adding new infrastructure – without intelligent application, this can prove slow and costly.

One of the emerging ways of managing traffic is through the use of drones. The U.S. Government is currently piloting a drone-based traffic monitoring system. In Europe there has been a number of research projects looking into the use of drones for traffic management. Some examples being the Czech Republic, Spain and France.

Drones offer real time data of traffic issues and allow planners to build patterns of traffic use and spot areas and times prone to traffic problems. They give a more accurate way of measuring and predicting traffic patterns. Big data obtained in real-time, from real events, can help to build a smarter approach to traffic planning and can inform smart infrastructure improvements. This can mean changes such as encouraging flexible working and creating ‘park and ride’ areas for busy town locations. The Netherlands has used this type of approach to manage their increasing traffic and cut traffic jams by 20%.

The importance of trains

The use of trains as a way of managing traffic should not be overlooked. Digitisation does not stop at roads. The automation of train management is crucial to the optimisation of the use of trains, which ultimately impacts on the optimisation of other modes of transport. Examples of how to improve train traffic have been identified by planning and prediction initiatives such as ‘Project Darwin’, which looks at how to link real-time train running information, to web sites and social media platforms. This information can then be used to predict journey times and allow passengers to plan journeys.

An example in action: La Poste Courrier

La Poste delivered around 15 billion parcels and letters in 2012 and is France’s foremost postal service. To say they have complex logistics is an understatement. To improve productivity and increase profits, La Poste Courrier has digitised their processes across 50 applications. By digitising their services and logistics, La Poste Courrier has been able to expand its product offering and improve their overall responsiveness by simplifying operations. One of the key areas in which a business like la Poste has to engage is customer engagement and commitment. Being able to optimize logistics and transport has ensured that delivery schedules are maintained and customers see the best service – giving La Poste the competitive edge in an increasingly competitive market space.

One of the challenges of digitising La Poste and other similar transport and logistic organisations is supporting existing infrastructures. Drawing on the use of modern Internet programming languages like PHP and .net as well as supporting enterprise architecture languages like Java, are essential to the success of digitisation of transport. In addition, understanding the needs of the various integrated departments within any given industry can only help to optimise the digitisation processes.

The Future

In a Franhofer Institute study into the future of road and train transportation and logistics, they determined that three main changes needed to be put in place to effect positive and efficient improvements:

  • Digitisation
  • Flexible management
  • Use of technology

They state that “…transportation sector, too, increasing interconnectedness and digitisation offers new opportunities and solutions to tackle growing traffic flows.“

I believe we can safely say the future of transport and logistics is digital.

Discover more about our experience delivering intelligent transport solutions.

What will be disrupting our world in the next 3 – 5 years?

In 2015, we used this blog forum to talk about how our future digital business world is being shaped by some key technologies, what impact they are having and the resulting societal challenges they are bringing about. You may have listened to the podcasts from ‘Aurora’, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team that discussed digital automation and human augmentation.

In 2016, we are broadening our research and focusing on three areas of disruptive technology and the effect they have on us as individuals, the world of work and the planet as a whole. We are even more fascinated by where these stories interconnect, as shown on the matrix below:

(See end for text description of this image
Aurora horizon scanning: our six areas of research in 2016

Listen to our first podcast of 2016 where we describe the approach for our research and an insight into areas that we are interested in – and getting excited about!

We are hoping to include guest speakers for our future podcasts, so let us know your ideas for them and thoughts about our areas of research for 2016.

Leave a reply below or contact us by email.

Don’t forget to follow the team on Twitter:

@timdifford
@richpotter_
@ben_innovates

And enjoy our Flipboard magazine on iOS, Android and Windows devices.


Description of Aurora’s six areas of research in 2016

  1. The digital human: interacting with services and each other through ubiquitous devices and data-driven experiences
  2. The organic enterprise: flexible, distributed, collaborative and networked organisations
  3. The connected planet: a crowded, ageing, more connected and fluid world
  4. Intelligent insight and automation: the increase in the application of prescriptive analytics and automation to augment or displace human activity
  5. Ubiquitous interaction: the growth of sensing and interface technologies that make interactions between humans and computers more fluid, intuitive and pervasive
  6. Distributed disruption: the growth of decentralised processes enabled by the adoption of technologies which assure and automate security and trust

 

There’s no business like #snow business – the story of Project: Barry

This is the tale of a bunch of graduates, their first forays into projects and the trials and tribulations found within. This is the first of two blog posts – which can, and will be, officially regarded as a saga – so keep an eye out!

Outline

“Barry” is an application developed to track snow using Twitter, alerting users through phone notifications and mapping the information worldwide in real time. Barry has been used to track weather movements and is accurate when compared to traditional reports.

And some stats about the project:

  • Five graduates from Sopra Steria’s October 2015 intake
  • Three Java, plus GIS and Project Management streams
  • Seven weeks to compile the project as a side task
  • Two presentation dates with open invites to everyone in our Edinburgh office

Story Time

Outlook optimistic: mid October, end of week two with the company

Post-induction, post-presentations and post-welcomes, the Java graduates were looking for something with a little more bite. During one of our first meetings with our stream lead, it was tentatively proposed that we create a programme to grab information from Twitter and send a notification to your phone. This would become “Project: Barry”.

Naturally, the Java grads were keen for the opportunity to put our book knowledge to the test and stick a figurative toe into the sea of development. We decided to follow the general idea and the topic of snow was chosen; the temporary name of “SnowStalkers” was toyed with and we began putting our heads together.

The notification system came first, starting with the software Pushbullet, which is used for pushing notifications between devices. We developed a cheap and cheerful prototype and with that in place, we set our sights a little higher.

Clouds building: start of November, one week of work on project

We decided to open the doors of the project to other streams and in a quick series of conversations, we simultaneously increased and slimmed down our workload. We brought in a GIS graduate (Geographic Information Systems – it’s OK, I had to ask too), to expand into mapping the data we were gathering. Alongside this we picked up a Project Management graduate (yes we have those, and yes it’s viable), to whip us into shape and bring more structure to our project.

This was a big step towards making this idea into a serious project, as it was originally Java only – bringing in others allowed them to get more experience and working with other knowledge bases only improves your own learning. This is when Project Barry got its name; with a slip of the tongue, our GIS grad Brian was dubbed ‘Barry’ for the day and, as they say, the rest is history. We began structured meetings with agendas and began putting together our own scope – putting down features we must, should and wanted to have implemented.

First flakes: early November, under two weeks since the project expansion

Twitter integration working smoothly, mapping prototype running, and notifications flying – it was time for the first presentation, six weeks since starting the job. At the time Barry (v0.0) would grab one tweet based on snow and send a notification to the group. The presentation was to a few members of the Java team at Edinburgh, with all major points covered in under seven minutes (Pecha Kucha style).

With the first presentation completed, we made the change to Agile Sprints. We put together a trimmed feature list which at the time included:

  • Automation (continuously running without human input)
  • Twitter streaming API (similar to automation, but for Twitter)
  • Mapping (do you have to ask?)
  • Web crawling (grabbing information from websites linked in tweets)
  • Graphical User Interface (an interface to enter data)
  • Notification buffering (collecting tweets to send fewer notifications)

The aim was to implement one feature per week – taking us up to our apparent week 12 (since starting with the company) deadline with a week to spare. Java graduates brought automation and Twitter streaming into fruition soon after the presentation – Barry was continually running, pulling down tweets in real time and sending (far too many) notifications.

Next time on Project: Barry…

Read about the fate of Barry – its actionromance improvements, the twist in the tale and lessons learnt.


 

This is just one example of the innovative projects Sopra Steria graduates get involved with. If you are, or someone you know is, graduating in 2016 and looking for exciting opportunities, why not take a look at this year’s Graduate Recruitment programme.

Internet of humans and whether smart devices are boosting our capabilities

Will information by sensors bring about the ultimate human augmentation?

I’ve spoken previously about how our future digital business world is being shaped by some key technologies, what impact they are having and the resulting societal challenges they are bringing about.

If you’ve listened to the first two podcasts from ‘Aurora’, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, you’ll know that we are fascinated by advances in the technologies that will increase digital automation (the displacement of human work by machines – or robots) and bring us closer to becoming fully augmented humans.

We’re increasingly familiar with people wearing fitness trackers and using other health monitoring apps and devices and are now well into the era of ‘the quantified self’. Our third podcast continues this discussion about wearables and other smart devices aimed at boosting human performance and capabilities.

We start to ponder nanotechnology as the ‘ultimate augmentation’ and if implants will change things in our bodies to the extent they could orchestrate our genetic code and influence the make-up of generations to come? However, as this is still more science fiction than fact, we focus on how the current plethora of wearables send data to external displays for our analysis and whether this data could be captured for use in real time to interact with our bodies to, for example, ‘inform by sensors’ for service providers to anticipate service delivery requirements and modify our behaviours.

If all this sounds a bit too futuristic for serious consideration at the moment, we bring our discussions back to more sound assumptions about current technologies enabling – or driving – us to become augmented humans of the nearer future. The course is charted where smart devices are becoming increasingly assimilated into the physical being of ourselves and the interactions between the technology and human beings are becoming more seamless. We’re starting to see this transition towards becoming augmented humans – for example, better management of our IDs and more enriched service experiences – as recognition that the human being is becoming part of the Internet of Things ecosystem in which we increasingly live.

Have a listen to this continued discussion in our podcast, and learn more about Aurora and the topics that we are researching by reading our brief opinion paper on the world ‘beyond digital’.

  1. Digital automation
  2. Augmented human
  3. My Data
  4. Disintermediation
  5. Securing the net
  6. Hyper innovation

What are your thoughts about human augmentation? Leave a comment below or contact the Aurora horizon scanning team by email

Internet of humans and the evolution of a sixth sense

How close are we to human augmentation?

My previous blog introduced you to the first in a series of podcasts from Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team in which we talk about some of the key topics shaping our world. We discussed digital automation and the way it is impacting society and how we work.

Our second podcast takes the theme of automation further and we debate how the advances in wearables and other devices are turning us into ‘augmented humans’ – allowing us to do things that we couldn’t do before, improving the way we do things now and giving us access to a global network of connected humans providing the opportunity to do even bigger and better things in the future.

We also ponder the potential blurring of boundaries between humans and technology – for example, the progression for (what are now) wearable devices being miniaturised and embedded in our bodies, giving us a “sixth sense” and becoming an ‘Internet of Humans’, and whether industry-wide standards for these types of technologies can be realistically applied.

With such a vast and interesting topic to cover, we split the podcast into two sessions and you can listen to the first part – ‘The Internet of Humans’ – now.

To learn more about Aurora, and the topics that we are researching, read our brief opinion paper on the world ‘Beyond digital’.

  1. Digital automation
  2. Augmented human
  3. My Data
  4. Disintermediation
  5. Securing the net
  6. Hyper innovation

What are your thoughts about human augmentation? Leave a comment below or contact the Aurora horizon scanning team by email

Julie is a robot! The rise of digital automation

I love talking with colleagues, clients and partners about the new ideas and technologies that are defining our digital business world. As a result, I’m thrilled to be part of ‘Aurora’, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, where we discuss some of the key topics which are going to shape our world in the next three to five years.

We love sharing our ideas, and we want to widen the conversation with like-minded people interested in listening to what we have to say. So we’ve turned our round table discussions into a series of podcasts and you can listen to the first one where we focus our attention on digital automation – the displacement of human work by machines (or robots), the impact it’s having and the resulting societal challenges.

We discuss “Julie” Richard Potter’s ‘virtual assistant’ who – alongside the likes of ‘Siri’ and ‘Cortana’ – demonstrates an area of robotic technology that’s transforming the workplace, and Ben Gilburt’s interesting experience of a webchat with a high-profile media company. This began as an obvious interaction with a robot then, when his questions became too complex, in stepped a real person which posed the question, how and when does human intervention take place within a robotic process?

We talk about a specific example in the insurance industry where regulatory reports could be compiled using automated intelligence. Although each report would contain different data and results, the language used would be similar across every report provoking a potentially irrational response from the regulators that the reports weren’t acceptable.

These, and other questions around our readiness for faceless interactions with computers and whether robotics as simply another delivery channel would meet customer expectations, is discussed in our podcast, “Julie is a robot!”

To learn more about Aurora, and the six topics that we are researching, read our brief opinion paper on the world ‘beyond digital’.

  1. Digital automation
  2. Augmented human
  3. My Data
  4. Disintermediation
  5. Securing the net
  6. Hyper innovation

What are your thoughts about robotics and the future of digital? Leave a comment below or contact the Aurora horizon scanning team by email