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The Next Big Thing

Last week I chaired a number of very well-attended sessions at the Connect Conference in Melbourne. My compliments to the organisers, who had gathered together a range of excellent speakers, very different from the commercially motivated group of speakers who so often feature at commercial conferences.

The Plenary Opening session featured Dr Amanda Caples, the Lead Scientist of the Victorian Government; inspiring change-maker and author Phill Nosworthy; Professor Rahim Tafazolli, Director – 5G Innovation Centre and Head of Institute for Communication Systems, University of Surrey; and, via video link from America, Don Tapscott, global thought-leader on the impact of emerging technologies

The session ended with a panel discussion, where I was joined by Phill; Barry Fitzgerald, Chief Executive Officer, Roy Hill Holdings; and Julie Fedele, General Manager, Customer Experience Strategy and Design Retail X Innovation Lab, Bupa Australia and New Zealand.

I would also like to acknowledge people from some of the other sessions that I chaired – Ken Medloc, Chief Information Architect at Leidos Australia; Brad Wynter, smart city innovator at the City of Whittlesea; innovation consultant Dr Catherine Bell; Harish Rao, Senior Director, Analytics and Information Management at Boeing; and Dr Ian Oppermann, Chief Data Scientist of the NSW Data Analytics Centre.

It is not hard to see that this group was able to offer both high-quality presentations as well as varied views on the broader social, economic and technological environment that lies ahead of us.

As I mentioned in my introduction, it is not so much the Next Big Thing that is awaiting us – it is more a combination of a range of new developments that have already been set in motion, some as long as 40 years ago as in the case of AI, for instance. Combined, these are now resulting in the transformation of industries, sectors and indeed society and the economy as a whole. The group of people I mentioned before were extremely well-positioned to reflect on the technological developments in the context of the bigger picture.

Significant discussion took place around IoT and data analytics. Ken talked about this in the context of a Formula 1 car and the team of people around it. Each car has more than 100 IoT points and generates thousands of bits of information per second, allowing the team to make instant decisions.

Harish went one step further. While a similar process is happening in each aircraft they build, and it is basically monitored during its entire lifetime, the IoT and data analytic processes here have been finetuned and they are now deploying artificial intelligence that will actually start handling that data and making independent decisions based on it. This can obviously been done much faster than humans can do it and with the current technology fine-tuned these new AI-driven processes will now become more accurate than ever before.

In the context of AI Phill also made reference to Ray Kurzweil and his views and predictions on AI, transhumanism and the technological singularity. It is becoming obvious that in the future humans will increasingly be linked with AI in order to manage tomorrow’s complex societies and economies. Scary? Yes, most certainly. That is why Elon Musk (Tesla) has established a $1 billion fund for Open AI – to ensure that it will be used for the benefit of humanity.

Many people talk about their fear of robotisation, but it will always be humans who will be developing these technologies; so humans will forever remain in charge and as such can make changes to ensure that new technologies can be developed for the benefit of mankind.

While technologists are talking about this the discussion has not yet reached people in government, politics, community services, etc. In order to create the right outcomes all of these people and many more, need to become involved in the discussions that are going to shape our human future. Bill Gates, for example, set many people thinking when he suggested that robots should pay income tax, to offset the reduced tax paid to governments, so that they are in a better position to compensate those who are losing their jobs due to the robotic technology.

It is obvious that transparency and collaboration based on open platforms is critical. On this topic ‘open’ was also discussed. This doesn’t mean ‘open slather’. ‘Open’ needs to be based on verifiability, especially in today’s society where fake news has become more and more accepted as true, thanks to people such as Donald Trump and many other opportunists scattered around the western world. If we don’t include verifiability in the data on which we will increasingly base our decision-making processes we could easily stray in totally wrong directions.

All of the abovementioned developments in relation the Next Big Thing require the need for trust between society at large, governments and the people and businesses developing these new technologies. If anything, the level of trust is diminishing and this could lead to disastrous situations. Unfortunately there is no clear indication at present that we can reverse this current trend of distrust.

Those of you who are following my smart city activities will not be surprised that I promote empowered local communities and cities as a way forward, to build trust and put the people in charge, together with government, industry, academia, etc. People involved in the studies of the humanities could play a key role in this process as well. Empowering people at a grassroots level will also lead to new innovators, start-ups and small businesses, and these will become the economic engine of any smart city. They will also be the local leaders towards the Next Big Thing for their community and their city, and they will be vital in building the trust needed for us all to move into the future.

Paul Budde