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AI, VR, bots and YOU? A survivor's guide to The Future™

Keeping your head while those in Silicon Valley lose theirs

By Gavin Clarke, 5 Apr 2016

We’re at an inflection point, or – rather – the point before that inflection point. We are in the pre-countdown-phase for virtual reality or augmented reality or perhaps machine learning or bots, say onlookers. But which is it? Or will it be none of these?

For Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the future is definitely virtual reality, which he says is “going to change they way we live and work and communicate”.

The boyish CEO is personally leading the charge on VR, so you’d expect him to be bullish.

For Facebook, VR represent the next way to engage with users and attract advertisers trying to target them.

Ads, after all, are Facebook’s primary source of income.

Microsoft is running cheek-by-jowl with Facebook on VR: at BUILD last week, the firm brought its version of VR a step closer by shipping pre-ordered HoloLens kits to developers. Price might pose something of a barrier, though: $3,000 per kit.

Google also released a Cardboard SDK for Apple’s iOS – the rival mobile platform to its Android.

But this is Microsoft and Microsoft isn’t about to let itself to be defined by VR, something the its competitors - Google with Cardboard and Facebook and mobile partner Samsung with Oculus - are busy defining.

Rather, Microsoft – like IBM – has placed its chips on AI, only not a massive mainframe, but rather itty bitty bots running all over its back end.

If you hadn’t heard of bots before, you will have now – thanks to Tay. It was a well-intentioned shot at machine learning through interaction with actual real people.

Tay is code from Microsoft’s Technology and Research and Bing teams supposed to learn through “conversations” on Twitter that targeted 18 to 24-year-olds.

4chan users, however, worked out how to game Tay, turning what should have been a PR gold into a racist, Nazi-sympathising PR nightmare.

This was Microsoft’s second public AI fail: remember How Old Do I Look? That was just clumsy.

Facebook VR, photo by Facebook

I know The Future™ is in here somewhere - how Facebook sees things

But a trend has emerged and Microsoft's strategy is clear: AI is it. And this explains last week's big reveal: inviting the world to participate in building an army of bots. So "How Old Do I Look?" thinks Nigel Farage is 66. Tay smoks Kush infront of the cops. But CaptionBot quickly learned to identify James Bond actor Daniel Craig and was 99 per cent sure it could recognise Nigel Farage, so that's progress. Hey, you are all citizen testers, folks, and you're all helping Microsoft's bots to evolve with each silly, random or even possibly serious question you feed it. Now, however, Microsoft will post code and tools for its bots to GitHub so devs can help make things better via code. And it will thereby build more bots, so creating an ecosystem of bots in the same way it built an ecosystem of apps for Windows in the 1990s.

This is the page from the community project playbook that Microsoft refused to read during the early 2000s take off of Linux and open source.

Developers were key to Microsoft’s past success: it was developers who in the 1990s pretty much established Windows as the success it became.

Microsoft needs them again, now on AI – which is why it is posting bot code plus tools to a dev home world like GitHub.

How did we get here?

We've just come off the rollercoster of another big inflection point: smartphones and tablets.

It was developers were one half of the success equation that helped power Apple’s iPhones and iPads rollercoster (shoppers – that is consumers and those in suits – being the other half of that success equation).

Measured by revenue and market share, there is no way the iPad or the iPhone could not be considered a success for Apple. But neither the iPhone nor the iPad were new ideas: smartphones (Blackberry) and tablets (ruggedized running Windows XP) pre-dated Steve Job’s creations.

What Apple’s chief bequeathed, however, were powerful, portable, touched-screen computers running native apps. Remember the "App Economy"? No developers, no app economy. No app economy, no phone users. No app economy, Apple's phones and tablets were just phones and tablets.

That was then, and this is now.

Stellar smartphone and tablet growth is now history – Gartner says. There's still money to be made, it's just business as usual - single-figure year-on-year growth - not business as the speed of nose bleed - growth in double figures. Last week's somewhat massively underwhelming iPhone launch underscored the point. Only the most desperate of Apple apologists could have denied it.

Hence, inflection point. Silicon Valley by its nature abhors a vacuum, so some big names are throwing their hats into the ring of the post-device and post-app economy vacuum. They are jockeying to have their vision of The Future blessed as The Future™.

Expect hype, expect hope, expect conflation, overstatement, technology by association. But also expects a nugget of something. As with all high tides, once this one has passed there will be something tangible left.

As ever, the challenge for inhabitants of the Real World is going to be to decipher what is tangible and how to make that work for them. Not all that glitters in Silicon Valley is fools' gold, after all.

Get them into the corporate world?

Fortunately, recent history has given some good experience. Touch-based smartphones and tablets from Apple, native apps, Windows 8, even Google's Glass - all have washed into the enterprise. Some have washed back out too.

With some, it wasn't the massed rank and file that sucked them into the workplace. What got them started was senior management. The first time I saw an iPhone was in a bar in San Francisco; it belonged to a friend. We joked about how he had the internet in his pocket. Next time I saw an iPhone was at an Salesforce event. CRM-as-a-service, on the internet - in your pocket.

Avanade senior architect Mark Corley told The Reg that kind of white-collar backing has even got Google Glass - the ads giant's on-again, off-again shot at augmented reality - into companies.

“I’ve seen executives wearing Google Glass, saying this is great for business but I think they can because of the position they are in rather than because they’ve used any strategy or slide rule,” he told us.

Not that the CIO's staff are averse to a little crowbarring some new piece of tech into the workplace. “IT might have an eye out for it [too] – a hammer looking for a potential nail,” Corley said.

Consumer technologies such as Glass, which has ridden a roller-coaster, are particularly risky for any business to invest time and effort.

Products in this consumer tech world – a world Gartner tells us is democratizing enterprise – are developed and become out of data at a spectacularly fast pace. In business, things like PCs have been bought with the intention that they last for at least four to five years.

Knowing what to bet on in this new device-oriented world, and when to bet on it, can potentially lead to one of two response: commitment too early or paralysis, like a rabbit caught in approaching headlights.

So what should you bet on?

John Lewis is one of the UK’s oldest and best-known retail brands, and it has embraced the search for new technology. It has been to California to meet executives from Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Oracle. Chief technology officer Paul Coby told me in 2014: "We need to stick close to Apple and we need to stick close to Google, to see how they go," Coby told us. “I guess we know wearable devices will be there, but do we know how they will develop as products and who will win? No we don’t."

John Lewis also runs JLab, which not only works with UK startups but also workshops new ways to work with new technology for staff and customers.

Speaking more recently, Coby explained the pressure and the conundrum firms like his face in evaluating and adopting new and emerging technologies. “If you are taking a bet, it’s a two-to-three year bet at most and if there’s a pilot it's less... the worry is if you get paralysed by the idea you may make the wrong jump. Then you may not try what works,” he said.

Knowing when to act is made more difficult given tech firm's history of going all in on new products only to kill them and move on.

Before Facebook’s VR, Google’s Glass augmented reality was The Future™, a sexy personal heads-up display according to the cheerleaders of Silicon Valley and the chattering class. Before Microsoft's bots and even before Windows 10, it was Windows 8 that was The Future™ – a future Microsoft was pushing everyone towards at the point of a bayonet as it tried to be more Apple than Apple on touch.

John Lewis is one of the UK’s largest Apple resellers and the last word in white-collar workplace mobility has been Apple's iPads. And yet, John Lewis a few years back opted to test tablets running Windows 8 for its staff.

That might look like a mistake now, but Windows made more sense for internal use than Apple because of the company’s existing, Windows-based systems holding data to critical aspects of the business such as stock.

What did John Lewis learn? “If you are using something for large parts of the day it’s got to be easy to use, handy and provide you the things you really need and be able to access them careful and securely,” Colby said.

“Where they [Windows 8 tablets] worked very well was where the managers had good carrying cases, good provision to recharge and there’s good support in terms of our local tech support people and they worked together to understand it and set up things depending on how you were are using it.”

Nigel Nigel Farage photo from Twocoms via Shutterstock

Microsoft's CaptionBot is almost certain. Are you certain about CaptionBot?

Translated this wasn't your standard pilot of another version of Windows: testing how it worked with existing applications on new hardware and so on. This was an experiment in how the John Lewis staff actually used Windows 8 and what was required to make this new Microsoft paradigm usable.

So, what factors should you apply when weighing up the desirability of some of these kinds of game-changing new technologies?

Drawing on the recent past, Corley advocates cool-headedness.

“The correct or more structured way would be to do it like you do anything in IT or the organisation: you look at what’s the business need, what’s the need for this,” Corley told us. “Understand who and how they need it – user populations and groups of users.”

Avoid technology for technology's sake. Remember those management Glassholes banging on about how Google's augmented reality specs were "great for business"? We've been here before, in other ways in other forms: Salesforce got a hold thanks to sales people armed with a credit card while with AWS, it was the bods in IT that were swiping the plastic.

The message is: get a grip and establish a business case.

Ask how could building a chat bot or an virtual app for Facebook could actually help you.

Could this new technology replace a “burning platform” – an old technology about to lose support from its technology vendor parent? Would this new platform help staff be more productive? Will employees feel less likely to leave as they feel they've got the “right” tools to do their job?

For customer-facing technologies, is it a suitable technology for your demographic? John Lewis is Windows internally but its customers when mobile are - like those of so many others - shopping on iOS.

Do you have the infrastructure - technology or skills? If this new technology leaves your labs its impact will be felt on IT delivery - on new services for employees and consumers - on development of new apps and the continued maintenance of existing applications, on the hardware you support, on security of your network and data, and on your use of cloud.

But relax. There's a long way to go before the new technologies we're being told are The Future™ by Silicon Valley firms will be anywhere near ready enough for even this level of early adoption in the real world.

It just pays to be prepared. ®

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