Thursday, 28 August 2014

A need for intelligent choices from the internet of things

All that data can provide valuable insights, but it demands a selective approach

There’s a widespread appreciation in business of what the internet of things (IoT) is all about, but I suspect that a lot of companies are still deterred from getting to grips with the phenomenon by its sheer enormity.

ABI Research has provided the latest indication of the scale of the IoT, with a forecast of a 20%  growth in the number of wireless connected devices to 16 billion this  year, and a rise to 40 billion by 2020. The data that will flow from all those smartphones, sensors, TVs, wearables and connected household appliances will be a major asset for any organisation able to use it, but also overwhelming in its scale.

So far a minority of organisations have started to use the data in a big way – the analytics is still widely seen as a complex, costly business that only the big players can afford – but it will become more cost-effective as the skills base spreads and specialists step up their offerings of analytics as a service. And as it all becomes more familiar a growing number of companies will begin to see what they can learn from all those devices.

Some will be tempted to grab data from as many streams as possible and throw everything into an analytics mix in search of business insights. But is that going to give them what they need? There’s a danger that data from too many sources – and ‘many’ is what the IoT is all about – can provide ‘insights’ that are over-complicated and lacking the clarity that a business needs.

It’s a danger especially for those that use analytics as a service, bringing in outsiders with the data analysis and science skills but a limited understanding of the individual business. Maybe the best of them will be able to help identify the key data streams for analysis, but I suspect that many will offer a service that is about crunching rather than identifying the data, and needs tailoring by the customer rather than the provider.

This is why business leaders need to think for themselves about the first steps to harnessing the IoT. They should know their business aims and what lessons they need to learn, and in turn have a good grasp of the data that’s going to give them the really valuable insights. When they take that first step they will be ready to bring in the analytics specialists.

It’s also unlikely that they will need the same data all the time. Markets change, new factors come into play and new insights will be needed. This is going to require different streams of data and again it is the business leaders who should take the lead in making the choices.

The growth of the IoT and explosion of data is going to promise some riches for business, but those that reap the full benefits are likely to do more picking and using as needed rather than grabbing data wholesale.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Monday, 18 August 2014

Payment wristbands have to be cool to succeed

bPay and others are more likely to win customers by playing up style as much as function

My first thought on reading that Barclaycard is launching a payment wristband was that the chances of people actually wanting them were quite remote.

Barclays’ credit card is pushing its bPay as a convenient method for small payments from a prepaid account that can be topped up by any Visa or MasterCard. It involves waving the wristband over any terminal with a contactless payment symbol to buy anything worth up to £20.

Yes, it’s convenient, but so are the contactless cards which are becoming more common in the UK, and you can use the same near field communication technology in smartphones and smart watches. I suspect that a purpose made payment wristband won’t win any popularity contests against any of these options.

Compared with the card it might be easier to use but it’s also more visible. A lot of people won’t like to be readily identified as a customer of a particular company, especially one of the big banks, and feel more comfortable with the anonymity offered by a card tucked into a wallet or purse. It’s also going to be less tempting to thieves.

Against the phone and watch it doesn’t provide the bundle of functions that attract users, and it won’t stir any excitement in the way that the gadget fans get a kick out of the latest device with the right brand name. Payment wristbands just won’t be cool.

Then came my second thought, spinning off the fact that a lot of buyers regard phones and wearable devices as fashion accessories. The design and the brand name are often as prominent in their minds as the functions of a device, and if someone can tap into that attitude with payment wristbands they might be able to carve out a share of the market.

I can see bPay or other providers of payment wristbands doing something to make them desirable for reasons that have nothing to do with their function. They can hook up with designers of jewellery and fashion accessories, get their marketing teams focused on younger consumers, and their ad agencies creating the type of campaigns that are as much about what the wristbands can do for the user’s image as an utility factor.

It’s all about branding and making the product stand for something other than what it actually does. You might say that an intelligent consumer doesn’t buy into that stuff, but there are plenty of markets in which it works, which says something about how many unintelligent consumers are out there.

Will bPay or other providers pull it off if they take this course? Maybe, maybe not, but younger consumers often go for a product on style rather than substance. It would give the providers a chance, and I don’t see the wristbands taking it off purely on what they can actually do.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Robotics, AI and the worldwide job cull

New technologies are going to destroy jobs, and there’s no promise they will create enough new ones to fill the gap

Do you think a computer could do your job? It’s a question that people have been asking for at least 25 years, and it’s becoming more intense with the advance of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). And the uncomfortable truth is that the answer for a growing number is ‘yes’.

Technology has been knocking people out of work for a couple of centuries, and as it develops ever more quickly the trend is going to continue. So far it’s been alleviated in industrial economies by the creation of new jobs, but the big question is whether this can continue as robotics and AI automates more tasks previously dependent on the human brain.

A new report from Pew Research, AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs, indicates that there isn’t a consensus. A survey of almost 1,900 experts produced close to an even split between the optimists and pessimists, with 52% expecting that technology will create as many jobs as it displaces by 2025 and 48% forecasting that it won’t do so. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the latter group are worried about big increases in income inequality, mass unemployment and breakdowns in social order.

It’s hard to feel positive about blue collar jobs, and the more routine white collar occupations. Robotics are extending machines’ capacity for manual tasks, and AI promises (or threatens, depending on where you stand) to do the same for a lot of jobs that involve the routine processing of information. Also, the ability of cognitive systems to process vast quantities of data at high speed is impinging on areas, such as healthcare diagnoses and financial trading, currently regarded as the province of professionals (a subject I covered in a white paper for the UK’s Chartered Institute for IT).

I’m not going to predict whether the new technology will create enough jobs to replace those it knocks out. I lean towards the pessimists’ view, but that’s the result of a mild scepticism rather than any strong evidence. But the Pew Research report has prompted a couple of thoughts about the future of technology and job creation.

One is that developed economies rely increasingly on jobs that could be described as non-essential. You can apply it to big chunks of the media, marketing, retail, manufacturing consumer goods that are seldom used – providing services that the recipients like, but could easily do without. I suspect that these jobs are close to their limit; society can’t consume any more, however inventive the ad men become at creating demand. There will be fewer new ones to fill the gap as more of the essential jobs become the province of robotics and AI.

The other is to do with how far AI will be allowed to penetrate the professions or top end management roles. There is a realistic argument that an educated human judgement is necessary for many decisions, especially when there’s an ethical element involved. Cognitive computing can be used for high level decision support, but the ultimate responsibility should remain with a human. Those humans form elites, and elites tend to be very good at protecting their own interests.

They’ll want rigid boundaries in place to keep themselves in those top level roles, and a culture that emphasises the primacy of the human mind in their fields. They may be right, they may be wrong, but there are going to be a lot of roles for which the limits are not clear, and professions that will become battlefields.
Of course there’s another possibility: that as technology takes over more jobs those that remain are spread more evenly, so we’ve all got more leisure time. But that was predicted fifty years ago, it hasn’t worked out that way since and, given the prevailing dynamics, it’s not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

The advance of robotics and AI is inevitable, and in the long term it could well do more good than harm; but in the next two, three, four decades the disruption they cause won’t be a pretty thing to watch.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See