The Moon, Mars, and the next giant leap for mankind…

Apollo 11 lifted off for the Moon 50 years ago today. Some things in life make an impact that never fades from memory, and the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon’s surface made an indelible impression on the Badger who, as a young boy, watched ‘as it happened’ on an old, black and white TV. It was gripping stuff from launch through to return, but two memories are particularly vivid: Armstrong stepping onto the moon, and the tension as mission control tried to re-establish communications after re-entry to Earth.

The moon landing was a magnificent science, engineering and management and leadership achievement, all of which is celebrated in many diverse 50th anniversary articles – one is here . For the Badger, the achievement is reinforced today by knowing it happened pre-internet, pre the existence of Microsoft and Apple, and pre any of the tech at our fingertips today. It was an unequivocal example of what humans can do when science, engineering, management and leadership are fully aligned to a common objective.

The Badger’s been wondering about the next ‘giant leap for mankind‘ and was intrigued by a view that we have no choice but to colonise Mars if human beings are to have a future. The Badger’s rather doubtful that man on Mars is really a priority or the next giant leap for mankind. Why? Because the scientific monitoring of astronauts shows that scary things happen to the human body in space (see here and here, for example). The Badger – who is admittedly not a biologist – thinks this ultimately implies that our species will never really be suited to interplanetary travel without serious biological re-engineering! If that’s right then the case for humans on Mars seems dubious, especially if the advance of robots with artificial intelligence that we hear so much about in the press means we could send them instead!

Apollo 11 inspired the Badger to become a scientist and engineer, and for many years one of the mission’s photos was the screensaver on the Badger’s laptop. Any scientist or engineer thrives on the type of challenges posed by putting a man on Mars, and there’s no doubt that stepping onto Mars would be a thrilling broadcasting event watched by billions. But is it the next giant leap for mankind? Hmm. The Badger thinks the next giant leap isn’t on another planet, it’s on this one. We know lots about our home planet and what we’re doing to it and so the Badger thinks the next giant leap for mankind is when all countries really unite to ensure our beautiful planet, and all life on it, is sustainable for future generations. This, unlike putting a man on Mars, does not come with an event that can command a TV audience of billions…

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‘People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’…Probably not!

The world is awash with visions, forecasts and opinions about technology’s impact on society and our daily life in the coming decades. Journalists, academics, economist’s, politicians, company marketeers and independent commentators have all set out a future dominated by artificial intelligence, robots, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, and so on, but in reality, it’s people like you and me that will determine what becomes real.

Humans first developed tools to help adapt to changing circumstances in the Stone Age, and we’ve been doing that ever since. The Badger’s sure of two things – that we’ll continue to use technological advances to provide useful tools, and that we’ll avoid the societal subservience to technology as set out by Aldous Huxley’s ‘People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’. Today we are more educated than ever, familiar with tech’s good and bad points, questioning of tech giant motives, and more careful with our personal information. We have already experienced technology’s pros and cons and so we’re unlikely to accept being oppressed or enslaved by it in the future. At least that’s the Badger’s view!

TechMarketView’s recent ‘Down with the kids’ item had the Badger nodding vigorously in agreement. Two points really resonated. Firstly, today’s digital native teenagers still see the control, freedom, and independence offered by really driving a car as a rite of passage. Secondly, its question ‘It’s humans that are driving the invention and application of tech across industries, and its humans that will experience the consequences, good or bad, but will any of us humans be allowed to decide whether we want it or not?’ goes to the heart of what the future will look like for us all. To answer ‘No’ is a slippery slope to the Huxley view mentioned above. It would also mean his statement – ‘Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards’ – has truth and that the dystopia of Brave New World – published 87 years ago – is what we have to look forward to.

The Badger – ever the optimist and chuckling at, and relating to, a piece on whether an AI android could live forever – thinks a Brave New World dystopia will never happen. We’ll always adapt to new technology, just like we’ve done since the Stone Age, but humans are a savvy, unique and dangerous species which makes it improbable that we’ll ever allow technology to usurp our control. Why? Because a species like us that invents an axe to cut down trees to provide shelter and then also sees its usefulness as a weapon against others is never going to allow itself to get into a position of any kind of subservience. So, there you have it. The Badger’s added to the great wash of opinion about the future!

Lest we forget; Today’s technology is tomorrow’s antiquity…

The last few days proved thought-provoking. Why? Firstly, the Badger went to a local travelling circus with very low expectations and came away amazed and incredulous! Apart from booking tickets online, the whole show was devoid of any kind of computing technology and it provided an incredible close-up of the raw skills of human beings and the capabilities of their minds and bodies.

Secondly, the Badger visited a local Classic Vehicle rally and was struck by the complete absence of electronics from road vehicles more than 40 years old, and the passion, creativity and ingenuity of owners in keeping their vehicles roadworthy in their original condition.

Thirdly, the Badger met a frail 95-year-old man who is going to the imminent 75th anniversary D-Day commemoration being attended by the Queen and the US President in Portsmouth. This old soldier is physically frail but is mentally sharp as a scalpel! After the commemoration he’s travelling to the Normandy D-day beach he landed on 75 years ago. It’s the first time he’s been back. His first words to the Badger were that he knew his days were numbered, but if his time was up on his journey then he wanted it to be on the beach where so many fellow soldiers and friends lost their lives or were injured. This was a truly inspiring human being. The Badger was humbled.

The old soldier was interested in the Badger’s IT background and so we chatted about computers, electronic gadgets, the internet and future robots for a few minutes. He smiled and said there were things described as ‘new technology’ in his D-Day era too, but he’d learned that when it failed – and it always did at some stage – it was the ingenuity, resilience and teamwork of people that mattered to ‘get the job done’. He quipped that it had always been the case through his life and that he’d learned that ‘today’s technology is quickly tomorrow’s antiquity’.

So, what thought did the circus, the Classic Vehicle rally, and the old soldier provoke in the Badger? Essentially an even deeper realisation that it’s people and not computers, social media, the internet, robots or smart phones that make life worth living! Technology will always have a place supporting human progress, but it must never aspire to be a substitute for the raw dedication, skills, capabilities and human spirit notable above. Obvious perhaps, but worth saying ‘Lest we forget’, – a very apt phrase as the D-Day commemorations loom.

Explaining what’s at the roots of AI to a gardener…

Over a creamy latte in the local Starbucks last week, an academic friend who was struggling with part of his lecture course to students asked the Badger “How would you explain the what’s at the roots of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to your gardener?”. The Badger just gulped and took the easy option by saying ‘No idea’. Since then, however, the question has been in the Badger’s brain demanding an answer!

Of course, marketing pitches, academic papers, and short readable articles on AI and machine learning (ML) are readily available. One, for example, describing the difference between AI and ML simply is here. But an answer that simply refers to readily available content on the internet would be a cop out, so after much lateral, off the wall thought the Badger decided the answer a gardener might actually relate to involves mathematics!

Mathematics has evolved over thousands of years from simple counting to embrace calculation, measurement, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, logarithms, calculus, statistics and much more as well as today’s increasingly abstract sophistications. Mathematics is always evolving. Mathematical thinking in Alan Turing’s Enigma code cracking era was very different to that of Isaac Newton’s era, which itself was very different to that in the ancient times of Pythagoras or Archimedes. Indeed, mathematical thinking has evolved even further since Turing’s time. Without mathematics and its evolution, we would never convert science into the material inventions that progress humanity. Today’s air and space travel, navigation, communications, manufacturing, banking and investment, MRI scanners in hospitals or indeed Alexa would not exist without mathematics!

So, to explain what’s at the roots of AI and ML to the gardener the Badger decided on the following answer. ‘It’s all about the mathematics. As mathematics advances, so does the panoply of possible inventions available. There’s nothing magical behind it. It’s just the meeting of mathematical advances, science and available technology opening up the possibility of inventions that can benefit people – just like it has for centuries.’

The Badger tested this with his brother-in-law, a self-employed gardener. His reaction? “Who cares. This is ultimately about screwing more money out of me to line someone else’s pocket. If some robot starts tidying my flower beds and taking my livelihood then it’ll see the teeth of my chainsaw pretty quick.” Expletives have been removed. Not quite the reaction expected! Conclusion? Notwithstanding the interesting point about money, the Badger was right to say ‘No idea’ when his academic friend asked the question!

Driverless cars; now there’s a transformation challenge!

Richard Holway, a respected UK Tech analyst, wondered recently (TechMarketView, 27th April) if driverless cars for the masses would ever become a reality on UK streets. The Badger wondered the same thing, but from the perspective of an experienced programme deliverer rather than a market analyst.

A short guide to driverless cars from the RAC gives a simple insight to the many relevant issues and questions. It’s things like the legal framework, insurance and liability, safety accreditation, ethics and public acceptance, rather than the technology, that need clear resolution for driverless cars to become a reality on UK streets within the aggressive timescales often quoted by advocates.

Advanced trials on UK roads will start by the end of 2019 in order to meet a government commitment to have self-driving cars on UK roads by 2021. The Badger takes this with a pinch of salt. Why? Because the devil is in the detail and such trials will inevitably expose a plethora of unexpected issues. Excuse the Badger’s cynicism but the politicians also have a track record of finding a way to declare success by redefining what they meant in the first place! It doesn’t seem likely that fully driverless cars will be used by the masses as personal transport for many, many years yet. Experiencing the UK’s Bank Holiday traffic this weekend just emphasised the scale of the societal transformation necessary.

The Badger asked younger family members for their views. They were positive about the technology but had reservations about its robustness, security and safety in real-world circumstances. However, they were dubious that the public would adopt driverless transport with open arms. The youngsters had worries about loss of privacy, a ‘Big Brother’ world, liability for accidents and injury, and the potential for carnage when driverless vehicles mix with conventional traffic at scale. They thought driverless cars were overhyped, but that more tech-centred driver aids were a good thing. No one saw themselves using a driverless car on a public road out of choice for the foreseeable future.

The Badger can’t see the timelines for driverless cars in the UK being met. Why? Because it took years for Debit Cards to be widely used across society and a couple of decades for mobile phones to become an affordable part of every person’s life, so why would driverless cars be different? The transformational challenge is much greater. The societal aspects seem to get less airtime than the technology, so don’t hold your breath that fully driverless cars will happen fast in the UK. Perhaps the Badger’s wrong? Time will tell. In the meantime, the Badger’s side-stepping the driverless revolution by moving from cars to motorbikes for personal transport!

Digital Transformation – is it really a new concept?

The Badger can’t help but roll his eyes when he sees the phrase ‘Digital Transformation’. Of course, strategists, marketeers, consultants, media people, and researchers all need a convenient label for their visioneering or to sell their wares, but you’d think from its use in recent years that ‘Digital Transformation’ is a new phenomenon. Not so. At least in the Badger’s opinion which, admittedly, is influenced by a tendency to cut through flimflam and look at realities under the covers. If ‘Digital Transformation’ embraces putting digital technology into an enterprise changing the way it operates and delivers to its customers, then it’s been going on for at least 40 years! Why this view? Because since joining the IT industry everything the Badger’s been involved in entailed delivery that transformed enterprises and the way things worked.

A recent interview by Computer Weekly with Mark Gray, Director of Digital Transformation at the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) illustrates the Badger’s point and also provides an insight to the vision, leadership and complexity involved in keeping an organisation modern, relevant and effective. CPS’s core case management system, built and hosted in a data centre 17 years ago, is apparently on track to complete migration to the cloud in the next quarter. A significant moment indeed, especially as the Badger was at the time a senior leader in the company that built and delivered the CPS’s case management system all those years ago! It was a very significant achievement for all concerned, and it was transformational for the CPS. It was a ‘Digital Transformation’ embracing the technology available at that time. It was just as fundamental then as the CPS’s transformative moves with technology are now.

So ‘Digital Transformation’ isn’t new. It’s been at the heart of keeping organisations modern, relevant, efficient and competitive – all things that leaders must focus on – for decades. If there’s been something new in recent years, it’s that leaders are dealing with ever speedier cycles of change in a world being disrupted by many forces – technology advancement is just one. Accordingly, there’s no scope for leadership complacency these days if an organisation wants to survive and remain relevant to their customers.

So good luck with completing the whole CPS transformation programme successfully, Mr Gray. No doubt the necessary culture changes and revised working practices are as much a challenge as the technology, but just think…it’ll all have to transform again in a few years time when the robots finally take over!

Software, AI & Robots – Are patents still relevant?

Everywhere you look technology is disrupting modern society and the laws that regulate behaviours. Last weekend the Badger met a friend who recently joined a small software product company to investigate whether aspects of their products can be patented. Over a glass of wine, the Badger was asked about his own encounters with software patents in the IT services industry and responded with a simple message. Unless you have the time, money and lawyers to prepare and progress a patent to the point it’s granted and the resources, money and lawyers to pursue those who breach it, then don’t bother!

Why? Because in three decades of building lots of software systems and products there were many discussions on protecting intellectual property via patents, but none that led to a patent being granted and only one unsubstantiated challenge by a 3rd party of patent infringement. The Badger’s message was met with a knowing nod because my friend felt his employer – an outfit with <300 staff and offices in multiple countries – did not have the time, money or resources.

On the train home the Badger cogitated on the following questions. Have there been any land mark events in the world of software patenting? How does AI and robotics impact patenting? Do patents have any global relevance when for years China has a preponderance for intellectual property theft? A quick search of the internet was informative.

On the first question, the Alice Corp vs CLS Bank International case in the US has triggered a significant decline in software related patent applications. On the second, AI and robots are being very disruptive in the patent world with much head-scratching underway, and on the third question, the Artful Engineers recent blog rather says it all. It’s worth a read because you can feel the human frustration of someone who’s patent and product has been blatantly breached by the Chinese! Clearly the relevance of patents is questionable when the world’s second largest power behaves in this way.

It seems, at least to the Badger, that fast moving tech, and especially AI & robotics, is playing havoc with the patent world. Software, AI and robotics highlight the need for complete modernisation of patenting to make it fit for the rapidly changing world of the 21st century. It’s woefully behind the curve. So, are patents relevant in the era of AI, software and robotics? Probably only for mega-corporates with armies of lawyers and deep pockets… but even they must wonder what the point is when China can’t be trusted to respect the intellectual property of others.