Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter…

Domestic Smart Meters installed as part of the UK rollout programme come with a small monitor providing the consumer with information about their energy usage. This little device connects to the meter via a wireless network. It’s normally positioned in a place that is both convenient for the consumer and where there is a strong wireless signal with the meter. In the Badger’s home, the monitor has never been moved from where it was put last autumn when the smart meter was installed. It functions there happily for the vast majority of the time.

Occasionally at the weekend, however, it stops working and displays the message ‘Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter’. This isn’t a big deal because powering the device off and then on re-establishes the connection and normal service. The message appeared again last weekend, but this time it took a number of off-on cycles for service to resume.  This, and seeing the Smart Energy programme’s Albert Einstein advert extolling the virtues of digitising the UK energy system, made the Badger cogitate on a couple of questions.   

Firstly, has a Smart Meter made much of a difference in the Badger household? Not really, ostensibly because we have always been disciplined and never profligate in our use of energy. While the little energy monitor provides useful information, it did not take long after it was installed to realise that it just confirmed what we already knew, namely that cooking, cleaning, and heating dominates consumption and thus the bill. Using a PC or watching TV have a much smaller impact in comparison. The novelty of regularly looking at the energy monitor thus quickly wore off. Indeed, the Badger knows many people who have eventually turned their monitor off completely and banished it to a cupboard with other unused devices!  

Secondly, is the ‘Connection lost…’ message a reminder of something important that we all take for granted? Yes, it is. It’s a reminder that wireless and wired networks are the plumbing on which the modern world relies. Today a device is, at best, limited in its use without some kind of network connection, and, at worst, it’s useless!  Networks are a rather hidden part of the tech landscape in the general public’s psyche, but given how life would be impacted if they were down for weeks, months, or even years, they deserve more public awareness of how life would change in their absence.   

Networks are critical infrastructure and not immune to a diverse range of threats. It is foolhardy to think that this infrastructure could suffer some kind of seriously disruptive event in the future. Whenever that happens, let’s just hope that it brings out the best in humanity, rather than the worst.  Gosh! Isn’t it surprising where a simple monitor losing connection with its Smart Meter can take your thoughts…

Fully autonomous cars – time for realism

Evangelists, visionaries, ‘blue sky’ thinkers, idealists, innovators; it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are needed for progress. For real progress that ‘sticks’ to happen, however, then we need realists too. The Badger, whose career centred on delivering difficult IT-intensive programmes, is a realist even though he did his fair share of ‘blue sky’ thinking in his time!  It’s this realism that’s behind why the Badger always maintains a healthy scepticism about predicted timelines for when the next wave of technology will be rolled out to the public.  This timeline scepticism has always stood the Badger in good stead.

Predictions by excited, future-gazing, tech evangelists may attract lots of media attention but their timelines often grossly under-estimate what’s really involved in getting something rolled out to consumers or end users at serious scale. Things in the real world are often more difficult than anticipated – that’s just life!  So, it wasn’t a shock to the Badger that Uber has sold its autonomous vehicle division to a start-up and that some are wondering whether driverless cars have stalled.  Trials on public roads, of course, continue, there are companies investing in the technology and jockeying to gain commercial advantage, the technology is still coming to terms with the hard to quantify human variable that pedestrians do unexpected things, and there are still many  legal and ethical issues to resolve. And so it seems a pretty safe bet from a realist’s perspective that fully autonomous cars will not be in the majority navigating the UK’s roundabouts for many years yet.

Anyone who has run a major IT-intensive delivery programme knows that Transition and Transformation phases when moving from the old to the new are fraught with risk, challenge, and delay due to the unexpected. The scale of the Transition and Transformation challenge in moving to a fully autonomous car system can be seen simply by a quick look at published UK government figures. There were over 38 million cars on British roads in 2019 and only 1.6% of them were fully or partially electric. It will take at least another decade just for electric rather than fossil-fuel powered cars to be in the majority, so if you are grounded in reality then it’s difficult to believe that fully autonomous cars will be the general public’s ‘go to’ method of transportation anytime soon. It looks like 2021 will see lots more autonomous vehicle related tech, but the Badger feels little of it will shorten the overall timeline for getting complex fully autonomous vehicles operating safely at scale with conventional people-driven vehicles on the country’s roads.

You may feel the Badger has started 2021 as anti-tech, anti-progress, and anti-autonomous vehicles. That’s not the case, he’s just pro-realism and a prudent sceptic – which is always a sensible position to take if you want to retain some objectivity in today’s, instant, globally, connected, digital world.  

Dark comedy and driverless cars…

What do you do if you if you’re just a neutral onlooker in another country and want some light relief from the dark comedy of the USA’s Presidential Election? Explore the current world of driverless cars!  At least that’s what the Badger did when the unrelenting media and social media coverage just emphasised the sadness of seeing a superpower having a nervous breakdown over two old men while struggling to come to terms with the threat to it’s world dominance from the powerhouse that’s modern day China.   As Richard Holway put it in a recent TechMarketView post, if these two men are the best candidates to lead the Western world then there is something seriously wrong!  

The dark comedy is not over yet and there will inevitably be a Netflix film in due course, so the Badger’s attention was easily redirected into the realm of driverless vehicles where technology evangelists have been promising for years that completely driverless cars will take over the roads. You’ll find a neat summary of the different levels of autonomous vehicle here. It’s Level 5 vehicles that are fully autonomous and can go anywhere with the presence of a driver completely optional and various companies and organisations are progressing vehicular technology along the path towards this holy grail. Progress is slowly being made and each year more automated assistance aids are finding their way into new vehicles, but that doesn’t mean Level 5 vehicles will be in widespread general use by us, the general public, on our roads in the foreseeable future.  

Why not? Because a) they aren’t in widespread military use yet, b) as this AutoExpress item points out, drivers haven’t been asked if they actually want completely autonomous cars, c) idealists are having to become more realistic, and d) legislation, liability apportionment, and insuring autonomous cars are still work in progress. It’s pretty safe to think that we’ll be driving vehicles ourselves for some decades yet.  The technology will continue to advance but history shows it’s the transition and transformation from a long established way of doing something to something new and different that presents the greatest challenge. People don’t change behaviour quickly, especially if they feel something is being imposed. So far there’s little information available on how driverless vehicles will be introduced for us to use in a way that preserves our freedoms, builds trust, and changes attitudes and behaviours. That’s why the Badger agrees with the AutoExpress item’s conclusion that the driverless car is a vehicle that 99% of us would happily live without!

The rollout of Level 5 driverless vehicles to the public is decades away and it’s likely to be another dark comedy if the Smart Meter and Smart Motorway programmes are anything to go by. Oh dear.  The phrase ‘dark comedy’ is emerging as a common theme in the modern world. Let’s hope things don’t morph from this into ‘horror’…

Software defects…a fact of life.

The Badger recently used a bank’s online processes to establish formalised ‘power of attorney’ control over someone else’s accounts. Formalising the ‘power of attorney’ and setting up the associated internet banking facilities was pleasingly easy. Everything went smoothly. This week, however, the Badger encountered a problem. Not a major one, more an inconvenience. The Badger, as ‘power of attorney’, set up a new payee in order to pay a small invoice the same day. However, a ‘technical failure’ error message appeared every time the Badger tried to send the payment. Grr! The Badger called the bank, who were very helpful. It was a known problem – a software defect. If you are a ‘power of attorney’ and click the ‘send payment immediately’ box, the software won’t let you send a payment! The solution? Click the ‘send at a future date’ box – i.e. tomorrow – instead. The solution worked perfectly.

The Badger wondered why this ‘software defect’ hadn’t been picked up in pre-release testing. The experience was also a reminder of how reliant we are on software and on it working correctly. It was also a reminder that software will always contain defects even when the best design, development and testing practices have been used. While the Badger cogitated on this, he saw last week’s reports from the US about the software for Boeing’s reusable spaceship, Starliner. The reports, here for example, highlight a review following the unsuccessful Starliner test flight to the International Space Station(ISS) in December 2019, which has exposed ‘process’ failings in the software design, development, testing and assurance oversight of the ~1 million lines of code. Oh dear. There are obviously many more defects in the software than the ones that impacted the mission in the first place. The Badger raised his eyebrows in surprise. After all, well-established engineering disciplines and processes for producing quality software have been around for a long time and are there for a reason.

Software runs the modern world. It’s everywhere. Its scale and complexity have risen dramatically in recent decades, and when software goes wrong it can have wide ranging, unwelcome, and sometimes disastrous impacts. You can get a sense of the scale of some codebases here and you’ll find some of the software failures that have wreaked havoc and disruption in recent years here. Without software, modern civilization would grind to a halt.

Years ago, the Badger was told ‘Never expect software to be perfect’. Wise words still relevant in today. AI, autonomous vehicles, robots – and so on – are not immune to having software defects, so when you go about your daily life just remember that a software defect is always lurking somewhere, and that it will manifest itself at the most inconvenient time. That’s just a fact of life in today’s world!

‘Smart’ motorways help to decide on a car purchase!

The Badger’s made a decision about whether to replace his car. Three seemingly unrelated events ultimately underpinned the decision. The first was reading ‘Road Traffic Estimates: Great Britain 2017’ published by the UK Department of Transport in 2018. The second was a knock on the door by a man with a large white van. He was delivering a package ordered online 18 hours earlier. The third was being captive in horrendous motorway traffic on the way to and from an exhibition. Progress on the ‘Smart’ motorway was stop-start, maddening, and the lane speeds indicated on the gantries were laughable. It certainly didn’t feel like ‘Smart’ had made any difference to the journey experience whatsoever!

These three events influenced the Badger’s thinking along the following lines. Roads are more and more congested, so there’s little real benefit sitting in a traffic queue in a newer car, and although more UK motorways are being converted to ‘Smart’ – see short articles on the types of ‘Smart’ here and here – there are growing safety concerns as illustrated here, here, and here, for example. In the last 70 years traffic on UK roads has grown ~10-fold and vehicle ownership has grown ~6-fold, driven largely by economic growth and population growth. The upward trend is likely to continue and so there’s little reason to think congestion will ever reduce, even with the deployment of ever more sophisticated technology which, after all, has a habit of producing a peak of inflated expectation followed by a trough of disillusionment. Technology is not a panacea, and the nirvana of a driverless car society seems a long way off.

The environment featured in the Badger’s thinking, but a simple analysis quickly showed that the whole-life carbon footprint of a vehicle owned by the Badger – current or future – is tiny compared to that of one van in the growing army of vans that deliver our internet purchases to our homes. Since 1997 there’s been a 75% increase in the number of vans on the road, and a 67% increase in the miles they travel, with internet shopping and home delivery underpinning much of this rise. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future, and so the environmental incentive for the Badger to replace his personal vehicle is not high.

Replace or not to replace. You’ve surely guessed the decision by now. It’s the latter. The ‘business case’ for changing the vehicle doesn’t stack up! It’s just cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and healthier to keep the current car and change behaviour to reduce its usage. That doesn’t mean taking a backward step in personal independence or convenience, it just means being disciplined, thinking ahead with a moral compass, and taking different decisions on a day by day basis. Like many things in life, just simply adjusting our core behaviour costs little but can lead to a wide spectrum of benefits…

Automation, AI, and recruitment interviews…

The Badger’s interviewed many people seeking employment in IT services over the years. It started with interviewing new University graduates as part of the early UK ‘milk round’, and extended into interviewing very experienced technical, delivery and line people as the Badger’s leadership responsibilities grew. If the Badger learned just three things from all this interviewing it was this. Firstly, that a CV is the candidate’s tool to stimulate an employer’s interest, but its content cannot be taken for granted. Secondly, meeting the candidate face to face is crucial, and thirdly, that good candidates have sensible expectations because they recognise their IT skills quickly become tomorrow’s commodity.

Why’s the Badger thinking about this? Two reasons. Firstly because young nephews are encountering today’s digital, AI-supported automation in the world of recruitment, and secondly because of reading the assessment of occupations at risk from automation published by the UK Office of National Statistics earlier this year.

Digital automation and AI continues to grow rapidly in the realm of recruitment (Here, here and here provide readable appetisers, for example). Within a few years, it looks like today’s youngster generation will be psychometrically tested, have their video and audio interactions digitally analysed, and possible have their public social media presences appraised like no previous generation before when they seek employment. It’s possible to foresee a time when youngsters will never actually physically meet anyone during a recruitment and interview process. Will that actually happen? Hopefully not, because nothing’s more powerful for an employer and a candidate when making an employment decision than physically meeting someone, shaking their hand, looking them in the eye, and having a dialogue that can go down unexpected avenues.

So, what’s the relevance of the ONS reference? It simply highlights the following. The percentage of HR resource leader and HR operations jobs at risk from automation is 28.2% and 58.01%, respectively. If you work in IT then at least 1 in 4 of the management consultants (27.09%), project managers (24.49%), architects and designers (28.4%), and call centre staff (54.83%) reading this today could be redundant in the coming years. Even 23.62% of Chief Exec and senior officials are at risk from automation! So, it’s not just youngsters like the Badger’s nephews who will be analysed like never before when they seek employment in the modern way, you will too!

If you lose your job through automation and AI, then it’s automation and AI that’ll be a significant factor in getting alternative employment! Make sure you understand how recruiters and employers use automation and AI and prepare yourself appropriately. Always meet a prospective employer face to face before accepting a job. Shake their hand, look them in the eye, and make sure that you’ll be working for a human being rather than a robot…