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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‘The arrogance of acquisition’…

The Badger’s following the legal battle relating to HP’s acquisition of Autonomy in 2011 with interest. It’s providing a fascinating insight into many facets of the acquisition process and the dynamics once the spotlight moved from deal closure to integration. The Badger’s interest stems from having had some involvement integrating three or four acquisitions during his career, and one experience of being ‘acquired’.

The failure rate for acquisitions apparently sits well above 50%. That’s unsurprising given the diverse factors involved. Bringing large groups of people together with different personalities, ambitions, behaviours, cultures, working practices, and IT and financial systems across multiple offices and geographies is always risky! Doing the deal is one thing, but it’s the subsequent integration where the rubber hits the road, workforce hearts and minds are won or lost, and success or failure is determined. One point the Badger learned early in his acquisition-related experience was that people in the acquiring company always unwittingly radiate ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ which conveys that they know best! This can quickly alienate ‘acquired’ people and make the road to success bumpy.

The Badger’s first post-acquisition integration experience involved presenting to a group of ‘acquired’ business leaders on how to manage risk on their delivery contracts. The body language of those present and absence of questions suggested something had not gone down well. After the meeting ended, the Badger approached the most senior attendee for feedback and was told ‘you were trying to teach grandmothers to suck eggs and they felt like second class citizens, which they are not – they are mature and very experienced professionals’. The Badger quickly realised they were right! Talking ‘to’ them rather than communicating ‘with’ them was unwittingly arrogant and never going to win hearts and minds. The Badger adjusted his approach to be inclusive, to listen and be respectful, and everything subsequently went smoothly and successfully. The Badger learned to avoid ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ when dealing with people during integration activities post-acquisition!

Which brings us back to HP and Autonomy where the likelihood of a successful integration looks to have been low from the outset. In this case ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ mixed with post-acquisition leadership disagreements will have created a particularly challenging, polarising and uncomfortable environment for the workforce. Shame, because winning people’s hearts, minds and allegiances is central to the success of an acquisition, and it’s also people that bear the brunt when an acquisition is a failure. So, does the Badger have any view about what individuals should do in the integration post-acquisition? Yes. Watch for the ‘the arrogance of acquisition’ and call it out. What happens in response will provide an insight to the future ethos of the fully integrated company and the next career decisions you should make…

‘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!

Mother to Daughter: ‘What would you do if all this ‘smart’ stuff stopped working?’

An informative moment in the Badger’s career was a conversation with a client that kept people safe from baddies. A major real-time computer system – ‘high tech’ for its time – was being delivered and the client wanted it in service as soon as possible. Over an informal lunch the Badger mentioned that the system would provide the client advantages for years because the baddies would be technologically disadvantaged. The client chuckled and just said the system would provide a serious advantage for ~6 months only. Why? Because the baddies used people rather than technology, and those people would quickly adapt their modus operandi to the changed environment they functioned in.

The Badger remembered this conversation on listening to a mother and daughter chatting in a local café. The mother was chiding her daughter, who is apparently off to University in October after a gap year, for ignoring her and for being ‘permanently connected’ to her smartphone. The mother asked, ‘What would you do if all this ‘smart’ stuff stopped working?’ The daughter’s answer was snappy. ‘It won’t, but if it did then everyone’s in the do-do. Everything’s smart these days, so you need to adapt mother, or you’ll be a disadvantaged dinosaur’.

The Badger was struck by the contrast between generations. The daughter’s generation has had the internet, personal computers and information at their fingertips since birth. The way they learn and absorb knowledge is tech-centric, and their brains have adapted accordingly. Apparently, their reaction times and information search abilities are enhanced, but at the expense of critical thinking, contemplation and memory skills. In contrast, the mother’s generation primarily assimilated knowledge from books and traditional learning methods. Consequently, their brains are trained to concentrate, remember, imagine and retain information.

Put simply, the mother-daughter dialogue provides an example of evolution and our ability to adapt to the environment we must function in. In today’s world what matters is information with immediacy, and so it’s unsurprising that the way youngsters think, function, obtain knowledge, and perform daily tasks has changed as a result.

The point made by the Badgers client many years ago remains equally valid in today’s ‘smart’ technology world. When something new comes along, people adapt to the environment they function in. Smart and connected technology is an ever more important component of the critical infrastructure of our daily lives. So, was the daughter right to express confidence that ‘smart stuff’ won’t stop working? Hmm. Only idealists would endorse the daughter’s confidence! One day something ‘smart’ and critical will catastrophically fail for some reason. When it does, there’ll be some turmoil…but we’ll adapt. After all, our ability to evolve and adapt is why we still exist on this planet.

Social Media; Key for heritage and social history

Some years ago, volunteers in the village where the Badger grew up created a Facebook ‘nostalgia’ group to share heritage information, reminiscences and photographs about the village and its community. It has a large membership and the volunteers do a great job maintaining the site’s focus and content. This week there was a post with a black and white photo the Badger had never seen before but instantly recognised the people in it. The photo, taken in the 1960s, was of a bunch of 8 to 12-year old children, the Badger’s friends and playmates of the time!

Memories came flooding back. Our ‘gang’ had great fun. Our parents let us out in the morning, and we played outdoors in the fresh air all day, only returning at mealtimes. We climbed trees and built dens in the woods, played ‘Cowboys and Indians’, hide and seek, hopscotch, skipping, football and cricket, and rode rickety bikes. Halcyon days! Families eventually moved and we all grew up, losing touch in the process. The photo, however, triggered a spurt of additional posts that showed the ‘gang’ are alive and kicking, all be it widely spread geographically. And most of us are members of the village nostalgia group!

The photo provided an instant reminder of just how different life is for today’s children. The photo’s in black and white because that was the norm for a time when the family camera was used mainly for special occasions or events. Back then television was black and white, a household telephone was a luxury, and roads were not clogged with cars. We made our own fun outdoors and considered the cuts and bruises from our adventures to be badges of honour. Photos like this one tended to be consigned to the family album and were rarely widely shared. They come to light – as this one has – when parents have passed away, and someone shares them using today’s technology so they can become an accessible part of the Badger generation’s social history!

In 50-years’ time, when today’s children look back at their own social history, they’ll have a rich tapestry of text, digital photos, sounds, and videos captured as they happened and readily stored for posterity in the cloud. Their generation’s social history will be comprehensive, much more accessible, and they’ll be able to see, hear, and re-live their own halcyon days at the press of a button. Will they be interested in that strange time immediately before the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, personal computers, games consoles, smart devices, digital photography, wearable tech, and global communication enabling the instant sharing of opinions, concerns and content? The Badger hopes so, because looking at history and its social artefacts helps to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Finally, a thank you to Facebook – for once. The village’s heritage would be less accessible without it and the Badger’s ‘gang’ would be lost forever.

Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses? One day, but perhaps not soon…

The Badger’s considered changing his trusty but aging car for something more current and greener. There’s plenty of choice in the market so it should be easy coming to a decision, shouldn’t it? Err, No.

Why not? Because if you want to spend your money wisely then you have to recognise that entropy in the transportation world is rising dramatically! Entropy, by the way, is a measure of disorder and it always increases with time (as per the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics). The Badger has certainly observed the world become increasingly disordered over his lifetime and this isn’t going to change in the future.

Disruption and disorder in the transport world are easy to see. For example, UK government policy is to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. Electric vehicles (EVs) are deemed to be the future, even though their climate credentials aren’t quite as positive as you might think. Car manufactures are pushing ahead with EVs swiftly, but with a current market share of ~3% across Europe there’s much to do to overcome their limitations and convince the public. In addition, of course, technology marches forward and – if you believe it – self-driving cars will be common on UK roads from 2025 and might improve traffic flow by 35%. Hmm. These are all things to think about if you’re thinking of buying a car today and want to spend your money wisely.

The Badger cogitated and has concluded that the timelines for establishing EVs and self-driving vehicles for the masses on UK roads are very optimistic. Why? Firstly, progress on addressing EV range limitations, charging infrastructure, and take-up by the public is still slow (but improving). Secondly, there’s about 1 billion lines of software in a self-driving car which means there’ll be many bugs when operating and ‘integrating’ with other conventional and autonomous vehicles at scale in the real-world. Thirdly, while the UK government is to report on the autonomous vehicle regulatory framework in 2021, legislation moves slowly and political objectives are rarely met on time, especially at a time of political disorder. And finally, the ‘Introduction to Service’ phase of any programme that changes personal and societal behaviour always encounters difficulties and delay. It took decades for motor vehicles to replace horse and carts, and it will be a similar story for EVs and self-driving vehicles overtaking today’s conventional vehicles. It seems naïve to think otherwise.

So, what did the Badger decide about changing his car? Not to! Because if you do the analysis, currently that’s actually the cheapest, greenest and most future proof option as entropy rises further. Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses will happen one day, but perhaps not as soon as the hype suggests…

Smart Meters; Hardly a success…

If you’ve worked extensively on major technology-intensive programmes then you’ll know to expect bumps in the road as new hardware, software, communication networks and processes are introduced to users in the real world. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the UK Smart Meter programme is in the press again!

The target for every UK home to have been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020 isn’t going to be met. Rollout is stalling. Just look at the Q1 2019 rollout numbers! It isn’t credible that the target can be met, but the relevant government department ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt when even the CEO of Citizens Advice – a charity helping citizens resolve life difficulties with free, independent, confidential advice – thinks the target is unfeasible and must be delayed to ~2023!

Delay means more cost, and the published estimates of consumer bills reducing by £300m/year in 2020 and £1.2bn/year by 2030 will inevitably be revised down. Who pays? The consumer. Although many technology professionals have worked very hard on this programme to get the new software, hardware and communication networks in place, the overall programme has the whiff of white elephant territory and it’s a struggle to see it as a good advert for major ‘Smart’ government initiatives.

Who’s at fault? No doubt many entities will point fingers at each other, but – as the November 2018 National Audit Office’s report noted – the buck stops with the government department that currently still ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. The Badger has a simple view. The numbers don’t fib. The costs are ever rising. The business case must be stressed. Fault is rarely with a single entity; it rests collectively. What’s needed now is less rhetoric, spin and defensiveness, and more honesty, realism and greater respect for the end consumer in the roll out.

The 2018 Smart Meter Progress Report ends with the statement ‘the Government has committed to update the cost-benefit analysis for the Programme and complete a stock take of consumer benefits in 2019’. The outcome from this – if it happens – may be the uncomfortable reading that produces a trigger ‘event’ for ‘revision’ of the programme. Time will tell. Meanwhile the Badger not only saves money and the climate without a smart meter, but also avoids the higher tariffs levied by suppliers when consumers exercise their right not to have a smart meter. These may be digital times but one thing’s clear. £11bn and counting, stalling rollout to ambivalent consumers, delay, questionable cost/benefit and the whiff of white elephant are hardly success indicators…

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.

Consumers; key to helping the planet…

The doorbell rang. It was a group of political activists canvassing for this week’s EU elections. When the Badger opened the door, they immediately launched into a climate change pitch with phrases like ‘they haven’t done this’, and ‘they need to do that’. The frequent use of ‘they’ grated. They didn’t complete their pitch because the Badger terminated the conversation politely.

Surely dealing with climate issues starts with ourselves and not ‘they’ or someone else? After all, it’s us as consumers that are at the heart of many of the issues given the relentless acceleration of consumerism and technological advancement over the last 100 years. A good look at Oxford University’s ‘Our World In Data’ shows an obvious correlation between the accelerating consumerism, technological advancement and global temperature and rising CO2 emissions over the same period. So if each of us becomes just a bit less of a consumer then it helps address our planet’s challenges.

Technological progress over the Badger’s lifetime has been extraordinary, as neatly illustrated by the data available here and here. In the 1970s colour TVs were a luxury and had bulky cathode ray tubes, mainstream motor cars functioned without electronics, a fixed-line telephone did not exist in every home, and computers were the realm of big companies or public institutions. Today’s TVs are ‘smart’ and thin, cars don’t function without electronics, every person has a mobile telephone, and powerful personal computing devices are the norm. Such progress has been driven by Innovation (especially in the realm of electronics, communications, information storage and processing), Big Business, Consumers, and Oil.

The Badgers point is this. Consumers – you and me – are the most important of these drivers. Why? Because our habits and behaviour matters to the planet and ultimately influences the positions taken by business and governments. What you do matters. So next time you want a gadget of some kind, ask yourself if you really need it. If you don’t need it then don’t buy it. You’ll have helped the planet!

After the canvassers had gone the Badger went to the local supermarket and was astonished to see it as selling a plastic ring to keep an egg perfectly round when being fried. Why does such a product even exist? Does it serve a real need? Doubtful. Fortunately, it didn’t look as if any had been sold, which suggests us consumers are getting less fickle so there’s hope for the planet yet. We’re all consumers, but just because we can buy something doesn’t mean we should!

The Badger’s now looking forward to having this kind of discussion with the next group of political canvassers that come knocking on the door, if they’re brave enough of course.

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!