So, I’ve just spent the last 2 days at the Dublin Tech Summit where there was a cavalcade of talks and discussions from AR to VR, with dabs of quantum computing, YouTube vlogging, Fintech Feminism, blockchain and lots more besides.
The talks were divided into 4 streams: Innovation Tech, Future Tech, Music Tech and Tech Factory. I’ll start with Tech Factory and Music Tech which I can cover pretty quickly. Tech Factory seemed to be aimed at start-ups and entrepreneurs - I am neither a start-up nor an entrepreneur so I’ll be honest: I didn’t go to any of those. The Music tech stream had some really interesting stuff going on….. which I also didn’t go to; not because I didn’t want to, they just happened to clash with other stuff I wanted to check out.
So basically I spent all my time in the Innovation and Future tech rooms. That time started with Bo Ewald from D-Wave systems, who make quantum computers. Sadly, I missed the beginning of Bo’s talk but caught the second half. If you’re a geek like me (and probably most people at the Summit) then you’re probably really excited about quantum computing. I don’t understand any of it, but then I don’t really understand the stuff under the hood of my current computer, so that’s probably ok. Quantum computing is all based on probability which is probably why Bo’s talk was titled “An Introduction to Quantum Computing, Probably” and is the reason for my overuse of the word in these last few sentences. What this actually means is that you can run the same problem on a quantum computer multiple times but you might not get the same answer each time. Yeah, I kinda had “Huh?!” moment too. Right now, these machines are about the size of a family car and run at 15 millikelvin which is about 180 times colder than interstellar space. This means it’s probably gonna be a while before I have an iPhone Quantum in my pocket!
After Bo’s talk came SoapBox Lab’s Patricia Scanlon who raised a topic and is working in a field which I think is not being discussed nearly enough: voice technology as it applies to children. Voice recognition technologies have finally reached a point where they work well and allow us to do lots of cool stuff. Right now, the likes of Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s HomePod are limited to playing music, checking the weather or your schedule etc. We’re in that “Ooooh shiny” phase like the first time you asked Siri how far away Mars is or does she like lattes. These devices are different to the smart assistants on our phones though. We’re putting them in the centre of our homes where they’re accessible to anyone in the home; and if you have kids, you can bet they’re going to be talking to them too. Currently, these devices don’t differentiate between adults and children and give the same responses to whatever questions are asked of them. This can lead to children accessing inappropriate content or purchasing a lifesize dollhouse that arrives at your door two days later and costs as much as a small car! SoapBox Labs take on this, and I agree, is that smart devices should recognise when they’re being interacted with by a child and the responses should be tailored accordingly. You can check out more at www.soapboxlabs.com.
Before breaking for lunch I switched rooms for Paul Walsh’s Payments Innovation talk. Paul is the Senior Vice President, Platform Strategy & Innovation for Visa. Visa seems to be doing some really interesting things and have some great ideas in terms of opening up what have traditionally been very closed systems, fostering developer interactions through APIs and generally making for much more connected use cases. One potential future he outlined was around your morning coffee. When you leave your house, your phone/wearable would alert the coffee shop and a coffee would be waiting when you get there. Payment would be made automatically as you leave. While these innovations are all really exciting I’d have concerns about the amount of personal data being flung around; there are some serious security and privacy questions to be considered. Also, in the above scenario, there’s zero human contact.
The next talk I really wanted to see was Jordan P. Evans from NASA JPL. This one was really busy, with a huge queue waiting to get in. I made it as far as the door, but sadly, no further - the room, a pretty big one was full with a fairly large number of hopefuls like myself left outside. This, while disappointing, wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't been for a large number of people who just skipped the queue entirely and walked in unchallenged. Needless to say, the queue was unhappy and things started to get a little heated. I did get in towards the end of Jordan's speech as a few people left the room. One thing I learned was that the JPL guys asked to put “JPL” onto the tyres of the Mars rover but weren't allowed, so they put the letters on in morse code in the tyre treads anyway; I think they told the overseers shortly before launch but it was too late to change anything by then - nice one guys!
I'm not sure if the crowd that filled Liffey Hall B for Jordan’s talk were there for him or for the speaker who followed him: Casey Neistat; I'd like to think a little of both. Either way, Casey was an energetic and passionate speaker - hearing him talk you can begin to understand why his YouTube channel has over 9 million subscribers. The main takeaways from his talk were that if you're trying to become a massive YouTube star then there are about a billion others trying to do the same thing, so your chances of success are pretty slim. That said, while you may not be the smartest person in the room, or the prettiest, or the most charismatic, one thing you can be is the hardest working and, ultimately, that's what it takes. When asked what he put his success down to, it wasn't that he had some magic formula for making videos go viral - he doesn't know what makes a video go viral any more than the rest of us; his answer was simple and relevant to all of us who create for a mass audience: make honest content.
That ended day 1 for me; day 2 was pretty much all in the Future Tech room, starting with Brett Bibby from Unity showing some really cool augmented reality stuff being built with the Unity engine, from seeing how that new supercar is going to look in your garage to filling your house with furniture from IKEA. He was followed by Mikela Eskenazi from Blippar showing more AR applications, including Modiface, an application that allows users to try on makeup without actually putting anything on their face. Interestingly, IKEA’s furniture app also featured in Mikela’s talk - it allows you to select chairs, beds, table, whatever from IKEA’s product line and see what it looks like in your house - you can even change the colours/materials. Another interesting fact that came out was that while the majority of traditional apps are games, for AR apps the reverse is true, with most being “non-ganes”.
Just before lunch, we heard from a panel discussing trends in eCommerce. One of the highlights for me was Mark Cummins, CTO of Pointy. Pointy have a really interesting product which allows small retailers to show their available stock online. This means that if you’re searching for something your first response might be say “Joe’s Local Grocery” that you can just walk to rather than Amazon. Fair play Pointy, great idea.
After lunch we had Jordan Fried telling us all about distributed public networks and specifically Hedera Hashgraph. Wow, I think he managed to pack about an hour’s worth into his 20 minute presentation. He talks super-fast but is seriously passionate and it’s hard not to get caught up and excited by his enthusiasm. Note to self, check out more about distributed public networks and Hedera Hashgraph.
Following the rush of Jordan’s public network’s talk it was time for some AI, this time presented by IBM Watson’s Jordan Bitterman. This was a really interesting look at the range of topics IBM are tackling in the AI space, from sentiment analysis to direct real-time language translation for remote collaboration to email assistants that can manage your calendar and liaise directly with people trying to grab your precious time.
The next highlight for me was Emma Walsh from FoodCloud giving a Tech for Good keynote. This was one of those really inspiring talks that open your eyes to how technology can really make a difference in people’s lives. The problem that FoodCloud is trying to tackle is food waste; 1,300,000,000 tonnes of food is wasted globally every year; retailers (Tesco, Lidl, etc) have food that they haven’t sold and is going to get dumped. FoodCloud provide a service which matches retailers with local charities, so that said retailers can notify the system that they have a surplus available and the nature of that surplus (fruit & veg, bread etc); a charity they’re matched with then receives a text message to let them know that food is available and they can just go and collect it. What does this mean? Well, maybe there’s a bunch of kids in a day care who get a decent breakfast that otherwise would have gone hungry or there’s a homeless family who gets a proper dinner. This is the kind of inspiring story that makes you want to be a better human! FoodCloud are expanding internationally and I wish them the very best.
All in all there are lots of exciting ideas, technologies and opportunities on the horizon - it’s a great time to be in tech. What I guess we all need to be cognisant of is the old adage “with great power comes great responsibility”. As we journey down this road of discovering, inventing and creating always ask “how can I ensure this awesome thing I’m building makes the world a better place?”. With that in mind, I’ll leave one final thought from Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering at Slack.