Could the pandemic have been predicted?

Governing in advance may seem like something from science fiction, but by using artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, experts say it’s possible

When the coronavirus pandemic hit UK businesses in the spring, forcing organisations to lock down, it required open minds to grasp technology and reimagine ways of working. Government and the public sector sought to solve challenges old and new, including rushing through essential financial support to companies and their furloughed staff, and improve service delivery and data-driven decision-making by dialling up investment in tech, especially artificial intelligence (AI).

After all, with predictive analytics, governments can conceivably prevent, rather than cure, issues or respond to citizens’ needs before they arise. But how far off are we from governing in advance? And what are the ethical implications of such a system?

Around the world, there are numerous narrow-scope use cases of authorities using predictive analytics to life-saving and life-enhancing effect. In Durham, North Carolina, the police department reported a 39 per cent drop in violent crime from 2007 to 2014 after using AI to observe patterns and interrelations in criminal activities and to identify hotspots, thus enabling quicker interventions.

Also in the United States, AI has helped reduce human trafficking by locating and rescuing thousands of victims. Knowing that approximately 75 per cent of child trafficking involves online advertisements, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed a platform using software that monitors suspicious online ads, detects code words, and infers connections between them and trafficking rings.

Further afield, the Indonesian government has partnered with a local tech startup to better predict natural disasters. By analysing historical flood data, collected from sensors, and accessing citizen-complaint data, prone areas can now be quickly identified, speeding up the emergency response and improving management.

Actionable intelligence and data scientists needed

In the UK, the public sector has much work to do, and requires people to do it, if governing in advance is to become a reality, says David Shrier, adviser to the European Parliament in the Centre for AI. “More investment in predictive analytics will help with risk mitigation, although this exacerbates the already extant shortage of data scientists who can develop and manage these models.”

Predicting trends through data analysis is vital for governments and has been for some time. “Forecasting approaches using historical data to build mathematical predictive models have been core to government economic policy for decades,” says Andrew Hood, chief executive of Edinburgh-headquartered analytics consultancy Lynchpin. “Whether those models allow governments to govern in advance effectively depends on to what extent they have enough political motivation and capital to apply the model outputs directly.

It’s too tempting to see predictive analytics as a magical answer, a black box that can solve all our challenges

“Arguably, there has been no shortage of predictive models kicking around as the pandemic took hold. However, the pandemic also points to the reality of a lot of prediction and forecasting: it is not about having one crystal ball to rely on, rather a set of predictions based on the best data to hand that need to be reviewed constantly, updated and critically applied.”

Hood stresses that skilled humans must remain in the driving seat and warns of the dangers of solely relying on technology to steer choices. “As with any application of predictive analytics,” he says, “it is the integration of those models within the context of governing and the processes of human decision-making that is the critical success factor.”

Public trust in AI must be won

Futurist Tom Cheesewright, whose job is to predict trends, posits that predictive analytics is “one subset of a wider array of foresight tools for scanning near and far horizons”. Should governments be making better use of such tools? “Absolutely,” he answers. “But I think it’s too tempting with predictive analytics to see this as a magical answer, a black box that can solve all our challenges. It’s not like Minority Report-style predictive justice. It’s about pulling policy levers in time to dodge obstacles or maximise opportunities.”

Echoing Hood’s advice, Cheesewright adds: “Foresight needs time and investment of cash and political capital, both of which are in short supply in our volatile, post-austerity era.”

Nick McQuire, of specialist technology market intelligence and advisory firm CCS Insight, says: “Historically, the public sector has been behind most sectors in terms of maturity in deploying and investing in AI,” but senses the purse strings are being loosened. “We are starting to see more AI applications in the public sector: chatbots, contact centre assistance and demand forecasting,” says the senior vice president and head of enterprise research.

AI has been excoriated in the UK media this year, though, making citizens and politicians wary of the tech and by extension predictive analytics. “Public confidence in AI is not high,” McQuire concedes. “To build trust in AI, organisations are now having to double-down on areas like data governance and security, privacy, explainability and ethics.”

It didn’t help that prime minister Boris Johnson, the most powerful politician in the UK, blamed the Ofqual exam-marking fiasco in August on “a mutant algorithm”, says Dr Jeni Tennison, vice president and chief strategy adviser at the Open Data Institute. “We have to recognise people are at the heart of designing algorithms; it’s not that algorithms go off and mutate on their own and we have no control over them,” she says. “We need to ensure there is a good end-to-end process that recognises the AI isn’t always going to get things right.”

Tennison, a fervent supporter of open data, believes those in the public sector must take care of how they deploy the technology. And, as such, predictive analytics, if applied, should be closely managed. “Algorithms that are used by the public sector have a much bigger impact on people’s lives. Government has a particular responsibility to make sure it uses AI and data well,” she says.

“Right now we’re operating from a position where people distrust the use of algorithms. The public sector has to be very proactive and win that trust.”

Given the public scepticism around AI, and the paucity of data scientists to make best use of predictive analytics, it seems we are some way off the UK governing in advance. Ethically, perhaps that is no bad thing.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2020

Fighting fraud in times of crisis

Cybercrime is always distressing for those affected, but when the resultant losses come from the public purse, it must be taken even more seriously

Coronavirus has coursed through every facet of our lives, and society and business have already paid a colossal price to restrict its flow. We will be counting the cost for years, if not decades. And while people have become almost anaesthetised to the enormous, unprecedented sums of support money administered by the government, it was still painful to learn, in October, that taxpayers could face losing up to £26 billion on COVID-19 loans, according to an alarming National Audit Office report.

Given the likely scale of abuse, it raises the question of how authorities should go about eliminating public sector fraud? Could artificial intelligence (AI) fraud detection be the answer?

Admittedly, the rapid deployment of financial-aid schemes, when the public sector was also dealing with a fundamental shift in service delivery, created opportunities for both abuse and risk of systematic error. Fraudsters have taken advantage of the coronavirus chaos. But their nefariousness is not limited to the public sector.

Ryan Olson, vice president of threat intelligence at American multinational cybersecurity organisation Palo Alto Networks, says COVID-19 triggered “the cybercrime gold rush of 2020”.

Indeed, the latest crime figures published at the end of October by the Office for National Statistics show that, in the 12 months to June, there were approximately 11.5 million offences in England and Wales. Some 51 per cent of them were made up of 4.3 million incidents of fraud and 1.6 million cybercrime events, a year-on-year jump of 65 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

Cybercrime gold rush – counting the cost

Jim Gee, national head of forensic services at Crowe UK, a leading audit, tax, advisory and risk firm, says: “Even more worryingly, while the figures are for a 12-month period, a comparison with the previous quarterly figures shows this increase has occurred in the April-to-June period of 2020, the three months after the COVID-19 health and economic crisis hit. The size of the increase needed in a single quarter to result in a 65 per cent increase over the whole 12 months could mean actual increases of up to four times this percentage.”

In terms of eliminating public sector fraud, Mike Hampson, managing director at consultancy Bishopsgate Financial, fears an expensive game of catch-up. “Examples of misuse have increased over the last few months,” he says. “These include fraudulent support-loan claims and creative scams such as criminals taking out bounce-back loans in the name of car dealerships, in an attempt to buy high-end sports cars.”

AI fraud detection and machine-learning algorithms should be put in the driving seat to pump the brakes on iniquitous activity, he argues. “AI can certainly assist in carrying out basic checks and flagging the most likely fraud cases for a human to review,” Hampson adds.

John Whittingdale, media and data minister, concedes that the government “needs to adapt and respond better”, but says AI and machine-learning are now deemed critical to eliminating public sector fraud. “As technology advances, it can be used for ill, but at the same time we can adapt new technology to meet that threat,” he says. “AI has a very important part to play.”

Teaming up with technology leaders

Technology is already vital in eliminating public sector fraud at the highest level. In March, the Cabinet Office rolled out Spotlight, the government grants automated due-diligence tool built on a Salesforce platform. Ivana Gordon, head of the government grants management function COVID-19 response at the Cabinet Office, says Spotlight “speeds up initial checks by processing thousands of applications in minutes, replacing manual analysis that, typically, can take at least two hours per application”. The tool draws on open datasets from Companies House, the Charity Commission and 360Giving, plus government databases that are not available to the public.

“Spotlight has proven robust and reliable,” says Gordon, “supporting hundreds of local authorities and departments to administer COVID-19 funds quickly and efficiently. To date Spotlight has identified around 2 per cent of payment irregularities, enabling grant awards to be investigated and payments halted to those who are not eligible.”

We need to watch how the technology fits into the whole process. AI doesn’t get things right 100 per cent of the time

She adds that Spotlight is one of a suite of countermeasure tools, including AI fraud detection, developed with technology companies, and trialled and implemented across the public sector to help detect and prevent abuse and error.

Besides, critics shouldn’t be too hard on the public sector, argues David Shrier, adviser to the European Parliament in the Centre for AI, because it was “understandably dealing with higher priorities, like human life, which may have distracted somewhat from cybercrime prevention”. He believes that were it not for the continued investment in the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the cost of fraudulent activity would have been significantly higher.

Work to be done to prevent fraud

Greg Day, vice president and chief security officer, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Palo Alto Networks, who sits on Europol’s cybersecurity advisory board, agrees. Day points to the success of the government’s Cyber Essentials digital toolkit. He thinks, however, that the NCSC must “further specialise, tailor its support and advice, and strengthen its role as a bridge into information both from the government, but also trusted third parties, because cyber is such an evolving space”.

The public sector has much more to do in combating cybercrime and fraud prevention on three fronts, says Peter Yapp, who was deputy director of incident management at the NCSC up to last November. It must encourage more reporting, make life difficult for criminals by upping investment in AI fraud detection and reallocate investigative resources from physical to online crime, he says.

Yapp, who now leads law firm Schillings’ cyber and information security team, says a good example of an initiative that has reduced opportunity for UK public sector fraud is the NCSC’s Mail Check, which monitors 11,417 domains classed as public sector. “This is used to set up and maintain good domain-based message authentication, reporting and conformance (DMARC), making email spoofing much harder,” he says. Organisations that deploy DMARC can ensure criminals do not successfully use their email addresses as part of their campaigns.”

While such guidance is welcome, there are potential problems with embracing tech to solve the challenge of eliminating public sector fraud, warns Dr Jeni Tennison, vice president and chief strategy adviser at the Open Data Institute. If unchecked, AI fraud detection could be blocking people and businesses that are applying for loans in good faith, or worse, she says.

“We need to watch out how the technology and AI fit into the whole process,” says Tennison. “As we have seen this year, with the Ofqual exam farrago, AI doesn’t get things right 100 per cent of the time. If you assume it is perfect, then when it doesn’t work, it will have a very negative impact on the people who are wrongly accused or badly affected to the extent they, and others, are fearful of using public sector services.”

There are certainly risks with blindly following any technology, concurs Nick McQuire, senior vice president and head of enterprise research at CCS Insight. But the public sector simply must arm itself with AI or the cost to the taxpayer will be, ultimately, even more significant. “Given the scale of the security challenge, particularly for cash-strapped public sector organisations that lack the resources and skills to keep up with the current threat environment, AI, warts and all, is going to become a crucial tool in driving automation into this environment to help their security teams cope.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2020

Taking a peek at the new retail calendar

What happens to Black Friday when customers can’t jostle in the aisles? Or Christmas shopping season when we can’t hit the high street? Experts think these dates will become part of a whole new online retail calendar

Will it be a happy Christmas for UK retailers? After the coronavirus pandemic squeezing the life out of the high street, they certainly deserve some cheer. Data shows their fortunes could be resurrected by ecommerce. But given the shift to online, and the evolution of shopping habits, what does it mean for the traditional retail calendar?

New data from Adobe indicates activity around key retail dates will begin earlier, and peak retail occasions will be higher and more prolonged. According to the software giant’s international president Paul Robson, online holiday sales will “shatter all previous records”.

This is supported by Adobe’s projections that, in America alone, Black Friday will generate $10 billion (£7.5 billion) in online sales. “That’s a 39 per cent year-on-year increase,” says Robson. “Cyber Monday will remain the biggest online shopping day of the year,” he continues, adding that $12.7 billion (£9.6 billion) is expected to be spent in the United States, up 35 per cent on last year.

Robson says: “Our research into the online shopping habits of UK consumers during lockdown found that while they were up to four times more likely to buy from marketplaces like Amazon, it’s not always at the expense of smaller independent retailers. Where marketplaces may have the edge when it comes to convenience and speed, shoppers have also shown they are keen to support local, independent retailers where they can.

“The extended shopping period, coupled with the ability of independent retailers to deliver great, personalised digital experiences, could see them have a happier Christmas period than many might expect.”

Looking beyond traditional retail peaks

Google data also implies the retail calendar needs updating. “As a direct result of COVID-19, we have witnessed heightened search queries for online retail this year that will lead to a new baseline for Black Friday,” says Becky Power, director of consumer retail and technology at Google UK. “Google searches for ‘early Black Friday deals’ were up by 150 per cent versus November 2019.” Further, Google searches for “Christmas shopping” are up 1,800 per cent compared to the same period last year.

“The message is clear: consumers are looking beyond traditional peaks in the retail calendar as they continue to enjoy the flexibility of browsing online,” says Power, who points out that Enders research estimates there will be an additional £4.5 billion-worth of online sales in 2020.

Retail owners must keep pace with customer expectations and arm themselves with technology that enables multi-channel personalisation and improves data analysis. “Given that a continually growing number of consumers are already shopping online for traditional peaks, retailers will have to adapt to be ready for this rise in demand,” says Power. “Digital tools are imperative for applying product promotions easily and quickly, boosting retailers’ visibility to new customers, and can uncover meaningful insights from their performance.”

Kyle Harbinson, of global technology consultants REPL Group, agrees. “To reduce the impact of the troughs, retailers need to connect with and understand the circumstances of their customers, in a dynamically changing environment,” the consulting partner says. “We are in uncharted territory, so retailers need to pivot from instinct-driven decision-making to a data-driven culture.”

Taking steps to bolster the online offering

Warnings are being heeded. Capgemini’s annual Holiday Shopping Survey reports that while more than a third (36 per cent) of UK retailers expect an increase in holiday sales compared to previous years, 91 per cent have taken deliberate steps to bolster their online offering. Almost half (47 per cent) have improved their ecommerce propositions and 52 per cent will offer more generous discounts both online and in-store.

The benefit ecommerce brings allows you to create and build your own peak retail event

However, Dr Rajesh Bhargave, associate professor of marketing at Imperial College Business School, cautions that one issue retailers will face post-COVID-19 is the dilemma of “sticky prices”. “Consumers tend to remember what they would have paid previously for a product, so would view price increases as unjust in poor economic conditions,” he says. “Similarly, cutting prices would erode pricing power.”

No retailers should be discouraged from embracing ecommerce, however, stresses author and business consultant Erica Wolfe-Murray. “The hype surrounding traditional retail peak days has a halo effect across the board whether you are actively marketing or not,” she says. “But the benefit ecommerce brings allows you to create and build your own peak retail event. Think ‘Founder’s Day’, ‘Dress-Up Day’, or whatever.”

Embracing technology is business-critical

Technology can also help with the morphing of traditional peak retail periods, from dealing with stock management and the supply chain, to predicting when more staff might be required. Or with improving the delivery process, posits Mike Hancox, chief executive of UK couriers Yodel. “The five months stretching from November to the end of March have long been the busiest period for those in logistics as they encompass retail’s traditional peaks of Black Friday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day,” he says.

“This year we’re expecting Christmas to be higher in intensity and longer in duration than previous years, but a greater increase in overall volumes means the fluctuations seen in previous years could be less pronounced in the future.”

Yodel has developed a parcel-scanning app to streamline the delivery process. “It gives more flexibility to the growing numbers of self-employed couriers out on the road who can download the app on their own devices rather than having to get up to speed with a handheld terminal.”

Striving to reduce touchpoints and frictions through tech is now business critical, argues Professor Laurent Muzellec, founder and director of Trinity Centre for Digital Business. “Big digital players such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple use artificial intelligence to produce an effortless experience; this should be a source of inspiration for all retailers,” he says.

Retailers that act on this advice and tailor their offerings, both online and offline, look set to have a happy Christmas and beyond.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Retail report in November 2020

Brexit and COVID-10 accelerate move to digital

The United Kingdom European Union membership referendum was inevitable when David Cameron won the 2015 general election, having promised such a vote during his campaign. Coincidentally, 2015 was when branchless challenger banks Monzo and Revolut were founded, with Starling launching a year earlier. 

While the direction of travel was established five years ago, the combination of Brexit and now COVID-19 has quickened the drive for older financial institutions to transform their business and operating models, because it’s clear: the future is digital.

Technology is enabling fintechs to enter the banking market, and thrive. Experts predict traditional banks will have to partner with tech organisations to keep pace with developments. 

A study of 200 UK and European banking executives by Marqeta – an open-API card issuing and processing platform that MasterCard has recently invested in – found that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic over three-quarters (78 per cent) of banks have been forced to change their future banking strategy. 

Some 72 per cent of those surveyed are planning to grow the number of in-branch digital services, and two-thirds will invest more in digital banking and services. Further, nine in 10 respondents (89 per cent) says the COVID-19 situation has “drastically increased” the speed of change in banking from years to months.

Max Chuard, chief executive of Geneva-based banking software fintech Temenos, says: “Uncertainty is a catalyst for innovation. The 2020s were already set to be the decade for digital banking transformation. But now the coronavirus crisis has accelerated this process. It has made the need for advanced banking technologies – like artificial intelligence, cloud and SaaS – even greater.”

Defining moment for the banking industry

The Temenos CEO points to his organisation’s global survey that shows almost half of the respondents (45 per cent) say their strategic response to the rapidly changing banking landscape is to build a “true digital ecosystem”. He adds: “It’s a defining moment for the banking industry, and those who can harness the potential of digital technology will shape the future.”

Michael Plimsoll, industry head of financial services at computer software giant Adobe, thinks the same. “Banks have to ensure they keep pace with digital-first challenger banks, such as Monzo or Starling, to deliver new experiences that both enhance and complement their bricks-and-mortar branches,” he says. “This has included implementing new technologies within apps and websites that enable customers to perform tasks previously exclusive to the branch, like cashing cheques or remote meetings with advisors.”

This need to evolve banking operations provides an opportunity to streamline typically time-intensive tasks, such as setting up an account or applying for a loan, Plimsoll says. “As an example, TSB implemented digital signature technologies using Adobe Sign to allow customers to carry out important processes from their own home, moving over 15,000 account sign-ups that would normally require a trip to the branch,” he adds.

That convenience will be central to winning customers, believes Aaron Archer, chief executive and founder of London-headquartered challenger bank Finndon. “Digital banks will see a major increase in their market share compared to high street banks, due to their lack of flexibility to adapt to market conditions, and customers will be seeking greater opportunities to save.” 

He wouldn’t be surprised if big tech firms, including Apple and Google, begin to “offer banking products to their customer base to create a robust ecosystem”. Archer adds: “You will see an increase of mergers and acquisitions between tech firms and traditional banks looking to stay relevant.” 

Sophia La Vesconte, a fintech lawyer at Linklaters, agrees. “With increasing digitalisation, we are likely to see a growth in outsourcing arrangements between the financial sector and technology service providers.” However, she warns: “Regulators across the globe are quite concerned about the sector becoming overly dependent on a small number of – unregulated – technology companies.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Banking report in November 2020

Who protects the unprotected? Insuring freelancers in times of crisis

Being self-employed has always involved some insecurity, but as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps away potential work, financial support for this vital part of the workforce has never been more urgent

When disaster strikes, who protects the unprotected? Three years ago, LV= calculated that just 4 per cent of self-employed workers in the UK had income protection cover. The insurance firm warned, with eerie prescience, of a “heightened risk of a financial crisis”.

At a conservative estimate, more than four million members of the UK’s self-employed workforce did not have relevant insurance when the coronavirus pandemic began to suffocate the economy. And now that they are feeling the squeeze, having complained about inadequate financial support from the government, many are so cash strapped, it is hard to justify paying insurance premiums.

The plight of Dani, a Preston-based freelance lighting technician, is all too typical. On March 17, a day after prime minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown plans, she was due to begin her dream job. “Literally ten minutes after that announcement, the email came through from the theatre explaining ‘we can’t continue’,” she says.

The 31 year old has fallen through every financial crack and only receives Jobseeker’s Allowance. But at £73 a week, it doesn’t cover her bills. With Dani’s partner being made redundant, the outlook is bleak. “I don’t even feel like we’re surviving,” she says.

Self-employed musician, composer and sound engineer David, who lives in Perth, Scotland, qualified for the government’s COVID-19 Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, but he too is struggling to cope financially.

David and his wife, a care worker, haven’t bought anything non-essential since March and, to reduce petrol costs, their car has remained stationary. Despite tightening their belts, this has not been enough to prevent having to dip into their savings to pay the bills. 

“The events industry folded overnight,” says David. “That’s my entire income gone. What am I going to do? Have I got any transferable skills?”

It is a particularly challenging time for those in the live events industry, which depends on self-employed workers with niche skills. Conal Dodds, who co-founded Bristol-headquartered Crosstown Concerts in 2016 and had staged more than 300 music events within 18 months, has already written off next year.

The events industry folded overnight. That’s my entire income gone. What am I going to do? Have I got any transferable skills?

“This situation has highlighted that the self-employed, freelancers, zero-hours contract workers have no safety net,” he says. “We need to recognise the importance of these workers and look to protect them in the future.”

Deepening the finance crisis for the self-employed

Those self-employed workers whose industries are still open for business feel pressure to keep working regardless, according to Nesta research. Some 22 per cent of self-employed, 29 per cent of sole traders and 30 per cent of gig workers agree that if they caught COVID-19 and had to self-isolate, they fear they’d lose their job.

In mid-October, the Office for National Statistics showed the UK’s self-employed workforce had shrunk to 4.56 million, and fallen by 240,000 in the third quarter compared to the same period in 2019.

Derek Cribb, chief executive of the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, laments the record drop to 2015 levels. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK had experienced a consistent trend towards higher self-employment. “At the start of this year, there were over five million self-employed people in the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000, representing 15.3 per cent of all employment,” says Cribb.

He argues the new figures are evidence of the “devastating impact of the gaps in government support for the self-employed during the first wave of the pandemic” and reflect the critical need for better solutions. “In times of recession, the self-employed are key to driving recovery,” says Cribb, “but the sector is now struggling to save itself, let alone the economy.”

Mike Parkes, technical director at GoSimpleTax, worries that the financial pressures facing self-employed workers will soon ratchet up. He predicts a “double bubble” in January, as his organisation’s research suggests 56 per cent of people opted to defer payment to HM Revenue & Customs. Many self-employed workers will have to settle tax liabilities for the 2019-20 tax year and the first payment on account due for 2020-21.

“Unless you have your house in order by January 31, and sufficient funds to cover all tax liabilities, a deferral could create a perfect storm,” says Parkes. “What’s more, once that date passes, HMRC will not hesitate to reimpose the interest charges, penalties and collection procedures usually in place.”

Knock on effect

Bleak outlook for the hardest hit

Can insurtechs or traditional insurers come to the rescue? Andy Chapman, chief executive of insurance provider The Exeter, acknowledges “the self-employed are among those hardest hit” by COVID-19 fallout. “Despite the perks and flexibility of self-employment, the reality is they are not protected in ways their full-time counterparts are,” he says.

The Exeter’s research indicates that workers in this sector have a stark lack of savings. Almost a fifth (17 per cent) have no personal savings to fall back on and 35 per cent don’t save anything in a typical month. Chapman reports The Exeter’s Day 1 cover, permitting policyholders to claim after just three days off work due to illness or injury, has proven popular, with more than 5,000 applications during lockdown. 

Is technology the answer to freelancer insurance?

Now is the time for insurers and governments alike to embrace tech-driven solutions, urges Freddy Macnamara, founder and chief executive of flexible car insurance provider Cuvva. The insurance industry “must modernise its processes and products to better support millions of people’s changing needs” and adapt for the on-demand generation, he says.

“More affordable and fair insurance products and services to protect the self-employed community, bolstering the right level of support, will encourage growth in the sector, which is critical in the economic downturn,” says Macnamara, pointing out that Cuvva provides car insurance by the hour, week or month. “It’s not surprising that insurance providers offering flexibility and a better product market fit are thriving.” 

Chris Kaye, co-founder and chief executive of Sherpa, an insurtech organisation offering personal risk management, agrees. “Drewberry has a nice angle focused on freelancers as a more traditional broker and Dinghy has picked up on the need for flexibility in cover that is important to freelancers,” he says. “I also really like what Zego has done, embedding insurance into the gig-economy platforms to make it a seamless part of the worker experience.”

Collective Benefits, a London-based insurtech startup, is similarly working with leading gig-economy platforms. “Providing benefits and protections for workers is a win-win,” says Anthony Beilin, co-founder and chief executive, who reveals the companies his organisation works with have seen a 17-fold increase in engagement.

With the government unable, or unwilling, to offer greater support for self-employed workers, the onus is on organisations and those within the insurance industry to collaborate and provide a lifeline. Otherwise, millions will sink.

The article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Insurance report in September 2020

What’s holding the 5G rollout back?

A quotation attributed to American-Canadian science-fiction writer William Gibson surges to mind when assessing the scarcity of active use-cases of the fifth-generation mobile network and the associated technologies and industries required to enable 5G at scale. “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed,” the father of cyberpunk commented decades ago.

Evangelists promise 5G will provide super-speed broadband connections, up to a hundred times faster than 4G, and flash the green light for autonomous vehicles, among a panoply of other pluses. It will start the internet of things (IoT) revolution and make cities truly smart, finally. What needs to happen, then, to improve the distribution and adoption of 5G?

“The opportunity to take advantage of advanced cellular technologies to drive digital transformation across the board – industrial and robotics, automotive, aerospace and defence, smart cities and more – is unprecedented,” says Rob Jones, the UK-based strategic alliances regional director at multinational software and services provider PTC. “Advanced cellular capabilities have the potential to fuel the fourth industrial revolution, but only if the ecosystem co-operates to enable 5G.”

It’s a sizeable “if”, given there remain concerns around the readiness and reliability of supporting industries and services, including collocation, big data, cybersecurity and edge computing, to deliver and enable 5G en masse. Indeed, the financial and ecological cost to build the necessary infrastructure is colossal, says Thomas Spencer, telecoms lead at software firm R3.

“Mobile network operators (MNOs) face an uphill battle to enable 5G,” he says. “It is estimated they need to invest up to $1 trillion in upgrading network infrastructure for 5G, while already having to manage sprawling networks of towers, cables and switches just to support their ongoing operations.”

No ‘big-bang’ moment for 5G

There are further complexities. “The challenge of how to finance and optimise infrastructure usage extends to MNO plans for 5G rollout and in particular how to roll out small cell sites,” says Spencer. Next year in the United States alone, there will be some 400,000 small cell sites located on public infrastructure, restaurants, offices and homes. “Determining who owns, operates and finances these sites poses a significant and operational challenge,” he adds, hinting that blockchain might provide a solution.

Richard Carwana, Dell Technologies’ UK telco and service provider director, is similarly ambivalent about what must happen to enable 5G. “We are still joining the dots on how this will be built out,” he concedes. “There won’t be a ‘big bang’ of 5G that some had expected, rather a gradual introduction of services and operators moving into the telco space. Partnership and collaboration will be pivotal to make significant progress and drive implementation.”

He points out that “5G requires dense fibre connectivity to underpin use-cases, whereas 4G and 3G did not” and calls for “telecoms providers, industry leaders and governments to come together to understand requirements and build solutions for specific use-cases”. As an example, Carwana notes how the German government is collaborating with telco providers to build new motorways with autonomous-only lanes.

Partnership and collaboration will be pivotal to make significant progress and drive implementation

Closer to home, the UK government has acknowledged the ban of China’s trailblazer Huawei is likely to delay widespread 5G rollout by at least two years, notes Robert Pocknell, intellectual property partner at Keystone Law in London. “European Union research shows Huawei is the number-one leader for patents that are fundamental to 5G rollout,” he says.

Strong cybersecurity measures needed to enable 5G

Politics aside, cybersecurity readiness is one of the fundamental issues holding up the advancement of 5G. Is it any wonder, when achieving 5G’s lofty goals relies on billions of interconnected devices, remote workers and the growth of cloud infrastructure? “Add to this the increasingly heavy compute and network infrastructure that is needed to support 5G applications, devices, data and services,” says Martin Rudd, chief technology officer at Telesoft Technologies. “Security, 5G and IoT are inextricably linked.”

The recent AT&T Cybersecurity Insights Report: Security at the Speed of 5G highlights the considerations that stakeholders must address. “A key takeaway is that 76 per cent of the respondents expect wholly new threats to emerge as a result of 5G and the increased attack surface,” says Theresa Lanowitz, head of evangelism and communications at AT&T Cybersecurity. “The remaining 24 per cent of participants expect a volumetric increase in existing threats.”

Shahzad Nadeem, head of smart cities at design and engineering consultancy Plextek, agrees and says: “On top of security, there are concerns around the ownership of data, along with compatibility and interoperability with existing systems.”

Security and trust issues – spooking investors?

Additionally, erroneous claims that 5G is connected to the spread of the coronavirus has further hampered its progress, says Amelia Westerberg, associate strategist at R/GA London. “Conspiracy theorists are the biggest threat to the uptake of 5G,” she argues. “Anti-5G attacks on phone masts and general national security and health concerns have caused 5G rollout to be delayed in most markets.”

As of mid-September, just shy of 300,000 people and organisations from 220 nations had signed the Stop 5G on Earth and in Space appeal, and investors might be getting spooked. It’s a tricky sell in the first place, with all the moving parts. As Nadeem says: “Because the technology is still evolving and its value potential split across its different uses in different domains, there are difficulties in justifying the business case and return on investment.”

Also in September, it was reported that in Grenoble, France’s answer to Silicon Valley, mayor Éric Piolle, a rising star in The Greens political party, is in no rush to provide access to 5G, questioning the impact it will have on the environment, especially if millions of new handsets are required.

While it is evident that to maximise 5G’s vast potential there is a reliance on a confluence of upgrade technologies, as well as multi-stakeholder collaboration and enormous investment, could it be there are more basic hurdles to overcome first? “For people to adapt and trust 5G,” Westerberg concludes, “it needs to establish itself as a positive contribution to culture as well as the economy.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of 5G report in September 2020

Lockdown II: A tech-powered survival kit

Lockdown II, the sequel, is here. From today, November 5, for at least four weeks those of us in England will once again play hermit to prevent a “medical and moral disaster” for the National Health Service, according to Boris Johnson.

Legally this latest lockdown, designed to halt the spread of the second wave of COVID-19, will last until December 2. But considering the original lockdown lasted from March 23 until restrictions were eased in early July, three-and-a-bit months later, I’m not holding my breath (well, only if I have to take public transport). And that Rishi Sunak has just extended the furlough scheme to March is a telltale sign, methinks.

Without wishing to come across too much like a “prepper” – you know, those people who dash to their underground bunker armed with guns and tins of baked beans at the first hint of the apocalypse – I would like to recommend a handful of products that might help you survive the next month(s) at home. These five objects have certainly supercharged my home-working setup and made the days much more bearable.

Technology has enabled organisations to switch (almost) seamlessly to mass remote working at the drop of a shutter, so it follows that all but one of the items listed below is a new tech product. (As an aside I was amused when Eric Yuan, the now mega-mega-rich Founder and Chief Executive of Zoom, admitted that he, too, suffers from videoconferencing fatigue and, as a tonic, watches The Great British Bake Off. The message is clear: we all need our escape, and especially so in these strange times.)

Xellence wireless noise-cancelling in-ear earphones from X by Kygo (€199 / £180)

Because the first lockdown afforded me the time to further indulge in my new hobby of DJing – which I wrote about for The Arbuturian earlier this year – my music listening has been dialled up quite a few notches. Now, while tapping away at my desk, “working”, I spend many hours a day searching for audio gems to embroider my next mix. However, with family members scuttling around, it can be tricky to focus entirely – on either work or videoconferencing or music listening – without these quite incredible new noise-cancelling earbuds.

I’ve owned many a wireless earbud – including some three-times as expensive – and I’m thrilled to report these are by far the best. For one, they are wireless – no cable around your neck – and as X by Kygo is a dedicated Norwegian headphone specialist with DJ, songwriter and producer Kygo at the helm, the performance is superb. Available in either black or white, they look the business, too. Just in case you need it, the earbuds have a 10-hour battery life, and you can download the X app if you want to personalise the sound further.

OWC Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock (£285)

Granted, a docking station that transforms your laptop into a desktop computer (monitor sold separately), and much more, might not arouse interest in many people. Still, perhaps they haven’t met the right docking station. For OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock has all you could wish for to upgrade your home-working experience – primarily if you work in a creative industry.

Now for the science. The Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock provides lightning-fast 40Gb/s transfer speeds; features a 10Gb Ethernet connection; has three USB ports and frontside CFast 2.0 and SD 4.0 card readers; and with 60W of pass-through charging it will ensure your laptop battery is never empty. It truly is the next level.

Belkin 3-in-1 Wireless Charger (£99.99)

If, like me, most of the devices you own are made by Apple, this multi-charger is a revelation. With Belkin’s new 3-in-1 Wireless Charger you don’t have to root around for your iPhone cable, or try and locate your Apple Watch charger, or remember to power-up your AirPods (but of course, ahem, with your new Xellence earbuds this is a redundant point). This clever bit of kit stands, discretely, on your desk and you can charge your three devices whenever you want – and, indeed, all at the same time.

Oculus Quest 2 (£299) (main picture)

When your work for the day is over, or perhaps just when you want a break and need to get away from it all – without resorting to watching The Great British Bake Off – reach for this. The latest virtual reality headset from market leaders Oculus only launched a couple of weeks ago, and blimey it is sensational. I’ve played around with many a VR headset, but this could – and should – be the one that breaks into the mainstream.

The Oculus Quest 2 is the most advanced, all-in-one VR system currently on the market. Every detail has been designed to make virtual worlds adapt to your movements, enabling you to explore awe-inspiring games and experiences with incredible freedom. Even before I bought any games, I’d walked up Everest, hung out with lion cubs, and danced with a groovy robot. Lockdown II will allow me to spend more time with this fantastic product, and I can’t wait. This VR headset and music will be my escape. And why not, when the tech is increasingly good, and the outside reality is increasingly bad?

One thing to note is that to use this bad boy you will need to link it to your Facebook account, if you have one. (Facebook owns Oculus, in case you didn’t know.)

S6L Brompton Bike (£1,190)

It’s not tech (at least not in the modern sense) but I’m throwing this one in here because it ticks an important box in the lockdown portfolio.

Admittedly, it’s hard to get your hands on a Brompton Bike right now, given the demand for two-wheeled bicycles, but we all know how important exercise is for your physical and mental health, particularly when locked down. Brompton still makes the best folding bikes on the market, and with the Brexit transition period coming to an end on January 1, perhaps you could treat yourself to a Christmas present and buy British?

After all, we’ll probably still be in lockdown when the turkey is carved.

This article first appeared in The Arbuturian in November, 2020

Educating children for the jobs of the future

In an uncertain world, the only certainty is change, so young people should be taught how to adapt in a constantly changing working environment

By 2030, robots, artificial intelligence, automatons, call them what you like, will have displaced up to 800 million workers or one fifth of the global workforce, according to McKinsey Global Institute. The inexorable and exponential march of technology will create new jobs, experts assure us, but what are those roles likely to be and how should we prepare?

It’s important to equip young people with foundational skills that will stand them in good stead regardless of what jobs they end up taking on

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018, estimates that by 2022 “no less than 54 per cent of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling”. The report adds: “Human skills, such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation will retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving.”

What skills should we be teaching children in schools? 

How about in 2032, or 2042, and beyond? What tools should we be arming today’s children with so they stand a chance of surviving the world or work in one or two decades from now? “Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity,” Yuval Noah Harari writes in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

In a chapter entitled Education: Change is the only constant, Professor Harari continues: “More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.”

Lord Jim Knight, chief education adviser at Tes Global, a network for educational professionals, strongly believes traditional curricula need to be overhauled in the UK. Moreover, young people should be allowed to play for as many years as possible because they will learn and develop skills that will be essential to flourish at work and home in the coming years.

“In Scandinavia, children attend school from the age of six and in many ways I think that is the sensible thing to do,” he says. “In Britain, we have a parental expectation for our children to be taught formal skills, such as reading and writing, earlier.”

Lord Knight contends that many secondary schools “are stuck in formal pedagogies” and must introduce more play-based learning, through projects. He asks: “Why wouldn’t we want kids to learn by building stuff, making things and being assessed by exhibiting work, rather than doing everything through formal desk-based exams?”

New schools teaching children to be ready for change 

Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. Lord Knight welcomes the opening of two free schools, in Bournemouth and west London, that are the brainchild of Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop and the inventor of Lara Croft of the video game franchise Tomb Raider. They offer “a groundbreaking curriculum relevant to the digital age,” according to the Livingston Academy’s website. Elsewhere, Gever Tulley’s Brightworks in San Francisco is a school that “reimagines education by taking the best practices from both early-childhood education and hands-on, project-based experiential learning”.

“We can’t know for sure what skills children will require for the future, but what we can be confident of is that change, and thus the need to adapt, will be an ongoing and increasingly important aspect,” says Peter Twining, professor of education futures at The Open University.

“Flexibility and resilience, and learning to learn will all be critical. Therefore, play – an important element of how humans, and other mammals, learn – is vital. Digital technology can be a powerful tool to support children’s learning if used appropriately, too.”

The amount of device screen time youngsters should be afforded for learning is hotly debated, however. “In Silicon Valley, there are boutique schools attended by the princes and princesses of tech giants that keep the children away from anything digital,” says Sir Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder and chairman of the Open Data Institute.

Tech and play could be the secret to equipping children for future jobs

Efforts have been made to gamify learning for digital natives in recent times, with varying degrees of success, but one standout triumph is Raspberry Pi Foundation, which has developed a series of small, single-board computers to promote teaching of basic computer science, as well as innovation in schools and developing countries.

Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi’s Cambridge University-educated chief executive, believes introducing children to tech, ideally through play, is critical to their future success. “You don’t make a concert pianist by sitting someone down at a piano at the age of 18,” he argues. “It’s important to reach children as early as possible, while their brains are still flexible.

“At school, the emphasis needs to be on foundational skills: numeracy, literacy and critical thinking. We advocate for computing education in part because it’s a great way for students to gain those foundational skills in an enjoyable, relevant way.

“It’s absolutely not about trying to guess which programming language is going to be required by employers in 20 years’ time and drilling children in that; cross-training to specific technology is down to employers and employees.

“It’s a truism that in the future workers will have to be prepared for roles to change radically over the course of a career. The days of a job for life, and of a single programme of education and training that fits you for that job, are gone. This is why it’s important to equip young people with foundational skills that will stand them in good stead regardless of what jobs they end up taking on.”

Learning through play

It is not just children who learn through play; adults do as well. In this period of seismic workforce transformation, wrought by technology’s unstoppable progression, retraining and mastering new skills will be imperative – and not just in the future, but now.

Indeed, data literacy is fast becoming a desirable facet for members of the C-suite and business leaders of the near future. “Half of the world’s data to ever exist was created in 2017 and only 0.8 per cent of it was analysed,” says Amanda Clack, head of strategic consulting at real estate group CBRE. “The potential is huge. We are only limited by our imagination.”

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has created an educational strategy board game to help people, old and young, better understand data and open their minds to data-driven innovation. Datopolis is the brainchild of ODI chief executive Jeni Tennison and former ODI colleague Ellen Broad.

“We wanted to build a game about data and data infrastructure, and help people understand their roles in making the most of data,” Dr Tennison says. “Players need to work together in Datopolis – negotiate whether to open or close data – to achieve common and individual goals. In addition to learning about data, players are encouraged to collaborate and communicate – both essential skills for the future. It’s great fun, too.”

Dr Tennison spent 18 months fine-tuning the game with her team, which included the ODI’s ex-head of learning Simon Bullmore, before launching in 2016. Mr Bullmore has since founded a data literacy and digital marketing organisation, Mission Drive, and regularly uses Datopolis as a learning tool.

“Whether it’s travelling to work or analysing sales performance, we rely on data to get answers to complex problems and make better decisions,” he says. “To thrive in an increasingly data-driven world, leaders need to understand important concepts like data strategy and data infrastructure. But these concepts are abstract, difficult to grasp, let alone take action on.

Datopolis gives people the experience of creating economic, social and environmental value with data. Participants of all ages and all levels of experience tell us it has helped them understand data concepts they had previously had difficulty grasping, for example that data infrastructure is about the data itself, not the cables and computers that connect data together.”

Stressing how learning through play is effective for everyone, he concludes: “Research shows that, at any age, games do a better job of activating the cognitive functions that help us learn than standard approaches to training. This gets people engaged and ready to learn, which in itself is valuable, but for data literacy it’s essential, because getting value from data requires people to think and do things differently.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Work report in December 2018

Should you bother with real-time data?

Real-time insights are essential to adapt to a changing consumer landscape, but companies that ignore trust and transparency as part of the process are risking it all

The advice that “trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair” is attributed to an anonymous sage, which is good news for the sage because the dearth of real-time data means they’ll escape an endless stream of personalised ads.

But it’s wisdom that brands would do well to heed. Now more than ever, given that consumer trust is so difficult to earn and easy to lose, and organisations are becoming increasingly reliant on customer data to manage sales.

The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, published in late-June, found that, after price, the most critical factor in a customer’s purchasing decision is trust. “If trust is a key consideration for consumers, it must be a key consideration for brands,” says Henk Campher, vice president of corporate marketing at social media management platform Hootsuite.

However, consumer trust has been eroded in the last six months if engagement from brands has been lacking, or tone deaf, according to new Pegasystems research, which reveals the extent of damage the coronavirus pandemic has caused for businesses’ relationships with their customers.

More than a third (36 per cent) of respondents say they lost existing customers during the pandemic due to failings in their communications. And a similar number (37 per cent) admit to communicating at least one message that was poorly received and dented brand reputation.

It’s not easy for brands, though. The January State of the Connected Customer report from Salesforce highlights a rise in consumer expectations, while stressing four in five consumers won’t buy from companies they don’t trust.

Timing is key to real-time data success

The research shows almost three quarters (73 per cent) of customers think companies should understand their needs and 78 per cent expect consistent interactions across departments. And to make that work, real-time data is required.

“Brands that deliver connected, multichannel and personalised experiences will earn consumers’ trust,” says Adam Spearing, Salesforce chief technology officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Personalisation perhaps feeds from trust as much as it drives it

“Having a 360-degree customer view is crucial for enabling brands to have more personal and contextually aware interactions with customers. For retailers, this may be understanding the most appropriate time to offer customers in-store or online discounts. Whereas manufacturers can get ahead of demand based on what customers usually order at a specific time of the year, based on decades of data intelligence.”

And if companies can use real-time data to communicate with customers at particular times, and it feels sincere and authentic, then brownie points will be won. “Brands can build trust through meaningful interactions with their customers, anticipating their needs and delighting them,” says Spearing. As an example, he lauds Premier League football clubs that send personalised messages from star players to supporters on their birthdays.

Personalisation is a risky business

“The more valuable an interaction is for a customer, the more inclined they will be to continue to trust a brand to use their data appropriately,” he says, though warning there is “a fine line” to walk. “Only if brands use the data respectfully will they gain that trust.”

Andrew Hood, chief executive of data analytics consultancy Lynchpin, is equally ambivalent. “Personalisation perhaps feeds from trust as much as it drives it,” he says. “While I might be happier to share my data if I receive a better, more relevant experience in return, if I don’t trust you as a brand with my data in the first place, I might not feel confident enough to make the first move.”

M&C Saatchi’s senior art director Tom Kennedy is treading carefully and acknowledges the risk that comes with data-driven personalisation. “In January, Aviva addressed its whole email base as ‘Michael’, proving that with even the most basic data, mistakes can happen,” he says. “The assumptions, errors and insults will be amplified with each step more personal.”

Increased awareness of data privacy

Hunting for real-time data can be viewed as insidious and creepy, and there are many instances where organisations crossed the line. Cassandra Moons, data privacy officer at navigation technology firm TomTom, recalls how in 2012 American retailer Target supposedly worked out a teenager was pregnant before her parents through data mining. “Knowing intimate details about your customer that they have never told you can make people very uncomfortable,” she says.

More recently, consumer trust has been chipped away by serious data breaches. “Using data to personalise communications could be the tool that destroys people’s trust in advertising if not used smartly and respectfully,” says Megan Jones, senior planner at R/GA London. She points out that record numbers of people are using internet ad blockers and search engines protecting privacy, such as DuckDuckGo.

“This shift is symptomatic of greater public understanding around data due to Cambridge Analytica’s influence in the Vote Leave Brexit campaign, as well as greater awareness of data privacy through the launch of the General Data Protection Regulation two years ago,” says Jones.

Trust second only to price

Don’t rely too heavily on personalisation

Because customers arguably cherish personal data more than before, she questions a market strategy founded on real-time data. “Almost a decade ago, easyJet stopped investing in Google search terms and moved that budget into more traditional media to deliver phenomenal results. The company saved £6 million a year and there was a 95 per cent rise in seat sales,” says Jones.

“Similarly, last year adidas’ econometric analysis showed they’d been relying on ‘personalised’ communications too heavily as it was the broad brand-building communication that got them the majority – around 65 per cent – of their sales. And let’s not forget that Amazon, hailed as an exemplary data company, was the fifth-highest investor in traditional media in the UK in 2019, with a spend of £114 million, £26 million more than the year before.”

Lynchpin’s Hood concludes: “Ultimately, privacy and personalisation, using real-time data, go hand in hand. And brands that are transparent with the former are more likely to be able to deliver on the latter effectively to their, and their customers’, benefit.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future Customer report in September 2020

The transformative impact 5G will have on the sport sector

Most sports business leaders say the changes brought about by fifth-generation technology will be key to future success on the field and off it

More than three-quarters of leading business decision-makers in the sport sector believe that the fifth generation of cellular network technology (5G) will be key to future success, according to new research published by telecommunications giant Vodafone.

Compared with 4G, 5G promises faster response times (latency), superior reliability and resilience, and download speeds that are up to 10 times quicker.

And the research, released in early October to coincide with the opening of the Vodafone Business Lounge at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry – home of Wasps’ rugby and netball clubs – is compelling.

Seventy-six per cent confirmed their sports organisation will use 5G as a platform for innovation with four out of five respondents (80 per cent) saying they are confident 5G will underpin the way they run their organisations in the near future.

However, while the research shows that while 78 per cent believe the sports sector drives incredible innovation, 70 per cent think it lags behind other industry sectors in adopting new technology – and Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone Business UK, says this is where 5G can dramatically alter the sporting landscape.

“Sport is an area where 5G technology will have a huge impact,” she says. “This technology is a game-changer for business, the economy and the UK as a whole. It has the potential to transform the fan experience, change the way sports organisations operate, open up new revenue opportunities and help athletes improve their fitness and training programmes.”

Kevin Hasley, head of product at RootMetrics, a performance benchmarking firm, said 5G will boost the capabilities of elite athletes, whether through more rapid data-driven decisions, or improved virtual and augmented-reality applications, and even better injury prevention and rehabilitation. “Professional teams are already tracking their players,” he says.  “But greater 5G data speeds will enhance performance tracking even more.”

Notably, the Vodafone research shows that 75 per cent of respondents think that player performance will only improve if 5G is applied effectively to tracking.

“For team-based sports, where digital communications channels exist throughout an event such as a Formula One race, 5G could be the difference between first and second,” Mr Hasley adds. “Whether you’re a racing driver, jockey, sailor or golfer, 5G will enable athletes to train virtually under more realistic settings, meaning professionals can continue to refine their skills despite the bad weather that may have previously prevented them from training outside.

“The greater data speeds and increased connectivity that 5G brings with existing VR equipment will allow zero-latency training and uninterrupted practice which mimics the conditions of a course or track.”

Mak Sharma, a professor in computer science at Birmingham City University, agrees that the teams, athletes and coaches that embrace 5G will accelerate their chances of success.

“It will be possible to ‘wire up’ athletes with multiple tiny sensors that will transmit physiological body signs, micro-movements of joints, limbs, and so on, as well as acceleration, speed and altitude,” he says.

“These can be modelled in real-time using artificial intelligence (AI) and deep-learning techniques to inform coaches to help provide nuanced changes to provide competitive edge. This is only possible by an ultrafast streaming data connection that 5G can provide.”

Prof Sharma points to the current Rugby World Cup in Japan where, he says, the top countries are using 5G. “With the data that can be exchanged simultaneously with players on the field of play and the back-office fitness team, it is possible to have a virtual and even a holographic representation of the last tackle or scrum. This enables coaches and medics can walk round the images, so that that near-real-time decisions can be used to inform players on how to approach the next play.”

But how will 5G, which was switched on in seven cities across the UK by Vodafone in early July, ‘underpin’ the way in which sports organisations operate?

“We’re seeing more sports teams and rights-holders shifting to become entertainment companies, first and foremost,” says Mark Lloyd, Planner at Dark Horses, a sports-focused marketing agency. “As consumption of video content rises in line with 5G adoption, this will only intensify. Teams and rights-holders will be able to seek more innovative ways to capture and distribute content to their fans.”

Alan Stewart-Brown, vice-president of EMEA at global computer network technology company Opengear, says: “Sports venues have an interest in making their venues more ‘sticky’ – meaning that fans stay longer at the venue and therefore spend more money – and I predict 5G-enabled stadia will be rolled out more widely over the next two years.”

Another sporting revolution is brewing – and 5G is at the heart of it.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in November 2019

Humans of the near future

The world’s preeminent ‘cyborg artist’, Neil Harbisson (pictured above), has been stopped “several times a day, every single day, since March 22, 2004”. It’s impossible for him to forget the date: that Monday, 13 years ago, he had an antenna fixed to his skull in order to ‘hear’ colour. The attention generated by the unique appendage can be “really tiring”, London-born Harbisson admits to Raconteur. But, he believes, such sights will be the norm, and sooner rather than later thanks to the inexorable march of technology.

“Initially people questioned whether my antenna was a reading light,” says the 34-year-old, who sees in grayscale but can sense colours (the majority of which are beyond the visual spectrum) 360 degrees around him through audible vibrations. “By 2005 those who approached me thought it was a microphone; in 2007 most reckoned it was a hands-free device; and the following year a lot of them suggested it could be a GoPro camera. In 2012 the top guess was something to do with Google Glass, and more recently a selfie stick has been popular. Lately, people shout ‘Pokémon’ at me.”

Similarly, officials at Her Majesty’s Passport Office didn’t quite know what to make of Harbisson’s antenna to begin with. “On the photograph I submitted I argued that it was not electronic equipment but a new body part, and that I felt that I was a cyborg, a union between cybernetics and organism,” he continues. “I’m not wearing technology; I am technology. It doesn’t feel that I’m wearing anything, it’s just an integrated part of my body; it’s merged with my skull so it is part of my skeleton. There is no difference between an arm, my nose, an ear, or my antenna. In the end, they agreed and allowed me to appear in my passport photograph with the antenna.”

Harbisson had no real issue adjusting to sleeping with an antenna atop his head, but there were other teething problems. “As I had become taller, at the beginning I would bump into doors upon entering cars, and get stuck in branches of trees,” he says. “And I would struggle to put jumpers on. I had to become used to the organ, the body part, as well as get used to the new sense, and it took a while. Having a new sense is something that most people have never experienced. It transforms your life because you perceive absolutely everything differently.”

Moon Ribas, Harbisson’s Catalan partner and fellow cyborg artist who he met when the pair studied at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, has two implants in her arms that allow her to perceive the seismic activity of the Earth and the Moon. Formerly, she warped her vision for a three-month period by using kaleidoscope glasses, and would wear earrings that quivered depending on the velocity of people moving behind her.

For fun, the out-there couple enjoys linking to satellites using NASA’s live feed from the International Space Station. “Instead of using my eyes to see the images, I simply connect the antenna to the data that comes from the satellites, and then I receive vibrations in my head, depending on the colours,” Harbisson says. “They have so many sensors in space that are collecting data, but no-one is actually looking at it. I feel I’m a ‘sensestronaut’ or a ‘mindstronaut’ because my senses are in space while my body is here on Earth.”

Future of humanity

Mindstronauting aside, it’s been a busy year for Harbisson, and a significant one for the future of humanity, with cyborgs in the ascendancy. At March’s South by Southwest – the annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, music festivals and conferences held in Austin, Texas – Harbisson, Ribas, and BorgFest founder Rich MacKinnon presented a draft of the declaration of cyborg rights and also introduced an accompanying flag “which you can only detect if you can sense infrared”.

“We believe it should be a universal right for anyone to have a new sense or a new organ,” argues Harbisson. “Many people can identify strongly with cybernetics without having any type of implant, and there has been a lot of support. There may even be a ‘cyborg pride’ parade in Austin next year.”

Additionally, in February his startup Cyborg Nest, co-founded with Ribas in 2015, began shipping its first product, North Sense – a $425 DIY embeddable device that gently vibrates when the user faces magnetic north.” (Mind-boggling pipeline projects, kept under wraps, reportedly include silent communication using Bluetooth, a pollution-detecting device, and eyes in the back of the head.)

I’m not wearing technology; I am technology

Cyborg Nest is just one of a growing cluster of ‘biohacker’ startups offering a variety of sense-augmenting implants, with body enhancements, prosthetics and genetic modifications are increasingly popular. Pittsburgh-based Grindhouse Wetware, for instance, has been developing ‘implantables’ since 2012, such as Circadia, a device that sends biometric data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a phone or tablet, and Northstar, which allows gesture recognition and can detect magnetic north (as well as the rather gimmicky feature of mimicking bioluminescence with subdermal LEDs).

What does it mean to be human? The answering of this existential puzzler has powered progression for millennia, but now, as nascent technologies fuse physical, digital and biological worlds, it has never been more complex, and critical, to define the age-old question. Alarmingly, we are hurtling inexorably towards the ‘singularity’ – a hypothetical point when artificial intelligence advances so much that humanity will be irreversibly disrupted. But, in fact, the migration from man to machine has already started.

(Photo credit: Lars Norgaard)
Cyborg king (Lars Norgaard)

What is transhumanism?

Entering ‘Sir Tim Berners-Lee’ – the Briton who created the World Wide Web 28 years ago – into a Google search throws up almost 400,000 results. That figure is almost six times fewer than ‘transhumanism’, a movement few have heard of, yet one which is beating the heart of progress, albeit beneath the radar.

The touchstone definition from a 1990 essay by Dr. Max More, the Oxford University-educated chief executive officer of Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation, states: “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”

The benefits would be even broader across the whole of society if everybody got a little bit smarter

A raft of tech billionaires are considered either ‘de facto transhumanists’ or are fully signed up to the movement. Luminaries include Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first professional investor worth an estimated $2.7 billion by Forbes, Elon Musk, of Tesla Inc. and SpaceX fame, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and – according to H+Pedia (an online resource that aims to “spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism”) – Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Dr. Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, suggests that transhumanism “questions the human condition”, and tells Raconteur: “It is in many ways a continuation of the humanist project, seeing human flourishing as a goal, but recognising that human nature is not fixed. Rather than assume it is all going to be an entropic mess, transhumanism suggests that many serious problems can be solved and that we do have a chance for a great future.”

There are practical, utilitarian, reasons why submitting one’s body to technology makes sense – at least to Dr. Sandberg and his fellow transhumanists. “Consider that the Government spends £85.2 billion on education every year; even a slight improvement of the results would either be a huge saving or enable much better outcomes,” he continues. “One intelligence quotient (IQ) point gives you about a two per cent income increase, although the benefits would be even broader across the whole of society if everybody got a little bit smarter.

“Childhood intelligence also predicts better health in later life, longer lives, less risk of being a victim of crime, more long-term oriented and altruistic planning – controlling for socioeconomic status, etc. Intelligence does not make us happier, but it does prevent a fair number of bad things – from divorce to suicide – and unhappiness.”

While Dr. Sandberg suggests that the aforementioned DIY ‘grinder’ self-surgery movement “problematic” he is “firmly in favour of self-experimentation and bodyhacking”. He flags up the apparent triumph of Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of Seattle-based BioViva, who in September 2015 underwent what her company labelled “the first gene therapy successful against human ageing”; it was claimed that the treatment had reversed the biological age of Parrish’s immune cells by 20 years.

The Swede is also optimistic about the prospect of ‘mind uploading’, or ‘whole-brain emulation’, as he prefers to call it. He acknowledges that the enabling technology is “decades away” but believes we could “become software people with fantastic benefits: no ageing; customisable bodies; backups in case something went wrong; space travel via radio or laser transmission; and existing as multiple copies.”

Little surprise, then, that Dr. Sandberg is keen on ‘cryonics’ – the deep-freezing of recently deceased people in the belief that scientific advances will revive them – and is fully signed up for Dr. More’s Alcor, the largest of the world’s four cryopreservation facilities. It currently houses 117 ‘patients’, who are ‘considered suspended, rather than deceased: detained in some liminal stasis between this world and whatever follows it, or does not,’ Irish author Mark O’Connell writes in To Be a Machine on the subject of humans of the future.

For Dr. Sandberg, the $200,000 cost of whole-body perseveration is justifiable as it would be “irrational not to” take the negligible odds that technologic advances will revive him, at some point. “Sure, the chance of it working is small – say five per cent – but that is still worth it to me,” he says. “And after all, to truly be a human is to be a self-changing creature.”

Is it morally wrong to augment humans?

David Wood, chairman of London Futurists, counters that question by firing a cluster of his own, asking Raconteur: “Is it morally wrong to teach people to read, or vaccinate people? Is it morally wrong to extend people’s lives by using new medical treatments, or seek a cure for motor neurone disease, or cancer, or Alzheimer’s? They are all forms of augmentations.”

Having warmed up the Scot, who spent eight years studying mathematics and then the philosophy of science (specialist subject quantum mechanics) at Cambridge University, he says: “Recall the initial moral repugnance expressed by people when heart transplants first took place. Or when test-tube babies were created, or when transgender operations were introduced. This moral repugnance has, thankfully, largely subsided. It will be the same, in due course, for most of the other enhancements foreseen by transhumanists.”

Wood, a science-fiction lover from childhood, was switched on to transhumanism “in the early 2000s”, after reading The Age of Spiritual Machines, a seminal book written by futurist Ray Kurzweil, who would later be personally hired by Google co-founder Larry Page “to bring natural language understanding” to the organisation. Famously, the American author has predicted that the ‘singularity’ is on course to happen in 2045, though many critics dismiss his forecast as fanciful and dogmatic.

We could become software people with fantastic benefits

Regardless, transhumanism is on the rise in Britain. “The UK Transhumanist Association (UKTA) used to half-jokingly refer to themselves as ‘six men in a pub’,” says Wood, who in July 2015 co-founded H+Pedia “The UKTA was superseded, in stages, by London Futurists – which covers a wider range of topics – and we now have over 6,000 members in our Meetup group.”

So, what does the near future hold for humanity?

“We can envision ever larger gaps in capability between enhanced humans and unenhanced humans,” adds Wood. “This will be like the difference between literate and illiterate humans, except that the difference will be orders of magnitude larger.

“Transhumanists anticipate transcending the limitations which have been characteristics of human experience since the beginnings of Prehistory: ageing; death; and deep flaws in reasoning. Maybe once that happens, the resulting beings will no longer be called humans.”

This article was originally published by Raconteur in June 2017

Tech-enabled finance could save your company

When crises hit, organisations always lean heavily on their internal finance specialists to reduce costs, streamline operations and plot a roadmap to recovery, in that order. While lessons should have been learnt after the global economic crash a dozen years ago, and more robust business continuity plans established, it was impossible to predict the speed, scale and severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

Once again, business leaders are looking, desperately, to their finance teams for rapid solutions to colossal challenges. It’s a mighty responsibility, given the amount of uncertainty and an impending global recession.

“During the current crisis, C-suite executives rely on financiers to identify the most cost-effective sources of financing, not only for the survival of the firm in the short run, but also for the growth that follows economic stagnation,” says Dr Nikolaos Antypas, finance lecturer at Henley Business School.

“For most companies, the top-down directive is: survive first, grow later. Since the pandemic started, the role of internal finance has shifted towards turning down or postponing indefinitely any project or cost item with non-existential importance.”

However, unlike in 2008, access to digital technologies, cloud storage and data analysis are enabling faster results, greater agility and collaboration, and better forecasting. If COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation, the financial function is in the driving seat of that change.

Finance Tech

Tech-savvy organisations have major advantage

Laggard organisations that decline to embrace technology will fail. And even industries that have rallied well since lockdown, such as ecommerce and healthcare, should be anticipating more obstacles on the road to recovery.

“The threat of decreasing revenue looms ominously,” warns Antypas, nodding to the tapering of the furlough scheme, which could trigger a sharp rise in unemployment. “No company should be complacent with their current success; their customer base is about to lose its revenue stream and that loss can have devastating ripple effects. Even the most profitable company can suffer if cash flows are not managed efficiently.”

Red Flag Alert, a credit risk management company, has amassed financial data of UK businesses for the last 16 years. The analysis is bleak. “UK industry is facing a mountain of unsustainable debt; it could be as much as £107 billion,” says Mark Halstead, a partner at the Oldham-based firm.

“Technology and data will be critical to companies bouncing back from the pandemic. It will also enable businesses to protect themselves and strive for growth in an economy saddled with record levels of debt.”

Technology and data will enable businesses to protect themselves and strive for growth in an economy saddled with record levels of debt

Organisations that invested in digital technologies and evolved the financial function before the pandemic have an early-adopter advantage. Kaziu Gill, who co-founded London-headquartered LimeGreen Accountancy in 2009, has long promoted accountancy software and other digital tools to his clients, who are mostly small and medium-sized businesses in the creative industries.

“COVID-19 has forced many businesses to change and become leaner and more mobile, but we have managed to continue without any disruption,” he says. “In some cases, we have been more productive.

“We are seeing more businesses exploring how they can grow digitally and the suite of tools that we use complements any organisation’s approach to budget and forecasting.”

Finance functions arm themselves with digital tools

LimeGreen enjoys a partnership with cloud-based accounting software platform Xero. “We offer plug-ins to Xero, like Spotlight, which is a great forecasting tool, and Receipt Bank,” says Gill. “And there are other project management tools that help link the financial function with human resources, such as CakeHR. We have always strived to utilise tech and now financial functions simply have to make that transition to digital. Pieces of paper are no good when you can’t send or receive physical mail during lockdown and with remote working.”

He argues that the recent open banking directive – a government-enforced programme designed to open up banking data, launched in 2018 – strengthens the case for finance departments to embrace digital tools. “It’s the perfect time because every bank in the UK is obligated to open up their application programming interfaces so third-party software companies can use them.”

Xero, for instance, recently launched a short-term cash-flow tool that projects bank balances 30 days into the future, showing the impact of existing bills and invoices, if paid on time. “This capability helps the financial function to scenario plan accurately and make changes to business plans instantly,” explains Donna Torres, Xero’s general manager of global direct sales and operations.

“It’s more important than ever for organisations to have an up-to-date view of their cash flow so they can plan, forecast and make the right decisions about their future. Cloud accounting technology provides a real-time snapshot.”

Empowering finance teams to change business plans

Financial functions that push to arm their organisations with other digital tools, including artificial intelligence-powered document scanning and e-signature, are discovering they can achieve company-wide efficiencies almost overnight.

Mike Plimsoll, industry head of financial services at Adobe, offers a banking example. “Facing increased demand with reduced branch capacity to maintain social distancing, TSB acted quickly to transform a significant amount of offline forms into digital-only interactions, creating an end-to-end journey for its personal and business banking customers,” he says.

“After implementing Adobe Sign, TSB managed over 80,000 customer interactions in the first eight weeks, saving the need for up to 15,000 potential branch visits.”

Plimsoll posits that by switching their processes and establishing digital technologies, finance teams have been able to “keep the business moving and react quickly to the shifting landscape and help steer a course through the uncertainty”.

Adopting a shorter planning window is paramount for business continuity and recovery, says Thomas Sutter of Oracle NetSuite’s Global Solutions Centre of Excellence. “Most businesses operate on a 12-month budget cycle and manage strategictra plans with longer timeframes, but at this time the focus must shift to immediate priorities,” he says.

“Now more than ever, establishing a clear framework of visibility and control will streamline and protect cash flow in the short term, keep customers happy, and reveal new and innovative options business leaders have available to drive the business forward in the future. Finance leaders and their teams will be at the heart of these strategic moves.”

Finance departments may have had more responsibility thrust upon them when COVID-19 hit, but it seems their role will only grow in importance in the coming months and years. Technology is both empowering and enabling their new lofty status.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Business Continuity and Growth report in August 2020

‘Innovation is made, not born’

Business leaders seeking to justify the critical need to drive innovation often, and erroneously, quote Charles Darwin, whose 1859 book On the Origin of Species transformed the world. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change,” according to the sage advice.

Alas, there is scant proof the English evolutionist said or wrote those famous words. Nevertheless, the paraphrased comment holds water in 2020, because organisations that fail to prioritise evolution will drown. Conversely, enterprise pioneers who embrace a proactive attitude will sail ahead of rivals by achieving operational optimisation to drive innovation.

Progressive businesses have attempted to keep pace with society and technological advancement since well before Darwin’s time. However, in this digital age, the speed of disruption cascading upon all industries has elevated the level of urgency. Enabling innovation is now imperative for survival.

Some of the brightest ideas come from the most unexpected places. Be open to opinions, have empathy, show curiosity to learn

“Over half of all Fortune 500 companies from 2000 no longer exist because they failed to pivot,” says Simon Marshall, founder of TBD Marketing, a Bristol firm that helps organisations identify and grasp opportunities, either to improve operational optimisation or in other markets.

He points to Nokia – founded in 1865, six years after Darwin’s masterwork was published – as an example of a company that has sought to drive innovation, but has floundered in recent times. The Finnish organisation began life as a wood pulp mill before expanding into other vertical markets, from rubber boots and tyres, to televisions and mobile phones.

Indeed, Nokia was the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer before Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and triggered the smartphone revolution. Four years later, Nokia’s chief executive Stephen Elop warned the company was “standing on a burning platform”, having missed the boat.

Responsible innovation

Survival of the…most adaptable

Marshall cites another cautionary tale. “Kodak owned the patent for digital photography, but was unwilling to slay its golden goose. It stalled and, when the patent ran out, others stepped in and killed off the photography giant. Organisations need to make brave internal decisions to drive innovation and pivot.”

As markets merge and shift, taking adequate time to consider outside insights, to gain fresh perspectives and spot potential threats and opportunities quickly, is vital. “Nokia performed those three transformations in over a century, whereas Apple’s transition from iTunes downloads to Apple Music streaming took only 15 years,” says Marshall.

“Consider that Netflix initially rented physical DVDs and helped kill off Blockbuster, before launching its streaming service a decade ago. The streaming service is now itself under fire from Disney+, Apple TV+ and others looking to fragment that market again.”

Driving innovation and encouraging creative working, while sustaining operational optimisation, is perilously challenging, though. Tim Flower, global director of business transformation at employment engagement organisation Nexthink, likens it to “changing all four tyres on the car while it’s moving”. He stresses the importance of a heads-up outlook to keep aware of potential problems and possibilities on the horizon.

This outside-insights approach resonates with Emilie Colker, managing director of London design firm IDEO. She posits that cultivating a creative and innovative mindset is the only way to future-proof an organisation. Offering tips to business leaders, she says: “First, acknowledge that you will never have all the answers.

“Listen to your team. Some of the brightest ideas come from the most unexpected places. Be open to opinions, have empathy and show curiosity to learn. When striving for momentum in innovation, remember that your people are your power and unlocking their combined potential should be your number-one priority.”

Successful innovation is people-centric

Sandeep Kishore, who has led the transformation of Zensar Technologies from a legacy IT organisation to a “100 per cent living digital enterprise” since he was appointed chief executive in 2016, says: “People are always at the heart of any innovation. Technology is the tool and the platform, but not the solution.”

Kishore, whose 10,000 employees can communicate with him through the company’s new smartphone application, believes people-centric innovation is most likely to succeed because it is driven by empowering workers rather than increasing profits.

Further, innovation has to be a work in progress. “It’s a continual journey,” he says. “The model of innovation needs to be flexible and adaptable to the changes we keep facing across industries.”

How much, then, should organisations invest in innovation? Alf Rehn, professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Denmark, and author of Innovation for the Fatigued, notes that Amazon spent a mind-boggling $36 billion on research and development alone in 2019, a 27 per cent increase on the previous year.

“That number is about 13 per cent of its revenue and doesn’t include all its innovation expenditure,” he says. “Top companies in innovation-focused industries tend to fall into the 5 to 15 per cent band of revenues. But budget alone doesn’t drive innovation; without a strong creative culture, innovation becomes very difficult.”

Time C-suites allocate to innovative initiatives

Rehn suggests that “culture eats innovation for breakfast” and advises business leaders to “create a working environment in which people feel comfortable presenting new ideas, taking risks and putting the effort in to generate new value”. He adds: “The approach of tomorrow’s winners is balancing outside insight with intelligent inside risk-taking.”

Neil Sholay, vice president of innovation, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Oracle, agrees. “Innovation is made, not born,” he says. “There’s no proven formula; you can’t simply snap your fingers and expect invention to happen spontaneously. What you can do is create the ideal environment for it to flourish. With the right approach and processes, it can even become regular and reliable.

“While innovation doesn’t need to be big, it does need to be structured. The groundwork must be laid in advance, otherwise it won’t happen at the regularity and speed demanded by the market.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Operational Optimisation report in March 2020

Grounding sci-fi ambitions in reality

Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, came of age five months ago: its dystopian futurescape was Los Angeles ablaze in November 2019.

While some elements accurately hit today’s world, now stricken by the coronavirus pandemic, the planet is dangerously warm and computers can be commanded by a human voice for instance, other predictions fall short. High-collar, full-length trench coats are unfashionable, flying cars have failed to take off and, most pertinently, so-called ‘general’ artificial intelligence (AI) does not exist.

UK AI businesses

Sci-fi is increasingly becoming sci-fact, admittedly, but a technology that can replicate a range of highly advanced human characteristics – the basic definition of general AI – does not walk among us, yet. Moreover, the so-called singularity, when machines achieve sentience and technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, is some distance away, most experts say.

“Think of general AI as HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Skynet in the Terminator series,” suggests Bernd Greifeneder, founder and chief technology officer of leading automated-software organisation Dynatrace. “We’re currently nowhere near that becoming a reality, with estimates ranging from it being five years to a century away. Some even believe we’ll never see general AI step out of sci-fi and into the real world.”

Arguably that conclusion is good for the longevity of the human race, though not everyone agrees. “Unless humanity takes a wrong turn, general AI is likely to arrive around 2050, perhaps sooner,” says David Wood, chair of London Futurists. “General AI, handled wisely, can enable humanity to enter a profound new era that I call ‘sustainable superabundance’, in which we can transcend many of the cruel limitations of the human condition that we have inherited from our evolutionary background.”

Gorilla warfare in the technological jungle

Wael Elrifai, global vice president of solution engineering at Hitachi Vantara, pleads for greater caution. “When we achieve general AI, it will drastically transform our economy and society in ways we can’t even predict,” he says. “We’ll be faced with what Dr Stuart Russell, a pre-eminent thinker in the field, dubs ‘the gorilla problem’. Namely, human beings will be outmoded by machines in the same way we evolved to dominate our gorilla kin.

“Finding our place in that future isn’t a decision that can be left in the hands of a few. Technologists, educators, psychologists, policymakers and testing experts must put their heads together to consider how we measure human capital, improve human performance and ensure equity in a world where machine intelligence surpasses human capabilities.”

For the moment, though, narrow AI, which is programmed by humans to focus on a niche task, will have to suffice. The hype around AI has calmed recently, in part because business leaders have realised it is neither akin to the general AI of Blade Runner or Terminator nor a silver bullet. Narrow AI, however, is potent if pointed the right way; those who work out what direction to aim at will triumph.

Besides, as Dr Iain Brown, head of data science at SAS in the UK and Ireland, posits: “The machines have already taken over, to some extent, and with little resistance.” Our smartphones, smart speakers and driverless cars all rely on AI. “Self-learning machines are embedded in services or devices used by three quarters of global consumers,” says Brown, “and algorithms choose what news we read and the entertainment we consume.”

Canny members of the C-suite are beginning to realise the true potential of narrow AI. “General AI isn’t a pipe dream, but it is irrelevant,” says leading futurist Tom Cheesewright. “Focusing on it as a business leader is like seeing the wheel for the first time and spending your time dreaming about a Tesla. Make use of the wheel.”

AI adoption challenges

Targeting niche tasks with narrow AI

Indeed, according to Microsoft’s Accelerating Competitive Advantage with AI report, published in October, businesses in the UK already using AI at scale are performing 11.5 per cent better than those who are not, up from 5 per cent in 2018. Further, the study calculates the number of UK companies with an AI strategy has more than doubled, from 11 per cent two years ago to 24 per cent in 2019. The report also finds that more than half of organisations in the UK (56 per cent) are using AI to some extent, including a rise of 11 per cent in machine-learning from the previous year.

“Narrow AI is certainly a more rewarding prospect for businesses in the short term, as it has more specific applications and so can help to overcome the clearly defined challenges that exist today,” says Greifeneder. “It’s also easier to manage the risks and ethical implications associated with it.” As an example of granting too much autonomy to a machine, he points to Microsoft’s infamous AI chatbot Tay, which began tweeting racist and inflammatory remarks in March 2016, after just 24 hours of exposure to users on Twitter. And, like any tool, AI can be used for good or bad.

Focusing on general AI as a leader is like seeing the wheel for the first time and spending your time dreaming about a Tesla. Make use of the wheel

“We don’t need to wait for general AI to experience elements of AI utopia or dystopia,” says Peter van der Putten, assistant professor of AI at Leiden University in the Netherlands and director of decisioning solutions for cloud software company Pegasystems. “AI is used successfully to understand the structure and function of COVID-19 and to mine COVID-19 research articles. But bias has been creeping into models to determine credit card limits, decide who needs to await a court case in jail or who gets selected for preventive care programmes.”

Why general AI and man must work together

There may be justified concerns about algorithmic biases, how the associated technologies might develop and AI displacing human jobs. But it is critical for business leaders to understand what AI can achieve and it’s certainly not for every organisation.

“If you don’t understand what you are trying to solve first, you are carrying a hammer looking for a nail and AI is going to be of no real use,” says Nick Wise, chief executive of OceanMind, a not-for-profit organisation using AI to protect the world’s fisheries.

For now, the realm of sentient computers seems a long way off. And if we humans are prudent, if or perhaps when general AI becomes a reality, man and machine will augment one another. As Brown concludes: “The future belongs to the cyborg: humans working hand in glove with AI, rather than the android alone.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s AI for Business report in April 2020

Hackers smell blood as crisis exposes cyber vulnerabilities

Less than two years ago, in June 2018, when Ticketmaster UK revealed cybercriminals had stolen data from up to 5 per cent of its global customer base via a supplier, it set alarm bells ringing.

The following month, a CrowdStrike report laid bare how ill-prepared organisations all around the globe were against hackers seeking to exploit third-party cybersecurity weaknesses. Two thirds of the 1,300 respondents said they had experienced a software supply chain attack. Almost 90 per cent believed that they were at risk via a third party. Yet, approximately the same number aadmitted they didn’t deem vetting suppliers a critical necessity.

Given Symantec’s latest Internet Security Threat Report, launched early last year, highlighted that supply chain attacks had increased by 78 per cent in 2018, one hopes organisations heeded the warning signs and shored up their third-party cybersecurity policies well before COVID-19 hit businesses.

Experts fear companies that failed to bolster their cyber defences are now even more exposed because supply chains have become fragmented, and hackers, like great white sharks, smell blood. “Criminal groups have recognised that to catch the big fish they need to catch some smaller fish first,” explains James McQuiggan, security awareness advocate at KnowBe4.

To extend the fishing – or rather phishing – analogy: to net the whopper organisations hackers are scooping up the tiddlers in the supply chain, McQuiggan says, as they “may not have the robust security programs and often unable to afford adequate cybersecurity resources or personnel.

“As such, they are potentially more susceptible to social engineering scams or attacks. The criminal groups will attempt to gain access and then leverage the connection to attack a larger organisation.”

You’re only as secure as your weakest link

Predators know when to attack vulnerable prey, and COVID-19 has weakened the cybersecurity of countless organisations. “Coronavirus passes from person to person, and a percentage of victims are asymptomatic, yet can infect others – cyberattacks work in a similar way,” says Matt Lock, UK technical director at Varonis.

“A smaller supplier that’s fallen behind on their basic cyber hygiene can become infected with malware and unknowingly spread it to their business partners.”

Alluding to the issues presented by lockdowns enforced because of the pandemic, he continues: “At first, we were seeing cases where companies took shortcuts to get their employees online to keep their businesses running. Now companies are starting to settle into their new normal. They’re taking a step back, actively trying to rein in access and resolve security issues that cropped up in their race to get everyone the access they needed to do their work.”

Chris Sherry, a regional vice president at Forescout, argues there has never been a more vital time to have a cyber-resilient supply chain. “COVID-19 is the ultimate stress test for many supply chains,” he says. “The demand for critical supplies has never been greater, and it’s the biggest challenge. It’s a marathon to continue with ‘business as usual’ while trying to achieve an output of 150 per cent. Industry 4.0 and the industrial internet of things are driving improvements in operational efficiency, but also leaving suppliers more vulnerable than ever to downtime or data loss if critical processes are interrupted.

“The benefits of operational technology and automation are clear, but they also significantly increase the potential attack surface of any organisation. As bad actors look to take advantage of the crisis, the cybersecurity strategy of any supplier should ensure this is well understood, continuously monitored, and appropriately secured.”

Top tips to shore up cybersecurity

If an organisation’s cybersecurity is only as sturdy as its weakest link in the supply chain, what could – and should – be done in the face of an increasing number of attacks?

“Ultimately, the relationship of ‘trust’ many organisations once had with their third-party suppliers is no longer enough,” says Sherry. “The National Cyber Security Centre puts out a huge amount of guidance on the right questions to ask, as well as the right parameters to measure the security of your supply chain.”

Nigel Stanley, chief technology officer at TÜV Rheinland, agrees that the NCSC is a good source of information, and points to its Cyber Essentials certification scheme, which offers a “base level of cybersecurity assurance”. For him, streamlining supplier assessments is crucial, as is how deeply the supply chain network is traversed.

However, he notes: “Managing this is a challenge as presenting suppliers with 150 questions to answer every month can be a real turn-off. Using supplier contracts to enforce cybersecurity controls can be useful as it links payments and contracts to cybersecurity performance. The problem is how such a program can be implemented proportionately, balancing supplier and customer requirements.”

Criminal groups have recognised that to catch the big fish they need to catch some smaller fish first

The ‘zero-trust’ certification offered by analyst firm Forrester is worth the money to improve cybersecurity across the supply chain, suggests Patrick Martin, head of threat intelligence at Skurio. “Securing the supply chain is key,” he says. “Look for suppliers with certifications like Cyber Essentials Plus and BS 10012 ISO/IEC 27001, and don’t be afraid to ask suppliers and partners to provide proof of their practices.”

Serving up a final piece of expert advice, he adds: “Another great first step is to monitor the deep and dark parts of the web for breached data, credentials and mentions in attack planning scenarios. In this way, businesses can be much better prepared to mitigate an attack if they see it coming.”

Considering Ticketmaster UK’s supply chain breach was almost two years ago, it’s fair to say organisations have had ample time to prepare, but those who failed need to move quickly with the fallout from COVID-19 likely to be long and painful.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Procurement and Supply Chain Innovation report in May 2020

Pandemic pushes long overdue sales rebalancing

The pandemic has jammed the fast-forward button on progress in many industries, mainly for the better. Indeed, concerning the evolution of sales roles, the prevailing feeling is the sudden rebalancing of importance between field and inside sales is long overdue.

The need to sell during COVID-19 has precipitated a doubling down on digital tools within sales organisations and shone a light on the dark arts of those operating in the field. This scrutiny, coupled with the ease of video conferencing and the substantial cost-savings it achieves, has highlighted uncomfortable questions about new and future sales roles, as well as issues around adequate remuneration.

“Traditionally, good salespeople were unmanageable individuals and measured by results,” says Richard Higham, executive director at SalesLevers. “If you were doing a good job, you were bombproof.

“Until a few years ago, inside sales was used for early-stage, low-value transactions and to warm people up before the real heroes [in field sales] would ride out on their Harley-Davidsons to solve the problems.

“But before the coronavirus pandemic, sales organisations had recognised quite a lot of relationships and transactions on a big scale could be managed entirely without meeting people. There was already an increase in transparency with sales roles, as well as a blurring of the edges.”

Digital-first sales strategy

The previous model was forcing cheaper cost of sale towards inside or digital salespeople and higher cost of sales, the big-ticket items, more towards field-based sellers, according to Andrew Hough, chief executive of the Association of Professional Sales.

Now, though, he believes sales teams will neither return to the office nor recommence field-selling until the end of social distancing. Also, the advance and necessary adoption of technology “will allow us to measure things in a more sophisticated way than just first past the post”. Hough adds: “Compensation will become more outcome-based and there will be different ways we measure people.”

What managers value in sales people

This blurring of sales roles is forging a hybridisation of the modern salesperson, says Kathryn Wright, chief sales officer of Upside, a London-based fintech focused on customer engagement.

The role of field sales will be changed forever,” she says. “Technology has enabled us to continue building business relationships and facilitated back-to-back meetings that wouldn’t have been physically possible to achieve before lockdown.”

Dr Peter Colman, partner at consulting firm Simon-Kucher, urges sales teams to become experts at remote selling: “Key and field accounts usually receive close personal attention through the traditional outside sales channel. Sustaining that level of attention is now impossible, which means the mix must change radically in favour of remote sales.”

However, data from growth and sales platform HubSpot shows marketers in the UK are sending 49 per cent more emails than they were before the lockdown, although responses are down by 24 per cent.

Crevan O’Malley, HubSpot’s director of sales in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), argues that while the current circumstances are unquestionably impacting sales roles, the blurring of roles has been coming.

Merging of skills

“Inside and field sales have been converging in successful ways for some time,” he says. “Skills like emotional intelligence and self-awareness have long been key for high-performance field sales teams, and they’re just as important when you ‘go inside’ and adopt a digital-first sales strategy.

“Personalised engagement via digital channels, impactful language and an empathetic tone are key skills that inside sales need to master for high performance. Lasting business relationships can be built ‘remotely’, but what you say, how you engage and how you make people feel matter more than being face to face.”

This chimes with Richard Langham, managing director, EMEA, at Highspot. “Even before the pandemic, ‘spray and pray’ tactics were failing,” he says. “There’s often only a small handful of key, time-poor decision-makers you’re trying to reach. Flooding their inboxes with billions of one-size-fits-all generic emails doesn’t work. Worse, it actively damages the relationship.”

Hence, the skill of using data has engendered greater respect by sales leaders for those in inside sales. “When used properly, the right data, at the right time, helps your sales team earn a more authentic human connection with the person they’re talking to,” says Langham, who has identified a shift from new customer acquisition to customer satisfaction because of the crisis.

Wright, from Upside, says the sales team of tomorrow “will look more like channel managers and customer-success managers”, and believes embracing data and technology is paramount. “With omnichannel marketing, sales teams can see every touchpoint, every video watched, every document opened,” she says. “This provides two opportunities: an accurate cost per action and feedback on what helps the customer to understand the company’s offering.”

Jamie Barlow, managing director at Hyped Marketing, says a 20-80, field-inside sales split is the vision of the future and those who secure sales should be compensated accordingly. With sales roles updating, it’s critical to invest in technology, specifically marketing automation, which enables campaigns to operate autonomously 24 hours a day, Barlow stresses.

“Digital tools allow us to engage on a personal level with hundreds of prospects and help qualify leads,” he says. “We will then take an educated approach as to which point to remove the prospect from the automation programme and engage on a one-to-one level.”

Stephen Corfield, senior vice president and general manager of industry sales for Salesforce in the UK and Ireland, promotes a pairing of “technology with a personal touch”.

“Smart, context-aware customer service will only grow in importance to better serve experiences and value-added interactions,” he says. “The sales team will need to be nimble and wholly data-driven in its approach.”

Evidently, sales roles are transforming fast. And for everyone, aside from field sellers on their Harleys, that’s a good thing.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Sales Performance report in June 2020