IT Trends into 2018 – or the continued delusions of Ian Waring

William Tell the Penguin

I’m conflicted. CIO Magazine published a list of “12 technologies that will disrupt business in 2018”, which promptly received Twitter accolades from folks I greatly respect: Leading Edge Forum, DXC Technology and indeed Simon Wardley. Having looked at it, I thought it had more than it’s fair share of muddled thinking (and they listed 13 items!). Am I alone in this? Original here. Taking the list items in turn:

Smart Health Tech (as evidenced by the joint venture involving Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase). I think this is big, but not for the “corporate wellness programs using remote patient monitoring” reason cited. That is a small part of it.

Between the three you have a large base of employees in a country without a single payer healthcare system, mired with business model inefficiencies. Getting an operationally efficient pilot with reasonable scale using internal users in the JV companies running, and then letting outsiders (even competitors) use the result, is meat and drink to Amazon. Not least as they always start with the ultimate consumer (not rent seeking insurance or pharma suppliers), and work back from there.

It’s always telling that if anyone were to try anti-trust actions on them, it’s difficult to envision a corrective action that Amazon aren’t already doing to themselves already. This program is real fox in the hen house territory; that’s why on announcement of the joint venture, leading insurance and pharmaceutical shares took quite a bath. The opportunity to use remote patient monitoring, using wearable sensors, is the next piece of icing on top of the likely efficient base, but very secondary at the start.

Video, video conferencing and VR. Their description cites the magic word “Agile” and appears to focus on using video to connect geographically dispersed software development teams. To me, this feels like one of those situations you can quickly distill down to “great technology, what can we use this for?”. Conferencing – even voice – yes. Shared KanBan flows (Trello), shared BaseCamp views, communal use of GitHub, all yes. Agile? That’s really where you’re doing fast iterations of custom code alongside the end user, way over to the left of a Wardley Map; six sigma, doggedly industrialising a process, over to the right. Video or VR is a strange bedfellow in the environment described.

Chatbots. If you survey vendors, and separately survey the likely target users of the technology, you get wildly different appetites. Vendors see a relentless march to interactions being dominated by BOT interfaces. Consumers, given a choice, always prefer not having to interact in the first place, and only where the need exists, to engage with a human. Interacting with a BOT is something largely avoided unless it is the only way to get immediate (or out of hours) assistance.

Where the user finds themselves in front of a ChatBot UI, they tend to prefer an analogue of a human talking them, preferably appearing to be of a similar age.

The one striking thing i’ve found was talking to a vendor who built an machine learning model that went through IT Helpdesk tickets, instant message and email interaction histories, nominally to prioritise the natural language corpus into a list of intent:action pairs for use by their ChatBot developers. They found that the primary output from the exercise was in improving FAQ sheets in the first instance. Ian thinking “is this technology chasing a use case?” again. Maybe you have a different perspective!

IoT (Internet of Things). The sample provides was tying together devices, sensors and other assets driving reductions in equipment downtime, process waste and energy consumption in “early adopter” smart factories. And then citing security concerns and the need to work with IT teams in these environments to alleviate such risks.

I see lots of big number analyses from vendors, but little from application perspectives. It’s really a story of networked sensors relaying information back to a data repository, and building insights, actions or notifications on the resulting data corpus. Right now, the primary sensor networks in the wild are the location data and history stored on mobile phone handsets or smart watches. Security devices a smaller base. Embedded simple devices smaller still. I think i’m more excited when sensors get meaningful vision capabilities (listed separately below). Until then, content to let my Apple Watch keep tabs on my heart rate, and to feed that daily into a research project looking at strokes.

Voice Control and Virtual Assistants. Alexa: set an alarm for 6:45am tomorrow. Play Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. What’s the weather like in Southampton right now? OK Google: What is $120 in UK pounds? Siri: send a message to Jane; my eta is 7:30pm. See you in a bit. Send.

It’s primarily a convenience thing when my hands are on a steering wheel, in flour in a mixing bowl, or the quickest way to enact a desired action – usually away from a keyboard and out of earshot to anyone else. It does liberate my two youngest grandchildren who are learning to read and write. Those apart, it’s just another UI used occasionally – albeit i’m still in awe of folks that dictate their book writing efforts into Siri as they go about their day. I find it difficult to label this capability as disruptive (to what?).

Immersive Experiences (AR/VR/Mixed Reality). A short list of potential use cases once you get past technology searching for an application (cart before horse city). Jane trying out lipstick and hair colours. Showing the kids a shark swimming around a room, or what colour Tesla to put in our driveway. Measuring rooms and seeing what furniture would look like in situ if purchased. Is it Groundhog Day for Second Life, is there a battery of disruptive applications, or is it me struggling for examples? Not sure.

Smart Manufacturing. Described as transformative tech to watch. In the meantime, 3D printing. Not my area, but it feels to me low volume local production of customised parts, and i’m not sure how big that industry is, or how much stock can be released by putting instant manufacture close to end use. My dentist 3D prints parts of teeth while patients wait, but otherwise i’ve not had any exposure that I could translate as a disruptive application.

Computer Vision. Yes! A big one. I’m reminded of a Google presentation that related the time in prehistoric times when the number of different life form species on earth vastly accelerated; this was the Cambrian Period, when life forms first developed eyes. A combination of cheap camera hardware components, and excellent machine learning Vision APIs, should be transformative. Especially when data can be collected, extracted, summarised and distributed as needed. Everything from number plate, barcode or presence/not present counters, through to the ability to describe what’s in a picture, or to transcribe the words recited in a video.

In the Open Source Software World, we reckon bugs are shallow as the source listing gets exposed to many eyes. When eyes get ubiquitous, there are probably going to be little that happens that we collectively don’t know about. The disruption is then at the door of privacy legislation and practice.

Artificial Intelligence for Services. The whole shebang in the article relates back to BOTs. I personally think it’s more nuanced; it’s being able to process “dirty” or mixed media data sources in aggregate, and to use the resulting analysis to both prioritise and improve individual business processes. Things like‘s Broca NLU product, which can build a suggested intent:action Service Catalogue from Natural Language analysis of support tickets, CRM data, instant message and support email content.

I’m sure there are other applications that can make use of data collected to help deliver better, more efficient or timely services to customers. BOTs, I fear, are only part of the story – with benefits accruing more to the service supplier than to the customer exposed to them. Your own mileage may vary.

Containers and Microservices. The whole section is a Minestrone Soup of Acronyms and total bollocks. If Simon Wardley was in a grave, he’d be spinning in it (but thank god he’s not).

Microservices is about making your organisations data and processes available to applications that can be internally facing, externally facing or both using web interfaces. You typically work with Apigee (now owned by Google) or 3Scale (owned by Red Hat) to produce a well documented, discoverable, accessible and secure Application Programming Interface to the services you wish to expose. Sort licensing, cost mechanisms and away. This is a useful, disruptive trend.

Containers are a standardised way of packaging applications so that they can be delivered and deployed consistently, and the number of instances orchestrated to handle variations in load. A side effect is that they are one way of getting applications running consistently on both your own server hardware, and in different cloud vendors infrastructures.

There is a view in several circles that containers are an “interim” technology, and that the service they provide will get abstracted away out of sight once “Serverless” technologies come to the fore. Same with the “DevOps” teams that are currently employed in many organisations, to rapidly iterate and deploy custom code very regularly by mingling Developer and Operations staff.

With Serverless, the theory being that you should be able to write code once, and for it to be fired up, then scaled up or down based on demand, automatically for you. At the moment, services like Amazon AWS Lambda, Google Cloud Functions and Microsoft Azure Functions (plus point database services used with them) are different enough to make applications based on one limited to that cloud provider only.

Serverless is the Disruptive Technology here. Containers are where the puck is, not where the industry is headed.

Blockchain. The technology that first appeared under Bitcoin is the Blockchain. A public ledger, distributed over many different servers worldwide, that doesn’t require a single trusted entity to guarantee the integrity (aka “one version of the truth”) of the data. It manages to ensure that transactions move reliably, and avoids the “Byzantine Generals Problem” – where malicious behaviour by actors in the system could otherwise corrupt its working.

Blockchain is quite a poster child of all sorts of applications (as a holder and distributor of value), and focus of a lot of venture capital and commercial projects. Ethereum is one such open source, distributed platform for smart contracts. There are many others; even use of virtual coins (ICO’s) to act as a substitute for venture capital funding.

While it has the potential to disrupt, no app has yet broken through to mainstream use, and i’m conscious that some vendors have started to patent swathes of features around blockchain applications. I fear it will be slow boil for a long time yet.

Cloud to Edge Computing. Another rather gobbledygook set of words. I think they really mean that there are applications that require good compute power at the network edge. Devices like LIDAR (the spinning camera atop self driving cars) is typically consuming several GB of data per mile travel, where there is insufficient reliable bandwidth to delegate all the compute to a remote cloud server. So there are models of how a car should drive itself that are built in the cloud, but downloaded and executed in the car without a high speed network connection needing to be in place while it’s driving. Basic event data (accident ahead, speed, any notable news) may be fed back as it goes, with more voluminous data shared back later when adjacent to a fast home or work network.

Very fast chips are a thing; the CPU in my Apple Watch is faster than a room size VAX-11/780 computer I used earlier in my career. The ARM processor in my iPhone and iPad Pro are 64-bit powerhouses (Apple’s semiconductor folks really hit out of the park on every iteration they’ve shipped to date). Development Environments for powerful, embedded systems are something i’ve not seen so far though.

Digital Ethics. This is a real elephant in the room. Social networks have been built to fulfil the holy grail of advertisers, which is to lavish attention on the brands they represent in very specific target audiences. Advertisers are the paying customers. Users are the Product. All the incentives and business models align to these characteristics.

Political operators, both local as well as foreign actors, have fundamentally subverted the model. Controversial and most often incorrect and/or salacious stories get wide distribution before any truth emerges. Fake accounts and automated bots further corrupt the measures to pervert the engagement indicators that drive increased distribution (noticeable that one video segment of one Donald Trump speech got two orders of magnitude more “likes” than the number of people that actually played the video at all). Above all, messages that appeal to different filter bubbles drive action in some cases, and antipathy in others, to directly undermine voting patterns.

This is probably the biggest challenge facing large social networks, at the same time that politicians (though the root cause of much of the questionable behaviours, alongside their friends in other media), start throwing regulatory threats into the mix.

Many politicians are far too adept at blaming societal ills on anyone but themselves, and in many cases on defenceless outsiders. A practice repeated with alarming regularity around the world, appealing to isolationist bigotry.

The world will be a better place when we work together to make the world a better place, and to sideline these other people and their poison. Work to do.