When it comes to technology, I’ve been ‘lucky’ all my life. I was bought up in a mainframe family as my father was an IBM engineer. I used to play with the cardboard punch cards that ran these machines. When I graduated university, I turned down fast-track jobs in banking to work with a small IT consultancy which was part of a large London accountancy firm (which became what is now Accenture). Very early on I worked on one of the first IBM PCs brought into the UK (with a 360 KB double-sided 5¼ inch floppy disk drive and a 10MB hard drive). I also encountered my first personal example of closed techno-thinking when my Dad told me over and over again that “PCs will never be able to to match the power of mainframes”.
Sales managers will always tell their sales people that “you make your own luck”. There is a good deal of truth to this, but “synchronicity” plays an important part in the careers of people who are seen to achieve things in business.
One of the most important moments of synchronicity in my life occurred 24 years ago this month when, travelling on a train from Coventry to Watford in the last week of November 1994, I pulled out my copy of BusinessWeek and first read about the potential for commercial applications of something called the 'Internet'. Given that I was working on an internal networking-type project using Lotus Notes, I immediately bought into the potential power of linking up everyone externally. It’s fair to say that I have been ‘monetising’ that moment ever since! (NB: To give Dad his due he saw how networked PCs could rival the power of mainframes).
Before the end of that year I was hooked up to a curated network (a pre-runner of the public, browser-driven World Wide Web) called CompuServe at 9600 baud and, the next year, launched one of the first commercial websites in the UK for Time Manager International. I saw the potential of the Internet early on and would bore people to death about how it would change the world (particularly in political campaigning). The biggest thing I learned during this period is that individuals are understandably focused on their own areas of interest and unless they stop, raise their heads and take time to think about where we are going with technology, they will lose out on opportunities for which they are very well suited.
Today, my digital monetisation work ensures that I am at the cutting edge of the latest technologies from where I am constantly surveying the future of humankind. This role has never been more exciting. How we teach machines to help us with even more complex tasks is as a big a game changer as the Internet was mooted to be on my train ride back then. It might be a misnomer to call many of these current applications ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (since this relates to comparing machines to humans) but in a very short time these machine learning applications will make a real difference to our everyday lives (they are only scratching the surface right now).
One area in which I have recently worked with clients on investment proposals is around AI models for precision medicine. This is an “emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that considers individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person." The gains for humankind of the advanced mathematics being deployed to understand the relationships of data points in this area are incredible. So much so that at an AI event at President Macron’s Temple to AI, Station F, in Paris in September I was touting a version of the future where, in 25 years’ time, patients will go to see their local GP, sit in a chair where they will poop, wee, have their finger pricked for blood, spit in a receptacle and within a few short minutes exit through one of two doors. Behind Door 1 will be a cup of tea and computer screen telling them that they’re fine. Behind Door 2 will be a specially trained, empathetic, counsellor who will explain just how screwed they are.
I incorporated this story into my pitch back at the exhibition stand financed by Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation agency, where I was representing two of the most exciting UK SMEs in the AI, Big Data space, Citi Logik and Massive Analytic. Having confidently made my prognostication, my vision was trumped by a smart, young, French Data Science student who was a part of an attentive crowd. “I don’t think that is right,” he offered. “When I am your age, that empathic representative behind Door 2 will be a computer – a humanoid.”
Wow, OK! I can argue about the timeframe but now have a gallic-induced expanded vision. I just hope that I'm around for that (and still visiting Paris!).