MM Awards

Viewpoint: Smart Thinking

David Murphy

We live in a world where more and more things are becoming connected. I don’t need to run you through the complete list of usual suspects, but cars, clothes and appliances are three of the most prevalent.

Those who champion this connected lifestyle often face a good deal of cynicism from those a bit more stuck in their ways. When I tell friends, for example, that driverless cars will definitely be the norm in 20-30 years time because they are proven to be safer than those with humans driving them, most refuse to accept it. I put this down to the fact that I’m privileged in the job I do to hear some very smart people waxing lyrical on what the future will look like – and I’m not talking about futurologists.

For me, the moment I became convinced that driverless is the future was when I heard a presentation from Professor John Miles from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. He explained how 30 per cent of the congestion on our roads is caused by minor incidents, and that 80 per cent of these are caused by driver inattention. “It’s not difficult for a machine to beat an inattentive human,” he concluded.

Sticking with cars, only two days ago when I summoned an Uber, my brother, hardly a technophobe, took great pleasure in telling me how a friend had praised Uber’s service, barely believing my brother didn’t use it, only to be brought back down to earth when he realised he needed to order two Ubers at the same time, something the app did not allow him to do. How my brother laughed.

It's inevitable
This brave new, connected world is at the heart of Kevin Kelly’s book, The Inevitable, in which he attempts to explain the 12 technological forces that he believes will shape our future. Each force gets its own chapter – Cognifying; Flowing; Screening; Filtering; Interacting; Remixing, to namecheck half of them.

Kelly is something of a visionary. He helped launch Wired magazine, and recounts in the book how, in 1989, he tried to convince the top leaders at ABC that they should get with the internet, because it had the potential to disrupt their business. Stephen Weiswasser, a senior VP at ABC, told Kelly: “The internet will be the CB radio of the ‘90s” and with that he was shown the door. As a parting shot, Kelly told the ABC people to at least register the domain name which he knew to be available. When he checked a week later, it was still available…

In some of the chapters of the book, Kelly paints a picture of what a typical day might look like in the near-future. Those cynics I mentioned earlier would no doubt have a good chuckle at some of these sections, such as the one where he puts in his AR roaming contact lenses and a ring on one finger of each hand to track his gestures. These complement the tiny lenses in his shirt and headband that track his body orientation.

“When I rush through the real streets, ordinary objects and spaces are transformed into extraordinary objects and spaces. A real newspaper rack on the real side-walk becomes an elaborate 22nd-century antigravity transponder in an AR game” he writes. “Yeah ,and meanwhile some of us are just trying to get home from work,” I hear the cynics say.

But if those cynics look back to what real life looked like 30 years ago, when Sky TV – along with Amazon, Spotify, Facebook and the half dozen apps we all rely on to get us through the day – didn’t exist, then perhaps they might think again. Especially when a lot of what Kelly describes is already science fact, rather than fiction.

Hyper reality
I just finished the Interacting chapter, much of which was devoted to virtual reality, augmented reality, and what Kelly calls hyper reality, where the suspension of disbelief is so great that the sensation is one that feels more real than true reality, if you can imagine that.

Towards the end of the chapter, Kelly talks about this new connected world, and the way he describes it makes it seem very credible. He talks about how our body is increasingly becoming our password, since it turns out that many of our physical characteristics are unique to us – not just our fingerprints and our iris, but our voice, our heartbeat, our typing rhythm on a keyboard, even the way we walk. So in the future, he says, systems will check out all these attributes to establish if a person is who they claim to be. “Our interactions will become our password” as Kelly puts it.

What I like about Kelly is that while he is clearly a cheerleader for this bleeding-edge technological revolution we are constantly on the edge of, he can see where the cynics are coming from; he hasn’t in any way lost touch with the current reality.

Smart is better
He concedes, for example, that “simple, noninteractive things, such as a wooden-handled hammer, will endure”. But then comes the punchline: “Still, anything that can interact, including a smart hammer, will become more valuable in our interactive society”. The chapter concludes with a succinct one-sentence summary: “In the coming 30 years, anything that is not intensely interactive will be considered broken.”

It was when I read that line that I flicked back to our website to a story we posted a few days ago about Buzzfeed launching a smart induction hob called the Tasty One Top. I was asked to write the piece, and I recall when I first heard about the appliance, I wondered what a very modern media company like Buzzfeed was thinking of launching a worktop cooker. What did it even know about kitchen appliances?

And then you read on, and you see that Buzzfeed hasn’t set up a workshop to churn these things out. It’s working with GE Appliances’ First Build team to design and build the thing. And the device has a very strong and direct link to the Tasty brand that Buzzfeed launched a couple of years ago, that shows you how to make all sorts of wonderful meals through the medium of short, time-lapsed, intermittently speeded-up videos, overlaid with text instructions.

These both enable the speeding up to happen without losing any of the narrative, and also mean you can watch them anywhere without sound.

The device has been designed as a companion to the Tasty app. It’s a 1500w induction hob that sits on the work surface. The user places their pan on the hob. If they are using a recipe from the app, the One Top will set itself to the correct temperature and cook the ingredients for the right amount of time, alerting the cook when it’s time to turn the meat, add more ingredients or whatever.

I think it’s really clever in a couple of ways. First, it seems like the perfect device for what I assume must be a big segment of the Tasty target audience – people living in shared accommodation where kitchen space and access to the cooker may be at a premium.

Second, it actually helps you to cook the meals you can access through the Tasty app, essentially making it idiot proof by syncing the app with the hob so that – in theory at least – if you do what the app tells you to, it’s impossible to go wrong. It seems to me exactly the sort of thing that Kelly was talking about. A non-connected version would be good, but the connected one is better.

Here and now, I have no idea what possible use the smart hammer Kelly refers to could be to anyone, but seeing what Buzzfeed have done with a table-top cooker, I’m sure someone out there does. And I’m equally sure that when Kelly says that while noninteractive things will endure, the smart versions of them will be much more useful and sought-after, he has hit the nail on the head.

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