When the Levee Breaks: Our AWEsome, Augmented Future

Any quick glance at hourly "Breaking News" overlays on TV news, the rampant invective on social media, wild-eyed passengers having nervous breakdowns on airplanes, or even octogenarians hurling political f-bombs at each other in the rec room your grandma's convalescent hospital, it's pretty apparent that, in the words of Aerosmith, "There's something wrong in the world today, I don't know what it is...".

Some days, you want to either pull a blanket over your head, crawl under a rock, or -- for the Dungeons & Dragons lovers out there -- deploy your extra-dimensional portable hole and jump into it as fast as you can.

But until then, our prime directive has been to "Keep Calm, and Carry On". And for many a techie out there, that means they'll keep building the coming, immersive world of augmented reality as an adjunct, alternative -- and yes, augmentation -- to the real-reality, and make it better. Or escape from it.

It's also worth noting, coincidentally, that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. In the excellent new Amazon Studios documentary, "Long Strange Trip", there's a great quote from Jerry Garcia, talking about the inflection point, the moment the 1950s Eisenhower Age of Bobbysoxers and Beatniks gave way to the Peace, Love and Rock-n-Roll of the "Real Sixties":

It was about possibilities; they were in just in
the air. And everybody was also waiting with
this sense that "something is about to happen".
It was just like everybody knew it, everybody
was waiting for this "thing" to happen. And
everybody did what they could to make "it"
happen... People were losing faith in this
reality, thinking: "This can’t be all there is
... there's just not enough to it ... it's not that
interesting... it doesn’t require enough of me, it
isn't a challenge, and it isn’t enough FUN."

With yesterday and today as a backdrop, two weeks ago, I attended my first Augmented World Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center. It’s a “gathering of the tribes” of sorts, a veritable Candyland for fan boys and fan girls everywhere about augmented reality technologies.

How to describe AWE 2017? Big, brawling, sprawling... You knew it would be big, just by the line for check in, something akin to the opening day of Star Wars in 1977. And 100,000 sq feet(!) of "play space" in the belly of Silicon Valley's beast, at the shopworn Santa Clara Convention Center, with hopeful young people from the world over flying in (in many cases their first trip to California) for a crack at the next Gold Rush. This is AWE in a nutshell.

Me? I’m local, but a newbie to all things Augmented Reality and immersion. I’ve spent most of my tech career as an analyst looking at business processes and how to make them better through the application technology services -- most recently robots, algorithms and AI. Now I'm jumping into the deep end of the pool of the immersive technologies of AR/VR/MR/XR to see how they'll become a cornerstone for the Future of Work. And with AR especially, it’s abundantly clear that something BIG is afoot.

And there's a lot of "immerscenti" who are smart, turned-on people, and who, like the denizens of Haight-Ashbury fifty years ago, have gathered here, in this spot in the world, right now, and are trying to make "it" happen.

Here's some fun anecdotes from the show:

  • "A day full of dopamine": VR is starting to make its way into seniors centers and nursing homes. A great panel that included Linda Jacobson asking pre-dementia seniors "what was the address of the house where you raised your children", bringing it to life for them in VR with a simple Google Street View, and literally watching the dopamine flood the synapses (and smiles spread from ear-to-ear).
  • The Meaning of Sgt. Pepper: Bring back the allure of album art! With AR/VR we'll soon be able to go deep into the artist’s “world” with help from companies like Sceneplay. Lovers of Roger Dean covers, Radiohead, the Beatles and Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic” rejoice!
  • Magic bubble: Forget the "boil, boil, toil and trouble" magic orb that Donald Trump and the Saudis recently rallied around. This 360 video ball from Global Imagination makes the obverse of immersive ("disinterred"?) VR accessible in the "real world" (or, maybe, "reality Base-0"?)
  • The Time Machine: If you’re travelling, you'll soon be interacting with characters from the past that can act out little scenarios from history. It’s already happening in profound museum experiences, and even on your exercycle.
  • Awaiting the Holodeck: The idea of the Holodeck debuted on Star Trek decades ago. Ten years later, the Indiana Jones character in an Atari 2600 game was a blob. Now with teraflops of computing, powered by the likes of Nvidia, Mary Meeker's idea of finding "beauty" plus emotional connection and empathy needs to be a lodestar for immersive technologies.
  • From SMAC-talk to chalk-talk: The AR revolution will continue play out on smartphone screens for awhile (yes, more goofy lolling tongue, dog-face overlays), but it's probable that immersive technologies will "melt" the SMAC stack entirely in the 2020s. Already, Vuforia's Project Chalk enables people that are far apart help each other.
  • The new "AIR": It’s pretty apparent that the fuel in the AR tank will be AI. Does AI + AR = the new “AIR” we all breathe in our daily movements, experiences and work? If AR companies like Resonai met with AI companies like Clarifai, that'd happen...
  • Destruction of construction instructions: Forget the “insert Tab A into Slot B” paper schematics when you want to assemble IKEA flatpack furniture in the future. Your AR glasses (and, eventually, 4D printing) will do it for you.
  • Pedagogues agog for AR: Teachers everywhere can jump start their pupils -- now! -- into the world of AR by crafting Aurasma "aura" vignettes in 30 minutes
  • Pressure test the (cinematic) message: A/B testing has been with us for a while. What if affinity groups on Facebook, Linked-In, Rotten Tomatoes could test out cinematic experiences from studios and A/B test them on the fly?
  • Entertainment, "real business" or something more?: While entertainment and education will be of huge benefit (especially for VR), the aperture of AR is also opening to enterprise business processes everywhere. Hint: if you have already have field service or logistics processes, get thee to augmented reality, ASAP! (and check out this supremely compelling demo from Upskill).

AWE excited me most because it's clear that some of my initial "thought experiments" about Augmented Experience were playing out in parallel with others. Build-out is now actually being done by real-life computer scientists, designers, and garagistes all over Silicon Valley and further afield. To see IRL the real-live startups now burgeoning in augmented reality petri dishes of hackathons, game jams, perfecting skins & surfaces & planes (oh my!), "escape rooms", SDKs, SLAMs and HMDs (and, this being Silicon Valley – intrigued-but-cautious, and likely soon-to-be-copious venture backing) all soon to be bringing the Future to life.

And yet, for now – here’s the rub – there’s an element of “Waiting for Guffman” about all this. To paraphrase Jerry G. again, everybody knows that "something is about to happen". But four key players were not EXPLICITLY in the house. For as much as hundreds of really smart people are starting to fit the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, the conspicuous absence of the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and that AR dark horse of dark horses – Magic Leap – was palpable.

It's sort of like if you were craving rock-and-roll in the Sixties, and The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Dead haven't shown up on the scene yet. But maybe Elvis (Apple with the iPhone), Chuck Berry (Instagram, or Facebook Space), and Buddy Holly (Google Glass 2.0) have at least entered the building are rocking out at the chord structures they hear.

Perhaps this is by design? Maybe. Or else it's possible the alchemists from these big -- like Arya Stark -- walked amongst us all at AWE in Santa Clara in disguise, picking up some of the riffs. And you have to hand it to those wearables players that WERE present front-and-center, like Microsoft, Meta, Daqri and Osterhout Design Group... all armed with fine examples of wearable augmented hardware for sure, with some no-doubt amazing technologies under the hood (under the glass?) that will make the whole thing groove.

But still – for all the "brute forcing" of innovation happening - this industry is waiting for Mssrs. Zuckerberg or Cook to grace humanity with the AR equivalent of an “iPhone” moment: the ubiquitous, beautiful, light, and high-performance wearable that everyone must have, consumer and business alike. At that moment, cue the last song on “Led Zeppelin IV”, because when the veritable levee breaks, it will catalyze and cohere entire ecosystems of folks looking at creating, narrating, instrumenting, guiding, and painting our augmented and virtual worlds to come.

Meantime – while we’re waiting for the Guffman of immersion -- our augmented world is going to play out on overlays on top of tablets and smartphones everywhere. But there *will* come a day the Warby Parker store will offer you your stylish AR lenses, perhaps owned as the latest bauble in an Apple/Google/Facebook string-of-pearls acquisition. (Hey, if anyone told you Amazon would buy Whole Foods and you laughed incredulously, there’s $13.7 billion of M&A dollars laughing right back at you...)

That’s why looking at augmented reality from a Future of Work perspective is so instructive, because in 10 years or sooner, augmented reality *will* be the future of work, and help us in many/most/every(?) job, journey, and gesture we make. And when it does, the world will rock to an augmented beat, a mood, and a spirit it hasn't felt in a very long time (maybe, like the the Eagles sung about in "Hotel California", since 1969).

The First Rule of Leadership? Show Up!

Surely that is the quote of the UK’s recent general election...the United Kingdom, a country once prized for its stability, pragmatism and global leadership seems to be having a torrid time of late. The Scottish Referendum, Brexit, conservative leadership elections and now a “hung parliament” (i.e. no clear majority). The incumbent Prime Minister, Theresa May put “strong and stable leadership” at the centre of her campaign and then proceeded to throw way a stonking lead because the country didn’t believe her. The Tory campaign for government was in fact one of the worst in political history. The “no show” at the televised leader’s debate and the manifesto U turn really did sink them. The big lesson for me however is about leadership.

There are important lessons for leaders and the craft of leadership from the UK’s general election. Vision really, really matters. The ability to think about the future with imagination and wisdom and work hard to attract others to back it. A vision of what the country (or organization) will be and how it will capture value; how people will live (and work) together and what skills they’ll need for the future. With good timing, the Center for the Future of Work has just published a new report called Relearning Leadership in the Second Machine Age. The reason why we chose to focus on leadership is because we feel that leadership models need a reboot. Organizational value increasingly pivots around data and the blend between the physical and the virtual worlds (we’ve written about this a lot and our latest take we describe it as Europe’s Digital Imperative). Market watchers, CEOs, business leaders etc. all now recognize we are in the midst of a major economic shift; a profound realignment in how people and organizations work together to create value. So what does it mean to be a leader today?

Today’s leaders have to deal with far more complex, messy and diverse choices (and roles) than just five years ago. Our ideas articulated in the SMAC stack published in 2012 signalled the start of the digital shift. If SMAC seems easy to understand it’s because it was. Today’s rapid fire of artificial intelligence, robots, drones, virtual/augmented reality, blockchain or 3D printing creates confusion and paralysis. Business models are in a state of flux, operating models are under pressure and legacy cost structures are creating headaches in an era of stunning change. Organizations and their people need higher levels of agility, innovation and creativity than ever before. We’ve got the proof too: results from our Work Ahead survey ran at the end of last year point toward a generation of leaders finding the shift difficult (check out our findings here). An executive class is struggling to balance the promise of the new with the realities of what they have to work with while all too easy to underestimate institutional inertia. Cultures that have grown up over decades can be large, unwieldy and complex – even at times paranoid and complacent. In our report, we call them zombie organizations and they must be fought at every turn.

However, the challenge for leaders is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater (don’t get rid of something good when trying to get rid of something bad). The reason why an industry exists around management and leadership theory is that management and leadership theory generally works! My advice is don’t junk the suit just yet and turn up to work looking like Jeremy Clarkson (trainers, jeans, sharp jackets—yes, we’ve all done it) and expect kudos from your business unit or team. Don’t be tempted either to reject what’s worked before. Many would be innovators deal with the trade-off between efficiency and innovation by rejecting traditional management entirely. They repeat mantras about breaking all the rules and asking for forgiveness rather than permission. They set up skunk works (small autonomous units with a remit to innovate) and mock the big boring corporate types that actually ensure they’re paid each week. Mocking them will only encourage you to be starved of money and executive support when it’s needed.

What our report does argue is that successful leaders of the future must switch into three clear roles. Switch into software and pivot on platforms, accelerate innovation (hyper innovation we call it) and nail human insight into every single customer experience. The real challenge then is motivating your workforce to embrace the vision of change. Please do read our report, Relearning Leadership in the Second Machine Age and join the conversation.

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The Future of Insecurity

Regular readers will know that we here at the Center for the Future of Work like to brand ourselves as “thinkers of the unthinkable”. This post however focuses on a topic where the vast majority of people are “unthinking the thinkable” – namely that our computers are not secure.

George Orwell’s famously said that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”; as of June 2017 it appears that most people have stopped struggling with what I would suggest is the most vexing issue of our day, namely how do we stop the Information Age imploding on itself in the wake of bad actors running amok?

In What to Do When Machines Do Everything http://www.whenmachinesdoeverything.com/ we argue that we are on the cusp of a “great digital buildout”, in which technology becomes embedded in, and central to, every aspect of modern society; in the next 20 years (but staring this afternoon at 1:28 pm ET) banking, education, healthcare, government, transportation, and housing – all areas where technology is used, but in still somewhat marginal, supporting, low key ways – will be fundamentally re-imagined and re-wired, leveraging AI, robotics, Blockchain, A/VR, platforms, quantum computing, and new human/machine interfaces (voice and then neural). By the time I’m a greeter at the Falmouth, MA, AmazonFoods http://money.cnn.com/2017/06/16/investing/amazon-buying-whole-foods/index.html software won’t have just eaten the world, software will be the world.

This perspective though rests on one fundamental assumption; that the technology on which everything is predicated is safe.

One would have to be a very good advocate to argue that today. Consider;

The list could go on and on. See this site for more of the gory detail (artfully presented) if you’re so inclined; http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/worlds-biggest-data-breaches-hacks/.

As an aside, this list clearly doesn’t reference “fake news” and other activity that though technically not illegal is clearly a scam and undermines confidence in the virtual world. Also, the list doesn’t reference terrorist activity on-line, which is highly illegal and profoundly troubling for the continuance of the “open” Internet, as it is currently constructed.

It is clear that the computer technology we are using today is entirely unsafe. Fortunes and fates rest on the most flimsy of foundations; even the most blue-chip of corporations (and the most deep-pocketed) admit (off the record) that they have been (and continue to be) repeatedly hacked.

Our ability to function amidst this truth stems from our individual and collective ability to ignore and deny it - abilities hardwired into us from time immemorial. No one and nothing is really safe. If high-class hackers want to hack you, they probably can. Personally, most of us take comfort in “security through obscurity”. Collectively, most of us take comfort in “that’s John - or Vivek’s - problem, not mine”.

But these thoughts take us back to where I started this blog; that most of us are not struggling to think about this stuff anymore. It’s too scary and too difficult. Life is too short, it’s Friday afternoon, it’s summertime and the living is easy.

So, if we do pause and think about it this for a moment, what should we think?

Well, this is why we don’t think about it, because when we do we quickly realize that knowing what to think about all this is very, verydifficult ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evlrs5Bi_6E

On the one hand I think, and have repeatedly commented on, how amazing our modern technology marvels are http://www.futureofwork.com/article/details/the-blas-index. But on the other, I worry deeply that a la Oppenheimer we (e.g. the collective “we” of the tech army, and me personally as a mere foot soldier) are becoming the destroyer of worlds http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/my-god-what-have-we-done-the-commander-of-the-enola-gay-303774.html.

What to do, what to do, what to do, the outlook was decidedly grey ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wjuxx8BH4yI

I see three scenarios ahead;

1 the “white hats” win – all is well; the great digital build out proceeds and though there are bumps in the night society is upgraded and we all sleep well at night

2 the “black hats” win – society retreats from a technology mediated world; owners of pigeons and quills become the new masters of the universe

3 victory in the battle between white and black hats is ambiguous – the cat and mouse between good and bad actors carries on ad-infinitum; bad things continue to happen; we – a la frogs – learn to live with them; because there are no “real” solutions we (i.e. society) continue to reside on the banks of denial and make the most of the view and the bathing.

Scenarios 1 and 2 seem unlikely, non? Crime has existed since before recorded time (or least since before the establishment of the Daily Express http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/580365/first-recorded-murder-victim-revealed) and will (pre-crime notwithstanding https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG7DGMgfOb8) presumably be with us until the last human walks the earth (The final crime? Murdered by an AI?). That we would retreat entirely from technology also seems unlikely. Though perhaps The Walkaways will grow in number https://www.amazon.com/Walkaway-Novel-Cory-Doctorow/dp/0765392763. Certainly, any significant M&A deal is now conducted behind an “Internet airlock” in a Manhattan hotel room or lawyers office.

Which leaves us with scenario 3 aka “The Muddling Through” scenario, in which the battle continues to rage, both sides finding new ways to attack and defend, leveraging systems of intelligence https://hbr.org/2017/05/ai-is-the-future-of-cybersecurity-for-better-and-for-worse until we begin to sense a taste of Armageddon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Taste_of_Armageddon. A scenario in which the benefits of technology just about outweigh the costs but in which nobody is really sure that this is true; or sure about anything else either. In which there are identifiable “White Hats” and “Black Hats” but the real damage is done by “Grey Hats” – franchised freelancers whose very “rouge-ness” got them the gig in the first place (recruited in Las Vegas https://www.blackhat.com/us-17/defcon.html) – who nobody really understands or can control.

Maybe the perspective of scenario 3 is too pessimistic; maybe quantum security https://phys.org/news/2017-06-physicists-quantum-memory.html will bring about scenario 1; maybe a Digital Geneva Convention https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2017/02/14/need-digital-geneva-convention/#sm.001hj4x4igtge7710c6182kwlki3r will bring an end to the cyber arms race that escalates, and escalates, and escalates. Maybe Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of governments’ (plural) involvement (talking of Grey Hats) in these domains will break the, ahem, denial (distributed, of service).

Maybe. Not holding my breath.

As Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, put it, “If you want a job in 5 years, study computer science. If you want a job for life, study computer security” https://twitter.com/levie/status/547234465198526464?lang=en. Clearly, every IT service provider of note (including Cognizant) has fired up every recruiter on speed-dial to load up on security talent. Fixing “insecurity” may make fixing Y2K look like a hors d’oeuvre. Making them safe = making lots of money.

Hopefully our connected homes, cars (particularly of the flying variety http://www.cnn.com/videos/cnnmoney/2017/04/24/larry-page-google-kitty-hawk-flying-car-cnnmoney.cnnmoney), buildings, planes (definitely of the flying variety), operating theatres, parliaments, bank vaults, classrooms, and VR environments, will be safe and secure. They’d better be; stuff will hit the (connected) fan if they’re not.

As someone once said (provenance uncertain; ping me if you know), “If you’re not thoroughly confused, you’re not adequately informed”. If you’re not thoroughly insecure about the state – and future of – computer security you’re either inadequately informed, or more likely, just like the rest of us; having too much fun watching the slow motion nervous breakdown in Washington D.C.

Enjoy. While you can. The problems ahead may make our current ones seem far from huge. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEA33bAXyNM