Man Made

Quite rightly, we stand back in amazement at the progress artificial intelligence is making day by day. This week news broke that doctors in Holland had performed the first robot assisted supermicrosurgery. http://bgr.com/2017/10/03/robot-surgery-medical-breakthrough/. Our minds boggle at the possibilities, the potential, and the risks.

But the more AI advances the more it makes one stop and think about how far its journey has to go; the smartest AI is still no smarter than a little kid https://futurism.com/googles-ai-still-isnt-smarter-than-a-first-grader/ and superintelligence is still decades away, even with the most optimistic (or pessimistic – depending on your perspective) guestimates. https://futureoflife.org/superintelligence-survey/

In the meantime all this thinking about how wonderful AI is has led me to reflect on the achievements of humans – if Siri’s so fantastic, then maybe we should give ourselves a little bit more credit for the Triumph Bonneville, an Apollo 5 spaceship, football, kettles, the Pyramids, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Picasso’s Guernica, ping pong, Thomas Crapper’s plumbing system, the London underground, Doc Martens, Louie Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, a Boeing 787, the ENIAC, Versailles, an artificial heart, the electric light, rugby, a BMW X5, the Crispr editing machine, pizza ovens, Lord Dury of Kilburn’s Reasons to be Cheerful, the Chrysler Building, dog collars, Marc Chagall’s windows in All Saints Church, Elvis Costello’s Pump it Up, braces, Notre Dame, Excel, an English country garden, a Brioni suit, the National Health Service, Christ the Redeemer, Guinness, Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie, the Eiffel Tower, Eton Mess, contact lenses, tennis, Go, Jeopardy, Poker, and lastly, artificial intelligence.

One day, AI will make extraordinary things and add to my spin on Woody Allen’s what makes life living riff https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKTQ4a3BR5c. But in the meantime we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that real intelligence is still pretty wonderful too.


The Anatomy of the Modern Enterprise

We still have much to learn, but it is clear that work as we know it will be organized, distributed, and performed in entirely new ways. A fusion of algorithms, automation, machine learning, and the rise of cross industry platforms is skewing business models, customer experiences and cost structures, sector by sector. Many industries are in fact melting and reforming around these new technologies, be they virtual reality, 3D printing or Block chain (trust me, the list goes on). Not a week goes by without learning about some spiky new start-up or innovative technology that looks set accelerate and disrupt in equal measure.

What’s more, the stuff that used to be seen as science fiction is now within our reach. We can now imagine a world where fleets of self-driving cars can be summoned at the touch of button, untethered from the hassle of personal ownership. Or see the incredible advances in healthcare as data begins to supercharge an era of innovation as smart medical devices, intelligent pill bottles, bio-sensors to the digestible chips on pills create a data trail rich with meaning and insight. And in this world of abundant data, why can’t we price our insurance in more equitable ways? Will my Fitbit generate an individual health profile for me, and customize my premium quotes; why can’t the sensors in my car ensure my auto policies are based on actual driving performance? The downside is we begin to judge each other but its cheap right? And as Ryanair knows we all love the cheap...

Survey data for my latest report on the dynamics of workflow and workspace—what we’re calling The Future of Space—shows that leaders are hearing the drumbeat of new technologies and rising customer expectations every single day. And it’s getting louder and louder. At their root however, what these technologies do is enable the “new.” New business models, new revenue streams, new types of customer relationships, and radical new cost structures. The big WIM (Forrester Research parlance for what it means) is that the modern company must pivot on software, open it up, partner with it, and co-create with it because surviving the impending tech disruption depends upon it. How well one company marshals data around its value-chain (i.e. pivots on software) versus its competitors will determine its long-term profitability and longevity. Listening to the industry chatter surrounding the recent Frankfurt Motor Show a couple of weeks ago is a case in point.

The buzz it seems is no longer about the sleek new model like the plug-in BMW i8 hybrid, but more about the software and business model pivot that technology enables. The advances in driverless navigation and battery power dominated the news emanating from the Frankfurt Motor Show (even EasyJet got in on the act and floated the idea of battery powered jets that would fly us around Europe). According to industry insiders, by the time the Paris Olympics hit Europe in 2024, the car industry will look very different—more of a blend between software, big finance and the car manufactures. You might have seen Uber’s travails in London (N7 night bus anyone?) but right now the competition within the brutal ride hailing race gives a glimpse into the future of city travel. The consensus at Frankfurt is the winner won’t be Uber, Lyft or Gett but will feature big finance somewhere along the line. Chatter at the show focused on the rise of new consortia within the driverless car industry, operating app controlled fleets of self-driving cars that patrol our cities and transporting us here, there and everywhere. The owners/lessors of the fleets could well feature BMW or Daimler and an Uber in there but most likely will feature an industry tie-up with banks or financial investors as the switch in business model from personal car ownership to rental disrupts the auto manufacturer’s revenue flow and cost structure. Heady stuff.

And you can see the disruption playing out today. Cars are beginning to trigger an industry mashup way beyond the disputed entertainment interface between Android Auto and Apple CarPlay—perhaps the first “platform war” of its kind) An instrumented car provides a platform for innovation and opportunity because it’s capturing what we want to listen to while driving and how safely we drive and beaming the data back to dynamically price our car insurance; our cars will soon collect road status data and use it to improve traffic flow around our cities. No wonder car makers are in a race to build the eco-systems in support—check out how Audi, BMW and Daimler acquired “Here” from Nokia to develop a platform for connected mobility services. The plans include some natty industry plays for utilities for example, to measure overhead power lines, or for local authorities to use the software and assess potholes and the state of our pavements.

My take is the modern enterprise has to speed up innovation, experimentation and collaboration with proprietary and 3rd party data inside, outside and across its industry. Mastery with data will offer incredible opportunities for companies to renew mandates, co-create and grow engagement across a value chain. But the modern firm must go beyond that. The modern enterprise must rethink work from the top down, how it looks and where it happens, what people get from it. Within the past 10 years, business ecosystems have dramatically switched, and so has the talent pool, the customer base, not to mention the technologies employees use to perform daily functions at work. Work is changing. Very fast.

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France's Tech Nation Takes Shape

The French have an expression “faire passer la mayone” or “make the mayonnaise happen” and it seems France is doing just that when it comes to tech innovation. Last week I was asked to co-host a Cognizant roundtable on Artificial Intelligence alongside our AI practice lead Bart Van Der Mark. An impressive roster of French clients and prospects turned out, keen to share stories and learn from one another and us about AI (i.e. where’s it happening; how fast; how to start etc.) What was particularly insightful for me was hearing about the bourgeoning French start-up scene and the appetite French investors are showing for it as new investment funds open up for big data, artificial intelligence and virtual reality (the new tech tricolour). The French economy is making some smart bets on its future.

The pace of start-up innovation in France is accelerating and the government has a hand in making it happen. Although many outside France bemoan its notorious labour inflexibility—and it is a problem—there are some strong currents running in the country’s favour. For one, the quality of its infrastructure is really world class—trains, planes, roads, high speed broadband—and its spread out evenly across the country, not concentrated on one region like London and the South East. Secondly, the dynamism of its STEM education system is world-class and the adaptability of the prestigious Grande Ecoles continue to turn out an impressive talent bank together with an ambitious, well-rounded leadership class. And one cannot discount the paternal French state which has moved swiftly to capture the opportunities from new technology that we’ve described many times.

Government policy has been ramped up in order to drive entrepreneurial energy into the economy and it seems to be working. Check out the funding initiatives like La French Tech where over the last thirty six months concerted attempts have been made to lower barriers to entry for French entrepreneurs. And many French cities like Montpellier, Toulouse, Grenoble or Lille are starting to morph into a French network of indigenous talent clusters that can boast their own local innovative eco-systems. The support that the government provides is a mix of marketing, financial support, regulatory reforms, and community-building that aims to deliver a shot of pastis to the nation’s start up economy and convince international investors to give France a fresh go. Budding start-ups are offered subsidised trips to the big tech events like CES in Las Vegas, or to Slush in Helsinki. Moreover, the French Tech Ticket has been designed to encourage international entrepreneurs to settle into the country and bring their IP, energy and innovative flair with them. This golden ticket offers a fast-track to residency, about €12K in cash as well as some free office space and discounted flights on Air France. There are new tax incentives alongside a significant reduction in the amount of red tape that entrepreneurs face when they launch a business. Moreover, the stain of bankruptcy has been somewhat restricted by only blacklisting for a single business failure. So fail fast but fail only once....

The ingredients for France’s tech future are clear. Good infrastructure, a highly educated workforce and a strong, top down commitment from the governing class to grow an entrepreneurial tech class across the country. It’s a no brainer when you think about it and it works at a company level too. But if you add to this recipe a dash je ne sais quoi from a certain fresh-faced mercurial president eager to reinvent France, and you can see the stirrings of a tech nation begin to form. Of course, there are still some structural issues that need to be resolved: One of the biggest is to do with growth and scale. If you grow a company larger than fifty people then any owner must jump through some onerous administrative/regulatory hoops to do with worker participation, worker councils etc. So any start-up hitting pay dirt works damn hard to restrict its scale beneath fifty people through complex subsidiary structures or outsourcing. It’s not a Gallic innovation killer but it came up a couple of times over conversation during our event and it will be fascinating to see if Macron can tackle it sooner rather than later. But I for one can’t wait to see how the French economy moves ahead.

PS. If we are going to talk about the French economy then we have to talk about French levels of productivity. Why? Well our British politicos love to beat us over the head with it. At the last count, the French are thirty percent more productive than their UK counterparts (thirty percent!) So for every hour of work the French do they get nearly a third more output? Put another way, the average French worker can stop work on Thursday lunch for le weekend and make the same amount of money as the Brits do toiling away until beer “o” clock on Friday. I am no economist but I did hear that these startling levels of French productivity signal the underlying issue of its labour inflexibility. The lowest productivity workers are not in the workforce while the high levels of investment taking place to replace expensive and unproductive workers with machines, computers and robots continues apace. So French productivity will look even better because take away the most unproductive workers and it’s easy to improve productivity; you don’t let them work. Not sure if that is the case...but suffice to say, that didn’t come up in the conversation in Paris.