IT Futures 2017 Liveblog

Today I’m at the IT Futures Conference 2017, an annual University of Edinburgh conference. I’m chairing a session later but I’ll otherwise be liveblogging our wonderful speakers.

John Lee is introducing the day – which is being recorded – and also noting todays hashtag which you should definitely keep your eye on today: #itfutures.

John: Today’s event is about Scaling and Transformation and there is a lot to challenge ourselves with, we hope there will be lot for us to think about and reflect upon over the Christmas break.

Our first speaker today is Melissa Terras, who recently joined us from UCL as our new Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage.

University Technology Futures: the View from a Newbia at the UoE – Professor Melissa Terras, UoE College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

There are two ways to do these things: the show and tell or saying something more meaningful. I hope to do the latter today.

So, I went from studying Greek sculpture to doing hardcore machine learning in my PhD and research. I then went to UCL where I was one of the founders of the UCL centre for Digital Humanities, working on

I will be directing “digital stuff” at the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and working heavily with the Edinburgh Futures Institute which is leading data driven innovation for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. So, futures… There are lot of those… So many futures initiatives and organisations but also we face rather uncertain future… And we will we be looking at these issues at the EFI, how to deal with this uncertain future and the changing information environment. And of course the word comes from financial markets, it is speculative. When you think to the future you see speculative fiction imaging what might happen, but what does this mean for us as a University.

If I’d given this talk a few years ago it would have been quite different. The internet is changing as an environment and it has become a less pleasant place to be over the last few years. I’ve actually done some grieving for the internet I grew up with… I’ve been online since I was 17 and a lot has changed. But lets be more positive, what will we do to equip ourselves for this information environment?

So, lets start with the students – those people we criticise for not being able to buy a house because they are buying too many avocados… Lets start with ethics… I’ve been working on a project called Digital Library Futures – looking at usage stats of who borrows what, and that comes with issues of anonymity, huge ethical issues, huge data protection issues. These are the conversations we have to have with our students to understand what we can and should do.

I’ve said it before but… All data is history. It comes with a cultural background, a societal history… We do this in historical studies all the time, but do we do this with our informatics students? We’ve been doing some work at UCL on the Time Digital Archive (1785-2010) which looks at how men and women are talked about… If you use this as a training corpus for machine learning you are embedding the bias and historical issues into that learning. Even historic information has a real impact on current computational work and approaches.

Which brings me to diversity… There is a lovely piece of nineteenth century newspaper analytics identifying images from newspapers… But only white men. There were images of women and non-white people in those papers but machine learning hasn’t recognised them. This is so important in how we use and train machine learning and what computational methods we use…

And then there is context and understanding what you engage with… There are the sites that let you automatically insert yourself in a range of images – without any idea of provenance or context. Or the Twitter bots that will give your profile image a smile… A huge shout out here for librarians.

What about academics? Well all of the above! But also… We need to understand what is happening

How locked down the digital environment is – there are things I can’t do with my desktop, and then three days later it changes. I’m working on an EU handwriting recognition project and it’s hard to install the software I’m writing. To enable data driven innovation we have to give people flexibility – if you don’t do that people do workarounds and that’s where security issues start to come in. We need to ensure we have the access to do this work.

The other thing I wanted to mention is the Jeremy Bentham Panopticon… Whether through diary systems… And also lecture recording… And the change in rules that students can record anything and what that means for what we say… How you talk about your work changes when that is recorded. Being recorded at any time by students what does that mean for students… And what does that mean for students from, say, Turkey… Anything we do can potentially be done at any one time. You may think that I’m being paranoid. There have been all sorts of threats, death threats, scandal, etc. when something is broadcast and shared. How do we support staff and students if something goes wrong. So we have to understand that challenge, to engage with difficult topics.

I’m a great believer in looking after it’s own data… What does the university do to archive it’s own websites… What can we do to best look after our own information environment – our work, our data, our web content.

So, we have a bright future ahead. But it’s a complicated future. We have to be aware of all of this, we have a role to be the place to go for truth when truth is being debabed.. And that’s where the Edinburgh Futures Institute comes in. We are still developing our work  – keep an eye on the website, It has huge potential and a real opportunity to be a beacon of light and truth at a time when the world really needs that. And I am hugely excited to be here and in a role that can help shape that.


Q1) You talked about light and truth… What about openness… And being closed about some things… How do you provide spaces that are both open and closed and safe?

A1) I am a firm believer in Open Data and Open GLAM, but I think it’s about equipping people with the skills to understand when and how and what framework you can share under. It’s not about closing things off but about being tooled up as an individual. The Open Data and Open Science agenda tends to be about projects post-peer review when they are ready to share. I was talking with a colleague here working on the history of censorship and she isn’t on Twitter because of the abuse she’d get for her work – and that is the right decision for that context… Having those skills to decide is important.

Q2) Thinking about the GDPR coming in, as a newbie, how do you think the University is prepared, and how do staff manage their own digital environment in that context?

A2) I am on committees at Edinburgh, I was on similar at UCL, and I have sat as an external person on similar groups at Oxford. Across all universities there is a need to help stafff understand the legal requirements, and the significance of them. These things are generally understood better when something goes wrong… In a way that’s the “Daily Mail” test – will what we are doing be at risk of appearing there?! But I have been cheered by what I have seen over the last few weeks here, and where the thinking is at.

Mr Stefan Hyttfors

I thought I would start by telling you about my 21 year old son who is a university student. He lives away from home… This summer we sat down together to have this great barbeque, to talk about his plans for the summer… About what he would do for a summer job… And he said “no, I won’t get a summer job” and that surprised us as he had lots of plans, and they require money… But he said “it’s fine! I have this crypto currency wallet” and he had 2 bitcoin – which last summer was worth about $5000. And I wanted to start with that… He questioned what is money, is paper money real? It’s belief, we believe it has value because it has been there for a long time… We have symbols… the dollar, the pound, the krona, the Euro… We don’t believe in the paper anymore but we believe in the banks, we check on our phones. We don’t ever see our money as a thing… We know what they owe us, as long as we believe in that system, it works. He said he doesn’t believe in that system – it’s dysfunctional and it will be disrupted… It is an inefficient system… I believe in crypto currency. And his bitcoin is worth more like $37k, so he was right, he didn’t need a summer job.

What Melissa told us about education is right, if we want to create new citizens… We do know that in the future we have huge problems… We have climate change. We don’t know if we can cope with that yet… There are ways to change your impact: eat less meat; fly less; drive an electric car or ditch the car altogether. There is one way to trump all that: have less children! We are in this time where the best way to save the future is to stop having kids… Which is strange… Surely a better faster idea woudld be suicide? Zero carbon emissions! But this is serious… We need to understand and think about how we think about the future, about what we can do… I’, in a hotel tonight, in the hotel has a sign to reuse the towels to save the planet… But the planet will be fine for millions of years… We have to think about the future of humanity, and that’s about sustainability in all senses – environment, diversity, equality… If we don’t do that we will have more divide, more people scared about human futures.

And now we have the internet. The internet is a stupid network…. For thousands of years we collaborated in hierarchy…. Better to be part of that at any level rather than being alone. But now we have a decentralised network… It’s all of us and everything, in a mess… And since we are connected in a mess and not a hieracrchy, we don’t need a boss… So I have experience, and I can tell my son how to address issues in the world… But what if I’m wrong…. That means there is no boss, no teacher, who chas the power to say what should happen, innovation is at the edges… In universities you pushed out ideas, you had the power; companies too pushed things out. But now innovation is in the edges… There is no boss now. It’s decentralised, that’s the whole point… This is how crypto currencies are being established right now… Rather than haing trust in just one bank… Lets instead trust in all of us, keeping transactions across millions of ledgers, there is no middle man, no one database to hack anymore… This couldn’t work without network effect. In any university or country we need to have scale… This took off about 10 years ago… This summer was the tenth anniversary of the launch of the first smartphone, and it’s an amazing product launch from Steve Jobs – who points out current “smart” phones which are all about hardware, which can’t be easily changed as the world changes… He said then that we’d fixed the issue for computers but not for phones… Well we are still just at the beginning. Things are still changing..

The world is changing from hardware to software… Not just phones… From a University building to software… From products to services… This means we can’t think of the future in a linear fashion… In a corporation they talk about growth, in a country it’s GDP growth… in our lives we see our ages go up but it’s an odd way to mark things… I might instead celebrate the years I have left to live to keep me focused on what matters… Whatever we work on we do everything a little bit better all the time, we compete on scalable efficiency… If we are more efficient than competitors we are safe. This is a model that is seen as best practice right now… But that applies until we find a new way to address the issue… That is probably technology but may well not be devices… For instance I don’t need to own a car now, I can use Uber… That’s a new technology. New stuff is new! The world changes… And that always appears in “S” curves…. First it doesn’t work, we ridicule it… Then leaders are learners… That’s where we need a university to study and explore – there would be no new practice without it… Then we learn and adjust… and eventually it takes off and quickly thanks to network effects.

But what if I’m the blue (steady upwards) line here… What if I don’t know how to solve the problem… When the red line crosses the blue line, the blue line is over… This is a bit like the Christmas Pig in Sweden – all looks good until Christmas! Right now we have big organisations going out of business… disruption are our unicorn companies… You get disruption because you do something very very good with efficiency in mind… And you get disrupted because they find a totally different way to solve a problem. We say this in media – newspapers, music, film. And now we see it in retail… We see lots of large retail brands ticking along, busy, doing well… And then Amazon performing so much more successfully. Eric Hoffer says “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”.

As humans we always solve our problems with technology. So 1914 we have the Ford Model T launched… We have huge adoption growth, a few years of decline during the second world war, but by 1991 we are at 91% adoption… You have 76 years to adopt the technology… But right now the S curves are like rockets! An idea appears and it is adopted hugely fast! And we don’t need to shift products anymore, we can ship ideas… Artificial Intelligence is about creating machines that do not need to be programmed… Maybe you heard about the defeat of a Go champion beaten by a Google algorithm. This isn’t chess, Go is a game with 10 to the 5 variations, which has been taught from generation to generation. And that was last year, now there’s a new version of that algorithm – Alpha Go Zero – which learns the game from nothing and in 40 days learned enough to win 100 games in a row against the previous algorithm… What AI learns from us may only slow us down…

It’s scary though! We worry “Will robots take our jobs?” but that’s stupid. We are the creators. We solve problems with technology, we are part of technology… If you think about your day, your experience, how you think about life… Think about electricity and what would happen if you took that away, what that would mean for our lives… It’s hard to imagine that though. Douglas Adam described what you have now,  that’s what has always been… But everything invented after the age of 35 is just not ormal… We take for granted the technology we have available to us. Technology is part of us. It’s not robots or human beings, it’s still us and what we want to do with technologuy…

When I was growing up computers were the size of a room… It wasn’t accessible or cheap, it was a huge mainframe… Now we’ve moved to mobile, to wearable, to technology that can be embedded in us as well… Your grandkids will talk about you, and think you know nothing… We will have new problems… Technology will tell us not to have another beer because it will knock 15 minutes off your life… Your insurance company may stop covering you… That’s a new problem… Maybe privacy becomes the currency in the new world

So, as we think ahead think about one word, think about dematerialisation. Digitisation means the marginal cost go down… It goes down over time… What is the marginal cost of taking pictures now? It’s zero! But you used to just have 24 shots to use, or maybe 36… It was a bigger cost… You didn’t take lots of them… Then you sent them off… And two years later you finish the film and send off… Now our toddlers can take 2000 self portraits a day! We talk about healthcare in those terms of unaffordability now, maybe we afford it through digitisation….

One more example we hear about is the automobile industry… Cars were complex… Now they are smaller, lighter, autonomous… We only have a driver now because the law requires a human in charge… Today when you say “look at that guy, he’s texting and driving!”, but in less than 10 years time you’ll say “look at that guy, he’s driving! People are the inefficient part… 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents… We don’t know how to drive… But how do deal with this… This traffic cop pulls up the Google Car and he doesn’t know what to do… No-one is in charge… But if we need fewer cars, we make fewer cars… That means the automobile industry will decline… We need to move from physical ownership of cars to the shared infrastructure for getting around. And that can be ok. But that won’t work when policy makers force us to stay in the past, to protect the old way of doing something..

Same with education… If you grow up in Uganda you just need access to the internet… You can take one of 250 courses at Harvard for free online… You don’t need the concrete building. It doesn’t matter how much political power you have, technology beats politics… They trump politics and borders… Online there is no Brexit… It’s not just corporations but also individuals that have access to technology. We can solve big problems this way. That means that the issue isn’t technology but humanity… Do we want sustainability, equality, space to explore… Do we want to see GDP growth. What do we believe i as a society… We have fantastic ecooic growth… GDP is growing… More people on the planet than ever before have access to technology, to healthcare, to vaccines. But non-humans… Oceans, forests, etc. are dying, we are clearning land to support us farming meat. We have huge air pollution issues. If we keep going on that blue line we won’t have water, air, forests to support us, we all depend on us eventually… No matter what you believe in…

There is one thing we can all relate to… There are 7.5Bn people on just one planet… No matter what business or education or purpose model we have, we have to solve our problems within that limit… Until 1986 we were just about sustainable…. Right now we are using 1.6 planets worth of resources… We have to create much more with much less… Some things, some business models, some GDP standards have to shrink not grow. It’s pretty clear that my son and his generation are aware of this, they see that old model doesn’t work, that it doesn’t make them happy… We have all these things, but we don’t have happiness… That’s not my opinion, that’s the WOrld Health Organisation’s opinion. We have a huge number of people with depression, we had 800m suicides last year. A lot of things are pointing the wrong waays… This is why future generation think old models are bullshit. They see that there must be a better way to do it… Stephen Hawkins says that “history teaches us what didn’t work” – we have to come up with better conclusions… If we are at this point in history when sustainability means no babies… Then we clearly have to change… From an educational perspective I think it is clear I don’t need a university, or a teacher… I need a network. Perhaps the university or the teacher can be a helpful node in this network… But it has to be about creating a better future, rather than preserving an old model.

Response – Jen Ross

What we have from Stefan is an opportunity to reflect on what we need to do as educators to consider different sorts of materiality. We have to educate not just with technology but about it. We have to see technology as deeply integrated with society ad our values. This has implications for what we do as an organisation as well… How do we want students to respond to this new world… People at this university talk about the future in a lot of interesting ways. Posing interesting questions… This year Sian Bayne and I led a course on digital futures, and the Near Future Teaching project is looking at what teaching of the future should be… These conversations are happening. And this organisation is already thinking about ethical issues… And I want to ask you about being creative and critical in these discussions, and who can you talk to about the ideas today?


Q1) I noticed in Stefan’s presentation a self-driving car… Am I correct in saying that a self-driving car slowed when passing two females… and is that an example of bias in the algorithm.

A1) I have an autopilot on my car… and you get used to that quickly… That makes me dangerous in my wife’s car – I forget I am in charge. What Melissa raised is important in terms of bias embedded… Maybe Alpha Go can teach us something about teaching the algorithm… Maybe we can learn something new… It’s an amazing time to be alive. Thinking about the future as a destination makes the present an obstacle… We know what the future will be like because this moment is the future…

Q2) One of the interesting things about being this room is that people here work on systems… The internet isn’t stupid… That’s a live issue in the debate over net neutrality… That’s likely to break at some point… People have been trying to keep the network stupid but what happens when that breaks, what happens without net neutrality…

A2) I don’t know it has to break… But in a decentralised network there is no way to stop it… So big organisations doing things to individuals doesn’t work this way… You could only shut down blockchain by cutting power… And that’s hard to do… Most of the blockchain miners are in China and not in the big cities… I don’t believe in paranoid scenarios where you have evil Trump, evil Google… As soon as they do something bad enough… We go somewhere else… I refer to bitcoin as it’s a really interesting example. Big banks have a business model that depends on all the big people… So how do you close down a network like Bitcoin… You could do that by paying them to opt out… But that would cost £300bn right now. I do see huge problems with protectionism, because of populism, because of inequality. We have enough stuff but we don’t share it well enough… People get scared and then we go for protectionism and nationalism… I don’t claim to have an answer…

Q3) I was meeting with union heads yesterday and AI came up and the potential for disruption or job losses… I’d like to hear your view on the total amount of meaningful work and jobs over time… Any thoughts on how to deal or think about that.

A3) It’s a valid and important question. What is a meaningful job? Gallup says that only 13% of the workforce is really engaged in their role… Most people do “robot jobs”. That should mean that that opens up… As long as job loss means free time rather than our future being screwed, that’s fine… As long as people believe that we need jobs and politicians argue about creating jobs… It’s easy… Ignore technology… that will create jobs… The issue is sharing resources and the outcome… But that’s not easy… And more time means more time to think about the meaning of life. I don’t have a boss or a job as such. I’m curious, I travel, I’m essentially a student… And what I do funds my life… Lets talk about sharing resources as a problem… We have a system that has served us well… But now we are scared of missing out… That’s the thing about Trump and Brexit… People are scared… We have to realise that and address it…

And with that we go to coffee…