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Reasons to be cheerful – one, two, three

January 29, 2012

Well, we’ve made it through Blue Monday, which is reckoned to be the most depressing day of the year – and presumably the rest of the week isn’t deemed to have been much better.

If I was looking at things on face value I’d have to say they weren’t looking so good right now. This last year has been the toughest I have known it since first entering the workplace in the mid 1980s and a lot of commentators are talking about us teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession. Some recent number crunching by The Guardian illustrates quite well what this latest recession looks like graphically in comparison to other major downturns.

Ian Dury - legend of the UK new wave scene - had a good list of reasons to be cheerful in the dire 1970s

Although young at the time, I remember the effect the recessions of the 70s and early 80s had on family members. In the recession of the late 80s/early 90s, I lost the first main job I’d ever had when the construction industry I was working in virtually imploded overnight. In the early part of this century during the dotcom bust, the two big companies I worked for, NTL and Lucent, lost billions and laid off many, many thousands.

It doesn’t surprise me therefore that this current recession looks graphically closer to the great depression of the 1930s because, based on experiences of other recessions and market bubble bursts, it feels like it too, as it grinds on year after year.

On face value this doesn’t look like a great time to be trying to start a business but then this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gone against the flow. So, as new wave rockers Ian Dury and the Blockheads sung back in the 1970s …

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
A little drop of claret – anything that rocks

Reasons to be cheerful – one, two, three

One – Economic challenges are ‘different not dire’

In an excellent debate on the UK economy hosted by The Times this week, Dr Mike Lynch described the current economic situation as “Different not dire”.

You can see his contribution to the debate here and it is well worth listening to as he is someone who has really been there, seen it, done it with his leadership of Autonomy over the last 15 years.

Basically, Mike Lynch is making these main points – a number of which I have expressed in various posts on this site over the last few years.

  • On timescales he observes that much of what was promised about technological advance and economic impact during the dotcom bubble has come to fruition – It’s just taken longer than thought and is impacting in different ways.
  • Things like the Eurozone crisis are a symptom not a cause. The cause is the tectonic plates of technology and humanity rubbing up against each other and creating earthquakes. The technology plate moves fast, the humanity plate  moves very slowly.
  • As the speed of change becomes exponential, these earthquakes increase in frequency and this results in volatility in our lives and businesses. Volatility creates both threats and opportunities as value can be created very rapidly but also destroyed rapidly too.
  • Technology driven change can have major ramifications and not all of them good. However we should embrace change and not be scared by it.
  • We need to focus on where the money is and also on what we do best. Creativity is an important differentiator for the UK economy and we can put that creativity to use in many ways but also be prepared to change direction from what we set out to do.

Two – We won’t run out of energy anytime soon

Recent articles suggest that market forces have created a surge of innovation in fuel exploration and extraction that have potentially doubled the world’s energy reserves. In addition, the exponential growth and success of solar energy has been driving down technology costs massively, while elsewhere scientists have been saying increasingly that it is a question of when, not if, viable energy supply will be generated through nuclear fusion.

Since first starting tracking innovations in energy technologies for this blog a few years back, progress has been impressive and gives me confidence that the world will achieve an abundance of clean power within my lifetime. As before in history, abundance of energy has enabled human populations to address major challenges, feed ever-growing numbers and improve standards of living.

Three – It’s Alan Turing Year

Wouldn’t it be wonderful on the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, a man widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, for a machine to pass the Turing test?

Wonderful, but highly unlikely – unless countries like China or Russia have something highly secretive to pull out the hat. Even though supercomputer IBM Watson is gaining plaudits for its abilities in winning at Jeopardy, it is widely believed that this is a long way from passing a properly constructed Turing test.

However, throwing a spotlight on machine intelligence is a great thing because it shows the world just how far things have progressed in 100 years since Turing’s birth, particularly in areas such as voice recognition, speech to text conversion and natural language interaction.

I saw the potential of these technologies whilst working with Lucent Bell Labs team members 10 years ago on the mobile internet proposition for operators. While still at a rudimentary stage, these developments illustrated the types of voice recognition and voice controlled applications that we are starting to make good use of in the mobile  environment.

The fact that I have been searching for content for this post using voice and speaking content into WordPress from my Android smartphone, illustrates the advances that have been made since the turn of the century. In fact, I am pleasantly surprised in the advances since first using an Android phone a couple of years ago.

Also, as a deafened person, one of my pet hates remains call centres and having to cope with poor quality audio and a myriad of accents in trying to get basic tasks done. Therefore, I am an advocate for service automation and machine aided self-service where it is relevant and adds value.

Part of Turing’s story is his persecution as a gay man that led to him killing himself at a young age. I’ve always found it ironic and tragic that he should be a victim of the intolerant attitudes to difference and persecution of those deemed undesirable that he was so key to defeating in his code breaking work at Bletchley Park and its impact on the war effort against the Nazis.

100 years on, the world has become a more enlightened and tolerant place but any opportunity to remind people of the tragedy of injustice is a good one.

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