Language is the Mother of Innovation #67 #cong17

By Tracy Keogh.

I didn’t do a piece for Congregation last year because I didn’t have the words. When you’re building, when you’re passionate, when it’s going on instinct, it is just hard to have the words. It happens for me with gender equality. I remember when I found the language of equality and the feeling of relief with words like unconscious bias allowing me to properly express the frustration I felt when I came across actions I just knew were unfair, and the other person couldn’t understand what they were doing wrong.

I want to make the case for placeholder words, particularly in communities that want innovation to penetrate their culture. That is, communities, that want to empower individuals to make change in their environment. I also want to suggest a framework that will give people the tools to create and use those new words.

Towns are the physical representation of the communities in that area. Like the Broken Windows Theory, where small acts of vandalism can affect crime rates, the future of what our towns look like with hugely impact their communities. It is critical, where rapidly changing business models are impacting towns, that we equip those communities with the tools to be resilient and adapt to change.

By way of an example: I spoke to a lady (lets call her Jane) who owned a really quirky shoe shop in a city. Like most shoe shops, it is tough, labour heavy work. Last year, 80% of her sales came from abroad. She doesn’t need the high street store, so she will move out. What will the community do to replace it? In this case, a coworking space, that reflects her new challenges of e-commerce, loneliness of an online business etc is a perfect replacement.

Do you remember those tests in school? They tested our English. The tests had placeholders, ‘Jackie goes ____ the store to ____ an apple’ and you had to find, understand and input the words in order to complete a coherent sentence so that it, and you, could be understood. The word coworking is currently going in those placeholders. It is being used as a way for community leaders to express that they want to succeed and thrive, but they don’t mean coworking, in the traditional sense, per say.

At a recent Future of Towns event, one speaker said that in the UK they worry when vacancy rates hit over 14%. Some of our first floor properties have 80% vacancy rates. A coworking space might move the needle a couple of percent, but what after that?

Words power innovation. ‘Coworking’ is credited to Brad Neuber and only took wind around 2005. We need more words, we need to create and curate the new language of our towns.

We need to understand what our communities mean, beyond what they say. There’s a danger in using cookie cutter models everywhere. Not just because it does not work, but because it will negatively affect the people behind it, our community leaders who are willing to dream and do.

I’ve always had a placeholder word for ideas. It’s Iggy. I use Iggy when I know there’s a solution to a problem but I just can’t verbalise it yet. Want to try something? Let’s call it Iggy. Instead of saying ‘We want Jane to stay, thrive and use that space as a shoe shop’ we say ‘We want Jane to stay, thrive and use that space as an *Iggy*.

Think of Iggy as your shield. You say the word, and you get the pack (and all of the responsibility that comes with that). Your Iggy pack will need:

1 A coalition of the willing who want to do *something*: Simply a bunch of people from a diverse range of backgrounds that you call, update and bounce ideas off. No one gets preference voting rights, user insights trump all.

2 A budget: You’ll need a budget that you do not need to explain/justify. You can do a lot with 500.

3 Research Pack: Examples of other towns, and some examples of how some spaces like coworking spaces or mens sheds began to turn up in our towns, what worked and what didn’t.

The Process:

Acquire insights: Bring in all of your basic lean canvas/business model canvas/design thinking knowledge and learn to talk to your community in a different way. Who are they? What do they do? What are their dreams, hopes and challenges? With this you create your personas. EG in Jane’s case, you may find loneliness as a key challenge for her since she moved home to work online.

Build, quickly: Paint stuff, break stuff, build stuff, rip down stuff, just do. You build because that’s how you test, but you also build because that’s a core part in owning your creation. EG in Jane’s case, buy a desk from IKEA, ask her to spend a few days working from there, with you.

Iterate to completion and name it: Keep understanding the user, and build. EG in Jane’s case name it coworking and build it out past Jane.

Move next door and do it again but bigger, better, quicker :)

Words that fuel ambiguity and creativity will be instrumental in adapting to change. Spaces, when created, should be scaled into areas they apply to only. True creativity and innovation isn’t in the cowkorking spaces. It’s in creating the next word. A mens shed, a coworking space, a donut shop.

I’m over here, if you’re up for testing!

Hat Tip to Des, for spending quite some time helping me to find the words.

Innovation Can Be Ugly #66 #cong17

By Billy Kennedy.

We like to think of innovation as a planned methodical process in a pristine environment with positive aims like business or societal enrichment.  Something that helps to push humanity forward with well meaning teams.  We mentally have pictures of whiteboards and people in white lab jackets against backdrops of a better future.

However, like it or not, a lot of the great innovations have come from war.  Even fear of war has sparked some of the biggest breakthrough at break neck speed and with a worrying precision considering their intended use.

The list is sizeable and some of the ones attributed to military over numerous wars (note some were invented earlier but only widely deployed after military use) includes:

  • Canned Food
  • Plastic Surgery
  • Sanitary Nakins
  • Duck Tape
  • Microwave Ovens
  • Digital Photography
  • The Internet
  • Sun Lamps
  • Tea Bags
  • Zips
  • Stainless Steel
  • Super Glue
  • GPS
  • Freeze Drying
  • Ballpoint Pen
  • Jet Engines
  • Dyno Powered Torch
  • Industrial Fertilizer
  • Margarine 
  • The Slinky

The list goes on and they all have fascinating stories of accidental, ancillary and purposeful development.  (The links below give a flavor of those stories) Many were just widely deployed during war before being embraced by wider society.

It not just war where innovation can have an uncomfortable origin.  Many of the developments on the internet from streaming and eCommerce were pioneered by the unsavory porn industry.  The drugs trade has propelled bitcoin, blockchain and the deep web.

The reality is that innovation happens all the time but during a time of crisis, fear or possible great enrichment/greed we deploy enormous resources that propel development.  Much of the time these innovations are focused on creating as much carnage as possible and it is only later in peaceful times that a positive societal use is found for them.

Like most things in life progress can be slow until there is a ‘burning platform’ or a very compelling rationale.   In war this can be fear, hatred, greed (or simply psychopathic tendencies) but these are intensely human emotions.  These are powerful forces. Scarcity, pressure and trauma can help us achieve some of our best breakthroughs.  

In my 70th year I often hope for a future depicted in Star Trek when humanity works for humanity sake but see little immediate stop to conflict.  In reality mankind has always had a dark side and as Joan Mulvihill discusses in her post this dark side can be where true creativity and innovation lies.

To wish for a pristine dream like innovation process is to divorce human emotion from the equation and like it or not these positive and negative emotions are what makes us special and had led our race to succeed where other species have faltered.

After pondering my submission for #cong17 I now try to see the endless conflict documented on our screens as possibly having a silver lining, knowing this is small comfort for those unfortunately enough to be caught up in it.

I also take comfort that weapons and technoogy design to eradicate other fellow human beings can be reformed into positive forces….I just hope those who innovated them can also be reformed 


Why Followers are More Successful than Innovators #65 #cong17

By Gavin Duffy.

Despite the somewhat negative connotation of the talk title, the first thing I'll say is that Innovation is Good.  It is good for society and it is good for the individual, even if the individual does not benefit materially as well as they should or could.  Innovation is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It's our ability to create, to come up with new tools and new ways of doing things, that has made us the highest form of biological evolution on this planet.  #cong17

Despite the enormous advances in computing power and the rise of Artificial Intelligence, technology cannot nor I believe ever will be able to generate original thought and ideas.

As the owner manager of a technology solution business which relies on being innovative to separate ourselves from the competition, I am acutely aware of the need to continually innovate and improve.  However our greatest innovations have also been our greatest failures from a commercial point of view, whilst our greatest successes have come from simply tweaking things that have essentially been invented by others. Some people say being first is not always best.  I would go so far as to say that it is rarely best.  First mover successes are the exception.

Lou Reed was a musical innovator but it took 10 to 15 years for his genius to be recognised and he never truely benefited financially from his work.  It has been argued that David Bowe essentially copied the new genre, improved on it and made it his own.

Facebook did not invent the social network.  It was preceeded by Bebo and MySpace yet it was Facebook that went on the conquer the world.

Google did not invent the web browser and search engine.  They were preceded by Netscape and Yahoo who failed to take advantage of first mover advantage.

This list would lead one to believe that the term first mover advantage is a misnomer. It appears to be a distinct disadvantage.

Henry Ford said;

"I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work.”

Failure is an intrinsic part of innovation.  Success comes from learning from that failure be it your own or that of others, and then acting upon it.

Innovation is Tough #64 #cong17

By Paul O’Mahony

Click below to hear Paul's thoughts on Innovation.

Is Innovation good for humanity? #63 #cong17

By Emma Commerford and Lorraine Ni Fhloinn.

The word innovation is attached to all new products as a descriptor. If you do not include the word in marketing collateral for your new product you will be admonished by a cadre of experts and barraged with an arsenal of vague and confusing roadmaps for “innovation”.

Many “innovative” products are lauded as DISRUPTERS. The aim is to smash up existing delivery methods, destroy them completely, and replace them with some new “innovative” service.  For example Uber was lauded as the darling of tech disruption but in reality it has destroyed the yellow cab industry in New York City.                          

Is this a good thing?

Initially it appears to be good for consumers. A convenient car service, which you can manage from a smartphone. But is UBER really all that different from hailing a yellow cab, or calling a private car using your actual human voice?

No, it isn’t.

Consumers always had an easy and fast way to get private transportation from A to B. Providing consumers with a new way to call a car (via an app) has resulted in the destruction of family businesses and jobs. These jobs have been replaced by tenuous positions at a company that prides itself on DISRUPTING, is known to have a toxic and predatory work environment, and only cares about share prices. In essence many small businesses have been blown out of the water by this behemoth, and the behemoth has taken their labor and capitalised on it, while providing no job security, benefits, and offering no loyalty of any kind. This destruction is lauded as innovative and exciting but it just another hostile takeover of an industry by one faceless corporation who cares little for consumers or employees.

Maybe you have no time for Marxist theories of capitalism or indeed depressing rants of any kind as you are too busy coming up with fantastic, unique, exciting, state-of-the-art products or services?  Mostly ones that solve global problems and will make the world a better place (take that you dreary Leninites). So far so ground breaking, as luck would have it the entire world and their cup-cake baking Mammies are launching start-ups.  So in order to jump on the entrepreneurial gravy train all you have to do is the following:

Work all morning, right through noon and for most of the night trying to do one of the following:

a. design, develop, test and debug software or pay / exploit someone in a developing country to do it for you (spoiler alert you will be old and grey and spoon fed by robots long before you have even communicated your high level requirements to them)

b. design, prototype, test and “tweak” a physical product for approximately 3 years before you realise that the cost of making the moulds is akin to the GDP of the country where your developers currently reside (see previous brilliant idea).

c.  Do whatever people do who invent medical devices which to the best of the authors knowledge involves wrapping miniature bicycle parts in a balloon prior to insertion into an actual person

In your spare time you will be doing all of the following:

Constantly self publicising on a multitude of online platforms involving:

  • writing blogs for no material gain
  • making vlogs for no material gain - the justification and term used is to give yourself exposure – in a world of Harvey Weinsteins what does that even mean?
  • Harassing friends and family to like all of the above
  • Making predictions on future earnings that are nonsensical but necessitate hours pouring over excel spreadsheets like a numeric Mystic Meg
  • Committing to hiring 10 people in 3 years or 8 people in 2 years (insert appropriate number and timeline) to get government funding, proving that you will contribute to the reduction of the figures on the live register thereby making them look good.  In actual fact you are constantly being urged to seek out and hire experts in Marketing, Sales, Finance etc.  the last time I was in my local DSP office the number of CFOs and executive directors hanging around looking for a CE scheme was relatively low.
  • Making sure your new company has a tone, a brand, an amazing functioning website and actual sales before you are deemed worthy of funding or support - Innovation Catch 22 alert You Will Only Ever Get THE MONEY Once You Dont Need It
  • Being a complete expert on every area of running a business although you have no training, background or experience in any of these areas
  • Juggling the paranoic “dont tell anyone your idea, they will immediately steal it and make milliions” with the “put yourself out there or it will never happen”, usually after roughly 5 years trying to make the Herculean leap from Idea to Start Up to Profitable Business you would quite happily just give it away so that somebody somewhere may benefit from your original idea (which you can’t even remember anymore anyway).
  • Attending every start-up junket and innovation event in order to network and make contacts, the depressing fact is that these events are not attended by angel investors brandishing their bulging cheque books just waiting to be charmed by your idea/smile/crappy wordpress site but and here is the thing, they are full of people like you desperately looking for help, advice and a way of making the last of their life savings stretch for just one more month.
  • Watching the inspirational, cult like musings of internet personalities who are so successful that they no longer need any syllables in their names being instantly recognisable as just Z or V or B.

Like all religious concepts “innovation” and what it represents today is impossible to describe but it is greeted with fervor and lack of doubt. It has sprung up it’s own priests and priestesses who give sermons on it’s value, and produce books to recruit us. Humanity does not need to have it’s own creativity and natural ability for problem solving explained. The innovation movement is the modern equivalent of snake oil being sold by shysters.

Social Enterprise: Innovation for Good #62 #cong17

By Pearse O’Reilly.

A Fairer Share of Innovation

The world’s most innovative companies continue to grow, and channel vast amounts of wealth into the control of a very small number of people. Despite unprecedented levels of innovation in the world today, poverty, pollution and inequality continue to increase.

Are these innovative companies – by focussing on a commercial bottom line – actually making the world a worse place through overuse of resources while paying relatively few social and environmental dividends? Is calling for ‘innovation re-distribution’ as radical, and as futile, as calling for wealth redistribution?

Great innovation (or, one could argue, simple common sense!) is needed to tackle the great problems our world currently faces. Fortunately, innovation does not have to be re-distributed; great ideas and inventions are not the preserve of the few or the mighty.  More attention does however need to be paid to supporting the kind of innovation that considers the ‘triple bottom line’ i.e. accounting for social and environmental as well as financial impact.

Are Social Enterprises the True Innovators?

Social enterprises, typically, are businesses whose success is measured as much on the positive social (and environmental) impact they set to achieve, as on their profitability. Many provide vital services and tackle social problems that neither governments nor private enterprises are willing or able to manage. 

Like every other business, they must be competitive. They supply products and services and compete for customers and market share. They must also compete on quality and market rate prices since social credentials or intangible assets on their own are rarely sufficient to maintain a stable customer base. They must also compete for resources such as talent, investor funds, grant aid, advertising space and public attention.

To be competitive social enterprises must therefore be entrepreneurial. They must be flexible and provide creative and innovative solutions to running their businesses, fulfilling their mission and achieving their goals.

Social Enterprise in Ireland

The number of social enterprises in Ireland appears to be growing. However, there is an absence of concrete data on the sector. A Forfas Report into social enterprise in 2013 identified 1,420 social enterprises employing 25,000 people with a total income of €1.4b amounting to approximately 3% GDP. This compares with a figure of 4-7% of GDP for social enterprises across the EU.

The sector is now being recognised for the value it provides; a National Policy on Social Enterprise was announced by the Minister for Rural and Community Development in September of this year. A steering group comprising experienced social enterprise practitioners and representatives of a variety of government departments has also been established. One of the goals of the Steering Committee is to map the sector in order to gain more data and a clearer picture of activity. 

A cross-section of Irish social enterprise successes includes FoodCloud (who take food that would otherwise be dumped from over 2,500 supermarkets across Ireland and the UK for distribution to people in need), Speedpak Contract Services (who provide real work experience and certified, industry-relevant training for long-term unemployed people), Irish Seed Savers Association (dedicated to the preservation of traditional native varieties of fruit and vegetables and providing a range of educational programmes on sustainability and agronomy), Clann Credo and the Social Finance Foundation (who provide community loan financing).

The Challenges for Social Enterprises

Running a commercial business while addressing a social and/or environmental problem is challenging. Financial support is often required from, and provided by, government and private donors, but it is hard won (notwithstanding the significant and proven value provided to a wide range of stakeholders). 

The value and necessity of innovation in social enterprise is unquestioned but supporting its ongoing development in order to create sustainable and scalable systems often takes the kind of commitment, time and resources that can be costly in the short term, making it less politically palatable. Large organisations set aside large R&D budgets for this purpose.

Operating as a ‘private company limited by guarantee with charitable status’ – as many do – is not just a mouthful, it places significant, and in many cases prohibitive, restrictions and reporting demands on a small organisation. Angel investment and venture capital funding, traditionally used in helping businesses scale, are not an open to them.

This ‘non-standard’ formation also means that social enterprises do not fit into the traditional moulds often required by lenders or government support agencies. A more appropriate business formation category would facilitate better acceptance and wider understanding of what social enterprises are, how they operate and what they are designed to achieve.

Examples of Social Enterprise Policy from Scotland and Australia

Scotland and Victoria (Australia) provide examples of social enterprise sectors that have been embraced by their respective governments as important partners in the economy, in civic society and as providers of public services. 

Scotland has long been recognised as a world leader in socially-progressive business structures. The sector comprises 5000 social enterprises employing 110,000 people. Over 40% of Scotland’s social enterprises have been established in the past ten years. 

Victoria is the centre of social enterprise in Australia with over a quarter of the country’s 20,000 social enterprises. The government is recognising the key role played by social enterprise in improving workforce participation and social cohesion. Through its ‘whole-of-government’ social procurement framework, the State is providing guidance on opening tender and procurement opportunities to social enterprises.

Support Social Enterprise

In social enterprises I see people who are passionate about creating positive social, environmental and economic impact. I see the enormous value that is created with minimal investment. 

Social enterprises provide an example of true innovation for the greater good. They deserve greater recognition, support and reward.

What Are You Doing on Monday? #61 #cong17

By Eamonn O’Brien.

Photo by Clare Griffiths

So I had a peculiar and unexpected conversation recently. 

While humming distractedly, groceries in hand and plugged into my smartphone in an underground car park of a local Lidl supermarket, someone tapped me on the shoulder. 

What are you doing on Monday evening?

 Asked a stranger - a woman I was fairly sure I didn’t know.

We need men!

she continued and grinned a huge grin.

The quirkiness and brassiness of her question made me laugh out loud.


I said, in feigned surprise

I heard you singing

she said. 

Nice voice! I run a local choir and I just want you to know that we’re in desperate need of men…who can sing, that is!

Well that’s a new line of marketing” I suggested. “As chat up lines go, that’s a new one! Out of blind curiousity, do you make it a habit to approach random men your find humming in car parks?

And then – after a giant belly laugh – she said something that struck a chord with me at 2 levels.

It’s odd, I know. But, truth is, it’s ridiculously hard to get attention from people these days. No one reads notices anymore and we can’t afford to send out fliers. So, if you don’t try a personal approach, you’d never get new members. It’s just a sign of the times!

Firstly, after hearing more about her choir (which actually sounded really good) I decided that I’m mighty tempted to try it out in the New Year. So her direct approach may have been a really good tack.

And secondly, she’s 100% right. It has become harder to recruit new people to do most anything today via traditional means. 

In fact, as I thought about what she said, I mused that I can’t remember the last time I read or responded to a notice in a newsagent, local library or even a local paper.

And, if I were a betting man (and I’m not), I’m guessing you’d likely to say the same thing?

Rather, if you were looking for information, would it be fair to say that the first thing you’d be inclined to do would be to look online? 

Probably? And, assuming that’s true (as it is for most folks)…

…Therein lies the elephant in the room - the huge snag that it has become ridiculously difficult to win attention online in the face of:

  • Online audiences who have long since reached a saturation point regarding how much content they can or will consume
  • Tsunami after tsunami of content added day after day online on most every topic – increasing the chances (as mentioned in a recent podcast by Mark Schaefer and Tom Webster) that even awesome content will go unseen or unheard
  • Attention spans that have fallen to seconds versus minutes

So, what’s a body to do if you still need attention or visibility without spending hand over fist? Here’s my take:

Move away from most marketing tactics that rely on one to many broadcasts and think instead of how you can create real, personal and meaningful conversations, one person at a time. 

As you think about this, realise that this will likely require you to find ways to lead with more face-to-face forms of communications with your target audiences that you back up/supplement with online communications versus vice-versa. You’re far more likely to win connection and emotional engagement that way.

And remember, to quote an international social media marketing expert pal of mine in the UK Amanda Brown:

Face to face is the ultimate in social media

I couldn’t agree more and believe these are words to live by for every marketer as you plan for 2018 and beyond.

The more personally driven communications are, the more likely you are to encourage meaningful and valued conversations, cultivate relationships and become more trusted.

And that’s a winning formula for a Monday or any other day of the week!

We Make Pesto, Not iPhones! #60 #cong17

By John Magee.

Why is it so difficult to connect start-ups & small businesses with the extensive range of supports available from the state to support product innovation?

As someone who works in the enterprise support arena, this is a question I regularly struggle with. Although it is often the case that the default thought process for many starting out in business is “sure there is no help available”, the truth is quite different. Ireland Inc has an excellent start-up support infrastructure, with over 170 different supports available to business, many of them aiming to de-risk the innovation process for early stage businesses. But the take up on many of these is quite low. Why is this? Why is there such a disconnect between available support and take up?

There is no easy, or single, answer to this. I think it has something to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what innovation looks and feels like and a perception that innovation is an activity reserved for ‘big’ businesses or those in specific sectors. When the pesto manufacturer pointed out to me that he wasn’t making iPhones he was reflecting his view that innovation wasn’t at the forefront of his thought process. Having talked through his own approach to manufacturing a high quality product he accepted that there may be a few things he did that set his product apart from others in the marketplace and yes, he did have some further ideas that could benefit from technical support. Yes, his product tasted better because it was prepared differently. But innovation? Well that was a grudging acceptance. 

So, partly it is a failure to recognise the basic simplicity of innovation. It isn’t about a new gadget, nor about adding a new feature to an existing one. It is often about taking features out… making things simpler.  My pesto friend was creating a better customer experience by simplifying the product – real innovation.

This experience is in no way unusual. Try getting the small business community to attend a seminar or workshop on innovation. It’s a proper struggle. The real paradox here is that for most small companies they must be intrinsically innovative in order to get any significant traction in the marketplace in the first instance. Otherwise they’ll immediately come up against a better resourced or longer established incumbent. The disconnect, therefore, must relate to their own perception or understanding of their activity, relative to their perception of what constitutes innovation. Effectively they simply don’t think of themselves as being in the innovation arena.

A follow on question is therefore whether this inhibits the cultivation of a genuine culture of innovation in small business. If so many business owners instinctively recoil from viewing their activity as being innovative, then how can we expect them to invest in innovation or seek innovation support as they become established? How can we expect them to seek support to develop the next iteration, simplification or new product?

Or does it actually matter at all? Ireland ranks in the top 10 countries in the world in the Global Entrepreneurship Index, so we’re getting a lot right. Our small business sector remains the main engine behind new job creation nationally. It remains the case that micro enterprises actually have an innovation advantage in that they’re more nimble, flexible and innovative by definition.

We should also remember that start-ups and small businesses are not the same thing. Innovation is more intrinsic for a start-up, but not necessarily a more established small business. Start-ups might be more open to the various supports available, but for a variety of reasons they might not have the financial capacity, energy or operating ‘space’ to allow them to access innovation supports, whether training or programmatic. Proper targeting of supports is therefore essential.

It seems that in terms of supporting micro enterprises there is a constant need to demystify innovation, how it works and how it can be developed and supported. An integral element is to the consider whether the professional working in the enterprise support space truly understands innovation and its related dynamics. If these professionals struggle with the concept, then they’re poorly placed to positon and sell the range of innovation supports available. Perhaps greater emphasis needs to be placed on the advertising / packaging / explanation of innovation supports.

Given the various areas where the disconnect can and does occur… it’s hard to escape the simple realisation that many small businesses are more innovative than we all realise. It is also hard to avoid thinking of what might be achieved if we could plug the gaps and align supports with perceptions and invent a language around innovation that fosters greater business and agency engagement!  

My friend who makes pesto… he is at the cutting edge of innovation. For him. And that’s all that matters really.

Technology is starting to scare me…#59 #cong17

By Sharon Boyle

Cutting-edge technologies have been my fascination since my early teens…ahem… let’s just say that there weren’t too many (working) touch screens around at the time. I work in education, I have done for 18 years. I’m also a technologist, I started coding at 14. I enjoy the evolution and interruption that technology brings. Each innovation is exciting for the possibilities that it might bring to our work and everyday lives.

Excitement wasn’t what I felt on the day I read about Deepmind’s (Google owned) AlphaGo artificial intelligence beating the world champion of the Ancient Chinese game “Go” back in 2016.

What was so spooky for someone that had embraced the internet, remote working, voice recognition and social media as each new technology emerged? (I even had road trips planned for my first self-driving car.) This was no human v. computer game of chess that relies on skill and strategy. Each game of Go is unique and uses intuition to win.

My reaction to this news was not a media driven angst, designed to provoke and scare. It was an understanding that we were getting closer to a crossover between human and machine. Something that I didn’t envisage happening with technology that was in my world designed to compute and process but never able to supersede human intelligence. I watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” when I was a kid and I did find that scary – well that’s how I felt about the Deepmind breakthrough, only this time it felt more real.

There is much debate about the frontiers of AI, and I’m not uncomfortable with it. There are certain conveniences from machine learning that I think make our everyday lives easier. I’m also okay in principle with elements of AI being applied to patient care in health systems; I really believe it can support health professionals.

The real truth is that I have robotaphobia (yes that is a thing). I’ve known this since Titan the robot scared me more than it did my then six-year-old. In my defence, having an eight foot lump of a robot careen at you at high speed, with no knowledge of who was in charge of it is pretty scary.

Figure 1 Titan the Robot Source:

But it’s the inventors that are pushing robotics and AI to the limits in a quest to create a natural acceptance of their android creations that are at the root of my phobia. Why is it so important to inventors like Hiroshi Ishiguro and David Hanson to have their robots treated like humans?

Ishiguro has created “Geminoid”, his android twin. Seemingly a giant advancement on his original android in 2002, which was modelled on his then five-year-old daughter. The development of the original required the little girl to lie encased in plaster for several hours with only one hole at the nostril to breathe through.

Figure 2 Child meets her android self

Ishiguro’s Geminoid has led to an obsession with maintaining his own appearance and stalling the natural aging process in an attempt to remain as identical as possible to his robotic self. “Android has my identity” he says. “I need to be identical with my android, otherwise I’m going to lose my identity.” (Love in the time of Robots).

When Ishiguro’s speaks of his studies on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI), it is clear that integrating humans and robots is something he is striving for. He has tested HRI extensively with his realistic android called Erica, a 23 year old robot. (I’m not exactly sure how robot years are counted, but my guess is that it’s kind of like Dora – the age is static at creation; Erica has not been on this earth 23 years). If you want to see more on Erica, take a look at this documentary by the Guardian.

There is a phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley Effect, it basically means that things that look and act, and talk like humans but aren’t humans, well, it freaks the hell out of the real humans. Ishiguro knows that humans will respond to something that is humanlike and assign feelings to it, read facial gestures. In fact, in Japan even inanimate objects are believed to have a soul – perhaps they may be more accepting of androids.

Where I struggle in all this, is that while creators like Ishiguro are making humanlike androids and trying to nurture a bond between human and android further by assigning a gender, personality traits etc, yet they then will objectify the android. “She is cute isn’t she?” He and an interviewer from Bloomberg discuss her physical features like she is a human, but right in front of her, they also discuss kissing her. There is a real fear that robots will lead to further objectification of humans, particularly women.

There was much ado about Sophia – the lifelike android created by Hanson Robotics – becoming a Saudi citizen recently. Understandably, given that Sophia doesn’t seem to be required to wear the hijab. This led to many Saudi women declaring that Sophia had more rights than them.

David Hanson, who describes Sophia as “basically alive”; imagines a future where humans and robots will live as one, and robots will be indistinguishable from humans. This is all very aspirational, and I’m not saying it can’t become a reality, but we are certainly a long way off this. Particularly if making a machine with an off switch an honourary citizen is done less than a month after Saudi women were finally granted the legal right to drive. I can’t help feeling that this farcical citizenship is a tragic summary of what humanity is careening towards.

In September, Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield interviewed a man that had co-created a sex robot. His wife also appeared on the show. It is quite shocking, particularly while he sits there holding hands with the “other woman” in his (real) wife’s presence. His wife claims that she is fine with having Samantha (the robot) around and she is like a member of the family. Samantha even has a child-friendly mode, so she can converse with the children in the house, when she isn’t being used in the bedroom.

Scarlett Johansson has an android twin, but she didn’t commission it, an avid “fan” of hers in Hong-Kong built it. Johansson has no say or any rights in this creation, and the likeness is rather disturbing.

If there ever was a time that we need a dialogue, an establishment of ethics and parameters surrounding AI and robotics, I feel that Sophia, Samantha and Erica are our watershed moment. We need to act fast, before we move past the point of no return (if we haven’t already).

“It’s obviously bullshit,” Joanna Bryson, who is an award winning researcher in AI ethics from the University of Bath said in response to the news of the Saudi android citizen “What is this about? It’s about having a supposed equal you can turn on and off. How does it affect people if they think you can have a citizen that you can buy?”

We can’t let the god-like creators that are producing their own version of the perfect race – (own image and likeness, subservient, programmed to please their masters) – be in control of how humanity accepts their creations.

If we see an android being attacked by a human on the street, how are we supposed to react? Will we need to copyright our own features? We need a means to help us to adapt to these new possibilities so that we as humans can adjust our moral compasses.

Innovating to Stay in the Game – Older Media in the Digital Age #58 #cong17

By Cian Connaughton.

There was a time long ago when you'd find it hard to buy a newspaper with a photo in it, such was the old print media's preference for text. Those days are long gone and soon the challenge could be finding a newspaper at all.

This is because the last decade has seen the rise of a number of existential challenges for traditional media. If they continue, many of our traditional media will be forced to close. 

The challenges vary but almost all are linked in some way to the growth of the internet. 

Google and Facebook have provided by far the biggest challenge. Both now relieve traditional media of billions of dollars, euro and pounds each year in advertising revenue. The pull is because both Facebook and Google allow advertisers to target their key audiences significantly more accurately. Who wouldn’t use a more cost effective and exacting tool when spend a marketing budget – I know from professional experience.  

Another issue is that consumers are no longer buying newspapers in anything like the numbers that they used to.  Most Irish newspapers have seen falls in their print sales of up to fifty percent since the new century started. 

Selling significantly fewer printed papers at the same time that advertising revenue has fallen means revenue has been hit on the double.

Directly linked to this fall in paper purchasing is the rise of online-only media. I’m thinking here of pioneers like Ireland’s online-only news site and the international Huffington Post. Both provide consumers with quality daily news and analysis for no charge. 

Faced with this challenge, traditional media have responded in lots of different ways. 

While all have embraced online, the big variable is the speed of their move and the resources they put behind it.

The innovative responses of two stalwarts of traditional media have stood out and are worth looking at in more detail.

The UK-based publication The Guardian has taken an innovative approach to generating revenue from its readers. It has meant that the paper now has more paying readers (800,000) than it did in it its heyday as a leading newspaper in the 80s (500,000).

So, how has this been achieved while the paper has steadfastly refrained from introducing a paywall for readers?   

The first group of readers who make payments are the most traditional “subscribers”. They pay €19 each month for a digital issue of the paper each day, as well as additional premium content on the website. Their number stands at around 200,000.  

The next are “supporters”, who pay €4.99 each month. Though they’d get access to most of the news on the Guardian website without paying this amount, they are making a conscious decision to financially support the paper. 

Benefits of being a supporter include exclusive emails from journalists and avoiding pop-up ads on your mobile device. There has been a huge jump in the numbers of supporters from 75,000 to 300,000 in the last year. 

The final, most innovative category is “donors”. These are individuals who make one-off payments to The Guardian website. This involves making a direct appeal to readers at the end of online stories, asking for support. Crucially, this new approach has produced over 300,000 one-off payments. This has produced millions in new revenue for the media group. 

The big mark of success is that the media group now has a greater income from this mix of readers than it does from advertising. 

Another accolade is the fact that this approach has been followed by News UK, publishers of The Times and The Sun. You can read the full story here. 

Another legendary newspaper that has successfully innovated its way to a stronger position is The New York Times. 

It too has seen a big turnaround in recent years. The group lost $600m in print advertising between 2005-10, placing it in a very tough position. Contrast this with the fact that it has doubled its digital subscribers from 760,000 in 2013 to 1,600,000 in 2016. It has also grown its digital advertising revenue by almost 20% in the last year.

The secret of its success has come in part through two innovative approaches. 

The first has been a focus on creating video content. Reports, anaylsis pieces and reviews have all started being published in video form.

The second has been the adoption of a digital-first policy that sees content published online before it appears in print.  

Both of these approaches have been copied in Ireland. Without a doubt, the Irish media has been facing a similar challenge, so it makes sense to try out approaches that have worked elsewhere.   

Both the Guardian and The New York Times have innovated to stay in the game. How successful these approaches will prove remains to be seen. 

One thing is clear though, when faced with the biggest challenges to their survival, they’ve had to radically change their approach.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie