Fear of the Robot Economy….

A couple of articles I came across recently made for quite depressing reading about the future of the economy. The first was an opinion piece by Greg Jericho for The Guardian on an IMF Report about the economic impact of robots. The second was the AFR’s annual Rich List. Read together, they don’t inspire me with confidence that we are really embracing the economic opportunity that innovation brings.

In the first article, the conclusion seemed to be predicated on the idea that robots will destroy more “jobs” (that archaic unit of economic output/activity against which we continue to measure all human, social and political achievement) than they will enable us to create in terms of our advancement. Ergo robots bad, jobs good.

While the second report painted a depressing picture of where most economic wealth continues to be created. Of the 200 Wealthiest People in Australia, around 25% made/make their money in property, with another 10% coming from retail. Add in resources and “investment” (a somewhat opaque category), and these sectors probably account for about two-thirds of the total. Agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and financial services also feature. However, only the founders of Atlassian, and a few other entrepreneurs come from the technology sector. Which should make us wonder where the innovation is coming from that will propel our economy post-mining boom.

As I have commented before, the public debate on innovation (let alone public engagement) is not happening in any meaningful way. As one senior executive at a large financial services company told a while back, “any internal discussion around technology, automation and digital solutions gets shut down for fear of provoking the spectre of job losses”. All the while, large organisations like banks are hiring hundreds of consultants and change managers to help them innovate and restructure (i.e., de-layer their staff), rather than trying to innovate from within.

With my home State of Victoria heading for the polls later this year, and the growing sense that we are already in Federal election campaign mode for 2019 (or earlier…), we will see an even greater emphasis on public funding for traditional infrastructure rather than investing in new technologies or innovation.

Finally, at the risk of stirring up the ongoing corporate tax debate even further, I took part in a discussion last week with various members of the FinTech and Venture Capital community, to discuss Treasury policy on Blockchain, cryptocurrency and ICOs. There was an acknowledgement that while Australia could be a leader in this new technology sector, a lack of regulatory certainty and non-conducive tax treatment towards this new funding model means that there will be a brain drain as talent relocates overseas to more amenable jurisdictions.

Next week: The new productivity tools

SportsTech and Wearables Pitch Night at Startup Victoria

Appropriately hosted within Melbourne’s Olympic Park, last week’s Startup Victoria pitch night featured four companies working in SportsTech. It was further evidence of the breadth and variety within the local startup sector even if, on this showing at least, there was a little less innovation than we have seen at other monthly pitch nights.

First, there were a couple of presentations from Catapult and Genius Tech Group, to help provide some context to the topic, especially helpful for people who may not be familiar with this sector. However, I’m not convinced that referencing Australia’s Olympic medal tally as a key rationale for building a sports technology industry necessarily set the right tone. For a start, despite some gold medal success in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 summer games, Australia has seen a rapid decline in medal performance at the past two Olympiads. Then there are the cultural and governance issues at the AOC itself.

Then came the pitches, in order of appearance (website links in the titles):

TidyHQ

With the slogan “tribes are everywhere”, this business is all about getting the off-field performance right. TidyHQ is supporting smarter sporting clubs and organisations by helping them with things like governance and succession planning, and by having all their back office operations in one place. Essentially a white label portal solution that offers branded websites (“SaaS doesn’t work in this market”), the service is designed to support grassroots clubs and associations, across all sports.

Using a freemium subscription model, the main sales channels are local and regional AFL leagues. Sales are helped by a viral effect – given that in small towns and regional areas, there is quite an overlap of club officers.

TidyHQ also takes a clip from sales of multi-stream products and services sold through their customer sites, which includes a diverse range of clients such as yoga studios, play groups, plus a number of US sororities, fraternities and law schools.

Competition comes from different quarters: vendors like TeamSnap and SportsTG; incumbent club officials and their spreadsheets; even social media. One challenge, however is managing and harnessing the “volunteer mindset” associated with community sports clubs, especially when it comes to budgets and adapting to change.

RefLIVE

This company has built an app for soccer referees that works on smart watches. Referees typically use stopwatches to record match time and stoppages which, with constant match use have an average life of 2-3 years. Yet referees also have to keep track of player substitutions, match scores as well as the yellow and red cards they hand out.

At a price point of $60 per annum for referees, and annual fees of between $5k and $50k for soccer leagues and associations, an ideal entry point for RefLIVE would seem to be local, short-form knock-out tournaments, where the full range of features can be deployed in one place.

Currently scaling to take advantage of international market opportunities, RefLIVE is currently receiving enquiries from youth soccer leagues in Japan, as well as Germany and China.

Considered to be (literally) a game changing app for the Apple smart watch, RefLIVE is
also seeing interest from AFL, Rugby Union, Rugby League and field hockey.

At the moment, the platform does not support a live back-end, and there are no real plans to distribute or commercialize the data. While live data could be pushed to a server via WiFi, a bigger obstacle is getting the refs themselves on board – even though it has the potential to enhance their on-field performance and help them with off-field administration.

Spalk

Spalk (“crowd-sourced sports commentary”) enables custom audio streaming for TV sports, via some proprietary technology to synchronise secondary content with traditional broadcasts. Due to the high costs and copyright issues associated with TV broadcast rights for professional sports (only made more complex by “over the top” platforms), Spalk is mainly licensed by broadcasters for coverage of amateur competitions.

The international basketball body, FIBA, sees an opportunity for Spalk to help drive international engagement, through the use of localised and translated commentary. However, in many cases, Spalk will need sports that retain their own D2C content rights. (Anyone familiar with the challenges of listening to overseas test matches will be aware of Guerilla Cricket, and its predecessor, Test Match Sofa.)

Part of Spalk’s “special sauce” is in integrating and synchronizing multiple audio tracks, which can provide better UX compared to social media streams and viewer posts, commentary and Tweets. Another key to success is the ability to integrate with existing broadcasting commentary technology and vendors.

SPT

Finally, SPT (sports performance tracking) is a GPS monitoring system aimed at amateur and grass-roots clubs and leagues. Offering analytics for all teams, SPT is cloud-based, multilingual and claims to be “efficient, simple, affordable”. So simple, that unlike the aforementioned Catapult, clubs don’t even need to hire sports scientists….

Currently supporting 800 clubs, and 65% of revenue coming from overseas (despite claiming to have spent only $300 on marketing), the main appeal is probably the $299 price point per device, and the core user base is amateur leagues.

SPT has so far relied on viral effects and referrals, plus an element of FOMO. While SPT may not be as sophisticated or as detailed as similar platforms used in professional sports, it has managed to demonstrate the data validation when compared to some camera-based apps. In any event, according to the founders, a 2-3% margin for error is OK for this audience. And if users can compare their own performances against those of professionals, that is an added bonus.

However, one issue facing the collection, use and sharing of sports analytics has recently surfaced in a spat between the England team manager, Gareth Southgate, and Manchester United boss, Jose Mourinho. Which may make some clubs reluctant to upload their data.

Following a tally of the judges’ votes, Spalk was declared the winner, but only by a margin of 0.25 points….

POSTCRIPT: While I think the decision to present thematic pitch nights was a good call, there are a few logistical aspects to the current series of events that the organisers need to address:

  1. Choice of venues: the room used for the sports tech pitch night had an unfortunate layout – there was a pillar right in front of the stage, which must have been off-putting for the presenters. (Also, there was only a very small screen to display the pitch deck slides, so most people in the audience wouldn’t have been able to see them.)
  2. AV tech: I’ve said this before, but organisers need to arrange for a second monitor in front of the presenters, so they don’t need to keep looking over their shoulders at their slides. And please, please check that clickers are working (or that presenters know how to use them!)
  3. Audience participation: At previous pitch nights, the MC would field questions from the audience. Now, no more. And the audience voting system (people’s choice) has gone awry. Makes it feel less engaging.

Next week: The network(ing) effect

Law and Technology – when AI meets Smart Contracts…

Among the various ‘X’-Tech start-up themes (e.g., FinTech, EdTech, MedTech, InsurTech) one of the really interesting areas is LegTech (aka LawTech), and its close cousin, RegTech. While it’s probably some time before we see a fully automated justice system, where cases are decided by AI and judgments are delivered by robots, there are signs that legal technology is finally coming into its own. Here’s a very personal perspective on law and technology:

Photo by Lonpicman via Wikimedia Commons

1. Why are lawyers often seen as technophobes or laggards, yet in the 1980s and 1990s, they were at the vanguard of new technology adoption?

In the 1970s, law firms invested in Telex and document exchange (remember DX?) to communicate and to share information peer-to-peer. Then came the first online legal research databases (Lexis and Westlaw) which later gave rise to “public access” platforms such as AustLII and its international counterparts.

Lawyers were also among the first professional service firms to invest in Word Processing (for managing and drafting precedents) and e-mail (for productivity). Digitization meant that huge print libraries of reference materials (statutes and case-law) could be reduced to a single CD-ROM. Law firms were early adopters of case, practise, document and knowledge management tools – e.g., virtual document discovery rooms, precedent banks, drafting tools.

2. But, conversely, why did the legal profession seem to adopt less-optimal technology?

The trouble with being early adopters can mean you don’t make the right choices. For example, law firms in the 80s and 90s seemed to demonstrate a preference for Lotus Notes (not Outlook), Wang Computers and WordStar (not IBM machines or MS Office Word), and DOS-based interfaces (rather than GUIs).

Some of the first CD-ROM publications for lawyers were hampered by the need to render bound volumes as exact facsimiles of the printed texts (partly so lawyers and judges could refer to the same page/paragraph in open court). There was a missed opportunity to use the technology to its full potential.

3. On the plus side, legal technology is having a significant a role to play…

…in law creation (e.g., parliamentary drafting and statute consolidation), the administration of law (delivery of justice, court room evidence platforms, live transcripts, etc.), legal practice (practice management tools) and legal education (research, teaching, assessment, accreditation). Plus, decision support systems combining rules-based logic, precedent and machine learning, especially in the application of alternative dispute resolution.

4. Where next?

In recent years, we have seen a growing number of “virtual” law firms, that use low-cost operating models to deliver custom legal advice through a mix of freelance, part-time and remote lawyers who mainly engage with their clients online.

Blockchain solutions are being designed to register and track assets for the purposes of wills and trusts, linked to crypto-currency tokens and ID management for streamlining the transfer of title. Governments and local authorities are exploring the use of distributed ledger technology to manage land title registration, vehicle and driver registration, fishing permits and the notion of “digital citizenship”.

We are seeing the use of smart contracts powered by oracles on the Ethereum blockchain to run a range of decision-making, transactional, financial, and micro-payment applications. (Although as one of my colleagues likes to quip, “smart contracts are neither smart nor legal”.)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being explored to “test” legal cases before they come to trial, and more knowledge management and collaboration tools will continue to lower the cost of legal advice (although I doubt we will see lawyers being totally disintermediated by robots, but their role will certainly change).

There is further opportunity to take some of the friction and costs out of the legal system to improve access to justice.

Finally, and this feels both exciting and scary, is the notion of “crowd-sourcing policy“; some governments are already experimenting with hackathons to develop policy-making models, and even the policies themselves. But this does sound like we would be moving closer and closer to government by mini-plebiscites, rather than by parliamentary democracy.

Next week: Digital currencies are the new portals

 

Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program