Expert interview: Dave Moschella, author of Seeing Digital

Dave Moschella speaks to Computer Weekly about his new book, Seeing Digital, which looks at how the “d” in digital stands for disruption

Seeing Digital is the latest book from Leading Edge research fellow  Dave Moschella. Due out at the end of April, Seeing Digital is Moschella’s take on how the emerging technologies of today will redefine industries and organisations, the individuals that work within them and competition itself.

“There have been many times when we have seen a shift,” says Moschella.

As 2020 approaches, he anticipates that artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, virtual reality (VR), agents and a wide range of new technologies are set to make waves across the technology sector. “The tech sector is being beaten up and bashed,” he says.

The 2020 vision Moschella explores in Seeing Digital is the so-called post-cloud world where virtually every developed nation builds an intelligent societal infrastructure that is pervasive, aware, embedded, and increasingly autonomous. He says this is less like a cloud of remote services, and more of a ubiquitous matrix of advanced capabilities.

Companies and whole industries will inevitably be disrupted, even those with seemingly brilliant ideas, he says.

In Seeing Digital, Moschella looks at how innovation and marketplace change will increasingly come from the outside in, as every organisation seeks to define its relationship to the remarkable world emerging outside its walls.

Those companies aligned with these dynamics will prosper greatly, while many others will surely fall behind, says Moschella.

Looking specifically at AI, although IBM seeded the market with its Watson deep learning algorithm, which beat human opponents in TV game show Jeopardy!,  Moschella points out that it was actually Amazon, not IBM, that captured the public imagination. “IBM is losing the public voice, ceding the market to Amazon, et al.”

Talking user interfaces

He adds: “It is the mission of the industry to build systems that learn, talk, recognise and get smarter over time. When Alexa came out, it shocked Google and Apple, and they had to catch up. Now Amazon wants to link Alexa to a hospital.”

What makes these new AI systems compelling for Moschella is that they speak. “Voice is the big change,” he says. “Think something as simple as a washing machine error code.”

For most people, an error code is meaningless. Moschella believes it would be far more useful if the washing machine actually told the user what was wrong.

But people’s experiences of smart speaker devices like Alexa shows that a natural language query has to be spoken in a certain way so that the device can understand the question.

Arguably, this is not that much different from how web searches used to work, says Moschella. “Most people had to learn how to enter a search string on Google, so I expect we will adapt to the voice user interface,” he says.

So if you accept that one day, people will have a conversation with their washing machine, what else is possible? Entering the realms of science fiction, Moschella argues that people’s interaction with machines is shifting. “Look at how people type with their phones,” he says. “The whole man-machine interaction is shifting to the human platform.”

He anticipates technological enhancements being made to the human body, such as high-tech hearing aids, glasses to see at night, 3D-printed body parts, smart pills, and the ability to collect health, wellbeing and medical data from wearables.

Disruption in digital

According to Moschella, in the past, if a business used a mainframe and wanted to convert to a different system, it would cost a lot of money to switch. But today, with platforms such as Facebook and Google, there is no monetary cost to switching, he says. This means that the web giants may find that they, too, get disrupted by something new.

“I’d be shocked if one of the big web companies – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google or Microsoft – wasn’t significantly disrupted by some change, because it is relatively cheap to come up with scenarios to change things,” he says.

“For instance, if talking to an Echo Dot is how you make purchases, this totally bypasses Google search.”

Asked about the power of data, Moschella says: “Many businesses will be data-driven going forward. The big data drive is absolutely true.”

For Moschella, when people talk about transforming, it is about getting people on the same set of data and responding to that data.

The mass collection of data hit the headlines recently with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to target US voters. Commenting on such activity, Moschella says: “The fears are not new. People have predicted and expressed concerns about surveillance and privacy over the history of computing, but the social platforms bring this out more because they touch people more than platforms in the past.”

Read more about digital disruption

Moschella argues that a platform such as Facebook uses data to profile its users. “People have been talking about analytics and targeting for ever,” he says. “This is precisely what Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are doing – using data to profile users at a detailed personal level.”

The challenge for the internet – as the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, recently wrote in an open letter – is to shift away from the walled-garden advertising model used by the web giants. In effect, millions and potentially billions of people are contained within a closed environment, and can be profiled and sold to.

Moschella says: “In a sense, walled gardens are not on the internet. Berners Lee regrets this.”

The web giants could not wait for the internet to develop its own commercial model, he says, giving the example of how a £45 Echo Dot could supplant Google’s supremacy in web search.

Moschella believes it is easier than ever for the web’s status quo to be disrupted and for people to switch to alternative providers.

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