In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Brian McKenna, Caroline Donnelly and Clare McDonald pick over their favourite tech stories from the past week, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ bid to save the Earth, M&S and its IoT plans, and the European Union’s (EU) artificial intelligence (AI) and open data economy strategy.
Caroline kicks off the discussion this week by talking the team through Bezos’ grand plan to bankroll the saving of planet Earth through the creation of his $10bn climate change-battling Earth Fund initiative.
Announced on his own personal Instagram page, the initiative will see scientists, activists and non-government organisations battle it out for grants to support any work they are doing to explore new ways to tackle climate change, or amplify existing ways to address the issue.
As Caroline details, reactions to Bezos’ plans have been mixed, with some people applauding the tech billionaire for dipping into his own personal wealth to finance the initiative, including Hollywood actress Reece Witherspoon. Whereas others, including some of his own employees and environmental lobbyists Greenpeace, have been less complimentary about the plans.
Where the latter is concerned, much of their criticism centres on the fact that the online retail giant’s cloud arm, Amazon Web Services (AWS), provides technology to some of the oil and gas market’s major players, whose activities are not generally renowned for being terribly environmentally friendly.
Their argument being that Bezos cannot position himself as a force for good in the battle against climate change while his company is still assisting companies whose activities are linked to climate change.
Clare moves the discussion on by talking Caroline and Brian through the experimental work high street retail giant M&S is doing with connected lighting firm Signify.
The project has seen M&S work with Signify to kick the tyres of its newly announced internet of things (IoT) lighting system, Interact Retail, which allows retailers to control the lighting across several stores from a single dashboard.
It is unclear, at the time of recording, how many stores M&S may have trialled the system in, but the retailer says it sees potential for the technology to make its in-store lighting systems more responsive, efficient, sustainable and easier to maintain remotely.
On the responsiveness front, for example, Clare said the system could enable M&S to tailor lighting levels in its stores according to footfall, prompting (semi-serious) concerns from Caroline about the perils of being suddenly plunged into darkness in mannequin-heavy retail environments.
Clare goes on to detail how the project is one of several digital endeavours the retailer has embarked on of late, which has included its own take on the checkout-less store concept, as part of its “test and learn” approach to ensuring it is meeting the needs of its shoppers.
Rounding out this week’s podcast, Brian talks Caroline and Clare through the EU’s five-year open data economy strategy, which is one of the first big announcements to be made by the European Commission’s recently installed president, Ursula von der Leyen.
The over-arching aim of the strategy, as Brian explains, is to make data as open as possible for companies to “exploit”, and to ensure artificial intelligence systems are “explainable”.
In response, the team engages in some light-hearted debate about how to respond to stories about what the EU is doing to support the growth of the European tech scene, given the UK’s Brexit preparations are continuing apace.
Brian also goes on to discuss some viewpoints shared by David Barber, director of the UCL Centre for Artificial Intelligence, on another podcast about the EU’s track record on supporting AI-based endeavours, which has not always – in his view – produced the goods.