2017 Predictions

This piece was written for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily.

This year is going to be an interesting one, but in technology it’s going to be particularly so. Social media is going to see some reverses, as users start to wake up to the compromises they make in sharing information with companies, governments and the world. But the real progress is going to be making our machines understand us better, in ways that we want.

Artificial intelligence: you’re no doubt rolling your eyes at the phrase, given how many times this technology has been promised as being around the next corner. I’m with you. But I think the focus has been on the wrong place: voice. Apple’s Siri has not been a huge success — except for my daughter, who loves talking to an adult she can be rude to — and Amazon’s Alexa, though impressive, is going to confine itself to those places where we feel comfortable talking to machines: the home.

That makes it inherently limited. Ours is actually a largely text-based world — we still use email, we prefer to text, or Whatsapp our friends, and this is where AI is going to be most useful. I already use an AI assistant called Evie to schedule my appointments; she parses emails I send her and, with a little human help, sets up meetings and calls on my behalf. I save an hour or so a week.

Expect to see more of this: using natural language – the way we usually write — to interact with devices, not via special apps but via whatever channels we already use. It’s our devices — fridges, computers, databases — that have to learn our language and preferred medium, not the other way around. AI will be a success if it can master this, and this year will be key.

Indeed, the same principle will be applied elsewhere: removing the machine-like elements of our interactions. AI will help us talk to machines better, but machines will also help immerse us in experiences. Pokemon Go, the mobile app that led many people astray catching and battling weird critters, was a hit because it took a decade-old technology, augmented reality, and bolted it onto something that people actually found useful. Well, not useful, exactly, but compelling.

Augmented reality took technology into the real world, and gave it an enticing layer. The next step — using technology to shrink the distance between people and the real world. Optimists are calling it teleportation — moving you to places you wouldn’t normally go, or can’t go. That could be a 360 degree video from a live event, or drones filming from way above you, or even experiencing something akin to physical touch with someone whose far away from you. A Singapore startup offers a remote kissing machine, which it of course has called the Kissenger.

Industry is getting excited about this because it sees the possibility of creating a digital twin of a real world device — a turbine say — and then manage and experiment on that digital version of the real thing. A Malaysian company does something similar with corpses — scanning the deceased so that post-mortems can be conducted digitally. The original body is left untouched — which may please relatives, but also means the number of post-mortems can be limitless, and performed by someone on the other side of the world.

All of this technology is available now, but it still takes some vision and money to bring it to market. But what people want is clear enough: technology should bring people closer to each other and their machines, but stay out of the way as much as possible. We may not successfully wean ourselves off our mobile screens any time soon, but we could at least make what we see, hear, and do on those screens as useful, exciting and human as possible.

Chatty Interviewees

Screenshot 2016 08 30 11 00 00

This is what it looks like when I (top line) interview someone who is chatty. Barely get a word in edgeways. 

BBC World Service – Smell tech

At the end of this program is my piece on smell technology, if you like that kind of thing. BBC World Service – Business Daily, UK FinTech Mulls a Post-Brexit Future (with everything else going on it might seem a bit flippant, or maybe light relief. 

Can the UK’s financial technology or FinTech sector maintain its global lead after Brexit? We speak to Lawrence Wintermeyer, the chairman of the industry’s trade body Innovate Finance, about what he hopes the British government will negotiate in a new deal with the EU. Also, Michael Pettis, professor of finance at Peking University, tells us what Brexit looks like from China and why financial markets have been resilient to the initial shock of the referendum’s result. Plus, what’s the point of a smart phone that can smell? Jeremy Wagstaff, Thomson Reuters’ chief technology correspondent for Asia, says you may be surprise. 

From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound

My piece on using sound and lasers to create 3-dimensional interfaces. It’s still some ways off, but it’s funky.

Screenshot 2015 10 01 10 49 33

Screenshot from Ultrahaptics video demo

From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound | Reuters:

SINGAPORE | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(The video version: The next touchscreen is sound you can feel | Reuters.com)

Ultrasound – inaudible sound waves normally associated with cancer treatments and monitoring the unborn – may change the way we interact with our mobile devices.

Couple that with a different kind of wave – light, in the form of lasers – and we’re edging towards a world of 3D, holographic displays hovering in the air that we can touch, feel and control.

UK start-up Ultrahaptics, for example, is working with premium car maker Jaguar Land Rover [TAMOJL.UL] to create invisible air-based controls that drivers can feel and tweak. Instead of fumbling for the dashboard radio volume or temperature slider, and taking your eyes off the road, ultrasound waves would form the controls around your hand.

‘You don’t have to actually make it all the way to a surface, the controls find you in the middle of the air and let you operate them,’ says Tom Carter, co-founder and chief technology offjauiclinkeer of Ultrahaptics.

Such technologies, proponents argue, are an advance on devices we can control via gesture – like Nintendo’s Wii or Leap Motion’s sensor device that allows users to control computers with hand gestures. That’s because they mimic the tactile feel of real objects by firing pulses of inaudible sound to a spot in mid air.

They also move beyond the latest generation of tactile mobile interfaces, where companies such as Apple and Huawei [HWT.UL] are building more response into the cold glass of a mobile device screen.

Ultrasound promises to move interaction from the flat and physical to the three dimensional and air-bound. And that’s just for starters.

By applying similar theories about waves to light, some companies hope to not only reproduce the feel of a mid-air interface, but to make it visible, too.

Japanese start-up Pixie Dust Technologies, for example, wants to match mid-air haptics with tiny lasers that create visible holograms of those controls. This would allow users to interact, say, with large sets of data in a 3D aerial interface.

‘It would be like the movie ‘Iron Man’,’ says Takayuki Hoshi, a co-founder, referencing a sequence in the film where the lead character played by Robert Downey Jr. projects holographic images and data in mid-air from his computer, which he is then able to manipulate by hand.

BROKEN PROMISES

Japan has long been at the forefront of this technology. Hiroyuki Shinoda, considered the father of mid-air haptics, said he first had the idea of an ultrasound tactile display in the 1990s and filed his first patent in 2001.

His team at the University of Tokyo is using ultrasound technology to allow people to remotely see, touch and interact with things or each other. For now, the distance between the two is limited by the use of mirrors, but one of its inventors, Keisuke Hasegawa, says this could eventually be converted to a signal, making it possible to interact whatever the distance.

For sure, promises of sci-fi interfaces have been broken before. And even the more modest parts of this technology are some way off. Lee Skrypchuk, Jaguar Land Rovers’ Human Machine Interface Technical Specialist, said technology like Ultrahaptics’ was still 5-7 years away from being in their cars.

And Hoshi, whose Pixie Dust has made promotional videos of people touching tiny mid-air sylphs, says the cost of components needs to fall further to make this technology commercially viable. ‘Our task for now is to tell the world about this technology,’ he says.

Pixie Dust is in the meantime also using ultrasound to form particles into mid-air shapes, so-called acoustic levitation, and speakers that direct sound to some people in a space and not others – useful in museums or at road crossings, says Hoshi.

FROM KITCHEN TO CAR

But the holy grail remains a mid-air interface that combines touch and visuals.

Hoshi says touching his laser plasma sylphs feels like a tiny explosion on the fingertips, and would best be replaced by a more natural ultrasound technology.

And even laser technology itself is a work in progress.

Another Japanese company, Burton Inc, offers live outdoor demonstrations of mid-air laser displays fluttering like fireflies. But founder Hidei Kimura says he’s still trying to interest local governments in using it to project signs that float in the sky alongside the country’s usual loudspeaker alerts during a natural disaster.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercializing mid-air interfaces is making a pitch that appeals not just to consumers’ fantasies but to the customer’s bottom line.

Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs, for example, says the world’s biggest smartphone and appliance manufacturers are interested in its mid-air gesture interface because it requires no special chip and removes the need for a phone’s optical sensor.

Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen says her ultrasound technology uses existing microphones and speakers, allowing users to take a selfie, say, by waving at the screen.

Gesture interfaces, she concedes, are nothing new. Samsung Electronics had infra-red gesture sensors in its phones, but says ‘people didn’t use it’.

Danielsen says her technology is better because it’s cheaper and broadens the field in which users can control their devices. Next stop, she says, is including touchless gestures into the kitchen, or cars.

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: Game of Drones

Here’s the BBC World Service version of my Reuters piece on drones from a few months back. Transcript below:

America may still be the tech centre of the world — and it is — but regulatory dithering over whether and how to allow drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles as most call them — in its airspace is throwing up opportunities for other countries to get a head-start.

And that’s no small thing, for a couple of reasons. One is that drones as an industry is moving amazingly quickly. Some liken it to the PC: the technology is getting better, smaller, cheaper, and prices are falling so rapidly that everyone can have one, and the gap between what constitutes a serious drone and a toy has narrowed considerably.

There’s another element in this, and it’s also comparable to the PC era. Back then we knew we all wanted a PC but we weren’t quite sure what we wanted it for. We bought one anyway, and felt slightly guilty that it sat in the corner gathering dust. Naysayers questioned the future of an industry that seemed to revolve around convincing people to buy something even when they couldn’t give them a reason to do so.

Sound familiar? A lot of folk, including my self, have bought a drone in the past year. Mine was a tiny one and upon its maiden flight floated high into the air and disappeared into next door’s garden. Its second landed in a gutter that could only be reached by small children and my wife drew the line at sending our daughter up there. So I’m now drone-less.

This is the bigger issue with drones — not whether to propel reluctant tikes up ladders, but to figure out what they’re good for. And this is where companies in Europe and Asia are stealing a march on their U.S. cousins. The hardware is all well and good but the future of drones, like that of computers, is going to be about harnessing their unique capabilities to solving problems, developing use cases, building ecosystems (sorry, I’m obliged by contract to use that word at least once a week) .

So, for example, a company here in Singapore is working with companies and government agencies around the region on a range of interesting things — what they and others are calling drones as a service. So if you’re flying over a palm oil plantation in Malaysia doing something quite basic like mapping where, exactly, the edges of the property are, why not calibrate your cameras so they can also measure moisture level — and likely yield — of individual trees?

And rather than have building engineers hang dangerously out of skyscrapers to check structural damage, why not have a drone do it? Not only do you save on safety, you also have a virtual model of your building you can refer back to. Tired of despatching dog catchers in response to citizens’ complaints? Deploy a drone above the target areas and build a heat map of their movements so you know when best to pounce, and how many leads you’re going to need.

There’s lots of other opportunities being explored out there beyond the obvious ones. The trick is going to build business models around theses services so when companies see drones they don’t think ‘toy I play with at the weekend’ but ‘this could really help me do something I’ve long thought impossible’.

No question, of course, that the U.S. will be the centre of drone innovation. It already is, if you think in terms of developing the technologies and absorbing venture capital. But it may yet be companies beyond American shores which make the most of their head-start that emerge into major players as drones become as commonplace in business, if not homes, as computers are.

Connected cows, cars and crockery prod chip mega mergers

My Reuters piece attempting to place the recent chip mergers in a longer timeline. Yes, I hate the term internet of things too. 

Connected cows, cars and crockery prod chip mega mergers | Reuters:

SINGAPORE/TAIPEI | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND MICHAEL GOLD

Chip companies are merging, signing $66 billion worth of deals this year alone in preparation for an explosion of demand from all walks of life as the next technological revolution takes hold: the Internet of Things.

As cars, crockery and even cows are controlled or monitored online, each will require a different kind of chip of ever-diminishing size, combining connectivity with processing, memory and battery power.

These require makers to pool resources and intellectual property to produce smaller, faster, cheaper chips, for a market that International Data Corp said would grow to $1.7 trillion by 2020 from $650 billion last year.

By comparison, chip markets for personal and tablet computers are stagnant or in decline, and even smartphones are near peaking, said Bob O’Donnell, a long-time consultant to the chip industry.

‘We’re very much done in terms of growth of those traditional markets,’ said O’Donnell. ‘That’s why they are looking at this.’

Last month saw the biggest-ever chip merger with Avago Technologies Ltd agreeing to buy Broadcom Corp for $37 billion. That eclipsed the $17 billion Intel Corp agreed last week for Altera Corp, and the $12 billion NXP Semiconductors NV offered in March for Freescale Semiconductor Ltd.

On Friday, Lattice Semiconductor Corp said it was open to a sale.

 

CONNECTED COWS

The Internet of Things relies on chips in devices wirelessly sending data to servers, which in turn process the data and send results to a user’s smartphone, or automatically tweak the devices themselves.

Those devices range from a light bulb to a nuclear power plant, from a smartwatch to a building’s air-conditioning system. This range presents both opportunity and a challenge for semiconductor companies: their potential customer base is huge, but diverse, requiring different approaches.

Qualcomm Inc, for example, is used to selling chips to around a dozen mobile phone manufacturers. The Internet of Things has brought it business from quite different players, from makers of water meters to street lights that sport modems and traffic-monitoring cameras. All have their own needs.

‘You can’t think the new market is just like the old one,’ Qualcomm Vice President of Marketing Tim McDonough said in an interview.

Qualcomm estimates that the Internet of Things will bring in more than 10 percent of its chip revenue this business year.

And then there are those cows. Instead of monitoring herds by sight, farmers in Japan have tagged them with Internet-connected pedometers from Fujitsu Ltd and partner Microsoft Corp, to measure when they might be ready for insemination. Cows in season, it turns out, tend to pace more.

SPECK OF CHIP

This new business is pushing chip companies together in part to consolidate their expertise onto one chip, a trend forged by mobile phones.

The Avago-Broadcom deal, for instance, brings together motion control and optical sensors from Avago with chips from Broadcom that specialize in connectivity via wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

In the past ‘if you wanted to build a board that has all the components, then you needed to buy three different chips,’ said Dipesh Patel of ARM Holdings PLC, which licenses much of the technology inside mobile phones – and, increasingly, in the Internet of Things.

‘Now you only need to buy one chip. But you’re trying to get more of the same system on the same chip.’

As chips get smaller, they could be tiny enough to ingest, according to Vital Herd Inc. The Texas-based startup’s pill-like sensor, once a cow swallows it, can transmit vital signs, warning farmers of illness and other problems.

Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder and chief executive officer of graphics chips maker Nvidia Corp, predicts chips will shrink to the size of a speck of dust and find their way into almost anything, from shoes to cups.

‘Those little tiny chips, I think they’re going to be sold by the trillions,’ Huang said in an interview. ‘Maybe even sold by the pound.’

PROCESSING

Installing chips into end products is only one side of the equation. The more things connect, the bigger the number and capability of servers needed to process the vast amount of specialized data those chips transmit.

To meet the demand, Intel could employ chips for its servers designed by new purchase Altera that analyze streams of similar data – specializing in one function, as opposed to multiple functions like chips inside personal computers – industry consultant O’Donnell said.

Combining such strengths is going to be vital, said Malik Saadi of ABI Research, because consolidation is not over yet.

More chip companies ‘will have to make that radical decision to merge,’ said Saadi. ‘This is just the starting point.’ 

(Additional reporting by Liana Baker in New York; Editing by Christopher Cushing)”

Spy in the Sky – are planes hacker-proof?

My take on aviation cybersecurity for Reuters: Plane safe? Hacker case points to deeper cyber issues:

“Plane safe? Hacker case points to deeper cyber issues

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

Security researcher Chris Roberts made headlines last month when he was hauled off a plane in New York by the FBI and accused of hacking into flight controls via his underseat entertainment unit.

Other security researchers say Roberts – who was quoted by the FBI as saying he once caused ‘a sideways movement of the plane during a flight’ – has helped draw attention to a wider issue: that the aviation industry has not kept pace with the threat hackers pose to increasingly computer-connected airplanes.

Through his lawyer, Roberts said his only interest had been to ‘improve aircraft security.’

‘This is going to drive change. It will force the hand of organizations (in the aviation industry),’ says Jonathan Butts, a former US Air Force researcher who now runs a company working on IT security issues in aviation and other industries.

As the aviation industry adopts communication protocols similar to those used on the Internet to connect cockpits, cabins and ground controls, it leaves itself open to the vulnerabilities bedevilling other industries – from finance to oil and gas to medicine.

‘There’s this huge issue staring us in the face,’ says Brad Haines, a friend of Roberts and a security researcher focused on aviation. ‘Are you going to shoot the messenger?’

More worrying than people like Roberts, said Mark Gazit, CEO of Israel-based security company ThetaRay, are the hackers probing aircraft systems on the quiet. His team found Internet forum users claiming to have hacked, for example, into cabin food menus, ordering free drinks and meals.

That may sound harmless enough, but Gazit has seen a similar pattern of trivial exploits evolve into more serious breaches in other industries. ‘It always starts this way,’ he says.

ANXIOUS AIRLINES

The red flags raised by Roberts’ case are already worrying some airlines, says Ralf Cabos, a Singapore-based specialist in inflight entertainment systems.

One airline official at a recent trade show, he said, feared the growing trend of offering inflight WiFi allowed hackers to gain remote access to the plane. Another senior executive demanded that before discussing any sale, vendors must prove their inflight entertainment systems do not connect to critical flight controls.

Panasonic Corp and Thales SA, whose inflight entertainment units Roberts allegedly compromised, declined to answer detailed questions on their systems, but both said they take security seriously and their devices were certified as secure.

Airplane maker Boeing Co says that while such systems do have communication links, ‘the design isolates them from other systems on planes performing critical and essential functions.’ European rival Airbus said its aircraft are designed to be protected from ‘any potential threats coming from the In-Flight-Entertainment System, be it from Wi-Fi or compromised seat electronic boxes.’

Steve Jackson, head of security at Qantas Airways Ltd, said the airline’s ‘extremely stringent security measures’ would be ‘more than enough to mitigate any attempt at remote interference with aircraft systems.’

CIRCUMVENTING

But experts question whether such systems can be completely isolated. An April report by the U.S. General Accountability Office quoted four cybersecurity experts as saying firewalls ‘could be hacked like any other software and circumvented,’ giving access to cockpit avionics – the machinery that pilots use to fly the plane.

That itself reflects doubts about how well an industry used to focusing on physical safety understands cybersecurity, where the threat is less clear and constantly changing.

The U.S. National Research Council this month issued a report on aviation communication systems saying that while the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. regulator, realized cybersecurity was an issue, it ‘has not been fully integrated into the agency’s thinking, planning and efforts.’

The chairman of the research team, Steven Bellovin of Columbia University, said the implications were worrying, not just for communication systems but for the computers running an aircraft. ‘The conclusion we came to was they just didn’t understand software security, so why would I think they understand software avionics?’ he said in an interview.

SLOW RESPONSE

This, security researchers say, can be seen in the slow response to their concerns.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) last year highlighted long-known vulnerabilities in a new aircraft positioning communication system, ADS-B, and called for a working group to be set up to tackle them.

Researchers like Haines have shown that ADS-B, a replacement for radar and other air traffic control systems, could allow a hacker to remotely give wrong or misleading information to pilots and air traffic controllers.

And that’s just the start. Aviation security consultant Butts said his company, QED Secure Solutions, had identified vulnerabilities in ADS-B components that could give an attacker access to critical parts of a plane.

But since presenting his findings to vendors, manufacturers and the industry’s security community six months ago he’s had little or no response.

‘This is just the tip of the iceberg,’ he says.

(Additional reporting by Siva Govindasamy; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)”

BBC: The Rise of Disappearables

The transcript of my BBC World Service piece on wearables. Reuters original story here

Forget ‘wearables’, and even ‘hearables’, if you’ve ever heard of them. The next big thing in mobile devices: ‘disappearables’.

Unless it really messes up, Apple is going to do for wearables with the Watch what is has done with the iPod for music players, the phone with its iPhone, the iPad for tablets. But even as Apple piques consumer interest in wrist-worn devices, the pace of innovation and the tumbling cost, and size, of components will make wearables smaller and smaller. So small, some in the industry say, that no one will see them. In five years, wearables like the Watch could be overtaken by hearables – devices with tiny chips and sensors that can fit inside your ear. They, in turn, could be superseded by disappearables – technology tucked inside your clothing, or even inside your body.

This all may sound rather unlikely, until you consider the iPhone is only 8 years old, and see what has happened to the phone since then. Not only do we consider the smartphone a status symbol in the salons of New York, but they’re something billions of people can afford. So it seems highly plausible that the watch as a gizmo is going to seem quaint in 10 years — as quaint as our feature phone, or net book or MP3 player is now.


So how is this all going to play out? Well this year you’ll be able to buy a little earpiece which contains a music player, 4 gigabytes of storage, a microphone to take phone calls – just nod your head to accept – and sensors that monitor your position, heart rate and body temperature.

Soon after that you’ll be able to buy contact lenses that can measure things like glucose levels in tears. Or swallow a chip the size of a grain of sand, powered by stomach juices and transmitting data about your insides via Bluetooth. For now everyone is focused on medical purposes, but there’s no reason that contact lens couldn’t also be beaming stuff back to you in real time — nice if you’re a politician being able to gauge the response to your speech so you can tweak it in real time.

Or you’re on a date and needing feedback on your posture, gait, the quality of your jokes. 

In short, hearables and wearables will become seeables and disappearables. We won’t see these things because they’ll be buried in fabric, on the skin, under the skin and inside the body. We won’t attack someone for wearing Google Glasses  because we won’t know they’re wearing them. 

Usual caveats apply. This isn’t as easy as it looks, and there’ll be lots of slips on the way. But the underlying technologies are there: components are getting smaller, cheaper, so why not throw in a few extra sensors into a device, even if you haven’t activated them, and are not quite sure what they could be used for? 

Secondly, there’s the ethical stuff. As you know, I’m big on this and we probably haven’t thought all this stuff through. Who owns all this data? Is it being crunched properly by people who know what they’re doing? What are bad guys and governments doing in all this, as they’re bound to be doing something? And how can we stop people collecting data on us if we don’t want them to? 

All good questions. But all questions we should be asking now, of the technologies already deployed in our street, in our office, in the shops we frequent, in the apps we use and the websites we visit. It’s not the technology that’s moving too fast; it’s us moving too slow.

Once the technology is too small to see it may be too late to have that conversation.  

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BBC: Cluetraining Disruption

Has technology, convinced of its own rectitude, lost its sense of moral direction? 

Disruptive innovation is one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling. It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

Backlash 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist.   But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably. 15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said.   For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond.

Last blast

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you.

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance, that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap.

Rapid cycle

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either.

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place.

This was a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content – JW

BBC: Beyond the Breach

The script of my Reuters story on cybersecurity. Podcast available here (

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)

If you’re getting tired of internet security companies using images of padlocks, moats, drawbridges and barbed wire in their ads, then chances are you won’t have to put up with them much longer.

Turns out that keeping the bad guys out of your office network has largely failed. All those metaphors suggesting castles, unassailable battlements, locked doors are being quietly replaced by another shtick: the bad guys are in your network, but we’ll find them, watch what they do, and try to ensure they don’t break anything or steal anything valuable.

Which is slightly worrying, if you thought firewalls, antivirus and the like were going to save you.

You’re probably tired of the headlines about cybersecurity breaches: U.S. insurer Anthem Inc saying hackers may have made off with some 80 million personal health records, while others raided Sony Pictures’ computers and released torrents of damaging emails and employee data.

Such breaches, say people in the industry, show the old ways have failed, and now is the chance for younger, nimbler companies selling services to protect data and outwit attackers. These range from disguising valuable data, diverting attackers up blind alleys, and figuring out how to mitigate breaches once the data has already gone. It’s a sort of cat and mouse game, only going on inside your computers.

Cybersecurity, of course, is big business. $70 billion was spent on it last year.

Of course, we’re partly to blame. We insist on using our tablets and smartphones for work; we access Facebook and LinkedIn from the office. All this offers attackers extra opportunities to gain access to their networks.

But it’s also because the attackers and their methods have changed. Cyber criminals and spies are being overshadowed by politically or religiously motivated activists, and these guys don’t want to just steal stuff, they want to hurt their victim. And they have hundreds of ways of doing it.

And they’re usually successful. All these new services operate on the assumption that the bad guy is already inside your house, as it were. And may have been there months. Research by IT security company FireEye found that “attackers are bypassing conventional security deployments almost at will.” Across industries from legal to healthcare it found nearly all systems had been breached.

Where there’s muck there’s brass, as my mother would say. Funding these start-ups are U.S- and Europe-based venture capital firms which sense another industry ripe for disruption.

Google Ventures and others invested $22 million in ThreatStream in December, while Bessemer Venture Partners last month invested $30 million in iSIGHT Partners.

Companies using these services aren’t your traditional banks and  whatnot. UK-based Darktrace, which uses maths and machine learning to spot abnormalities in a network that might be an attack, has a customers like a British train franchise and a Norwegian shipping insurer.

But it’s early days. Most companies still blithely think they’re immune, either because they think they don’t have anything worth stealing or deleting, or because they think a firewall and an antivirus program are enough.

And of course, there’s another problem. As cyber breaches get  worse, and cybersecurity becomes a more valuable business, expect the hype, marketing and dramatic imagery to grow, making it ever more confusing for the lay person to navigate.

I’ve not seen them yet, but I’m guessing for these new companies the shield and helmet images will be replaced by those of SAS commandos, stealthily patrolling silicon corridors. Or maybe it’ll be Tom, laying mousetraps for his nemesis. Might be apt: Jerry the cheese thief always seemed to win.