Tag Archives: BBC


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. 

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.

BBC – Cybercrime: One of the Biggest Ever

My contribution to the BBC World Service – Business Daily, Cybercrime: One of the Biggest Ever

Transcript below. Original Reuters story here

If you think that all this cybersecurity stuff doesn’t concern you, you’re probably right. If you don’t have any dealings with government, don’t work for an organisation or company, and you never use the Internet. Or an ATM. Or go to the doctor. Or have health insurance. Or a pension.

You get the picture. These reports of so-called data breaches — essentially when some bad guy gets into a computer network and steals information — are becoming more commonplace. And that’s your data they’re stealing, and it will end up in the hands of people you try hard not to let into your house, your car, your bank account, your passport drawer, your office, your safe. They may be thieves, or spies, or activists, or a combination of all three.

And chances are you won’t ever know they were there. They hide well, they spend a long time rooting around. And then when they’ve got what they want, they’re gone. Not leaving a trace.

In fact, a lot of the time we only know they were there when we stumble upon them looking for something else. It’s as if you were looking for a mouse in the cellar and instead stumbled across a SWAT team in between riffling through your boxes, cooking dinner and watching TV on a sofa and flat screen they’d smuggled in when you were out.

Take for example, the case uncovered by researchers at a cybersecurity company called RSA. RSA was called in by a technology company in early 2014 to look at an unrelated security problem. The RSA guys quickly realized there was a much bigger one at hand: hackers were inside the company’s network. And had been, unnoticed, for six months.

Indeed, as the RSA team went through all the files and pieced together what had happened, they realised the attack went back even further.

For months the hackers — almost certainly from China — had probed the company’s defenses with software, until they found a small hole.

On July 10, 2013, they set up a fake user account at an engineering website. They loaded what is called malware — a virus, basically — to another a site. The trap was set. Now for the bait. Forty minutes later, the fake account sent emails to company employees, hoping to fool one into clicking on a link which in turn would download the malware and open the door.

Once an employee fell for the email, the hackers were in, and within hours were wandering the company’s network. For the next 50 days they mapped the network, sending their findings back to their paymasters. It would be they who would have the technical knowledge, not about hacking, but about what documents they wanted to steal.

Then in early September they returned, with specific targets. For weeks they mined the company’s computers, copying gigabytes of data. They were still at it when the RSA team discovered them nearly five months later.

Having pieced it all together, now the RSA team needed to kick the hackers out. But that would take two months, painstakingly retracing their movements, noting where they had been in the networks and what they had stolen. Then they locked all the doors at once.

Even then, the hackers were back within days, launching hundreds of assaults through backdoors, malware and webshells. They’re still at it, months later. They’re probably still at it somewhere near you too.

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: Future connectivity

This is a version of my Reuters piece on connectivity (Reuters.com version: From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless) which I recently recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily. 

The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach. This of course, may be something you are actually quite pleased about, given that airplanes, boats and the occasional peak seem to be some of the few places left where you can get some peace. 

But not everyone looks at it like that. Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but some 1.4 billion people, live without even basic network infrastructure. 

And then there are the places that for now don’t seem important, but will be: like the oceans. We may not spend much time below the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet but increasingly we realise we need to: climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, protecting harbours. And if China gets its way quite a few of us will live down there if only to stake territorial claims to the seas above or the riches below. 

So, these all present interesting technological challenges. Not least because most of the people presently unconnected are too poor for the big telcos to worry about. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the Facebooks and Googles of this world who are interested, partly because of philanthropic goals but mostly because they’re the last bunch of people who don’t have Gmail and Facebook accounts. 

So Google are launch balloons. And Facebook are considering drones. These, though are experimental, leaving an opportunity for niche players like Kacific, which is aiming to build a satellite network it says will provide cheap communications to some 40 million people from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands. 

Others are finding cracks in the existing technologies and spectrum to forge their own mini telcos. Like Endaga, a Berkeley startup which has used part of the GSM spectrum to build a village level network in a Papuan village. 

Some say there’s no need of a network at all. Using a technique called mesh, they string together devices — handphones, or laptops or whatever — which become both nodes and transmitters, meaning they not only do what a device would normally do on a network, but they also help pass on signals to others. 

That removes the need for lots of fancy infrastructure like towers, base stations and dishes. Activists in Nigeria have used mesh for lobbying against the demolition of slums, and the technology is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross. Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too.

Then there’s underwater. Soon our internet will be as much a network of devices as of people with devices. The so-called internet of things, or machine to machine, or whatever you want to call it. Cisco reckons there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018. Connecting these things above ground by wireless is fine but underwater is another thing.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to. 

This is gradually getting solved, but slowly. Noisy things like pistol shrimps, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey, confuse underwater modems.

The oceans and the deserts and mountains and jungles will all eventually get their wireless signals. And we’ll be the better for it. But because of money, and technology, and pesky things like shrimps, it’s not about to happen any time soon. One day we’ll look back and wonder why it took us so long. 

BBC: Old Scams Made New

This is a column for a BBC World Service piece. It’s not Reuters content. 

Of all the scams you’d have thought the old ‘I’m a general’s widow and am sitting on a whole pile of cash I want to share with you” one would have gone away by now. But it hasn’t. The scammers are now recruiting church organists. 

Take, for example, LinkedIn, the business networking service. Think Facebook but for suits. People use to flaunt their resume only in the hope of winning contracts, promotions, job offers and to share trade gossip with others. Companies use it to recruit, promote themselves etc. And so do scammers. 

They make a fake profile, add a fake photo, and then start inviting potential victims to connect to them. Once connected, they approach marks with the usual ‘I’ve got lots of money tied up in a bank and i want to share it with you if you’d only send a bit my way to help me grease some bankers’ palms.’ They can also now mine your address book and connect to your contacts and do the same to them. 

I was recently approached, for example, by a lady called Alisha, who claimed to work at a dental clinic (the giveaway there: she called it a detal clinic),by Qatari billionaire Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani (email address sheikfaisalbinalthani at gmail.com) and before her recent troubles by the now deposed prime minister of Thailand — Yingluck Shinawatra, not the other one — who could be reached at angeleena rosa 1967 at yahoo.com

Why do I know these folk are not for real? Well, one red flag is a limited number of connections: 67 in Alisha’s case, 127 in the Sheikh’s and 56 in Ms Yingluck’s. But each was able to reach me because despite the relatively measly number of people they’d persuade to accept their invitation to connect were contacts of mine.

I knew it was getting serious when I was approached by someone claiming to be a manager at Standard Chartered. Let’s call him Mr Christopher to save some blushes. Mr. Christopher claims to have 10 years’ experience in banking and finance management — and, most impressively, more than 500 connections. Among them a colleague, a CEO at a local energy group and the finance director of an Indonesian company. He even has a Facebook page. 

These scammers are putting in the hours. 

 But even then, these scams aren’t really that hard to spot.

Usually a glance at the profile is enough. A guy called Nigel Rozzell, for example, approached me, ostensibly from NatWest Bank. (It turns out there really is a Nigel Rozzell who works for Nat West Bank, but I’m pretty sure his email address isn’t Natwest Nigel at accountant.com, which is what this profile had.) 

And if I still wasn’t sure, I could search google for images that look like his mug shot — it’s actually easier than it sounds. And sure thing, the headshot of fake Nigel Rozzell belongs to an engineer who works on rail projects in Qatar.

And our bank manager friend Mr Christopher, with the 500+ connections and the Facebook page? After I recklessly accepted his LinkedIn invitation he offered me half of 9,649,400 pounds he said he was about to get his hands on. My confidence in him deflated when I discovered via Google that his mug shot belonged to that of the organist at a church near Bristol, who was none too pleased when I told him his visage being used as part of a scam. 

Now, LinkedIn to their credit have taken down all these profiles. And they defend their failure to stop these profiles ever appearing or gathering steam by saying that it’s basically up to users to be careful who they link to and to report anomalies. They also say they see no spike in these kinds of scams. 

But the truth is that scammers like networks and networks don’t police themselves. It took me anything between 10 seconds and two minutes to spot these scams, but I’m a nerd. That vetting process that could easily be automated. LinkedIn should, in my view, try doing that. I’ll miss rubbing shoulders with deposed prime ministers, billionaire sheiks and church organists, but I’ll suffer for the greater good of keeping scammers off my buddy list. 

[Update: Got another scam this morning, from a Douglas Mattes, who once again had 500+ connections and a quite well populated profile. And whom actually I thought might be legit as I hadn’t looked at the image which belongs to one Shaun Goeldner. I’m frankly unclear how these profiles work — are they legitimate accounts hacked or built from scratch?] 

[Update: Is this all part of some Iranian spying scam? ]

Meshing and Stacking Away from Disaster

I’m often haunted by the folk in Wall-E, the movie where humans have abandoned Earth to trash, a small waste-collecting robot and a cockroach. That’s not the bit that scares me: it’s the space-bound humans who are ferried around on pods, their eyes permanently glued to a screen in front of them.

Is this, I ask my worried self, our future? Or has it already happened?
In some ways it has. But for what it’s worth I think it’s a blip. The future won’t in fact look like that at all.

Right now we definitely have a problem. The problem is that screens have gotten smaller, or rather more portable, more convenient, and the content on them has become so compelling that we risk life and limb to watch them as we walk, stand and sit.

But this is just a phase.

I detect the beginnings of a shift. Not of our behaviour – sadly we’ll always be vulnerable to fixating on any screen with bright colours and movement. But the sheer multiplicity of screens is forcing change on us.

Consider the following: Of the seven hours a day spent gazing at a screen, at least two of those hours are actually watching two or more screens. Millward Brown, a brand consultancy, calls it meshing and stacking.

Whereas before we’d pop off to the kitchen to put the kettle on, now we scroll through our tablet to see what people are saying on Twitter about what we’ve just watched. Then there’s shifting, where we start watching something on one screen, and then finish it on a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet.

This may seem like appalling behaviour, slicing our attention into ever thinner chunks. And in some ways it is, but it means that we’re unlikely to be subsumed by any one screen. And that’s good, because we’re dominating the screens, not them dominating us.

There are other things afoot. Screens don’t need to be big to do big things for us: the latest version of Google’s Android operating system allows the user to stitch together separate photos of a view and then relive the panorama by moving the phone around in the air, the image moving as if the scene was in front of the viewer. It’s a extraordinary feeling, recreating a mural on a screen the size of your hand.

Then there’s something called Spritz, an app that allows you to speed read a book in a viewer no larger than 18 letters. The maker of the app says by shuttling words past your vision at speed 80% of your effort is saved for reading and absorbing. I was pretty amazed; it seemed to work, and makes you think about whether you really need a book-sized screen to recreate the experience of reading a tome.

Then there’s something called Snapchat, where users can send photos to each other which can only be viewed for a few seconds before disappearing forever. It’s hard to see the value in this, until someone pointed out that the value lies in the intimacy of the moment. Users don’t open the picture immediately, preferring to find a quiet, private space to enjoy it. Counterintuitively, by making the photo ephemeral, the app makes the process of viewing it special and the memory of it longer lasting.

Some might say I’m grasping at straws. But I see in these examples the beginnings of a new approach to how we relate to our screens. For sure, some of us will remain their slaves. But for others we may find new ways to derive pleasure from them, whether it’s recreating a vista, reading a tome or viewing a photo.

WhatsApp: Silly Money or New Front in the Platform Wars?

It’s been a few days since Facebook announced to the world it had bought WhatsApp. And Rakuten bought Viber. You are forgiven if only one of those names rings a bell. so while I’m at it, let me throw in a few more: WeChat, LINE, KakaoTalk. Nimbuzz. Mig33. Fring. Telegram. Tango.

OK, that’s enough names. But while I’m at it I’ll throw out a prediction: You’re going to hear a lot more of these messaging services in the years to come. That’s because we’re entering a new phase of what we might pompously call the platform wars. One where those with the biggest network win.

It sounds arcane and complicated but it’s not really, if we strip it down to the fundamentals. Phones were always about the network effect. The first phone, for example, was pretty useless, like the first subway station. But the more phones were added to the network, the more useful the network became, and the more worthwhile it was to get a phone and plug it in.

Networks are about communicating. When SMS came along folk loved it because it offered a less intrusive option for the mobile phone; you didn’t have to talk to people to communicate with them.

Messaging applications like WhatsApp are a return to this simplicity. And of course, it’s cheap. So it’s not surprising that more than 450 million people use it.

And this is the thing. Facebook and Rakuten, the Japanese ecommerce company that bought a smaller version of WhatsApp called Viber, want to get as close to you, the mobile user, as they can. They want to get you to buy stuff, or share stuff, or see stuff because that’s how their business models work.

In that sense it’s simple. But under the hood there’s a larger shift at work in the layout of the engine. In the old days, to get close to the user you built a browser. Remember all those wars over the default browser in Windows?

That’s all old hat now. The conventional wisdom is that on mobile phones, where all the action is, the chokepoint is the operating system. That’s the software that the device runs, and comes with. That means Apple, with their iOS, and Google, with their Android, are in pole position. If you want to do something, like sell an app, you have to go through their app store. Upset them and you’re out. Oh, and they get a cut of anything you make on their device.

Only hang on a minute.

What happens if the choke point, the place where the rubber hits the user, as it were, wasn’t the app store but, say, a messaging app? Or if you wanted to order a taxi? Or buy insurance?

This is what is happening already, in China, South Korea and Japan. And it’s big, because it threatens to undermine a lot of what these big players, not just Apple and Google, but phone makers like Samsung, and telephone operators, and everyone in the mobile game, has been trying to do.

In short, if you can insert yourself in the what folk call the value chain so all the user sees is you, you’re good to go. And that’s what’s happening with the likes of WeChat, KakaoTalk and Line.

You may not have heard of these guys, and you may not again. But if you think them about in that way you’ll have a clearer idea about why Facebook splashed out $19 billion on their Western equivalent WhatsApp, and Rakuten $900 million on Viber.

Big money. But when you’re elbowing big names aside to get to be the first and only thing the nearly 7 billion mobile phone users in the world interact with, maybe it doesn’t look like silly money.

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily program riffing off the Facebook and Rakuten purchases. Podcast here.

You’re Never Alone With a Drone

Drones is a bad word to describe the future. We hear drones and we think bombs dropped unseen, we think surveillance and we think somebody talking incessantly about something not very interesting.

But I’m a big fan of drones. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles and while inevitably the military is ahead in leveraging the technology, and governments are restricting their usage, they represent as powerful an opportunity for the future as the mobile phone.

You average drone is a quadrocopter — a helicopter with four rotors. The design is more than a century old, but it has only been in the past decade that they’ve gotten cheap enough for any tom or dick or harry to have one. Now they can be as small as a butterfly, controlled by your iPhone.

Outside of the military, they’re still somewhat in the domain of hobbyists, but this is beginning to change. Journalists have been using them to cover protests, floods and sports. Oil and gas companies are using them to survey terrain and check out potential leaks. Conservation groups are using them to map terrain and track wildlife and poachers.

This is just the start. Drones could be deployed as sort of flying webcams so drivers can check traffic conditions ahead. Refugee agencies could do rapid surveys of movements of people to assess their needs before they turn up at a camp.

And that’s just by attaching a camera to a drone. You could attach a lot more.

Amazon has half-jokingly released a video showing how a drone could deliver a package. Attaching near-infrared sensors could detect the health of vines and crops. Surveyors could use distance sensors to quickly assess the size of a plot — or even the rooms inside a building.

This is beginning to happen, and in some industries it’s been happening for a while. Regulations are a little slow to keep pace — I spoke to one entrepreneur who moved his startup from California to Singapore because he said it was taking too long for the regulations to catch up with the reality. In Southeast Asia, he says, governments are more receptive to his drone as a service business.

The next step after commercial adoption, I think, is going to be when we as individuals see drones in the same way we see phones. The smartphone was originally just a phone — now it’s pretty much everything but a phone. Think computer, internet device, social tool, health monitor, stopwatch, radio, music player, tv, satnav, TV remote, calorie counter.

We’ll deploy a drone to water the garden, to check whether the bus is on its way, to deliver a pina colada to our spouse lounging by the pool. We’ll send one out to scare away the birds raiding our strawberry patch, to check out storm damage on a chimney, to figure out where there’s a parking spot in a crowded lot. We’ll have them accompany us on walks and runs as a kind of mobile security guard, providing direction, assessing threats and, in the event of rain, an umbrella.

For sure, there are privacy concerns. But we’ve been surprisingly sanguine about the sudden appearance of billions more cameras in our face — either on phones or streetlamps — so it may not take us long to figure out that the skies above us are not empty. We’ll develop ways to block intrusive sensors and cameras. And hopefully we’ll make the most of being able, for the first time in our lives, to be able to look down on ourselves from above.

This is a longer version of a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. I no longer upload the podcasts here because of time constraints, but they can usually be found from time to time at the tail-end of the Business Daily podcast available here. While I’m a staff correspondent at Reuters, this is not written for Reuters.