Alexa is the new command line
19 May 2017, by Andy Patterson
In the beginning, man created the command line interface, and lo! There were commands that no-one could remember, and syntax designed by Satan himself.
User interface experts call this problem discoverability; given that you’re at a particular point in an application, how do you find where you can go next, or what you can do? The early graphical user interfaces beat the more-powerful command line because they allowed users to discover features without needing to remember that a feature was there. This property turns out to be so compelling that command lines were relegated to, well, somewhere that you can discover with a bit of digging.
The unchallenged dominance of the graphical user interface is facing a new contender: voice-activated assistants, such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. These ever-listening devices attack the soft underbelly of the graphical user interface; the (non-alternative) fact that you need a graphical screen to interact with them, and you need to be within touching distance of that screen. With voice-activated assistants, you only need to be in yelling distance (or have your phone nearby).
Once you’ve vocally activated your assistant, you need to give it commands. One of the hard problems with this, and with life in general, is that different people ask questions in different ways. Where you’ll say “Alexa, what time is it?”, I’ll proclaim “Alexa, what be the hour?”. Internally, the servers powering Alexa need to figure out that we’re asking the same question, which we call disambiguation. One of the strengths of command and graphical interfaces is that input is unambiguous (yes, you really did click the “delete all my files” button). Unfortunately, disambiguation is a hard problem, even for relatively simple commands. Try adding “fork handles” to your shopping list to discover this for yourself.
If we can make the simplifying assumption that we’ve solved the above problem, we’ve just discovered a deeper problem; how do you do discoverability on a voice assistant? “Siri, tell me everything you can do” is likely to flatten your phone battery pretty quickly (which I don’t believe is an intended feature of Siri), nor does it help you decide if Siri can order you a late-night Chimichanga delivery. At the moment, this isn’t really a problem because voice assistants are very limited in what they can achieve. Alexa is about to run face-first into this problem with the addition of Traits. Given two Alexa devices with Traits, there’s no way to tell which Traits are available. Without a good solution to the discoverability problem (wait, you were expecting me to have one?), voice assistants will be limited to simple commands and instructions.
An interesting property of command lines that hasn’t featured in voice assistants yet is that of composition (i.e. can I chain the output of multiple commands together?). We even have this concept in the graphical world – the humble copy-paste allows us to move data from one program to another with only a modicum of mouse-pointer shuffling. Telling Siri to “email the news story about the giraffe to my mother” could lead to some unexpected (but possibly hilarious) results. Which is a pity, because composition is incredibly powerful, and we really ought to continue making it available.
Is the end nigh for our mellifluous Alexa? It seems unlikely; convenience outweighs theoretical concerns, and there are some genuine good uses as well as novelties and party tricks. Only time will tell. If we can figure out how to ask for it, anyway.
What’s keeping voting from moving online?
6 May 2017, by Francine Barsam
With the general election swiftly approaching, conversation in the office this week turned to why we’re still unable to vote online and what might have to change in order to make voting online a possibility.
The first and probably most obvious argument against online voting is security of the system. In a year of particularly prominent news relating to online security breaches and cyber-attacks, such as the recent attack on the NHS, it’s only too clear that the internet isn’t exactly the safest of places. Moving voting online opens it up to many potential problems, not least from external groups but even from the people who might take responsibility for building the systems by which we could vote online. Simply, it would be too difficult to find a totally impartial party to create a voting system. Regardless of whether a company had any political affiliations or motivations, it would be nigh on impossible to put together a team of developers who had no political leanings of their own.
And if it’s not possible to impartially build a voting system then, it’s difficult to expect the public to put their trust in the system and believe that their vote will be accurately counted and untampered with. Trials of electronic voting machines in the past have already flagged various problems, including demonstrations of the ability to alter the software they run on with just 60 seconds and a USB stick. Creating a voting system where anyone could simply vote from their desk at work or their smartphone would throw the net wide open to all manner of threats. There’s no simple way that the public could be shown that their votes had been counted and communicated accurately.
Convenience would be the most cited reason for allowing voting to take place over the internet, but one could argue that the fact that people have to make the effort to go and vote means that only those that have a real interest in the outcome of the election are likely to bother voting. Online voting would be open to manipulation on a large scale, but also due to convenience, it could be quite easy to persuade someone who wasn’t planning to vote to let someone else use their vote. By making voting so convenient, votes could end up being traded for something so minimal as a cup of coffee or a sandwich. Postal voting lessens the likelihood of such simple manipulation taking place.
It doesn’t seem that online voting is something that will happen anytime in the foreseeable future and with the majority of the kinks having been ironed out of the current paper voting system, other than convenience for both the voter and the people responsible for counting the votes, there’s no great argument that online voting would improve anything other than voter turnout. It would however be interesting to see online voting tested parallel to a paper vote to test the increase in turnout, but until an online vote is counted as relevant it wouldn’t be open to the genuine threats that online voting is so exposed to. Essentially, even testing an electronic system alongside the current system would simply be likened to an elaborate exit poll at best. So for now at least, it looks like we’ll be sticking to paper and pencil.
Top CIO Priorities 2017 – Infographic
1 March 2017, by Karl Graham
Digital Transformation Essentials
1 February 2017, by Karl Graham
We have met with business leaders from across the globe in diverse industries. They see the impact technology is having on their business and say, ‘We need that!’ They recognise the need to exploit digital transformation opportunities to discover new markets, find ways to do business more effectively and respond to the challenges from new entrants and movers in their sector. They realise that embracing technology will enable them to be more responsive to potential and existing customer demands. They recognise that being technically complacent will mean lost opportunities, lost market share, lost customers. But they don’t know how to go about getting the benefits that come from using technology in new and disruptive ways.
In the main, the business leaders we speak to are asking:
- How do I create a company culture that encourages and enables exploration and experimentation whilst acknowledging and managing risk?
- Where am I going to get the skills I need to make this happen? I have great people in my business but this is new to us.
- How do I make sure I’m getting value for money and not just kicking off projects that will wither on the vine?
- What benefits and ROI should I expect from digital transformation initiatives?
Below are some of our responses to these questions.
Think BIG. Plan BIG. Start small.
Organisationally you need to know where you want to get to, you need to have clarity on the vision you are trying to achieve, whilst being flexible about how you get there.
Core questions include
- What do you want to achieve?
- What will be different as a consequence?
- How will you know its been successful?
- How long can you take to get started?
- When do you need to start seeing results?
Answering these questions and others will give you a strong footing for making key decisions and a reference point when it starts to get hard and you come up against challenges or resistance.
The key point: Clarity. For you, for your leadership team and for your employees. Everybody needs to know what the plan is, how it’s going to happen and how excited leadership are about the journey. And when you tell your people about it – always err on the side of over communication. Tell and tell the story about how great things are going to be. Celebrate the successes. Publish them. Share them. Make a lot of positive noise.
Once you have clarity, you need to make someone responsible for action. We recommend a key member of the executive team. The most commonly selected role type is the CTO/CDO. They can then get on with selecting their team, making their lower level plans and executing them. We recommend a cross-functional core team. The make-up of the core team will depend on your objectives but role types include accountable leader, line of business owner who is seeking change, technical architecture specialists, business process specialists and programme management. Depending on the size of the organisation some of these roles may be covered by a single person. The key at this stage is to get a plan in place and start getting stuff done.
We recommend starting small. Based on the strategic vision and objectives this team should select some key hypotheses to validate and then using experimentation techniques to understand if the hypotheses will return the expected results. To facilitate experimentation whilst managing risk, businesses should adopt rapid innovation tools such as Lean and Agile. They should also consider coupling these to a change approach such as Kaizen.
Lean and Agile approaches allow businesses to quickly validate or discard hypotheses, whilst minimising investment. Coupling them to Kaizen as an evolutionary, incremental change method allows management of significant change from existing operating models without alienating staff along the way. Used correctly this approach can create a cultural paradigm shift. Whilst some businesses will have experience of these tools and methods, where you do not, we recommend investing in training and finding a partner who can work with you to embed this capability in the organisation.
The key here is to have tools and processes for getting stuff done and Getting On With It.
I.T. Skills Shortage
Look inside and outside the organisation for talent that is both complementary and challenging
There is a current and growing IT skills shortage. At some point this is likely to have a direct impact on your ability to achieve your objectives. It’s an Elephant in the room. Adopting a cross-functional and shared services approach can address some IT shortages, but it will not help support the skills that are lacking within a business. Therefore, you need to be open to and actively seek ways to create a highly collaborative culture. To facilitate external collaboration, leaders need to seek collaboration opportunities with partners, such as Softwire. These partners should have, or be able to develop a deep understanding of your business and help design and implement digital technology solutions.
Controlling costs and generating ROI:
Leverage legacy systems to free up investment capital. Allow for reasonable failure. Learn from it fast.
Leaders need to be clear on how they are going to invest and how they are going to measure both tangible and intangible ROI across the organisation. Digital transformation is technology driven. However it is not solely driven by the I.T. department. It crosses lines of business. It impacts ways of doing business – people, process and policy. It can succeed or fail based on the buy-in and attention given from people who are not directly I.T. staff.
Organisational silos can be a significant impediment to digital business transformation. When people are protective of their ‘turf’ or budgets this gets in the way of disruptive innovation. As already mentioned, creating cross-functional teams can reduce the negative impact of silos and this protectionism. Getting the right people hooked into the process and empowering them with clarity of purpose and confidence enables each team member to give their expertise and insight.
Adopting Lean and Agile methods means you can commit to small, incremental investments based on validating specific hypotheses – whether the outcome is learning quickly to kill an idea, or pressing the button to scale a proof of concept into a fully-fledged customer offering. The key is to keep investment small, work quickly to learn all you can and make active decisions based on evidence.
Where investment grows without checks and balances on the value, where decisions get bogged down in unnecessary bureaucracy or committees, you will eventually find a disgruntled finance executive demanding that this ‘waste of money’ be canned. So, when you have success, celebrate it. Make sure it’s shared widely and repeatedly.
We all know budgets are always tight. In most organisations the I.T. Department is seen as a cost centre, especially since 80% of an I.T. budget is generally spent on maintenance and support of legacy systems. As a consequence, we recommend leveraging existing legacy technologies and processes rather than creating new systems. That said, one of the major challenges with legacy systems is the inertia from decades of systems and processes. It’s true that the business needs to invest and maintain systems they rely on to operate. However, this is an area where budget can be freed up to aid experimentation with new technologies. In addition, years of organic growth in legacy systems across multiple lines of business can lead to a complex matrix of technologies and processes. We suggest significant benefits are achievable from harmonising processes, in particular where customers’ have to engage with these systems.
‘There’s a battle outside ragin’, It’ll soon shake your windows, And rattle your walls, For the times they are a-changin’[i].
We are in a period of significant upheaval across the business landscape. Macro and local economic impacts are meteoric. Technology disruption and innovation impacts are seismic. Whole sectors have been decimated. Some are under attack right now. Others are seeing the early waves breaking against their shores.
We have seen traditional responses to these attacks fail.
In addition customers are much more savvy. They realise how powerful they are. They demand to engage with the business on their terms. The quality of experience and service they receive is ever more in direct proportion to the level of loyalty they are willing to give. Customer tolerance for a subpar experience is at an all-time low. We see this demonstrated in the way they move on to a new supplier almost immediately something does not suit them.
This behaviour alone is driving digital transformation, and shaking up businesses. With customers expecting an experience that is fast, efficient and simple we have to find ways of meeting their needs, or be left behind. Its little wonder business leaders are looking at leading technology companies and saying, ‘We need that!
[i] The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan, 1964.
Top five technology trends for 2017
20 January 2017, by Yemi Olagbaiye
With so many new buzzwords and technologies, it is hard to determine which of these actually hold any clout in the modern business arena or have what it takes to become part of our lives in the future. Whilst we don’t profess to have all the answers here at Softwire, here are the top five trends that we believe will make a real impact in 2017.
We predict that VR will continue to be one of the most significant developments in the technology space this year. VR has the potential to complement and improve daily activities. Facebook has marked its space in this arena and we are likely to see VR-related upgrades from the leading social media players. Social media channels are one of the best routes for pushing the boundaries of this technology. Products including Google Daydream Viewer and Samsung VR have increased the level of content for consumers to digest and we’re likely to see this with games, movies, TV series and possibly gigs.
With the overwhelming success of games like Pokemon Go, brands now see the huge potential of this technology. It’s taken stampedes of people in parks, racing to catch their next Pikachu to make anyone pay attention. We predict that 2017 will see consumers less apprehensive of accepting AR on their smartphones and devices. In fact, with many of the shocks the world has faced in 2016, perhaps it may offer a more appealing ‘reality‘ whilst not completely detaching us from the outside world.
Following its recent upgrade, Microsoft’s mixed reality platform, ‘Windows Holographic’, now promises a varied new set of reality experiences for Windows users. Apple could make a play for a seat at the table with AR offerings. Who knows, Magic Leap may even start shipping at some point later this year (well, maybe…).
Where AR surpasses its counterpart, VR, is in its hardware simplicity. There is no need to purchase additional complimentary hardware, there’s a much easier gateway to the experience – a mobile device. AR has the potential to enhance existing games, toys, work and retail and we’re excited to see what comes next.
During 2016, AI has developed significantly and as a result machine learning has become more universally understood. Consumers have benefited from the increased choice of digital voice assistants and it’s likely that many big players will see 2017 as an opportunity to take advantage of consumers’ understanding and appreciation of this growing tech trend.
With Google’s Assistant, and Amazon’s Echo marketing themselves as must-haves in the home, we could see champions such as Microsoft and Apple releasing their own respective Cortana and Siri-based competitive devices. AI will continue to grow smarter and smarter.
We will take advantage of some of the emerging tech, AR and VR, on 4K screens and on smartphones. Yes, smartphones. HDTV technology is old news, curved screens and 3D just aren’t hitting the right buttons. Creating bigger and bigger TVs will not win any innovation prizes. Why is this one of our top trends? We believe that the manufacturing tides of transformation are turning towards the smaller screens, specifically those we have at our constant disposal.
We have seen OLED (organic light-emitting diode display) technology rise to become the flagship technology for smartphone screens. This year we’re likely to see the technology leveraged to help create thinner and more battery-efficient smartphones.
Why is this important? Why should anyone care? Will anyone ever really notice? Consumers are becoming more familiar with slipping their smartphones into their VR headset of choice.
With the screen so close, only higher resolutions can deliver the best experiences.
Security and Privacy
With the growth in artificial intelligence and IoT devices security is a key question. We will have thousands of connect devices, all communicating via the cloud, using real-time monitoring, logging, and data analytics – data on us. Security gaps with unpatched IoT devices could lead to significant compromises more damaging than previously thought. In order for these technologies to move forward security and privacy issues need to be taken seriously.
We will be closely monitoring these trends during 2017 and delivering bespoke digital solutions to our valued clients, to find out more read our blog.