Telefónica calls for machines to become more human

At Ovum’s Digital Futures event Telefónica’s Chief Digital Officer talked about the importance of making our interactions with technology more intuitive and natural.

Chema Alonso is an expert in cognitive intelligence, which in the tech context seems to be all about making computers think and act in a way that is more ‘human’. He heads up the team within Telefónica that is dedicated to artificial intelligence and its commercial use. His keynote at the event was entitled ‘How AI is Changing the Customer Experience and Telefónica’s Business’.

“Data is good,” opened Alonso, before adding “It’s time for computers to learn the human way of doing things.” The point of these two statements is that, while we’re in a digital era, we’re not so good at making use of all the data we’re constantly generating and accumulating. He danced around various considerations such as security but soon got to the core of his talk: AI and what Telefónica is doing with it.

Telefónica launched a platform/service called Aura at MWC 2017 that is designed to repurpose all the clever AI and cognitive intelligence stuff it’s doing internally into a something it can offer third parties. Right now this mainly means Telefónica’s Spanish operator Movistar, but the plan seems to be for anyone to use it. You can see a video explaining the point of Aura below.

Alonso refers to all this stuff as the ‘4th platform’, in reference to its internal role in unifying how data is handled within Telefónica, across systems and geographies. But on top of being some kind of middleware it seems to be all about using AI to make the user interface with technology more intuitive in all scenarios.

In a subsequent panel session Orange VP of Digital Innovation said “AI is the new UI,” which is designed to be short and memorable but is only partially true. In practice this AI is increasingly manifested through the voice UI, as first introduced to the mass market when Apple launched Siri and now commonplace thanks to voice-driven smart speakers.

Where AI comes in is in improving the voice UI. This doesn’t so much mean using data to anticipate your needs like some kind of creepy digital stalker, but using computing power to enable natural language processing, machine learning and context awareness to make voice interactions with machines at least as easy and productive as those with people. Some would argue this is a low bar, but it’s where we need to start nonetheless.

The main illustration Alonso, who used his keynote largely to big-up his employer, has for how great Aura is was Movistar Home, which is positioned as a superior smart home experience to the kind of Alexa-driven thing we currently have. It ultimately seems to come down to an improved voice UI and, perhaps, a more extensively connected home.

In the introductory presentation Ovum’s Richard Mahony warned of the dangers of AI concentrating power in too many hands. To illustrate this point he flagged up China’s plans to introduce ‘social credits’ – a system that tracks individuals constantly and gives or takes away social credit depending on how closely their behaviour conforms to the will of the Communist Party. The AI genie is out of the bottle and it will doubtlessly confer many benefits, but in the wrong hands it will enable and concentrate control on an unprecedented scale and so should be treated with profound caution.


We’re at the very beginning of the next technological revolution

Analyst firm Ovum hosted its Digital Futures event at which the Nokia CTO explained why we need to fundamentally redesign the network.

The keynote was delivered by Marcus Weldon, CTO of Nokia Networks and CEO of Bell Labs where they, as Weldon put it, “invent stuff”. “We have to rebuild the infrastructure in order to digitize our world,” he announced, before vowing to explain why.

Weldon said we’re at the start of only the 6th technological revolution there has ever been, the previous one being the internet. This one he named ‘the automation of everything’ and is more concerned with the movement of knowledge and insight as opposed to unqualified data. The internet connects people to each other and to digital media, but not the rest of the world, which is where this next revolution – generally referred to as IoT – comes in.

This should create new opportunities for telcos to extract themselves from the ‘dumb pipe’ trap they seem to be constantly battling. While the transfer of unadorned data has become a commoditized, thankless task, the transfer of knowledge – in the form of data collected from countless sensors and then processed to enable informed actions – could give telcos the chance to once more add value and thus margin.

But here lies the technological challenge. For a lot of IoT cleverness, such as VR or autonomous vehicles, to work we need network latency in the region of 1 millisecond. The technology to enable that is a core part of the 5G cunning plan, but no amount of clever tinkering from the likes of Weldon can overcome the fact that even light can only travel 100 km in 1 ms. This means that if you want to keep latency at that level your network can’t be any larger than 100 km in diameter – hence the need to radically re-architect them.

So the network needs to move from being quite centralised to massively distributed and the broader trend, says Weldon, is the shift from global to local. This could have all manner of implications over and above the need to localise the network and could possibly begin to reverse the trend of the internet being dominated by a few ‘webscale’ players.

The discussion them moved to a panel consisting of Weldon, CEO of Iron Group (startups) Anne de Kerckove, CEO of Cisco UK and Ireland Scot Garner, MD of Bain Capital Melissa Bethell and CSO of Liberty Global Jim Ryan. It was chaired by Informa’s own head honcho Stephen Carter (both and Ovum are part of Informa) and coincidentally the photo of the panel below provides a great illustration of latency at work.

Ovum digital futures Carter

Compare Carter’s hand gesture on the video screen with his one in real-life. His fingers are clearly positioned differently, thus illustrating the slight delay experienced even in the closed network between a camera and screen only a few meters apart.

The panel explored a wide variety of topics stemming from the general digital futures theme. Bethell said equity values are significantly overblown due to the unprecedented period of loose monetary policy (low interest rates) that we’ve had since the 2008 financial SNAFU. Ryan said he thinks the real internet growth opportunities lie not in the advertising model typified by the likes of Google and Facebook, but by finding more stuff people are willing to actually pay for, ideally by subscription.

The whole panel agreed that we’re only at the very start of this latest technological revolution. When asked by why things weren’t progressing more quickly since everyone seems to be holding their breath for it, some panellists blamed it on a lack of talent and ambition while others pointed out that there’s no point in moving faster than the consumer market can tolerate.