ITx 2016: People at the heart of increasingly people free work

The final day of ITx 2016 gave me an opportunity consider the overall theme that was, to me, derived from the three days. While there were many streams of themes crisscrossing the conference, in my view people was a common one. People featured in a number of ways, in particular how developments in technology are increasingly making human decision making and interaction less important, while at the same time recognising that people must be valued within the sector and indeed placed at the heart of it.

The seeming contradiction in this is an intriguing one. How can a sector on the one hand demand that its workers are valued not just as cogs of a machine, pumping out code to business imposed deadlines for projects initiated by marketing departments, but as highly skilled individuals with substantial contributions to make to improving overall business value, yet on the other effectively be making people redundant through the mainstreaming of things like cognitive (thinking) computers that respond like people, bots, automated self service functions and learning machines?  We want to be treated like people, but when you ask us for something a bot will do the talking?

Rob England’s IT Renaissance talk featured the phrase “he tangata, he tangata, he tangata” (it is people, it is people, it is people) as did a number of others. Discussions on encouraging diversity, both within decision making teams and the IT sector more generally also highlight the issue of people and their role within the IT sector. Presumably we have a lot to contribute.

And yet, when businesses can now use APIs to utilise IBM’s Watson supercomputer to recognise and respond to customer queries in natural language, I imagine there are already a range of IT support tasks that could be delivered this way. And with a learning machine responding to queries and fixing problems, what will the role of people be in tomorrow’s tech sector?

For me, the answer was unveiled by Grant Ryan’s talk on the Cacophony Project. He had a problem in that predators had decimated the local bird population where he lives. Grant used traditional trapping technology to eradicate them, but of course this is only a temporary, localised solution. Grant, a man with tech skills and an entrepreneurial mind set asked himself how technology could help solve this problem and improve the efficiency of trap technology. His solution, the Cacophony Project (including it’s aptly named instruments the Cacophonometer and Cacophinator), aims to increase predator kill rates by 80,000 times. The project is in its infancy, using readily available technology to cobble together prototypes to test their various hypotheses. In essence Grant and the Cacophony team want to create big data of bird song volumes across the nation. This creates a baseline to track population health and identify “rat infested dead zones”. This can be achieved using simple smartphone technology. Add machine learning to analyse audio and images from a motion tracking and/or thermal imaging camera and you have a system that can identify with 100% accuracy the predators operating in any given area. Introduce more effective lures such as mating calls and a kill mechanism and you can build a network of autonomous, intelligent, efficient predator traps nationwide. Their vision is to eradicate predators from New Zealand’s bush, and technology with help them achieve it.

So, even as machines and software can and will replace human work, with the potential to devalue the perception of the value of people currently performing these tasks, people concurrently assume an even more important role: to identify the big problems. And to develop solutions, maximising the use of technology to enhance outcomes beyond those currently “humanly” possible. When the unique advantages of both people and computing power are fused, the possibilities are endless.

TaurangaTech’s attendance at the conference, including travel costs and accommodation, were sponsored by Priority One.