Future and the Summit

I was really lucky to be able to attend the Australian Davos Connection’s Future Summit 2009 in Melbourne earlier this week.

When I walked into the venue it was a bit intimidating, so many serious looking people in suits. And from the attendee list I knew that many of them were CEOs, senior Public Servants, politicians, senior Defence personnel, journalists and writers. It was a pretty impressive crowd.

Then I started to get curious about these people, who were they, why were they here, why did they think that this conference was important? So I grabbed the camera and started to ask people those three questions on video.

The videos are gradually being uploaded onto YouTube.  Here’s one from Tony Press, Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, talking about climate change:

It was inspiring to hear these stories and to know that people really do care about creating a better future. The big question that arose for me is:

What can I do today that will make tomorrow better?

Nurses, naughtiness and women in IT

NetRegistry have raised some ire in some parts by having women dressed as nurses on their stand at CeBIT in Sydney.  In some ways this all takes me back to the bad old days when IT was a blokey world and scantily clad women were commonplace at conferences and exhibitions.

I had a chat to Jonathan Crossfield earlier today.  He explained that their booth at CeBIT has a medical theme.   I do not imply any malice, nor any intent to cause offence with this stunt.  It simply looks like the team thought it would be fun to dress up as medical folks while they worked the booth at CeBIT.  Funnily enough one of my first questions was “is the doctor a man?” and he admitted that the person dressed as a doctor was indeed a man. This made me wonder about unconscious sexism in our society.

The unconscious sexism & misogyny that remains prevalent in our society continues to fascinate me.  And I think that the automatic (and probably unselfconscious) assignment of roles in this case is an example.

But let’s consider a few other things …

  • We are currently in the midst of revelations about systemic demeaning behaviour towards women – especially in relation to rugby league.
  • There have been ongoing allegations of demeaning behaviour towards women by male sporting team members.
  • The calendars featuring scantily clad women and similar that used to decorate workplaces have disappeared.
  • Conferences & exhibitions are places of business to which women have free access nowadays.
  • Governments and volunteer organisations have put enormous effort into encouraging women to enter the ICT industry, and to retaining those already there.

I don’t think this kind of marketing exercise is a good idea in general, nor in particular for a conference/exhibition (doesn’t pass the Mum test).  Further, the day after the Four Corners program about the alleged sexual abuse of women it was bad timing (probably unintentionally so).

But, for the record, there were similar poster in the NetRegistry booth at CeBIT – is there a pattern here? It makes me ponder what the outcry would be if this was an equivalent racial depiction?

Social networking & your career

I had the pleasure of speaking, along with Karen Ganschow from Telstra, at the FITT CeBIT lunch today in Sydney.  We had a great turnout and there were even a few men in attendance.

It’s FITT’s 20th anniversary this year – a big milestone for a volunteer based organisation that was working to encourage women into ICT careers before it was trendy.

Here are the slides from the presentation …

Future Summiteer

~ next week I’m off to the Future Summit in Melbourne on 18-19 May.

The theme for 2009 is Priorities for Australia in the Crisis and Beyond, and there is a really diverse line-up of speakers (pdf list here).

This conference is run by ADC (Australian Davos Connection) & brings together leaders from business, government, the public sector, academia and the broader community to improve their understanding of key issues affecting Australia.

I’m getting excited because it sounds like we’ll be addressing some interesting issues. It should be fun as some buddies are also heading down to the Future Summit.

You can expect to see a bit of tweeting under the hash tag #futuresummit & some official kind of tweets from @futuresummit.

Some of the Twitter folks heading along include: @liubinskas, @bronwen, @duncanriley, @mspecht, @eskimo_sparky, @rosshill, @jjprojects, with @stevehopkins as the conference community manager.

There are currently unconfirmed rumours of a pre #futuresummit tweetup in Melbourne on Sunday 17th.

Do we need robotic technology rules of engagement?

In a recent post I discussed a talk by Dr Peter Singer about robotics and 21st century warfare.  This use of technology raises some very big moral dilemmas, especially in the area of law, rules of engagement, and the personal effects of this kind of warfare on both combatants and civilians.

For instance there is no current agreement on which body of law would govern the use of robotic devices in war.  Who is to blame for any errors?  Is it the operator, who is potentially sitting a continent away?  What if there is a software glitch?  What happens when the device cannot determine the difference between a child or an old person and an enemy human target?  What is the machine equivalent to manslaughter?

These are not trivial questions and, rather than developing complex legislation akin to the Income Tax Act, do we need a Star Trek like ‘prime directive’?  This is not science fiction, it is not the future of war – it is already here and operative today.

As Singer said “the fog of war is not lifting, we are still seeing mistakes”.  We need to figure out accountability for “un-manslaughter” – he used the example of a drone problem that killed 9 soldiers in training exercise. Armed autonomous systems are becoming commonplace and some big questions remain unanswered. What about war crimes? What about errors? How can the machines distinguish between innocents & combatants?  None of these questions mattered when we were just using robots to build cars, but now they do matter.

As Matthew rightly points out in a comment on my previous post, the creation of increasing distance between the killer and the victim makes killing much easier.  Killing with a knife or bayonet is so much more personal that pressing a button to dispatch a device to destroy a school (which may or may not have schoolchildren in it at the time) that is being used to house munitions for insurgents.

This continued depersonalisation of killing makes it easier and easier to undertake offensive action.  If your own soldiers can sit safely in an office at home and simply use the equivalent of a computer game to attack, then the social and political cost is very low.  But what is the personal cost to the soldiers involved?  Is  killing any less the delivery of death if you do it at a distance?  Is going home to eat dinner with the family after dealing death all day at the office even more stressful than being on the ground in a combat zone?

We’re entering some uncharted territory with this technology in terms of its impact on society and upon our warriors, not to mention upon our enemies and upon civilians. As nation states continue to act against non-state actors (such as various insurgent groups or “terrorists”) the dilemma of what happens to innocent civilians will become even more problematic as the element of human judgement and compassion on the ground is removed from the equation.

Further, we do not know if the use of this technology will simply shift enemy action away from their own territory and to our own territory. This last is entirely possible because, if they can no longer kill our soldiers, how else will they seek to make their point and cause us damage?

Some other interesting articles about robots:
Robots Take To The Stairs – This Is Just The Beginning
Robot sub aims for deepest ocean
How to Make (Robot) Friends and Influence People

Singularity be damned!

It’s the robotics revolution that is already here! It is reshaping our world in some important ways and most of us aren’t even noticing.

I attended a talk yesterday by Dr Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution, about his new book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.  He outlined what is already happening on the ground around the world with robotic warfighting (e.g. stuff like this).

He opened with scene from Iraq – an IED on roadside and an EOD team sent out to search out and destroy them.  One of the ‘soldiers’ was blown up while trying to defuse an IED.  The commander wrote home to the factory where the soldier came from, saying “at least when a robot dies you don’t have to write home to its mother”.  An indicator of how important these EODs are to the insurgents is the US$50,000 bounty they’ve placed on the head of EOD members.
Predator_Drone_021.jpgIsrael & Hezbollah. Both sides flew drones against each other – even though one was a nation state & other was non state actor.

Another ripple effect is that robotics make war cheaper in terms of people costs by replacing them with machines. This is a real benefit in societies that frown upon deaths of individuals in the service of warfare. The social and political cost of war for governments and politicians drops considerably. The interesting thing pointed out by Singer is that this is happening without any debates in the legislature or in the media – we are seeing a creeping change without open debate as to the efficacy and morality of this technology.

Part of this new kind of warfare is that these machines record everything they see & this is changing the public’s vision or view of war. We are seeing the rise of YouTube wars. Some people are turning war into entertainment, or “war porn”. When video clips of war actions put to music and shown as entertainment – it is very easy to forget the violence is real.

The final issue that arises from this new kind of technology is that we are potentially turning our soldiers into war gamers rather than war fighters. Even now some of them just go to the office and direct drones from US mainland but go home at night to normal family life. This also has an impact on the demographics of war fighting. In the past strength and physical fitness were key. But, as Singer recounted, one of the top US pilots on drone systems is 19-year-old high school drop out. The skills required are changing so the nature of military institutions will need to change in response. In his examples Singer mentioned that some of these drivers don’t even meet they just talk online & only know each other’s handles.

There are some huge moral, social and legal issues that remain to be resolved in relation to this new military technology. Things like un-manslaughter, rules of engagement, etc. More on this later.

Gilmore of the eponymous law

~ A few times now I’ve referred to Gilmore’s Law and wanted to share a bit more about its author. John Gilmore is one of the true mavericks of the internet, and he is a self described entrepreneur and civil libertarian. His ideas are further out on the edge than most, but I think our society needs people who question and push the boundaries.

On his website under the heading “Things I’ve Said (That People Sometimes Remember)” he discusses what has come to be termed Gilmore’s Law:

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
— John Gilmore, 1993

It has been popularised as a law by Mark Pesce who has discussed it in a number of places, for example in Understanding Gilmore’s Law.

And as Gilmore says:

This was quoted in Time Magazine’s December 6, 1993 article “First Nation in Cyberspace”, by Philip Elmer-DeWitt. It’s been reprinted hundreds or thousands of times since then, including the NY Times on January 15, 1996, Scientific American of October 2000, and CACM 39(7):13.

In its original form, it meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn’t like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route. This is also a reference to the packet-routing protocols that the Internet uses to direct packets around any broken wires or fiber connections or routers. (They don’t redirect around selective censorship, but they do recover if an entire node is shut down to censor it.)

The meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship. If you now consider the Net to be not only the wires and machines, but the people and their social structures who use the machines, it is more true than ever. “

Some of the other things Gilmore has started include:

No matter what one might think of Gilmore’s politics and activism it is worth remembering his leadership in some fundamentals that we take for granted with the internet. His ongoing battles over personal freedom are fascinating to read about on his website.

Telstra IT transformation woes

I was about to write some more about the networked society but this article by Michael Sainsbury caught my eye: Telstra trauma as tranformation costs mount.

This is a sad, but all to common, tale of a large organisation that desperately needs to update its core systems, and to integrate the various acquisitions over the years into a single system. And, like most telco disasters, this one is centred around a billing system, which necessarily also includes customer information management systems. It is getting hard to keep count of the billing system disasters that unfold with monotonous regularity.

For Telstra the problem is a myriad of different systems billing and customer management systems that have evolved or been acquired over many years. The goal is to get them all onto a single system to achieve vast savings and make it easier to move staff around without retraining them. Some of my sources have told hilarious stories of the arcane, arbitrary  and mysterious nature of some of the billing systems over the years.

Mr Trujillo appears to have trod the road followed by so many previous leaders of large companies:

  1. announce large and expensive transformative IT program;
  2. bring in a bunch of consultants to run it;
  3. sideline the internal staff who have a clue about some of the actual challenges in implementing such an ambitious program;
  4. completely underestimate the scale and complexity of the task embarked upon;
  5. not chunk up delivery into bite sized pieces so that failures and problems are minimised in their impact;
  6. fail to understand the appropriate level of governance required to ensure effective delivery;
  7. and, resign and leave the country before the program is completed.

According to Sainsbury, the essential next phase of any large enterprise project disaster is already underway – i.e. run for cover and blame people who’ve left for the entire problem:

The Australian understands a number of the candidates are now trying to distance themselves from Mr Trujillo’s management-consultant-led program and have highlighted a range of areas in which the transformation is over budget, over time and not meeting its targets.

This is not a problem to be taken lightly for one of Australia’s most significant corporations. The impact of this program’s failure will translate into pain for shareholders, as Sainsbury notes:

The biggest problem for the company is the IT overhaul, the centrepiece of which is a problematic new billing and customer service platform.

It is now well behind schedule and over budget … and this will delay Mr Trujillo’s promise of improved earnings.

It is very frustrating to see the same drama played out over and over again in different companies. It is especially exasperating when there exists an enormous body of knowledge about how to run successful projects. It’s always worth checking out Michael Krigsman on the topic of IT project failures and how to avoid them.

Women in IT Sunday Brunch May 10

One of the social events that are part of the Connecting Up 09 conference is a Women in IT Brunch at which Jody Mahoney (Vice President, Business Development, at the Anita Borg Foundation) is the guest speaker.

For the uninitiated, the Anita Borg Institute was founded in 1997 by renowned computer scientist Anita Borg, Ph.D. (1949-2003). The Anita Borg Institute seeks to:

  • increase the impact of women on all aspects of technology, and
  • increase the positive impact of technology on the world’s women.

Cost for the brunch is $65 and it is at 10.30 am on  Sunday 10th May 2009 at Brighton Le Sands – registration form is here (opens pdf).  Any queries call : +61 2 9280 3677