Where Do We Go From Here?

The recent win by Google’s AlphaGo computer program in a 5-game Go tournament against the world’s top player for over a decade, Lee Sedol made headlines around the world.

And once you look past some of the more superficial tabloid predictions of imminent robot enslavement, you’ll find a number of intelligent and fascinating accounts detailing exactly why the event represents something of a technology landmark.

It’s worth digging into Google’s blog post for the background. Because this was not just another case of a computer learning how to win a board game. Nor was it a resumption of competition between man and machine following our previous defeats in chess (against Kasparov) and in Jeopardy (by Watson).

Complex Choices

Instead, the choice of game here is significant. Go is an ancient game with more possible legal board positions than there are number of atoms in the universe. In fact, we’ve only managed to calculate that number in 2016 after some 2,500 years. Why is this important? Because it means that a computer cannot possibly find the best options simply by brute-force guessing combinations. Building a system to index all possible moves in the game and then rely on the computer to look up the best move each time is simply not possible.

Instead, a successful Go player needs to use something that we can best understand as intuition. A human has to be able to act on no more than a feeling that one move is better than another – something that it was generally accepted that this was something that computers couldn’t do.

Turns out general opinion was wrong.

Self-Taught

By ‘simply’ learning 30 million possible moves played by human experts, the program showed that it could predict which move a human would make 57% of the time. But this would only go so far. To win, the AlphaGo algorithm needed to learn new strategies – by itself.

And it’s here that the outcome was stunning. During the games (live streamed online to massive audiences), the computer made certain moves that made no sense to Go experts. And yet (for the most part) they worked. As one commentator mentioned, this was, at some level, an alien intelligence learning to play the game by itself. And as another put it:

“..as I watched the game unfold and the realization of what was happening dawned on me, I felt physically unwell.”

When it comes to AI, it’s particularly important to reign in the hyperbole. Playing Go in a way that’s unrecognisable to humans at times is hardly Skynet. But it’s fascinating to think that the program reached a level of expertise that surpassed the best human player in a way that no one really fully understands. You can’t point to where it’s better because the program teaches itself to improve incrementally as a consequence of billions of tiny adjustments made automatically.

Neural Networks: Patience Pays Off

The success of computer over man came from a combination of different, but complementary, forms of AI – not least of which were Neural Networks. After reading a little about the godfather of Deep LearningGeoff Hinton, and listening to an another excellent podcast from Andressen Horowitz, it turns out that the approach of using Neural Networks (at the heart of AlphaGo) was an A.I. method that was ridiculed as a failure for a number of years by fellow scientists, particularly in the 1980’s.

It Turns out that the concept was just been too far ahead of its time. As Chris Dixon points out in ‘What’s Next In Computing?‘, every significant new technology has a gestation period. But that often doesn’t sit easy when the hype cycle is pointing towards success being just around the corner. And as the bubble bursts, the impact of the delays on the progress of innovation are usually negative.

Nowhere has that been seen so clearly as within the field of Artificial Intelligence. Indeed, the promise has exceeded the reality so often that it has its own phrase in the industry – AI Winters – where both funding and interest fall off a cliff. Turns out that some complex things are, well, complex (as well as highly dependent on other pieces of the ecosystem to fall into place). So in the UK, the Lighthill Report in 1974 criticised the utter failure of AI to achieve its grandiose objectives, leading to university funding being slashed and restricting work to a few key centres (including my home city, Edinburgh).

Expert Systems: Data Triumphs

Thankfully, the work did continue with a few believers such as Hinton however. And whilst the evolution of AI research and progress is far outside this blog post, it’s interesting to see how things evolved. At one stage, Expert Systems were seen as the future (check out this talk by Richard Susskind for how this applied in the context of legal systems).

To simplify, this is a method by which you find a highly knowledgeable human in a specific field, ask them as many questions as possible, compile the answers into a decision tree and then hope that the computer is able to generate a similar result to that expert when you ask it a question. Only problem is that it turns out that this doesn’t really work too well in practice.

But thankfully, those other missing pieces of the ecosystem are now falling into place. With massive computation, bandwith and memory available at extremely low cost these days, those barriers have now fallen. Which has led to the evolution of Neural Networks from a theoretical, heavily criticised approach into something altogether far more respected and valuable.

Welcome to self-learning algorithms – algorithms that (in this case) teach themselves how to play Go better – but without asking a Go expert.

Neural Networks aren’t new in any way. They started as a mathematical theory of the brain but didn’t make much progress for 40 years. But with the barriers gone, we’re now seeing neural networks being piled on top of each other. And AI is improving significantly not because the algorithms themselves are getting better. It’s improving because we’re now able to push increasing volumes of data into models which can in turn use this data to build out a better model of what the answer should be.

Learning By Intuition & Iteration

Instead of trying to capture and codify all existing knowledge, deep learning techniques are using data to create better results. It’s an approach that is scary to some people because it’s inherently un-debuggable. If you get the wrong result, you can’t simply check out each entry in a decision tree and fix the one that’s wrong.

But it’s got legs, particularly in the development of self-driving cars. So we don’t need to paint roads with special paint and maintain a huge global database of all roads and cars. Instead self-driving cars are going to use a collection of these machine learning techniques and algorithms in order to make the best guesses about how to drive each and every day.

Learn, iterate and improve. Scary? It shouldn’t be – because that’s exactly what we do as humans.

It’s a huge and fascinating field but the AlphaGo victory feels like an important bridge has been crossed, an inflection point when popular awareness coincided with a genuine step forward in the possibilities that the technology affords.

And of course, Google’s ultimate goal has never been to simply be better at winning games. Unless you define a game as being a challenge that is extremely difficult to beat. If so, then bring on the games – disease analysis, climate change modelling, the list is endless. When it comes to these contests, we might not expect them to be streamed live online. But as they increasingly become games that we have no option but to win, I’m pretty certain that the interest will be there.

Opening Up The Banks

It was a FinTech-tastic week in Edinburgh last week as – hot on the heels of the Bitcoin Meetup with Colu and the FinTech Scotland Conference – the Hack/Make The Bank hackathon took place, run by the hugely friendly team at the Open Bank Project. Well over 120 hackers and enthusiasts piled into the RBS Technology Solutions Centre in the New Town to build innovative ideas on top of the Open Bank API.

Open Bank Project Hackathon Visualisation
Hack/Make The Bank Hackathon, Edinburgh (9th to 11th October 2015)

The concept of open bank data is pretty much a no-brainer once you start to think about the implications. Providing free, standardised access to the banks in real time liberates developers, entrepreneurs and – most importantly – consumers around the world who are otherwise hampered by legacy technology deployed by financial institutions.

The team from TESOBE did a sterling job over the weekend leaving no stone unturned in their quest to create the ideal environment for those burning the midnight oil, providing a selection of massages, whisky and bagpipe accompaniment (!) in addition to the obligatory Red Bull, food and support throughout.

Ismail Chaib introducing the Hackathon
Ismail Chaib (Open Bank Project) introducing the Hackathon Prizes

I was delighted to be asked to act as a mentor at the event. It’s something that I’ve done at a few times at a number of hackathons (in different capacities) and it’s always an honour. I’m always full of admiration for anyone who chooses to come together to work – hard – over a weekend out of choice out of a simple desire to create and build something new and worthwhile.

The final pitches were great. As usual, I’m not going to share the ideas here (it’s not clear yet who wants to go forwards with these). Needless to say I was happy to see the guys from miiCard bring home the prizes for most disruptive (believe it or not, I had no say in the judging!)

All together, big congratulations go to Ismail Chaib, Simon Redfern and the rest of the Open Bank Project team; Kirsten Bennie and the rest of the RBS team who are clearly engaging positively with the upcoming disruption that’s undeniably en route; and last, but not least, all the developers and disruptors who proved that Scotland is now starting to really build on a burgeoning FinTech reputation.

Can’t wait for the next one.

Hackathon Collage

 

Time flies…

So – it’s been a while huh?

My only excuse for the lack of action round these parts in recent months is the same one that’s recycled by bloggers around the world. Namely life off-blog (believe it’s known as ‘real’ life) got crazy-busy over the summer months.

Can’t share all of the activities on here yet but here’s a quick roundup of some of the cool things (well I think so anyway) that have been taking up some of my time recently:

1. Paul Puey, CEO of my favourite Bitcoin wallet company Airbitz popped across from San Diego to chat at the Scottish Bitcoin Meetup a couple of weeks back, delivering a great talk on keeping Bitcoin decentralised.

Paul Puey (Airbitz CEO)
Paul Puey (Airbitz CEO)

2. We followed that up with the good news from The Royal Dick at Summerhall that it was to be the first bar in Edinburgh to accept bitcoin. And I’m glad to say that the meetup group took it upon itself to, er, thoroughly stress-test the new technology to the fullest. Let’s just say, we ensured that future customers wouldnt be at any risk of having a fractured experience in the future with staff who had no experience of dishing out drinks in return for bitcoin. Happy to report that everything held up beautifully under the strain.

 

360D Conference, Glasgow SECC (September 2015)
360D Conference, Glasgow SECC (September 2015)

3. I gave a talk on Bitcoin at the 360D Conference at the SECC in Glasgow earlier this month. Getting out of a sick bed to deliver it, it unfortunately wasn’t my finest performance but still seemed to provoke quite a bit of conversation afterwards.

4. I helped organise the Blockchain Workshop at this year’s Turing Festival and watched with disproportionate pleasure as 25 or so developers – all but a couple of whom had never had any exposure to blockchain tech beforehand – learn how to mine, send money and create simple smart contracts in little under 6 hours, all under the watchful eye of Konstantin and Ken from Ethereum. A fantastic example of the potential that this technology is providing for everyone.

5. Nine major banks announced they’d agreed to work together under the talented eye of new CTO Richard Gendal Brown at R3CEV in an ongoing investigation around how blockchain technologies can be incorporated into their current businesses. BIG news when you consider where we were 12 – even 6 – months ago. In case you’re wondering, the banks are: JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, State Street, UBS, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, BBVA, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland.

6. A few weeks ago, I took part in a British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) panel on ‘Can FinTech Make Banking More Human’ in Edinburgh, exploring disruption across the sector.

The Ivy, London
The Ivy, London

7. I gave another talk on Bitcoin and the promise of Blockchain technology at The Ivy of all places in London as part of an event put together by the Tayburn Agency and Engine. Thanks to Nadine and the rest of the team for inviting me down. I tell you – for all the furore about this so-called ‘geek money’, it doesn’t half get you into some interesting places 😉

Swiss Embassy, Bitcoin & Blockchain Event
Swiss Embassy, Bitcoin & Blockchain Event

8. I went along to a fascinating event run by the Swiss Embassy in London on, yup, you guessed it (no prizes) the B thing. Fantastic panel (Mike Hearn, Christian Decker, Richard Gendal Brown, Vitalik ButerinRobleh Ali from the Bank of England and Oliver Bussman of UBS). Held under Chatham House rules (hmm, hate that concept – really, in a world of permanent mobile and social network connection, are we really going to still hang onto the pretension that we can restrict such conversations and attribution spreading?), I can’t really say too much of value about the discussion – other than it was a fantastic event, with loads of old and new faces from the scene in attendance. Interesting to note Switzerland’s drive to become a base for crypto-based businesses in the future as well.

And yeah, there’s been a lot more. But this is turning more into a diary entry now so I’ll wrap it up.

So we might still be no clearer to finding out where this roller coaster will finally stop and what the scenery will look like if it finally does. But to me, the outlook’s never been so positive. As a great man once sung – keep on keeping’ on

This Is A Call

I’ve just sent out a message to all of the members of the Scottish Bitcoin Meetup. In case anyone is reading this blog that isn’t signed up (why not? it’s free! and you get to hear what’s happening in the scene as it evolves in Scotland), here’s the text in full.

Hi folks,

Hope you’re all having a great Sunday.

Where It All Started

When I started the Scottish Bitcoin Meetup back, I did so for one simple reason: I’d been convinced for a long time that we were witnessing the start of a paradigm shift across technology, business and wider society. The exact form that this disruption would take was unclear but it was beyond doubt in my mind that ‘something’ was coming. Try as I might, I couldn’t find another forum in Scotland for people to get together in person and discuss what was coming. So I thought, sod it, let’s just do it myself.

Thankfully, some of you turned up to that first meetup! And many of you have continued to do so ever since. Since those early days, we’ve managed to gather in one way or another for 29 meetups to date, with two particular highlights being the first ever Scottish Bitcoin Conference taking place in August 2014 and Design In Action’s residential Creative Currencies Chiasma earlier this year where a mix of people got together to learn together and dream big about the possibilities.

Today’s Landscape

In recent times, the main Edinburgh meetup has evolved in format, to include video calls with great stalwarts of the scene from around the world. In last couple of months, for example, we’ve chatted with Coin Center, Paul and Michael from the Wall Street Journal and Victoria from ChangeTip (check out the livestream video here if you haven’t seen it yet).

All of this is going to continue. Please do try to make it along if you’re still interested as there’s some great guests lined up over the coming months (and for those of you who keep asking – yes, I’ll do my best get Andreas at some stage…!)

However, it’s become clear to me over the past six months or so that we’re seeing an evolution in the general conversation. The heady days of speculative easy money that attracted a certain type of interest in the early days are gone, replaced by a period of intense work and consolidation across the industry. In part, this is driven by the evolution of connected and parallel technologies (such as Ethereum, MaidSafe, Eris etc) but it’s also being driven by the unavoidable fact that larger financial institutions are starting to take the technology more seriously (UBS open labNew York Stock Exchange invest in Coinbase,Fidor and Ripple, Barclays, Goldman Sachs invest in Circle etc).

I’m increasingly being invited to give talks or get into conversations with ‘serious’ institutions – in common with many who follow the scene. Regardless of the narrative in the press or the details of the specific technology, there is definitely something happening that validates the feeling that most of us have held for a long time now.

So – why the rambling email?

The Future

On Tuesday 19th May at 6:30pm, there is going to be a get together in Edinburgh to which you are all invited. But this isn’t going to be a typical Bitcoin meetup. This is a group for people who want to get together in a room and roll up their sleeves. People who want to code, build projects and businesses related to blockchain tech and – put simply – stop the talking and start the doing.

To be clear, we won’t be focused exclusively on projects that relate solely to financial services. For the most part, we’re going to be technology- and sector-agnostic. We’re simply going to be focused on solving real problems. But at this stage, the plan is to sit around a table and lay the foundations of a group that will evolve over the next few months for those who consider themselves serious (either in terms of existing talents or intention to get involved) about the future of the sector in Scotland.

One important point: this gathering is in no way exclusive. So please pass this invite on as you see fit. Nor is it for ‘experts’ (whatever that term could possibly mean at this stage in any event). The only pre-requisite for attending is a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get involved moving forwards. Ideas are ten-a-penny. This group is all about whittling down some of the best and starting to execute on them. So it doesn’t matter whether you’ve just fallen down the rabbit hole recently or whether it happened years ago.

Without disclosing too much, we’ve got buy-in externally from some big names across the Bitcoin/2.0 scene. And I’m as convinced as I’ve ever been that we’ve already got the talent in Scotland.

If you’re interested, please get in touch. Whilst I’m currently co-ordinating this on behalf of what will, I hope, turn out to be a sizeable number of people, I don’t intend to lead it or dictate the direction in any way. But don’t take my word for it – all will be revealed at the first meeting!

If this chimes with you and you happen to be in Edinburgh next week, please do get in touch. As ever, the more the merrier.

 

Skyscanner Becomes A $1 Billion Business

It’s Friday so it’s as good a time as any to have some good news.

Scotland now has its first $1 billion internet business in the form of Skyscanner. I remember being at a startup drinks event in Edinburgh around five or so years ago and hearing Gareth talking about his vision to achieve exactly this goal. And now it’s reality. It’s been incredible (and hugely inspiring) to see the growth of the business in the intervening years and a real testament to both the leadership and the vision within the business.

OK, this comes with the obvious caveat in that I worked with Skyscanner for a while so I may be slightly biased. But the reality is that what Gareth – and so many more – of them have achieved collectively is absolutely phenomenal. I would be dishing out the same praise whether I knew the team or not. But having seen the inside of the business only reinforces my belief that there is something very special going on within the business away from public perception of ‘simply’ being a travel aggregation site (I’m not the only one to have seen this by any means). I look forward to watching them continuing to grow.

I’ve written before about why Scotland’s such a great place to build a technology company. Edinburgh in particular leads the way, with a rich ecosystem of startups, Codebase (the UK’s largest tech incubator), the next edition of Silicon Milkroundabout landing next weekend, the Startedin group….the list goes on.

Skyscanner might be the first $1 billion internet business, it’s true. But now it’s time to build a few more.

 

Festive Drones Take Off (When Will Santa Upgrade?)

It used to be the case that the focus around this time of the year was only ever on one type of flying machine, usually piloted by a rather rotund chap in a red suit who by all accounts manages to remain jolly despite working the night shift and dealing with strict deadlines and the mother of all rush hours.

But those days appear to be fading fast and it looks like Santa’s going to have to get used to a little more air traffic in the future. Increasing numbers of early adopters unwrapped parcels under the tree yesterday morning to discover new consumer drones before taking them out for a quick festive spin – often with not entirely unexpectedly disastrous results.

I’ll be posting a larger article on drones, their near-term potential and an analysis of some of the legislative hurdles and opportunities in the not-too-distant future. But until then, despite the fact that I’ve written about them before a number of times, I thought it was time to share another great drone video. Filmed in Edinburgh back in 2013, it’s a great example of what’s possible – already.

D’Andrea suggests that by developing this athletic playfulness in quadcopters, the result – in exactly the same way as the process of play serves to develop capabilities in young children – will be that the existing capabilities of machines more generally could be extended.

Enjoy.

 

Startups Central: TechCube Edinburgh Opens Its Doors

TechCube launch

As 2012 draws to a close, I’m convinced that we’re now witnessing the start of a period of unparalleled development in the startup scene within Edinburgh. And no single event highlights this development more accurately than the events of last Thursday night when pretty much the entire startup community from near and far descended on Summerhall for the launch of TechCube

The event had generated a fair amount of press interest, with publicity building from well before the visit of Alex Salmond last month and culminating in recent articles in the Wall Street JournalThe Next Web and Creative Boom, amongst others. Having been in the building a number of times over the past few months, I’ve also previously written about TechCube on this blog (such as here) and it’s been heartening to see move ahead in leaps and bounds between each visit.

As MD Jamie Coleman stepped on stage to declare “We’ve finally got there!”, there was a palpable sense of optimism and, undoubtedly, relief within a room packed with the great and the good of the local entrepreneurial tech community. The origins of the facility lie in the hard physical labour – literally – of local startup community members who donated weekends over a number of weeks to work together voluntarily in ripping down walls and ceilings in order to create something of lasting value to all. So – mission achieved. And, with that ethos in mind, the formalities of the evening were thankfully kept to a minimum but it’s worth mentioning a couple of points from the talks if you weren’t there.

Nigel Eccles from FanDuel, one of the launch sponsors and a significant new tenant of TechCube, with the company having chosen to use the building as its global HQ by basing its 28 UK staff there, started by giving the audience a potted history of the journey that he, and his co-founders had taken to arrive in TechCube.

His comments on the local startup ecosystem itself were the most telling, as he ran through how he and his five co-founders had spent a significant time around five years ago discussing the type of company that they wanted to work for and the culture that it would have within it. Looking around Edinburgh, it was clear that it didn’t already exist so they decided to create it. Too early for these discussions when your business has a grand total of zero employees? For many perhaps. Yet, the reality was that the founding team went through the complex process of reaching agreement on critical business issues before significant decisions actually arose, leaving them with a clear (albeit just as challenging) path forwards.

Nigel stressed the importance of creating a hugely successful business. Why? Success begets success. Instead of simply bemoaning the lack of available startup capital locally, success is crucial in helping other local companies attract investment and, even more importantly, talent. I particularly liked his definition of success as being framed by whether ex-employees subsequently go on to create successful businesses of their own – effectively a validation of business success by the recycling of talent amongst the local startup community. That’s the approach that is required, in my view, to build an effective and efficient entrepreneurial ecosystem. And, in keeping with this, it was great to hear that Nigel intends to set aside a regular time slot each month to meet with local entrepreneurs to share his experiences.

This is exactly why this event marked such a significant point in the development of the local tech startup system. The level of support and potential for cross-fertilisation between highly talented and motivated groups of people has just been increased exponentially by having a physical location for such serendipitous exchanges to take place and this should never be underestimated. Indeed, as Plan For Cloud – a TechCube business that was unusually acquired within only a few months of existence – was told by its US acquirer RightScale, Edinburgh currently has the feel of Berkeley some 20 years or so ago. “Why not Edinburgh?” indeed.

Finally, Robert McDowell, owner of the entire Summerhall Arts venue (of which TechCube is a part), took to the stage to explain a little more about the vision. Stressing the need to strive continuously for innovative and creative solutions when solving problems, the Summerhall venue as a whole is dedicated to Arts, Research and Education – with Entertainment coming in a distant fourth place in the list of priorities. Everyone is encouraged to think broad and deep in working towards building something really quite special. With Polly Purvis of the ICT trade body,ScotlandIS reminding everyone that the estimated 100,000 people who work in ‘tech’ in Scotland generate around £4 billion-worth of value to the Scottish economy annually, no-one should ever underestimate the power of collective action within a sector.

And so, onto the rest of the evening. After another tour of the building, the event neatly segued into the annual Edinburgh Startups 3rd Annual Christmas party, this year hosted in the old Dissection Rooms, with live bands, a trapeze artist, free beer and a seriously tasty selection of food, washed down by smoothies from the ever-reliable Hula Juice Bar.

In my experience, few events over the past few years have ever come close to bringing the numbers of people out to mingle from within the startup scene from such diverse backgrounds. There was a real surge of optimism at the event amongst everyone that I spoke to and a shared belief that something special is now getting going. The level of goodwill  is significant and there can be no doubt that everyone is desperate for the venture to succeed. By its nature, it will be an inclusive facility, attracting increasing levels of money, talent and support with each success – and who within the local community of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, advisors, trade bodies and government organisations does not want to support that?

Massive thanks go to all involved in the organisation of the evening. I know for speaking to so many that there was a huge amount of hard graft put in to get to this stage – and it’s still only at the beginning. But the foundations are here. How the story develops, for Edinburgh, Scotland and beyond is now down to all of us.

Were you at the launch party? Or do you agree that TechCube will provide a much-needed level of support and enthusiasm for the local startup scene? I’d love to hear your comments below or let me know via Twitter.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the MBM Commercial LLP Startup Blog.