Voipfone - The Future Of Communication

Artificial Intelligence

dreamstime_xs_90223059AI is the flavour of the year as far as tech trends go. It’s hard to attend any tech event or read any tech bulletin and not see someone pontificating about it. So I thought it time to add to the pile.

In 2015 AlphaGo, Google’s DeepMind project, beat the world’s best Go player, but last week a new version, AlphaGo Zero, beat that original version 100 to 0 without being taught anything about the game except the rules. This is impressive, particularly when you hear that the programme taught itself from scratch by playing itself 30 million times – all of which took only a few days. In the process, it invented successful moves not seen in thousands of years of human playing. So we have real machine learning, albeit in a specific task. The fact that it self-learned from scratch gives rise to the hope – and the incessant PR – that AI can move from the specific to the general. The geeks have a new (but old Latin) name for this of course; tabula rasa – blank slate learning. Get used to it.

Really wild claims are now being made for AI; it’s going to put us all out of jobs and it’ll do it next year apparently. Neither are true, although the first fear is real to an extent. For example, it’s easy to agree that self-drive cars will remove the need for a lot of taxi, lorry and delivery drivers. The problem is that people are utterly hopeless at predicting the future; we get predictions about the stuff we know about wrong and we utterly miss the things that come out of the blue – the internet and Trump being great examples. I remember seeing a headline in my dad’s Daily Express predicting free electricity on the introduction of the UK’s first nuclear reactor.

And, of course, none of these claims are new, AI for medical diagnosis in doctor’s surgeries was being worked on in the 1970s – it feels like is should be easy, just tell the bot where it hurts and then go through a decision tree. But true to form it’s proven rather harder to crack AI than predicted and some things that humans can do instinctively as mere babies – like recognise a face, stand up, point at a dog – computers have enormous difficulty with.

While we’re on self-drive cars there’s a particular set of very human puzzles for an AI that go under the category of ‘the trolley problems‘.

The general problem is about choosing between bad results – if your car’s AI can save your life by ploughing into a crowd of very soft humans instead of a very hard wall, should it? Should you, as the owner, be able to programme the car so that it never calculates the value of your life compared with others no matter how many might otherwise die? And if it does, who is now liable for the multimillion pound compensation claim, is it you, your insurers or Google?

At the moment, the communication’s industry is wondering what this means for them and there’s a fear that the answer is “not much.” In the 1980s BT introduced something called Intelligent Networks but it was a misnomer, IN was just a set of rules to route call traffic – the only intelligence used was by the human designing the system. Telephone wires and radio masts will carry the data that AI lives off but telephony service providers have no access to the data itself. The winners will be Google and Facebook and the like – those that have access to what is being called ‘Deep Data’ which is itself being called ‘the new oil’. Google, of course, has the entire internet and almost all its users to mine (drill for?) so we can expect them to make the best of it.

As for Voipfone, who knows, maybe eventually AI tech will reach down as far as us. The first offerings are likely to be in the area of customer service, voice recognition and fault diagnostics. But the standard test for AI is the Turing Test which still seems a long way off being passed and until that moment arrives our customer service people are very safe.

And so too are the doctors – for a while at least.

Alive Part 2

dreamstime_xs_68313517This month’s blog is a little late because I’ve been away on holiday. This wouldn’t normally matter as Voipfone life continues no matter where I happen to be, such is the power of the intertubes, but I have been at sea which is one of the few places where the internet doesn’t reach without resorting to satellite technology.

But that really wasn’t the problem, I could have filed my copy before leaving or sent it from one of the many ports we docked in. No, the problem was I had nothing to say.

As it happens I still don’t, so if you’re still with me and busy, now might be a good place to click elsewhere on the world’s net. The problem is that VoIP, while 15 years ago was new, sexy and – god help us – disruptive – is now a mature technology and has become just telephony. In most ways this is good – business depend on reliable and low cost telephony – but in terms of being interesting, it now isn’t; it’s slipped back into being just business. Here at Voipfone our development efforts are still focused on producing new stuff but the major and radical things are now commonplace and increasingly our efforts are in robustness, security and growth. All very important but not the stuff of the front page.

In my last blog I talked about the industry trade event Channel Live, I thought it likely to be as tedious as the last and it was. If anything it was worse. When the experts – of which occasionally I’m supposed to be one – are called upon to speak to the delegates, they talk in acronyms, jargon and platitudes. I find it increasingly irritating and can’t even amuse myself playing buzzword bingo anymore. I’m now not even bothering to ask difficult questions of the so-called experts anymore, such as ‘where does the customer fit into all this?’ I have to make my own entertainment.

Luckily this year they moved Channel Live to Birmingham, which if you remember, I said may have been a risk but it seemed no less busy than London. However, the two most interesting things at the show was a fantastic Lamb raan I had at a ‘real’ Indian restaurant and GLEE.

GLEE is the gardening, landscape and something beginning with ‘e’ event, it was being held in the next hall to us at the NEC. In fact, it was spread over four halls and was at least 5 times bigger than the telco bash. I gleefully signed up for free entry as a potential wholesaler of telecommunications to the gardening industry and spent a happy few hours there. Even the giveaways are more interesting – my favourite was a packet of chocolate coloured chilli seeds which I’ll grow in my little greenhouse next year. I can also tell you that next year’s on-trend colours for garden decoration and furniture are primaries – reds, blues, yellows and greens and distinctive, line patterns. You heard it here first.

So what of telephony and VoIP? Zip, nada, nowt. Sorry.

Maybe the holiday will overwhelm my cynicism in time for next month’s blog, but don’t bank on it – one of the ‘expert’ speakers said from his important platform that companies that still made their own services were ‘so last century’. I got a wince and a questioning, pleading look from the chair but said nothing.

Our on-trend re-seller of other people’s vanilla services is now sat in a stuffy office, in a shiny dark suit (white shirt, no tie) working a spreadsheet and stressing about the next sale’s meeting, I’m on a damn big boat, in shorts sipping my second margarita looking out across the southern Atlantic pondering the next interesting thing for homemade, home grown telecommunications.

Any ideas, do get in touch.

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