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Context is everything in order to make change matter

Picture by Matt Gore iconphotomedia CIO Summit 2015

Myself and a friend were having a discussion over a beer recently about the prevailing fake news trend and how we can be certain of anything. Could it be that a reader’s reliance on headlines, as opposed to the body of articles, means that we’ve lost track of the substance around news items? How can we judge the likelihood of an article’s truth? Could it be that we’ve lost the context behind the story?

To my mind context can be the difference between technology which transforms the way we live and technology that … well… doesn’t. Many tech products that reach the market seem to be intellectual exercises by men in labs that lack a tangible real world application. I was told recently of a young man who had a terrible accident and lost an arm and a leg. The bionic limbs we ogle over on Vimeo seem absolutely extraordinary but tend to be fairly useless. Why would you use a robot that takes 30 seconds to pick up a bottle when you could just use your other arm? The designers didn’t focus on the problems that need to be solved by amputees and instead focused on the Frankenstein-like glory of building a fully functional arm.

Let’s look at Google Glasses for example. Clever stuff no doubt but the moment you put them into the context of a real-world environment they don’t work. Unless you are a resident of Silicon Valley where sporting the latest bonkers gadget is de rigeur. Partly because they are very distracting and therefore quite dangerous and partly because you look a bit of a spanner. Again, it seems like the technologists lost track was what would be useful. If we want technology to be valuable then understanding context is clearly vital.

One of the biggest trends that was touted for 2016 and through to 2017 is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and communication bots. However, the way the technology stands right now, neither AI nor bots have any innate context at all. Although they can return the right sort of answer if they get an appropriate input, it would be silly to think they actually understand the words, or could even extrapolate why they are being asked the question.

Yes, Google’s AlphaGo beat the Go Master last year – and the champion marveled at the creativity the computer exhibited to do it – however, this specialist application of AI took years to build. We are a long way off AI being able to find creative solutions for key business, social and environmental problems. We still need to have people use their intuition and experience to find solutions, and then perhaps use algorithms to automate their proposed route.

Returning to the media example, many computer bots are writing basic news articles, crafting headlines and performing ‘A/B tests’ that find which headline is most appealing for reader’s engagement. They do all this without understanding what the words really mean, let alone whether they are true or not. No wonder the industry is in an existential crisis.

Which is perhaps why some media organisations are reaching the limits of AI and bots when it comes to creating news. Indeed, there is a backlash against this type of technology – media organisations like the Echo Chamber Club, who rely on human curation, are growing at quite a pace which is exciting to watch, whilst gaining the trust of readers.

Equally, it’s important for businesses to fully understand the context with which technology can be useful to them. It’s so important in these politically turbulent times to take note of technology taking us in a direction which doesn’t offer any value or indeed, offers great harm.

Although I don’t see the pace of innovation letting up anytime soon I am quietly confident that this year will be as much about the application of existing tech and how we get value from that is it will be about invention. As well as understanding context and how it applies will play a huge part in what happens next.


Widgets Magazine
About Mike Altendorf 8 Articles
Mike was the founder of Conchango, one of the UK’s most successful digital consultancies and systems integrators. Mike has many years of experience in consulting services and technology, founding Conchango in 1991 and building it into a £45m+ revenue business before it’s sale in April 2008.
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