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Reality Check: Rush Digital's Danu Abeysuriya

Reality Check: Rush Digital's Danu Abeysuriya

As part of Idealog's Technology Month, we've picked the brains of some of the movers and shakers in the industry to find out their favourite tech-related things, their biggest fears for the future and what other companies and individuals inspire their work. Here's Rush Digital founder and chief technology officer Danu Abeysuriya.

What’s your favourite…

Technology you can’t live without?

Location Services (GPS): It’s enabled so many things that have infiltrated my life, Google Maps, Uber, UberEats, AirBnB etc. I had a weeknight visit to Devonport for a function the other day and there were no Ubers around – getting a Taxi was such an ordeal and had so much uncertainty! Enough to wonder how we did it in the first place.

Underrated or old technology?

DVD. My Sopranos, Band of Brothers and The Wire box sets aren’t going to watch themselves. None of those are easy to stream in NZ either!

In all seriousness, I think one of the most underrated technologies is Computer Vision. It’s an area that Rush is adding to its cap and focusing in on with a dedicated team, technology and R&D programme.

If I asked you which sense would you be least willing to give up, chances are you’d say your eyesight – there’s a reason for that: around 60% of the human brain is tied to vision based activity, with around 20% of your grey purely dedicated to processing what your eyes see. When CV systems achieve parity with human capability, we (at Rush) believe we will see the real power of AI unleashed.

To give you a bit of background, computer vision has been around a little while, it’s basically image analysis algorithms that give a computer system the ability to understand what is going on in an image or video stream – much like how our eyes and brain do this for us. Computer vision relies heavily on machine learning and AI based techniques, but the reason I think it’s flying under the radar a bit is because vision is such a key human sense, and computers are effectively blind right now. The field has a lot of room for improvement, and the big players know it – Intel quietly acquired MobileEye (a computer vision company specialising in vehicle autonomy) for a cool US$15 billion, and Apple, Google, Snap and Facebook have homed in on Augmented reality (a specialisation of C.V). I could keep naming names but that should give you a good idea.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” – The creator of Pictionary (I may have made that up…)
 

New Zealand tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?

Rush Digital and McCarthy Finch of course! But in a less self-serving manner, Cradle.io and Nyraid are ones to watch. Soul Machines as well. I know both CEOs/Founders (James McCarthy and Alex St John) and they are very impressive serial entrepreneurs with tech and business savvy that’s rare. I’ve met Mark Sagar and know some of the team at Soul Machines and it’s amazing technology led by passionate people – always a recipe for success.

Global tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?

The A.I advancement and innovation being led by Google is the obvious answer, but there are so many amazing startups…

One that stuck with me was Zipline drones — delivery of blood and other emergency medical supplies via drone + parachute. Currently used by the Rwandan government they are (1) reducing the time to get supplies (2) increasing access to supplies because they don’t rely on poor or non-existent roading infrastructure. For me, this is what technology is for: to serve humanity.

Tech project or product you’ve had a hand in?

Too many to list! Developing a pay-wave enabled donation box (in the shape of a rugby ball) with ASB Bank for the DHL Lions Series was the most recent really fun project, we helped fundraise for the Starship Children's Hospital with ASB and got to do end-to-end hardware and software product design collaboratively.

Tech project or product that isn’t yours, but you’re envious of?

The Mill Blackbird car rig. Saw it at SXSW this year, too badass for words.

What first drew you to this industry?

The interactive nature of computers - a totally new human interface for doing things. Video games in particular were appealing because of the strong visual elements (I’m quite a visual person). I wanted to be able to create beautiful interactive experiences so learned a lot of about computer graphics and user experience - I hate friction, and video games are the strongest demonstration of smooth and intuitive user experience that you can get.

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?

The speed, the challenge and the overpowering ability for it to “move the needle,” especially for the underdog. We live in a time where the world faces many social and environmental challenges, and technology arguably has lead to some of these, but it also has the incredible power to help us surpass these challenges. Uncovering and tackling these challenges fuels me to no-end.

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

Emerging. It’s still got many issues, culture, and limited talent both in the form of talent development from schools, university and sourcing through immigration etc. But the hallmark attributes are there, scrappiness isn’t a bad thing, but it’s hard to progress through the stages here to e.g. an IPO or global footprint, but we are getting better at it.

We also need to work on our diversity, training and re-training of skilled women into programming is something I’m passionate about and want to make a reality for our industry - it’s ludicrous that we are automatically excluded hiring from about 50% of the population because years even before our company existing, fewer women had considered tech (for whatever reason) to be a viable career but have all the right attributes to be great engineers or programmers.

Where does inspiration come from for you?

Friends and family provide all the motivation and inspiration to always do my best and keep me level-headed when it’s waning or things are tough.

My ideas are inspired by a vision of our future where computers and technology are almost invisible but are a backbone of society and social equity.

My curiosity and thirst for a wide range of subjects really fuels this by (Steve really said it best) “connecting the dots”. I’m a bit of a slow reader but I have “wasted” my fair share of time reading the most random Wikipedia articles because something has led me down a rabbit hole. Audiobooks, Podcasts (Infinite Monkey Cage, A16Z, SYMIHC) etc. and tonnes of news and magazine articles (TechCrunch, Idealog, Popular Mechanics, New Scientist, Time, BBC, The Guardian, CNN, Fox News when I need a laugh!)

Reality check

How has tech impacted on your work? How will it impact on it in the future?

Helps me stay organised and helps me be a better communicator. I can move faster and do things with less friction. As CTO, it’s enabled higher level problem solving in many cases to deliver big ideas, fast with less risk, and go from a 1-hour prototype to a full scale product serving many users easier than ever.

Ready access to compute and compact computers has enabled a new world of digital-real-world touchpoints for us, so the above isn’t true for just software.

What’s been the most concerning change that technology has made to human behaviour, in your experience?

The “bubble effect” or “echo chamber”, and what I would potentially call the lemming effect.

The “lemming effect” is where organisations ruthlessly follow the data and optimise the heck out of a metric to extract profit or performance without considering the big picture - perfect example is a period in mobile gaming where Free To Play got out of hand, where developers would create highly addictive loops and then introduce pain through timers or paywalls that could be “paid through” - for me this was gambling-esq. and personally infuriating, as you want to always be paying for enjoyment not medication (especially if it’s for entertainment!).

The bubble effect, is where algorithms and optimisations are basically showing you more of the same stuff because you like it, regardless if it was correct, healthy or appropriate. Everything in moderation, people! If you surround yourself with people who think the same as you, you’ll never have an original idea, take ten times as long to solve a problem or have quite a one-sided perspective on the world.

How would you describe your relationship with technology? Do you think you’re addicted to any form of it?

I’m not really addicted to any particular technology, but I’m certainly reliant on it and addicted to the field. There’s good and bad, right? I’ve been told off a few times for being on my phone or multi-tasking while on a personal call and I’m now better at being respectful towards the person I’m with! I think that’s something a lot of us can relate to as a “bad thing.”

If you know me I’m a fairly spontaneous and chill person, A “good thing” with technology is that it allows this and I use it to maximum effect where I can. It’s made my life better, I hate over-planning things and tech lets me get away with “rolling the dice” weather its exploring the world, learning new skills, doing something fun or surprising someone, technology is great!

I’m definitely addicted to discovery and the speed which technology moves, I love creating new things with technology and trying out the latest technology – as a company Rush has always ridden the front of the wave, that’s certainly inherited from my natural “addiction” to explore.

Do you think social media is a blessing or a curse?

A blessing.

Do you think technology needs more laws surrounding it, or a form of resource consent regulation?

Yes, definitely but in a very pragmatic way. Regulation slows things down, but there are some broad strokes that I think need to be carefully made.

Regulation that acts in a protectionist capacity, especially when consumers lose out, is bad for everyone. “A rising tide lifts all boats” and this is especially true in the competitive consumer space.

Cumbersome regulation or regulation that isn’t able to adapt is equally bad for similar reasons. Healthcare I think is an area that needs help, the technology is moving so fast, but the organisations are tied down in bureaucracy and politics that the years it takes for good tech to find traction probably literally translates to thousands if not millions of lives saved or improved.

One area that I feel regulation is a must, is where technology can cause undeniable harm. These are probably just common sense but, let’s take AI and genetic testing – both amazing technologies, but where’s the line drawn when you have an AI controlled weapons system deciding to kill or incapacitate? This is probably more relevant in countries that don’t have an inclusive health care system like NZ’s but with genetic testing: how much does an insurance company get to prejudice your healthcare premiums based on a genetic maybe and price you out of basic needs for you and your family?
 

What needs to be done to tackle the diversity issue in tech?

There is certainly a gender diversity issue in tech (globally) – It’s close to home for us, we have a stellar team of men and women, and an amazing amount of cultural diversity (at last count around 17 distinct countries and cultures) – but we’re still more than 50% male. That doesn’t sit well with me because it means we are leaving out different ways of thinking, communicating and approaches to problem solving, and improving that is only going to make our workplace better and be good for business, and it simply not being socially equitable makes it easy to acknowledge as well.

All men have daughters, mums and sisters, and I want mine to have the same shot at everything that I do, wouldn’t you?

The thinking came about for me when it struck me that women have been disadvantaged in the world for so long, that really all our innovation over the past however many years has come about with a pointless handicap – I’m not suggesting that men did all the work, it’s obvious there are so many women innovators and genius’ but we haven’t acknowledged or celebrated them the same way we have the men – in my mind this has to have led to at least a 1% negative effect, which spanning many generations has to have added up! Imagine the potential we’ll unlock when everyone regardless of gender, race and background can have a go at inventing new technology.

I’m a firm believer in re-training. I’ve met and know so many amazing women that have the right attributes to be great engineers and programmers. A cohesive strategy that doesn’t simply rely on quotas needs to be put forward and executed. At Rush we’ve been working on a re-training idea, but that’s got its own issues (how do we support people while they are re-training, what happens if they suck at it etc.?) so we need help, but it’s a start.

For many systemic reasons, the fundamental issue of young girls and women not seeing technology as a valid career path certainly needs a grass roots movement to tackle, and there are so many great organisations doing work in this area like WIA (Women in Animation) and OMGTech!

Simply offering retraining is not going to solve the problem, just as much as simply doing grass roots work isn’t going to get us there completely.

I would love to see a goal and vision set down, and all the major, medium, minor and start-up companies agree to it and work to introduce it in their mind-set and culture. To borrow from Kristy Scanlan and WIA – their vision is awesomely succinct “50/50 by 2025.” From there we can start to form a plan that everyone can buy into, and the beauty of it is that it’s not really going to put anyone out but it will grow the talent pool and with that will come new ideas, new thinking and more pace!

 

What worries you the most about technology?

That we sometimes use it for the wrong stuff. We have a few challenges today and on the horizon in global society and the environment, and I think we could really be doing more but we can tend to focus a little too much on other things sometimes.

What’s your scariest prediction for the future? Will the robots kill us all?

No, the robots won’t kill us, unless we programme them to, or we program them to program themselves to... maybe watch Terminator again to remember how to stop Arnie, ya-know, just in case.

My scariest prediction is that we won’t use it to its full potential and we miss our window to save ourselves from climate change, superbugs and maybe ironically, ourselves.

What will New Zealand look like as a country in 2037?

This is a great question, I’m burying a copy of this issue of Idealog in my garden and I’ll get someone (maybe me!) to dig it up in 2037 to see if it’s come true!

Hypersonic travel and LEOT (Low Earth Orbital Transit) will be a thing, so getting to NZ won’t be the 24 hour ordeal it can be right now. That access to the world is going to bring about lots of great things. We might host the Olympic games?

I think our society will have evolved to facilitate creativity and foster innovation, I think we will continue to be admired for our environmental awareness and beauty, maybe leading the way in conservation via technology.

I think robots, AI and autonomy will have created a smart city ecosystem that makes life very liveable and vibrant where technology sits passively and transparently in the background. We’ll probably still play rugby, or be big into e-gaming (we love our video games!)

We’ll always be innovators, and I wonder if the kiwi boat builders will turn their world-beating skills in materials and navigating dangerous voyages to the next frontier of space exploration.