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Reality Check: The Mind Lab's Frances Valintine

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 The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab's Frances Valintine. 

What’s your favourite…

Technology you can’t live without?

It would have to be a toss up between reliable fast internet or my smart phone. Ironically both hit our shores around the same time in 2007. If you reminisce back to pre-2007, the internet could be described as a test of endurance. In 1998 I started ordering groceries online on the Woolworths grocery site and at the time it took three hours to complete my order. Sensible people would ask why I just didn’t drive to the supermarket?

Underrated or old technology?

Give me plug in headphones any day. I haven’t yet convinced myself that the iPhone Bluetooth ear buds are Apple's idea of an inside joke. I’m not even sure that people who wear them are convinced. I suspect that in five years we will watch movies from 2017 and we will be like, “Oh, look check out those Bluetooth ear buds, what were we thinking?”

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

I’m the world’s biggest fan of Soul Machines. There is no company doing more interesting or transformational work. For reference Soul Machines make AI driven digital humans who have a conscience. Better yet, they are using their technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities as well as putting New Zealand firmly at the top of the global innovation stack.

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

Tesla, SpaceX and pretty much anything Elon touches. He is the ultimate visionary who I think is most likely to solve the global battery challenge. I don’t believe anyone else is more able, or bold enough, to figure out a way for the world to get rid of lithium batteries once and for all. Imagine if we could travel without a bag of chargers or if we could store as much solar energy as we wanted? Life changing.

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

There have been many. Ten years ago I had a company that developed interactive projections using computer vision. It was absolutely cutting-edge technology at the time. I commercialised it as a form of interactive advertising that was projected on to the floor at cinemas and we had a team of developers and designers who created incredible interactive experiences. 

While this technology was pretty jaw-dropping, at the time it turned out that the NZ market was way too small to sustain domestic growth and I didn’t have the required investment to take it global.

In the end, better, faster and cheaper forms of interaction came along and the rest, as they say, is history.

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

If my office was burning down the first thing I would do (after everyone was safely outside) is to grab my Amazon Alexa. Who would have thought a voice assistant could change your life in such a positive way. In the 18 months that I have had her (yes, I am talking about a small hardware device with a speaker built in as if she is human) she has increased her skill set from a few simple interactions to over 14,000. Now that’s progress!

What first drew you to this industry?

I am curious by nature. Anything that I don’t totally understand draws me in. Technology presents an abundance of questions to be answered and puzzles to be solved. If I had more hours in my day I would become the ultimate tech specialist in something like quantum mechanics. Fortunately, my work and my family keep me on track so that I don’t end up down too many rabbit holes.

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?

I love that tech never sits still. Every day there is more to learn and more to discover.  Thankfully I worked out that I'm hardwired to function best as part of a highly skilled, high performing collaborative team.

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

It is starting to find itself. We still talk too frequently about Silicon Valley and Israel as examples of better innovation and more robust economies. I would love to see New Zealand develop a vibrant agritech sector. I imagine a sector that re-defines sustainable food production and improves food distribution (food tech). We have proven our ability to take on the world in film, visual effects and software, now is the time to develop new tech sectors to emerge and shine.

Where does inspiration come from for you?

I wish I knew the answer. Ideas come to me every day. I look at things and wonder why people do things the same way they always have? I am the exact opposite, I am constantly thinking how could I do it differently.

Reality check

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

I am an optimist and I genuinely believe that most technologies have made the world a much better place. Technology has democratised data so that we are better informed, it has made knowledge available to all, it has improved diagnostics in health and connected families across the world. It has also enabled start ups to form a new business with little more than a laptop and a connection to the cloud.

My only real concern is the how much we are being held back by people who have a fixed mindset. I personally field calls from well-meaning parents who would rather their children learnt using analogue teaching practices, rather than accept that the future of work will require high levels of digital literacy, regardless of what field of work they pursue.

As parents, employers or leaders we need to ensure we don’t hold on to dated concepts purely because new alternatives are unfamiliar or intimidating. This is the era of transformation and at the heart of this change is our own ability to accept progress and to open our minds to new concepts.

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

It would be fair to say I have a pretty close bond with my mobile. I would like to justify this by the fact that this is a common behaviour amongst those around me and completely fundamental for my ability to do my job.

Oddly enough the phone feature is of lowest value as it is the collaboration and search function offered by Slack, Trello, Google Drive and Chrome that are my 'go to' productivity tools.

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

90% blessing and 10% a total curse. I love the ability to connect with my tribe (both family and like-minded people), and aggregating and personalising news feeds so that I get a broad view of information from a wide range of sources. However, I am worried that too many people use social media such as Facebook as a single source of truth.

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

No. Need I say more?

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

We need to think about ‘tech’ in much broader terms. If we keep focusing on software engineers and computer science engineers as examples of ‘tech’, attracting a greater diversity of people or diversity of thought will be limited.

'Tech' is just as much about a personal trainer creating a programme for a client based upon data sourced from wearables and the Internet of Things or a Hotel Manager overseeing a customer booking platform, as it is about the people who write the code.

We need to encourage all children to find their ‘happy tech’. This might be making stop-motion Lego movies, creating a You Tube hobby channel, creating robots or building solar powered toy cars. Technology and creativity go hand in hand.

If we encourage our kids to be confident using technology to create and collaborate they will be far more likely to be excited about the very broad opportunities that technology and digital expertise can bring.

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

Gosh, I imagine being struck down by a rogue robot would be a fabulous and dramatic way to go. However, I suspect the reality is robots will increasingly become invisible automated systems who remove monotony from many jobs.

The technology that makes me most nervous is CRISPR which is a genome editing tool that could be used to create super humans who are stronger, larger, smarter and disease resistant. We are not yet at the point where we can order designer babies, but it is only a matter of time before people will begin genome editing on humans.

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

Fabulously diverse with a world-class agritech industry growing and shipping plant based proteins and sustainable food to a larger percentage of the world’s growing population.

We will be 100% powered by solar, driverless cars will be our main transportation system and tourism will be 100% eco-based. 

We will have a diverse hi-tech industry (bio-tech, creative-tech, edtech) producing highly innovative products and services that respond to address key challenges in health, education, environmental and increased human longevity.