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Reality Check: TRA's Antony Ede

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 TRA and head of data analytics Antony Ede.

What’s your favourite…

Technology you can’t live without?

It’s a cliché but the internet is in the process of fundamentally changing everything. It’s the industrial revolution of our generation but more than that, we are only at the start of understanding the affect it will have on the world. It’s easy to look at the internet and think that it’s invented already and done. The reality is that with things like Web 2.0 and 3.0, fibre, and cloud computing just to name a few, we are not even close to seeing it’s final interation or the impact of this technology on the world.

Underrated or old technology?

The opensource movement and the specific technologies that enable it are hugely underrated in their impact and they are poised to hugely change how business operates and the pace of change. There is a huge amount of activity in this space. Both from the bottom up with a ground swell of developers looking to get ahead and to give back to the commutinity, and from the top down with tech giants like Facebook and Google backing this model of development. Linux is the most obvious opensource product which already supports most of the internet (among other things) but now much of the bleeding edge of technology is being developed as opensource projects: advanced tech that supports AI tasks like image recognition and language understanding as well as Bitcoin technologies like blockchain.

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

Thematic is a New Zealand startup bringing world leading text AI to people. It’s in a very cool space and operated by a couple of very smart people.

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

I really love a good moonshot in both the figurative and literal senses so I’m really inspired by what the big US tech companies are doing. Self driving cars, people living on Mars and drones delivering my groceries are what gets me up in the morning.

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

Zavy. It’s a social media analytics platform that understands how people are talking about brands and how this is creating value. The team has created a special public dashboard to track the social media discussion around the elections, which you can check out at http://elections-zavy.co.

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

I love IFTTT – not only is it really useful but it also typifies what I think is a key consideration for technology right now. It’s not about building everything from scratch anymore, it’s about plugging together the right piece and adding your own special sauce.

What first drew you to this industry?

I’ve always been into building and tinkering with things. I love the process of taking something that’s basically nothing, and transforming it into an intelligent thing that actually does something. Software really gave me a chance to do this without having to get parts or tools or even leave the house.

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?

I love the optimism, the idea that tomorrow will be better than today and that tech can solve some of the major challenges we face. I love the Arthur C Clarke quote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, because I like to think about what things I currently consider to be magic that will be common place in the future.

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

I think we are still finding our feet but there is a general feeling of being in this together, that competing on the world stage requires working together in an us versus the world type scenario.

Where does inspiration come from for you?

Jerry Seinfeld says that all innovation comes from “what I’m really sick of” and I think that’s right for me. Only when I see things that really annoy me am I motivated enough to really do something about it.

Reality check

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

The space I work in would be completely non-existent without modern tech. Web companies invented the concept of Big Data and developed many of the tools that are now common place. They are also the source of much of the data that powers the alogrithms and products that I work on.

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

The degree to which personalised content on the web is pushing people into echo chambers with people with similar views. This is really effecting the quality of the public dialogue, contributing to the polarisation of issues and the outcome is things like Brixit and the recent US Presidential election. The problem is that it plays right into existing biases and shortcomings of how our brains work. Things like the confirmation bias and the availability heuristic mean we easily ignore contradictory evidence and and assume that we are seeing a fair sample of the different points of view that are out there.

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

I’m a full addict but I also have 2 young children so I have to try and keep control of my demons if only for their benefit.

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

I’m involved in a social media listening business so I’m obviously for it.

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

Yes, I think more legislation is required here. It’s the Wild West out there particularly in the context of how companies use data that they hold on people and transparency of algorithmic decision making and AI.

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

This is a really big issue, algorithms will be a big feature in our lives in the coming years. They could finally be the great equaliser that the world needs or they could take all of our existing biases and deliver them at scale. If we don’t resolve the diversity issue then I’m afraid it will be the latter.

What worries you the most about technology?

Technology is not inherantly good or bad, it depends on who wields it. It’s a bit like nuclear weapons, I’m not worried about them so much as I am worried about the wrong people getting the nuclear launch codes.

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

I think its more likely that Ray Kurzweil is right here and we’ll come to merge with robots rather than be overtaken by them.

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

This is just eight years before the supposed singularity which occurrs in 2045 where machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence. Our brains are designed to extrapolate forward in linear ways but the changes brought on by digital technologies are compounding and so exponential. Suffice to say that no one can shed much light on what things will look like that far in advance anymore but someone, somewhere is working on an AI that can.