Our technological future is going to unfold much like an amusement park thrill ride – part anticipation, part excitement and terror – according to the presenters Friday at Hacking the Future, the Waterloo Innovation Summit.
Disruption in some of the world’s largest companies, culture shifts in government, and challenges to privacy and security where every USB stick can harbour an attack on your business, home and family, are just around the bend.
But so are opportunities for talented, home-grown engineers and developers, and the indication of a solution to one of our greatest global problems.
All these possibilities were presented Friday to some 220 academics, entrepreneurs and government leaders crowded into the CIGI Campus Auditorium in Waterloo on the second day of the fifth annual summit, hosted by the University of Waterloo with its presenting sponsor Communitech.
The big banks and the big car companies were warned that their days are numbered.
An energetic Ted Livingston, CEO and founder of chat network Kik, threw down the gauntlet for the big banks and the regulators, telling Summit co-host and angel investor Michael Serbinis that crypto currency has created a fundamentally new business model that allows online agencies to transfer, hold or lend money.
The Chinese chat app WeChat is “eating the financial system in China.” Livingston, whose Kik has launched its own cryptocurrency, Kin, which has raised $100 million in a few days from 9,600 investors in 117 countries, said that WeChat does more financial transactions in the five days around New Year’s than all other online platforms around the world do in a year. It’s a new financial model that could make the big banks redundant.
Livingston said Kin hasn’t been approved in two countries: China and Canada. He told the crowd that Kik has been struggling with Ontario Securities Commission regulators, who are leery of the risk. Cryptocurrency is the “next big innovation … Do we want to be at the front of that, or at the back of that?”
It was the day-ending keynote address from Tesla Chief Technical Officer and co-founder, JB Straubel, that both challenged the big car companies and pointed the way to a climate-change solution.
Straubel walked the audience through the electric vehicle story, from the nerds working in their garages, to what could be the largest factory in the world, the Tesla Gigafactory, making lithium ion batteries in the Nevada desert.
With as many software engineers as mechanical engineers, Tesla is not just a car company. It fact, “We never intended to become a General Motors, but we’re evolving into a more vertically integrated energy company.”
Straubel remains amazed that no major car maker has tried to clone the Tesla product, and suggested there is “So much inertia in [the] worldwide car industry that they haven’t embraced the fact that tech has shifted,” making obsolete the internal combustion cars they’re making.
Straubel urged entrepreneurs and startups to join the energy revolution. The size of the energy industry means it will take years to transition to renewables, but as EVs become cheaper, “it’s going to snowball, but it’s going to take time to build the factories to do this.”
He said that the core of Tesla is “believing that this is a change for the whole world. We can’t do it alone.”
Along with the hopeful message was caution about what could be a terrifying future.
Cyber security expert and advisor to two U.S. presidents, Melissa Hathaway, says that GPS, text messaging and Wikipedia, all available around the year 2000, have enabled the rise of backdoor communication, often by people she termed “the bad guys.”
She said that online information curation and transparency means that developers wanting a challenge can do such things as GPS map every unpatched server in the world, setting up hospitals, energy systems and ordinary households for attack. And USB sticks? “When you’re passing around a thumb drive, you’re passing around a virus,” she said.
There are connected cities, connected countries, connected citizens, connected houses – smart homes and smart cars connected to grids. Hathaway said this software must be built with resilience, security and privacy in mind.
“There’s a small window to build security in and minimize the risks. If we fail to do this, we’re putting more and more of our data at risk.
“Do we actually value privacy and security? If we did, we would start designing and thinking about it as though we were the bad guy.”
Asked by Summit co-host and broadcaster Amanda Lang if she was worried about the government having so much data about individuals, Hathaway replied, “There’s no steward of your data. Is it your government or some other government? I assume that everyone has access to my data, because no one is protecting that.”
Releasing government data is part of the cultural shift at both federal and provincial governments, according to Alex Benay, Canada’s Chief Information Officer and Amy Swenson, Ontario’s Assistant Director of Delivery and User Experience. Questioned by National Research Council President Iain Stewart, both Benay and Swenson said the release of information is easy; the hard part is the change in culture for those who hold that information.
Benay said that the old model was that a public servant was doing his/her job well “if no one knew who they were.”
Now, said Benay, “We have to get back to partnering with people.”
“We don’t know the value of the information, it might be nothing,” said Benay. “We have to get this information out, whether we think it’s gold or not.” What’s required is a shift in the thinking of thousands of employees to release rather than restrict data.
“We’ll get farther in solving our problems if the residents of Ontario help unpack them,” agreed Swenson.
Tom Waller, Senior Vice-President of Whitespace, lululemon’s 100-member in-house R&D lab, said diversity was key to lululemon’s success. His team has polymer scientists, molecular engineers, behavioural scientists, and neural scientists, all working together on improving their product. Waller said he has “the greatest research team in the discipline of the science of feel.”
This exploration of neuro-mechanics was supported, Waller said, by “hiring people we didn’t have, primarily scientists. We focused on building a science team around movement, sensory reception.”
Company culture was top of mind for several presenters.
Carol Leaman, CEO of e-learning software company Axonify, and Vitaly Pecherskiy, co-founder and COO of the multichannel marketing platform StackAdapt, spoke about company culture with respect to employee retention.
“With recruits, one of first questions is about company culture,” said Leaman. “If they don’t like the culture, they can leave, and will leave …. You want them to come to work every day to add value to the company.”
Pecherskiy said culture is often misunderstood. In the early days of StackAdapt, “we got our first ping-pong table, but that didn’t fix very much.” The team discovered that the staff liked personal development, and instead of ping-pong, they brought in thought leaders to share skills and knowledge.
He also spoke to the challenge of being halfway between a startup and a large company. “If you are really small, you can attract people attracted to high risk, high return – if you are larger, you have trouble attracting people. You are no longer a startup but don’t have a brand behind you.”
Leaman urged entrepreneurs to be adaptable: “You’re constantly terrified of someone coming out of nowhere and blindsiding you … Be constantly processing your decisions. Being able to adapt is your general state of being.”