“Why does my IQ feel all small?” | Thoughts on Future Decoded 2014 – Part 1: The Keynotes

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend the Future Decoded Tech Day. This a conference run by Microsoft where “techies will get a comprehensive picture of the latest trends in the industry as well as Microsoft’s products & services”. Translated from marketing-speak, this was a technical conference covering several areas Microsoft have been pushing recently and bandwagons that they’re trying to jump on, such as DevOps and cloud services (if you hate your liver, drink every time Microsoft plug Azure). It’s also notable for being free – however, I don’t think that was originally the plan, and the (rather large) cynical part of me believes that they desperately needed more bums on seats. That aside, the entire day was filled with some absolutely fascinating stuff, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Below, I’ll be talking through the keynote speakers and my slightly rambling, inane thoughts on them.

The talks kicked off with Sir Nigel Shadbolt discussing open data. He has probably done more than almost anyone to push organisations and governments to make their data open to the public, and the sheer amount that’s now available thanks in no small part to his and Tim Berners-Lee’s efforts with the Open Data Institute is absolutely stunning. I’ve run across people talking about open data before, but until yesterday I didn’t really appreciate just how powerful it could be and how much can be done with it – as exmplified by the numerous examples Sir Nigel showed, including a website which mapped which companies owned which other companies in the world, and a map of Haiti’s capital created entirely by users contributing small amounts of geographical data.

The next talk was given by Michael Taylor, the IT director for the Lotus F1 team on how much racing both owes and has contributed to technology and innovation. It’s certainly exciting stuff, but as someone who has never really understood the appeal of F1 as a spectator sport I feel a lot of it was lost on me. However, I think there’s definitely common ground between programmers and F1 teams – they both rely on cycles of constant small changes, and each cycle they aim to push just a little bit more performance out of their equipment or a little bit more use out of their product. I’d definitely rather be compared to an F1 team than a ninja or martial artist – but then again, programmers referring to themselves as ‘ninjas’ is a personal bugbear of mine.

The next talk was an interview with Or Arbel, CEO of Yo. Yo is an app which sends a notification to your friend and causes their phone to play a mildly annoying “Yo!” sound effect.
“Can’t I just get my friend’s attention using any other social app? Why should I use this thing?”, you may ask. Unfortunately, that wasn’t one of the questions answered in the interview, and I sure as hell don’t have an answer for you.

That is, perhaps, a little unfair. In this interview, they also showed off one of Yo’s new features: companies can now send bits of content to people following them on Yo. This, I’m sure, is great for the sort of person who wakes up in the morning and thinks:
“Golly, it sure would be a fine thing if someone tried to advertise something to me today. If only they’d send me a distracting notification along with their advert as well, that sure would be mighty fine.”
Obviously, no-one actually thinks this exact thought – for one, I doubt anyone says “golly” outside of Enid Blyton novels – but Arbel and his investors seem to think that plenty of people share this sentiment. I hope I never meet any of them.

On a positive note, Arbel has done something pretty cool and made the API open to the public. Despite myself, I quite like the concept of these little, single-button, single-function apps, and I think Yo is as good a starting point as any for developers looking to make something like this. That said, I’ve not used Yo’s API myself, so I really can’t say how useful it is.

David Braben, creator of Elite and Elite: Dangerous, is nuts. There is no other explanation for why he would spend millions of pounds aggregating reams of astronimical data and using it to create a near-perfect model of our galaxy, down to the last star, and then simulating the formation of millions of planets and satellites around these, just to create the world that Elite: Dangerous takes place in. With an almost childlike excitement, Braben showed how he has simulated planets coalescing into being, colliding, and rings forming around them. It’s a truly breathtaking amount of effort just to create a pretty backdrop for a space trading game, and if it’s even half as complete and immersive as Braben, biased as he is, made it look then I’ll quite happily lose hundreds of hours to playing it.

Finally, it was time for the headline act: Professor Brian Cox, also known as “that science bloke off the telly”, discussing how our universe came to be and how physicists figured out how it all began. In person, he is even more charismatic and entertaining, and I wish I had even a tenth of his ability to enrapture an entire exhibition hall full of people while talking through some physics equations. He is the main reason for this post’s title being what it is – anyone who, like Brian and his colleagues, can find new ways of furthering our understanding of how the universe came to exist and then pass this knowledge on is far smarter than they have any right to be.

The technical talks took place in the afternoon. I’ll probably cover them in a future post, as this post is long enough already and I feel the technical talks are somewhat of a change of pace compared to the keynotes, so they don’t really fit in the same post anyway.