Thinking Digital conference 2014 launches with a bold vision of a robotic future

Delegates have descended on Gateshead for three days of inspiring workshops, talks and events at the Thinking Digital Conference 2014

The Thinking Digital conference at the Sage in Gateshead

Developers dream of a time when we can talk to all our computers and get a vocal response – just like the vision we were given in Captain Kirk’s close relationship with his ship’s computer more than half a century ago.

Childhood Star Trek fan Dale Lane of IBM believes we have taken a step closer to inventing a computer that can understand the complex natural language to give us answers.

An IBM developer, Lane is part of team which has been spending several years creating Watson – an artificially intelligent computer system that uses a combination of machine learning and natural language technologies to read and understand massive amounts of text, extracting knowledge it can then use to answer questions posed in English.

In 2011, Watson competed on quiz show Jeopardy! against former winners Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, trouncing them convincingly

And Dale told a captive audience at Sage Gateshead how Watson’s capabilities have been progressing since then, making the system an astonishing source for healthcare, as an encyclopaedic assistant for doctors.

Dale was at Sage Gateshead for the Thinking Digital Conference 2014, as one of 40 inspirational speakers who have come to Tyneside from as far afield as Canada, the US and South Africa for the region’s biggest ideas conference, revealing groundbreaking ideas from the worlds of technology, media, science, industry and the arts to more than 700 delegates over three-days.

Now in its seventh year, the event features a sparkling line up of speakers, workshops, social activities, business lunches and a recruitment drive.

Organiser Herb Kim at the Thinking Digital conference

The conference, which got underway with a series of workshops held at Newcastle University Business School on Tuesday, saw Dale explain how Watson took US quiz show Jeopardy by storm in 2011.

“Watson became famous for getting on Jeopardy. We gave it a buzzer and a voice, and it beat the combined scores of both other players combined, and they were both grand masters,” he said.

“Now, there are a lot of domains where people use information to make difficult decisions, such as healthcare, where thousands of technical papers and journals have been written.

“This isn’t about trying to replace doctors, but it’s acting as a librarian and it’s going to bring the right information to your fingertips, all in a few minutes.

“We are a step closer to how we change we use computers.”

Dale was followed by Brighton-based Aral Balkan, a disruptive designer who delivered a thought-provoking presentation on the superheroes and villains in design titled ‘Free is a Lie’ – and Google didn’t come out of it too well.

His team are currently working on Indie Phone, which falls under a new category of technology that Aral calls experience driven open technology, which takes on the likes of Apple and Google and aims to empower people to own their own data.

He said: “Google’s business model is to monetise our data. It simply needs our data to grow.

“They give us beautiful devices which are half the price of iPhones because it’s a subsidised product, a data entry device to tell them what we are doing.

“The business model of supposed ‘free’ services is the business model of corporate surveillance. You are the new material resource, the quarry being mined, the livestock being farmed.

“Google’s CEO said ‘We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about’ and ‘If you have something you don’t want everyone to know about, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’.

“I want to live in a world where alternatives exist. The real cost of ‘free’ is our privacy, our civil liberties and our human rights and I think that’s too high a price to pay.”

Balkan also discussed Google’s new project, Project Tango, which will see the introduction of a phone which he said has sensors that can create 3D maps of interior spaces, and even objects near to us, giving the firm the ability to map all the spaces that Google Street View can’t go.

He added: “Privacy is not about having something to hide, it’s about having the choice and the right to decide upon what you keep private.”

Further talks by equally fascinating speakers continue throughout Thursday, after Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah hosts an early coffee morning at 7.30am before switching her focus to the local elections.

A lunchtime session involving local businesses, each focusing on the value of apprenticeships and how companies can get involved is also planned.

And after entertaining a record number of delegates, the three-day event concludes with a farewell party straight after the last speaker on Thursday.

Founder Herb Kim added: “It’s been great and very busy – it’s broken all records too with definitely more than 700 people here altogether. Every seat is filled and that’s great to see.”


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