BuzzConf Nights – Controlling the Future

Was delighted to be given the opportunity to present tonight at BuzzConf Nights – a user group style offering from the people behind the BuzzConf Technology Festival which is held in Ballan in November (see my previous post on BuzzConf over here). I chose to speak on emerging technologies and machine ethics considerations in user interfaces – an incredibly interesting area.

You can find the slides over at – https://kathyreid.github.io/buzzconf-night-2016-presentation/#/Introduction

BuzzConf 2015 – Emerging technology festival

Note: apologies it’s taken me so long to write this up, largely because of prepping for linux.conf.au

Buzzconf‘s inaugural event, a 3-day festival, held at Phoenix Park near Ballan, was a unique experience, and one that struck an ideal balance between festival, conference, unconference and hackathon. Produced by Ben Dechrai and Rick Giner, Buzzconf brought together futurists, technology enthusiasts, developers, designers and thinkers for an open exchange of ideas in a relaxed park setting.

Key presentations

All the presentations I attended were great, and the ones that stood out in terms of ideas were;

  • Paul Fenwick on the Future is Awesome: Paul’s talk delved into the growing area of machine ethics, and posed such dilemmas for us to cogitate on as ‘what happen if an driver-less car has to make a decision about killing its occupants, or pedestrians?’, with the punch-line being ‘and if so, would you buy that car?’. Paul’s engaging and influential presentation style had the audience on the edge of their seat, and left us pondering not just the morality of machines, but the morality of man; the consequences for automata for areas like insurance, health care, the military and education are more than a little unsettling. One psychological technique he introduced us to was that of imagining that all of this is happening thousands of years into the future – as an exercise of fiction. By not having to confront the reality of the impacts of machines, cognitively we’re better equipped to think about them rationally.
  • Erick Hallander on emerging health technology: Erick covered key trends in healthcare, with some of the key findings being that UX in healthcare settings is almost non-existent. The simple example he used of trying to ensure rigourous hand-washing practices within a hospital highlight how much bureaucracy gets in the way of good design. He also talked a lot about patient – or user – empowerment in health care now that medical information is more accessible than ever, and the problem this brings with it of disinformation also being readily available. On reflection, I wonder if we’ll see the emergence of a field like ‘patient experience’ – as we have with customer experience, learning experience – and which also has a user- or patient- centred focus.
  • Blair Wyatt on SubPos: Blair provided a live demo of SubPos, an open-source wif-fi positioning system. It operates in a similar fashion to other beacon systems, but is fully open source. I was super impressed by Blair’s technical depth, and his discussions around some of the limitations of current hardware in this space, particularly for information interchange. This is a project to keep an eye on – it’s going to do Good Things

The human body as a development platform

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak at the inaugural BuzzConf, and I didn’t want to disappoint. I chose the topic of The Human Body as a Development Platform because the evolution of computing platforms is something that fascinates me. How do we make the leap from one technological advancement to the next, and what is it that separates incremental change from paradigm change? From a personal perspective, I’d also had more than a fleeting imbroglio with healthcare concerns, and understood the mindset of bodymodders and bodyhackers – our bodies are our own to personalise, augment, and ‘hack’. I set some of these questions within the context of the evolution of computing platforms – how they have scaled down, become faster and more ubiquitous, but how common elements like security and testing are shared concerns.

The presentation raised more questions than it answered – and they’re questions I’d like to do more thinking around in the future.

Side note: I’m finding that Impress.js is my go-to presentation toolkit these days. It’s HTML based so I can run it off any machine with a standards-compliant web browser, and it also means I can easily host it on Github.io, and just push changes via Git. Not for beginners, but it works well with my existing toolchain.

Key takeaways and other discussions

There were many other discussions and elements at BuzzConf that I was really impressed by;

  • Hackathons and inclusion of all ages: There was a hackathon and pitching session running for a lot of the festival, and measures were taken to ensure that children and people of all technical abilities were able to participate – great to see, given that this year is the National Year of Digital Inclusion. It was challenging to find time to participate in the hackathon with so many other events going on around the festival.
  • Peak hackathon: There were lots of conversations around the topic of ‘peak hackathon’ – with so many corporate hackathons and other hack days going on, the market is becoming very crowded, and there is growing dissatisfaction from the technical community. Many feel that their skills are being exploited rather than ‘harnessed’, with perhaps a few hundred dollars prize as the reward for 2-3 days of skilled technical work. My own view on this is that there is a growing distinction emerging in the focus of hackathons. A spectrum is emerging from the civic-good type events – GovHack, Random Hacks of Kindness, Techfugees and so on to more corporate-focussed events or ‘hackdays’. Jack Skinner provides a much better run down than I can. The resolution to this is unclear – if we have indeed reached ‘peak hackathon’ then we’ll see less of these events being run  – a little bit like the decline in BarCamps. Is this a bad thing? Probably not. Hackathons have taken the place of BarCamps, and sure as there’s a decline in hackathons, something different will fill the void.
  • Non-technical challenges of emerging technology: One of the overarching take-aways for me was that many of the challenges to adoption of emerging technologies are non-technical. Ethical frameworks, policy frameworks and regulatory frameworks are playing catchup to technology, and we need to pay as much attention to these to really catalyse change. This was a theme also underscored by the very respected Michael Cordover at the recent linux.conf.au with his talk on law and technology impedance mismatch. We need more people like Michael – and George Fong – bridging the gap between law and technology.
  • Social capital: Events like BuzzConf have a huge role in building social capital in technical communities – an intangible wealth of goodwill that facilitates information sharing, the favour economy and idea exchange. It was clear that Ben and Rick had done a lot of work in ensuring diversity at the event, and creating a place where children were not just welcomed, but explicitly included in activities.

All in all, I’m delighted to see an event of this nature and this calibre on the Australian technical event calendar. Moreover, I’m delighted that it’s being held in a regional area. Well done, Rick, Ben and team – and I can’t wait for BuzzConf 2016!