Skip to main content

Something Digital explores the light and dark sides of the digital age

The human costs and benefits of new technology were explored at this year’s Something Digital, Brisbane’s now-annual showcase of digital innovation.

While Something Digital is primarily a platform to strengthen Brisbane’s digital capabilities and celebrate the city’s success stories, this year’s instalment also served as a chance to have honest conversations about how all of this innovation is actually affecting our lives.

Structured around the theme of ‘Power to the People’, the most fascinating sessions illustrated how digital breakthroughs are putting power in the hands of the masses — but also taking something away from them in the process.

Zeroseven was a proud partner of this year’s event, alongside our good friends at Kentico who offered hands-on demonstrations of their latest products in the Demo Lounge. The conference provided an opportunity for businesses and organisations to come together and challenge their perceptions of the effects technology is having on us — especially around the coffee cart, which we kept stocked with all-important caffeine all day long.

Here are the things that really stuck with me.


Cucumbers and the democratisation of digital

When we talk about the future of technology it can often sound like science fiction, but the reality is innovations that would once have seemed impossible are now more accessible than ever, as numerous speakers pointed out.

FiscalNote founder Tim Hwang, the former director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, spoke about the potential of AI to transform businesses of virtually any size. He provided the example of Makoto Koike, who has harnessed the power of AI for the everyday task of sorting cucumbers at his parents’ farm in Japan.

When Koike started helping out at the farm, he was surprised and frustrated by the amount of effort it took to sort cucumbers by their size, shape, colour and quality, and decided to see if he could save time by automating the sorting.

Koike used Google’s open source machine learning library, which has a remarkably low barrier to entry — just download the sample code, read the tutorials and you’re off — and began training the AI to recognise different types of cucumbers by showing it thousands of images. His automated cucumber sorter was soon working with a relatively high degree of accuracy, and Koike has continued to improve it as new machine learning models are released.

As part of his presentation, Hwang explained that many people who claim to be using ‘AI’ are barely scratching the surface of what the technology is actually capable of, but this is changing as the technology involved gets cheaper and becomes more widely available.

Kshira Saagar, director of data science and analytics at Global Fashion Group (GFG), also spoke about the democratising effects of digital innovation. Saagar explained how GFG’s brands, which includes The Iconic, utilise the power of real-time analytics to change their strategy on the fly and nudge users through the sales funnel.

If The Iconic sends out an email campaign that doesn’t get a good response within the first 30 minutes, for instance, they will analyse the results in real-time and change their tactics, pushing other levers to prompt a purchase.

Real-time analysis helps The Iconic to understand your buying habits and personalise your experience. If you only click on black women’s tops, then the next time you log in, that’s what they’re going to show you. They also know exactly where their customers are in their checkout process, so if you put something in your ‘Wish List’ but don’t purchase it, they might put it on sale the next day.

In Saagar’s view, businesses of all sizes will need to be more responsive to real-time analytics in order to succeed in the future, but this isn’t as hard as you might think — the tools required to do this are readily available and easy to use. You just have to be willing to give them a go.

A number of other sessions throughout the day were also dedicated to the ways that tech can disrupt our lives and workplaces for the better, with highlights including the panel discussion with Amart Furniture’s Rachel Khoo, Transurban’s Luke Abercrombie and Wiley’s Brett Wiskar examining how businesses can see increases in productivity and efficiency by upskilling workers and re-designing roles to complement and co-exist with automation; and Atlassian principal design strategist Ben Crothers’ deep dive into human-centred design.


The dark side of digital

Digital advancements are bringing fire to the masses — but sometimes that fire can burn us, and the speakers at this year’s event didn’t shy away from discussing the downsides of digital and the complicated ethics of innovation.

Berit Anderson, the CEO and editor-in-chief of US tech outlet Scout, discussed the ways in which the early promise of the internet has been betrayed as people have lost control of their data online, and public trust has been eroded after a seemingly endless string of privacy law violations that don’t seem to have resulted in any serious consequences for the perpetrators.

Privacy was also on the agenda for a lively panel discussion with leading technology lawyer Hayden Delaney, Queensland Chief Entrepreneur Leanne Kemp and CSIRO’s Justine Lacey, who leads the Responsible Innovation Future Science research program. The trio weighed the costs of the comfort and convenience that society enjoys today, and argued the degree to which we should be able to choose the data we disclose.

But perhaps the most interesting speaker on the program was Calypso AI executive and White House Presidential Innovation Fellow Davey Gibian, who warned about what can happen when innovation occurs without any thought being given to its potential downsides.

Whether or not a developer has the best of intentions, virtually every tech breakthrough has a dark side. Hobby drones might seem harmless, for instance, but as Gibian pointed out drones intended to be flown by hobbyists have been used by terrorist organisations to orchestrate catastrophic aerial bombings.

Similarly, we routinely put our blind faith in systems that we are told are safe and secure, even though the entire digital economy is built on data and algorithms that most of us can’t even begin to hope to understand.

Gibian spoke about the security risks of AI, and the fact that the technology is moving so quickly, there is a good chance we could be left behind and unable to mitigate against its misuse. As Gibian explained, there is a certain level of naiveté that comes part and parcel with innovation, because we don’t want to think about how the tech we create today could be used against us tomorrow.

Essentially, Gibian argued in favour of innovating responsibly — of thinking things through to their logical conclusions, amplifying the good something can do by minimising the bad, and earning the trust that society implicitly places in new technology.

Of course, regardless of Gibian or anyone else’s concerns, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace and digital innovations will keep coming down the pipeline — and the best place to see them in action in Brisbane will be at Something Digital.