Innovation can come in different guises: genuine technical or scientific breakthroughs (which occur pretty rarely), or progress which enables previous innovations to be applied in exciting ways to new problems, by new people, and in areas that can make a real difference for society. In many ways, it’s the latter that really makes the biggest practical difference to our lives. Here's a look at a week in innovation at Informed Solutions..
David Lawton, Technical Director
What Is Innovation?
Innovation can come in different guises: genuine technical or scientific breakthroughs (which occur pretty rarely), or progress which enables previous innovations to be applied in exciting ways to new problems, by new people, and in areas that can make a real difference for society. In many ways, it’s the later that really makes the biggest practical difference to our lives.
As a professional computer scientist and engineer, I always approach the latest buzzword or ‘breakthrough’ with a pinch of salt and some engineering diligence. The fact is that, for the last 30 years or so, the technical fundamentals of computing haven’t changed massively*: instructions are written by people**, in some form of notation, which are then converted into operations to be run by transistors on silicon chips. Obviously, this is not to ‘do down’ innovations in the way that code can be written, in architectures that promote reuse and interoperability, and in working practices (such as Agile, DevOps and User Centred Design) that have changed the ethos of how services can be delivered. Let’s talk through the reality of some of the most prominent technology trends over the past few years:
The Cloud - whilst it may have been a big buzzword, we’re still talking about software running on computers in datacentres across the world. Why has it been so transformative? With the commoditisation of large scale and resilient infrastructure through pay-as-you-use commercial models, and end-users with devices that are connected to the internet by default, individuals and organisations have ready access to the sort of computing resources that would have been restricted to governments and multi-national conglomerates only a few years before.
Lowering the barrier to that sort of computing power, and the ability to ‘spin up’ infrastructure within minutes, has enabled groups of bright individuals to try wholly new business models and push forward their own R&D ideas in a way that simply wasn’t possible beforehand.
AI – when people talk about AI these days they’re typically talking about a group of techniques and technologies that have been around for well over a decade, which can include:
- Machine Learning, which is based on statistical techniques and algorithms which go back many years;
- Deep learning neural networks, which again using long-standing mathematical models to simulate the exchange and reinforcement of signals across different pathways of artificial ‘neurons’; and,
- Natural Language Processing, a discipline that looks at the way human beings structure and derive meaning from writing and speech (an area that owes as much to linguistics as it does to mathematics).
Cloud computing, with its comparatively cheap processing power and ability to capture and process vast amounts of data, has been key in moving AI into the mainstream.
Both of the above are fantastic examples of really significant advances being brought about not through the invention of new techniques or branches of science, but from ‘tipping points’ which have meant that capabilities which were previously only available in a University/R&D setting have become cost-effective enough to deliver in the mainstream.
An Eye To The Future Across the UK and Australia
At informed, we’re passionate about both sides of innovation. We run our own R&D programmes and maintain excellent links with some of the best STEM Universities in the UK and Australia. We’re equally focused on looking across our industry with an eye to the future in order to seek out the latest ‘tipping points’ - one week in October has been a great real-world example of this.
I was part of the Informed team that hosted an event where the UK Space Agency and the Australian Space Agency engaged with industry leaders to talk about the potential of space technology and earth observation to change how we understand our environment and the impact that we’re having on it.
Hot on the heels of that event was Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference where I and other colleagues had a useful opportunity to get one of the world’s biggest product providers’ take on the direction of our industry. Key themes included the maturing use of AI in businesses (moving from limited proof of concepts to projects that are scaling right across the enterprise), and the role of AI and technology in more sustainable management of our climate and resources – both very close to our hearts at Informed.
Bringing Innovation To Life Through Our Work
I also attended an initiation meeting for the Scottish Government’s GovTech Catalyst with Scottish National Heritage. Informed Solutions were thrilled to be selected as a partner to work with SNH on an innovation catalyst to show how machine learning, earth observation data, intelligent environmental modelling and natural language processing techniques can help to SNH work intelligently with land owners, managers and developers in Scotland to understand environmental risks and opportunities and promote sustainability in some of the most unique habitats in the world.
The latter is a great (and typical) example of the sort of innovation that gets us really excited: harnessing a number of technologies, techniques and thinking that wouldn’t have been possible outside of universities a few years ago, to make a real difference to the sustainability of the world we live in.
*with the exception of quantum computing – if this was your first thought, please get in touch and apply for a job!
** Again, if your thoughts were around self-modifying code/self-configuring FPGAs then happy to talk!
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