Analysis: Fake news versus 'real futures'

Steve Birdsall

The robo-taxi, a self-driving vehicle whose passengers can watch television, drink champagne - or even sleep - is for many, a seductive vision. But Wes Lutz, chairman of the of the US National Automobile Dealers Association, is unimpressed.

'We have reached peak absurdity on this topic,' he told a press conference in Detroit earlier this month.

'We are not only living in exciting times...but in an era that rewards bold predictions more than gritty reality.'

Steve Birdsall, chief executive of Gaist

Mr Lutz, whose comments were reported by Bloomberg News, has a clear interest in talking down driverless technology in favour of car-ownership. But he is part of a growing body of people who are wearying of the daily claims about supposedly life-changing new technology – ranging from robo-cars to robot callers that will book your hair or doctor’s appointment - that surface in the media.

Many of us are questioning how much of the ‘ground-breaking’ technological news is real and how much is false? How many of these technologies have a real-world, practical use? In short - how much ‘fake tech-news’ is out there?

As the CEO of an innovation driven business, I know only too well the pressure that companies are under to stand out from the crowd - to demonstrate that they are ahead of the curve in developing exciting new products and services.

But increasingly I am conscious of the claims being made about new technology which do not stand up to even basic scrutiny.

Sure, companies should be allowed to promote what they are doing and give glimpses into the future. But companies who want ultimate success, must consider the ‘real-world’ application of their innovation - how the technology can be used, how it will fit into their customers’ way of working. Is it affordable? Will it offer a real return on investment?

Pothole hype

In highways asset management we hear all the time about new ‘intelligent sensors’ that are set to revolutionise the detection of road defects. When scrutinised, it is obvious that many are over-hyped and based on practically worthless technology which has no real application.

Take potholes. Over the last few years I have been dismayed by companies that are seeking to tap into’ the growing public dissatisfaction in local road condition. They claim that they have invented sensors fitted to cars and bicycles that can detect pot-holes and share the location of them to road users and network operators.

Some claim they can predict where and when potholes will form, before they are even visible to the human eye.

But anyone who has any expertise in road condition surveying and deterioration modelling will tell you that it takes an enormous amount of highly accurate, nuanced data to get anything close to detecting failure before it happens.

Gaist has been the technology supplier to the Department for Transport sponsored Pothole-spotter project and, for several years we have been developing systems that can handle the enormous amount of ‘near real-time’ data needed to understand the location and formation of potholes automatically.

We understand the challenges involved - the need to understand the extent, depth, whether it is a defective re-instatement or not and all the other risk factors that will lead to a decision to act on that information or not.

Other areas fraught with ‘over-hyping’ include:

Internet of what?

Not many people will have escaped the term ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’ which has been pushed heavily as heralding a breakthrough for transport infrastructure with eg. data from IoT sensors on streetlights helping transport agencies prioritise maintenance works.


Over the last few years I have been fortunate to travel the world on trade missions and have been amazed by the many providers of IoT platforms, but I have found only a limited number of credible ‘things’ to connect to these platforms.

This suggests to me that IoT platform providers are actually involved in a very crowded ‘land-grab’ in the vain hope that their platform will be the one that wins through at a time when the ‘things’ arrive.

This is a very risky strategy for companies and one which forces them to over-hype what they have to cut through the ‘chatter’ around this technology. The practical use for this technology is limited and heavily threatened at the moment by internet security issues. Without robust security systems we could put the entire transport system and public safety at risk.

Artificial Intelligence:

Companies and universities are heralding the arrival of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as the next big step change in technology – one that will revolutionise many aspects of work and home life.

I believe that in time it will. As a demonstration of that belief, Gaist is investing heavily into developing systems that are able to sift through vast amounts of data and make decisions that, until recently, only a human brain could cope with.

But these systems rely on vast amounts of highly accurate data and need extensive iterative training in controlled conditions to even start to get anything close to the capability of a human.

In the early days of our work around AI we did a lot of development and produced systems that couldn’t even compete with ‘tossing a coin’ as a decision-making system. I am pleased to say these systems are now much more accurate, but this has come with expensive investment into painstaking research and unimaginable volumes of data.

There are a lot of ambitious claims out there and there will be many more to come. Sadly, the law of the ‘marketing jungle’ dictates that companies must rush out press releases that make them look like leaders in technology and in doing so they are clouding the markets they wish to sell into.

Those individuals and organisation who are truly building ground breaking new technology that will change the world will be keeping it a secret….for now.

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