I launched Tech Tales after realising how easy it is to feel left behind.
For my working life I have been engrossed with startups and technology. I got the bug when I worked on some of the first iPad apps to hit the App Store. I found in this world a group of people who were inspiring and endlessly generous as they tried to teach me what they knew.
A few years ago I was invited to lead operations for a series of startup accelerator programmes. It was everything I wanted. Every day I was being introduced to tech startups, learning new applications for technology, and discovering opportunities I’d never been aware of. But increasingly there were new concepts I didn’t understand. Acronyms without explanation. I’d end the day with notebooks full of questions and sift through articles and commentaries online until late, trying to find answers.
One day, I was in a meeting with executives from a very large company. We got onto an application of a new technology and everyone was very excited. It was going to revolutionise the way they did business. I just didn’t follow, I couldn’t see how it was relevant. Without thinking, I raised my hand:
“Could someone explain this to me?”
Total. Silence. I felt like an idiot.
“Thank God you said something”
And that’s when it clicked for me. Technology advances at such a clip, we’re not meant to keep up with everything. We know that, and yet we so often miss opportunities to bring others along with us. When listening to leaders about how a company could evolve, I saw how buzzwords would make the rest of the group increasingly quiet, like this was not a conversation they could participate in. Startup founders I met would struggle to explain their products to non-techies, seemingly weighed down by their expertise or obligation to technical truths.
Explaining an evolving technology is hard. Definitions are still changing. Technical materials can be so dry anyone other than an expert will meet you with a glazed look. Yet it doesn’t have to be like that. Every invention, every application is abounding with absurdities, curiosities and human stories.
Take robots. Japan see advanced robots as the solution to caring for its increasingly elderly population. But automation is not just limited to care home and hospitals. Fancy checking into your hotel and being greeted by a velociraptor? It’s your lucky day at this robot hotel in Japan. The word “robot” is actually from the Czech word robota, meaning “servitude”, “forced labour” or “drudgery”. If that sounds dramatic, that’s because it is — the word was introduced to English from a Karel Čapek play, R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which describes a rebellion led by artificial humans. In real life, they might not need an uprising to take over — 800 million of us could be displaced by automation as soon as 2030, as predicted by one McKinsey report. South Korea are showcasing their robotic expertise in this year’s Winter Olympics. Apparently they even have schools of autonomous fish enlivening things with underwater formations — they may look like these (though hopefully a little less Terminator)…
Doesn’t that pique your interest? Robots are not just about mechanical engineering problems (although some of those challenges are fascinating). There are economic considerations too, legal challenges, and ethics to navigate when thinking of the future of automation. You don’t need to be highly technical to start learning more about these ideas.
I set up Tech Tales to help people learn about and explain technology. It’s about uncovering stories of invention and uniquely interesting explanations. True, trying to define technology is like trying to grasp water in your hands. By “new technology” I could mean phones, computers, algorithms for retail pricing, our clothes, kitchen utensils, cars, the food on my plate. But that’s what makes technology so universally human. Technology is something we all do — solving problems. It’s how the things we’ve learnt from science, engineering, mathematics — even the arts — become useful. We know the power of radio waves from scientific study; technological experimentation has given us the microwave oven.
So long as our needs and our knowledge keep expanding, technology will never stop. Tech is in the business of changing our lives and so we should all be able to have a say on how we use our inventions. I don’t believe technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence have to be inaccessible. I believe there are ways to explain them and make them relevant to anyone. And with Tech Tales, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.
“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories” — Laurie Anderson (Artist, Composer, Musician, Film Director)