The millennial guide to the digital future
They were born into a world of dizzying digital opportunity and rapid change. So what is it really like to come of age with technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data?
Computer say yes Today, tech is everyday, even mundane. But, as seen across these pages, during the post-war period, computers were rare, huge and confined to the research lab.
Weighing in at 2.5 metric tonnes and more than 65 years old, the Harwell is the oldest working digital computer in the world, housed at the National Museum of Computing in the UK.
This medium-speed transistor digital computer, manufactured by the Elliot brothers in the 1960s, cost around £29,000. More than 200 were built, of which only two survive.
With eight online calendars and another eight digital to-do lists, Cameron Weibel, Class of 2014 (2009-14), is only half joking when he says: “I think I’m 30 per cent technology and only 70 per cent human – I do absolutely everything on tech. Without it I couldn’t orchestrate my life.”
Cameron is a member of Generation Z, an entrepreneurial cohort of independent learners with a global outlook who are accustomed to the fact that technology is changing the world profoundly and that that change occurs at enormous speed. According to the World Economic Forum, 65 per cent of children in primary school today are likely to work in jobs that don’t currently exist, and the EU says that 40 per cent of companies are finding it hard to recruit suitably skilled candidates.
And that means that the world of learning is having to adapt, because with so much knowledge available online, knowing how to find the right resources and being motivated to figure things out for yourself is crucial. “It’s hugely exciting,” says Alain Meier, Class of 2012 (2004-12). “There are 15-year-olds who can learn the same amazing things as PhDs – all you need is a $10-a-month internet connection and a mobile phone. So, the number one skill in any high-performing job is having learned how to learn.”
Alain says his career began not in a first job, but at university, where, as a Computer Science student at Stanford in the US, he attended fortnightly hackathons that sometimes went on until dawn. “Eventually I met a guy with similar skills – and interests. We wanted to know whether cryptocurrencies could reduce the cost of remittances for US migrant workers sending money home to their families.”
That idea led the pair to develop new anti-fraud technology and to go on to establish a startup – Cognito – before reaching a fork in the road. “We studied and ran the business in tandem for as long as possible – six to eight months – before deciding the business had enough traction to be a full-time job.” Since then, Cognito has gone from strength to strength, and today has more than 500 clients.
Part of a family of mainframe computer systems, this was one of the fastest, most succesful machines of its era, the late 60s/early 70s, and influenced future computer design.
This (relatively) small analogue computer was made in East Germany at the Technical University of Dresden, a public research institution originally founded in 1828.
Cameron, who studied Computer Science and Engineering at the Eindhoven University of Technology, has put his entrepreneurial spirit to work inside the classroom. With STEAM Coordinator Clement Cheah, he recently delivered a series of weekend workshops to introduce younger students to robotics and coding, working with Dash and Dot and LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robots, followed by summer STEAM camps. “You nurture creativity by creating an atmosphere where it’s rewarded,” he says. “When I was at ZIS, our robotics course gave us a sandbox where I could think about these things. It’s not all about passing on information, it’s about sharing our energy and work experience and giving students a reason for learning.”
Not satisfied with helping to encourage the next generation of engineers, Cameron is working at SWISS to expand the airline’s AI portfolio and with the Lufthansa Group to develop a new chatbot, all while completing his MSc in Robotics, Systems and Control at ETH Zurich where he is applying machine learning to miniaturised medical robots.
In Amsterdam, Oisín Whelan, Class of 2006 (2002-06), is a Data Analytics Manager in Global Sales at Adidas – and change is par for the course. “Everything is becoming data driven, and the more data we have, the better business decisions we can make. In a previous era, where we had thousands of records on spreadsheets, this wasn’t possible, but with billions of records you can use machine learning,” he says. “I work in sales, analysing price information. In five to 10 years, all this is likely to be determined by machine-learning algorithms.”
Living through the fourth industrial revolution, dubbed Industry 4.0, where big data and the Internet of Things have laid the foundations for the spread of AI and smart automation across multiple industries, doesn’t phase Oisín. In fact, he finds the prospect “super exciting”, thanks in part to his degree in Engineering from Durham University in the UK – and because he believes that while computers are brilliant at logic, humans have an unbeatable skill: creativity.
“This isn’t the first time that people have felt threatened as a result of new technology. In the first industrial revolution a lot of manual labour was replaced by machines. Something similar is happening now. Jobs won’t disappear – their nature will change,” says Oisín. “However, you still need the expertise to design and validate these algorithms and to understand the business. In the future, some of our shoe and fashion designs might be generated by computers, but I don’t think computers will ever be able to think like a human.”
Alain agrees. “Over the next five years, there’s going to be huge progress in automating existing jobs,” he says. “But I think VR will be the most transformative technology over the next 10 years. It’s now cheap enough and good enough for people to want to use, and as AI increases unemployment we may have large swaths of the population not working but spending a lot of time in virtual worlds.”
Inspired by Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine, the G-15 was developed in Los Angeles, California, by computer pioneer Harry Huskey, and introduced in 1956.
The Cray-1 was the first supercomputer to successfully implement the vector processor design and, in 1975, was the fastest supercomputer of its time.
His ideas resonate with Joshua von Scheel, Class of 2012 (2005-08), Director of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Époque Plus. Over the past seven years, the firm has pioneered AI that can trade on financial markets such as the high-volume, highly liquid forex.
“The team I’m responsible for programmes the AI, continually improving it and looking for disruptions in the financial market – like the latest Tweet from Trump,” explains Joshua. “Traditional traders have lots of experience and intuition, but they also have feelings. Human emotion is a big factor in trading; people get a rush – a bit like a gambling high – which can damage your trading strategy, and AI eliminates that.”
Joshua studied Economics at Carleton University in Canada before completing an MRes in Computer Science at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, where his thesis focused on business models of AI and trading. “I got on to the Master’s by having lots of work experience and persistence,” he says. “And I did it because I could apply it alongside my work – it was immediately relevant to the industry and what’s happening now.
“I’ve grown up during an exponential pace of change. It’s a frightening thought that most of what I know now will be irrelevant in 10 years”. It places different demands on students; they need to understand future trends and be able to solve problems associated with them, so the most important thing schools can teach is a way of thinking, a structured approach to solving problems and a critical mind.”
Joshua, Alain, Oisín and Cameron work in different areas of tech, with different visions of the future, but they all agree on one thing: that technology is revolutionising workplaces and that, consequently, in 2019, the ability to problem-solve in a digital world is more crucial than ever.
Once described as “the finest analog computer ever made by any manufacturer”, the RA 770 is also, believe it or not, one of the first ‘portable’ desktop computers.
A machine of many firsts, most notably What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) graphics and a mouse. First launched in 1973, it was seen as the future of computing.