Petrolheads and pistonheads, make way for electrode-heads

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Pop the bonnet on a Nissan Leaf, a Renault Zoe or a Tesla Model S, and you wont find any carburettors, plugs, sumps or turbochargers. No, these are fully electric cars without a piston in sight.

You can still talk torque and effuse efficiency, but you can’t discuss displacement or exclaim over chrome exhaust manifolds. But the electric vehicle industry is certainly breeding equally enthusiastic proponents who will wax lyrical about range, cost of ownership, and electric charging networks.

Oddly enough, the UK used to have fleets of electric vehicles roaming the streets early each morning almost half a century ago. These were milk floats, whispering around neighbourhoods on defined rounds before breakfast, returning to be plugged in each day ahead of the next trip. Their Achilles’ heal was the lead acid car battery that was needed in sizeable arrays that added weight, cost and range anxiety.

Today, the new breed of electric vehicle have replaced lead for lithium; a considerable weight saving, an improved energy density, and a better form factor. But still electric vehicles take time to charge, have a limited range, and come at a price.

Yet the advantages are also plain to see. The mechanics are much simpler with motors on each axle or wheel hub, thus dispensing with gearboxes, engines, differentials and exhaust systems. No more engine oil changes, no more oil filter changes, and significantly reduced brake disk wear as much of the stopping can be done regeneratively using the motor as a dynamo with its integral resistance to rotation.

Having recently attended the unveiling of the Tesla Model X in Birmingham, and travelled there as a passenger in a Model S, I have to say the real excitement with electric cars is the paradigm shift in how new arrivals in the automotive industry are turning the concept of motoring on its head. The idea that your car is an extension of your world of mobile apps, basically another Thing of the Internet, is intriguing. We’re starting to see integrated navigation with your calendar of meeting appointments, the ability to have a defrosted and warmed car autonomously prepped at your front door as you step out to leave, and the a system that receives updates, tweaks, improvements on your driveway without the need for costly product recalls.

Eventually it may only be fanatics that own cars; the rest of us will simply treat them as rentable pods that arrive on demand, drop us at out destination, and disappear off to recharge and transport someone else.  Of course, cars don’t need to be electric to do this, but the change of mindset around range, charging and cost models is driving innovation in how we will own and use vehicles. Tesla may be the vanguard at the moment, but expect Apple, Google and Microsoft to be in this space soon too; electric cars will just be hardware accessories built around software applications rather like an office printer or mouse.

In the future, the electric vehicle power plant may well be a lithium battery, a hydrogen fuel cell, or a biofuel jet generator. Pop the bonnet and you might catch sight of a gold plated cathode or a silver coated anode. Polished and pimped, this will herald the age of the electrode heads…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

 

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All aboard the blockchain

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We might just be about to witness the next ‘industrial’ revolution; one where societal interactions on all levels become completely decentralised (or peer-to-peer, as the saying goes). What does this really mean? It means cutting out the middleman so that people (and machines) can transact with each other in full trust and with high degrees of privacy. Doing so lowers cost, increases efficiency, and opens up lots of opportunities.

BlockchainThis might sound like an iterative change with little impact, and when I first started to look into this I wasn’t particularly impressed with the hype. But, take a step back to look at the bigger picture and indeed the full potential, and it becomes apparent there might just be something disruptive and paradigm-shifting in it all.

The most cited example (and perhaps easiest situation to relate to) is that involving money. Blockchain is almost synonymous with Bitcoin, the virtual currency that most people have heard of but relatively few have dared buy or spend. Ironically it is Bitcoin’s encrypted virtual autonomous being that seems to deter people from adopting it; can it be trusted? Will it just evaporate from my virtual wallet? Does it really have any value?

Yet it is designed precisely to allay these fears. It is also a way to send and receive money with someone directly anywhere in the world without involving a bank, a clearing house, or any one specific third party. It’s like paying for cash without the need of a government regulated mint or central bank to issue and manage the currency.

Blockchain2But Bitcoin is more than this.  It relies on multiple copies of a decentralised record book (a distributed ledger; the blockchain) to encrypt and record the transactions thus creating an immutable audit trail. It is this aspect that will very likely be incredibly disruptive. This is because the blockchain does not have to be limited to transacting Bitcoins. It can form the backbone for exchanging contracts and credentials; like any database or record book only with added security and in many ways greater transparency. Moreover, the contracts can be smart so that actions can follow automatically based on a set of software rules without human interference. An example is that the Bitcoin could be loaned automatically to a business, the business could pay interest automatically to the lender, and the loan could be repaid automatically when the business meets a set of agreed criteria. And if you are a bank, then you are no longer in the loop. And if you are a government, you may find it rather difficult to regulate. And if you are tax authority, you may well be avoided.

Looking into the details there are a few surprises along the way. The ledger is getting bigger by the second, and so as I write this, the blockchain associated with Bitcoins stands at just over 56Gb. It takes a while to fully transact a Bitcoin (around about 10 minutes; considerably slower than a credit card payment, significantly faster than an international telegraphic transfer). It also requires a fair amount of energy; the bitcoin and associated transactions require cryptography and consensus by many parties, and the system has built in this number-crunching cost to ascribe some value and rarity to the currency.  There are other technical challenges as well around limitations and levels of security of the current blockchain, not to mention the issue of standardisation and the existence of alternative blockchains, other virtual currencies and a growing range of  protocols.

But one thing is almost certain. The blockchain will start to creep into our everyday lives just as personal computers, the Internet and social networks have. Currently there are bits and pieces about you dispersed around the global network and before long some of these will become attached to blockchains. You may not ever understand the inner workings, but you’ll probably wonder how you ever functioned without them.

Join us at the Malvern Festival of Innovation to find out more about cyber security, the Internet of Things and where blockchains fit into all of this. And when we go live with our Formal Dinner tickets, as in previous years you will be able to pay with Bitcoins…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

 

Drones, robots and sensors coming to a field near you

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If you live in the countryside you may feel a bit isolated from modern technology. Broadband speeds are often slow, mobile phone coverage poor, and the pace of life that little bit more relaxed. Oh, and getting stuck behind a tractor on the way to work is par for the course.

This is all about to change. Although investment in rural Internet connectivity is generally on the up, oddly enough it is in the fields themselves where the harnessing and crunching of data is probably increasing most quickly. This will also drive data connectivity in the countryside.

Farmers are gathering soil data to optimise which crops to plant when and where. Tractors are equipped with telemetry and gps to log detailed information about the processes taking place during the preparation of fields, the sowing of crops, the application of chemicals, and the yield of the harvest.  Satellite images are cross-correlated with soil condition, ground features and crop history. This is crop rotation from the Agrarian revolution taken to its next level.

Next come the sensors, monitoring weather, ground conditions, environment and pollution around the fields all in real time and alerting the farmer to adverse conditions on a hyperlocal scale.

Drones will systematically, and eventually autonomously, patrol acres of land, feeding back crop condition and scheduling the workload. Couple this with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and soon the land will be delivering improved yields and meeting the ever-increasing demands for sustainably produced food and bio-fuel whilst optimising the use of energy and water.

This is all good news for the society, and we’ll hear more about it at the Festival this year.  The farmer will extract more value from his land, the consumer will benefit from affordable and nutritious food, and the countryside commuter will probably no longer get stuck behind a tractor being driven home for dinner.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Should there be another E in STEM?

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Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (the STEM subjects) to school-aged children is an incredibly important activity if the goal is to generate a more creative and innovative future. Of course the arts are creative and innovative in their own right, but wealth generation that fuels an economy (and in many ways funds art so that it can be enjoyed) is likely to come about through the application of STEM.

And that is where the other E comes in. STEM subjects on their own cannot lead to revenue. It is business acumen that turns a technical invention or scientific discovery into a viable commercial product or service. This relies on a firm understanding of Enterprise, or indeed that of being an Entrepreneur.

With this in mind, I think we are doing students a disservice if we encourage them to think STEM, but don’t teach them about how to commercialise results. Not everyone wants to be a businessman or businesswoman (the Entrepreneur), but appreciating what’s involved and understanding routes to market (Enterprise) that others may follow will help them focus on the overall importance of STEM.

At a recent panel session on the subject of STEM skills held in Birmingham as part of the Festival of Science, the point was made that the term ‘knowledge economy’ is an outdated concept. What is needed instead is ‘clever makers or clever builders’. In other words it is not good enough to just think good ideas, but you have to implement them into something tangible, usable and hence valuable. I would add ‘clever exploiters’.  I don’t mean exploit in terms of abuse, I mean exploit in terms of capitalise. Yes, I know, another E.

Young Enterprise is an example of a school-based initiative that promotes business thinking in students. But my experience is that YE activities are largely done in isolation of the parallel, and equally good, work of the likes of STEMNet, CodeClub and their ambassadors. Part of the problem being of course that there are few people with experience from both sides of the fence to act as advisors or mentors.

So perhaps we should start promoting the other E in parallel with STEM. Let’s call it Encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering, Enterprise and Maths: ESTEEM. How’s that for creativity?

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

P.S. Next Generation Innovators, part of the Malvern Festival of Innovation‘s schools outreach programme, will this year be encouraging students to think about innovation in both STEM and Enterprise.