Dan Hartveld won IBM’s Watson challenge. but the real challenge is making mobile commerce work
We thought red ants are nasty, bitey things, but Dan Hartveld, chief technology officer tells us his firm Red Ant does mobile commerce. He’s been in the industry ten years, and is pretty happy with a recent contest victory.
Winning the Watson challenge
What has been your favourite project so far?
Without a doubt, the Watson Developer Challenge. Watson is IBM’s new cognitive computer that can be taught to understand human language and the context in which questions are asked. We created an application to help shop floor retail workers answer difficult questions, presenting information likely to close a sale. We won the challenge, achieving global recognition and now Red Ant is the first company to provide Watson technology in the UK. Working with technology that learns from behaviour really opened my eyes to ways we’ll be teaching rather than programming the next generation of computers.
What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
Embedded computer systems and mobile gaming. I was involved in a start-up that used emerging mobile technologies to enhance paintball games. I was using the pre-cursor to the cheap multi-purpose computer boards that are now used by Raspberry Pi and Arduino. During this time I got to program early wearable tech to create battle suits that were photosensitive and could change colour using fibre optics. I also had the opportunity to work on touchscreen mobile computers, just as the iPhone was released.
What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
Wearables will be mainstream, and we will see increased use of a variety of passive input mechanisms. I think our devices will respond to what we’re doing, where we’re looking and even the activities we’re focused on. We’re already seeing this in limited ways with watches and fitness bands. I think the key challenge I’ll be helping companies with is how to accommodate all of these different interfaces to enhance people’s lives or to improve performance. We won’t be handling each of these on a case by case basis, like we do now. Instead we’ll be developing sets of rules and letting the technology learn how best to adapt to each user’s specific setup.
Who’s your tech hero?
Elon Musk – the founder of Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX. For me, Elon has cracked technology and understands how to create and adapt existing technology for other industries. He has made it a habit to look at technology sectors that have stagnated and see them as an opportunity that can be overcome with a different approach and a ‘let’s do it’ attitude.
“The Internet is a fad!”
Who’s your tech villain?
I don’t believe there are any tech villains as such – they’ve all inspired progress in one way or another, even if it’s just because people wanted to prove them wrong. But, for sheer lack of foresight, I think Clifford Stoll, US astronomer and author, can be singled out for getting almost everything wrong about today’s technology in his infamous Newsweek article in 1995. At the time, he thought the internet was a ‘trendy and oversold commodity’, commented ‘MIT Media Lab predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the internet. Uh, sure.’ and dismissed its educational benefit with one word: ‘bah’. As for ‘cyberbusiness’, he refused to believe that ecommerce would ever have value. He did get one thing right, though – people still crave personal interaction with sales staff, in physical shops – that’s why more and more retail brands are seeing the value in giving people the best of both worlds, integrating technology with customer service on the shop floor.
What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
My mobile phone is definitely the piece of technology I use the most and I think that is now true for most of the world. The way in which mobile technology has completely transformed our lives in less than 15 years is incredible and any company that is digitally connected now understands that for most people, their mobile phone is their primary information tool.
What is your budget outlook going forward? Flat? Growing?
Growing in a sustainable way. Red Ant has always been self-funding, and we are always looking to be more efficient and do more with less, so our investment is in scalable technology that is going to see our clients through the next 10 years.
Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
Virgin – while technically a group of companies, for me the Virgin brand embodies the best parts of capitalism. It has the ‘can do’ attitude and adaptability of a small company coupled with the power of big business, which has the ability to bring about true change to the lives of average people. They have a proven track record of making lives better with the services they provide, in their company culture and their work to ensure environmental sustainability, reduction of poverty and technological advancement.
We have to change how we work
What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
Changing the way we’d like to work, so that we can serve the ever changing landscape of our business. In the grand scale of industries, IT is essentially going through the ‘moody teenager’ stage of development – we’ve learnt how read and feed ourselves but now the world expects more from us – we can no longer just do things the way we’d like them to be done anymore. This means iteration cycles & devOps practises that allow the business to get the functionality and benefits they need quickly, breaking down data silos and an increased focus on technologies and practises that provide simple access to data and functionality for all areas of the business.
To Cloud or not to Cloud?
Definitely to Cloud – cloud computing allows us to work how we want and gives us simple access to our virtual world. That said, good cloud computing is about being able to tap into information and interfaces quickly wherever you are (even offline) – this is often overlooked.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
An astronaut, and I still do! I have a strong interest in the space revolution that is happening thanks to a great combination of government partnering with the private sector. 10 years ago, I would have said regular folk in space was unlikely in my lifetime, but with the speedy progress of companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences, in 20 years I hope to be booking my first orbital flight.