Silly Con Milkroundabout, November 2019

I went to Silicon Milkroundabout on November 24th, 2019, and here’s a quick write-up of some of the things I saw.

This is a fairly small slice of what was actually going on. I’m a contractor in Machine Learning. SMR is mostly a job fair for companies with a significant tech component to recruit for permanent roles, so there was a lot there which was probably interesting but of no relevance to me. My goal in going there was to talk to some interesting people, get a sense of what the trends were, maybe hand out a few business cards, and find some moderately interesting subjects to talk about.

I went to a previous SMR in April of this year, and was unpleasantly unsurprised to find essentially no-one interested in contractors. This time round, I felt the contractor hesitance was a bit softer than last time, which is surprising given stuff like IR35 changes. Maybe my delivery is just getting better.

This time I noticed a lot of stands for companies and products related to personal banking, money management and challenger banks. Whatever else Millennials may be killing, we’re conjuring into existence an entirely new subset of the finance industry.

Stand-out Stands
What I learned from the people at the stand for Flux is that you can’t recycle receipts. Materials used in their construction and printing make them hazardous to recycle. This was news to me. Flux has the sufficiently ambitious goal of eliminating all receipts by tying them to your banking app. If you’re a Monzo customer, and if you’ve bought anything at Schuh, KFC, Itsu or EAT within the past year or so, your receipt is waiting for you.

I can’t decide whether BagBoard is genius or completely fucking loopy or both. I’m going to do my best to explain it, as much for the challenge as anything else.

Plastic bags are bad, and indiscriminate advertising is bad. What if we give people durable, recyclable paper bags with adverts on them, pay them to carry those bags around, and gamify the process of having people spot those bags in the wild? Advertisers can see the reach of the ads on the bags, and shoppers are incentivised to reuse their durable paper bags.

This is clearly going to be such an unbelievably tiny amount of the market for carrier bags, the market for advertising, and the market for weird consumer behaviour, that it probably won’t have an impact on any of them, but it’s such a clever bad idea that I want to celebrate it.

Vortexa are doing a cool thing I really like. Ships have to broadcast their GPS coordinates and identity to a system called AIS. In principle, every ship should know where every other ship in the world is, so they can avoid colliding. Ships coming into port also need to publish their draft (how high or low they are in the waterline; a function of how heavily-laden they are) to be compliant with the regulations of various waterways. Vortexa are taking this data and using it to predict the flow of oil around the world. Regardless of what you think of the oil trade or extractive industries in general, it’s important to know where all the oil in the world is coming from and going to, and you can forecast this in near-real time.

Clear AI is another one that caught my imagination. I suspect they’re working on a few things, but the one they were most keen to talk about was optimising global supply chains. Even gaining visibility on global supply chains is a pretty impressive feat. This strikes me as one of those subtle-ways-the-world-gets-better activities that happens behind the scenes without anyone noticing.

EmailOctopus are a mail marketing service. I didn’t even speak to them, but they had a huge sign on their stand saying “WE ARE HIRING PHP DEVELOPERS!” I must have passed their stand at least half a dozen times and don’t recall a single person speaking to them.

Digital Insight is building a search engine with the explicit purpose of stalking people. The motivating example I was given was due diligence, so if you were considering putting someone on a board somewhere, it becomes easier to see if they’ve got some conflict of interest they haven’t disclosed. It only uses publicly-available data sources, so in principle it’s just getting stuff that anyone could get if they had the time and interest. They also restrict it to license-holders with a legitimate purpose, and all uses are on an audit log. While the company building this specific product is clearly being responsible with it, it’s the sort of development that unnerves me to think about. It’s proprietary technology, but it’s not magic: it’s built by people like me breaking the problems down into smaller tractable problems, and one day we’ll have high-context annotated searches for each other for all manner of purposes we might wish people didn’t have.

Scott Logic is a consultancy which looks kind of cool but isn’t especially remarkable. The most important fact about this company is they are named “Scott Logic”, which is the perfect name for a technological whizz-kid who has his own Saturday morning cartoon. It’s apparently named after its founder, Gary Scott, who is no relation to the fictional Cilit Bang guy.