Wearable technology: next big thing?

It's man and machine, not man versus machine.

As the hype around wearable technology gathers momentum, and the first working examples of such devices are released to the world, business leaders are beginning to consider the impact that they might have on the enterprise. Mostly, such considerations are focused on the fast-moving sectors of marketing and e-commerce; however, I would argue that the influence of such technology could potentially be much greater.

What wearable technology represents is the ability to augment the capability of the human brain with that of a computer, and to allow the two to work more closely than has ever been capable in the past. With ideal connectivity and supporting infrastructure, the technology offers the ability to search and display any information that is available to the enterprise right in the eye-view of a worker. Not only that, but because the technology can see what the worker sees, and hears what they hear, artificial intelligence at the back-end could potentially suggest information that would be useful to the actual task in hand.

At its most extreme, that represents a hybrid of man and machine, with the capability and creativity of the former augmented by the knowledge and computational power of the latter. In some industries, this could have an impact that is not just incremental, but also transformational; in fact, it could be so significant as to completely destroy the business models upon which some sectors are based. The productivity gains are potentially so great as to have a perceptible impact on the economy at a national, regional and even global level. 

This applies equally from the highest to the lowest skill levels in the economy. Consider, for example, the management consultant, tasked with improving a company’s overall profitability – as she makes her way around that company, not only everything she hears, but everything she sees can be recorded, analysed and then compared with the information she already has about the company. Not only that, but the same would be the case for the other member of the team – and, as they work, all this information could be automatically compared to the proprietary economic models that the company holds. Equally, consider the customer service assistant who, as he or she looks at you, can have all the information about your history with the company presented in their eyeline, as well as information about you available publicly. Online retailers already provide service in this way, but the ability to replicate that personal experience offline would give high-street retailers a powerful tool to enhance the experience of their customers.

The possibilities are endless, and other industries that could benefit include the law, accountancy, medicine, engineering, logistics, retail and many more. Yet the two examples above, however, should have aroused the critical instinct in any alert reader. Even with what has recently been a dramatic reduction in the instinct to privacy amongst consumers, most would find these situations somewhat less than natural. Much as all the technologies in these scenarios already exist, combining them in the manner suggested could well be considered unsettling by a majority of the general public.  Furthermore, there are notable technical difficulties, particularly around connectivity, and the storage of information in such a way as to facilitate near-instant access.

Tackling the legal and privacy issues will almost certainly take priority – while societal attitudes are changing fast, for a long time there will remain a significant minority who do not share these attitudes, and businesses will have to be sensitive to that. That means developing business processes, policy and compliance to seek consent where possible, and doing everything possible to prevent misuse of the technology. The real-time nature of the assistance that wearable technology can provide means that connectivity is similarly crucial and businesses will need to make sure that every link in each and any network they use is as fast as possible. That will need to be complemented by a new approach to the IT infrastructure on which corporations store information, with disk technology and management software designed to minimise response times, allowing information to be recovered without noticeable delay.

Social media, data analytics, mobile devices and cloud computing are already recognised as disruptive technologies, with the potential to transform the way in which businesses can be run. Wearable technology is the next step in that process, which can bring all these technologies together, in real time, in a personalised manner and with minimum user effort. However, the obstacles for early adopters to overcome are many and significant, and the process of its development as a tool for business will not initially be rapid. That means that there is time for businesses to properly consider how their industry might be affected and to prepare to take the opportunity that these technologies offer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ved Sen is mobility practice head, UK and Europe at Cognizant Technology Solutions.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.