ORBIT Lab’s Software Engineer, Brian, was lucky enough to get a ticket for GOTO Copenhagen 2019, which took place in the Bella Center from 18th–20th of November. Apart from being a great place to meet new, interesting people and to catch up with old friends and colleagues the conference was packed with inspiring tech talks on topics ranging from quantum computing, security and ethics, psychology and straight-up nerdy developer stuff such as programming, software architecture and the latest and greatest features in frameworks that developers use on a daily basis. Below, you can read his account of some of the talks he found most interesting.
Stephen Carter from Cranfield University School of Management started out by telling a compelling story about the space race that pushed the boundaries of technology further than ever before from the late fifties to the beginning of the seventies. This, of course, culminated when Neil Armstrong took the first steps on a celestial body, cementing the supremacy of the West.
What we often forget is that the Russians were the first to put a satellite in orbit (Sputnik 1), the first living being in orbit (Laika the dog, unfortunately, did not make it back), the first human (that came back to Earth) in space (Yuri Gagarin), the first woman cosmonaut (Valentina Tereshkova). Furthermore, the first space walk (extra-vehicular activity) was performed by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.
In the following years, NASA developed the shuttle program with the intent to explore frontiers of space and it was all good until January 28th, 1986. What exactly went down is well-documented and Carter went on to describe how management, communication and risk assessment led to the engineers, who had designed the O-rings, warning the management about a fault that with 100% probability would have a fatal outcome. Even when one engineer turned his chair around to look away from what he knew would end in tragedy, they continued the countdown, and one minute and thirteen seconds later disaster struck when the shuttle disintegrated – killing the crew of seven people.
One would think that NASA learned a lesson that day, but the failure to communicate and pressure from various stakeholders resulted in a repeat from 17 years earlier when Columbia was torn into pieces during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The takeaways from this keynote were that there is a difference between conveying information within an organization and real communication. Despite the fact that several engineers raised flags and had the data to back up their concerns, the one calling the shots chose not to act on the information, resulting in the deaths of 14 people. A great example of how poor judgment and failure to communicate can have a tremendous negative impact.
Personal computer revolution
When it comes to people who have had an impact on how technology has evolved during the past five decades, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and a dedicated engineer, is one of the top dogs. He shared numerous stories about how he started Apple, his proudest work achievement and how he views the world.
Wozniak told how he believes that when you build something, you should always build it for yourself. If you have a passion for what you are doing, the chances are it will be successful and fun. He built his first personal computer because he wanted one for himself, and Jobs figured that others might be interested in buying one. In fact, he gave away his first designs for a personal computer for free at the Homebrew Computer Club. He never cared about whether or not he could make money from his inventions, he just wanted one for himself.
Before starting Apple, he worked at Hewlett-Packard as a hardware engineer designing schematics for scientific calculators and other engineering equipment, he was (as he put it) an engineer’s engineer. He loved his job at Hewlett-Packard and felt a fierce loyalty towards his employer – to such a degree that he offered them the original designs for the Apple I personal computer several times, but was turned down repeatedly. He was persuaded by Jobs to quit his job at Hewlett-Packard and sell his most prized possession: a HP calculator for $500 and use the cash to start Apple and what we now refer to as the personal computer revolution.
When asked – out of all of his achievements – what he was most proud of, he did not flinch for a second: The disc drive for the Apple II. The story begins at a board meeting where Jobs and other board members were planning a business trip to Las Vegas to show off the Apple II at a trade show. Wozniak remembered sitting there thinking that he had always dreamt of going to Vegas, but (even as one of the co-founders of the company) he was too shy to just say that he wanted to tag along. Instead, he asked: “If we had a prototype of a floppy disk drive for the Apple II, would that be something you would like to show off at the fair?” Jobs and the others looked at him and said: “Sure, you could come along and demonstrate it if you want to”. The only problem was that Wozniak had no idea of how a floppy disk drive worked and with only 14 days to get up to speed, design and build one, he was under a great deal of pressure. However, he did manage to have the first prototype finished in time for the trip and the design used ten times fewer components and sounded nicer when searching compared to competing products.
He finished up by sharing his reflections on what the good life is in his view: Food, fun and friends, don’t argue with people, it is a waste of time trying to convince other people that your way is the right way, show them instead. Do not regret, if your car gets a dent, get it fixed instead of letting it get to you. I am really happy that I was given the opportunity to see and listen to one of my personal heroes sharing his memories and views on the world. Wozniak is a truly inspiring character and I personally think that we all should be thankful for what he did every time we open up our laptops or pull out our phones to see if we are missing out on something unimportant.
Jessica Pointing, who is currently finishing her Ph.D. studies on quantum computing at Stanford University, gave an introduction to quantum computing and some of the challenges that researchers and engineering are facing right now. She also spoke about about how this technology – if it becomes successful – will change the way we think about computing. By spinning a donut pillow in a string, Jessica explained what quantum superposition is all about and how it can be used when performing computational tasks. One of the problems that researchers face is to find a problem that only a quantum computer can solve, and thus achieve “quantum supremacy”.
On September 20th, 2019 Google announced that they had performed a series of operations with an array of 54 qubits (of which 53 were functional) in 200 seconds – that would take a conventional supercomputer about 10.000 years to complete. Although there is still some critique of the actual circumstances about whether or not quantum supremacy was reached in this experiment, it shows that the field of research is developing rapidly.
Besides finding useful problems that only a quantum computer can solve, another major obstacle that engineers are facing is physical scalability. These machines require a lot of cooling (~0K/-273C, close to absolute zero) to be able to operate, so we are still at the very beginning of the journey.
To put things into perspective, a technology editor for Scientific American, Larry Greenemeier, wrote: The first transistor was introduced in 1947, the first integrated circuit followed in 1958 and Intel’s first processor, which had only 2.500 transistors arrived in 1971. Each of these milestones arrived more than a decade apart. So I think that we can safely assume that we will have to wait a few years before quantum computing reaches a state where it is actually useful. Jessica ended her presentation by saying that despite all the challenges, quantum computing is easy, you just have to learn quantum physics (!).
Designing, building and consuming digital stuff
Chris Atherton currently works as a designer for Norway’s Department of Work and Welfare. She previously worked for the UK Government where she helped build some of the public digital services. She had two talks at the conference where she spoke about how the use of technology in our lives have changed over time, and not for the better.
She says that we are becoming unable to distinguish between good and bad use of technology, and that raises some very interesting questions: Should we build it just because we can? Are we using it without understanding it? The technology was a stick that was used to drive innovation and productivity, and now it has become a drone that hovers above us all and we as users do not care about how it works.
She says that we must put technology under scrutiny, and that also means scrutinizing the design. But what is design? Design is the sum of form and function. Form is easy to understand for most people, but when it comes to function, we run into problems, because of how each individual perceives the world.
She brings up social media as an example: The form is obvious, it fits in your pocket, it looks okay, it shows pictures. The obvious functions are also clear: it enables you to keep up with your family, let’s you keep track of people you know, and makes it easy to share stuff. The business model is simple. It shows you apps, it tracks your whereabouts online and in the real world. It sells your details and gets you to upload all your contacts without their consent. The long-term effect of this is that we learn to always check to see what happened since we last checked our feed five minutes ago.
All these products are designed to induce a fear of missing out (FOMO) because of a variable rewards schedule (the same system that is used in gambling). You have to “pull the lever” to see if someone liked your post and thus release a shot of dopamine.
The question is whether you understand the transaction where you trade in your attention for the promise of gratification at the cost of being presented with content whose only goal is to get to you to believe or buy something? When designing and building technology products, we should commit to understanding the behavior that the things we are building encourages and understand the ethical implications of this behavior.
About GOTO Copenhagen
GOTO is organized by ORBIT Lab partner, Trifork. It is an enterprise software development conference designed for team leads, architects, and project management and is organized for developers, by developers. The result is a high-quality conference experience where a tremendous amount of attention and investment has gone into having the best content on the most important topics presented by the leaders in our community, staged in an intimate environment needed to support as much learning and networking as possible.
The date for next year’s conference has yet to be decided. For more information go to: https://gotocph.com/