What do you get when get when you cross a long-time technology innovator with a glider pilot? You get a fellow named Jem Davies, who has a unique high-level vision for where technological innovation is headed.
Davies, an ARM Fellow and vice president of technology, will deliver a mini-keynote at ARM TechCon 2016. Davies’ address will describe how vision and imaging are transforming computing in fundamental ways and redefining the nature of digital innovation.
I asked him recently to give his take on what technologies might transform society in the future and how he learned that nothing is impossible.
Davies: The thing that gets me excited is changing the world, and that’s not megalomania. If you look at what we did with GPUs, there have been lots of column inches dedicated to mobile gaming and casual gaming, but what we really did was put a powerful compute device in everybody’s hand. The GPU element provided a compelling, interesting and intuitive user interface. Basically 3 billion people in the world have access to the digital world in a way they never did before.
Yes, we had an Internet before mobile phones, we had platforms to download apps, but to put it all together in a way in which users had an intuitive and functional interface was the key. It’s not too strong to say we changed the world.
Q: There are plenty of people who see innovation stagnation in slowing mobile growth rates. What do you see as the next transformative technology?
Davies: It’s teaching computers to see. What exactly does that mean? I don’t think it’s people waving at their TV and changing channels, but the idea of adding vision to gadgets is big; it’s going to change the way we react to the digital world. Take light switches or thermostats. They’re traditionally low-tech gadgets. People don’t use them when they leave the room. These aren’t going to change the world, but we can make them so much better if these gadgets could see. We’re still locking our doors and cars with metal keys and it’s 2016! I was promised something better than that by now.
Similarly, I think there’s quite a strong connection between vision and security and it runs both ways. What I mean by that is I can use vision to authenticate who I am. My wife recognizes me by what I look like. We authenticate ourselves in that way, but equally, I don’t want my gadgets transmitting pictures of me around the Internet. So will the next big thing be VR headsets, intelligent thermostats or something like that? I don’t know. I’m not going to make precise technical predictions, but I’m comfortable that the underlying technology is going to be big.
Q: It can be tricky trying to make assumptions from the underlying technology…
Davies: I don’t think you can go wrong with watching certain underlying trends and not getting hung up on the really specific end use-case. The one I always talk about is phablets. I thought they were a stupid idea—too small to be useful and too big for your pocket. Who would want those? Turns out hundreds of millions people a year wanted those. And I’d forgotten that half the population puts them not in their pockets but in their handbags. However, the underlying technologies of compute power, graphics and multimedia power, beautiful displays etc. were all predictable.
Q: So with the underlying technologies, where do you see challenges?
Davies: Power, power and power. We know how to do computer vision. Supercomputers do it; it’s relatively straightforward. But it’s hard to do it at 200mW. If we’re talking about thermostats, maybe we need to get it down even further, when you’re talking about always-on functionality. There’s a fundamental thing I’ve seen in my career and that is how the marriage of some technology you’re focused on with something else produces an unexpected outcome. Suddenly when you put a capability into a battery-powered device and connect it to a network, you get a multiplication effect with the junction of these technologies. The whole is greater than sum.
Q: How’d you get into this industry way back when? What inspired you as a lad?
Davies: My dad. He was an engineer. He worked on what in those days was instrumentation and process control for factories, power plants and oil refineries. It was all done with analog devices. And at home, if something was broken, we took it apart and we examined and put it back together again. He taught me that nothing is impossible.
Q: That’s a hugely valuable lesson for an engineer isn’t it?
Davies: I have been incredibly lucky too. I can’t count the ways I’ve been lucky, but I’ve been in a position to take advantage of the breaks that come my way. I’ve put myself in those positions because some people think, “there’s no point in trying” whereas I think “come on, let’s have a go.”