On stage at Huckletree HQ The lights shone bright on a panel who’s combined brainpower represents as good a reason as any as to why we do not yet need to fear a dystopian future where we are all enslaved by super-intelligent robots who out-think us at every turn – not if this lot have anything to do with it.
If you don’t know Huckletree are the latest co-working space to throw open their doors to entrepreneurs, startups, and digital nomads of all kinds, offering desk space at a reasonable price of £35 per day in the rarefied atmosphere of Finsbury Square (they also have an office in Clerkenwell), opposite the Bloomberg building. They are also a Force Over Mass portfolio company.
With Runway East occupying the basement floor of the building on the right hand side of the square as you look out from the AlphaBeta building (Huckletree occupies their basement) I guess we can conclude that tech startups are still part of the underground, but can be found in all the right postcodes. It’s something of a myth that extortionate rents are driving founders and their teams out of central London – you just need to know where to look.
Although, as panel member David Murray-Hundley, aka the “Grumpy Entrepreneur” asked, why would anybody in their right mind want to commute into Central London from the suburbs, enduring the “misery” of a 2-hour train ride when they can roll out of bed and do all of their work in their “jim-jams” from the comfort of their living rooms?
A genial Martijn De Wever, CEO of Force Over Mass, the early stage investment vehicle that the ex-investment banker founded alongside CMO Theo Osborne, who has run numerous businesses and used to work for the Reuben Brothers, hosted the panel discussion which covered most of the major tech subjects of the day – driverless cars, the rise of AI, smart cities, VR, crowdfunding and our future as a species. Just your typical Tuesday evening then.
De Wever and Murray-Hundley were joined by Sophie Hackford, Director of Wired Consulting, and previously a Director of Strategic Relationships at the “Singularity University” in California, an institute set up specifically for super-brainy people to imagine what the future will be like and then build it, Garri Jones of Numis, also a board investor into Crowdcube, and Gabriella Hersham, the ex-film actor and producer, now CEO of Huckletree.
It was fast and furious stuff, with Hackford describing aspects of the connected realities of emerging digital cities like Shanghai and Singapore as “like something out of Blade Runner”, Murray Hundley talking about a recent visit to Tesla’s offices and describing the impact he expects “Elon’s” firm to have as a “Ford, or a horse and cart moment”, and Jones declaring that the “technological singularity”, the moment when tech effectively takes over the running of the earth’s infrastructure from humans, would come to pass by 2040.
Whilst Hackford cautioned that we shouldn’t “extrapolate the data too far” and the panel at large agreed that regulation; by governments, by financial bodies like the FCA, and by industries was something like a decade off the pace of modern developments, the audience, consisting of geeks, founders, journalists and investors, were treated to revealing insights of a future where 30% of the workforce would be replaced by robots, the question of whether a computer can ever be taught to love, and, of course, the impact Virtual Reality can have.
Hackford rightly pointed out that riding in a driverless car “is actually pretty boring”, and so are the vast majority of developments around automation; necessary but dull, nothing to get too excited about (although doctors who don’t use IBM Watson are out, apparently). VR on the other hand…
A recent experience watching a demonstration in which a man was able to conduct a virtual face-to-face conversation with his daughter, before removing his headset, and re-creating the entire scene in miniature 3D on his table top, “was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen – he literally beamed his daughter in – these beautifully rendered micro-moments were stunning”.
Garri Jones thinks VR spells the end of the car showroom as now that you can shop virtually, footfall is down 500%. And sadly for the super-car loving Murray-Hundley, soon they too will find they are not welcome on the world’s roads, although, the whole panel agreed, London is a terribly tricky city to bring into the digital age. It’s just too damn fiddly and complex – that’s what 2,000 years of living on top of one another will do to a place.
Hersham described the experience of being strapped into an Oculus Rift and asked to jump off a virtual cliff at 830 am on a Monday morning; “if felt like I had been transported straight to Burning Man”.
Murray Hundley was pleased to answer a question from the audience about digital nomads having been one since around 1988 (albeit most digital nomads probably don’t operate out of Monaco). “It drives me bonkers to see businesses with massive burn rates paying thousands each month for office space…why?”
And there was more VR drum-beating – Ometria founder Ivan Mazour’s confession that he recently spent 12 hours with an Oculus Rift headset on flying a spaceship met with gasps of approval. But are we seeing the beginning of the end of socialisation? Nope, says Hackford, human beings will always be social animals.
And it was time to socialise in Huckletree’s café. The food provided by Cookoo, another Force Over Mass portfolio company was delicious, but what was equally mouth-watering was the potential of the company itself, which wants to be, excuse the cliché, Airbnb for food. I make food in my kitchen, upload images to Cookoo’s platform, my neighbours buy it, and delivery is arranged. Surely this has massive potential in a rampant sharing economy.
FOM has also invested into Geo Location company What3Words, FinTech startup Velocity, Health and Education play Gojimo, Gaming firm Technology Will Save Us, and plenty of others. They are making good on their promise to back some of the country’s top tech entrepreneurs, and they are running events for us all to live and experience the growth together – what do you call one of those experiences where people sit in a room together and discuss the issues of the day. A forum? How new-fangled is that!