Speculating the Creative Future | A Q&A with Innovation Expert James Poulter

23 October 2019

James Poulter is the former Head of Lego Group’s Emerging Platform team, and the Founder of Vixen Labs which specialises in Voice User Experience.

Considered a thought leader on the future of work, voice technology, conversational artificial intelligence, and social media, we had a plethora of questions to ask him after his visit to the Speakers Corner Towers.

As the former Head of Lego Group’s Emerging Platform team, what were some game changing innovative technology you were investigating?

Now you're asking some pretty top secret stuff there ;-) Well Voice obviously (read on...) but beyond that I often say my job was to speculate about the creative future. How would our customers change the way they shop, connect and play with our products and with one another in the LEGO building community. As such we spent a lot of time thinking about the acronyms - AR / VR / MR / XR - all the R's!

In many ways Voice was a logical extension of that too - as audio is one of the most potent forms of augmenting our reality - adding words and music and sound effects to our world that would otherwise be silent or humdrum seemed to me one of the best ways of making the world more playful.

You moved from LEGO to found your own company VIXEN LABS. What was the decision behind the shift, and what were some of the challenges you faced while setting up the company?

Moving from a giant like LEGO to being an entrepreneur has been one of the most difficult yet rewarding things I've ever done (and that includes raising our two girls). LEGO went through a rough patch a couple of years back (thankfully they're back in the saddle now and we are proud to call them clients At VIXEN LABS) - and at the time I was made redundant I did what a lot of people do and take stock of my situation.

I could go get another "job" or I could embrace the unknown and take the opportunity of doing my own thing. It was about that time that the community I ran with my buddy Will Harvey (Innovation Manager at DIAGEO and another client of Vixen Labs today) really started taking off. We found we had nearly 300 members on a very noisy Whatsapp group and many came to me asking for help with Voice projects. Through that same community my co-founder Jen Heape and I met and 3 months later in January this year we launched VIXEN LABS.

We found some early success but one of the biggest challenges was dealing with an emerging market place. Voice projects were (and still are) by their nature pretty new - meaning client's haven't budgeted for them, don't know how to buy them and have a hard time getting procurement to understand why they should be spending decent chunks of money on them. As such we ended up having to do way more market education than we would have expected, and a lot more time caught up in procurement chats than someone with my temperament for innovation could stand.

For those who may not be aware, what is Voice User Experience and how is this revolutionary technology changing the way businesses operate?

Many of us grew up with the internet, but we experienced it through screens we had to use keyboards and mice to interact with. Then the smartphone came along and showed us a whole new way of engaging with technology. It could suddenly go everywhere with us - and the bit of glass in your pocket could be the keyboard, the mouse, the screen and the speaker all at once.

Voice is the next major interface shift. We are going to see everything that can be voice enabled - be voice enabled. It's the most human ways of interacting with technology (when done right) and at Vixen we are on a mission to make sure we do it the most human way possible.

From voice ordering, to dictation, next generation customer services to immersive story telling and voice assisted everything - this is the next big consumer and business transition.

How has AI changed and developed over the years, and where do you predict it will be in the next 5 years?

I often get quoted as saying artificial intelligence today is pretty artificial and not very intelligent. That may be a trite comment but it often feels that way when you speak to consumers about their experience. We end up shouting at Siri or barking commands at Alexa when she doesn't understand us. We still don't have these ambient assistants that can truly manage our days for us.

However - this is where we are heading. We are looking down the barrel of a future that will have AI at the heart of it - well if we let it. The history of the internet has been giving over privacy for utility time and again. Whether that's getting Deliveroo to your door, a tinder date for Saturdays night or your Babylon Health GP at Hand in your phone. All of this requires us to give up some of our privacy. The story of the next 5 years of AI will be centred around how much MORE are we willing to give up in return the AI enabled future we supposedly all want.

What are your feelings towards companies who may be resisting in integrating AI into the business strategy? Is this something to jump on now, or wait until it is more developed?

Cautious adoption of AI is actually pretty healthy when you think about all the possible ways we could end up misusing data about consumers, even by accident - but refusing to adopt it leaves serious opportunities on the table.

If we want a better healthcare system, better social care for our elderly parents, to fight the climate crisis or to stem the lonelyness epidemic - we have to look to technology to work alongside humans, not replace them. We have to create new business models that use our collective data for good, and teach our next generation how to live alongside their technology in a more healthy way than we see today.

The next generation of employees who come to work in our businesses are looking for innovative workplaces where they are also seen as humans, not just human capital - so if AI can help make us more human not less, then i'm all up for that.

Finally, James, what’s next for you?

I am passionate about helping us not repeat the same mistakes of the mobile and social media revolutions when it comes to Voice and AI in our world. As we build new technology we need to spend equal or more time on building good habits and behaviours to use that technology. We want to create a more human way of engaging with the world - using our voices to do good, transform society and build our economy.

Thank you for taking the time to chat to us James, we look forward to following your future endeavours!

For further information or to book a speaker, call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070  or email  info@speakerscorner.co.uk .

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