Hackers: From BYOD to Bioelectronics, MOOCs and Moonshots

I recently gave the closing talk at the UCISA Networking Group's Bring Your Own Device event, ostensibly about the future of BYOD but touching on a few broader themes.  This is a companion post that teases out and expands on some of those themes.  Go grab some popcorn and take a seat - we're going on a whistlestop tour around hacking culture and how new hackers are born, wearable computing, the irresistable rise of Linux, and more!

First off though, here is a copy of my slides from the UCISA event:

[Photo credit: Google Glass, CC-BY Antonio Zugaldia]

Now, here's a thought provoking image:

The world map above shows over 600,000 student sessions on my.Lboro, our portal site, over the Summer 2012 vacation. Isn't it amazing? Here are students travelling to virtually every corner of the world. This year I am confident that every single country on the map will be highlighted. Except Greenland - nobody ever seems to get to Greenland.

We often hear talk about where the next billion Internet users will come from. Well, they're here now! Many of them are getting their first taste of advanced education at this very moment through Open Educational Resources and Massive Open Online Courses like our own upcoming FutureLearn. What will they do with the Open Data that we are creating and sharing? Here are some thoughts from me...

Let's consider for a second what the world looks like for someone who has always had the sum total of human knowledge at their fingertips. Someone like Jack Andraka:

In Praise Of: The Hacker Gene

Jack and fellow travellers like Taylor Wilson (who built a nuclear reactor in his parents garage at the age of 14) have something I like to think of as The Hacker Gene. If you have the hacker gene, then you will feel a strong compulsion to take things apart, to learn how they work, and crucially: to rewire, remix and rework them. How many hackers are unaware of their own burgeoning talents? We urgently need to reclaim this word, which does not mean what the mainstream media think it means. Be a hacker, and be proud!

Why? Because hackers are the people who will program those 15,000 Raspberry Pi boards sent out to UK schools. Hackers are the people who will write massively parallel algorithms to match anonymized GP patient records against 100,000 sequenced genomes to find the biomarkers for common diseases. Hackers will be 3D printing you a new liver when the one you were born with packs up. Hackers also took us to the moon and beyond. Be a hacker, or the technology you live with and use every day might as well be magic. As Jeremy Wallace says:

Right now, hackers are busy making a new ROM for your obsolete unsupported phone, containing the very latest Jelly Bean release of Android. Most of all, hackers made the Internet, and Linux - the operating system that powers 900m Android phones and tablets, Google, Amazon, Facebook, your TV, your TiVO, your wireless router, and perhaps even your next watch.

Is there really a gene? Are hackers born or made? I don't know, but I do know that people can be put off from trying new things very easily. This is why we need to encourage people (both children and co-workers :-) to experiment and test new hypotheses out. Here's a lovely example of unintended consequences from this approach - the smart watch you can play Angry Birds on, and possibly the real reason that Google bought Motorola:

You can read more about this fantastic bit of kit in my blog post Tiny Robots: Hacking the Google Smartwatch. The key point here is that hackers took a look at this and thought "hmm, it seems to be running Android" - wonder what we can do with it? They then literally dismantled it to find out what the underlying hardware was, figured out a hack to let you break out of Motorola's locked down user environment and then started building alternative ROMs with a full Android environment. All this happened within a month of the watch first going on sale in late 2011.

The Next Generation

I was recently invited by the Technology Strategy Board to provide feedback on its proposed High Performance Computing (supercomputing) activity. This a subject that is dear to my heart - with my HPC hat on I'm the Centre Manager for HPC Midlands, one of the UK's regional supercomputer centres of excellence. It was very interesting at our kickoff meeting in London this week to see delegates from across academia, industry, software and hardware vendors all zero in on one topic - training the next generation of parallel programmers:

I recall being a wet behind the ears undergraduate 25 years ago, listening to Professor David Evans say that in a matter of years every computer would be a parallel computer, and that all programmers would have to learn how to write parallel code. I wonder what David would have thought of the 8 core ARM processor that powers the Samsung Galaxy S4, or Intel's Xeon Phi 60 core (1 Teraflop) accelerator card.

Bonus extra content:

Finally, here's a video of my talk (free registration required) produced by the UCISA crew. Hope you enjoy it!  And if you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this post, don't forget to leave a comment :-)

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.