Your dog is a double agent - Emad Tahtouh - Sandpit

Your dog is a double agent – Emad Tahtouh

Interviews / 24 February 2016

by Dan Koerner

Emad Tahtouh is Director of Applied Technology at FINCH where he develops and curates technology solutions in both practical and creative capacities. Two of the most talked about projects Emad has worked on are The Most Powerful Arm for charity Save Our Sons and 37 Degrees.

During his time at FINCH, Emad has judged at Cannes, Spikes and AWARD and has presented at Cannes, Spikes, SXSW and SAWA. His team at FINCH have worked on several technical projects including bringing a robot orchestra to life for Intel’s Intelligent Sounds campaign with recording artist, Flume.

We spoke to Emad from FINCH’s workshop in Sydney.


What were the things that obsessed you at the ages 5, 15 and 30?

I don’t know what I was doing at 5 years old but I was quite heavily into building stuff. I got obsessed with Mecano, Lego and jigsaw puzzles. I seemed to have an obsession from a young age for anything tangible and building related. At 15 it was most definitely computers. I bought my first computer in grade 5, which was a 286, awesome computer. Then I built my first computer when I was about 13. At 15 I started running a computer repair service. I’d advertise in the Computer Trader, and my dad would drive me around. I’d go fixing people’s computers for 50 bucks. 30 wasn’t that long ago for me, I turn 34 this year so, 4 years ago I was just coming off my obsession with poker I guess. I was a professional poker player for 6 years. I was sponsored by Poker Stars and we’d travel around and play at all the tournaments. That was my obsession, but then I stopped doing that when we started FINCH. It was right at that point that I switched from poker back into technology, which was always my first love.

Is there any carry over from that career, conceptually into what you’re doing now?

Quite a bit! Poker’s a very analytical and skilful game. To people who don’t play professionally or seriously – it can look like just gambling and luck. When you delve a bit deeper you realise that it’s a lot more than that. It’s very mathematical and analytical and every play has purpose behind it. You really need to understand the people you’re playing against – their skillset, their mindset. On top of that, you need to be able to analyse very quickly on the spot.

The analytical part comes in very handy with anything to do with technology especially when it comes to building something that hasn’t been built before, or just theorising on tech. You quite often have to start thinking about worse case scenarios and contingencies. Then you throw budgets and schedules into the mix, and all of a sudden, your whole day becomes math. Human analysis comes in incredibly handy as well – trying to work out what people want or what they think they want.

Your background is very self-taught – making it up as you’ve gone along. Would you say that’s correct?

Yeah, I make everything up as I go along and then I just hope it’s right and falls into place.

How do you think that sets you apart from someone who has come at it as a career electrical engineer for example?

Like I said, I became obsessed with computers at a young age. At that time there wasn’t really much in the way of education specifically tailored towards IT. I remember when I was in high school; there were only 2 courses in VCE that were tailored to IT. One of them was information technology and the other one was information systems. ‘Information technology’ was about how to use a computer, and ‘information systems’ was basically about how to build a computer. Everything they were teaching in information technology, I kind of already knew.

Every now and again, I’d just consult on a few things with Rob Galluzzo. Basically we’d just have a chat, nothing really formal. Then I worked on “The Poker Star” series and really enjoyed the whole production process. Rob said to me, “Look, if you ever get tired of poker, I think there’s something we could do. Advertising and production is moving more and more into the digital and tech space, and there isn’t really anyone who’s capitalising on it.” And then it just happened. The “stars” aligned when Rob decided to open FINCH. I’d lost my sponsorship contract, because Poker Stars had to pull out of the Australian market, and they cancelled all contracts. I was sort of floating around, just playing poker on my own without a sponsorship deal, and was kind of tired of it anyway. Then Rob said, "Well why don’t you move to Sydney and just head up tech at FINCH?”

I came on-board as a partner and head of technology, not really knowing what we were going to do. The good thing was at the time, which is 4 years ago now, was that there really wasn’t anyone else doing anything like we were doing so we could kind of make it up as we went along. Then we found something that was really interesting – the 3D cinema stuff, which we used to build on for the Pedigree Adoption Drive campaign with the glasses and split screen. It all took off from there I guess.

In terms of the creative work at FINCH, what – from an audience’s perspective – has been the most satisfying job that you’ve done?

The one that I got the most satisfaction out of was Pedigree. I actually went to the cinema for the first screening of it, which was also just before The Avengers. I went and hid in the front row, then our ad came up. I turned around and watched everyone put on their glasses.  I was just sitting there with kind of, giddy excitement and slightly terrified, because we’d never tested it in that particular cinema before. Trying to run that technology on 3D projectors can be hit or miss, depending on how good the projector is. Luckily the projector was perfect, and I turned around and just watched everyone’s reaction first hand, to them putting on these glasses and watching a film, then looking around and hearing “oohs and ahhs” from everyone else in the audience and the penny dropped, it was instantaneous. I could probably pick the exact point in the film where the penny dropped – it was when Buzz’s chain gets taken off his neck and it’s all bloody and covered in fur. Everyone realized, “Shit, what I’m watching isn’t what some other people are watching.” Then everyone started switching glasses, and that was amazing. To see that first hand was the single most satisfying moment I’ve had in my career so far.

As far as a campaign that I’ve got the most satisfaction with, it’s gotta be The Most Powerful Arm. That was quite a labour of love. It was very intensive, lots of late, sleepless nights getting the tech right. I could tell a million stories about failures leading up to the launch and me having sleepless nights watching the live stream from my bed, making sure things didn’t crash. But then to see that succeed and get 32,000 signatures, and the amount of press it generated – the amount of good it did for the charity – that is definitely the most satisfying campaign I think we’ve built.


Felix (the robot) from the Intel Intelligent Sounds campaign.

What are the things you do to stay creatively fit?

I do the usual stuff, which is as much research as I can. Reading blogs. I’ve got about 20 pages bookmarked in my tech folder in Chrome. Every morning I command click and open every single tab, then just sift through them and pick out the ones that are clearly getting the most traction. Staying on top of tech is my number 1.

Very low on the list is watching what other people are doing. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong at this stage but I think that if there’s anything ground-breaking, I’m going hear about it pretty quickly. There’s a lot of stuff out there. Sometimes it’s very hard to sift through the bullshit and the scams, so I don’t really want to waste my time trying to ascertain how much of it’s real or not. I don’t spend much time looking at competitors or other campaigns that are going around. That’s not to say that I don’t end up seeing them, I just don’t actively look for them day to day.

I also try to work on the tools as much as I can which is harder and harder every day, because I end up doing a lot more stuff like this. I do a lot more face to face with agencies, presentations and judging, so my time becomes very valuable and scarce these days. I don’t really get a chance to sit down, solder and put stuff together or do any coding – not that I can code to save my life. I’ve got a lab of 8 engineers and a myriad of amazing tools so whenever I get a chance; I put myself in the action and ask people what they’re doing. Then I jump on the tools and start working with it, and stay up to date with the latest coding practices and technologies that are available.

The 3rd thing I guess is just keeping my mind sharp. I think gaming’s a really good way to keep your mind sharp. I’ve got a game that I’m hooked on at the moment called “Hearthstone” which is incredibly challenging and analytical. I won’t go into the details of it but you’re constantly thinking ahead to every hand and thinking, “which card should I play and what does the opponent have?” I think that keeps you thinking very quickly, and keeps your mind sharp.

What technologies do you think will matter to us in 10 years from now?

I try not to stargaze too much because I think the theory behind it is a little flawed, especially in our industry. People are always trying to look to the future as a hint for what they should be working on now which I think can be a huge mistake. If you’re trying to build something that’s going to be relevant in 10 years from now, chances are in 6 months it’s going be far easier to build it. It’s counter intuitive, but you’re always behind the 8 ball if you’re looking too far ahead and trying to build for that because you’ll be building something that’s going to very quickly become redundant. I try to work in the moment with all the tools that are currently available.

Having said that, the tech that I’m currently fascinated by, and really excited to see develop is basically everything in the automation world. Drones are a great example. They only really came out about 5 years ago publicly, the AR drone was probably the first one. Now just seeing everything that’s being done with them, like how incredibly good they are at stabilisation or how good they are at being able to follow a GPS route and now putting high res cameras on them – they’re reaching a point where you can completely automate them, and get them to do some pretty incredible things.

Driver-less cars are another fascinating piece of technology to me at the moment. We’re really entering a world where a lot of our day-to-day, mundane, boring tasks that waste a lot of our time, are going to become automated which is exciting, if you think about driver-less cars for example. Google is obviously leading that, but Tesla came out and announced that theirs is coming soon, and is not only going be available in new cars but be backwards compatible in old cars too. You’ll be able to do a firmware update, and make it driver-less – which is phenomenal. Then Google asks, “What does that mean for the taxi industry?” and starts making driver-less cars but decide that they don’t really need to make a profit from it. So they build an Uber-like app, where you can select your driver-less car that then comes and picks you up. It takes you to your destination, and then the car itself goes and refuels or recharges itself. Now we’ve got a totally automated transportation world. Thinking about that progression, and the fact that that’s right around the corner – not even in ten years, it’s probably more like 3 or 4 years – is very exciting to me.

What’s one technology in your field that you’re working with that is so embedded it’s hard to imagine it not being there?

It’s probably not a specific technology, but I’d say small board computers like Arduino or Raspberry Pi. They’re all intrinsically linked to a more general technology, which is miniaturization. The fact that everything is becoming incredibly cheap, small and efficient is great. If you look at almost every campaign we’ve built, it uses a piece of that technology, especially Arduino. You can get them now for $1.50 and you can to do pretty much whatever you want as far as controlling objects and sensing for stuff.

We used one to power The Most Powerful Arm to analyse code and turn it into handwriting. They’re so cheap and readily available. Small board computers and the maker movement is the reason why things like 3D printers are becoming more affordable and therefore accessible. It’s the reason why drones are so cheap and so abundant too. It all comes back to the miniaturisation and abundance of small board computers and how cheap and easy they are to manufacture. Take those out of the equation, and we’re kinda fucked.

When have you worked with a technology and realised that it just didn’t cut the mustard?

There’s a couple. Augmented Reality is almost there, it’s a bit clunky and I haven’t seen an application of it yet that’s ground-breaking enough. Same with virtual reality at the moment, it’s still very, very young so that’s to be expected. Everyone’s losing their minds over it. We’re working on a couple of different VR things here at the moment and we’ve built a couple in the past. I think VR has a nice wow factor, but it’s one of those things that’s nice if you’ve never seen it before but then as far as longevity and an actual usefulness for it, no one’s really cracked it just yet. No one’s cracked a real reason for you to go home and put on an Oculus Rift and actually use it day-to-day or the Galaxy, or Google Cardboard. Aside from the novelty factor, I still don’t see a reason to use them. That said, I think we’re getting close to being able to do that.

So you think AR is dead in the water?

No not at all. I don’t think it’s dead, I think it’s just very, very young. It’s a baby that’s only just started to crawl. We’re going to see it start walking soon, and then when it starts running, it will be amazing. I think it’s just too early to get that excited about it. Maybe that’s going back to the point I mentioned earlier about stargazing too far ahead. The advancements in virtual reality are happening so fast that I’d prefer to just wait a little bit more and see what happens on the hardware side, how improves and what tools become available to build content that’s really useful for it.

One specific bit of technology that I wish worked better right now is facial recognition. It’s exciting because when you can detect bodies, you can also detect faces and then you can detect facial expressions. Then you can look to build systems that can pull people out of crowds. Unfortunately, the really advanced systems are under lock and key and are too expensive, mainly used by governments, security companies and casinos. They’re not really accessible. The stuff that’s available to us on the market isn’t quite there yet. We’ve got a couple of ideas that we’re dying to develop, that involve being able to pick people out of crowds very quickly, at thousands of times a second but the tech isn’t quite there yet, it’s not readily accessible. That’s one that I’m sitting here waiting for. I’d love to be able to say, “Right, well we’re gonna solve that.” but the reality is that there are thousands of developers including the ones at places like MIT trying to crack that for us and before we can actually use it so, it’s kind of a waiting game on that.

Is there a technology or a trend that you’ve observed that looks like trouble?

Without getting too doom and gloom about it, technology itself can be pretty scary if you think of the worse case scenario for everything. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to the people who are using it and why they’re using it, as opposed to the technology itself. You can probably pick any piece of technology and say, “Well, the worst case of that is pretty disastrous.” Even going back to automation, let’s say Tesla does release a driver-less car and then people think, “Oh well, I don’t really need to drive anymore, this thing’s gonna do it for me.” Then someone malicious comes along and starts hacking cars, which could definitely happen, no matter how much security you build around it, people will find a way. So someone decides to start crashing cars into each other or even more terrifying, imagine when we start doing it for planes, and someone decides to start maliciously doing the same thing. That’s pretty terrifying. But I think if you get too caught up in that, you might start getting pretty depressed and turn into a hermit, move to the Blue Mountains and get rid of all your electronics.

That actually sounds pretty good.

Yeah, it does sound good.

I read an article recently that was about the kind of conundrum that would occur if 2 driver-less cars were approaching each other on a cliff, and an avalanche happened. Both cars know that one of them has to fall off the cliff so they have to calculate which crashes based on who’s inside, how likely they are to die soon anyway and how valuable they are to society.

That’s amazing. It’s like the new age version of when you were a kid and you get asked, “Would you rather?” Or there’s the classic one of, “You’re driving a bus full of school children and you’re on a really thin road on the side of the mountain and there’s an old lady in the middle of the road. Your brakes fail. Do you run her over purposely, or do you crash the bus, knowing that you could kill everyone on board?” It’s the modern day, driver-less car version of that. That sort of stuff is a little creepy and terrifying. You’ve just got to trust that the people who are building it are building it as absolutely secure as they can. This stuff will happen, but it shouldn’t stop us from progressing because fear is a horrible debilitator. If you start getting worried about all the bad things that could happen, you’re never going make anything good. So, you need to push ahead.

Surveillance is also getting a bit out of control now. Every day we seem to hear about the NSA having a camera in your kitchen, and that they’re tapping all your phones calls and that your dog is a double agent. Every day there’s something but I’ve come to peace with that, knowing that privacy is dead. There is absolutely nothing I do outside of my personal relationships and face-to-face conversations that doesn’t become public. I think if you don’t succumb to fear then things become a lot easier and you start worrying less and less – which on one level is bad because the argument is that, that’s what they want. I still believe if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. That’s how I deal with that.

When is a computer a really useless tool?

If you’re stranded on a desert island. That would be horrible. You’re shipwrecked and you’ve got your laptop and your phone and your Jawbone and a drone and a Kindle and your Apple Watch. You’ve got everything with you thinking; “Yeah I’m set” and then you lose power in 30 minutes and you’re like, “Great, now I’ve got 8 paperweights. I can’t do anything with them.” If you don’t have power, you’re really, really screwed. Any scenario where you don’t have power – on a plane for example and your phone and laptop die, and the inflight entertainment system goes down. You quickly realise how crippling it is to be so entrenched in technology.

You’re really saying that so long as you’ve got power, a computer is never a useless tool?

Pretty much. If my computer’s powered on, I can find a use for it. My work revolves around using a computer every waking moment. Whether it’s my computer or my phone or an Arduino or whatever it is. There are very creative ways to use a computer for things that they weren’t intended for as well, which has led to this whole maker movement in the first place. And the reason why we’ve got so many cool and wonderful gadgets that we never even thought of years ago.

What’s the most disappointing thing about living in the future?

We still don’t have hover boards. The most disappointing thing is that you always expected more. Everyone always expects more, and I think that’s part of the human condition. It’s like people’s frustrations with how long computers take to function. I love it! It warms my heart when someone complains that their computer takes a minute to boot. I remember buying my first computer – an old 286. I remember switching it on and going to make myself a Milo and a toasted sandwich before I’d come back, because that’s just the way it was. It took 7 minutes for that thing to boot up. That was normal. That was fine. Then 6 months later it takes 6 minutes, and then down to 5 minutes, and then 4 and so on.

I think we’re at a point of frustration where everything we want, everything we have – we want it to be better constantly. I think that’s a good thing because that’s what drives you to make things better, and that’s what drives innovation. The view I take is that – if necessity’s the mother of invention, then frustration is the father of innovation. Innovation is all about things not working the way we want them to. “I want it to be better so I’m going to make it better”. You innovate on it, and you make something better. I don’t know if I find that disappointing, but I find it comical and ironic that nothing we make today is ever quite good enough. And if it is, it’s good enough for about 10 seconds, and then we want a better version.


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