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7 September 2014

Beyond ‘Smartphones and beyond’

You techno-optimists don’t understand how messy real-life projects are. You over-estimate the power of technology, and under-estimate factors such as sociology, psychology, economics, and biology – not to mention the cussed awkwardness of Murphy’s Law.

That’s an example of the kind of retort that has frequently come to my ears in the last few years. I have a lot of sympathy for that retort.

I don’t deny being an optimist about what technology can accomplish. As I see things:

  • Human progress has taken place by the discovery and adoption of engineering solutions – such as fire, the wheel, irrigation, sailing ships, writing, printing, the steam engine, electricity, domestic kitchen appliances, railways and automobiles, computers and the Internet, plastics, vaccinations, anaesthetic, contraception, and better hygiene
  • Forthcoming technological improvements can propel human experience onto an even higher plane – with our minds and bodies both being dramatically enhanced
  • As well as making us stronger and smarter, new technology can help us become kinder, more collaborative, more patient, more empathetic, less parochial, and more aware of our cognitive biases and blindspots.

But equally, I see lots of examples of technology failing to live up to the expectations of techno-optimists. It’s not just that technology is a two-edged sword, and can scar as well as salve. And it’s not just that technology is often mis-employed in search of a “techno-solution” when a piece of good old-fashioned common sense could result in a better approach. It’s that new technologies – whether ideas for new medical cures, new sustainable energy sources, improved AI algorithms, and so on – often take considerably longer than expected to create useful products. Moreover, these products often have weaker features or poorer quality than anticipated.

Here’s an example of technology slowdown. A 2012 article in Nature coined the clever term “Eroom’s Law” to describe a steady decline in productivity of R&D research in new drug discovery:

Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency

Jack W. Scannell, Alex Blanckley, Helen Boldon & Brian Warrington

The past 60 years have seen huge advances in many of the scientific, technological and managerial factors that should tend to raise the efficiency of commercial drug research and development (R&D). Yet the number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on R&D has halved roughly every 9 years since 1950, falling around 80-fold in inflation-adjusted terms.

In other words, although the better-known Moore’s Law describes a relatively steady increase in computational power, Eroom’s Law describes a relatively steady decrease in the effectiveness of research and development within the pharmaceutical industry. By the way, Eroom isn’t a person: it’s Moore spelt backwards.

The statistics are bleak, as can be seen in a graph from Derek Lowe’s In the pipeline blog:

R&D trend

But despite this dismal trend, I still see plenty of reason for measured optimism about the future of technology. That’s despite the messiness of real-world projects, out-dated regulatory and testing systems, perverse incentive schemes, institutional lethargy, and inadequate legacy platforms.

This measured optimism comes to the surface in the later stages of the book I have just e-published, at the end of a two-year period of writing it. The book is entitled Smartphones and beyond: lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian.

As I write in the opening chapter of that book (an excerpt is available online):

The story of the evolution of smartphones is fascinating in its own right – for its rich set of characters, and for its colourful set of triumphs and disasters. But the story has wider implications. Many important lessons can be drawn from careful review of the successes and, yes, the failures of the smartphone industry.

When it comes to the development of modern technology, things are rarely as simple as they first appear. Some companies bring great products to the market, true. These companies are widely lauded. But the surface story of winners and losers can conceal many twists and turns of fortune. Behind an apparent sudden spurt of widespread popularity, there frequently lies a long gestation period. The eventual blaze of success was preceded by the faltering efforts of many pioneers who carved new paths into uncertain terrain. The steps and missteps of these near-forgotten pioneers laid the foundation for what was to follow.

So it was for smartphones. It is likely to be the same with many of the other breakthrough technologies that have the potential to radically transform human experience in the decades ahead. They are experiencing their missteps too.

I write this book as an ardent fan of the latent power of modern technology. I’ve seen smartphone technology playing vital roles in the positive transformation of human experience, all over the world. I expect other technologies to play even more radical roles in the near future – technologies such as wearable computing, 3D printing, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, neuro-enhancement, rejuvenation biotech, artificial intelligence, and next generation robotics. But, as with smartphones, there are likely to be many disappointments en route to eventual success. Indeed, even the “eventual success” cannot be taken for granted.

General principles about the progress of complex technology emerge from reflecting on the details of actual examples. These details – the “warts and all”, to use the phrase attributed to Oliver Cromwell – can confound naive notions as to how complex technology should be developed and applied. As I’ll show from specific examples in the chapters ahead, the details show that failure and success often co-exist closely within the same project. A single project often contains multiple layers, belonging to numerous different chains of cause and effect.

It is my sincere hope that an appreciation of real-world examples of these multiple layers of smartphone development projects will enable a better understanding of how to guide the future evolution of other forms of smart technology. I’ll describe what I call “the core smartphone skillset”, comprising excellence in the three dimensions of “platforms”, “marketing”, and “execution”. To my mind, these are the key enablers of complex technological progress. These enablers have a critical role to play for smartphones, and beyond. Put together well, these enablers can climb mountains.

I see the core smartphone skillset as having strong applicability in wider technological areas. That skillset provides the basis for overcoming the various forms of inertia which are holding back the creation of important new solutions from emerging technologies. The existence of that skillset underlies my measured optimism in the future.

But there’s nothing inevitable about how things will turn out. The future holds many potential scenarios, with varying degrees of upside and downside. The question of which scenarios will become actual, depends on inspired human vision, choice, action, and follow-through. Fortune sometimes hinges on the smallest of root causes. Effects can then cascade.

Hits and misses

As well as the description of the core smartphone skillset” – which I see as having strong applicability in wider technological areas – the book contains my thoughts as the things that Symbian did particularly well over the years, resulting in it becoming the leading smartphone operating system for many years in the first decade of this century:

  1. Investors and supporters who were prepared to take a long-term view of their investments
  2. Regular deliveries against an incremental roadmap
  3. Regularly taking the time to improve the architecture of the software and the processes by which it was delivered
  4. High calibre software development personnel
  5. Cleanly executed acquisitions to boost the company’s talent pool
  6. Early and sustained identification of the profound importance of smartphones
  7. Good links with the technology foresight groups and other roadmap planning groups within a range of customers
  8. A product that was open to influence, modification, and customisation by customers
  9. Careful attention given to enabling an ecosystem of partners
  10. An independent commercial basis for the company, rather than it being set up as a toothless “customers’ cooperative”
  11. Enabling competition.

Over the course of that time, Symbian:

  • Opened minds as to what smartphones could accomplish. In particular, people realised that there was much more they could do with mobile phones, beyond making phone calls. This glimpse encouraged other companies to enter this space, with alternative smartphone platforms that achieved, in the end, considerably greater success
  • Developed a highly capable touch UI platform (UIQ), years before Android/iPhone
  • Supported a rich range of different kinds of mobile devices, all running versions of the same underlying software engine; in particular, Symbian supported the S60 family of devices with its ergonomically satisfying one-handed operating mode
  • Achieved early demonstrations of breakthrough capabilities for mobile phones, including streaming multimedia, smooth switching between wifi and cellular networks, maps with GPS updates, the use of a built-in compass and accelerometer, and augmented reality – such as in the 2003 “Mozzies” (“Mosquitos”) game for the Siemens SX1
  • Powered many ground-breaking multimedia smartphones, imaging smartphones, business smartphones, and fashion smartphones
  • Achieved sales of some 500 million units – with the majority being shipped by Nokia, but with 40 million being shipped inside Japan from 2003 onwards, by Fujitsu, Sharp, Mitsubishi, and Sony Ericsson
  • Held together an alliance of competitors, among the set of licensees and partners of Symbian, with the various companies each having the opportunity to benefit from solutions initially developed with some of their competitors in mind
  • Demonstrated that mobile phones could contain many useful third party applications, without at the same time becoming hotbeds of viruses
  • Featured in some of the best-selling mobile phones of all time, up till then, such as the Nokia 5230, which sold 150 million units.

Alongside the list of “greatest hits”, the book also contains a (considerably longer) list of “greatest misses”, “might-have-beens”, and alternative histories. The two lists are distilled from wide-ranging “warts and all” discussions in earlier chapters of the book, featuring many excerpts from my email and other personal archives.

LFS cover v2

To my past and present colleagues from the Symbian journey, I offer my deep thanks for all their contributions to the creation of modern smartphones. I also offer my apologies for cases when my book brings back memories of episodes that some participants might prefer to forget. But Symbian’s story is too important to forget. And although there is much to regret in individual actions, there is much to savour in the overall outcome. We can walk tall.

The bigger picture now is that other emerging technology sectors risk repeating the stumbles of the smartphone industry. Whereas the smartphone industry recovered from its early stumbles, these other industries might not be so fortunate. They may die before they get off the ground. Their potential benefits might remain forever out of grasp, or be sorely delayed.

If the unflattering episodes covered in Smartphones and beyond can help increase the chance of these new technology sectors addressing real human need quickly, safely, and fully, then I believe it will be worth all the embarrassment and discomfort these episodes may cause to Symbian personnel – me included. We should be prepared to learn from one of the mantras of Silicon Valley: “embrace failure”. Reflecting on failure can provide the launchpad for greater future success, whether in smartphones, or beyond.

Early reviewers of the book have commented that the book is laden with lessons, from the pioneer phase of the smartphone industry, for the nascent technology sectors where they are working – such as wearable computing, 3D printing, social robots, and rejuvenation biotechnology. The strength of these lessons is that they are presented, in this book, in their multi-dimensional messiness, with overlapping conflicting chains of cause and effect, rather than as cut-and-dried abstracted principles.

In that the pages of Smartphones and beyond, I do choose to highlight some specific learnings from particular episodes of smartphone success or smartphone failure. Some lessons deserve to be shouted out. For other episodes, I leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions. In yet other cases, frankly, it’s still not clear to me what lessons should be drawn. Writers who follow in my tracks will no doubt offer their own suggestions.

My task in all these cases is to catalyse a discussion, by bringing stories to the table that have previously lurked unseen or under-appreciated. My fervent hope is that the discussion will make us all collectively wiser, so that emerging new technology sectors will proceed more quickly to deliver the profound benefits of which they are capable.

Some links

For an extended series of extracts from the different chapters in Smartphones and beyond, see the official website for the book.

The book is available for Kindle download from Amazon: UK site and International (US) site.

  • Note that readers without Kindle devices can read the book on a convenient app on their PC or tablet (or smartphone!) – these apps are freely available.

I haven’t created a hard-copy print version. The book would need to be split into three parts to make it physically convenient. Far better, in my view, to be able to carry the book on a light electronic device, with “search” and “bookmark” facilities that very usefully augment the reading experience.

Opportunities to improve

Smartphones and beyond no doubt still contains a host of factual mistakes, errors in judgement, misattributions, personal biases, blind spots, and other shortcomings. All these faults are the responsibility of the author. To suggest changes, either in an updated edition of this book or in some other follow-up project, please get in touch.

Where the book includes copies of excerpts from Internet postings, I have indicated the online location where the original article could be found at the time of writing. In case an article has moved or been deleted since then, it can probably be found again via search engines or the Internet archive, https://archive.org/. If I have inadvertently failed to give due credit to an original writer, or if I have included more text than the owner of the original material wishes, I will make amends in a later edition, upon reasonable request. Quoted information where no source is explicitly indicated is generally taken from copies of my emails, memos in my electronic diary, or other personal archives.

One of the chapters of this book is entitled “Too much openness”. Some readers may feel I have, indeed, been too open with some of the material I have shared. However, this material is generally at least 3-5 years old. Commercial lines of business no longer depend on it remaining secret. So I have applied a historian’s licence. We can all become collectively wiser by discussing it now.

Footnote

Finally, one other apology is due. As I’ve given my attention over the last few months to completing Smartphones and beyond, I’ve deprioritised many other tasks, and have kept colleagues from various important projects waiting for longer than they expected. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to pick up all these other pieces quickly again – that kind of overcommitment is one of the failure modes discussed throughout Smartphones and beyond. But I feel like I’m emerging for a new phase of activity – “Beyond ‘Smartphones and Beyond'”.

To help transition to that new phase, I’ve moved my corporate Delta Wisdom website to a new format (WordPress), and rejigged what had become rather stale content. It’s time for profound change.

Banner v6

 

6 September 2014

Smartphones and the mass market: the view from 2005

Filed under: insight, openness, smartphones, Symbian — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 7:07 am

The following article was originally published in the “David Wood Insight” series on Symbian’s corporate website, on 11 Sept 2005 (the first article in that series). I’m re-posting it here now since:

  • It’s one of a number of pages in an old website of mine that I am about to retire – so the article needs a new home
  • The message is aligned with many that are included in my book “Smartphones and beyond” that was published earlier this week.

Smartphones and the mass market

Smartphones in 2005 are roughly where the Internet was in 1995. In 1995, there were, worldwide, around 20-40 million users of the Internet. That’s broadly the same number of users of smartphones there are in the world today. In 1995, people were debating the real value of Internet usage. Was it simply an indulgent plaything for highly technical users, or would it have lasting wider attraction? In 2005, there’s a similar debate about smartphones. Will smartphones remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

Personally, I have no doubt as to the answer. Smartphones are for all. Smartphones – the rapidly emerging new category of advanced computer-based programmable mobile phones – will appeal to all users of mobile phones worldwide. Smartphones are built from highly advanced technology, but they won’t require a highly advanced understanding of technology in order to use them. You won’t need to be a computer whiz kid or the neighbourhood geek to get real value from a smartphone. Nor will you need a huge income to afford one. Smartphones will help us all to keep in better touch with the friends and colleagues and information and discussions and buzz that are important to us, and they are opening up new avenues for entertainment, education, and enterprise alike. Smartphones will help us all to work hard and play hard. And in line with their name, smartphones will also help us to work smart and play smart.

Smartphones differ from ordinary mobile phones in two fundamental ways: how they are built, and what they can do. The way they’re built – using open systems to take advantage of the skills, energy, and innovation of numerous companies from a vast range of industries – means that smartphones extend the phenomenal track record of mobile phones by improving constantly and rapidly, year by year. As for what they can do – in line with the “phone” part of their name, smartphones provide all the capabilities of ordinary mobile phones, in a particularly user-friendly style – but that’s only the start. In addition, smartphones increasingly use their computer-brains and network-connectivity to:

  • Excel at all sorts of communication – instant messaging, email, video conferencing, and more
  • Help us to organise our to-do lists, ideas, calendars, contacts, expenses, and finances
  • Boost our effectiveness in our business life – connecting us smoothly into corporate data systems
  • Entertain us with huge libraries of first-rate music, mobile TV, social networking, and games
  • Guide us around the real world, with maps and location-based services, so we never get lost again
  • Subsume our keys, ID cards, tickets, and wallets – so we can leave these old-world items at home
  • Connect us into online information banks covering every topic under the sun.

In short, smartphones are rapidly becoming our preferred mobile gateway into the ever growing, ever more important digital universe.

In 1995, some people wondered if the Internet would ever really be “useful” (as opposed to a passing fad). Today, you may wonder if mobile access to the Internet will ever really be useful. But if you look at what smartphone users are already able to do, you’ll soon see the benefit. If it’s valuable to you to be able to access bbcnews.com or amazon.com or ebay.com or betfair.com or imdb.com or google.com or wikipedia.org (etc) from your desktop PC, you’ll often find it equally valuable to check these sites when you’re away from your desktop. Because you’ll be carrying your smartphone with you, almost everywhere you go, you’ll have the option to keep in touch with your digital universe, whenever it suits you.

Crucial to this increase in value is the steady set of remarkable improvements that have taken place for both output and input mechanisms on smartphones. Screens have become clearer, larger, sharper, and more colourful. Intelligent handwriting recognition systems, word-completion systems, multi-way jog-dials, Bluetooth keyboards, and ingenious folding and twisting mechanisms, mean that it’s easier than ever before to enter data into smartphones. And faster networks, more powerful on-board processors, and more sophisticated software, mean that “www” on a smartphone no longer means “world wide wait” but rather “world wide wow“.

In parallel, costs are dipping, further and further. In part, this is due to Moore’s Law, which summarises the steady technological improvements in the design and manufacture of integrated circuits and memory chips. But in large part, it’s also due to the dramatic “learning effects” which can take place when world-class companies go through several rounds of finding better and better ways to manufacture their smartphone products. In turn, the magnitude of these “learning effects” depends on the open nature of the smartphone industry. Here, the word “open” has the following meanings:

  • Programmable: the intelligence and power that is in a smartphone can be adapted, extended, and enhanced by add-on applications and services, which tap into the underlying richness of the phone to produce powerful new functionality
  • Interchangeable: services that are designed for use in one smartphone can be deployed on other smartphones as well, from different manufacturers (despite the differences between these smartphones), with minimal (often zero) changes; very importantly, this provides a better incentive to companies to invest the effort to create these new services
  • Collaborative: the process of creating and evolving smartphone products benefits from the input and ideas of numerous companies and individuals; for example, the manufacturers of the second generation of a given smartphone can build in some of the unexpectedly successful applications that were designed by previously unknown companies as add-ons to the first generation of that smartphone
  • Open-minded: the companies who create smartphones have their own clear ideas about how smartphones should operate and what they should contain, but newcomers have ample means and encouragement to introduce different concepts – the industry is ready to accept new ideas
  • Free-flowing: the success of a company in the smartphone industry is substantially determined by its skills with innovation, technology, marketing, and operations, rather than any restrictive contractual lock-ins or accidents of location or history.

In all these cases, the opposite to “open” is “closed”. More specifically, the opposite of the successful smartphone industry would see:

  • Fixed functionality, that changes only slowly and/or superficially
  • Non-standard add-ons, that are each restricted to a small subset of phones
  • Overly competitive companies, whose fierce squabbles would destroy the emerging market before it has time to take root
  • Closed-minded companies who are misguidedly convinced that they have some kind of divine right to act as “benign dictators” for the sake of the industry
  • Bottlenecks and chokes that strangle or restrict innovation.

Foreseeing the risks of a closed approach to smartphone development, the mobile phone industry came together to create Symbian, seven years ago. The name “Symbian” is derived from the biological term “symbiosis”, emphasising the positive aspects of collaboration. Symbian’s motto is “cooperate before competing”. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of today’s smartphones utilise Symbian OS.

The volumes of smartphones in circulation are already large enough to trigger a tipping point – more and more industry players, across diverse fields, are choosing Symbian OS to deploy their new solutions. And at the same time as manufacturers are learning how to provide smartphone solutions ever more affordably, users are learning (and then sharing) surprising new ways they can take advantage of the inner capability and richness of their smartphones. It’s a powerful virtuous cycle. That’s the reason why each new generation of smartphone product has a wider appeal.

Footnote (2014): The site http://www.symbian.com has long since been decommissioned, but some of its content can be retrieved from archive.org. After some sleuthing, I tracked down a copy of the above article here.

29 August 2014

Can technology bring us peace?

SevereThe summer months of 2014 have brought us a sickening surfeit of awful news. Our newsfeeds have been full of conflict, casualties, and brutalities in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and so on. For example, just a couple of days ago, my browser screamed at me, Let’s be clear about this: Russia is invading Ukraine right now. And my TV has just informed me that the UK’s terror threat level is being raised from “substantial” to “severe”:

The announcement comes amid increasing concern about hundreds of UK nationals who are believed by security services to have travelled to fight in Iraq and Syria.

These real-world conflicts have been giving rise to online mirror conflicts among many of the people that I tend to respect. These online controversies play out heated disputes about the rights and wrongs of various participants in the real-world battles. Arguments ding-dong ferociously: What is the real reason that MH17 plane was shot down? How disproportionate is the response by Israel to provocations from Hamas? How much is Islamic belief to blame for the barbarism of the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Or is the US to blame, on account of its ill-advised meddling in far-off lands? And how fair is it to compare Putin to Hitler?

But at a recent informal pub gathering of London Futurists, one of the long-time participants in these meetups, Andrius Kasparavicius, asked a hard question. Shouldn’t those of us who believe in the transformational potential of new technology – those of us who dare to call ourselves technoprogressives, transhumanists, or social futurists – have a better answer to these conflict flashpoints? Rather than falling back into twentieth century diatribes against familiar bête noir villains, isn’t it worth striving to find a 21st century viewpoint that transcends such rivalries? We talk a lot about innovation: can’t we be innovative about solving these global flashpoints?

A similar thought gnawed at me a few weeks later, during a family visit to Inverness. A local production of West Side Story was playing at the Eden Court theatre. Bernstein’s music was exhilarating. Sondheim’s lyrics were witty and provocative. The cast shimmied and slunk around the stage. From our vantage point in the second row of seats, we could see all the emotions flit across the faces of the performers. The sudden tragic ending hit hard. And I thought to myself: These two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, were locked into a foolish, needless struggle. They lacked an adult, future perspective. Isn’t it the same with the tragic conflicts that occupy our newsfeeds? These conflicts have their own Jets and Sharks, and, yes, a lack of an adult, future perspective. Can’t they see the better future which is within our collective grasp, if only they can cast aside their tribal perspectives?

That thought was soon trumped by another: the analogy is unfair. Some battles are worth fighting. For example, if we take no action against Islamic State, we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s an ever worse spate of summary beheadings, forced conversions, women being driven into servitude roles in societies all over the middle east, and terrorist strikes throughout the wider world.

But still… isn’t it worth considering possible technological, technoprogressive, or transhumanist approaches to peace?

  • After all, we say that technology changes everything. History is the story of the continual invention and enhancement of tools, machines, and devices of numerous sorts, which transform human experience in all fields of life.
  • Indeed, human progress has taken place by the discovery and mastery of engineering solutions – such as fire, the wheel, irrigation, sailing ships, writing, printing, the steam engine, electricity, domestic kitchen appliances, railways and automobiles, computers and the Internet, plastics, vaccinations, anaesthetic, contraception, and better hygiene.
  • What’s more, the rate of technological change is increasing, as larger numbers of engineers, scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs from around the globe participate in a rich online network exchange of ideas and information. Forthcoming technological improvements can propel human experience onto an even higher plane – with our minds and bodies both being dramatically enhanced.
  • So shouldn’t the further development of technology give us more options to achieve lasting resolution of global flashpoints?

Event previewTherefore I have arranged an online hangout discussion meeting: Global flashpoints: what do transhumanists have to say? This will be taking place at 7pm UK time this Sunday, 31st August. The corresponding YouTube video page (for people who prefer not to log into Google+ in order to view the Hangout that way) is here. I’ll be joined in this discussion by a number of thinkers from different transhumanist perspectives, based around Europe.

I’ve put a plaintive note on the meeting invite:

In our discussion, we’ll try to transcend the barbs and scape-goating that fills so much of existing online discussion about Iraq/Syria/Ukraine/Gaza/etc.

I honestly don’t know how the discussion is going to unfold. But here are some possible lines of argument:

  1. Consider the flashpoint in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting dead of teenager Michael Brown. That particular conflict arose, in part, because of disputes over what actually happened at the time of the shooting. But if the police in Ferguson had all been wearing and operating personal surveillance cameras,  then perhaps a lot of the heat would have gone out of the issue. That would be one example of taking advantage of recent improvements in technology in order to defuse a potential conflict hotspot
  2. Much conflict is driven by people feeling a sense of profound alienation from mainstream culture. Disaffected youths from all over Europe are leaving their families behind to travel to support fundamentalist Islamic causes in the middle east. They need a much better vision of the future, to reduce the chance that they will fall prey to these particular mind viruses. Could social futurism, technoprogressivism, and transhumanism offer that alternative vision?
  3. Rather than technology helping to create peace, there’s a major risk it will help to worsen conflicts. Powerful arsenals in the hands of malcontents are likely to have a more horrific impact nowadays – and an even worse one in the near future – than corresponding weaponry had in the past. Think also of the propaganda value of Islamic State execution videos distributed via YouTube – that kind of effect was unthinkable just a decade ago.

Existential ThreatOf these three lines of discussion, I am most persuaded by the third one. The implications are as follows. The message that we social futurists and transhumanists should be highlighting, in response to these outrages is, sadly, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. There are actually existential risks that will deserve very serious collective action, in order to solve. In that case, it’s even more imperative that the global community gets its act together, and finds a more effective way to resolve the conflicts in our midst.

At the same time, we do need to emphasise the positive vision of where the world could reach in, say, just a few decades: a world with enormous abundance, fuelled by new technologies (nanotech, solar energy, rejuvenation biotech, ubiquitous smart robots) – a world that will transcend the aspirations of all existing ideologies. If we can make the path to this future more credible, there’s good reason to hope that people all over the world will set aside their previous war-like tendencies, tribal loyalties, and dark age mythologies.

 

22 June 2014

The critical importance of culture engineering

Here’s a prediction for what the world will be like in thirty years’ time:

The world will be at a new orbit in history. We will translive all over this planet and the solar sphere — home everywhere. We will be hyperfluid: skim on land — swim in the deep oceans — flash across the sky. Family will have given way to Universal life. People will linkup/linkout free of kinship and possessiveness. We will stream ahead propelled by a cornucopia of abundance. Life expectancy will be indefinite. Disease and disability will nonexist. Death will be rare and accidental-but not permanent. We will continuously jettison our obsolescence and grow younger…

One problem with this prediction is that it was made more than thirty years ago. It dates from June 1981, when it was published by FM Esfandiary in his article “Up-Wing Priorities”. The text can be retrieved from the Internet Archive. I thank Alexander Sabatelli for drawing this quote to my attention (in a posting in Rational Transhumanism). I omitted from the above quote the lead-in clause “Around 2010″, and the sentence after the quote,

At 2000 plus ten all this will be the norm — hardly considered marvelous.

FM Esfandiary describes his own track record at the start of his article:

FM. Esfandiary is a telecommunicator — writer — long-range planner — university lecturer. He has taught Up- Wing philosophy since the mid-1960s— first at the New School for Social Research (New York) and currently at UCLA (Extension). His most recent books are Optimism One — Up- Wingers — Telespheres.

Esfandiary says: “l am universal. I translive all over the planet. Learn via telecom. Have many professions. Am involved with many people. Consider all children as mine also. Neither right nor left — / am Up. I have no age. Am born and reborn everyday. I intend to live forever. Barring an accident I probably will. I also want to help others live on indefinitely.

More details about FM Esfaniary can be found in the Wikipedia article about him:

  • He legally changed his name to FM-2030, in part to reflect the hope and belief that he would live to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2030
  • He published a book in 1989 with the title Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World
  • As such, he is widely regarded as one of the founding figures of modern transhumanism
  • Despite issues with some of his predictions (as in the example above), he had greater success with many of his other forecasts about future technology
  • In July 2000, he died from pancreatic cancer and was placed in cryonic suspension at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, where his body remains today.

For those who want to find out more about FM-2030, the Galactic Public Archives channel on YouTube has combined some audio recordings of his lectures with some imaginative visuals. For example, here’s a five minute video entitled “FM-2030: Are You Transhuman?”

Stepping aside from the biographical details, a larger question looms, for anyone (like myself) who believes in the potential to radically transform human experience:

  • What prevents present-day techno-optimism about the future from having the same fate as the above over-optimistic prognostications from 1981?

Five factors that can undermine predictions of faster progress

Cover page v3I address that question in my chapter “Roadblocks en route to 2025″ in the recently published book “Anticipating 2025: A guide to the radical changes that may lie ahead, whether or not we’re ready”.

In that chapter, I list factors that can undermine predictions of tech-driven progress:

1.The underlying core engineering may turn out to be harder than expected. Nuclear fusion is a case in point; another is battery lifetime. It may also prove unexpectedly hard to obtain the kind of smooth, responsive, reliable performance from the underlying components demanded by busy “mainstream” customers who are unprepared to tolerate long delays or awkward interfaces.

2.Applications need to be developed that will harness the underlying core technology to deliver real value to users. This requires a lot of attention to design matters. It also often involves integrating technologies from diverse sources – technologies that are individually capable but which can fail when combined together. This integration process in turn relies on suitable interfaces (sometimes called “APIs”) being available to developers.

3.The surrounding network infrastructure and business environment needs to be sufficiently supportive. Products and services rarely operate in isolation. Electric cars rely on an infrastructure to support car battery recharging. Smartphones relied on wireless networks as well as on device manufacturers; they also relied on functioning “application stores”. In other words, what business analysts call “the value chain” needs to be put in place. The problem here, however, is that different companies make different assessments of the priorities of creating a new value chain. Vested interests are often ill-disposed towards enabling innovative new products to plug into their networks. The resulting inertia dampens progress.

4.The legislative and regulatory framework needs to be sufficiently supportive.Government rules about inspections, certification, standards, and subsidies often have the effect of favouring the status quo rather than new, game-changing solutions. This effect can be compounded when vested business interests who are opposed to particular new disruptive innovations have a disproportionate influence over any changes in legislation.

5.The mindset of potential users of applications of the technology needs to be supportive. This can also be described as the prevailing “philosophy” or “zeitgeist”. For example, public attitudes towards GM (genetically modified) food differ between the US (generally positive) and Europe (generally hostile). This has led the GM industry to develop more fully in North America than in Europe. Importantly, public attitudes can change. Initial public fears about IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) – including suspicions that “soulless little devils” might be created by this new technology – soon turned to warm acceptance as the healthy vitality of the resulting “test-tube babies” became clear for all to see. However, other elements of negative thinking remain deeply ingrained in the public mind. This includes the viewpoint that the onset of frailty and bodily decay with increasing age, leading to death, is somehow a desirable aspect of human existence.

Changing mindsets

As I go on to explain in that chapter, I have come to see one of these five categories of obstacle as being more significant than the others. This is the obstacle caused by an antagonistic mindset from the general public. If users are resolutely suspicious of technologies that would disturb key familiar aspects of “life as we know it”, engineers will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient funding to bring these technologies to the market – even if society would eventually end up significantly improved as a result.

Politicians generally take actions that reflect the views of the electorate, as expressed through public media, opinion polls, and (occasionally) in the ballot box. However, the electorate is subject to all manners of cognitive bias, prejudice, and continuing reliance on rules of thumb which made sense in previous times but which have been rendered suspect by changing circumstances. These viewpoints include:

  • Honest people should put in forty hours of work in meaningful employment each week
  • People should be rewarded for their workplace toil by being able to retire around the age of 65
  • Except for relatively peripheral matters, “natural methods” are generally the best ones
  • Attempts to redesign human nature – or otherwise to “play God” – will likely cause disaster
  • It’s a pointless delusion to think that the course of personal decay and death can be averted.

In some cases, long-entrenched viewpoints can be overturned by a demonstration that a new technology produces admirable results – as in the case of IVF. But in other cases, minds need to be changed even before a full demonstration can become possible.

It’s for this reason that I see the discipline of “culture engineering” as being equally important as “technology engineering”. The ‘culture’ here refers to cultures of humans, not cells. The ‘engineering’ means developing and applying a set of skills – skills to change the set of prevailing ideas concerning the desirability of particular technological enhancements. Both technology engineering and culture engineering are deeply hard skills; both need a great deal of attention.

A core part of “culture engineering” fits under the name “marketing”. Some technologists bristle at the concept of marketing. They particularly dislike the notion that marketing can help inferior technology to triumph over superior technology. But in this context, what do “inferior” and “superior” mean? These judgements are relative to how well technology is meeting the dominant desires of people in the marketplace.

Marketing means selecting, understanding, inspiring, and meeting key needs of what can be called “influence targets” – namely, a set of “tipping point” consumers, developers, and partners. Specifically, marketing includes:

  • Forming a roadmap of deliverables, that build, step-by-step, to delivering something of great benefit to the influence targets, but which also provide, each step of the way, something with sufficient value to maintain their active interest
  • Astutely highlighting the ways in which present (and forthcoming) products will, indeed, provide value to the influence targets
  • Avoiding any actions which, despite the other good things that are happening, alienate the influence targets; and in the event any such alienation emerges, taking swift and decisive action to address it.

Culture engineering involves politics as well as marketing. Politics means building alliances that can collectively apply power to bring about changes in regulations, standards, subsidies, grants, and taxation. Choosing the right partners, and carefully managing relationships with them, can make a big difference to the effectiveness of political campaigns. To many technologists, “politics” is as dirty a word as “marketing”. But once again, mastery of the relevant skillset can make a huge difference to the adoption of technologies.

The final component of culture engineering is philosophy – sets of arguments about fundamentals and values. For example, will human flourishing happen more fully under simpler lifestyles, or by more fully embracing the radical possibilities of technology? Should people look to age-old religious traditions to guide their behaviour, or instead seek a modern, rational, scientific basis for morality? And how should the freedoms of individuals to experiment with potentially dangerous new kinds of lifestyle be balanced against the needs of society as a whole?

“Philosophy” is (you guessed it) yet another dirty word, in the minds of many technologists. To these technologists, philosophical arguments are wastes of time. Yet again, I will disagree. Unless we become good at philosophy – just as we need to become good at both politics and marketing – we will fail to rescue the prevailing culture from its unhelpful mix of hostility and apathy towards the truly remarkable potential to use technology to positively transcend human nature. And unless that change in mindset happens, the prospects are uncertain for the development and adoption of the remarkable technologies of abundance mentioned earlier.

For more details about the Anticipating 2025 book, click here.

And see below for a short video from the opening of the second day of the Anticipating 2025 conference, in which I link the concept of Culture Engineering back to remarks from the first day of that conference.

An earlier version of this blogpost first appeared on my channel in LinkedIn.

16 April 2014

The future of healthy longevity life extension

There’s a great deal of news these days about potential developments to increase healthy longevity. How can we decide which are the most promising initiatives? What can we do to support faster development and deployment of new treatments? If we want to enable significant increases in healthy longevity for ourselves and our loved ones, what steps should we be taking?

This whole subject – healthy longevity – is complicated by the fact that it’s clouded by a great deal of wishful thinking and misinformation (some deliberate, some unintentional). Companies have products and services they wish to promote. Whole industries have worldviews that they want to maintain. People have engrained personal habits that they wish to justify and rationalise.

And did I mention wish-fulfilment? Here’s an evocative picture posted recently by Vincent Ocasla, a healthy longevity advocate:

Anti-aging

(This picture has an interesting provenance. See the footnote at the end of this blogpost.)

Who, if they were honest, would not like to grasp the possibility of the kind of healthy age-reversal depicted here, if it could be provided ethically, for them and their loved ones? But what steps should we take, that would be most likely to accelerate the enablement of such a transformation?

Back in September last year, I organised a London Futurists “Hangout On Air” video event on that topic. This featured as panellists a number life extension activists from around the world – Franco Cortese, Ilia Stambler, Maria Konovalenko, and Aubrey de Grey. You can see the outcome here:

That ninety minute discussion covered a lot of important topics, but it’s far from providing the last word on the matter. To help continue the discussion, I’m holding an “in real life” London Futurists meetup on the afternoon of Saturday 26th April in Birkbeck College, central London. There will be a number of TED-style talks, followed by extended audience Q&A and discussion.

See here for more details about this event – and to RSVP if you’re planning to attend (this helps me to organise it smoothly) .

Meeting Image

The speakers are Phil MicansTuvi Orbach, and Avi Roy. They each have fascinating and well-informed things to say about the subject. I expect those of us in the audience will all be individually challenged and inspired, at various times in this meetup, to rethink our own personal health strategies, and/or to alter our thinking about how to change society’s presently inadequate approach to this topic.

Phil Micans is Founder and Vice President of International Antiaging Systems and Assistant Director at the British Longevity Society.

Phil has been actively involved in the antiaging field since the late 1980’s. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the Aging Matters™ Magazine, Chairman of the Monte Carlo Antiaging Congress, and Assistant Editor to the Lifespan Medicine Journal. He holds a masters degree in biochemistry from Canterbury.

Phil will talk about why orthodox medicine must change its approach to longevity, and the need for preventative and regenerative medicine.

His lecture will review data as issued by the US, UK and WHO authorities. It will become clear that ‘orthodox’ medicine cannot continue as-is for much longer and that a different path will need to be taken soon. The talk will also introduce the concept of the optimal health pyramid.

Tuvi Orbach is the chairman of Mindlife UK, and Managing Trustee of HELP Trust – a charity with the purpose to help and inspire people to enhance their lives.

Tuvi has a background as an entrepreneur who has established several companies integrating software, technology and “lifeware”. Products and services provided  by his companies include:

  • An interactive self-help application to cure anxiety and depression
  • Computerised health screening and prevention for long-term conditions.

Tuvi will address combining the use of technology for self-help with better internal (mind-body, optimism etc) and external lifestyle modification. He’ll also talk about the integration of new science with traditional wisdom.

Avi Roy is is a PhD student researching biomarkers of aging, mitochondria, and regenerative medicine at the Institute of Translational Medicine, Buckingham.

Avi currently writes for The Conversation and has previously written for The Guardian. His articles have also been published in the New Statesman and Business Insider.

Avi also heads up the Oxford University Scientific Society, the Oxford Transhumanism and Emerging Technologies society, and organizes talks at the British Science Association Oxford branch.

Footnotes:

The above 2014->2063 transformation picture has been adapted from (you guessed it) a similar one which portrayed the transformation in the opposite direction, 1963->2014. That earlier version was published in the Twitter stream for “History in Pictures”. So there’s at least one round of “cosmetic retouching” that has taken place. The online comments for the earlier picture suggest that it has been “faked” too.

Of course, the whole point is to find out what kind of rejuvenation technology (sometimes called “rejuveneering”) is possible, without the subterfuge of Photoshop or similar. I’ll be picking up that theme in a talk I’m giving at the Symposium of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists on May 1st. That Symposium has the theme “Face the future”. My  talk there is the closing keynote, ‘More than skin deep: radical options for human transformation, 2015-2045′:

Vision: Within 30 years, those of us still alive will have the potential to experience profound human enhancement. Detox and rejuvenation therapies that clean out internal biological damage will be able to revitalise us in far-reaching ways. Smartphone technology will be miniaturised and ready for incorporation deep inside our bodies and brains. We’ll be living alongside enchanting, witty robots and other forms of super AIs and virtual companions, who will have deprived most of us of gainful employment. We might even be on the point of merger: human with robot, biology with technology.

But which elements of this vision are science fiction, and which science fact? What factors influence the acceleration of technology? And how can we collectively mould the trajectories ahead, so that human values flourish, rather than us bitterly regretting what we allowed to happen?

2 April 2014

Anticipating London in 2025

The following short essay about the possible future of London was prompted by some questions posed to me by Nicolas Bérubé, a journalist based in Montreal.

PredictionsFuturists seek, not to give cast-iron predictions about what is most likely to happen in the future, but, instead, to highlight potential scenarios that deserve fuller study – threats and opportunities that need addressing in advance, before the threats become too severe, or the opportunities slip outside our grasp.

Given this framework, which trends are the most significant for the future of London, by, say, 2025?

London has a great deal going for it: an entrepreneurial spirit, a cosmopolitan mix of people of all ages, fine universities (both in the city and nearby), a strong financial hub, the “mother of parliaments”, a fascinating history, and rich traditions in entertainment, the arts, the sciences, and commerce. London’s successful hosting of the 2012 Olympics shows what the city can accomplish. It’s no surprise that London is ranked as one of only two “Alpha++ cities” in the world.

Other things being equal, the ongoing trend of major cities becoming even more dominant is going to benefit London. There are many economies of scale with large cities that have good infrastructure. Success attracts success.

Second Machine AgeHowever, there are potential counter-trends. One is the risk of greater inequality and societal alienation. Even as mean income continues to rise, median income falls. Work that previously required skilled humans will increasingly become capable of being done by smart automatons – robots, AIs, or other algorithms. The “technological unemployment” predicted by John Maynard Keynes as long ago as the 1930s is finally becoming a significant factor. The book “The second machine age” by MIT professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee, gives us reasons to think this trend will intensify. So whilst a smaller proportion of London citizens may become increasingly wealthy, the majority of its inhabitants may become poorer. That in turn could threaten the social cohesion, well before 2025, making London a much less pleasant place to live.

One reaction to the perception of loss of work opportunity is to blame outsiders, especially immigrants. The present populist trend against free movement of people from the EU into the UK, typified by the rise of UKIP, could accelerate, and then backfire, as young Europeans decamp en masse to more open, welcoming cities.

A similar trend towards social unpleasantness could happen if, as seems likely, there is further turmoil in the financial markets. The “great crash of 2008″ may come to be seen as a small tremor, compared to the potential cataclysmic devastation that lies ahead, with the failures of trading systems that are poorly understood, overly complex, overly connected, poorly regulated, and subject to many perverse incentives. Many people whose livelihoods depends, directly or indirectly, on the financial city of London, could find themselves thrown into jeopardy. One way London can hedge against this risk is to ensure that alternative commercial sectors are thriving. What’s needed is wise investment in next generation technology areas, such as stem cells, nanotechnology, green energy, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, neuro enhancement, and driverless cars. Another response is to urgently improve our collective understanding and oversight of the pervasive interconnections in our monetary systems.

The fact that, with modern medical treatments, people are living longer and longer, increases the pressures on social welfare systems. Ailments that previously would (sadly) have killed sufferers fairly quickly, can now linger on for years and even decades, in chronic sickness. This demographic change poses all sorts of challenge, including the need to plan much longer periods of time when people will be dependent on their pension plans. One important counter-measure is accelerated development of rejuvenation biotechnology, that gives people new leases of life (and renewed potential for productive employment) before they are afflicted with the diseases of middle-age and old-age.

Cities depend in major ways on their transport infrastructure. By 2025, there will be huge strides in the capabilities of driverless cars. This could usher in an era of transport that is much safer, less expensive, and greener (in part because cars that don’t crash can be built with much lighter materials). Cities that are quick to adopt this new technological infrastructure, and who do it well, could quickly gain in comparative popularity. It’s encouraging that Oxford, near to London, is conducting state-of-the-art research and development of low-cost driverless cars. And alongside driverless surface vehicles, there’s far-reaching potential for positive adoption of a vast network of autonomous flying drones (sometimes dubbed the “Matternet” by analogy with the “Internet”). But unless London acts smartly, these opportunities could pass it by.

Three other trends are harder to predict, but are worth bearing in mind.

  1. First, the wider distribution of complex technology – aided by the Internet and by the rise of 3D printing, among other things – potentially puts much more destructive capability in the hands of angry young men (and angry middle-aged men). People who feel themselves dispossessed and alienated might react in ways that far outscale previous terrorist outrages (even the horrors of 9-11). Some of these potential next-generation mega-terrorists are home-grown in London, but others come from troublespots around the world where they have imbibed fantasy fundamentalist ideologies. Some of these people might imagine it as their holy destiny, in some perverted thinking, to cause huge damage to “the great Satan” of London. Their actions – as well as the intense reactions of the authorities to prevent future misdeeds – could drastically change the culture of London.
  2. Second, fuller use of telecommuting, virtual presence, and remote video conferencing, coupled with advanced augmented reality, could lessen people’s needs to be living close together. The millennia-long trend towards greater centralisation and greater cosmopolitanism may reverse, quicker than we imagine. This fits with the emerging trend towards localism, self-sufficiency, and autonomous structures. London’s population could therefore shrink, abetted by faster broadband connectivity, and the growth of 3D printing for improved local manufacturing.
  3. Finally, the floods and storms experienced in the south of England over the last few months might be a harbinger of worse to come. No one can be sure how the increases in global temperature are restructuring atmospheric and ocean heat distribution patterns. London’s long dependence on the mighty river Thames might prove, in a new world of unpredictable nastier weather, to be a curse rather than a blessing. It’s another reason, in addition to those listed earlier, for investment in next-generation technology, so we can re-establish good relations between man and nature (and between city and environs).

What’s the most important aspect missing from this vision?

30 January 2014

A brilliant example of communication about science and humanity

Mathematical Universe

Do you enjoy great detective puzzles? Do you like noticing small anomalies, and turning them into clues to an unexpected explanation? Do you like watching world-class scientists at work, piecing together insights to create new theories, and coping with disappointments when their theories appear to be disproved?

In the book “Our mathematical universe”, the mysteries being addressed are some of the very biggest imaginable:

  • What is everything made out of?
  • Where does the universe come from? For example, what made the Big Bang go “bang”?
  • What gives science its authority to speak with so much confidence about matters such as the age and size of the universe?
  • Is it true that the constants of nature appear remarkably “fine-tuned” so as to allow the emergence of life – in a way suggesting a miracle?
  • What does modern physics (including quantum mechanics) have to teach us about mind and consciousness?
  • What are the chances of other intelligent life existing in our galaxy (or even elsewhere in our universe)?
  • What lies in the future of the human race?

The author, Max Tegmark, is a Swedish-born professor of physics at MIT. He’s made a host of significant contributions to the development of cosmology – some of which you can read about in the book. But in his book, he also shows himself in my view to be a first class philosopher and a first class communicator.

Indeed, this may be the best book on the philosophy of physics that I have ever read. It also has important implications for the future of humanity.

There are some very big ideas in the book. It gives reasons for believing that our universe exists alongside no fewer than four different types of parallel universes. The “level 4 multiverse” is probably one of the grandest conceptions in all of philosophy. (What’s more, I’m inclined to think it’s the correct description of reality. At its heart, despite its grandness, it’s actually a very simple theory, which is a big plus in its favour.)

Much of the time, the writing in the book is accessible to people with pre-university level knowledge of science. On occasion, the going gets harder, but readers should be able to skip over these sections. I recommend reading the book all the way through, since the last chapter contains many profound ideas.

I think you’ll like this book if:

  • You have a fondness for pure mathematics
  • You recognise that the scientific explanation of phenomenon can be every bit as uplifting as pre-scientific supernatural explanations
  • You are ready to marvel at the ingenuity of scientific investigators going all the way back to the ancient Greeks (including those who first measured the distance from the Earth to the Sun)
  • You are critical of “quantum woo woo” hand-waving that says that quantum mechanics proves that consciousness is somehow a non-local agent (and that minds will survive bodily death)
  • You want to find more about Hugh Everett, the physicist who first proposed that “the quantum wave function never collapses”
  • You have a hunch that there’s a good answer to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”
  • You want to see scientists in action, when they are confronted by evidence that their favoured theories are disproved by experiment
  • You’re ready to laugh at the misadventures that a modern cosmologist experiences (including eminent professors falling asleep in the audience of his lectures)
  • You’re interested in the considered viewpoint of a leading scientist about matters of human existential risk, including nuclear wars and the technological singularity.

Even more than all these good reasons, I highlight this book as an example of what the world badly needs: clear, engaging advocacy of the methods of science and reason, as opposed to mysticism and obscurantism.

Footnote: For my own views about the meaning of quantum mechanics, see my earlier blogpost “Schrödinger’s Rabbits”.

23 January 2014

The future of learning and the future of climate change

Filed under: climate change, collaboration, education — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 6:52 pm

Yesterday, I spent some time at the BETT show in London’s ExCeL centre. BETT describes itself as:

the world’s leading event for learning technology for education professionals…  dedicated to showcasing the best in UK and international learning technology products, resources, and best practice… in times where modern learning environments are becoming more mobile and ‘learning anywhere’ is more of a possibility.

I liked the examples that I saw of increasing use of Google Apps in education, particularly on Chrome Books. These examples were described by teachers who had been involved in trials, at all levels of education. The teachers had plenty of heart-warming stories of human wonderment, of pupils helping each other, and of technology taking a clear second place to learning.

FutureLearn logoI was also impressed to hear some updates about the use of MOOCs – “Massive open online courses”. For example, I was encouraged about what I heard at BETT about the progress of the UK-based FutureLearn initiative.

As Wikipedia describes FutureLearn,

FutureLearn is a massive open online course (MOOC) platform founded in December 2012 as a company majority owned by the UK’s Open University. It is the first UK-led massive open online course platform, and as of October 2013 had 26 University partners and – unlike similar platforms – includes three non-university partners: the British Museum, the British Council and the British Library.

Among other things, my interest in FutureLearn was to find out if similar technology might be used, at some stage, to help raise better awareness of general futurist topics, such as the Technological Singularity, Radical Life Extension, and Existential Risks – the kind of topics that feature in the Hangout On Air series that I run. I remain keen to develop what I’ve called “London Futurists Academy”. Could a MOOC help here?

I resolved that it was time for me to gain first-hand experience of one of these systems, rather than just relying on second-hand experience from other people.

Climate_change_course_image-01

I clicked on the FutureLearn site to see which courses might be suitable for me to join. I was soon avidly reading the details of their course Climate change: challenges and solutions:

This course aims to explain the science of climate change, the risks it poses and the solutions available to reduce those risks.

The course is aimed at the level of students entering university, and seeks to provide an inter-disciplinary introduction to what is a broad field. It engages a number of experts from the University of Exeter and a number of partner organisations.

The course will set contemporary human-caused climate change within the context of past nature climate variability. Then it will take a risk communication approach, balancing the ‘bad news’ about climate change impacts on natural and human systems with the ‘good news’ about potential solutions. These solutions can help avoid the most dangerous climate changes and increase the resilience of societies and ecosystems to those climate changes that cannot be avoided.

The course lasts eight weeks, and is described as requiring about three hours of time every week. Participants take part entirely from their own laptop. There is no fee to join. The course material is delivered via a combination of videos (with attractive graphics), online documents, and quizzes and tests. Participants are also encouraged to share some of their experiences, ideas, and suggestions via the FutureLearn online social network.

For me, the timing seemed almost ideal. The London Futurists meetup last Saturday had addressed the topic of climate change. There’s an audio recording of the event here (it lasts just over two hours). The speaker, Duncan Clark, was excellent. But discussion at the event (and subsequently continued online) confirmed that there remain lots of hard questions needing further analysis.

I plan to invite other speakers on climate change topics to forthcoming London Futurists events, but in the meantime, this FutureLearn course seems like an excellent opportunity for many people to collectively deepen their knowledge of the overall subject.

I say this after having worked my way through the material for the first week of the course. I can’t say I learnt anything surprising, but the material was useful background to many of the discussions that I keep getting involved in. It was well presented and engaging. I paid careful attention, knowing there would be an online multiple choice test at the end of the week’s set of material. A couple of the questions in the test needed me to think quite carefully before answering. After I answered the final question, I was pleased to see the following screen:

Week 1 resultIt’s fascinating to read online the comments from other participants in the course. It looks like over 1,700 people have completed the first week’s material. Some of the participants are aged in their 70s or 80s, and it’s their first experience with computer learning.

There hasn’t been much controversy in the first week’s topics. One part straightforwardly explained the reasons why the observed changes in global temperature over the last century cannot be attributed to changes in solar radiation, even though changes in solar radiation could be responsible for the “Little Ice Age” between 1550-1850. That part, like all the other material from the first week, seemed completely fair and objective to me. I look forward to the subsequent sections.

I said that the timing of the course was almost ideal. However, it started on the 13th of January, and FutureLearn only allow people to join the course for up to 14 days after the official start date.

That means if any readers of this blog wish to follow my example and enrol in this course too, you’ll have to do so by this Sunday, the 26th of January.

I do hope that other people join the course, so we can compare notes, as we explore pathways to improved collaborative learning.

PS for my overall thoughts on climate change, see some previous posts in this blog, such as “Six steps to climate catastrophe” and “Risk blindness and the forthcoming energy crash”.

13 January 2014

Six steps to climate catastrophe

In a widely read Rolling Stone article from July 2012, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Bill McKibben introduced what he called

Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe.

The three numbers are as follows:

  1. 2 degrees Celsius – the threshold of average global temperature rise “which scientists (and recently world leaders at the G8 summit) have agreed we must not cross, for fear of triggering climate feedbacks which, once started, will be almost impossible to stop and will drive accelerated warming out of our control”
  2. 565 Gigatons – the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added into the atmosphere by mid-century with still an 80% chance of the temperature rise staying below two degrees
  3. 2,795 Gigatons“the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn”.

As McKibben highlights,

The key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

He has a vivid metaphor to drive his message home:

Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

He continues,

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

The burning question

bqcoverbig

A version of Bill McKibben’s Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math essay can be found as the foreword to the recent book “The Burning Question” co-authored by Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee. The subtitle of the book has a somewhat softer message than in the McKibben essay:

We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal, and gas. So how do we quit?

But the introduction makes it clear that constraints on our use of fossil fuel reserves will need to go deeper than “one half”:

Avoiding unacceptable risks of catastrophic climate change means burning less than half of the oil, coal, and gas in currently commercial reserves – and a much smaller fraction of all the fossil fuels under the ground…

Notoriously, climate change is a subject that is embroiled in controversy and intemperance. The New York Times carried an opinion piece, “We’re All Climate-Change Idiots” containing this assessment from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication:

You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.

However, my assessment of the book “The burning question” by Berners-Lee and Clark is that it is admirably objective and clear. That impression was reinforced when I saw Duncan Clark speak about the contents of the book at London’s RSA a couple of months ago. On that occasion, the meeting was constrained to less than an hour, for both presentation and audience Q&A. It was clear that the speaker had a lot more that he could have said.

I was therefore delighted when he agreed to speak on the same topic at a forthcoming London Futurists event, happening in Birkbeck College from 6.15pm to 8.30pm on Saturday 18th January. You can find more details of the London Futurists event here. Following our normal format, we’ll have a full two hours of careful examination of the overall field.

Six steps to climate catastrophe

One way to examine the risks of climate catastrophe induced by human activity is to consider the following six-step chain of cause and effect:

  1. Population – the number of people on the earth
  2. Affluence – the average wealth of people on the earth
  3. Energy intensity – the average amount of energy used to create a unit of wealth
  4. Carbon intensity – the average carbon emissions caused by each unit of energy
  5. Temperature impact – the average increase of global temperature caused by carbon emissions
  6. Global impact – the broader impact on life on earth caused by increased average temperature.

Six steps

As Berners-Lee and Clark discuss in their book, there’s scope to debate, and/or to alter, each of these causal links. Various commentators recommend:

  • A reduction in the overall human population
  • Combatting society’s deep-seated imperatives to pursue economic growth
  • Achieving greater affluence with less energy input
  • Switching to energy sources (such as “renewables”) with reduced carbon emissions
  • Seeing (or engineering) different causes that complicate the relation between carbon emissions and temperature rises
  • Seeing (or engineering) beneficial aspects to global increases in temperature, rather than adverse ones.

What they point out, however, is that despite significant progress to reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity, the other factors seem to be increasing out of control, and dominate the overall equation. Specifically, affluence shows no signs of decreasing, especially when the aspirations of huge numbers of people in emerging economies are taken into consideration.

I see this as an argument to accelerate work on technical solutions – further work to reduce the energy intensity and carbon intensity factors. I also see it as an argument to rapidly pursue investigations of what Berners-Lee and Clark call “Plan B”, namely various forms of geoengineering. This extends beyond straightforward methods for carbon capture and storage, and includes possibilities such as

  • Trying to use the oceans to take more carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in an inert form
  • Screen some of the incoming heat from the sun, by, for example, creating more clouds, or injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere.

But Berners-Lee and Clark remain apprehensive about one overriding factor. This is the one described earlier: the fact that so much investment is tied up in the share-prices of oil companies that assume that huge amounts within the known reserves of fossil fuels will all be burnt, relatively soon. Providing better technical fixes will, they argue, be insufficient to prevent the ongoing juggernaut steamroller of conversion from fossil fuels into huge cash profits for industry – a juggernaut with the side-effect of accumulated carbon emissions that increase the risk of horrendous climate consequences.

For this reason, they see the need for concerted global action to ensure that the prices being paid for the acquisition and/or consumption of fossil fuels fully take into account the downside costs to the global environment. This will be far from easy to achieve, but the book highlights some practical steps forwards.

Waking up

The first step – as so often, in order to succeed in a complex change project – is to engender a sustained sense of urgency. Politicians won’t take action unless there is strong public pressure for action. This public pressure won’t exist whilst people remain in a state of confusion, disinterest, dejection, and/or helplessness. Here’s an extract from near the end of their book:

It’s crucial that more people hear the simple facts loud and clear: that climate change presents huge risks, that our efforts to solve it so far haven’t worked, and that there’s a moral imperative to constrain unabated fossil fuel use on behalf of current and especially future generations.

It’s often assumed that the world isn’t ready for this kind of message – that it’s too negative or scary or confrontational. But reality needs facing head on – and anyhow the truth may be more interesting and inspiring than the watered down version.

I expect many readers of this blogpost to have questions in their mind – or possibly objections (rather than just questions) – regarding at least some of what’s written above. This topic deserves a 200 page book rather than just a short blogpost.

Rather than just urging people to read the book in question, I have set up the London Futurists event previously mentioned. I am anticipating robust but respectful in-depth discussion.

Beyond technology

One possible response is that the acceleration of technological solutions will deliver sufficient solutions (e.g. reducing energy intensity and carbon intensity) long before we need to worry about the climate reaching any tipping point. Solar energy may play a decisive role – possibly along with new generations of nuclear power technology.

That may turn out to be true. But my own engineering experience with developing complex technological solutions is that the timetable is rarely something that anyone can be confident about in advance. So yes, we need to accelerate the technology solutions. But equally, as an insurance policy, we need to take actions that will buy ourselves more time, in order for these technological solutions to come to full fruition. This insurance policy inevitably involves the messy worlds of politics and economics, alongside the developments that happen in the technological arena.

This last message comes across uncomfortably to people who dislike any idea of global coordinated action in politics or economics. People who believe in “small government” and “markets as free as possible” don’t like to contemplate global scale political or economic action. That is, no doubt, another reason why the analysis of global warming and climate change is such a contentious issue.

5 January 2014

Convictions and actions, 2014 and beyond

In place of new year’s resolutions, I offer five convictions for the future:

First, a conviction of profoundly positive near-term technological possibility. Within a generation – within 20 to 40 years – we could all be living with greatly improved health, intelligence, longevity, vigour, experiences, general well-being, personal autonomy, and social cohesion. The primary driver for this possibility is the acceleration of technological improvement.

In more detail:

  • Over the next decade – by 2025 – there are strong possibilities for numerous breakthroughs in fields such as 3D printing, wearable computing (e.g. Google Glass), synthetic organs, stem cell therapies, brain scanning, smart drugs that enhance consciousness, quantum computing, solar energy, carbon capture and storage, nanomaterials with super-strength and resilience, artificial meat, improved nutrition, rejuvenation biotech, driverless cars, robot automation, AI and Big Data transforming healthcare, improved collaborative decision-making, improved cryonic suspension of people who are biologically dead, and virtual companions (AIs and robots).
  • And going beyond that date towards mid-century, I envision seven “super” trends enabled by technology: trends towards super-materials (the fulfilment of the vision of nanotechnology), super-energy (the vision of abundance), super-health and super-longevity (extension of rejuvenation biotech), super-AI, super-consciousness, and super-connectivity.

Second, however, that greatly improved future state of humanity will require the deep application of many other skills, beyond raw technology, in order to bring it into reality. It will require lots of attention to matters of design, psychology, sociology, economics, philosophy, and politics.

Indeed, without profound attention to human and social matters, over the next 10-20 years, there’s a very real possibility that global society may tear itself apart, under mounting pressures. In the process, this fracturing and conflict could, among lots of other tragic consequences, horribly damage the societal engines for technological progress that are needed to take us forward to the positive future described above. It would bring about new dark ages.

Third, society needs a better calibre of thinking about the future.

Influential figures in politics, the media, academia, and religious movements all too often seem to have a very blinkered view about future possibilities. Or they latch on to just one particular imagining of the future, and treat it as inevitable, losing sight of the wider picture of uncertainties and potentialities.

So that humanity can reach its true potential, in the midst of the likely chaos of the next few decades, politicians and other global leaders need to be focusing on the momentous potential forthcoming transformation of the human condition, rather than the parochial, divisive, and near-term issues that seem to occupy most of their thinking at present.

Fourth, there are plenty of grounds for hope for better thinking about the future. In the midst of the global cacophony of mediocrity and distractedness, there are many voices of insight, vision, and determination. Gradually, a serious study of disruptive future scenarios is emerging. We should all do what we can to accelerate this emergence.

In our study of these disruptive future scenarios, we need to collectively accelerate the process of separating out

  • reality from hype,
  • science fact from science fiction,
  • credible scenarios from wishful thinking,
  • beneficial positive evolution from Hollywood dystopia,
  • human needs from the needs of businesses, corporations, or governments.

Futurism – the serious analysis of future possibilities – isn’t a fixed field. Just as technology improves by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants, who collectively find out which engineering solutions work best for particular product requirements, futurism can improve by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants – both “amateur” and “professional” futurists.

The ongoing process of technological convergence actually makes predictions harder, rather than easier. Small perturbations in one field can have big consequences in adjacent fields. It’s the butterfly effect. What’s more important than specific, fixed predictions is to highlight scenarios that are plausible, explaining why they are plausible, and then to generate debate on the desirability of these scenarios, and on how to enable and accelerate the desirable outcomes.

To help in this, it’s important to be aware of past and present examples of how technology impacts human experience. We need to be able to appreciate the details, and then to try to step back to understand the underlying principles.

Fifth, this is no mere armchair discussion. It’s not an idle speculation. The stakes are really high – and include whether we and our loved ones can be alive, in a state of great health and vitality, in the middle of this century, or whether we will likely have succumbed to decay, disease, division, destruction – and perhaps death.

We can, and should, all make a difference to this outcome. You can make a difference. I can make a difference.

Actions

In line with the above five convictions, I’m working on three large projects over the next six months:

Let me briefly comment on each of these projects.

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Forthcoming London Futurists event: The Burning Question

The first “real-world” London Futurists meetup in 2014, on Saturday 18th January, is an in-depth analysis of what some people have described as the most complex and threatening issue of the next 10-30 years: accelerated global warming.

Personally I believe, in line with the convictions I listed above, that technology can provide the means to dissolve the threats of accelerated global warming. Carbon capture and storage, along with solar energy, could provide the core of the solution. But these solutions will take time, and we need to take some interim action sooner.

As described by the speaker for the event, writer and consulting editor Duncan Clark,

Tackling global warming will mean persuading the world to abandon oil, coal and gas reserves worth many trillions of dollars – at least until we have the means to put carbon back in the ground. The burning question is whether that can be done. What mix of technology, politics, psychology, and economics might be required? Why aren’t clean energy sources slowing the rate of fossil fuel extraction? Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy? Will we wake up to the threat in time? And who can do what to make it all happen?

For more details and to RSVP, click here.

Note that, due to constraints on the speaker’s time, this event is happening on Saturday evening, rather than in the afternoon.

RSVPs so far are on the light side for this event, but now that the year-end break is behind us, I expect them to ramp up – in view of the extreme importance of this debate.

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, with Ramez Naam

One week from today, on the evening of Sunday 12th January, we have our “Hangout on Air” online panel discussion, “Ramez Naam discusses Nexus, Crux, and The Infinite Resource”.

For more details, click here.

Here’s an extract of the event description:

Ramez Naam is arguably one of today’s most interesting and important writers on futurist topics, including both non-fiction and fiction.

  • For example, praise for his Nexus – Mankind gets an upgrade includes:
  • “A superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” – Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
  • “A sharp, chilling look at our likely future.” – Charles Stross
  • “A lightning bolt of a novel. A sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction.” – Ars Technica.

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between Ramez Naam and an international panel of leading futurists: Randal KoeneMichell Zappa, and Giulio Prisco. 

The discussion aims to cover:

  • The science behind the fiction: which elements are strongly grounded in current research, and which elements are more speculative?
  • The philosophy behind the fiction: how should people be responding to the deeply challenging questions that are raised by new technology?
  • Finding a clear path through what has been described as “the best of times and the worst of times” – is human innovation sufficient?
  • What lies next – new books in context.

I’ll add one comment to this description. Over the past week or so, I took the time to listen again to Ramez’s book “Nexus”, and I’m also well through the follow-up, “Crux”. I’m listening to them as audio books, obtained from Audible. Both books are truly engrossing, with a rich array of nuanced characters who undergo several changes in their personal philosophies as events unfold. It also helps that, in each case, the narrators of the audio books are first class.

Another reason I like these books so much is because they’re not afraid to look hard at both good outcomes and bad outcomes of disruptive technological possibility. I unconditionally recommend both books. (With the proviso that they contain some racy, adult material, and therefore may not be suitable for everyone.)

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, AI and the end of the human era

I’ll squeeze in mention of one more forthcoming Hangout On Air, happening on Sunday 26th January.

The details are here. An extract follows:

The Hollywood cliché is that artificial intelligence will take over the world. Could this cliché soon become scientific reality, as AI matches then surpasses human intelligence?

Each year AI’s cognitive speed and power doubles; ours does not. Corporations and government agencies are pouring billions into achieving AI’s Holy Grail — human-level intelligence. Scientists argue that AI that advanced will have survival drives much like our own. Can we share the planet with it and survive?

The recently published book Our Final Invention explores how the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence challenges our existence with machines that won’t love us or hate us, but whose indifference could spell our doom. Until now, intelligence has been constrained by the physical limits of its human hosts. What will happen when the brakes come off the most powerful force in the universe?

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between the author of Our Final InventionJames Barrat, and an international panel of leading futurists: Jaan TallinnWilliam HertlingCalum Chace, and Peter Rothman.

The main panellist on this occasion, James Barrat, isn’t the only distinguished author on the panel. Calum Chace‘s book “Pandora’s Brain”, which I’ve had the pleasure to read ahead of publication, should go on sale some time later this year. William Hertling is the author of a trilogy of novels

  • Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears,
  • A.I. Apocalypse,
  • The Last Firewall.

The company Avogadro Corp that features in this trilogy has, let’s say, some features in common with another company named after a large number, i.e. Google. I found all three novels to be easy to read, as well as thought-provoking. Without giving away plot secrets, I can say that the books feature more than one potential route for smarter-than-human general purpose AI to emerge. I recommend them. Start with the first, and see how you get on.

Anticipating 2025

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The near future deserves more of our attention.

A good way to find out about the Anticipating 2025 event is to look at the growing set of “Speaker preview” videos that are available at http://anticipating2025.com/previews/.

You’ll notice that at least some of these videos have captions available, to help people to catch everything the speakers say.

These captions have been produced by a combination of AI and human intelligence:

  • Google provides automatically generated transcripts, from its speech recognition engine, for videos uploaded to YouTube
  • A team of human volunteers works through these transcripts, cleaning them up, before they are published.

My thanks go to everyone involved so far in filming and transcribing the speakers.

Registration for this conference requires payment at time of registration. There are currently nearly 50 people registered, which is a good start (with more than two months to go) towards filling the venue’s capacity of 220.

Early bird registration, for both days, is pegged at £40. I’ll keep early bird registration open until the first 100 tickets have been sold. Afterwards, the price will increase to £50.

Smartphones and beyond

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Here’s a brief introduction to this book:

The smartphone industry has seen both remarkable successes and remarkable failures over the last two decades. Developments have frequently confounded the predictions of apparent expert observers. What does this rich history have to teach analysts, researchers, technology enthusiasts, and activists for other forms of technology adoption and social improvement?

As most regular readers of this blog know, I’ve worked in mobile computing for 25 years. That includes PDAs (personal digital assistants) and smartphones. In these fields, I’ve seen numerous examples of mobile computing becoming more powerful, more useful, and more invisible – becoming a fundamental part of the fabric of society. Smartphone technology which was at one time expected to be used by only a small proportion of the population – the very geeky or the very rich – is now in regular use by over 50% of the population in many countries in the world.

As I saw more and more fields of human interest on the point of being radically transformed by mobile computing and smartphone technology, the question arose in my mind: what’s next? Which other fields of human experience will be transformed by smartphone technology, as it becomes still smaller, more reliable, more affordable, and more powerful? And what about impacts of other kinds of technology?

Taking this one step further: can the processes which have transformed ordinary phones into first smartphones and then superphones be applied, more generally, to transform “ordinary humans” (humans 1.0, if you like), via smart humans or trans humans, into super humans or post humans?

These are the questions which have motivated me to write this book. You can read a longer introduction here.

I’m currently circulating copies of the first twenty chapters for pre-publication review. The chapters available are listed here, with links to the opening paragraphs in each case, and there’s a detailed table of contents here.

As described in the “Downloads” page of the book’s website, please let me know if there are any chapters you’d particularly like to review.

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