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15 March 2010

Imagining a world without money

Filed under: Economics, futurist, motivation, politics, Singularity, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:48 am

On Saturday, I attended “London Z Day 2010” – described as

presentations about futurism and technology, the singularity and the current economic landscape, activism and how to get involved…

Around 300 people were present in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre of London’s City University.  That’s testimony to good work by the organisers – the UK chapter of the worldwide “Zeitgeist Movement“.

I liked a lot of what I heard – a vision that advocates greater adoption of:

  • Automation: “Using technology to automate repetitive and tedious tasks leads to efficiency and productivity. It is also socially responsible as people are freed from labor that undermines their intelligence”
  • Artificial intelligence: “machines can take into account more information”
  • The scientific method: “a proven method that has stood the test of time and leads to discovery. Scientific method involves testing, getting feedback from natural world and physical law, evaluation of results, sharing data openly and requirement to replicate the test results”
  • Technological unification: “Monitoring planetary resources is needed in order to create an efficient system, and thus technology should be shared globally”.

I also liked the sense of urgency and activism, to move swiftly from the current unsustainable social and economic frameworks, into a more rational framework.  Frequent references of work of radical futurists like Ray Kurzweil emphasised the plausibility of rapid change, driven by accelerating technological innovation.  That makes good sense.

I was less convinced by other parts of the Zeitgeist worldview – in particular, its strong “no money” and “no property” messages.

Could a society operate without money?  Speakers from the floor seemed to think that, in a rationally organised society, everyone would be able to freely access all the goods and services they need, rather than having to pay for them.  The earth has plenty of resources, and we just need to look after them in a sensible way.  Money has lots of drawbacks, so we should do without it – so the argument went.

One of the arguments made by a speaker, against a monetary basis of society, was the analysis from the recent book “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Here’s an excerpt of a review of this book from the Guardian:

We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens’ incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks’ holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we’d trust each other more.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don’t soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources.

Wilkinson, a public health researcher of 30 years’ standing, has written numerous books and articles on the physical and mental effects of social differentiation. He and Pickett have compiled information from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census, to form a bank of evidence against inequality that is impossible to deny.

They use the information to create a series of scatter-graphs whose patterns look nearly identical, yet which document the prevalence of a vast range of social ills. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging…

The anxiety in this book about our current economic system was reflected in anxiety expressed by all the Zeitgeist Movement speakers.  However, the Zeitgeist speakers drew a more radical conclusion.  It’s not just that economic inequalities have lots of bad side effects.  They say, it’s money-based economics itself that causes these problems.  And that’s a hard conclusion to swallow.

They don’t argue for reforming the existing economic system.  Rather, they argue for replacing it completely.  Money itself, they say, is the root problem.

The same dichotomy arose time and again during the day.  Speakers highlighted many problems with the way the world currently operates.  But instead of advocating incremental reforms – say, for greater equality, or for oversight of the market – they advocated a more radical transformation: no money, and no property.  What’s more, the audience seemed to lap it all up.

Of course, money has sprung up in countless societies throughout history, as something that allows for a more efficient exchange of resources than simple bartering.  Money provides a handy intermediate currency, enabling more complex transactions of goods and services.

In answer, the Zeitgeist speakers argue that use of technology and artificial intelligence would allow for more sensible planning of these goods and services.  However, horrible thoughts come to mind of all the failures of previous centrally controlled economies, such as in Soviet times.  In answer again, the Zeitgeist speakers seem to argue that better artificial intelligence will, this time, make a big difference.  Personally, I’m all in favour of gradually increased application of improved automatic decision systems.  But I remain deeply unconvinced about removing money:

  1. Consumer desires can be very varied.  Some people particularly value musical instruments, others foreign travel, others sports equipment, others specialist medical treatment, and so on.  What’s more, the choices are changing all the time.  Money is a very useful means for people to make their own, individual choices
  2. A speaker from the floor suggested that everyone would have access to all the medical treatment they needed.  That strikes me as naive: the amount of medical treatment potentially available (and potentially “needed” in different cases) is unbounded
  3. Money-based systems enable the creation of loans, in which banks lend out more money than they have in their assets; this has downsides but also has been an important spring to growth and development;
  4. What’s more, without the incentive of being able to earn more money, it’s likely that a great deal of technological progress would slow down; many people would cease to work in such a focused and determined way to improve the products their company sells.

For example, the Kurzweil curves showing the projected future improvements in technology – such as increased semiconductor density and computational capacity – will very likely screech to a halt, or dramatically slow down, if money is removed as an incentive.

So whilst the criticism offered by the Zeitgeist movement is strong, the positive solution they advocate lacks many details.

As Alan Feuer put it, in his New York Times article reviewing last year’s ZDay, “They’ve Seen the Future and Dislike the Present“:

The evening, which began at 7 with a two-hour critique of monetary economics, became by midnight a utopian presentation of a money-free and computer-driven vision of the future, a wholesale reimagination of civilization, as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his “Imagine” days to do no less than redesign the underlying structures of planetary life.

Idealism can be a powerful force for positive social change, but can be deeply counterproductive if it’s based on a misunderstanding of what’s possible.  I’ll need a lot more convincing about the details of the zero-money “resource based economy” advocated by Zeitgeist before I could give it any significant support.

I’m a big fan of debating ideas about the future – especially radical and counter-intuitive ideas.  There’s no doubt that, if we are to survive, the future will need to be significantly different from the past.  However, I believe we need to beware the kind of certainty that some of the Zeitgeist speakers showed.  The Humanity+, UK2010 conference, to be held in London on 24th April, will be an opportunity to review many different ideas about the best actions needed to create a social environment more conducive to enabling the full human potential.

Footnote: an official 86 page PDF “THE ZEITGEIST MOVEMENT – OBSERVATIONS AND RESPONSES: Activist Orientation Guide” is available online.

The rapid growth of the Zeitgeist Movement has clearly benefited from popular response to two movies, “Zeitgeist, the Movie” (released in 2007) and “Zeitgeist: Addendum” (released in 2008).  Both these movies have gone viral.  There’s a great deal in each of these movies that makes me personally uncomfortable.  However, one learning is simply the fact that well made movies can do a great deal to spread a message.

For an interesting online criticism of some of the Zeitgeist Movements ideas, see “Zeitgeist Addendum: The Review” by Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio.

7 January 2010

Mobiles manifesting AI

Filed under: AGI, Apple, futurist, intelligence, m2020, vision — David Wood @ 12:15 am

If you get lists from 37 different mobile industry analysts of “five game-changing mobile trends for the next decade“, how many overlaps will there be?  And will the most important ideas be found in the “bell” of the aggregated curve of predictions, or instead in the tails of the curve?

Of the 37 people who took part in the “m2020” exercise conducted by Rudy De Waele, I think I was the only person to mention either of the terms “AI” (Artificial Intelligence) or “PDA” (Personal Digital Assistant), as in the first of my five predictions for the 2010’s:

  • Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”

However, there were some close matches:

  • Rich Wong predicted “Smart Agents 2.0 (thank you Patty Maes) become real; the ability to deduce/impute context from blend of usage and location data”;
  • Marshall Kirkpatrick predicted “Mobile content recommendation”;
  • Carlo Longino predicted “The mobile phone will evolve into an enabler device, carrying users’ digital identities, preferences and possessions around with them”;
  • Steve O’Hear predicted “People will share more and more personal information. Both explicit e.g. photo and video uploads or status updates, and implicit data. Location sharing via GPS (in the background) is one current example of implicit information that can be shared, but others include various sensory data captured automatically via the mobile phone e.g. weather, traffic and air quality conditions, health and fitness-related data, spending habits etc. Some of this information will be shared privately and one-to-one, some anonymously and in aggregate, and some increasingly made public or shared with a user’s wider social graph. Companies will provide incentives, both at the service level or financially, in exchange for users sharing various personal data”;
  • Robert Rice predicted “Artificial Life + Intelligent Agents (holographic personalities)”.

Of course, these predictions cover a spread of different ideas.  Here’s what I had in mind for mine:

  • Our mobile electronic companions will know more and more about us, and will be able to put that information to good use to assist us better;
  • For example, these companion devices will be able to make good recommendations (e.g. mobile content, or activities) for us, suggest corrections and improvements to what we are trying to do, and generally make us smarter all-round.

The idea is similar to what former CEO of Apple, John Sculley, often talked about, during his tenure with Apple.  From a history review article about the Newton PDA:

John Sculley, Apple’s CEO, had toyed with the idea of creating a Macintosh-killer in 1986. He commissioned two high budget video mockups of a product he called Knowledge Navigator. Knowledge Navigator was going to be a tablet the size of an opened magazine, and it would have very sophisticated artificial intelligence. The machine would anticipate your needs and act on them…

Sculley was enamored with Newton, especially Newton Intelligence, which allowed the software to anticipate the behavior of the user and act on those assumptions. For example, Newton would filter an AppleLink email, hyperlink all of the names to the address book, search the email for dates and times, and ask the user if it should schedule an event.

As we now know, the Apple Newton fell seriously short of expectation.  The performance of “intelligent assistance” became something of a joke.  However, there’s nothing wrong with the concept itself.  It just turned out to be a lot harder to implement than originally imagined.  The passage of time is bringing us closer to actual useful systems.

Many of the interfaces on desktop computers already show an intelligent understanding of what the user may be trying to accomplish:

  • Search bars frequently ask, “Did you mean to search for… instead of…?” when I misspell a search clue;
  • I’ve almost stopped browsing through my list of URL bookmarks; I just type a few characters into the URL bar and the web-browser lists websites it thinks I might be trying to find – including some from my bookmarks, some pages I visit often, and some pages I’ve visited recently;
  • It’s the same for finding a book on Amazon.com – the list of “incrementally matching books” can be very useful, even after only typing part of a book’s title;
  • And it’s the same using the Google search bar – the list of “suggested search phrases” contains, surprisingly often, something I want to click on;
  • The set of items shown in “context sensitve menus” often seems a much smarter fit to my needs, nowadays, than it did when the concept was first introduced.

On mobile, search is frequently further improved by subsetting results depending on location.  As another example, typing a few characters into the home screen of the Nokia E72 smartphone results in a list of possible actions for people whose contact details match what’s been typed.

Improving the user experience with increasingly complex mobile devices, therefore, will depend not just on clearer graphical interfaces (though that will help too), but on powerful search engines that are able to draw upon contextual information about the user and his/her purpose.

Over time, it’s likely that our mobile devices will be constantly carrying out background processing of clues, making sense of visual and audio data from the environment – including processing the stream of nearby spoken conversation.  With the right algorithms, and with powerful hardware capabilities – and provided issues of security and privacy are handled in a satisfactory way – our devices will fulfill more and more of the vision of being a “personal digital assistant”.

That’s part of what I mean when I describe the 2010’s as “the decade of nanotechnology and AI”.

6 January 2010

Mobile trends for the next decade

Filed under: futurist, m2020, smartphones, vision — David Wood @ 5:04 pm

A few days ago, I received an interesting invitation from mobile strategist and innovator Rudy De Waele:

It’s the end of the decade and for many of us it has been a very actively ‘mobile’ decade, a lot of the efforts and projects of our peers have become real and succesful during this decade.

As for the start of a new decade, I’ve had this idea of asking some of the people I met during the last decade  to write down their five game-changing mobile trends for the next decade.

The format is to list your 5 trends for the next decade, in words, a sentence or a pagaraph, no links.

It was a great question – especially the requirement to stick to just five trends.  Here’s the set which, after some thought, I emailed back to Rudy:

  1. Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”.
  2. Powerful, easily wearable head-mounted accessories: audio, visual, and more.
  3. Mobiles as gateways into vivid virtual reality – present-day AR is just the beginning.
  4. Mobiles monitoring personal health – the second brains of our personal networks.
  5. Mobiles as universal remote controls for life – a conductor’s baton as much as a viewing portal.

No fewer than 37 different people from throughout the mobile and IT industries contributed answers.  The entire set of answers is now available for viewing on Rudy’s m-trends.org blog and is also posted onto slideshare.net, from where you can download a PDF version.

Each of the 37 sets of answers has at least one item (usually more!) that’s a good conversation starter.  The ongoing “#m2020” dialog that Rudy has started is likely to cast a long shadow.

Some of the predictions are very encouraging – like the set from Katrin Verclas covering mobiles in social development, transformation of politics (for example, in Africa), mobile payments, mobile healthcare, and mobile environmental monitoring.  Other sets of predictions foresee difficulties and backlashes as well as progress.  Some of the destruction foreseen could be counted as “creative destruction”, as in the prediction by Alan Moore:

The communications revolution accelerates, destroying businesses that refuse to think the unthinkable.

The predictions include many “first order effects” (technologies or products that people already foresee and desire, and which are already under development), but also several interesting comments on what Tom Hume calls “second order effects“.  Tom comments:

No-one predicted the loosening of time and space that Mimi Ito has noted. Similarly, what happens to our social arrangements when every photo can be face-recognised, geolocated and individuals tracked? What happens to shops when every price can be compared? What happens to conversation when it’s all recorded, or any fact is a 5-second voice-search away from being checked?

The full effects of ever-wider usage of mobile technology are, indeed, hard to predict – especially when we bear in mind the following forecast from Carlos Domingo:

Ubiquity of mobile broadband will lead to an explosion of connected devices (à la Kindle, not just phones) and M2M services (machines to machine services, without a human behind the device). In 10 year, there will be more devices/machines connected to the mobile network than humans.

In similar vein, Nicolas Nova predicts:

Non-humans (objects, animals, places) will generate more data than humans.

Mobile handsets will very likely look quite different, at the end of the decade, than they do at the beginning.  As Marek Pawlowski forecasts:

Keyboard dimensions and screen size cease to be the primary limiting factors in handset design as new input and display technologies free designers to radically change the form factor of personal communication devices.

I’ll end by sharing one of the predictions from Jonathan MacDonald, which seems to me particularly compelling:

Convergence of physical, augmented and virtual reality: augmented and virtual reality will become an increasingly standard method for search, discovery, gaming, eyesight, healthcare, retail, entertainment and most other experiences in life. Location and other contextual functions will grow so our 2D mobile experiences become 3D and ‘real’. To such an extent that the prefixes ‘augmented’ and ‘virtual’ will eventually become redundant.

The items I’ve picked out above are just scratching the surface.  There’s much, much more to read and ponder in the entire slideshow – click over to Rudy’s blog to explore further!

Rudy De Waele

31 December 2009

The constant economy

Filed under: books, Economics, green, leadership, market failure, vision — David Wood @ 2:54 pm

I’ve had mixed thoughts when reading Zac Goldsmith‘s “The constant economy: how to create a stable society” over the last few days.  It makes some useful contributions to an ultra-important debate.  However, the recommendations it makes frequently strike me as impractical.

Zac has been one of the advisors to the UK Conserative Party on environmental matters.  He is now the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for the Richmond Park constituency, which is adjacent to the one I live in.  It’s possible that his views on environmental matters will have a significant influence over the next UK government.

Some of the examples in the book made me think, “Gosh, I didn’t realise things were so bad; things can’t be left to go on like this“.  I had these thoughts when reading, for example, about the huge decline in fishing stocks worldwide, and about the enormous swathe of plastic waste in large parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Other parts, however, made me think, “Hang on, there’s another side to this story” – for example, for some of the incidents described in the chapter about the Precautionary Principle, and for the section about nuclear power.

This book is like a manifesto.  Mixed in with real-world anecdotes and analysis, each chapter contains a list of “Voter Demand Box” items.  For example, here’s the list from the chapter on “A zero waste economy”:

‘Take back’

People should have a legal ‘take back’ right enshrined in consumer law.  This would give everyone the right to take any packaging waste back to the shop it was bought from, and impose an obligation on retailers to recycle that waste once it was received.

Paying people to recycle

No more landfill

Using the right materials

Built to last

Government buying power

Incineration, a last resort

And from the chapter “An energy revolution”:

Find out the truth about oil

A cross-party taskforce should be established immediately to draw up a risk assessment.  It should not invite the traditional fuel industry to take part, as it would effectively be studying a risk scenario that says their maths is incorrect.  The taskforce should be required to publically report its findings within a year.

At the same time, we should also expect our government to put pressure on the UN or International Energy Authority to undertake a review of the world’s oil reserves.  If the economic models of every nation on earth are based on the assumption of everlasting oil supplies, it is reasonable that they should know how much oil actually exists.

Capture the heat

Reward the pioneers

Break the rules

Invest!

We urgently need a renewable energy fund to provide substantial grants for the research and development of radical new clean energy technologies.  From wave power to clean coal technology, potential solutions remain in the pipeline due to a lack of investment.  Government should provide that investment.  Diverting money that would otherwise be spent subsidizing fossil fuels or the nuclear energy could provide billions of pounds for research, support and, crucially, for upgrading the national grid.

Stop paying the polluters

Whilst there are elements of good sense to all (or nearly all) of these recommendations, this set of items needs a lot more work:

  • The items are uncosted, and generally open-ended;
  • It’s often unclear how the recommendations differ from policies and processes that are already in place;
  • There’s no prioritisation (everything is equally important);
  • There’s no roadmap (everything is equally urgent).

Despite this weakness, this book still has merit as a good conversation starter.

The book’s introduction provides a higher-level picture.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

The world is in trouble.  As human numbers expand and the resource-hungry economy grows, the natural environment is suffering an unprecedented assault.  Forests are shrinking, species are disappearing, oceans are emptying, land is turning to desert.  The climate itself is being thrown out of balance.  In just a few generations, we have created the biggest threat to the natural world since humanity evolved.  Unless something radical is done now, the world in which our children grow up will be less beautiful, less bountiful, more polluted and more uncertain than ever before.

The top-level recommendations in the book are, in effect:

1.) The need for first-class political leadership on environmental issues

We need political leaders who can free themselves from the constraints of pressure groups, whose vision extends far beyond the next election, and who can motivate strong constructive action (rather than just words):

Politicians in Britain, as elsewhere, can see the rising tide of concern over green issues, and in many cases know what solutions are required.  The environment has never been so high on the political agenda…

Yet few politicians are prepared to take the action needed.  Nothing happens.  Time ticks by, the situation becomes more urgent – and government does nothing.  Why?

Politicians are terrified of acting because they believe that tackling the looming crisis will involve restricting the electorates choices.  They believe that saving the planet means destroying the economy, and that neither business nor voters will stand for it.  They fear the headlines of a hostile media.  They fear, ultimately, for their jobs.  It always seems easier to do nothing – and to let the situation drift and hope that someone else takes the risk…

2.) The need to adapt market economics to properly respect environmental costs

Our defining challenge is to marry the environment with the market.  In other words, we need to reform those elements of our economy that encourage us to damage, rather than nurture, the natural environment.

The great strength of the market is its unique ability to meet the economic needs of citizens.  Its weakness is that it is blind to the value of the environment…

Other than nature itself, the market is also the most powerful force for change that we have.  The challenge we fact is to find ways to price the environment into our accounting system: to do business as if the earth mattered, and to make it matter not just as a moral choice but as a commercial imperative

Note: this is hardly a new message.  For one, Jonathon Porritt covered similar ground in his 2005 book (with a new edition in 2007), “Capitalism as if the world matters“.  However, Zac has a significantly simpler writing style, so his ideas may reach a wider audience – whereas I confess I twice got bogged down in the early stages of Jonathon’s book, and set it aside without reading further.

3.) The need for better use of market-based instruments such as taxation

We need to change the boundaries within which the market functions, by using well-targeted regulation.

Taxation is the best mechanism for pricing pollution and the use of scarce resources.  If tax shifts emphasis from good things like employment to bad things like pollution, companies will necessarily begin designing waste and pollution out of the way they operate…

The other major tool in the policymakers’ kit is trading.  Carbon emissions trading is a good example of a market-based approach which attaches a value to carbon emissions and ensures that buyers and sellers are exposed to this price.  As long as the price is high enough to influence decisions, it can work…

Note: it’s clear that the existing carbon trading scheme has lots of problems (as Zac describes, later in the book).  That’s a reason to push on quickly to a more effective replacement.

There’s also a latent worry over Zac’s confident recommendation:

It’s crucial that wherever money is raised on the back of taxing ‘bad’ activities is used to subsidise desirable activities.  For example, if a new tax is imposed on the dirtiest cars, it needs to be matched, pound for pound, on reductions in the price of the cleanest cars.

The complication is that once the higher taxation drives down usage of (in this example) the dirtiest cars, the amount of tax earned by the government will be reduced, and the “pound for pound” balance will break.  It’s another example of how the ideas in the book lack detailed financial planning.  Presumably Zac intends these details to be provided at a later stage.

4.) We need a fresh approach to regulation

Direct controls force polluting industries to improve their performance, and can eliminate products or practices that are particularly hazardous…  Markets without regulation would not have delivered unleaded petrol, for instance, or catalytic converters.  Without regulations requiring smokeless fuel, London’s smogs would still be with us.

This approach, however, needs to be effective.  With some products and processes, the regulatory bar needs to be raised internationally to avoid companies chasing the lowest standards globally.  We also need a change in our regulatory approach, away from an obsessive policing of processes towards a focus on outcomes.  If the regulatory system is too prescriptive, there is no room for innovation, and no real prospect of higher environmental standards…

5.) We need to measure what matters

Almost every nation on earth uses gross domestic product (GDP) to measure its economic growth.  The trouble is, expressed as a monetary value, GDP simply measures economic transactions, indiscrimately.  It cannot tell the difference between useful transactions and damaging ones…

Chopping down a rainforest and turning it into toilet paper increases GDP.  If crime escalates, the resulting investments in prisons and private security will add to GDP and be measured as ‘growth’.  When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground and spilt its vast load of oil on the pristine Alaskan shoreline, US GDP actually soared as legal work, media coverage and clean-up costs were all added to the national accounts…

US Senator Robert Kennedy said something similar:  “GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play”, he said.  “It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

But the pursuit of economic growth, as measured by GDP, has been the overriding policy for decades, with the effect that the consequences have often been perverse…

A number of organisations have tried to assemble a new tool for measuring progress.  But the result is invariably a toolkit that is monstrous in its complexity and too impractical for any government to use.  A neater approach would be for the government to establish a wholly independent Progress Commission, staffed by experts from a wide variety of fields: economists, environmentalists, statisticians, academics, etc…

Whichever indicators are selected, the results would be handed each year to Parliament and the media.  The government would be required to respond…

Note: again, the suggested practical follow-up seems weaker than the analysis of the problem itself.  The economy has been ultra-optimised to pursue growth in GDP.  That’s how businesses are set up.  That’s going to prove very difficult to change.  Attention to non-financial matters is very likely to be squeezed.

However, it’s surely good to have the underlying problem highlighted once again.  Robert Kennedy’s stirring words ring as clearly today, as when they were first spoken: March 1968.

Let’s keep these words in mind, until we are confident that society is set up to pursue what matters, rather than simply to boost GDP.

Further reading: The book has its own website, with a blog attached.

28 December 2009

Ten emerging technology trends to watch in the 2010’s

Filed under: AGI, nanotechnology, vision — David Wood @ 12:38 pm

On his “2020 science” blogAndrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has published an excellent article “Ten emerging technology trends to watch over the next decade” that’s well worth reading.

To whet appetites, here’s his list of the ten emerging technologies:

  1. Geoengineering
  2. Smart grids
  3. Radical materials
  4. Synthetic biology
  5. Personal genomics
  6. Bio-interfaces
  7. Data interfaces
  8. Solar power
  9. Nootropics
  10. Cosmeceuticals

For the details, head over to the original article.

I see Andrew’s article as a more thorough listing of what I tried to cover in my own recent article, Predictions for the decade ahead, where I wrote:

We can say, therefore, that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.

Neither the words “nanotechnology” or “AI” appear in Andrew’s list.  Here’s what he has to say about nanotechnology:

Nanotech has been a dominant emerging technologies over the past ten years.  But in many ways, it’s a fake.  Advances in the science of understanding and manipulating matter at the nanoscale are indisputable, as are the early technology outcomes of this science.  But nanotechnology is really just a convenient shorthand for a whole raft of emerging technologies that span semiconductors to sunscreens, and often share nothing more than an engineered structure that is somewhere between 1 – 100 nanometers in scale.  So rather than focus on nanotech, I decided to look at specific technologies which I think will make a significant impact over the next decade.  Perhaps not surprisingly though, many of them depend in some way on working with matter at nanometer scales.

I think we are both right :-)

Regarding AI, Andrew’s comments under the heading “Data interfaces” cover some of what I had in mind:

The amount of information available through the internet has exploded over the past decade.  Advances in data storage, transmission and processing have transformed the internet from a geek’s paradise to a supporting pillar of 21st century society.  But while the last ten years have been about access to information, I suspect that the next ten will be dominated by how to make sense of it all.  Without the means to find what we want in this vast sea of information, we are quite literally drowning in data.  And useful as search engines like Google are, they still struggle to separate the meaningful from the meaningless.  As a result, my sense is that over the next decade we will see some significant changes in how we interact with the internet.  We’re already seeing the beginnings of this in websites like Wolfram Alpha that “computes” answers to queries rather than simply returning search hits,  or Microsoft’s Bing, which helps take some of the guesswork out of searches.  Then we have ideas like The Sixth Sense project at the MIT Media Lab, which uses an interactive interface to tap into context-relevant web information.  As devices like phones, cameras, projectors, TV’s, computers, cars, shopping trolleys, you name it, become increasingly integrated and connected, be prepared to see rapid and radical changes in how we interface with and make sense of the web.

It looks like there’s lots of other useful material on the same blog.  I particularly like its subtitle “Providing a clear perspective on developing science and technology responsibly”.

Hat tip to @vangeest for the pointer!

29 November 2009

The single biggest problem

Filed under: green, solar energy, UKH+, vision — David Wood @ 2:35 pm

Petra Söderling, my good friend and former colleague on the Symbian Foundation launch team, raises some important questions in a blogpost yesterday, Transhumans H+.  Petra remarked on the fact that I had included the text “UKH+ meetings secretary” on my new business card.  A TV program she watched recently had reminded her of the topic of transhumanism (often abbreviated to H+ or h+) – prompting her blogpost:

…I haven’t changed my mind, David. I still think this is not pressingly important or urgent. In my view, the single biggest problem we have at hand is that people are breeding like rabbits, and the planet cannot feed us all. Us rich westerners consume so much natural resources that just supporting our lifestyle would be a burden. But, we are not only idiots in our own consumption manners, we are idiots in showing the rest of the world that this is the preferred lifestyle. Our example leads to billions of people in developing and underdeveloped countries pursuing our way of living. This is done by unprecedented exploitation of resources everywhere.

We’re in a process of eating our home planet away, and helping the richest of us to live healthier and longer is no solution. What’s the point of living 150 years if you’re breathing manufactured air, all migrated to north and south poles from desert lands, and eating tomatos that are clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone? As rich and clever as we are, I think we should solve first things first…

The mention of “first things first” and “single biggest problem” is music to my ears.  I’m currently engaged on a personal research program to try to clarify what, for me, should be the “first things” that deserve my own personal focus.  Having devoted the last 21 years of my work life to mobile software, particularly for smartphones, I’m now looking to determine where I should apply my skills and resources for the next phase of my professional life.

I completely agree with Petra that the current “western consumer lifestyle” is not sustainable.  As more and more people throughout the developing world adopt similar lifestyles, consuming more and more resources, the impact on our planet is becoming collosal.  It’s a very high priority to address this lack of sustainability.

But is the number of people on the planet – our population – the most important leverage point, to address this lack of sustainability?  There are at least four factors to consider:

  1. World population
  2. The resource consumption of the average person on the planet
  3. The outcome of processes for creating resources
  4. Side-effects of processes for creating resources.

Briefly, we are in big trouble if (1.)x(2.) exceeds (3.), and/or if the side-effects (4.) are problematic in their own right.

My view is that the biggest leverage will come from addressing factors (3.) and (4.), rather than (1.) and (2.).

For example, huge amounts of energy from the sun are hitting the earth the whole time.  To quote from chapter 25 of David MacKay’s first-class book “Sustainable energy without the hot air“,

…the correct statement about power from the Sahara is that today’s [global energy] consumption could be provided by a 1000 km by 1000 km square in the desert, completely filled with concentrating solar power. That’s four times the area of the UK. And if we are interested in living in an equitable world, we should presumably aim to supply more than today’s consumption. To supply every person in the world with an average European’s power consumption (125 kWh/d), the area required would be two 1000 km by 1000 km squares in the desert…

In parallel with thoughtfully investigating this kind massive-scale solar energy harvesting, it also makes sense to thoughtfully investigate massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere (the topic of a blogpost I plan to write shortly) as well as other geo-engineering initiatives.  In line with the transhumanist philoosophy I espouse, I’m keen to

support and encourage the thoughtful development and application of technology to significantly enhance human mental and physical capabilities – with profound possible consequences on both personal and global scales

There are, of course, large challenges facing attempts to create massive-scale solar energy harvesting and massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere.  These challenges span technology, politics, economics, and, dare I say it, philosophy.

In a previous posting, The trend beyond green, I”ve spelt out some desired changes in mindset that I see as required, on a global scale:

  • rather than decrying technology as “just a technical fix”, we must be willing to embrace the new resources and opportunities that these technologies make available;
  • rather than seeking to somehow reverse human lifestyle and aspiration to that of a “simpler” time, we must recognise and support the deep and valid interests in human enhancements;
  • rather than thinking of death and decay as something that gives meaning to life, we must recognise that life reaches its fullest meaning and value in the absence of these scourges;
  • rather than seeing the status quo as somehow the pinnacle of existence, we must recognise the deep drawbacks in current society and philosophies, and be prepared to move forwards;
  • rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”;
  • rather than seeking to limit expectations, with comments such as “this kind of enhancements might become possible in 100-200 years time”, we should recognise the profound possible synergies arising from the interplay of technologies that are individually accelerating and whose compound impact can be much larger.

Helping to accelerate these changes in mindset is one of the big challenges I’d like to adopt, in the next phase of my professional life.

Whatever course society adopts, to address our sustainability crisis, there will need to be some very substantial changes.  People embrace change much more willingly, if they see upside as well as downside in the change.  The H+ vision of the future I see is one of abundance (generated by the super-technology of the near future) along with societal harmony (peaceful coexistence) and ample opportunities for new growth and exploration.

To return in closing to the question raised earlier: what is the “single biggest problem” that most deserves our collective attention?  Is it population growth and demographics, global warming, shortage of energy, the critical instability of the world economic order, the potential for a new global pandemic, nuclear terrorism, or some other global existential risk?

In a way, the answer is “none of the above”.  Rather, the single biggest problem is that, globally, we are unable to collaborate sufficiently deeply and productively to develop and deploy solutions to the above issues.  This is a second-level problem.  The economic, political, and philosophical structures we have inherited from the past have very many positive aspects, but many drawbacks as well – drawbacks that are becoming ever more pressing as we see accelerating change in technology, resource usage, and communications.

7 November 2009

The trend beyond green

Filed under: Humanity Plus, vision — David Wood @ 10:55 pm

Here’s a thought for the weekend – an idea that pulls together quite a lot of what’s on my mind.

Huge changes in products and technology investment are underway in the wake of the green revolution.  This revolution recognises that, whatever we humans do, we need to be aware of our impact on nature as a whole.  Our usage of energy and other resources needs to avoid triggering enormous adverse changes in the natural world – changes that will significantly diminish our capability for ongoing civilisation.

Clever minds worldwide are, understandably, giving great thought to this requirement, and are regularly proposing new ways of generating and using energy.  These minds need every encouragement.

This green revolution can be viewed as the “nature plus” trend: the recognition that human actions must change, so that rather than destroying our natural roots, we preserve them and build upon them.

My perception, however, is that there’s another trend brewing – a trend that will have an equally dramatic impact on products and technology investment, and on human actions and aspirations.

If green can be characterised as “nature plus”, this new trend can be characterised as “humanity plus“.  Tentatively, I dub this as the “blue revolution”, since blue is the colour of the sky, and I want to describe a movement away from dependency on nature – a movement that will become “without earthly limits”.

The core idea is that the waves of disruptive change that are bursting through human society will not reach any kind of stability or calm until humans are living in conditions that are very substantially improved from those of the present.  We’re not going to reach any kind of new harmony with nature, until such time as humans are living dramatically enhanced lives.

This new quality of life will be far in advance of the lifestyles which have been perceived for most of history as our “human destiny”.  The state of “humanity plus” involves:

  • technologies which give us all the ability to be smarter, stronger, wiser, kinder, calmer, and friendlier;
  • lifestyles that are recognisably “better than well”;
  • the opportunity for freedom from the tyranny of disease, decrepitude, and decay;
  • lifes that are not just “extended” but also “expanded”, with very many new fields of experience;
  • great benefits from assistance by friendly robots and friendly super-AIs;
  • an economy in a sustainable state of abundance.

The first driver for achieving this “humanity plus” future is the thoughtful development and deployment of emerging technologies – including nanotechnology, human regenerative engineering, robotics and AI, human-machine interfaces, and geo-engineering.  These technologies have tremendous potential, and remarkable improvements in them are taking place all the time.  Indeed, the rate of improvement is itself accelerating.

The second driver for achieving this future – equally important – is a set of changes in mindset:

  • rather than decrying technology as “just a technical fix”, we must be willing to embrace the new resources and opportunities that these technologies make available;
  • rather than seeking to somehow reverse human lifestyle and aspiration to that of a “simpler” time, we must recognise and support the deep and valid interests in human enhancements;
  • rather than thinking of death and decay as something that gives meaning to life, we must recognise that life reaches its fullest meaning and value in the absence of these scourges;
  • rather than seeing the status quo as somehow the pinnacle of existence, we must recognise the deep drawbacks in current society and philosophies, and be prepared to move forwards;
  • rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”;
  • rather than seeking to limit expectations, with comments such as “this kind of enhancements might become possible in 100-200 years time”, we should recognise the profound possible synergies arising from the interplay of technologies that are individually accelerating and whose compound impact can be much larger.

To be clear, I don’t see the blue revolution as opposing or superseding the green revolution.  The fundamental insight of the green revolution is correct: we cannot live in ways that cannot be supported by nature.  However, the blue revolution adds a very important new dimension.

Likewise, I see the blue revolution as being aligned with the earlier “red revolution” – namely, the insight that improvements in human life need to be made accessible to everyone, rather than being restricted to people of a particular neighbourhood, clan, race, or class.  The technologies which drive the “humanity plus” enhancements should deliver their results for increasingly low cost, so that everyone benefits.

Footnote: For some similar ideas, take a look at the Singularity University website, and at the Wikipedia article on Transhumanism.

10 September 2009

Unimaginative thinking about longer lives

Filed under: aging, Methuselah, vision — David Wood @ 12:21 am

TimesOnline recently carried a piece entitled, “Live For Ever – The promise of more and more life will bring us all problems“.

I believe the article to be small-minded.  It displays a weak imagination.  I submitted an online comment to explain my viewpoint, but the moderator butchered my comment, making it almost unintelligible.  My opinion of the Times has taken a dive.

Here’s what I submitted – referring in each case to text from the original article:

…we will pay a heavy price for our longevity. If we are unable to abolish chronic illness, then the cost of treating an extended span would quickly bankrupt the National Health Service.

Any serious anti-aging program will address chronic illness en route to extending human lifespan.  There’s no need to worry, on this account, about bankrupting the NHS.

If genetic therapy did somehow extend the quality of life into deep old age, then pension provision and social care would be astronomically expensive. The pension age will have to rise in units of a decade.

But what’s the problem about raising the pension age?  Any serious anti-aging program intends to extend youthful (productive) life, rather than frail (unproductive) life.  People who live longer will probably have several different careers, interspersed with periods of voluntary “retirement”.  There are many attractive scenarios to contemplate.

The pressure on resources — housing, schools, employment, food — would soon become intolerable.

Yes, there are challenges in providing food (etc) for larger populations, but there’s nothing insurmountable about these challenges.  For example, the sun emits enormous amounts of energy that we presently fail to tap.  The technology of the next decades should allow us to use this energy to feed a population many times larger than at present.

Life in the eternal future may yet be solitary, poor, nasty and brutish, precisely because it will no longer be short.

Anti-aging programs intend, not only to extend life, but to expand it.  My expectation is that people will gain huge numbers of new interests, new social connections, and ways of spending time that are both enjoyable and valuable.

Footnote: Anyone who finds these arguments of interest will probably benefit from reading at least the earlier chapters of Aubrey de Grey‘s book “Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime“.  Note this is not a light read, but it is well written and makes a strong case.

PS Anders Sandberg also posted comments to the TimesOnline system, but the moderator seems to have deleted these entirely.  See Anders’ own posts “Stupid arguments against life extension” and “Longer life, more trouble?”  I can’t resist quoting an extract of the latter article:

Arguing that longer life should not be pursued because it would mess up pension ages and other current social institutions is like arguing that we should not try to reduce crime – after all, what would the legal system do if there were fewer criminals and victims? The great ills of infirmity, disease and death caused by ageing are significantly greater than the potential social problems their cure would cause. Each of the stated problems can also be overcome if society so wishes – changing the pension system or having to pay a more taxes is a small price to pay for more life and potential happiness.

If the finitude of human life is what makes us happy, how come the generally happiest (as measured by e.g. the World Values Study) countries are the most long-lived? How come countries and populations with shorter lifespans are not happier?

…to assume that [death] gives meaning to life is like arguing that the value of love is entirely due to divorce.

1 March 2009

A different kind of job title

Filed under: catalysts, communications, openness, vision — David Wood @ 11:29 pm

The companies where I’ve worked for the last twenty years – first Psion PLC, then Symbian Ltd – were, in the end, commercially driven companies, with a mission from shareholders to generate profits. The Symbian Foundation is different: it’s a not-for-profit organisation.

That’s not to say we are blind to commercial considerations. On the contrary, our task is to support a collection of member organisations, many of which are highly profit-focused. We have to manage our own finances well, and we have to enable our member organisations to earn significant profits (if that’s what they want to do). But we’re not, ourselves, a fundamentally commercial entity.

With this thought in mind, we took the decision that we ought to rethink other aspects of how we organise ourselves, and how we communicate. We did not want to take it for granted that elements from the setups of our previous companies would automatically also appear in the setup of the Symbian Foundation.

One outcome of this is a decision to avoid overly business-oriented language like “vice president”, “officers” and “chiefs”, in describing the senior management team. Instead, we’ve eventually settled on the term “Leadership Team”. Hopefully this terminology conveys an emphasis on openness, approachability, and a pioneering spirit.

To designate my own particular area of responsibility, I’ve taken a deep gulp, and I’ve plumped for the description:

Catalyst and Futurist, Leadership Team

In brief:

  • As catalyst, my role is to enable the Symbian software movement to discover and explore innovative solutions for the many challenges and opportunities faced by the mobile industry;
  • As futurist, my task is to distil compelling visions of the future of technology, business, and society – visions that provide the energy and inspiration for deeply productive open collaboration among the many creators and users of mobile products.

As catalyst, it falls to me to accelerate reactions that might otherwise occur too slowly. These reactions draw on energy that’s already present in the ecosystem, but my activities should help to ignite that energy. I’ve written before about the important role of catalysts in ecosystems, in my review of the book “The starfish and the spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

What’s involved in igniting reactions? In part, it’s to hold out an attractive vision of a different way of working, a different kind of product, a different software architecture, a different user experience, and so on. That’s where the “futurist” part of my job description fits in. In part, it’s also to act, on occasion, as an irritant.

From time to time, I’ll be acting as an ambassador for Symbian, as an agitator, as a networker, and as an evangelist. I’ve got mixed views about the term “evangelist”. On reflection, here’s why I prefer “catalyst”:

  • Evangelists come with pre-cooked solutions – they already know the answers;
  • Catalysts come with suggestions and ideas, but the answer actually comes from the ecosystem, rather than from the catalyst;
  • Evangelists listen, but only to improve their prospects for converting the listener;
  • Catalysts listen, in order to find the ingredients of a solution that no one fully understood in advance.

If I should forget this advice in the future, and speak more forcefully than I listen, I’m sure that members of the ecosystem will find the way to remind me of what true openness really means!

15 February 2009

Deja vu, with a difference

Filed under: brand, Events, vision — David Wood @ 1:15 pm

As I walked through Barcelona airport this morning, my mind was jostled by sights and sounds remembered from my previous visits here. I’m in town to attend the annual Mobile World Congress trade show. (The show used to be called “3GSM”, and before that, “GSM World”.)

I’ve been attending this show every year since 2002. From 2002-05 it was held at Cannes, in France, in increasingly cramped circumstances – as the mobile industry grew and grew and grew. Since 2006 it has taken place 300 miles south west along the Mediterranean coast in Barcelona. So today marks my fourth annual visit to Barcelona airport.

As I walked through the airport, I found myself remembering:

  • that was the place where on my first visit, I had walked out of the wrong exit, and needed to go back in through a lengthy security screening process again before I could pick up my luggage;
  • that was the place where, another year, I had queued up to report that my luggage was missing (happily, it was delivered to my hotel by first thing the following morning);
  • that was the coffee shop where I had relaxed with some colleagues before going to the gate on the way home one year;
  • that was the restaurant where I had eaten a meal with a slightly different set of colleagues a different year, while awaiting news of delayed departure times; and so on.

The place is full of memories. But there’s a big difference this year. The remembrances of similarity mask underlying transitions.

For example, I’ll be spending a lot of my time over the next few days at the same hospitality suite as in previous years – AV91 on the main Fira avenue – but the suite has a very different feel this year. Here’s a picture of the outside of the suite, taken earlier today:

As you can see, the suite was still under construction – but some elements of the emerging Symbian Foundation branding are visible. The “friendly spaceman” has a side panel all to himself:

Other Symbian Foundation doodle characters are also visible: the inspired toaster, and so on. (No, these names aren’t official…)

Again, I’ll also be spending time at the same stand location as before – 8A77, in Hall 8 – but, again, the feel has changed:

What’s more, many of the colleagues who came with me to previous Mobile World Congress events, aren’t attending this year. The other members of the Symbian Leadership Team are primarily engaged these days in important internal integration projects inside Nokia, and have no reason to travel to Barcelona this year. So I’ll be sharing my duties – meeting press, analysts, bloggers, partners, and potential new members of the Symbian Foundation community – with a new set of Leadership Team colleagues – the members of the emerging Symbian Foundation Leadership Team.

Finally, the emphasis of these meetings will be less on the number of phones shipped, and more on the growing vibrancy and productivity of the Symbian Foundation community. After all, we can only aspire to provide the most widely used software on the planet if, along the way, we grow the most productive and valuable software movement on the planet.

Footnote: Another visible difference, from last year, is that the number of large advertising hoardings scattered all over the city seems significantly less this year.

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