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8 February 2015

A tale of two cities – and of two speeds

Filed under: Barcelona, Cambridge, futurist, MWC, Singularity University — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 12:30 am

The two cities I have in mind are both Spanish: Barcelona in the north of the country, and Seville in the south. They’re each outstanding cities.

TwoCitiesInSpain

I’ll come back to these two cities in a moment. But first, a word about two speeds – two speeds of futurism – slow-paced futurism and fast-paced futurism.

As someone who’s had the word “Futurist” on my personal business card since early 2009, I’m inspired to see more and more people taking the subject of futurism seriously. There’s a widespread awareness, nowadays, that it’s important to analyse future scenarios. If we spend time thinking about the likely developments of current trends, we’ll be better prepared to try to respond to these trends. Instead of being shocked when disruptive forces burst through from being “under the radar” to having major impacts on lifestyles and society, we’ll have been acting to influence the outcome – pushing hard to increase the likelihood of positive changes, and to decrease the likelihood of negative changes.

But it’s my observation that, in many of the meetings I attend and the discussions I observe, the futurism on display is timid and conservative. Well-meaning speakers contemplate a future, ten or twenty years ahead, that is 95% the same as today, but with, say, 5% changes. In these modestly innovative future scenarios, we might have computers that are faster than today’s, screens that are more ubiquitous than today’s, and some jobs will have been displaced by robots and automation. But human nature will be the same in the future as in the past, and the kinds of thing people spend their time doing will be more-or-less the same as they have been doing for the last ten or twenty years too (except, perhaps, faster).

In contrast, I foresee that, within just a couple of decades, it will be very clear to everyone that momentous changes in human nature and human society are at hand (if they have not already taken place):

  • Robots and other forms of automation will be on the point of displacing perhaps 90% of human employees from the workforce – with “creative” jobs and “managerial” jobs being every bit as much at risk as “muscle” jobs
  • Enhanced suites of medical therapies will be poised to enable decades of healthy life extension, and an associated “longevity dividend” financial bonanza (since costs of healthcare will have plummeted)
  • Systems that exist both inside and outside of the human brain will be ready to dramatically increase multiple dimensions of our intelligence – including emotional and spiritual intelligence as well as rational intelligence
  • Virtual reality and augmented reality will be every bit as vivid and compelling as “natural reality”
  • Artificial general intelligence software will be providing convincing new answers to long-standing unsolved questions of science and philosophy
  • Cryonic suspension of people on the point of death will have become pervasive, since the credibility of the possibility of reanimation by future science will have grown much higher.

So whilst I cautiously welcome the slow-paced futurists, I wish more people would realise the immensity of the transformations ahead, and become fast-paced futurists.

One group of people who do have a strong appreciation of the scale of potential future changes are the faculty of Singularity University. In November, I took part in the Singularity University Summit Europe held at the DeLaMar Theater in Amsterdam.

delamar-outside

I was already familiar with a lot of the material covered by the different presenters, but – wow:

  • The information was synthesised in a way that was compelling, entertaining, highly credible, and thought-provoking
  • The different sessions dovetailed extremely well together
  • The speakers clearly knew their material, and were comfortable providing good answers to the various questions raised by audience members (including offbeat and tangential questions).

People in the audience told me later that their jaws had been on the floor for nearly the entire two days.

My own reaction was: I should find ways of enabling lots more people to attend future similar Summits. The experience would likely transform them from being slow-paced futurists to fast-paced futurists.

Happily, many Singularity University faculty members are returning to Europe, for the next Summit in the series. This will be taking place from 12-14 March in Seville. You can find the details here.

SUSS speakers

Sessions at SU Summit Spain will include:

  • Intro to SU and Exponentials – Rob Nail
  • Artificial Intelligence – Neil Jacobstein
  • Robotics – Rob Nail
  • Networks and Computing: Autonomous Cars – Brad Templeton
  • Breakthrough in Digital Biology – Raymond McCauly
  • Future of Medicine – Daniel Kraft
  • Digital Manufacturing – Scott Summit and Nigel Ackland
  • Energy Breakthroughs – Ramez Naam
  • SU Labs – Sandy Miller
  • Global Grand Challenges – Nick Haan
  • Security – David Roberts
  • Institutional Innovation and Scaling from the edge – Salim Ismail

And did I mention that the event is taking place in the fabulous history-laden city of Seville?

As it happens, Summit Spain will be taking place just ten days after another large event that’s also happening in Spain: Mobile World Congress (MWC), held in Barcelona, from 2-5 March. Many readers will know that I’ve been at every MWC since 2002, and I’ve found them to be extremely useful networking events. In my 2014 book Smartphones and beyond, I told the story of my first visit to MWC – which was called “3GSM” at that time, and which was held that year in Cannes, across the border from Spain into France. Unexpected management changes at Symbian, the pioneering smartphone OS company, meant I suddenly had to step into a whole series of press interviews scheduled for that week:

Never having attended 3GSM before, I had a rapid learning curve. Symbian’s PR advisors gave me some impromptu “media training”, to lessen the chance of me fluffing my lines, unwittingly breaching confidentiality restrictions, or otherwise saying something I would subsequently regret. My diary was soon full of appointments to talk to journalists from all over Europe, in the cramped meeting rooms and coffee bars in Cannes. The evenings were bristling with networking events in the yachts which clustered around the dock areas. Happily, when the week was over, there was nothing to regret. Indeed, Symbian’s various PR departments invited me back for numerous interviews at every subsequent 3GSM. In later years, 3GSM changed its name to MWC (Mobile World Congress), and outgrew Cannes, so it relocated instead to Barcelona. I have attended every year since that first sudden immersion in 2002.

But all good things come to an end (so it is said). In recent years, I’ve found MWC to be less compelling. Smartphones, once dramatically different from one year to the next, have slowed down their curve of change. The wellspring of innovation is moving to other industries.

After MWC 2014, I had the privilege to chair a discussion of industry experts in Cambridge, co-hosted by Cambridge Wireless and Accenture, regarding both the highs and lows (the “fiesta” and the “siesta”) of the Barcelona event.

In that panel, the expressions of “siesta” (snooze) were consistently more heartfelt than those of “fiesta” (feast).

When the time came, a few weeks back, for me to decide whether to follow my habit of the last dozen years and book my presence in Barcelona for 2015, I found my heart was no longer inspired by that prospect. I’ve decided not to go.

I’m sure a great deal of important business will happen during these hectic few days at MWC, including some ground-breaking developments in fields such as wearable computing and augmented reality. But that will be slow ground-breaking – whereas it’s my judgement that the world needs, and is headed towards, fast ground-breaking. And Seville, ten days later, is the place to get early warning of these changes. So that’s where I’m headed.

If you’re interested in a preview taster of that early warning – a ninety minute anticipation of these three days – then please consider attending an event happening at Google’s Campus London on the morning of Thursday 12th February. This preview meeting is free to attend, though attendees need to pre-register, here. The preview on Thursday will:

  • Introduce the rich resources of the Singularity University (SU) community
  • Highlight some of the most dramatic of the technological changes that can be expected in the next few years
  • Answer your questions about SU Summit Spain
  • Conduct a lottery among all attendees, with the winner receiving a free admission ticket to SU Summit Spain.

The speakers I’ll be introducing at the preview will be:

  • Russell Buckley: Mentor, angel investor in 40+ startups, Government advisor, fundraising specialist, and Singularitarian
  • Nick Chrissos: Collaboration CTO, Cisco
  • Luis Rey: Director of the Singularity University Summit Spain.

The preview will start at 9am with tea/coffee and light breakfast. Presentations will start at 9.10am.

Note:

Icon combo 3
Footnote: If you’re interested in how the wireless industry can respond to the threat of being bypassed (or even steamrollered) by innovation arising elsewhere, you should consider registering for the 7th Future of Wireless International Conference, being held by CW (Cambridge Wireless) on 23-24 June. That conference has the timely theme “Wireless is dead. Long live wireless!” I’ll be one of the keynote speakers at the event. Here’s the description of what I’ll be talking about there (taken from the event website):

Wireless disrupted.

Wireless has spent two decades disrupting numerous other industries. But the boot is now on the other foot. This talk anticipates the powerful forthcoming trends that threaten to steamroller the wireless industry, with the well-spring of innovation moving beyond its grasp. These trends include technologies, such as artificial intelligence, next generation robotics, implantable computing, and cyber-security; they also include dramatic social transformations. The talk ends by suggesting some steps to enable a judo-like response to these threats.

9 January 2015

A transhumanist political manifesto?

I’ll welcome some feedback. The looming advent of the UK General Election in May this year has focused some minds – minds that are unhappy that too much of the political debate ignores some very important topics. These are the topics of the likelihood of large societal changes occurring in the next 5-10 years – changes arising from breakthroughs in multiple fields of technology. Politicians, for various reasons, aren’t giving much mind-share to these impending changes.

The outcome of this unhappiness about the current political discussion is the idea of launching a “transhumanist political manifesto”. The current draft of this document is below. (It’s a live document, and may have changed by the time you read this blogpost. You can access the live draft here.)

All being well, a later version of this document will be used as part of a checklist, in the next few months, to publicly evaluate various political parties for their degree of “future-readiness”.

The feedback I’m interested in is this. Especially if you consider yourself a transhumanist (or have some sympathies for that philosophy), what’s your reaction to the points picked out in this draft manifesto? Would you change the content? Or the prioritisation? And to what extent might the content be applicable in other countries, rather than just in the UK?

Preamble: Anticipating tomorrow’s humanity

UKhplusPrepared by UK Humanity+ (UKH+)

Transhumanism is the viewpoint that human society should embrace, wisely, thoughtfully, and compassionately, the radical transformational potential of technology.

The speed and direction of technological adoption can be strongly influenced by social and psychological factors, by legislation, by subsidies, and by the provision or restriction of public funding. Political action can impact all these factors, either for better or for worse.

UKH+ wishes to engage with politicians of all parties to increase the likelihood of an attractive, equitable, sustainable, progressive future. The policies we recommend are designed:

  • To elevate the thinking of politicians and other leaders, away from being dominated by the raucous issues of the present, to addressing the larger possibilities of the near future
  • To draw attention to technological opportunities, map out attractive roads ahead, and address the obstacles which are preventing us from fulfilling our cosmic potential.

Headlines

UKH+ calls upon politicians of all parties to define and support:

  • Regenerative projects to take full advantage of accelerating technology.

More specifically, we call for:

  • Economic and personal liberation via the longevity dividend
  • An inclusive new social contract in the light of technological disruption
  • A proactionary regulatory system to fast-track innovative breakthroughs
  • Reform of democratic processes with new digital tools
  • Education transformed in readiness for a radically different future
  • A progressive transhumanist rights agenda
  • An affirmative new perspective on existential risks.

Details

1. Regenerative projects to take full advantage of accelerating technology

Anticipating profound change

Accelerating technological progress has the potential to transform lives in the next ten years more profoundly than in any preceding ten year period in history.

Radical technological changes are coming sooner than people think, in technology fields such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, renewable energy, regenerative medicine, brain sciences, big data analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Together, these technologies will change society in unexpected ways, disrupting familiar patterns of industry, lifestyle, and thinking.

These changes include the potential for exceptional benefits for both the individual and society, as well as the potential for tremendous risk.

Current policymakers rarely tackle the angle of convergent disruptive technologies. This means they react to each new disruption with surprise, after it appears, rather than anticipating it with informed policy and strategy.

Politicians of all parties urgently need to:

  • Think through the consequences of these changes in advance
  • Take part in a wide public discussion and exploration of these forthcoming changes
  • Adjust public policy in order to favour positive outcomes
  • Support bold regenerative projects to take full advantage of accelerating technology – projects with the uplifting vision and scale of the 1960s Apollo moonshot program.

These bold regenerative projects can galvanize huge collaborative endeavours, via providing a new sense of profound purpose and shared destiny.

Benefits from profound change

The outcomes of these regenerative projects can:

  • Enable humans to transcend (overcome) many of the deeply debilitating, oppressive, and hazardous aspects of our lives
  • Allow everyone a much wider range of personal autonomy, choice, experience, and fulfilment
  • Facilitate dramatically improved international relations, social harmony, and a sustainable new cooperation with nature and the environment.

Managing the regenerative projects

These projects can be funded and resourced:

  • By tapping into a well-spring of positive motivation and discretionary effort which these projects will unleash
  • By benefiting from the longevity dividend, in which less budget will be consumed by end-of-life healthcare
  • From smarter forms of international cooperation, which should reduce costs from efforts duplicated between different countries
  • By progressively diverting funding from military budgets to regenerative budgets
  • By eliminating the loopholes which allow multinational companies to shuffle revenues between countries and thereby avoid paying due taxes
  • From savings from applying principles of automation and Information Technology wherever applicable.

The policies in this manifesto are designed to expedite these positive transformations whilst avoiding adverse consequences.

2. Economic and personal liberation via the longevity dividend

Given adequate resources, human longevity could be enormously extended using technologies which are already broadly understood. Prolonging healthy lifespan would clearly benefit the very large number of citizens concerned, and it would also benefit society by preserving and deepening the experience and wisdom available to solve our various social problems.

Transhumanists aspire to indefinite healthy life extension. Rejuvenation therapies based on regenerative medicine can and should be developed and progressively made available to all citizens. The resulting “longevity dividend” will have large social and economic benefits, as well as personal ones. We do not believe it would impose a dangerous pressure on resources. We call for a bold new moonshot-scale project with the specific goal of ameliorating the degenerative aging process and significantly extending healthy human lifespan.

A practical suggestion is that 20% of the public research funding that currently goes to specific diseases should be reassigned, instead, to researching solutions to aging. In line with the analysis of e.g. SENS, the “ending aging” angle is likely to provide promising lines of research and solutions to many diseases, such as senile dementia (including Alzheimer’s), cancer, heart disease, motor neurone disease, respiratory diseases, and stroke.

3. An inclusive new social contract in the light of technological disruption

Emerging technologies – in particular automation – are likely to impose significant strains on the current economic model. It is far from clear how this will play out, nor what are the best strategies for response. Society and its leaders need to consider and discuss these changes, and draw up plans to deal with different outcome scenarios.

Transhumanists anticipate that accelerating technological unemployment may cause growing social disruption and increased social inequality and alienation. A new social contract is needed, involving appropriate social, educational, and economic support for those who are left with no viable option of ‘earning a living’ due to unprecedented technological change.

A form of “negative income tax” (as proposed by Milton Friedman) or a “basic income guarantee” could provide the basis for this new social contract. Some observers feel it may take an moonshot-scale program to fully design and implement these changes in our social welfare systems. However, political parties around the world have developed promising models, backed up by significant research, for how universal basic income might be implemented in a cost-effective manner. UKH+ urges action based on the best of these insights.

A practical suggestion is to repeat the 1970s Canadian “Minincome” guaranteed income experiment in several different locations, over longer periods than the initial experiments, and to monitor the outcome. Further references can be found here andhere.

4. A proactionary regulatory system to fast-track innovative breakthroughs

The so-called “precautionary principle” preferred by some risk-averse policy makers is often self-defeating: seeking to avoid all risks can itself pose many risks. The precautionary principle frequently hinders intelligent innovation. The “proactionary principle” is a better stance, in which risks are assessed and managed in a balanced way, rather than always avoided. Any bias in favour of the status quo should be challenged, with an eye on better futures that can be created.

Transhumanists observe that many potentially revolutionary therapies are under research, but current drug development has become increasingly slow and expensive (as summarised by “Eroom’s law”). Translational research is doing badly, in part due to current drug regulations which are increasingly out of step with public opinion, actual usage, and technology.

In practical terms, UKH+ recommends:

  • Streamlining regulatory approval for new medicines, in line with recommendations by e.g. CASMI in the UK
  • Removing any arbitrary legal distinction between “therapies for ill-health” and “therapies for enhancement”.

We also urge revisions in patent and copyright laws to discourage counter-productive hoarding of intellectual property:

  • Reduce the time periods of validity of patents in certain industry areas
  • Make it much less likely that companies can be granted “obvious” patents that give them a throat-choke on subsequent development in an industry area
  • Explore the feasibility of alternative and complementary schemes for facilitating open innovation, such as reputation economies or prize funds.

5. Reform of democratic processes with new digital tools

The underpinnings of a prosperous, democratic, open society include digital rights, trusted, safe identities, and the ability to communicate freely without fear of recrimination or persecution. Transhumanists wish to:

  • Accelerate the development and deployment of tools ensuring personal privacy and improved cyber-security
  • Extend governmental open data initiatives
  • Champion the adoption of “Democracy 2.0” online digital tools to improve knowledge-sharing, fact-checking, and collective decision-making
  • Increase the usefulness and effectiveness of online petitions
  • Restrict the undue influence which finance can have over the electoral and legislative process.

Government policy should be based on evidence rather than ideology:

  • Insights from the emerging field of cognitive biases should be adapted into decision-making processes
  • New committees and organisations should be designed according to debiasing knowledge, so they are less likely to suffer groupthink
  • AI systems should be increasingly used to support smart decision making.

All laws restricting free-speech based on the concept of “personal offence” should be revoked. Anyone accepted into a country, whether as a visitor or as an immigrant, must confirm that they fully accept the principle of free speech, and renounce any use of legal or extralegal means to silence those who offend their religion or worldview.

6. Education transformed in readiness for a radically different future

A greater proportion of time spent in education and training (whether formal or informal) should be future-focused, exploring

  • Which future scenarios are technically feasible, and which are fantasies
  • Which future scenarios are desirable, once their “future shock” has been accepted
  • What actions can be taken to accelerate the desirable outcomes, and avoid the undesirable ones
  • How to achieve an interdisciplinary understanding of future scenarios
  • How resilience can be promoted, rather than society just having a focus on efficiency
  • How creativity can be promoted, rather than society just having a focus on consumption
  • The intelligent management of risk.

Lifelong training and education should become the norm, with people of all ages learning new skills as the need becomes apparent in the new age of automation. Educational curricula need to be able to adapt rapidly.

We would mandate that each university and educational establishment makes an increasing proportion of its material freely accessible online every year.

Education should take greater advantage of MOOCs, and the possibility for people having their knowledge certified without enrolling in a traditional college. MOOCs can be usefully complemented with location based learning labs (“makerspaces”) absorbing some of existing library empty space, preserving the “open knowledge” of libraries and expanding it into “open education and learning”. UKH+ anticipates a time where, apart from lab work, the whole of tertiary education will be delivered online.

7. A progressive transhumanist rights agenda

Transhumanists wish to:

  • Explore the gradual applicability of selected human rights to sentient beings, such as primates, that demonstrate relevant mental life, and also advanced AIs, that need such rights to function in their respective purpose
  • Hasten the adoption of synthetic (in-vitro) meat, and the abolition of cruelty to farm animals.

Transhumanists champion the concept of morphological freedom:

  • The rights of all people, including sexual and gender minorities, to bodily self-determination
  • Free access to modern reproductive technologies, including genetic screening to improve the quality of life, for all prospective parents
  • Making it easier for people, if they so choose, to enter a state of cryonic suspension as their bodies come close to clinical death.

Transhumanists envision support for a radical future for consciousness:

  • Enhanced mental cooperation as minds become more interconnected via brain-to-computer interfaces and other foreseeable brain/mind technologies, which will enable the ability to share qualia at rapid speeds.

8. An affirmative new perspective on existential risks

Some emerging technologies – in particular artificial general intelligence and nanotechnology – are so powerful as to produce changes more dramatic than anything since the agricultural revolution. The outcomes could be extraordinarily positive for humanity, or they could threaten our very existence.

Existing technologies already pose potential catastrophic risks to the well-being of humanity:

  • The risk persists of accidental nuclear warfare
  • Runaway climate change might be triggered by unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases that push global temperatures beyond sudden tipping points.

There are further complications from relatively easy access by alienated, destructive individuals to weapons of mass destruction, including dirty bombs and synthetic pathogens.

Without being complacent, transhumanists believe that sustained human innovation can mitigate all these risks, once they are fully understood. We call for significant resources to be applied to working out how to ensure that the outcomes are positive.

The wise management of the full set of existential risks is likely to involve innovations in technology (e.g. the development and production of cleaner energy sources), economics (e.g. a carbon tax to redress the market failure of unpenalized negative externalities), and politics (e.g. the collaborative creation and enforcement of binding treaties). The end outcome will be the successful harnessing of technologies, both old and new, for the radical enhancement of humanity.

21 October 2014

An exponential approach to peace?

While the information-based world is now moving exponentially, our organizational structures are still very linear (especially larger and older ones)…

We’ve learned how to scale technology… Now it’s time to scale the organization: strategy, structure, processes, culture, KPIs, people and systems

Opening slide

The above messages come from a punchy set of slides that have just been posted on SlideShare by Yuri van Geest. Yuri is the co-author of the recently published book “Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it)”, and the slides serve as an introduction to the ideas in the book. Yuri is also the Dutch Ambassador of the Singularity University (SU), and the Managing Director of the SU Summit Europe which is taking place in the middle of next month in Amsterdam.

Conference overview

Yuri’s slides have many impressive examples of rapid decline in the cost for functionality, over the last few years, in different technology sectors.

Industrial robots

DNA sequencing

But what’s even more interesting than the examples of exponential technology are the examples of what the book calls exponential organizations – defined as follows:

An Exponential Organization (ExO) is one whose impact (or output) is disproportionately large — at least 10x larger — compared to its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage exponential technologies.

Organizations reviewed in the book include Airbnb, GitHub, Google, Netflix, Quirky, Valve, Tesla, Uber, Waze, and Xiaomi. I’ll leave it to you to delve into the slides (and/or the book) to review what these organizations have in common:

  • A “Massive Transformative Purpose” (MTP)
  • A “SCALE” set of attributes (SCALE is an acronym) enabling enhanced “organizational right brain creativity, growth, and acceptance of uncertainty”
  • An “IDEAS” set of attributes (yes, another acronym) enabling enhanced “organizational left brain order, control, and stability”.

I find myself conflicted by some of the examples in the book. For example, I believe there’s a lot more to the decline of the once all-conquering Nokia than the fact that they acquired Navteq instead of Waze. (I tell a different version of the causes of that decline in my own book, Smartphones and beyond. Nevertheless I agree that organizational matters had a big role in what happened.)

But regardless of some queries over details in the examples, the core message of the book rings true: companies will stumble in the face of fast-improving exponential technologies if they persist with “linear organization practice”, including top-down hierarchies, process inflexibility, and a focus on “ownership” and “control”.

The book quotes with approval the following dramatic assertion from David S. Rose, serial entrepreneur and angel investor:

Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st.

I’d put the emphasis a bit differently: Any company designed for success in the 20th century needs to undergo large structural change to remain successful in the 21st. The book provides advice on what these changes should be – whether the company is small, medium-sized, or large.

A third level of exponential change

I like the change in focus from exponential technology to exponential organizations – more nimble organizational structures that are enabled and even made necessary by the remarkable spread of exponential technologies (primarily those based on information).

However, I’m interested in a further step along that journey – the step to exponential societies.

Can we find ways to take advantage of technological advances, not just to restructure companies, but to restructure wider sets of human relationships? Can we find better ways to co-exist without the threat of armed warfare, and without the periodic outbursts of savage conflict which shatter so many people’s lives?

The spirit behind these questions is conveyed by the explicit mission statement of the Singularity University:

Our mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.

Indeed, the Singularity University has set up a Grand Challenge Programme, dedicated to finding solutions to Humanity’s grand challenges. The Grand Challenge framework already encompasses global health, water, energy, environment, food, education, security, and poverty.

Framework picture

Peace Grand Challenge

A few weeks ago, Mike Halsall and I got talking about a slightly different angle that could be pursued in a special Grand Challenge essay contest. Mike is the Singularity University ambassador for the UK, and has already been involved in a number of Grand Challenge events in the UK. The outcome of our discussion was announced on http://londonfuturists.com/peace-grand-challenge/:

Singularity University and London Futurists invite you to submit an essay describing your idea on the subject ‘Innovative solutions for world peace, 2014-2034’.

Rocket picture v2

First prize is free attendance for one person at the aforementioned Singularity University’s European two-day Summit in Amsterdam, November 19th-20th 2014. Note: the standard price of a ticket to this event is €2,000 (plus VAT). The winner will also receive a cash prize of £200 as a contribution towards travel and other expenses.

We’ve asked entrants to submit their essay to the email address lf.grandchallenge@gmail.com by noon on Wednesday 29th October 2014. The winners will be announced no later than Friday 7th November.

Among the further details from the contest website:

  • Submitted essays can have up to 2,000 words. Any essays longer than this will be omitted from the judging process
  • Entrants must be resident in the UK, and must be at least 18 years old on the closing date of the contest
  • Three runners-up will receive a signed copy of the book Exponential Organizations, as well as free attendance at all London Futurists events for the twelve months following the completion of the competition.

At the time of writing, only a handful of essays have been received. That’s not especially surprising: my experience from previous essay contests is that most entrants tend to leave essay submission until the last 24-48 hours (and a large proportion have arrived within the final 6o minutes).

But you can look at this from an optimistic perspective: the field is still wide open. Make the effort to write down your own ideas as to how technology can defuse violent flashpoints around the world, or contribute to world peace in some other way within the next 20 years. Let’s collectively advance the discussion of how exponential technology can do more than just help us find a more effective taxi ride or the fastest route to drive to our destination. Let’s figure out ways in which that technology can solve, not just traffic jams, but logjams of conflicting ideologies, nationalist loyalties, class mistrust, terrorists and counter-terrorists bristling with weaponry and counter-weaponry, and so on.

But don’t delay, since the contest entry deadline is at noon, UK time, on the 29th of October. (That deadline is necessary to give the winner time to book travel to the Summit Europe.)

London Futurists looks forward to publishing a selection of the best essays – and perhaps even converting some of the ideas into animated video format, for wider appeal.

Footnote: discounted price to attend the SU Summit Europe

Note: by special arrangement with the Singularity University, a small number of tickets for the Summit Europe are being reserved for the extended London Futurists community in the UK, with a €500 discount. To obtain this discount, use partner code ‘SUMMITUK’ when you register.

 

 

19 September 2014

The new future of old age

In an enchanting four minute video, Korean artist Seok Jeong Hyeon, who is also known as Stonehouse, portrays the gradual aging of a baby girl. At first, the changes are slow, but they accumulate as years and then decades pass. The end result is an elderly woman, adorned with lines and wrinkles, who finally stops breathing.

The video is beautiful, and the woman maintains her own elegance to the end. As such, it presents a romantic view of aging. (And the video even hints at another romantic idea, namely reincarnation.)

In reality, as we age, we suffer from increasing numbers of aches and pains. We half-laugh when we say that we’re experiencing a “senior moment” of forgetfulness, but we notice our declining potency. Worse, every extra eight years that we live, past the age of around 35, we become twice as likely to die within the next year. In other words, our mortality rate increases exponentially. This was first observed in 1825 by British actuary and mathematician Benjamin Gompertz. Empirical data continues to support Gompertz, nearly two centuries later. For example, here’s a chart of the exponentially increasing death rate in the USA:

gompertz-mortality-curve

One of the factors underlying this upwards surge of mortality rate is the fact that, as we become older, we become increasingly vulnerable to various horrible diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and lung disorders. Aging researcher Avi Roy of Oxford has collected information from the Office of National Statistics as follows:

Death rates from diseases

These five diseases aren’t random choices, by the way. They’re currently all high up in the list of the current largest causes of death.

The romantic notion of death is that we grow old gracefully, lose our powers almost imperceptibly, and die in our sleep, contented, surrounded by happy thoughts. In all too many cases, alas, death is preceded by viciously nasty diseases.

The Palo Alto prize

One of the deeply cherished visions of potential human progress has been the hope that, one day, we could reverse this state of affairs. Instead of the rate of mortality increasing with chronological age, it could remain constant. The terrible diseases listed, and others like them, which all currently increase their impact the older we get, could be conquered by the development of medicine – much the same as medicine has already made huge inroads against infectious diseases. The best solution would be, not a wide range of individual interventions each targeted at specific diseases, but an intervention that undoes the underlying damage of aging – the damage which accumulates throughout our body, and which makes it more likely that we fall prey to “diseases of old age”.

Until recently, that vision has lain well outside scientific orthodoxy. People have been loath to mention the idea, as it could spell the end of their academic careers.

However, that reticence seems to be changing. No less than eleven research teams from universities around the world have already publicly committed to entering for the recently announced “Palo Alto Longevity Prize”, which has a $1M prize fund. This video provides an introduction to the prize:

This video introduces key personnel from the different teams who are already engaged in developing solutions for contest:

.

The eleven teams and their leaders are listed in a recent TechCrunch article about the prize:

Doris Taylor, Ph.D.
Texas Heart Institute, Houston, TX
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-taylor-lab/ ‎
TEAM NAME: T.H.I. REGENERATIVE MEDICINE (approach: stem cells)

Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, NY
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/cai-lab/
TEAM NAME: CAI LAB (approach: hypothalamic regulation)

Andreas Birkenfeld, M.D.
Charite University School of Medicine, Berlin, Germany
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-indy/
TEAM NAME: INDY (approach: gene modification)

Jin Hyung Lee, Ph.D.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-lee-lab/
TEAM NAME: LEE LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

David Mendelowitz, Ph.D.
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-mendelowitz-lab/
TEAM NAME: MENDELOWITZ LAB (approach: oxytocin)

Scott Wolf, M.D.
Mountain View, CA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/volts-medical/
TEAM NAME: VOLTS MEDICAL (approach: inflammatory tissues)

Irving Zucker, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-zucker-lab/
TEAM NAME: ZUCKER LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

Brian Olshansky, M.D.
University of Iowa Medical Center, Iowa City, IA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-olshansky-lab
TEAM NAME: IOWA PRO-AUTONOMIA (approach: not yet public)

William Sarill, M.A.
Arlington, MA
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-sarill-lab/
TEAM NAME: DECO (approach: pituitary hormones)

Steven Porges, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-porges-lab/
TEAM NAME: POLYVAGAL SCIENCE (approach: optimizing both the left & right vagal branches)

Shin-Ichiro Imai, M.D., Ph.D.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/imai-lab/
TEAM NAME: IMAI LAB (approach: gene modification)

Approaching rejuvenation

AR Cover page v2In the light of all the fascinating developments around the field of increasing healthy longevity, I’ve decided that my next book will focus on that field.

The book is entitled “Approaching rejuvenation: Is science on the point of radically extending human longevity”. My intent is that the book will provide a bird’s eye report from the frontiers of the emerging field of rejuvenation biology:

  • The goals and motivations of key players in this field
  • The rapid progress that has been achieved in the last few years
  • The challenges that threaten to thwart further development
  • The critical questions that need to be faced.

The book will be based around material from interviews with more than a dozen researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians, who are making it their life’s quest to enable human rejuvenation. I’ve already started doing these interviews.

I’m far from being an expert in any branch of biochemistry or medicine. However, I hope to bring five important angles to this writing task:

  1. My background in history and philosophy of science, wrestling with the question of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, and the more general dilemma of how to decide whether lines of research are likely to turn out to be misguided dead-ends
  2. My professional career within the smartphone industry, where I saw a lot of similar aspirations (though on a much smaller scale) regarding the breakthroughs that fast-moving technology could enable
  3. My experience as a writer, in which I seek to explain complicated subjects in a relatively straightforward but engaging manner
  4. The six years in which I have had the privilege to organise meetups in London dedicated to futurist, singularitarian, and technoprogressive topics – meetings which have featured a wide variety of different attitudes and outlooks
  5. My aspiration as a humanitarian to probe for both the human upsides and the human downsides of changing technology – in order to set possible engineering breakthroughs (such as rejuvenation biotech) in a broader societal context.

If you have any suggestions or comments about this new book project, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The new future of old age

The London Futurists event next Saturday (27th September) addresses the same general theme. I close this blogpost with an excerpt from the description of the meetup. Please see the associated meetup page for more information about the speakers, for logistics details, and to register to attend. I hope to see some of you there!

Futurists, life extension advocates, transhumanists and others have been speaking for several decades already about the possibility, desirability, and broader consequences of significantly extending the human healthy lifespan. In this vision, the deteriorating effects of infirmity and old age could be radically postponed, and perhaps abolished altogether, via improvements in regenerative biotechnology.

Forget “70 is the new 50”. We might have the possibility of “150 is the new 50”. And alongside the existing booming cosmetics industry, with huge amounts spent to reduce the visible signs of aging, we might envision a booming rejuvenation industry, reversing the actual underlying biochemical damage that constitutes aging.

Recently, the pace of change in the field of healthy life extension seems to have increased: almost every day there are reports of possible breakthrough treatment methods, unexpected experimental results, new economic analyses of demographic changes, and innovative theoretical ideas. It’s hard to keep up with all these reports.

How can we evaluate this flurry of change?

Held in conjunction with the UN International Day of Older People (which occurs each year on 1st October), this event brings together a panel of expert speakers – William BainsMichael Price, Alex Zhavoronkov, and Sebastian Sethe – who will each give their assessment of “what’s new in the field of old age”:

  • What are some of the most significant research findings and other potential breakthroughs from the last five years?
  • What is the likelihood of significant practical change in healthy longevity within, say, the next 10-20 years?
  • What would be the economic, social, and psychological implications of such changes?
  • Are there any new grounds for scepticism or fear regarding these potential changes?
  • If individuals wish to help accelerate these changes, what should they do?
  • What are the major obstacles that could prevent real progress being made?

FB meeting image

 

 

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?

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