dw2

20 April 2010

Creative chaos under the ash cloud

Filed under: challenge, chaos, Humanity Plus, precautionary principle, risks, volcano — David Wood @ 11:45 pm

Seven months of careful planning looked like they were unravelling, in the final seven days.

Discussions about a gathering of futurist and transhumanist thinkers in London’s Conway Hall, on April 24th, have been underway for seven months.  Behind the scenes, we’ve had a planning wiki, a mailing list, and a small group of volunteers each chipping in with suggestions and undertaking different tasks.  A website for the event went live on 19th January, and we started taking registrations a week after that.  Registrations built up, and up, so that I could finally feel comfortable putting my name to the following quote on a press release we issued, “Unprecedented gathering of futurist and transhumanist thinkers in London“:

The UK chapter of Humanity+, an organisation dedicated to promoting understanding, interest and participation in fields of emerging innovation that can radically benefit the human condition, announced today that registrations are on track for record attendance at the Humanity+ UK2010 conference taking place in Conway Hall, Holborn, London, on April 24th.

“Approaching 200 attendees are expected to take part in a full day of thought-provoking lectures, discussions, Q&A, and breakouts, led by a line-up of world class futurist speakers”, said David Wood, H+UK meetings secretary.  “Participants have registered from as far afield as Poland, Sweden, Croatia, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, and the USA.  The Humanity+ movement, previously known as the World Transhumanist Association, is coming of age.”…

However, on the very day of the press release, airplane flight restrictions were announced, for fear of damage from volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland.

At first, I wasn’t particularly worried.  I thought that only three of the ten speakers were overseas, and that there would be plenty of time for flights to resume before the conference.

But the speakers are actors on the global stage, much in demand around the world.  And I gradually learned that no fewer than six of the ten were stranded overseas – in Venice, Montreal, San Francisco, and so on.  And the airplane flight restrictions kept getting extended.  My heart sunk.

I half-imagined that nature was saying:

You Humanity+ people think you can do ‘better than nature‘. Pah!  Take that!

What depressed me most was that initial tests at the venue had already suggested that Internet connectivity in Conway Hall was poor.  So ideas of speakers delivering their presentations via video link seemed impractical.

But necessity is the mother of invention.  Since there was a real possibility that members of both speakers and audience wouldn’t be able to travel to London, we were obliged to reconsider options for Internet connectivity.  And this gives us the possibility for the meeting to rise above being a London-based event, into a happening with a real-time online presence.

I tweeted: What’s the best way to install, for one day, a temporary high bandwidth connection to a conference venue (in London, UK)?

Answers came, fast and varied.  With help from a couple of people from the H+UK event planning team, I followed up about half a dozen different ideas.  The Conway Hall administrators also proved very flexible and helpful.  In a way, it’s still too early to say, but it now looks as though we’re set up:

  • To support remote speakers doing Skype video calls into the event, with the screen on stage showing, sometimes their face, and sometimes their slides;
  • And, to broadcast a live video stream of the event, on a service such as Ustream.tv.

So maybe technology can work around the ravages of nature after all! (At least in small scale.  And, in the decades ahead, in ever larger scale.)

The ash cloud raises other questions relevant to transhumanism – especially how to deal with risk.

One moment, I was in email correspondence about conference logistics with the opening keynote speaker for the event, Max More.  Max is on public record as being critical of the precautionary principleA few moments later, I was watching the BBC news, where a “Cambridge volcano scientist” (I didn’t catch his name) was explaining that there’s something called the precautionary principle which means that aircraft flights through the ash cloud had to be forbidden.  My mind did a quick double take.

To back up: Wikipedia describes the precautionary principle as follows:

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.

This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is evidence of potential harm in the absence of complete scientific proof. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

In his 2005 article “THE PROACTIONARY PRINCIPLE“, Max offers the following criticisms of the precautionary principle:

The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:

  1. assuming worst-case scenarios
  2. distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
  3. assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
  4. ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
  5. illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
  6. conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.

What should we conclude about the wisdom of shutting down the airspace above the UK, on precautionary grounds?  That’s a good question to ask.  If you take part in the event this Saturday, you’ll have the chance to ask Max himself about that point.  (Especially since it now appears the airplanes are flying again, after all.)

Footnote: while writing this blog, I came across, for the first time, Max’s fine 1999 essay “A Letter to Mother Nature“.  It’s well worth reading.  Here’s how it starts:

Dear Mother Nature:

Sorry to disturb you, but we humans—your offspring—come to you with some things to say. (Perhaps you could pass this on to Father, since we never seem to see him around.) We want to thank you for the many wonderful qualities you have bestowed on us with your slow but massive, distributed intelligence. You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled mammals. You have given us free rein of the planet. You have given us a life span longer than that of almost any other animal. You have endowed us with a complex brain giving us the capacity for language, reason, foresight, curiosity, and creativity. You have given us the capacity for self-understanding as well as empathy for others.

Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves!

What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end.

We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution, initiated with the tools of biotechnology guided by critical and creative thinking. In particular, we declare the following seven amendments to the human constitution…

2 March 2010

Major new challenges to receive X PRIZE backing

Filed under: catalysts, challenge, futurist, Genetic Engineering, Google, grants, innovation, medicine, space — David Wood @ 7:16 pm

The X PRIZE Foundation has an audacious vision.

On its website, it describes itself as follows:

The X PRIZE Foundation is an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity thereby inspiring the formation of new industries, jobs and the revitalization of markets that are currently stuck

The foundation can point to the success of its initial prize, the Ansari X PRIZE.  This was a $10M prize to be awarded to the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.  This prize was announced in May 1996 and was won in October 2004, by the Tier One project using the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne.

Other announced prizes are driving research and development in a number of breakthrough areas:


The Archon X PRIZE will award $10 million to the first privately funded team to accurately sequence 100 human genomes in just 10 days.  Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking explains his support for this prize:

You may know that I am suffering from what is known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is thought to have a genetic component to its origin. It is for this reason that I am a supporter of the $10M Archon X PRIZE for Genomics to drive rapid human genome sequencing. This prize and the resulting technology can help bring about an era of personalized medicine. It is my sincere hope that the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics can help drive breakthroughs in diseases like ALS at the same time that future X PRIZEs for space travel help humanity to become a galactic species.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth.  Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, provided some context in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Government agencies have dominated space exploration for three decades. But in a new plan unveiled in President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget earlier this month, a new player has taken center stage: American capitalism and entrepreneurship. The plan lays the foundation for the future Google, Cisco and Apple of space to be born, drive job creation and open the cosmos for the rest of us.

Two fundamental realities now exist that will drive space exploration forward. First, private capital is seeing space as a good investment, willing to fund individuals who are passionate about exploring space, for adventure as well as profit. What was once affordable only by nations can now be lucrative, public-private partnerships.

Second, companies and investors are realizing that everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy and real estate—are in near-infinite quantities in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, what was once seen as a wasteland will become the next gold rush. Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as “Seward’s Folly” (Secretary of State William Seward was criticized for overpaying the sum of $7.2 million to the Russians for the territory in 1867), Alaska has since become a billion-dollar economy.

The same will hold true for space. For example, there are millions of asteroids of different sizes and composition flying throughout space. One category, known as S-type, is composed of iron, magnesium silicates and a variety of other metals, including cobalt and platinum. An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion.

Technology is reaching a critical point. Moore’s Law has given us exponential growth in computing technology, which has led to exponential growth in nearly every other technological industry. Breakthroughs in rocket propulsion will allow us to go farther, faster and more safely into space…

The Progressive Automotive X PRIZE seeks “to inspire a new generation of viable, safe, affordable and super fuel efficient vehicles that people want to buy“.  $10 million in prizes will be awarded in September 2010 to the teams that win a rigorous stage competition for clean, production-capable vehicles that exceed 100 MPG energy equivalent (MPGe).  Over 40 teams from 11 countries are currently entered in the competition.

Forthcoming new X PRIZEs

The best may still be to come.

It now appears that a series of new X PRIZEs are about to be announced.  CNET News writer Daniel Terdiman reports a fascinating interview with Peter Diamandis, in his article “X Prize group sets sights on next challenges (Q&A)“.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.  Here are just a few highlights:

On May 15, at a gala fundraising event to be held at George Lucas’ Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, X Prize Foundation Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, along with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and “Avatar” director James Cameron, will unveil their five-year vision for the famous awards…

The foundation …  is focusing on several potential new prizes that could change the world of medicine, oceanic exploration, and human transport.

The first is the so-called AI Physician X Prize, which will go to a team that designs an artificial intelligence system capable of providing a diagnosis equal to or better than 10 board-certified doctors.

The second is the Autonomous Automobile X Prize, which will go to the first team to design a car that can beat a top-seeded driver in a Gran Prix race.

The third would go to a team that can generate an organ from a terminal patient’s stem cells, transplant the organ [a lung, liver, or heart] into the patient, and have them live for a year.

And the fourth would reward a team that can design a deep-sea submersible capable of allowing scientists to gather complex data on the ocean floor

Diamandis  explains the potential outcome of the AI Physician Prize:

The implications of that are that by the end of 2013, 80 percent of the world’s populace will have a cell phone, and anyone with a cell phone can call this AI and the AI can speak Mandarin, Spanish, Swahili, any language, and anyone with a cell phone then has medical advice at the level of a board certified doctor, and it’s a game change.

Even more new X PRIZEs

Details of the process of developing new X PRIZEs are described on the foundation’s website.  New X PRIZEs are are guided by the following principles:

  • We create prizes that result in innovation that makes a lasting impact. Although a technological breakthrough can meet this criterion, so do prizes which inspire teams to use existing technologies, knowledge or systems in more effective ways.
  • Prizes are designed to generate popular interest through the prize lifecycle: enrollment, competition, attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) and post-completion…
  • Prizes result in financial leverage. For a prize to be successful, it should generate outside investment from competitors at least 5-10 times the prize purse size. The greater the leverage, the better return on investment for our prize donors and partners.
  • Prizes incorporate both elements of technological innovation as well as successful “real world” deployment. An invention which is too costly or too inconvenient to deploy widely will not win a prize.
  • Prizes engage multidisciplinary innovators which would otherwise be unlikely to tackle the problems that the prize is designed to address.

The backing provided to the foundation by the Google founders and by James Cameron provides added momentum to what is already an inspirational initiative and a great catalyst for innovation.

9 February 2009

Preparing for Barcelona

Filed under: challenge, collaboration, Open Source, party — David Wood @ 11:22 pm

What’s the issue that deserves the fullest attention of the best minds of the mobile industry representatives who will be gathering next week at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona?

That was one of the questions that I got asked in a quick-fire practice session last week, by a journalist who was employed for the morning to take part in a “media training session” for people from the Symbian Foundation launch team. The idea of the session was to bombard participants with potentially awkward questions, so we could test out various ways to respond. The questions ranged from tame to taxing, from straightforward to subtle, and from respectful to riotous.

One possible answer to the question at the top of this posting is that it is the issue of user experience which deserves the fullest attention. If users continue to be confronted by inflexible technology with unfriendly interfaces, they won’t get drawn in to make fullest use of mobile devices and services.

Another possible answer is that it is the issue of complexity which deserves the fullest attention. In this line of thinking, overly complex UIs are just one facet of the problem of overly complex mobile technology. Other facets include:

  • Overly difficult development cycles (resulting in products coming late to the market, and/or products released with too many defects), and
  • Overly exercised CPU cores and overly bloated software (resulting in products with poor battery life and high cost).

However, on reflection, I offer instead the following answer: it is the issue of collaboration which deserves the fullest attention. We need to find better ways for all the good resources of the mobile industry to be productively aligned addressing the same key risks and opportunities, rather than our good intentions ending up pulling in different directions. The problems that we collectively face (including the problems of poor user experience and overly complex software) are surely capable of resolution, if only we can find the way to work together on solutions, rather than our different approaches ending up contradiciting each other and confusing matters.

Open source, whereby people can look at source code and propose changes without having to gain special permission in advance, is part of the solution to improving collaboration. Open discussion and open governance take the solution further. Yet another step comes from collaboration tools that provide first-rate source configuration management and issue tracking.

But collaboration often needs clear leadership to make it a reality: a sufficiently compelling starting point on which further collaboration can take place. Without such a starting point, none of the other items I mentioned can hope to make a lasting difference.

That brings me back to the role of the Symbian Foundation. The Symbian Foundation is offering the entire mobile industry what it claims to be the best possible starting point for further collaboration:

  • A tried and tested codebase of 40 million lines of code;
  • Processes and disciplines that cope with pressures from multiple divergent stakeholders;
  • A visionary roadmap that is informed by the thinking of existing mobile leaders, and which spells out the likely evolution of key mobile technologies.

The Symbian Foundation will be holding a welcome party on Monday evening at Barcelona (8pm-11pm, 16th February). I’ve been allocated a small number of tickets to this party, to pass to selected bloggers, analysts, and other deep thinkers of the mobile industry. If you’d like to join this party to discuss the points I’ve made in this posting (or any of the other issues relevant to the formation of the Symbian Foundation), I set you this challenge. Please drop me an email, and provide a link to some of your online writings on applicable topics. (By the way, you don’t need to agree with my viewpoint. You just need to demonstrate that you’re going to enter into an open-minded, friendly, and constructive debate!)

« Newer Posts

Blog at WordPress.com.