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.


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.

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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.


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?

5 January 2014

Convictions and actions, 2014 and beyond

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

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

In more detail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Let me briefly comment on each of these projects.

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Forthcoming London Futurists event: The Burning Question

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

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

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

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

For more details and to RSVP, click here.

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

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

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, with Ramez Naam

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

For more details, click here.

Here’s an extract of the event description:

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

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

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

The discussion aims to cover:

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

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

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

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

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

The details are here. An extract follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipating 2025

Anticipating Header Star

The near future deserves more of our attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smartphones and beyond

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Here’s a brief introduction to this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the controversy that arose.

The cause was an hour-long lecture with 55 slides, ranging far and wide over a range of disruptive near-future scenarios, covering both upside and downside. The basic format of the lecture was: first the good news, and then the bad news. As stated on the opening slide,

Some illustrations of the enormous potential first, then some examples of how adding a high level of ambient stupidity might mean we might make a mess of it.

Ian PearsonThe speaker was Ian Pearson, described on his company website as “futurologist, conference speaker, regular media guest, strategist and writer”. The website continues, boldly,

Anyone can predict stuff, but only a few get it right…

Ian Pearson has been a full time futurologist since 1991, with a proven track record of over 85% accuracy at the 10 year horizon.

Ian was speaking, on my invitation, at the London Futurists last Saturday. His chosen topic was audacious in scope:

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

We’re all familiar with the idea of the singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society.

But this new technology won’t bring a utopia. We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse…

There were around 200 people in the audience, listening as Ian progressed through a series of increasingly mind-stretching technology opportunities. Judging by the comments posted online afterwards, some of the audience deeply appreciated what they heard:

Thank you for a terrific two hours, I have gone away full of ideas; I found the talk extremely interesting indeed…

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

But not everyone was satisfied. Here’s an extract from one negative comment:

After the first half (a trippy sub-SciFi brainstorm session) my only question was, “What Are You On?”…

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

…it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

These are just the starters of negative feedback; I’ll get to others shortly. As I review what was said in the meeting, and look at the spirited ongoing exchange of comments online, some thoughts come to my mind:

  • Big ideas almost inevitably provoke big reactions; this talk had a lot of particularly big ideas
  • In some cases, the negative reactions to the talk arise from misunderstandings, due in part to so much material being covered in the presentation
  • In other cases, Isee the criticisms as reactions to the seeming over-confidence of the speaker (“…a proven track record of over 85% accuracy”)
  • In yet other cases, I share the negative reactions the talk generated; my own view of the near-future landscape significantly differs from the one presented on stage
  • In nearly all cases, it’s worth taking the time to progress the discussion further
  • After all, if we get our forecasts of the future wrong, and fail to make adequate preparations for the disruptions ahead, it could make a huge difference to our collective well-being.

So let’s look again at some of the adverse reactions. My aim is to raise them in a way that people who didn’t attend the talk should be able to follow the analysis.

(1) Is imminent transformation of much of human life a realistic scenario? Or are these ideas just science fiction?

NBIC SingularityThe main driver for belief in the possible imminent transformation of human life, enabled by rapidly changing technology, is the observation of progress towards “NBIC” convergence.

Significant improvements are taking place, almost daily, in our capabilities to understand and control atoms (Nano-tech), genes and other areas of life-sciences (Bio-tech), bits (Info-comms-tech), and neurons and other areas of mind (Cogno-tech). Importantly, improvements in these different fields are interacting with each other.

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable

Will all the individual possible applications of NBIC convergence described by Ian happen in precisely the way he illustrated? Very probably not. The future’s not as predictable as that. But something similar could well happen:

  • Cheaper forms of energy
  • Tissue-cultured meat
  • Space exploration
  • Further miniaturisation of personal computing (wearable computing, and even “active skin”)
  • Smart glasses
  • Augmented reality displays
  • Gel computing
  • IQ and sensory enhancement
  • Dream linking
  • Human-machine convergence
  • Digital immortality: “the under 40s might live forever… but which body would you choose?”

(2) Is a focus on smart cosmetic technology an indulgent distraction from pressing environmental issues?

Here’s one of the comments raised online after the talk:

Unfortunately any respect due was undermined by his contempt for the massive environmental challenges we face.

Trivial contact lens / jewellery technology can hang itself, if our countryside is choked by yoghurt factory fumes.

The reference to jewellery took issue with remarks in the talk such as the following:

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

In contrast, the talk positioned greater use of technology as the solution to environmental issues, rather than as something to exacerbate these issues. Smaller (jewellery-sized) devices, created with a greater attention to recyclability, will diminish the environmental footprint. Ian claimed that:

  • We can produce more of everything than people need
  • Improved global land management could feed up to 20 billion people
  • Clean water will be plentiful
  • We will also need less and waste less
  • Long term pollution will decline.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some short-term problems, ahead of the time when accelerating NBIC convergence can be expected to provide more comprehensive solutions:

  • Energy shortage is a short to mid term problem
  • Real problems are short term.

Where there’s room for real debate is the extent of these shorter-term problems. Discussion on the threats from global warming brought these disagreements into sharp focus.

(3) How should singularitarians regard the threat from global warming?

BalanceTowards the end of his talk, Ian showed a pair of scales, weighing up the wins and losses of NBIC technologies and a potential singularity.

The “wins” column included health, growth, wealth, fun, and empowerment.

The “losses” column included control, surveillance, oppression, directionless, and terrorism.

One of the first questions from the floor, during the Q&A period in the meeting, asked why the risk of environmental destruction was not on the list of possible future scenarios. This criticism was echoed by online comments:

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

If we risk heading towards an environmental abyss let’s do something about what we do know – fossil fuel burning.

During his talk, I picked up on one of Ian’s comments about not being particularly concerned about the risks of global warming. I asked, what about the risks of adverse positive feedback cycles, such as increasing temperatures triggering the release of vast ancient stores of methane gas from frozen tundra, accelerating the warming cycle further? That could lead to temperature increases that are much more rapid than presently contemplated, along with lots of savage disturbance (storms, droughts, etc).

Ian countered that it was a possibility, but he had the following reservations:

  • He thought these positive feedback loops would only kick into action when baseline temperature rose by around 2 degrees
  • In the meantime, global average temperatures have stopped rising, over the last eleven years
  • He estimates he spends a couple of hours every day, keeping an eye on all sides of the global warming debate
  • There are lots of exaggerations and poor science on both sides of the debate
  • Other factors such as the influence of solar cycles deserve more research.

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

  • The view that global average temperatures  have stopped rising, is, among serious scientists, very much a minority position; see e.g. this rebuttal on Carbon Brief
  • Even if there’s only a small probability of a runaway spurt of accelerated global warming in the next 10-15 years, we need to treat that risk very seriously – in the same way that, for example, we would be loath to take a transatlantic flight if we were told there was a 5% chance of the airplane disintegrating mid-flight.

Nevertheless, I did not want the entire meeting to divert into a debate about global warming – “that deserves a full meeting in its own right”, I commented, before moving on to the next question. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, since it may have caused some members of the audience to mentally disengage from the meeting.

(4) Are there distinct right-wing and left-wing approaches to the singularity?

Here’s another comment that was raised online after the talk:

I found the second half of the talk to be very disappointing and very right-wing.

And another:

Someone who lists ‘race equality’ as part of the trend towards ignorance has shown very clearly what wing he is on…

In the second half of his talk, Ian outlined changes in norms of beliefs and values. He talked about the growth of “religion substitutes” via a “random walk of values”:

  • Religious texts used to act as a fixed reference for ethical values
  • Secular society has no fixed reference point so values oscillate quickly.
  • 20 years can yield 180 degree shift
  • e.g. euthanasia, sexuality, abortion, animal rights, genetic modification, nuclear energy, family, policing, teaching, authority…
  • Pressure to conform reinforces relativism at the expense of intellectual rigour

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

People have a strong need to feel they are ‘good’. Some of today’s ideological subscriptions are essentially secular substitutes for religion, and demand same suspension of free thinking and logical reasoning.

Knowledge GraphA few slides later, he listed examples of “the rise of nonsense beliefs”:

e.g. new age, alternative medicine, alternative science, 21st century piety, political correctness

He also commented that “99% are only well-informed on trivia”, such as fashion, celebrity, TV culture, sport, games, and chat virtual environments.

This analysis culminated with a slide that personally strongly resonated with me: a curve of “anti-knowledge” accelerating and overtaking a curve of “knowledge”:

In pursuit of social compliance, we are told to believe things that are known to be false.

With clever enough spin, people accept them and become worse than ignorant.

So there’s a kind of race between “knowledge” and “anti-knowledge”.

One reason this resonated with me is that it seemed like a different angle on one of my own favourite metaphors for the challenges of the next 15-30 years – the metaphor of a dramatic race:

  • One runner in the race is “increasing rationality, innovation, and collaboration”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a positive singularity
  • The other runner in the race is “increasing complexity, rapidly diminishing resources”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a negative singularity.

In the light of Ian’s analysis, I can see that the second runner is aided by the increase of anti-knowledge: over-attachment to magical, simplistic, ultimately misleading worldviews.

However, it’s one thing to agree that “anti-knowledge” is a significant factor in determining the future; it’s another thing to agree which sets of ideas count as knowledge, and which as anti-knowledge! One of Ian’s slides included the following list of “religion substitutes”:

Animal rights, political correctness, pacifism, vegetarianism, fitness, warmism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism

It’s no wonder that many of the audience felt offended. Why list “warmism” (a belief in human-caused global warming), but not “denialism” (denial of human-caused global warming? Why list “anti-capitalism” but not “free market fundamentalism”? Why list “pacifism” but not “militarism”?

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

Ian raised my curiosity about ‘false beliefs’ (or nonsense beliefs as Ian calls them) as I ‘believe’ we all inhabit different belief systems – so what is true for one person may be false for another… at that exact moment in time.

And things can change. Once upon a time, it was a nonsense belief that the world was round.

There may be 15% of truth in some nonsense beliefs…or possibly even 85% truth. Taking ‘alternative medicine’ as an example of one of Ian’s nonsense beliefs – what if two of the many reasons it was considered nonsense were that (1) it is outside the world (the system) of science and technology and (2) it cannot be controlled by the pharmaceutical companies (perhaps our high priests of today)?

(5) The role of corporations and politicians in the approach to the singularity

One place where the right-wing / left-wing division becomes more acute in the question of whether anything special needs to be done to control the behaviour of corporations (businesses).

One of Ian’s strong positive recommendations, at the end of his presentation, was that scientists and engineers should become more actively involved in educating the general public about issues of technology. Shortly afterward, the question came from the floor: what about actions to educate or control corporations? Ian replied that he had very little to recommend to corporations, over and above his recommendations to the individuals within these corporations.

My own view is different. From my life inside industry, I’ve seen numerous cases of good people who are significantly constrained in their actions by the company systems and metrics in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Indeed, just as people should be alarmed about the prospects of super-AIs gaining too much power, over and above the humans who created them, we should also be alarmed about the powers that super-corporations are accumulating, over and above the powers and intentions of their employees.

The argument to leave corporations alone finds its roots in ideologies of freedom: government regulation of corporations often has undesirable side-effects. Nevertheless, that’s just an argument for being smarter and more effective in how the regulation works – not an argument to abstain from regulation altogether.

The question of the appropriate forms of collaborative governance remains one of the really hard issues facing anyone concerned about the future. Leaving corporations to find their own best solutions is, in my view, very unlikely to be the optimum approach.

In terms of how “laissez-faire” we should be, in the face of potential apocalypse down the road, I agree with the assessment near the end of Jeremy Green’s blogpost:

Pearson’s closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.


After the presentation in Birkbeck College ended, around 40-50 of the audience regrouped in a nearby pub, to continue the discussion. The discussion is also continuing, at a different tempo, in the online pages of the London Futurists meetup. Ian Pearson deserves hearty congratulation for stirring up what has turned out to be an enlightening discussion – even though there’s heat in the comments as well as light!

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

10 February 2013

Fixing bugs in minds and bugs in societies

Suppose we notice what appears to be bugs in our thinking processes. Should we try to fix these bugs?

Or how about bugs in the way society works? Should we try to fix these bugs too?

As examples of bugs of the first kind, I return to a book I reviewed some time ago, “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind”. I entitled my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature”, and I still stick by that description. In that review, I pulled out the following quote from near to the end of the book:

In this book, we’ve discussed several bugs in our cognitive makeup: confirmation bias, mental contamination, anchoring, framing, inadequate self-control, the ruminative cycle, the focussing illusion, motivated reasoning, and false memory, not to mention absent-mindedness, an ambiguous linguistic system, and vulnerability to mental disorders. Our memory, contextually driven as it is, is ill suited to many of the demands of modern life, and our self-control mechanisms are almost hopelessly split. Our ancestral mechanisms were shaped in a different world, and our more modern deliberative mechanisms can’t shake the influence of that past. In every domain we have considered, from memory to belief, choice, language, and pleasure, we have seen that a mind built largely through the progressive overlay of technologies is far from perfect…

These bugs in our mental makeup are far from being harmless quirks or curiosities. They can lead us:

  • to overly trust people who have visual trappings of authority,
  • to fail to make adequate provision for our own futures,
  • to keep throwing money into bad investments,
  • and to jump to all kinds of dangerous premature conclusions.

But should we try to fix these bugs?

The field where the term ‘bug’ was first used in this sense of a mistake, software engineering, provides many cautionary tales of bug fixing going wrong:

  • Sometimes what appears to be a ‘bug’ in a piece of software turns out to be a useful ‘feature’, with a good purpose after all
  • Sometimes a fix introduces unexpected side-effects, which are worse than the bug which was fixed.

I shared an example of the second kind in the “Managing defects” chapter of the book I wrote in 2004-5, “Symbian for software leaders: principles of successful smartphone development projects”:

An embarrassing moment with defects

The first million-selling product that I helped to build was the Psion Series 3a handheld computer. This was designed as a distinct evolutionary step-up from its predecessor, the original Series 3 (often called the “Psion 3 classic” in retrospect)…

At last the day came (several weeks late, as it happened) to ship the software to Japan, where it would be flashed into large numbers of chips ready to assemble into production Series 3a devices. It was ROM version 3.20. No sooner was it sent than panic set into the development team. Two of us had independently noticed a new defect in the agenda application. If a user set an alarm on a repeating entry, and then adjusted the time of this entry, in some circumstances the alarm would fail to ring. We reasoned that this was a really bad defect – after all, two of us had independently found it.

The engineer who had written the engine for the application – the part dealing with all data manipulation algorithms, including calculating alarm times – studied his code, and came up with a fix. We were hesitant, since it was complex code. So we performed a mass code review: lots of the best brains in the team talked through the details of the fix. After twenty four hours, we decided the fix was good. So we recalled 3.20, and released 3.21 in its place. To our relief, no chips were lost in the process: the flashing had not yet started.

Following standard practice, we upgraded the prototype devices of everyone in the development team, to run 3.21. As we waited for the chips to return, we kept using our devices – continuing (in the jargon of the team) to “eat our own dog food”. Strangely, there were a few new puzzling problems with alarms on entries. Actually, it soon became clear these problems were a lot worse than the problem that had just been fixed. As we diagnosed these new problems, a sinking feeling grew. Despite our intense care (but probably because of the intense pressure) we had failed to fully consider all the routes through the agenda engine code; the change made for 3.21 was actually a regression on previous behaviour.

Once again, we made a phone call to Japan. This time, we were too late to prevent some tens of thousands of wasted chips. We put the agenda engine code back to its previous state, and decided that was good enough! (Because of some other minor changes, the shipping version number was incremented to 3.22.) We decided to live with this one defect, in order not to hold up production any longer.

We were expecting to hear more news about this particular defect from the Psion technical support teams, but the call never came. This defect never featured on the list of defects reported by end users. In retrospect, we had been misled by the fact that two of us had independently found this defect during the final test phase: this distorted our priority call…

That was an expensive mistake, which seared a cautionary attitude into my own brain, regarding the dangers of last-minute changes to complex software. All seasoned software engineers have similar tales they can tell, from their own experience.

If attempts to fix defects in software are often counter-productive, how much more dangerous are attempts to fix defects in our thinking processes – or defects in how our societies operate! At least in the first case, we generally still have access to the source code, and to the design intention of the original software authors. For the other examples, the long evolutionary history that led to particular designs is something at which we can only guess. It would be like trying to fix a software bug, that somehow results from the combination of many millions of lines of source code, written decades ago by people who left no documentation and who are not available for consultation.

What I’ve just stated is a version of an argument that conservative-minded thinkers often give, against attempts to try to conduct “social engineering” or “improve on nature”. Tinkering with ages-old thinking processes – or with structures within societies – carries the risk that we fail to appreciate many hidden connections. Therefore (the argument runs) we should desist from any such experimentation.

Versions of this argument appeared, from two different commentators, in responses to my previous blogpost. One put it like this:

The trouble is that ‘cognitive biases and engrained mistakes’ may appear dysfunctional but they are, in fact, evolutionarily successful adaptations of humanity to its highly complex environment. These, including prejudice, provide highly effective means for the resolution of really existing problems in human capacity…

Rational policies to deal with human and social complexity have almost invariably been proved to be inhumane and brutal, fine for the theoretician in the British Library, but dreadful in the field.

Another continued the theme:

I have much sympathy for [the] point about “cognitive biases and engrained mistakes”. The belief that one has identified cognitive bias in another or has liberated oneself from such can be a “Fatal Conceit,” to borrow a phrase from Hayek, and has indeed not infrequently given rise to inhumane treatment even of whole populations. One of my favourite sayings is David Hume’s “the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason,” which is at the heart of Hayek’s Fatal Conceit argument.

But the conclusion I draw is different. I don’t conclude, “Never try to fix bugs”. After all, the very next sentence from my chapter on “Managing defects” stated, “We eventually produced a proper fix several months later”. Indeed, many bugs do demand urgent fixes. Instead, my conclusion is that bug fixing in complex systems needs a great deal of careful thought, including cautious experimentation, data analysis, and peer review.

The analogy can be taken one more step. Suppose that a software engineer has a bad track record in his or her defect fixes. Despite claiming, each time, to be exercising care and attention, the results speak differently: the fixes usually make things worse. Suppose, further, that this software engineer comes from a particular company, and that fixes from that company have the same poor track record. (To make this more vivid, the name of this company might be “Technocratic solutions” or “Socialista” or “Utopia software”. You can probably see where this argument is going…) That would be a reason for especial discomfort if someone new from that company is submitting code changes in attempts to fix a given bug.

Well, something similar happens in the field of social change. History has shown, in many cases, that attempts at mental engineering and social engineering were counter-productive. For that reason, many conservatives support various “precautionary principles”. They are especially fearful of any social changes proposed by people they can tar with labels such as “technocratic” or”socialist” or “utopian”.

These precautionary principles presuppose that the ‘cure’ will be worse than the ‘disease’. However, I personally have greater confidence in the fast improving power of new fields of science, including the fields that study our mind and brain. These improvements are placing ever greater understanding in our hands – and hence, ever greater power to fix bugs without introducing nasty side-effects.

For these reasons, I do look forward (as I said in my previous posting) to these improvements

helping individuals and societies rise above cognitive biases and engrained mistakes in reasoning… and accelerating a reformation of the political and economic environment, so that the outcomes that are rationally best are pursued, instead of those which are expedient and profitable for the people who currently possess the most power and influence.

Finally, let me offer some thoughts on the observation that “the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason”. That observation is vividly supported by the disturbing “moral dumbfounding” examples discussed by Jonathan Haidt in his excellent book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” (which I briefly reviewed here). But does that observation mean that we should stop trying to reason with people about moral choices?

MoralLandscapeHere, I’ll adapt comments from my review of “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”, by Sam Harris.

That book considers how we might go about finding answers to big questions such as “how should I live?” and “what makes some ways of life more moral than others?”  As some specific examples, how should we respond to:

  • The Taliban’s insistence that the education of girls is an abomination?
  • The stance by Jehovah’s Witnesses against blood transfusion?
  • The prohibition by the Catholic Church of the use of condoms?
  • The legalisation of same-sex relationships?
  • The use of embryonic stem cells in the search for cures of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
  • A would-be Islamist suicide bomber who is convinced that his intended actions will propel him into a paradise of abundant mental well-being?

One response is that such questions are the province of religion. The correct answers are revealed via prophets and/or holy books.  The answers are already clear, to those with the eye of faith. It is a divine being that tells us, directly or indirectly, the difference between good and evil. There’s no need for experimental investigations here.

A second response is that the main field to study these questions is that of philosophy. It is by abstract reason, that we can determine the difference between good and evil.

But Sam Harris, instead, primarily advocates the use of the scientific method. Science enters the equation because it is increasingly able to identify:

  • Neural correlates (or other physical or social underpinnings) of sentient well-being
  • Cause-and-effect mechanisms whereby particular actions typically bring about particular changes in these neural correlates.

With the help of steadily improving scientific understanding, we can compare different actions based on their likely effects on sentient well-being. Actions which are likely to magnify sentient well-being are good, and those which are likely to diminish it are evil. That’s how we can evaluate, for example, the Taliban’s views on girls’ education.

As Harris makes clear, this is far from being an abstract, other-worldly discussion. Cultures are clashing all the time, with lots of dramatic consequences for human well-being. Seeing these clashes, are we to be moral relativists (saying “different cultures are best for different peoples, and there’s no way to objectively compare them”) or are we to be moral realists (saying “some cultures promote significantly more human flourishing than others, and are to be objectively preferred as a result”)? And if we are to be moral realists, do we resolve our moral arguments by deference to religious tradition, or by open-minded investigation of real-world connections?

In the light of these questions, here are some arguments from Harris’s book that deserve thought:

  • There’s a useful comparison between the science of human values (the project espoused by Harris), and a science of diets (what we should eat, in order to enjoy good health).  In both cases, we’re currently far from having all the facts.  And in both cases, there are frequently several right answers.  But not all diets are equally good.  Similarly, not all cultures are equally good.  And what makes one diet better than another will be determined by facts about the physical world – such as the likely effects (direct and indirect) of different kinds of fats and proteins and sugars and vitamins on our bodies and minds.  While people still legitimately disagree about diets, that’s not a reason to say that science can never answer such questions.  Likewise, present-day disagreements about specific causes of happiness, mental flourishing, and general sentient well-being, do not mean these causes fail to exist, or that we can never know them.
  • Likewise with the science of economics.  We’re still far from having a complete understanding of how different monetary and financial policies impact the long-term health of the economy.  But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and stop searching for insight about likely cause and effect.  The discipline of economics, imperfect though it is, survives in an as-yet-incomplete state.  The same goes for political science too.  And, likewise, for the science of the moral landscape.
  • Attempts to reserve some special area of “moral insight” for religion are indefensible.  As Harris says, “How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious.” That’s the conversation we need to progress.

PS I’ve written more about cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance – and how we can transcend these mistakes – in my blogpost “Our own entrenched enemies of reason”.

16 September 2012

Transcending the threat of the long emergency

The not-so-distant future (2030-2045) may turn out very different from how we commonly imagine. It may turn out very different from what we desire.

At that time, those of us who remain alive and who still have the faculty to think critically, may well bemoan the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate the intervening turn of events, and didn’t organise ourselves effectively to enable a better future to unfold. We may bitterly regret our present-day pre-occupations with celebrity gossip and 24×7 reality TV and rivalries between the latest superphones and by bickering over gullible interpretations of antiquated religious folk tales.

Why did we fiddle why Rome burned? Why did we not see the likelihood of Rome burning? Why were we so enthralled to the excitements of consumer goods and free-market economics and low-cost international travel and relentless technology innovation that we failed to give heed to the deeper stresses and strains portending what writer James Howard Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency“?

The subtitle of Kunstler’s The Long Emergency book is “Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century“. His writing style is lively and unapologetic. He pays little respect to political correctness. His thesis is not just that supplies of oil are declining (despite vigorously growing demand), but that society fails to appreciate quite how difficult it’s going to be to replace oil with new sources of energy. Many, many aspects of our present-day civilisation depend in fundamental ways on by-products of oil. Therefore, we’re facing an almighty crisis.

Quoting Colin Tudge from The Independent, The Long Emergency carries an endorsement on its front cover:

If you give a damn, you should read this book

I echo that endorsement. Kunstler makes lots of important points about the likely near-future impact of diseases, shortages of fresh water, large multinationals in their runaway pursuit of profits and growth, the over-complexity of modern life, and the risks of cataclysmic wars over diminishing material resources.

I agree with around 80% of what Kunstler says. But even in the 20% where we part company, I find his viewpoint to be illuminating.

For example, I regard Kunstler’s discussion of both solar and wind energy as being perfunctory. He is too quick to dismiss the potential of these (and other) alternative energy sources. My own view is that the same kinds of compound improvements that have accelerated the information and communications hi-tech industries can also apply in alternative energy industries. Even though individual companies fail, and even though specific ideas for tech improvement are found wanting, there remains plenty of scope for cumulative overall improvement, with layers of new innovations all building on prior breakthroughs.

Kunstler’s first reply to this kind of rejoinder is that it confuses technology with energy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, “James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won’t Save Us“, he responds to the following observation by journalist Jeff Goodell:

You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.

Kunstler’s reply:

They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?

My own comment: the world is not facing a shortage of energy. An analysis published recently in Nature shows that wind energy could provide 20-100 times current global power demand. And as for solar energy, National Geographic magazine reports

Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.

So the problem isn’t one of lack of energy. It’s a problem of harvesting the energy, storing it, and transporting it efficiently to where it needs to be used. That’s a problem to which technology can apply itself with a vengeance.

But as I said, Kunstler is insightful even when he is wrong. His complaint is that it is foolish to simply rely on some magical powers of a free-market economy to deliver the technology smarts needed to solve these energy-related problems. Due to the dysfunctions and failures of free-market economies, there’s no guarantee that industry will be able to organise itself to make the right longer-term investments to move from our current “local maximum” oil-besotted society to a better local maximum that is, however, considerably remote from where we are today. These are as much matters of economics and politics as they are of technology. Here, I agree with Kunstler.

Kunstler’s second reply is that, even if enough energy is made available from new sources, it won’t solve the problem of diminishing raw materials. This includes fresh water, rare minerals, and oil itself (which is used for much more than a source of energy – for example, it’s a core ingredient of plastics). Kunstler argues that these raw materials are needed in the construction and maintenance of alternative energy generators. So it will be impossible to survive the decline in the availability of oil.

My comment to this is that a combination of sufficient energy (e.g. from massive solar generators) and smart technology can be deployed to generate new materials. Fresh water can be obtained from sea water by desalination plants. Oil itself can be generated in due course by synthetic biology. And if it turns out that we really do lack a particular rare mineral, presently needed for a core item of consumer electronics, we can change the manufacturing process to swap in an alternative.

At least, these transformations are theoretically possible. But, again, they’ll probably require greater coordination than our present system of economics and politics enables, with its over-emphasis on short-termism.

Incidentally, for a particularly clear critique of the idea that untramelled free market economics is the best mechanism to ensure societal progress, I recommend “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism“, by Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang. This consists of 23 chapters which each follow the same form: a common tenet of free-market economics is presented (and is made to appear plausible), and then is thoroughly debunked, by means of a mixture of data and theory. Professor Chang isn’t opposed to markets, but he does believe in the necessity for key elements of state intervention to steer markets. He offers positive remedies as well as negative criticisms. Alternatively, you might also enjoy “What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets“, by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. That takes a complementary path, with examples that are bound to make both proponents and opponents of free markets wince from time to time. They really get under the skin. And they really make you think.

Both books are (in my viewpoint) brilliantly written, though if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend the one by Ha-Joon Chang. His knowledge of real-world economics is both comprehensive and uplifting – and his writing style is blessedly straightforward. Being Korean born, his analysis of the economic growth in Korea is especially persuasive, but he draws insight from numerous other geographies too.

Putting the future on the agenda

As you can tell, I see the threat of self-induced societal collapse as real. The scenarios in The Long Emergency deserve serious attention. For that reason, I’m keen to put the future on the agenda. I don’t mean discussions of whether national GDPs will grow or shrink by various percentage points over the next one or two years, or whether unemployment will marginally rise or marginally fall. Instead, I want to increase focus on the question of whether we’re collectively able to transition away from our profligate dependence on oil (and away from other self-defeating aspects of our culture) in sufficient time to head off environmental and economic disaster.

That’s the reason I’m personally sponsoring a series of talks at the London Futurists called “The Next Golden Age Of Technology 2030-45“.

The first in that series of talks took place on Saturday at Birkbeck College in Central London: “Surfing The Sixth Wave: Modelling The Next Technology Boom“, with lead speaker Stephen Aguilar-Millan. Stephen is is the Director of Research at the European Futures Observatory, a futures think tank based in the UK.

The different talks in the series are taking different angles on what is a complex, multi-faceted subject. The different speakers by no means all agree with each other. After all, it’s clear that there’s no consensus on how the future is likely to unfold.

Rather than making specific predictions, Stephen’s talk focused more on the question of how to think about future scenarios. He distinguished three main approaches:

  1. Trends analysis – we can notice various trends, and consider extrapolating them into the future
  2. Modelling and systems thinking – we seek to uncover underlying patterns, that are likely to persist despite technology changes
  3. Values-based thinking – which elevates matters of human interest, and considers how human action might steer developments away from those predicted by previous trends and current models.

Stephen’s own approach emphasised models of change in

  • politics (a proposed cycle of concerns: community -> corporate -> individual -> atomistic -> community…),
  • economics (such as the Kondratieff Cycle),
  • and social (such as generational changes: boomer -> generation X -> millennial -> homeland -> scarcity),
  • as well as in technology per se.

For a model to understand long-term technological change, Stephen referred to the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez, whose book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages” is held in high regard. Perez describes recent history as featuring five major technical-economic cycles:

  1. From 1771: The First Industrial Revolution (machines, factories, and canals)
  2. From 1829: The Age of Steam, Coal, Iron, and Railways
  3. From 1875: The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering (electrical, chemical, civil, naval)
  4. From 1908: The Age of the Automobile, Oil, Petrochemicals, and Mass Production
  5. From 1971: The Age of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In this analysis, each such cycle takes 40-60 years to spread across the world and reach maturity. Each techno-economic paradigm shift involves “a change in the direction of change” and brings:

  • New industries
  • New infrastructure
  • New ways of transport and communication
  • New ways of producing
  • A new way of working
  • A new way of living.

Golden ages of technology – insight from Carlota Perez

Stephen’s slides will shortly be posted onto the London Futurist website. The potential interplay of the different models is important, but in retrospect, the area that it would have been good to explore further was the analysis by Carlota Perez. There are a number of videos on YouTube that feature her presenting her ideas. For example, there’s a four-part presentation “Towards a Sustainable Global Golden Age” – where she also mentions a potential sixth technical-economic wave:

  • The Age of Biotech, Bioelectronics, Nanotech, and new materials.

Unlike Kunstler, Perez offers an optimistic view of the future. Whereas Kunstler in effect takes wave four as being irretrievably central to modern society, Perez argues that the technology of wave five is already in the process of undoing many of the environmental problems introduced by wave four. This transformation is admittedly difficult to discern, Perez explains, because of factors which prolong the “energy intensive” culture of wave four (even though the “information intensive” wave five already enables significant reductions in energy usage):

  • The low price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s
  • The low price of labor in China and Asia
  • The persistence of “the American way of life” as the “model of well-being” that the world wishes to emulate.

On the other hand, a paradigm change in expectation is now accelerating (see slide 20 of the PDF accompanying the video):

  • Small is better than big
  • Natural materials are better than synthetic
  • Multipurpose is better than single function
  • ‘Gourmet’ food is better than standard
  • Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are healthier
  • Exercise is important for well-being
  • Global warming is a real danger
  • Not commuting to work is possible and preferable
  • Solar power is luxurious
  • Internet communications, shopping, learning and entertainment are better than the old ways.

Nevertheless, despite her optimism that “a sustainable positive-sum future is possible”, Perez states clearly (slide 23):

  • But it will not happen automatically: the market cannot do it alone
  • The state must come back into the picture

Her analysis proceeds:

  • Each technological revolution propagates in two different periods
  • The first half sets up the infrastructure and lets the markets pick the winners
  • The second half (“the Golden Age” of the wave) reaps the full economic and social potential
  • Each Golden Age has been facilitated by enabling regulation and policies for shaping and widening markets.

Scarcity resolved?

The next London Futurist talk in this series will pick up some of the above themes. It will take place on Saturday the 20th of October, with independent futures consultant Guy Yeomans as the lead speaker. To quote from the event page:

Many people regard technological invention as not just a key driving force in human evolution but as the primary source of historical change, profoundly influencing wider economic and social developments. Is this perspective valid? Does it enable us to fully explain the world we live in today, and may actively occupy tomorrow?

Specifically, will technological invention be the ‘saviour’ some believe for our collective future challenges? Can we rely on technology to resolve looming issues of scarcity?

To answer these questions, this talk re-examines the emergence of technology and its role in human affairs. It does this by reviewing the history of the discipline of futures thinking, including techniques such as trend analysis themes.

The talk begins by considering the conditions under which futures thinking formed in North America in the aftermath of World War II. From this, we’ll assess what contributions the methods and techniques created during this period have made to contemporary strategic planning. Using parts of this framework, we’ll formulate a perspective on the key issues likely to affect future technological needs, and assess the dynamics via which technologies may then emerge to meet these needs.

Crucial to all this will be our ability to identify and reveal the core assumptions underpinning such a perspective, thereby providing a more robust footing from which to investigate the ways in which technology might actually evolve over the coming decades. From this, we’ll finally ask:Will scarcity even emerge, let alone need to be overcome?

Later talks in the same series will be given by professional futurists Nick Price, Ian Pearson, and Peter Cochrane.

26 August 2012

Yoga, mindfulness, science, and human progress

Filed under: books, change, culture, Google, medicine, science, yoga — David Wood @ 12:07 am

Friday’s Financial Times carried a major article “The mind business“:

Yoga, meditation, ‘mindfulness’ – why some of the west’s biggest companies are embracing eastern spirituality

The article describes a seven-year long culture transformation initiative within business giant General Mills, as an example a growing wave of corporate interest in the disciplines of yoga, meditation, and ‘mindfulness’. It also mentions similar initiatives at Target, First Direct, Aetna, and Google, among others.

The article quotes Professor William George, the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Medtronic, who is an intelligent fan of mindfulness. In a Harvard Business Review interview, Professor George makes the following points:

Mindfulness is a state of being fully present, aware of oneself and other people, and sensitive to one’s reactions to stressful situations. Leaders who are mindful tend to be more effective in understanding and relating to others, and motivating them toward shared goals. Hence, they become more effective in leadership roles…

Leaders with low emotional intelligence (EQ) often lack self-awareness and self-compassion, which can lead to a lack of self-regulation. This also makes it very difficult for them to feel compassion and empathy for others. Thus, they struggle to establish sustainable, authentic relationships.

Leaders who do not take time for introspection and reflection may be vulnerable to being seduced by external rewards, such as power, money, and recognition. Or they may feel a need to appear so perfect to others that they cannot admit vulnerabilities and acknowledge mistakes. Some of the recent difficulties of Hewlett-Packard, British Petroleum, CEOs of failed Wall Street firms, and dozens of leaders who failed in the post-Enron era are examples of this…

Public awareness of ‘mindfulness’ has recently received a significant boost from the publication of a book by one of Google’s earliest employees, Chade-Meng Tan. The book’s title is smart, playing on Google’s re-invention and dominance of the Search business: “Search inside yourself“. The sub-title of the book is both provocative and playful: The unexpected path to achieving success, happiness (and world peace).

The book’s website claims,

Meng has distilled emotional intelligence into a set of practical and proven tools and skills that anyone can learn and develop. Created in collaboration with a Zen master, a CEO, a Stanford University scientist, and Daniel Goleman (the guy who literally wrote the book on emotional intelligence), this program is grounded in science and expressed in a way that even a skeptical, compulsively pragmatic, engineering-oriented brain like Meng’s can process…

It’s playful, but it’s also serious. It’s a great idea to re-express the ideas of mindfulness in ways that software engineers find interesting and compelling. It uses the language of algorithms – familiar to all software engineers – to discuss techniques for improved mental performance.

(Aside: Meng has a remarkable gallery of photographs of himself alongside industry titans, leading politicians, media stars, famous book authors, and others. He’s impressively well connected.)

But does this stuff work?

Sure, these exercises can leave people feeling good, but do concrete long-term effects persist?

These are big questions, and for now, I’d like to zero in to a question that’s (marginally) smaller. I’ll leave further discussion about mindfulness and meditation for another occasion, and look now at the yoga side of this grand endeavour. Does yoga work?

My reason for focussing on the yoga aspect is that I can speak with more confidence about yoga than about mindfulness or meditation. That’s because I’ve been attending yoga classes, semi-regularly, for nearly 24 months. What I’ve experienced in these classes, and my discussions with fellow participants, has prompted me to read more, to try to make sense of what I’ve seen and heard.

I kept hearing about one particular book about yoga, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards“, written by Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times science journalist William J. Broad.

Broad is no newcomer to yoga – he has been practising the discipline since 1970. As he explains in the Acknowledgements section of the book, he initially thought it would take him nine months to write it, but it turned into a five-year project. The result shows – the book bristles with references to over a century’s worth of research, carried out all over the globe.

“The Science of Yoga” has received a great deal of criticism, especially from within the yoga community itself. Don’t let these criticisms put you off reading the book. It’s a mine of useful information.

The book has been criticised because of its less-than-reverential approach to many of the pioneers of yoga, as well as to some contemporary yoga leaders. The book also punctures several widespread myths about yoga – including claims made in many popular books. Some of these myths are enumerated in a handy review of Broad’s book by Liz Neporent, “What Yoga Can—and Can’t—Do: A look at the benefits and limitations of this popular, mind-body practice“:

  1. Yoga is a good cardiovascular workout
  2. Yoga boosts metabolism
  3. Yoga floods your body with oxygen
  4. Yoga doesn’t cause injuries
  5. Yoga is good for flexibility and balance
  6. Yoga improves mood
  7. Yoga is good for your brain
  8. Yoga improves your sex life

It turns out the four of these eight claims are strongly contradicted by growing scientific evidence. On the other hand, the other four are strongly supported. (I’ll leave you to do your own reading to find out which are which…)

The analysis Broad assembles doesn’t just point to correlations and statistics. It explains underlying mechanisms, so far as they are presently understood. In other words, it covers, not just the fact that yoga works, but why it works.

As well as summarising the scientific investigations that have been carried out regarding yoga, Broad provides lots of insight into the history of yoga – puncturing various more myths along the way. (For example, there’s no evidence that the popular “Sun salutation” exercises existed prior to the twentieth century. And advanced yogis aren’t actually able to stop their hearts.)

As you can see, there’s lots of good news here, for yoga enthusiasts, alongside some warnings about significant dangers.

Broad is convinced that yoga, carefully prescribed to the specific needs of individuals, can work wonders in curing various physical ailments. Broad’s discussions with Loren Fishman MD, in the chapter entitled “Healing”, form a great high point in the book. Fishman is an example of someone who immersed himself in the study of medicine after already learning about yoga. (Fishman learned yoga from none other than BKS Iyengar, who he travelled to Pune, India, to meet in 1973. Iyengar comes out well in Broad’s book, although Broad does find some aspects of Iyengar’s writing to be questionable. Full disclosure: the type of yoga I personally practice is Iyengar.)

For example, Fishman described yoga’s applicability to treat osteoporosis, the bone disease, which in turn “lies behind millions of fractures of the hip, spine, and wrist”:

Yoga stretching… works beautifully to stimulate the rebuilding of the bone. It happens at the molecular level. Stress on a bone prompts it to grow denser and stronger in the way that best counteracts the stress. Fishman said that for three years he had been conducting a study to find out which poses worked best to stimulate the rejuvenation.

“It’s a big thing”, he said of the disease. “Two hundred million women in the world have it and most can’t afford the drugs”, some of which produce serious side effects. By contrast, Fishman enthused, “Yoga is free”…

In addition to its beneficial effect on the body, yoga can have several key beneficial effects on the mind – helping in the treatment of depression, calming the spirit, and boosting creativity.

In the epilogue to the book, Broad envisions two possible futures for yoga. Here’s his description of the undesirable future:

In one scenario, the fog has thickened as competing groups and corporations view for market share among the bewildered. The chains offer their styles while spiritual groups offer theirs, with experts from different groups clashing over differing claims…

The disputes resemble the old disagreements of religion. Factionalism has soared… hundreds of brands, all claiming unique and often contradictory virtues.

Yet, for all the activity, yoga makes only a small contribution to global health care because most of the claims go unproven in the court of medical science. The general public sees yoga mainly as a cult that corporations try to exploit.

But a much more positive outcome is also possible:

In the other scenario, yoga has gone mainstream and plays an important role in society. A comprehensive program of scientific study… produced a strong consensus on where yoga fails and where it succeeds. Colleges of yoga science now abound. Yoga doctors are accepted members of the establishment, their natural therapies often considered gentler and more reliable than pills. Yoga classes are taught by certified instructors whose training is as rigorous as that of physical therapists. Yoga retreats foster art and innovation, conflict resolution, and serious negotiating…

Broad clearly recognises that his own book is far from the last word on many of the topics he covers. In many cases, more research is needed, to isolate likely chains between causes and effects. He frequently refers to research carried out within the 12-24 months prior to the book’s publication. We can expect ongoing research to bring additional clarity – for example, to shed more light on the fascinating area of the scientific underpinning of “kundalini awakening“. Broad comments,

The science of yoga has only just begun. In my judgement, the topic has such depth and resonance that the voyage of discovery will go on for centuries…

Studies… will spread to investigations ever more central to life and living, to questions of insight and ecstasy, to being and consciousness. Ultimately, the social understanding that follows in the wake of scientific discovery will address issues of human evolution and what we decide to become as a species.

I say “amen” to all this, but with two clarifications of my own:

  • Alongside a deeper understanding and wider application of yoga, improving human well-being, I expect leaps and bounds of improvement in “hard technology” fields such as genetic analysis, personalised medicines, stem cell therapy, nano-surgery, and artificial organs – which will work in concert with yoga and mindfulness to have an even more dramatic effect
  • Because I see the pace of scientific improvement as increasing, I think the most significant gains in knowledge are likely to happen in the next few decades, rather than stretching out over centuries.

Footnote: Earlier this week, William J Broad featured in a fifteen minute interview in a public radio broadcast. In this interview, Broad describes the adverse reaction of “the yoga industrial complex” to his book – “they hate this book, because it’s exploding myths… there’s an economic incentive for people to only focus on the good and deny the bad”.

30 June 2012

My reasonably smooth upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich

Filed under: Android, change, compatibility, Google, Samsung, WordPress — David Wood @ 9:42 pm

I’ve been looking forwards to the new experiences that would be unlocked by installing “Ice Cream Sandwich” (Android 4.0) in my Samsung Galaxy Note, in place of the Gingerbread (Android 2.3) it originally contained. But I’ve been delaying the upgrade.

I’m a big fan of new technology, but my experience teaches me that upgrades often bring disruption as well as progress. Upgrades of complex software systems often unintentionally break functionality, due to unexpected incompatibilities with the old platform. And even when functionality is improved, it can take some time for users to learn a new interface: old habits have to be unlearned, and new “intuitions” acquired. That’s why I’m sometimes a technology laggard, as well as a technology enthusiast.

But today is the day. The new platform is mature, and is no longer “bleeding edge”. It’s been on the market for a few months. Several of my Accenture work colleagues have already upgraded the Galaxy Notes they use, without reporting any issues. And some of the applications I now want to test (applications developed by work colleagues) rely on functionality that is present only in the newer platform – such as improved Bluetooth. So this morning I resolved: let’s do it today.

In summary: the experience was smooth, although not without glitch. So far, I am pleased with the outcome, although I’ve experienced surprises along the way.

The first surprise was that I had to go looking for the upgrade. I had expected I would automatically be notified that a new version was ready. After all, a similar system works fine, to automatically notify me of the availability of new versions of the apps I’ve installed. And – see the following screenshot – my phone had the setting “auto update: check for updates automatically” enabled.

However, my experience was that I had to explicitly press the button “Check for updates”.

That button helpfully recommended me to ensure that I was on a wifi network. Good point.

The update would happen in two stages:

  1. First, the new version of the software would be downloaded – all 349.38MB of it
  2. Second, the new software would be installed, in place of the old.

The download system estimated that it would take 16 minutes to download the new version. It told me I could keep on using the device in the meantime, with the download proceeding in background. Having kicked off the download, and watched the first 10% of it complete fine, I switched tasks and started browsing. In retrospect, that was a mistake.

As the download proceeded, I read some tweets, and followed links in tweets to Internet pages. One link took me into someone’s Google Plus page, and another link from their took me to yet another page. (By this stage, the download was about 60% complete – I was keeping an eye on it via a notification icon in the top bar of the screen.) I then tried pressing the Back button to undo the stack of links. But as sometimes happens, Back didn’t work cleanly. It took me “back” from one page to the same page, with a minor shiggle in between. This kind of thing sometimes happens when a link includes a redirection.

This is where personal habit took over. In such cases, I have fallen into the habit of hammering the Back key several times quickly in succession. And that seemed to work – I ended up back in the Twitter application. But a few minutes later, I realised that the upgrade notifier icon had disappeared. And the download was nowhere to be found. I think that one of the Back buttons must have ended up going to the download window, cancelling it. Woops.

No problem, I thought, I’ll restart the download. It will presumably continue from where it had been interrupted. But alas, no, it started at the beginning again.

The second time, I resisted the temptation to multi-task, and let the download complete in splendid isolation. Around 20 minutes later, the download was complete. I thought to myself, Now for the more interesting part…

Before completing the installation, I ensured the mains power lead was plugged in, to avoid any complications of a battery failure half-way through rewriting the operating system part of the phone. At all costs, I did not want to end up with a “bricked” device (a device that cannot restart, and has as much life as a brick).

The upgrade proceeded. The screen changed several times during the process. At one stage, a progress indicator seemed to become stuck at around 80% complete for ages – so that I wondered if the system had crashed – before finally slowly inching forwards again.

Once the phone restarted, it run through yet more steps of the upgrade. It told me it was “Optimising application 1 of 82” … “Optimising application 82 of 82”. Then it said it was “Upgrading Contacts database” and “Upgrading Agenda database”. Clearly a lot was happening behind the scenes.

Finally it showed the familiar SIM unlock screen. Except that it wasn’t exactly the same SIM unlock screen as before – there were small but noticeable changes in the layout. Likewise with the device unlock: the ‘OK’ button is now in a different position from before. My fingers will need to learn a slightly different physical sequence, to unlock the device.

A bigger surprise was that all my customisations to the seven different home screens were lost – they had all been reset to defaults. It’s no big deal – I can gradually change the screens back to what I personally find convenient. And a good clean out is probably not a bad idea.

There are lots of pleasant surprises too. For example, there’s a handy new “Restart” addition to the dialog that is shown when the power switch is held down:

Here’s another example of an unexpected change: I found by trial and error that screenshots are now stored in a different directory on the phone – \phone\pictures\screenshots rather than \phone\screencapture – and are (it seems) stored in a different way: they’re not written to disk until some indeterminate time after the screen capture has finished.

That change caught me out twice over: first, because I could not find the screenshots (as copied into this blogpost) in the place I was accustomed to finding them, and second, because the files I tried to upload into WordPress were zero bytes in size. (WordPress helpfully advised me to “upload something more substantial”.)

In case this sounds like a litany of complaints, let me hasten to clarify that I find the entire process highly impressive. A huge quantity of software has been transferred wirelessly onto my phone, including countless changes from before. It’s a technology miracle.

What’s more, I didn’t pay anything for this upgrade. It’s a free technology miracle.

But I am glad I waited until the weekend before embarking on this upgrade, rather than trying to squeeze it into the middle of a busy work schedule. Significant change deserves significant time.

16 June 2012

Beyond future shock

Filed under: alienation, books, change, chaos, futurist, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, robots, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 3:10 pm

They predicted the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities, and the end of blue-collar manufacturing. Not bad for 1970.

That’s the summary, with the benefit of four decades of hindsight, given by Fast Company writer Greg Lindsay, of the forecasts made in the 1970 bestseller “Future Shock” by husband-and-wife authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

As Lindsay comments,

Published in 1970, Future Shock made its author Alvin Toffler – a former student radical, welder, newspaper report and Fortune editor – a household name. Written with his wife (and uncredited co-author), Heidi Toffler, the book was The World Is Flat of its day, selling 6 million copies and single-handedly inventing futurism…

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time”, the pair wrote.

And quoting Deborah Westphal, the managing partner of Toffler Associates, in an interview at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Future Shock, Lindsay notes the following:

In Future Shock, the Tofflers hammered home the point that technology, culture, and even life itself was evolving too fast for governments, policy-makers and regulators to keep up. Forty years on, that message hasn’t changed. “The government needs to understand the dependencies and the convergence of networks through information,” says Westphal. “And there still needs to be some studies done around rates of change and the synchronization of these systems. Business, government, and organizational structures need to be looked at and redone. We’ve built much of the world economy on an industrial model, and that model doesn’t work in an information-centric society. That’s probably the greatest challenge we still face -understanding the old rules don’t apply for the future.”

Earlier this week, another book was published, that also draws on Future Shock for inspiration.  Again, the authors are a husband-and-wife team, Parag and Ayesha Khanna.  And again, the book looks set to redefine key aspects of the futurist endeavour.

This new book is entitled “Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization“.  The Khannas refer early on to the insights expressed by the Tofflers in Future Shock:

The Tofflers’ most fundamental insight was that the pace of change has become as important as the content of change… The term Future Shock was thus meant to capture our intense anxiety in the face of technology’s seeming ability to accelerate time. In this sense, technology’s true impact isn’t just physical or economic, but social and psychological as well.

One simple but important example follows:

Technologies such as mobile phones can make us feel empowered, but also make us vulnerable to new pathologies like nomophobia – the fear of being away from one’s mobile phone. Fifty-eight percent of millennials would rather give up their sense of smell than their mobile phone.

As befits the theme of speed, the book is a fast read. I downloaded it onto my Kindle on the day of its publication, and have already read it all the way through twice. It’s short, but condensed. The text contains many striking turns of phrase, loaded with several layers of meaning, which repay several rethinks. That’s the best kind of sound-bite.

Despite its short length, there are too many big themes in the book for me to properly summarise them here. The book portrays an optimistic vision, alongside a series of challenges and risks. As illustrations, let me pick out a selection of phrases, to convey some of the flavour:

The cross-pollination of leading-edge sectors such as information technology, biotechnology, pervasive computing, robotics, neuroscience, and nanotechnology spells the end of certain turf wars over nomenclature. It is neither the “Bio Age” nor the “Nano Age” nor the “Neuro Age”, but the hybrid of all of these at the same time…

Our own relationship to technology is moving beyond the instrumental to the existential. There is an accelerating centripetal dance between what technologies are doing outside us and inside us. Externally, technology no longer simply processes our instructions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback. Internally, we are moving beyond using technology only to dominate nature towards making ourselves the template for technology, integrating technologies within ourselves physically. We don’t just use technology; we absorb it

The Hybrid Age is the transition period between the Information Age and the moment of Singularity (when machine surpass human intelligence) that inventor Ray Kurzweil estimates we may reach by 2040 (perhaps sooner). The Hybrid Age is a liminal phase in which we cross the threshold toward a new mode of arranging global society…

You may continue to live your life without understanding the implications of the still-distant Singularity, but you should not underestimate how quickly we are accelerating into the Hybrid Age – nor delay in managing this transition yourself

The dominant paradigm to explain global change in the Hybrid Age will be geotechnnology. Technology’s role in shaping and reshaping the prevailing order, and accelerating change between orders, forces us to rethink the intellectual hegemony of geopolitics and geoeconomics…

It is geotechnology that is the underlying driver of both: Mastery in the leading technology sectors of any era determines who leads in geoeconomics and dominates in geopolitics…

The shift towards a geotechnology paradigm forces us to jettison centuries of foundational assumptions of geopolitics. The first is our view on scale: “Bigger is better” is no longer necessarily true. Size can be as much a liability as an asset…

We live and die by our Technik, the capacity to harness emerging technologies to improve our circumstances…

We will increasingly differentiate societies on the basis not of their regime type or income, but of their capacity to harness technology. Societies that continuously upgrade their Technik will thrive…

Meeting the grand challenge of improving equity on a crowded planet requires spreading Technik more than it requires spreading democracy

And there’s lots more, applying the above themes to education, healthcare, “better than new” prosthetics, longevity and rejuvenation, 3D printing, digital currencies, personal entrepreneurship and workforce transformation, the diffusion of authority, the rise of smart cities and their empowered “city-zens”, augmented reality and enhanced personal avatars, robots and “avoiding robopocalypse”, and the prospect for a forthcoming “Pax Technologica”.

It makes me breathless just remembering all these themes – and how they time and again circle back on each other.

Footnote: Readers who are in the vicinity of London next Saturday (23rd June) are encouraged to attend the London Futurist / Humanity+ UK event “Hybrid Reality, with Ayesha Khanna”. Click on the links for more information.

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